Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why Bother with Expository Preaching?

Someone once said that if you do not preach expository sermons, then you run the great risk of preaching impositionally, that is you start imposing your ideas and your bias on people instead of God’s word.

JI Packer defines expository preaching as “the preaching of the man who knows Holy Scripture to be the living word of the living God, and who desires only that it should be free to speak its own message to sinful men and women; who therefore preaches from a text, and in preaching labours, as the Puritans would say, to “open” it, or, in Simeon’s phrase, to “bring out of the text what is there.”[1]

This means that the preacher first unpacks the Bible’s meaning as carefully and as clearly as he can and applies it to himself and then to his congregations.  In this way, the preacher always remains under the authority of the Bible.  He allows it to instruct him, correct him and shape his thinking before he even puts pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

In this way, the Bible remains in the driver’s seat of the sermon, it dictates the content of our message.  Unfortunately in some churches, it is the preacher who is in the driver’s seat, the Bible is either found in the passenger seat where it pops up for a quick word now and then or worst of all, the Bible is not there at all.

Expository Preaching
God’s Word over the Preacher to the Congregation

Dangerous Preaching
Preacher over God’s Word to the Congregation

There are many other types of sermons that are preached in churches. Topical preaching which systematically reviews topics such as prayer, grace or Trinity.  Biographical preaching which takes the life of someone in the Bible and draws lessons from it.  These may be helpful if done occasionally and as long as they are primarily anchored and drawn from specific passages in the Bible within their contexts.

Increasingly today, many churches preach needs-driven sermons which answer the felt needs of the congregation such as the need for security or prosperity or health using various promises from different parts of the Bible.

The problem with these approaches is that when the preacher exhorts the congregation, he will never preach more than what he already knows.  But more dangerously, the preacher will often choose passages to back up points that he has already decided upon.  In this way, the Bible becomes no more than a proof text for the preacher.  Instead of his thoughts being shaped by Scripture, he merely uses Scripture to support his thoughts.[2]

This was exposed most frighteningly to me when I visited a church and the preacher made point after point using passages which were totally out of context and even worse, used different versions of the Bible to best suit his message when one version disagreed with him.  The sermon was primarily drawn from motivational and self-help material but then dressed up in the language of the Bible to legitimize it. This was not God speaking his word through the preacher but the preacher merely speaking his ideas and dressing them up as God’s word.

The preacher had failed in his divine responsibility to preach God’s word.  He had used God’s word unfaithfully and carelessly.  He had not heeded the warning that Paul gave to Timothy: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." 2 Tim 2:15

"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.  In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” 2 Tim 3:16-4:4

We must preach the Word. We must correctly handle the word of truth. The Bible must remain in the driver’s seat in our churches and our sermons must be faithful to it so that the authentic voice of God can be heard.

As Mark Dever says in his book “What is a healthy church?”, “…God intends the church to learn from both Testaments, as well as from every genre of Scripture-law, history, wisdom, prophesy, gospels and epistles.  An expositional preacher who moves straight through the books of the Bible and genres of Scripture, I believe, is like a mother who serves her children food from every food group, not just their two or three favorite meals”.[3]

Written by Rev Andrew Ong
Bethany-Trinity Presbyterian Church

P Adam, “Speaking God’s word”, IVP 1996
C Green & D Jackman, “When God’s voice is heard” IVP, 1995
D Jackman, “ Why Bother With Expository Preaching?” November 19, 2010
M. Dever, “What is a Healthy Church?”, Crossway Books: 2007
J I Packer , “Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves”, Churchman 074/2 1960,
W Philip. Ed “The Practical Preacher”, Proclamation trust media, 2002 
HW Robinson, “Expository Preaching: Principles & Practice (IVP, 1980)

[1] J I Packer , “Expository Preaching: Charles Simeon and Ourselves”, Churchman 074/2 1960, pg 1

[2] HW Robinson, “Expository Preaching: Principles & Practice (IVP, 1980), Pg 20

[3] M. Dever,“What is a Healthy Church?, (Crossway Books: 2007), pg 64.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Importance of Expository Preaching for Today

While the Bible scholar in his study seeks to understand what the Bible meant, the Christian in the pew asks what the Bible means. Thus the preacher in the pulpit is charged to ask and answer both. Admittedly, the exposition of Scripture has become increasingly more challenging to practice and justify in today’s postmodern culture where truth is relative, ethics are situational, and authority is often questioned. To some, postmodernism seemed to have render the Bible as antiquated and irrelevant.

Sociological studies have shown us that both the unchurched and church people often have a consumerist mindset. For every sermon that we preach, they are asking, "Am I interested in that subject or not?" If they are not, it does not matter how effective our delivery is; their minds are most likely to check out. This may pressure some to preach what the people want to hear rather than what God wants to be proclaimed. But if we are to be faithful preachers of God, then we must take heed Paul’s counsel, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions" (2 Timothy 4:3).

Another challenge that preachers face is that they do need to skillful in communicating God’s truth given that that believers often clamour for sermons to be kept short, interesting and relevant. Our media-saturated congregation wants to watch the preacher instead of just listening, “feel” the message rather than reflect upon it, and sometimes adopt the posture of a critic rather than one who is ready to obey and respond. A student in a seminary asked Dr. Kennedy: “What is the most challenging thing you have ever done in the ministry?” His answer was, “Prepare next Sunday’s sermon.”

Eugene Peterson once shared how he was at the point of burnout at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Belaire, Maryland. He went to his Session and told them that he can’t go on. His Session was wise and told him to list the things he went into the ministry to do. He listed, preaching, visiting the sick, sharing the Gospel, and the things that the Bible teaches us is our work. His Session told him, “You do those things you were called to do, and we will do the rest.” Guess what? Not only was Peterson renewed in his ministry, but he stayed over 30 years at that church. According to Peterson, if God has called you to preach, then do not rush from meetings to meetings, or be reduced to just telling some good stories. The preacher must expound the Word of God or else he has failed in his calling. Haddon W. Robinson reminds us that "When a preacher fails to preach the Scriptures, he abandons his authority. He confronts his hearers no longer with a word from God but only with another word from men."

