Expository Preaching

Do you want more fire in your preaching? This twelve-part series will help light the flame.

Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is a former secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association, and continues to pastor and preach in Oregon, where he and his wife, Ellen, live in retirement.

Effective preaching has humanity within it and divinity behind it. The humanity within comes from a study of human nature in general and your own congregation in particular. The divinity behind comes largely from a perpetual, persistent exposition of Bible truth expository preaching.

What is expository preaching?

Expository preaching is typically defined in terms of the length of the Bible passage used. Andrew Blackwood's definition: "Expository preaching means that the light for any sermon conies mainly from a Bible passage longer than two or three consecutive verses."1 The passage is often a Bible paragraph or chapter, sometimes an entire book. The most valid definition, however, would deal less with the length of the passage treated and more with the manner of treatment.

Our definition of expository preaching in its strictest, most narrow sense: Expository preaching is preaching based on a significant Bible passage so that the sermon's principal lessons originate in Scripture and are applied to a present human need. In its broad est sense, expository preaching is simply biblical preaching.

What expository preaching isn't

It isn't springboarding. Our perpetual temptation is to use the Bible as a springboard from which to jump into a discussion of our own thoughts. The Scripture is adjusted to fit our thinking, rather than our thinking adjusted to fit the Scripture. We use the Bible as a sermon resource, but it is not the sermon's real source.

It isn't lecturing, if lecturing means including everything in the pas sage in detail. It isn't a verse-by-verse commentary on an entire passage, nor is it a word study. It isn't giving a lot of facts with no more unifying purpose than a page from the dictionary. Rather, it must focus on one principal proposition found in the passage and either omit or pass lightly over every thing else.

It isn't just teaching. Expository preaching emphatically includes teaching, but it is teaching not for the sake of knowledge alone but for the sake of using that knowledge to move the listener's will to do the will of God. G. Campbell Morgan emphasized, "All preaching ... has one aim; that namely of the capture of the central citadel of Mansoul, the will. The intellect and the emotions are highways of approach, and both should be employed. The one thing of which we need to be constantly reminding ourselves is that we have never accomplished the real end of preaching until we have reached the will, and constrained it."2


We can define expository preaching in its broadest sense as genuinely Bible-based preaching; textual, bio graphical, or topical sermons, if truly biblical, could be considered variations of expository preaching. The topical approach, although fraught with the obvious danger of lifting texts out of context, is almost essential to doctrinal preaching. To learn the whole truth on any subject, the whole Bible needs to be studied. If topical preaching is belittled, doctrinal preaching will likely be neglected.

Why expository preaching?

Central to our job description. Jesus began His public ministry in Nazareth by preaching from Scripture (Luke 4:16-22). The 12 apostles re fused to let other important church work detract them from their primary responsibility, saying, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. . . . But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4).* Paul gave young Timothy his ministerial assignment: "Preach the word!" (2 Tim. 4:2). That is the preacher's charge.

But the frustrated, overworked pas tor asks, "If I spend my time specializing in biblical preaching, how will the work of the church ever get done?" Fortunately, the preacher who follows the Bible plan of preaching the Word will inspire more members to follow the Bible plan of every member per forming some ministry for the church.

Brings authority and power. Merrill linger warns, "To an alarming extent the glory is departing from the pulpit of the twentieth century. The basic reason for this ominous condition is obvious. That which imparts the glory has been taken away from the center of so much of our modern preaching and placed on the periphery. The Word of God has been denied the throne and given a subordinate place. Human eloquence, men's philosophies, Christian ethics, social betterment, cultural progress, and many other subjects good and proper in their place, have captured the center of interest and have been enthroned in the average pulpit in the place of the Word of God."3

Meets human needs. The modern worshiper sits beneath your pulpit needing deliverance from the penalty and power of sin, a meaning to human existence, a sense of personal significance, security, guidelines for personal conduct, and hope for the future. No other book can hold a candle to the Bible in meeting these needs. But go into the pulpit always to meet a human need, not merely to explain a Bible passage.

Provides inexhaustible material. As a beginning minister I lived with the horrifying fear that I'd run out of anything worth saying after a few weeks in my first pulpit. And I did. But necessity forced me to discover that the Bible contains a well of material that never runs dry.

Approach your Bible with the reverent faith that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16, 17, NIV). Study it diligently, and you'll possess an ever-increasing store of thrilling and heartwarming truth crying out to be preached. Check on yourself, and you'll likely find that the only time you have nothing to preach is when you haven't been spending regular, disciplined time with your Bible.

