After the cruelty and selfishness of a thirty-seven-year-old man had forced his wife and children from his home, he called in desperation wanting my aid in getting them to return. I said I would try to help if he would agree to get counseling for his problems. He agreed and came to the church office several days later. He brought a Bible with him.
I could not help but notice how strange it was to see this abusive man with a Bible under his arm. I had seen him many times before. He even attended our church occasionally, but I had never seen him with a Bible. Yet here in the darkest hour of his life, he thought he would find wisdom and aid in a book written thousands of years ago. No doubt his thinking was colored with a desire to impress me, and he undoubtedly had little actual knowledge about how to discern what the Bible would actually require of him. Still, as do all expository preachers, I shared the man’s instinctive faith that the Bible could address the deepest needs of his life.
Expository preachers and the people who sit before them each week are convinced that the Scriptures can be mined to extract God’s wisdom and power for daily living. Poor preaching may cast some occasional doubt, but preaching that truly reveals what the Bible means has kept this conviction alive for a hundred generations. Our goal as expository preachers is to keep this faith alive by demonstrating week after week what the Word of God says about the daily concerns we and our listeners face.
This goal reminds us that most people do not want or need a lecture about Bible facts. They want and need a sermon that demonstrates how the information in the Bible applies to their lives. Expository preaching does not merely obligate preachers to explain what the Bible says; it obligates them to explain what the Bible means in the lives of people today.1 Application is as necessary for sound exposition as is explication. In fact, the real meaning of a text remains hidden until we discern how its truths should govern our lives.2 This means that full exposition cannot be limited to a presentation of biblical information. The preacher should frame every explanatory detail of the sermon so its impact on the lives of listeners is evident.
Such a perspective on the true nature of exposition challenges the notion some have of expository preaching. So much of the criticism expository preaching receives results from the assumption of some preachers that a sermon’s primary goal is to expose listeners to information about the Bible. Sermons that mainly disseminate information seem out of touch, irrelevant, and even uncaring. Sermons that organize textual information and address immediate concerns also express congregational sensitivity while remaining fully biblical.
If we were to think of the object of a sermon as a large stone to be moved, we would recognize that some think of an expository sermon as using all its resources and features as leverage to move information into the mind of the listener.
However, a true expository message uses all its resources to move application.3 The sermon’s features become the leverage to impel biblical understanding and action based on sound exposition into the life circumstances of listeners as well as information into their thoughts.
John A. Broadus was the father of modern expository preaching. In his classic, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, this master teacher and preacher concludes that in an expository sermon, “the application of the sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it, but is the main thing to be done.”4 Broadus’ conclusion has ample biblical precedent. Exposition assumes the duty of exhorting the people of God to apply the truths revealed in Scripture not because of the opinion of experts but because of the instruction of God’s Word.
Indications of our preaching obligations emerge in the Bible’s descriptions of Christ’s words as He accompanied the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke records, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The word translated explained means to unfold the meaning of something, or to interpret.5 Later the two disciples offer commentary on Christ’s words saying, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). This opening of the Scriptures expresses the concept of revealing the full implications of something (as in opening a door wide to show what is inside).6
Unfolding and opening the meaning of the Word of God characterize the expositor’s task, not merely on the basis of Christ’s example, but also on the basis of ancient biblical precedent, which further defines exposition’s essentials. Probably the best description of ancient exposition occurs in Nehemiah’s account of Israel’s reacquaintance with the Word of God after the people return from exile in Babylon where they had forgotten God’s law and the language in which it had been given:
Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
The Levites — Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabhethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azaraiah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah — instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there.
They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read (Neh. 8:5-8).
Here the exposition of the Word involved three elements: presentation of the Word (it was read); explanation of the Word (making it clear and giving its meaning);7 and exhortation based on the Word (the Hebrew terms indicate the priests caused the people to understand in such a way that they could use the information that was imparted).8 The Word itself, explanation of its content, and exhortation to apply its truths composed the pattern of proclamation.
