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