Encourages a balanced theology. No preacher is as perfectly balanced as is the Bible. We all have our hobby horses and pet theories. The closer we stay to getting our sermons from Scripture, the more balanced they will be and the more balanced our listeners will become.

"So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). You want to help your people build faith? Then let them hear the Word of God.

Awakens members' interest in Bible study. The unfortunate fact is, too many churchgoers seldom open a Bible at home. Biblical preaching helps your people rediscover the Bible. It's contagious. A love for the Book in the pulpit will produce a love for the Book in the pew.

Helps preacher grow. I. H. Evans says of the Bible, "We may see in it only a little light at first, but as we read it and study it and meditate upon it, we see more and more in it. Every time we come back to it, there is more light and still more, until by and by this word blazes out in a great manifestation of spiritual light."4

Spurgeon exclaimed, "I do not know how my soul would have been kept alive if it had not been for the searching of Scripture which preaching has involved."

How to prepare an expository sermon

1. Select your passage.

Keep a list. As you read the Scriptures in private devotions or as you prepare other sermons, passages will constantly be striking you as worthy of future sermons. Write each down in a list or journal, along with how the pas sage has moved you and what you might teach from it.

Study your people's needs. Henry Ward Beecher insisted, "You will very soon come, in your parish life, to the habit of thinking more about your people and what you shall do for them than about your sermons and what you shall talk about."5

Seek balance. It saves time and encourages balance to have a tentative preaching plan a year in advance. Include both Old and New Testament, both Gospels and Epistles.

2. Pray your mind open to the passage.

As you open your Bible, pray for objectivity, that your study will lead to exposition, not imposition; exegesis (bringing out), not eisegesis (putting in). Pray that the Holy Spirit who gave the Scripture will interpret it to you for the sake of your people.

3. Determine your purpose in preaching the passage.

What need do you hope to meet? Before you start on a trip, it's necessary to know where you're going.

4. Study your passage.

Study. It's hard work. That's the real reason we do so little of it. We spend most of our time with the easier "busy work" of ministry to appease our conscience for not taking time to do the hard work of study. If that's your temptation, write above your desk in large letters, "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15, KJV). Don' t be discouraged with your self if you find study and sermon preparation difficult. Become concerned only if you find it easy to speak with out having anything worth saying.

Macro study. First, look at the large picture in your passage. Try to see it as a unit. Grasp its meaning as a whole. Read it rapidly several times. What is its emphasis? Who is speaking? to whom? What is the context: that which is written before and after? What is the social, religious, political setting?

Micro study. Now, study verse by verse. Watch for special persons and significant words. Look these words up in the Greek or Hebrew if possible. Compare how each is translated in different Bible versions. Read what Bible commentaries say about your passage.

Take two kinds of notes. First, material notes; notes of material you might use in your sermon. Have avail able small pieces of paper in abundance. I'll illustrate by calling these 3 x 5s, the size I've often used. This note paper should be inexpensive enough so you'll feel free to use it liberally. Write on a separate 3x5 every idea that comes to you, be it brilliant or mundane. Most you'll eventually dis card, but at this juncture you don't know which.

Second, take organizational notes on a large work sheet. Never settle on your sermon outline until you've gathered your sermon material. Otherwise the material you gather may not fit the outline you've chosen. On the other hand, nothing is more frustrating in sermon preparation than to finish your research, have a lot of good material, and not the slightest notion of how to put it together as a sermon. The solution: each time you write down an idea on your 3 x 5s ask yourself what out line this might fit into. When your research is finished, your work sheet will have any number of possible out lines. Cross out, change, and combine. Your goal -s to have an outline in mind by the time you've finished your re search. And since it came out of the material you've written down, your outline will fit your material.

At the same time you're scribbling possible outlines, be scratching down on your worksheet possible themes. This is especially important in expository preaching. Most passages go in several directions, and you mustn't try to include them all. Otherwise you'll end up with several sermonettes strung together like a chain of islands with nothing linking them together. The theme or proposition solves this problem. It is the gist of the entire sermon in a sentence. Everything else in the sermon is simply an amplification of that one central lesson. Introduce your theme near the beginning, repeat it at intervals throughout your sermon, and your chances are pretty good of sending it home with your people.

John Henry Jowett emphasized, "No sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal. I find the getting of that sentence the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labor in my study."6

Fill your work sheet with possible themes as you study. By the time you've finished your research, your theme should be evident.