These three elements in this Old Testament proclamation consistently reappear in New Testament practice.9 Luke records that when Jesus first explained His ministry in the synagogue He read the Scripture (4:11-19), explained the import of what was read (4:21), and then made the implications clear — though it was not to His listeners’ liking that the obvious application meant honoring Jesus (4:23-27).
Word presentation, explanation, and exhortation remain prominent in the pattern of New Testament proclamation. Although the elements do not always follow the same order, they remain present. Consider the way these Pauline instructions to a young preacher unfurl:
1 Timothy 4:13
“(D)evote yourself to the … public reading of Scripture
to preaching (the actual term is paraklesei, meaning to exhort or entreat. It comes from the same root as Paraclete, the name Jesus gives the Spirit, who comes as our counselor, advocate, or comforter)
and to teaching.”
2 Timothy 4:2
“Preach the Word …; (here the word for “preach” is kerusso, which means to proclaim or publish)
correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience
and careful instruction.”
Paul’s practice was consistent with his instructions (see Acts 17:1-4). At Thessalonica the apostle went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews “from the Scriptures.” Paul first presented the Word to the people. Then Luke says that Paul was “explaining and proving” from the Word “that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” With this explanation came at least an implied if not an overt exhortation to commitment; Luke next records, “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.”
I do not mean to suggest that these features of exposition form the only observable pattern in the biblical preaching record, nor that every feature is always equally evident. However, these features are consistent enough to challenge today’s preachers to consider whether their exposition of Scripture faithfully reflects these biblical elements: presentation of some aspect of the Word itself; explanation of what that portion of the Word means; and an exhortation to act on the basis of what the explanation reveals. Not only does such a pattern of unfolding and opening the Word reflect a simple logic for preaching, it also conforms to Christ’s instructions for our proclamation. Surely it is noteworthy that the parting words of our Lord in the Gospels command His messengers to proclaim His ministry in the expositional pattern of the prophets and apostles:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations …
everything I have commanded you.”
Though a normative order does not appear in Scripture, the features of exposition occur together with enough frequency to suggest a common approach to expounding God’s truth: present the Word; explain what it says; and exhort based on what it means. This is expository preaching.
Exposition does not merely involve the transmission of biblical information, but further demands establishment of the biblical basis for an action or a belief God requires of His people. Relating the tense of the verb, the tribe of the person, and the history of the battle does not adequately unfold the intended meaning of the text. Until people can see how the truth of the text would operate in their lives, the exposition remains incomplete. This is why explanation, illustration and application act as the proof, the clarification, or the specification of the exhortation the preacher offers and the transformation God requires.10
This full-orbed understanding of exposition’s content reduces the danger of an expository sermon merely degenerating into an exegetical paper, a systematics lecture, or a history lesson. Jerry Vines describes the danger:
Some have understood an expository sermon to be a lifeless, meaningless, pointless, recounting of a Bible story. I can still remember a very fine man deliver such a sermon from John 10. He told us all the particular details about a sheepfold. We were given a complete explanation of the characteristics of sheep. We were informed about the methods of an Oriental shepherd. When the message ended we were still on the shepherd fields of Israel. We knew absolutely nothing about what John 10 had to say to the needs of our lives today. That is not expository preaching.11
Expository preaching aims to make the Bible useful as well as informative. Addressing a clear purpose as one researches and develops the sermon will keep the sermon on track biblically and practically. This practice keeps the goal of expository preachers and the intention of the writers of Scripture the same: to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). We want thought about God’s Word to result in obedience to Christ.
