Why did you pursue preaching?
There’s a good chance it wasn’t because you thought you embodied super unique insight that everyone needed to hear.
You’re a preacher because you’ve been saved by a great, gracious Savior and you want the world to know how much better their life could be with Him in it. There’s a message to share.
You believe that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16), that “the word of God is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12), and that even if the grass withers and the flowers fade, “the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Peter 1:25).
So, we want to affirm a conviction you may already have: to preach in such a way that the point of your sermon comes from the passages of the Bible.
- We don’t want to use the Bible to say what we think.
- We want to preach the Bible to say what God thinks.
This is called “expository preaching.”
When people hear the phrase “expository preaching,” they often confuse it with what is sometimes called sequential preaching where the preacher walks through a portion of scripture verse-by-verse.
But expository preaching is simply letting the text of Scripture create the point(s) of the sermon. It’s “exposing” the meaning of the text to the hearers.
It’s not referring to the way the sermon is structured. This type of preaching doesn’t have to be sequential or go verse-by-verse through a biblical book.
Rather, expository preaching is about a conviction more than a style.
You may be thinking, “Yes! That’s what I want – to say what God says… but how do I figure that out?”
We’re here to help. Read on.
The First Step in Expository Preaching
How do we do our best to “rightly handle the word of truth”? (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Start with Prayer
Preachers must seek the Holy Spirit’s revelation and guidance, especially when developing a message to share.
To be sure, we cannot interpret correctly without good reading techniques. But it is possible to read well and still come short of God’s message—especially if we read without the Spirit’s help.
Prayer must be part of the process, from beginning to end.
2. Get to Know the Biblical Story
In order to rightly understand a biblical text, we must not only know the larger context of the book in which the text is situated, but also the overall biblical story.
There are multiple ways to summarize the full biblical story. To see one of the most helpful (by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew), visit our blog post.
3. Pay Attention to What the Structure is Saying
In Scripture, often the literary structure communicates as well.
For example, Mark’s gospel is not like a clipping together of raw security camera footage of the life of Jesus, but rather like an expert documentary filmmaker crafting the footage into a compelling story. One example is where Jesus’ healing of two blind men serves as bookends to a section about seeing Jesus. In the first verses (8:22-26), Jesus heals a blind man, but unlike His usual healings, He heals this man in stages.
This ‘in stages’ healing is a picture of how people are starting to see Jesus, but not quite clearly.
The second healing concludes this section (10:46-52). In the section just prior, James and John are jockeying for positions of greatness. But it’s the blind beggar asking Jesus for mercy. In tremendous irony, the blind man is the only one who “sees” Jesus.
This theme continues throughout Mark—everyone who should be able to see Jesus, can’t, and everyone who shouldn’t be able to see Him, can.
The structure communicates. We share more detail on this section of scripture, and another structural example in this blog post.
4. Read Carefully
This may seem obvious, but many Christians (and even pastors) get tripped up here.
A preacher must spend significant time absorbing the context, situation, and words of Scripture. Casual, careless reading leads to thin preaching.
As we study God’s word, we should ask and answer a number of questions (whether in our heads or in writing) that force us to seriously engage the scriptural text.
For a list of example questions to use, see this blog post.
5. Engage in Communal ‘Listening’ Early in the Process
One drawback to the individualistic mindset of Western culture is that we can neglect the communal nature of interpreting Scripture.
God can use His church to help us read well—experiencing insights that can only come from diversity.
We should leverage two sources in particular:
- Trusted believers in the local community. A solitary preacher holed up in her study is foolish. Find a group of people to discuss the text with.
- Commentaries. What a gift we have in commentaries! We have the opportunity to ‘listen in’ to many wise interpreters.
For suggestions on various commentary options, please see our recent blog post.
6. Enter Into the Story From Multiple Angles
The best storytellers help the listener not just hear the story, but experience it.
To make this happen for listeners, the preacher must experience it first—not simply skimming off the top, but walking in the sandals of those involved.
- What would this text feel like for the main characters?
- What would this text feel like for the surrounding characters?
- What would this text feel like for those who would be affected by the situation?
7. Bring Crucial Truths Into the Sermon
Once you’ve read and understood the passage, you’re ready to bring it into the sermon.
Expository Preaching Examples
There are a number of preachers who are exceptionally strong at expository preaching.
- John Piper is committed to communicating what the truth of the text is saying. He even has an approach to digging into Scripture called Look at the Book.
- Charlie Dates is masterful at bringing out the truths of Scripture. Not only are his sermons a good example of this, but he also contributed to a tremendous book, Say It!, about expository preaching in the African American tradition.
- Jen Wilkin is a tremendous Bible teacher who, through her books and Bible studies, relentlessly pushes Christians to study with their hearts and minds.
For more examples, check out this article.
Determining Your Structure
Armed with the conviction that you want to say what God says, we want to help you think through the structure that will help you develop your best possible preaching style.
There are multiple ways to structure your sermons, each with strengths and weaknesses.
Structure #1: Exegetical Preaching (i.e., Verse-by-Verse Preaching)
Many tremendous preachers prefer to preach sequentially through books of the Bible or passages of Scripture — often called “exegetical” preaching or “sequential” preaching.
“Exegetical” comes from the Greek word exegesis, meaning “to lead out.” Exegesis brings out of the text what’s there.
As we’ve said, in one sense all preaching should be exegetical and expository. But some would argue, exegetical preaching tends to be more like a math student who “shows her work,” making plain to the listener where the conclusions came from.
Sequential preachers tend to preach longer series based on books of the Bible.
Visit our blog post to explore the strengths and weaknesses of this type of preaching.
Structure #2: Topical Preaching
Likely the most popular structure for preachers today is topical preaching or thematic preaching. Whereas sequential preaching begins by moving consecutively through a book of the Bible, topical preaching starts with a topic or theme.
There are multiple ways to approach topical preaching:
- Systematic Theology Topical Preaching
This approach starts with a topic or theme and looks to multiple passages of scripture where the theme is addressed.
For example, a preacher might want to preach a message on the Holy Spirit and incorporate John 3, Acts 2, Acts 5, and Romans 8 into one sermon — pulling truths about the Holy Spirit from the breadth of Scripture.
- Passage Based Topical Preaching
This approach also begins with a topic or theme, but generally limits the sermon content to one specific passage. In this approach, the topic of the Holy Spirit might be addressed by preaching through John 14:15-31.
Structure #3: Topi-getical Preaching
A third structure is not well known and may not have a name, so we’ll call it “Topi-getical” preaching. As you might guess, this comes when you combine topical and exegetical (or sequential) preaching.
In this approach, the preacher will often begin by going sequentially through a passage, but then end up adding systematic theology style content to the back half of the sermon. As a result, these sermons — and series — are often very thorough and quite long.
Unless you are a world-class communicator or your congregation is very hungry for long sermons, this approach is likely not something you should do much of.
Visit our blog post on preaching styles to explore the strengths and weaknesses of this type of preaching, as well as others.
You’re passionate about serving your people and the way your preaching comes across. We hope this article has been helpful to you as you continue to pursue your calling to share God’s message of hope with the world.
Commit to expository preaching, figure out your preferred structure, and find your voice. Do it all in the power of the Holy Spirit, and watch what God will do.