5. Find Christ in your passage.

Throughout this process be looking for what your passage teaches about Christ. As the story goes, the old British pastor didn't like the young preacher's sermon. "What's wrong with it?" the young man complained. "No Christ," the older minister retorted. "But there was no Christ in the passage." "Listen, young fellow, from every hamlet in England there's a road that leads to London. All you have to do is find it." From every passage of Scripture there's a road that leads to Calvary. Make it your business to find it.

Both Jesus and the Bible are called by the same name Word, indicating their intimate relationship. The Bible consistently and centrally reveals Jesus, who said, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me" (John 5:39).

6. Incubate your passage.

One of the best secrets I know for preparing a practical expository sermon is to start early in the week. By Monday or Tuesday your basic Bible research should be finished. You have your theme and tentative outline. You know what your passage says: now you must find the best way to apply it to your people. Let your passage incubate somewhere between the conscious and subconscious of your mind. The Bible calls it "musing": "My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned Then I spoke with my tongue" (Ps. 39:3).

Live the message of your passage for yourself all week before you preach it to your people. Don't interpret it for others until it has interpreted you. Walk your message around the streets of your city and into the homes of your members. The warp of your message should come out of your passage, but the woof should come out of your congregation and community.

Keep your sermon in mind as you chair committees, work at the church, and live with your family. Let it incubate as you drive, walk, talk with friends, and even as you sleep. My wife got so tired of my waking her in the night as I scrounged for light, pen, and paper to write down my latest thought, that she bought me a lighted pad that still sets beside my bed.

A dozen times a day ask, "How could this sermon meet that need?" "Would this experience illustrate what I want to teach?" Dare to imagine. Look for things that illustrate. Sermon applications that grow out of your com munity fit your community. Illustrations that grow out of your congregation move your congregation.

7. Organize your passage.

Every sermon has three parts (introduction, body, and conclusion), whether you plan it that way or not.

Body. By this juncture you have settled on your theme and outline. Organize the body first. In organizing the accompanying sermon, The Good Shepherd, I would first put on my desk 3 x 5s containing each of the thoughts that now appear in bold type in this sermon outline. Then I would lay under each the 3 x 5s containing material that fits that section of the sermon.

Now comes the hardest part. Ruthlessly eliminate material that doesn't quite fit your theme or doesn't mea sure up to your standards. You should probably begin with two or three times as much material as you can use. Good material that doesn't perfectly fit your present theme can be filed for later use. Three advantages of the 3 x 5s become apparent at this juncture: you can organize quickly without any recopying, you can omit material easily, and you can more precisely control your sermon length. I've learned that 20 3 x 5s will produce for me a 30-minute sermon.

Introduction. No part of your sermon is as important as your introduction and conclusion. They should be prepared the most carefully. However, they must be prepared last. You cannot introduce until you know what you're introducing. You cannot conclude until you know what you're concluding.

The basic purposes of your introduction are to attract attention to your subject and to present your theme. Some feel it is more clever to introduce the theme later in the sermon, but preachers should learn from the psychology of advertising: put first what you most want people to remember, and repeat it often if you expect them to remember it.

Conclusion. Preaching a sermon is like flying an airplane. The chief test comes at the end. The conclusion should briefly summarize what has been said, then climax with an appeal to the will of hearers that will cause them to act.

Now prepare your delivery. Whether it be by manuscript, notes, or memory, deliver your sermon, not so much in the way most comfortable for you, but in whatever way makes it most effective for your listeners. File your 3 x 5s away so you will have ready access to your original research if you want to revise the sermon to be used again.

8. Preach your passage.

Preach only after praying. Preach Christ. Preach hope. Preach in the present tense. Preach for decision.

And when the sermon is ended, may your listeners be able to say of you, as they did of Jesus, "Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:32, KJV).

* Bible quotes are from the New King James Version unless otherwise stipulated.

1. Andrew W. Blackwood, Expository Preaching for Today (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), p. 13.

2. Campbell Morgan, The Ministry of the Word (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970 reprint), p. 235.

3. Merrill F. Unger, Principles of Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: ZondervanPub. House, 1955), p. 11.

4. 1. H. Evans, The Preacher and His Preaching (Takoma Park, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1938), p. 82.

5. Henry Ward Beecher, Yale Lectures on Preaching (New York: J. B. Ford and Co., 1872), p. 41.

6. John Henry Jowett, The Preacher, His Life and Work (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1912), p. 133.

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Floyd Bresee, Ph.D., is a former secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association, and continues to pastor and preach in Oregon, where he and his wife, Ellen, live in retirement.

January 1994

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