Homileticians once divided sermons into three basic components: exposition (the explanations and arguments for what the text says); illustration (the demonstrations of what the text says); and application (the behavioral or attitudinal implications of what the text means).12 These are helpful distinctions for teaching students to dissect others’ sermons and to build their own.13 However, these traditional categories can damage expository preaching if preachers do not see that explanation, illustration, and application are all essential components of opening and unfolding the meaning of the text. Explanation answers the question What does this text say? Illustration responds to Show me what the text says. Application answers What does the text mean to me? Ordinarily each component has a vital role in establishing listeners’ full understanding of a text.14
We should not limit a sermon to technical explanations simply because it is expository. Biblical truths that the preacher cannot illustrate can hardly be considered apparent, and scriptural details that the preacher will not apply do not encourage obedience.15 To expound Scripture fully means to unfold the meaning of a text in such a way that listeners can confront, understand, and act on its truths.16
The more you preach, the more you will discover that this unfolding makes the components of exposition interdependent and, at times, indistinguishable. Illustration sometimes offers the best explanation; explanation focused on a text’s purpose may sound much like application; and application may offer the opportunity for both illustration and explanation. As your expertise grows, the components of exposition will blend and bond to drive the truths of God’s Word deep into the hearts of His people.17
In a traditional expository message each component of exposition occurs in every main point of the sermon because it makes no sense to explain something that can be neither demonstrated nor applied.18 There are, however, good reasons to make exceptions to this traditional expectation: sometimes a sermon uses a series of explanations to build to an application or to veil implications for a later, more powerful impact. However, the beginning preacher will find that listeners usually pay closer attention to a message whose demonstrations and applications of truth occur regularly and frequently in the sermon.
Today’s cultural influences make it unreasonable for the preacher to expect a congregation to stay with a message for twenty-five minutes with the hope that something relevant will be said in the last five minutes. Congregational needs and capabilities make the old rule of including explanation, illustration, and application in every main point a reasonable guideline, even if one does not follow it every time.
A Generic Approach
The finest expository preachers prepare each message asking themselves this question while imagining that their listeners are present: What may I, with the authority of God’s Word, require of you as a result of what we discern this text means? Recognition of listeners’ spiritual need to discern personally a text’s meaning for their lives, rather than simply accept the assertions or the dictates of the preacher, forces pastors to evaluate whether their messages are accessible as well as informative, applicable as well as erudite.
Concern for the needs of the listener as well as the information to be conveyed can affect the balance of the components in a message. As we have already seen, the pattern of exposition can vary. However, the most common order in which exposition’s components appear is explanation, then illustration, then application.19 This allows the preacher to establish a truth, then demonstrate and clarify its features before applying it. Each of these components is given equal time within the development of a message and/or its main points; there is something for everyone in roughly equal proportions.
A Customized Approach
Fortunately, there are no generic congregations. Although it can be helpful for student preachers to prepare sermons that give equal attention to each of the sermon components so that they learn to use all the homiletical tools, differences among congregations will require pastors to vary the proportions of the expositional components in their sermons.
Pastoral sensitivity and respect for the unique character of every group will determine whether the following descriptions are mere caricatures, but they do help demonstrate ways in which preachers may vary the composition of their messages.
Youth pastors typically swell the illustrative component of their sermons and drive application home behind a few well-chosen explanatory points. Blue-collar congregations often desire solid explanation whose relevance is more fully spelled out in down-to-earth application. When professionals and management types dominate a congregation, the pastor may want to hit application more lightly since these persons are often most motivated by what they determine to do and are not accustomed to having someone else make decisions for them. In such a congregation it may be important to package the explanation in such a way that application becomes largely self-evident.
Each characterization is almost sinfully stereotypical and should not rule over common sense. My own experience has been that sermons that provide a healthy combination of all the expositional components can be preached with impact almost anywhere with only minor adjustments. This is not simply because congregations typically have a mix of people in them, but because we are each a mix of persons.
Our minds need explanations of what the Bible says so that we know we have grasped the thoughts and standards of our God. Our hearts need the illustrations that so often touch our emotions or fire our imaginations to convince us that our God is not a cold collection of abstract ideas. We need application so that we have either the confidence that we are acting in accord with the will of God, or, that we gain the conviction that we must adjust our ways.
A Healthy Approach.
Even though the relationships are not exclusive of one another it is often helpful to think that explanations prepare the mind, illustrations prepare the heart, and applications prepare the will to obey God. This approach cautions preachers to avoid messages that do not offer proportional servings of explanation, illustration, and explanation. For example, a sermon that is three-quarters explanation, one-quarter illustration, and one sentence of application (the classic seminary sermon); or, has one sentence of explanation, is three-quarters illustration, and is one-quarter application (the popular media message) is unbalanced. A balanced expositional meal carries each component in sufficient proportion to nourish the whole person.
