Where Do You Start?
Unlike topical preaching, expository preaching starts with the text and lets God’s Word both ask and answer the question.
by Doug Green
What are you preaching this week?
You must start somewhere. Every week a blank page is staring you down. Do you start with a question or the text?
If you start with a question, you are choosing the topic of your sermon, looking to the Bible for the answer. This is topical preaching. However, if you start with the text, you are letting God’s Word both ask and answer the question. This is expository preaching.
Every sound preacher wants to turn a blank page into a life-changing worship experience with the eternal God. But first you must start somewhere.
Throughout the calendar year, a biblical pulpit will start in both places, for both are appropriate origins for the various situations inside the church. Topical preaching is often correct for the occasion; however, over the long haul, the pulpit that predominately starts with the text is both healthier and easier. Pragmatically, expository preaching is the most efficient mode for preparation. Idealistically, it is a superior form of preaching. I know; I have done it both ways, and I have learned my lessons on the job — with the grace of a patient congregation. Let me explain.
I have been the lead pastor of North Hills Church in Brea, California, for over 18 years, trying to preach something new to the same congregation every Sunday. For the first 7 years I preached topically — series based on the felt need questions of life. I would ask questions that were relevant and try my best to give creative answers. I hustled each week, working hard to come up with new information.
Then, I changed.
Consequently, for the last 11 years, I have been committed to expository preaching — working through one book of the Bible at a time. I have tackled books in both Testaments, covering every verse within — from the first to the last. It has changed everything about my pulpit ministry. If you are open-minded to the challenge, it will change you, too.
First, let me give four practical benefits of expository preaching.
1. No wondering what is next. If you preach topically, you will spend a chunk of time trying to figure out what you are going to say each week. This is hard work, week after week, to be responsible for the content of a sermon. Topical preaching is a commitment to start over every week. When you preach through a book in the Bible, for example, you simply preach what is next. When I took a year to preach through the Psalms (I only made it to Psalm 40, knowing some day I will return to the finish the other 110), I always knew where I would be next week, the next Psalm.
2. Less time in preparation. Preaching from the same book saves prep time. For example, I just finished 19 months in the Book of Romans, preaching one pericope (unit of thought) at a time. The hours I spent preparing to preach chapter 1 made preaching chapter 2 a bit easier, and so on. By the time I got to the “therefores” in the first verses of chapters 5, 8, and 12, I was fully prepared for what the therefore was there for. It is like this: last month’s preparation assists next month’s preparation. It is amazing how much easier it really is. Biblical preaching is all about context, and a commitment to a thorough exploration of one book makes more sense than a weekly plunge into a new context.
3. No accusations of heavy-handedness. When you preach through a book in the Bible — just preaching what is next — people can never accuse you of choosing a topic because of a situation in the church. God always amazes me how His Word in its given order seems to be timed with perfection for our church. This leaves the responsibility on God to deal with the difficult issues that crop up in the church. Surely, I can trust His Word to say what needs to be said even before I know what it is. The expository preacher leaves the coordination of the future wisdom of God in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
4. A sense of accomplishment. People want a sense of completion. When you thoroughly handle a book in the Bible — going slow enough to give it justice, fast enough to grapple with a unit of thought each week — you create anticipation in the beginning of such a series and admiration at the end of the same. Everybody, including the preacher, likes to see something all the way through. Rather than jumping all over the Bible week after week, plant some roots in one book and see it from beginning to end. Modern believers will appreciate the biblical roots you will give them. They will understand the individual verses within the larger context of the book. They will appreciate biblical achievement.
Now, then, let me give you four idealistic benefits of expository preaching.
1. Keeps you talking about God. When you let the text dictate your sermon topic, your preaching will be more “theo-centric” and less “anthro-centric.” Many pulpits in America today are man-centered, self-help propagators, using Scripture to validate what the preacher decides to say. But when Scripture sets your content, you allow God to raise the questions as well as supply the answers. Guess what? He does not waste the pages of Scripture on man-sized solutions to our God-sized problems. (God knows there are whole sections for this genre in your local bookstore.) He demands you look to Him for answers. The text will always remind you how God’s ways are always better than man’s ways.
2. Leads to better exegesis. When you start with the text, you will tend toward exegesis not eisogesis. By preaching through a book, you have already rooted your mind in context, not textual isolation. Exegesis bows to the idea of the original author writing to the original audience, which, once understood, you can always apply to modern fixes. Expository preaching demands sound exegesis. Unfortunately, topical preaching often does not. Although sound preachers will handle the text correctly in a topical sermon, expository preaching, by definition, forces you to do so. It is the only option, for the expositor does not use the text to support his or her ideas, but declares the text is the idea you preach.
3. Enables you to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” When you begin with the text, you can have a confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture. The Bible is written really well. As is, it always says it better than you can. After all, they are God’s words. Thus, when you read Scripture, grasp it, wrestle with it, and study it. You must understand something vital: God is talking. Your goal is not to give a sermon. Your goal is to give God’s words — words that modern hearts are desperate to hear. When you take the time to carefully expose the text to your audience, you will then be able to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” Afterward, in the lobby, you can take all the compliments you get and give the credit directly to God, for you were only borrowing His original thoughts, not squandering their time with yours.
4. You will preach the full counsel of God. When you walk through book after book in the Bible, intertwining the Old and New Testaments, you will demonstrate to your congregation you are committed to the entire Bible, not just the familiar or favorite parts. Studies have shown that most people in the pews know little about the Bible; they are biblically illiterate. Biblical preachers welcome the challenge to take them through virgin terrain, introducing them to new words of God, not giving them the same words over and over again.
Many years ago I was on a plane having a conversation with a New Age man. He told me he liked most of what Jesus said, but not all of it. I said, “You cannot say that. You have to take the whole message.”
He replied, “Why? You don’t. You pick and choose what you want to preach. Do you really preach everything that’s in the Bible?”
He was right. I was convicted.
Since, without skipping any of the difficult portions, I have thoroughly covered in this order: Psalms 1–40, Luke, Habakkuk, Ephesians, Genesis, Revelation, John, Judges, Ruth, and Romans. It has taken me 11 years to get through these 10 books. While I would love to finish all 66 books, I am in no hurry to rush through what is sacred. There is so much God wants to say.
Although it is occasionally appropriate for us to preach topically over the long haul the pulpit that predominately starts with the text is both superior and easier.
When it comes to preaching, you will need to do what God tells you to do. However, I hope I have challenged your pulpit ministry, for there is so much God wants to say to you and to your church. He loves the ongoing opportunity to fill your blank page with His words of life.