At this juncture, I would like to highlight the priority of expository preaching. Expository preaching is simply preaching that is true to the Bible. This method presupposes an exegetical process to extract the God-intended meaning of Scripture and an explanation of that meaning in a contemporary understandable way. According to G. Campbell Morgan, pastor of London’s Westminster Chapel and “the prince of expositors” taught that a sermon is limited by the text it is covering. Every word from the pulpit should amplify, elaborate on, or illustrate the text at hand, with a view towards clarity. He wrote, “The sermon is the text repeated more fully.” A sermon’s primary function is to present the text. While exposition is not the only valid mode of preaching; it is the best for teaching the plain sense of the Bible.

It is therefore the call of the preacher to proclaim what God has said, specifically in the Bible. His role is to proclaim what God would have His children know NOT what the preacher would have God’s children know. In a sense, this is how it works: The preacher steps back and simply allows the meaning of the text to hit the ears of the people. Indeed, the preacher plays an important role. With his knowledge of God’s Word, learning of Hebrew and Greek, access to Bible commentaries and foundation in biblical theology, he needs to expound on the Bible passage and teach it to his congregation members who do not necessarily have his level of training and bible literacy.

In “The Expository Genius of John Calvin”, Steve Lawson encourages us that “The greatest seasons of church history — those eras of widespread reformation and great awakening — have been those epochs in which God-fearing men took the inspired Word and unashamedly preached it in the power of the Holy Spirit. As the pulpit goes, so goes the church. Thus, only a reformed pulpit will ultimately lead to a reformed church. In this hour, pastors must see their pulpits again marked by sequential exposition, doctrinal clarity, and a sense of gravity regarding eternal matters. This in my estimation is the need of the hour.”

Indeed, after you have preached the Word, I trust that what you are after is not that your members shall say, ‘What an excellent sermon!’ That is a measured failure. I pray that you would desire them to exclaim, ‘What a great God!’ Surely it is something for men not to have been in your presence but God’s. All preachers, whether great or small, are loved when they faithfully open up the Word of God and feed the lambs of Jesus. And this becomes our legacy, not that our images are recorded in hall of fame on a church wall, but that our hearts are buried in that place where we took our stand, spent our years, and gave our lives to preach the Word.

Rev Tan Cheng Huat
EP Moderator (Singapore), 2010-2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Where is our Focus?

What is the reason for our daily service to our Lord Jesus? What brings us to our office and place of ministry each day? Is it an obligation arising from what Jesus has done for us? There is a question that pricks my mind, “Is it possible to serve the Lord out of habit rather than out of love?”

Luke 10:38-42 gives us a story that takes place in Bethany. This was where Lazarus lived with his two sister, Mary and Martha. This home had hosted Jesus many times and where he was loved and accepted. Both sisters are delighted to see Jesus but their delight in seen in different ways. People have different temperaments - some are active always needing to be busy, never able to sit still. Others, like me, are thoughtful, willing to sit back and think things through before acting. Martha was a very activity-oriented person but her sister appears to have more of a thoughtful nature. I believe that many times when we reflect on this passage, we end up with a false dichotomy. We believe every Christian has to make the choice – to be a worker like Martha or a worshipper like Mary. However, I believe that misses the point. I believe Christ would want us to imitate both the good points of Mary and Martha in a good balance.

Mary is content to sit at Jesus’ feet soaking up the Word, and being still before him. There is nothing wrong with that. Martha obviously was a great hostess. To make her guests feel welcome, she would prepare a meal for them. It’s a privilege to cook a meal for the Master. Is one right and the other wrong? No! Duty and Devotion are both necessary but there must be a balance.

Every action and every relationship has a basic focus. If it loses its focus, it will fail. Look at the MRT. It lost its focus – from moving people to retail. If we follow the Commission of Inquiry, I believe that is the only logical conclusion to come up with. When we lose our focus, we run into trouble.

Martha lost her focus and so she resorted to self-pity. V40 says - “But Martha was distracted…” The word “distracted” means “to be dragged away.” Maybe Martha wanted to sit beside Mary and wanted to hear Jesus herself but she was dragged away by her sense of her “duties.” Anxiety over the meal has robbed her of the joy of her service to the Lord. I visit people at their home and sometimes I have to tell them to come and sit down and fellowship with me rather than serve goodies after goodies. We should be responsible but we should not let it be the benchmark for our importance. The problem was not Martha’s work but her attitude. She did not have a balance between doing and listening.

That may well be our challenge today. We become so busy with the everyday things of life that we neglect the most important. People believe that modern inventions like smartphones and IPads, we will be able to save more time. In fact, it’s the reverse. We have less and less leisure time. I look at our church people and I can see most of them are overworked. They work too many hours. Stephen Covey once said, “People expect us to be busy, overworked. It’s become a status symbol in our society – if we’re busy, we’re important; if we’re not busy, we’re embarrassed to admit it. Busyness is where we get our security, it’s validating, popular and pleasing, it’s also a good excuse for not dealing with the first things in our lives.”\

What is the focus of our lives? Is it not our relationship with Christ? Is it not to grow as disciples of Christ? Feeding our families, maintaining our jobs, promotions, etc., all these are very important. But they must be balanced by things of the Spirit and God’s Kingdom. So the question God is asking us is “What about you?” Where is your focus at this time? Are we building our lives and giving ourselves over to non-essentials – things that are here today but tossed out tomorrow?