No strict rules will determine what proportion these components should take in any specific sermon. The text, the topic, the purpose, the gifts of the preacher, the target audience, the situation, the makeup of the congregation, the time that may be required to express an idea, the persuasive or the structural advantages of placing one component over another at various stages of the message, and the relative strengths of individual components of exposition in a particular sermon all have a role in determining how the preacher should distribute explanation, illustration, and application.
This does not mean that the composition of every sermon is completely up for grabs. I have observed a consensus — maybe more a spiritual instinct Christians share than a standard of orthodoxy –that at least guides me as I consider how to communicate Scripture. Balanced Christians disdain messages whose illustrations dominate to the point of entertainment, whose applications extend to the level of diatribes, or whose explanations enlarge to ponderous displays of academic erudition. Each extreme reveals a preacher preoccupied with special or personal interests over congregational health. Preachers once posted in their studies this reduction of the preaching task:
Such a reduction still has great value. It advises us to resist the emphases of our academic training, popular preaching, or of congregational extremists who tempt us to preach without the balance that will nourish all the people at various levels of their being. Congregations need to hear what most preachers want to hear: solid explanation vividly illustrated, and powerfully applied.
1. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (1982, reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 141, 145-150.
2. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Darkness and Light: An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 200-201; see also John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 93-98.
3. David L. Larsen, The Anatomy of Preaching: Identifying the Issues in Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 96.
4. John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, ed. J. B. Weatherspoon (New York: Harper and Row, 1944), 210.
5. Gk. diermenuteo.
6. Gk. dianoigo.
7. From bin: Hiph’tl participle masc. plural = “causing to understand” (v. 7); and, from parash: Pual participle masc. singular = “made distinct or clear” (v. 8).
8. From sekel with the verb = “they gave the sense” (v. 8); and from bin: Consecutive with Qal imperfect, third person, masc. plural = “so that they understood” (v. 8). C. F. Keil comments, “It is more correct to suppose a paraphrastic exposition and application of the law … not a distinct recitation according to appointed rules” in 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, vol. 3, trans. Sophia Taylor, from C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 230.
9. After the exile (although some claim the essential form dated to Moses) these elements constitute the usual (but not exclusive) synagogue pattern for preaching, which in God’s providence prepared the New Testament church to institutionalize this highly effective means of protecting and promulgating God’s Word. Cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 443-45; and W. White, Jr., “Synagogue,” in vol. 5 of The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill C. Tenney, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 565-66.
10. Farris D. Whitesell, Power in Expository Preaching (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1963), xi; Jay E. Adams, Truth Applied (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 42.
11. Jerry Vines, A Practical Guide to Sermon Preparation (Chicago: Moody, 1985), 5.
12. Cf. Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, who divides exposition into the categories of explanation and argument separate from illustration and application,(144, 155); and Andrew Blackwood, The Fine Art of Preaching (1937, reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1943), 113.
13. I do not limit “exposition” to the details and the arguments of the text’s explanation, but rather subsume explanation, illustration, and application under the larger heading of exposition. All are key in disclosing the meaning of a text.
14. Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 155.
15. Larsen, Anatomy of Preaching, 96, 138-43.
16. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 182-84.
17. Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 155; Ian Pitt-Watson, A Primer for Preachers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 101; Greidanus, Modern Preacher and Ancient Text, 182-84.
18. Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 211; Greidanus, Modern Preacher and Ancient Text, 182; D. Martyn-Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids; Baker, 1971), 77; Vines, Practical Guide to Sermon Preparation, 133.
19. Later chapters in Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell explain how and why this order should vary, but note here this logical progression that is most common in expository preaching.
20. Robert G. Rayburn’s lecture notes indicate that he taught this reduction with its simple poignancy for more than twenty-five years at Covenant Theological Seminary.
From Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell. (c) 1994 by Bryan Chapell. Published by Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission.