Why Exposition is Unnecessary

Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things
~ Isaiah 30:10

What if we play Pick-a-Passage-for-the-Pastor?

I know the game isn’t likely to catch on, but you don’t never know sometimes. Suppose you were adequately blindfolded so you could not see. Don’t worry. You won’t have to eat or drink anything gross. Suppose you were handed a Bible. You fanned the pages and stopped at random. You put your finger down, either to the right or the left, and whatever verse(s) you pointed to, your pastor had to preach a sermon from that text. Though your choice was truly random to you, let’s further suppose that your pastor had never preached from that text before, so he cannot whip out an old outline to preach from. What would he need to do to preach that text? How would he go about it?

His method, or process, will depend on what kind of sermon he intends to preach. How many kinds are there? Not as many as you might think. By referring to the kind of sermon, I’m not talking about style of delivery, which varies with every different preacher. I’m talking about the way the sermon is built, or what it is built around. Speaking in the broadest possible terms, there are few options.

Topical

A topical sermon is built around a topic or subject. It could be delivered in a variety of styles, but the content of the sermon is structured around a topic. If your pastor intends to preach a topical sermon from the text you selected, he will look at the text for key words, phrases, or suggested images. He would be looking for words or suggestions of topics like faith, love, grace, hope, sin, God’s word, or the church. Having identified a topic in the text, he will next think of three points he wants to make about that topic. Of course three points is a rule of thumb and not an inviolable law of preaching. He might have two points, or four. He could optionally make the points rhyme, have the same rhythm, or start with the same letter.

For each of his points, he will need some supporting verses. He will use a concordance, possibly Strong’s, to search for words related to his points and select a few verses to reinforce his points. If it’s a familiar topic, he may already have many verses to use so he looks those up to make sure he gets the reference right. Along with supporting verses he will need some illustrations. He can sift through his own experiences and come up with some. He can borrow some illustrations from other preachers. Depending on his personality, he may not give this too much thought ahead of time and rely on off the cuff illustrations.

He will need some introductory and concluding material. He has many options at this point. He can talk about why this topic is important, why it is needed, or even why it is neglected. He may include actionable steps of application so you will be prepared to pray more, sin less, have more faith, or be more forgiving.

Expositional

Exposition is a big word little used except in certain circumstances. It has an archaic meaning: to expose to view. Simply put, exposition is a comprehensive explanation of some source material. Exposition is not a sermon, but a sermon is considered expositional, or expository, when it is built around the explanation of the meaning of a text. Exposition is the structural core of a sermon that holds it all together. Whatever points of observation are made, whatever points of application are made to the saved or lost, they come from the explained meaning of the text.

If your pastor intends to preach an expositional sermon from the blindfold text, he will start with a big picture, then zoom in to minute details, and zoom back out to put the sermon together. Exposition means getting to the original, intended, and contextual meaning of a passage. He will start with the big picture. Where is this text? Is it in the Old Testament or New Testament? Is it in a wisdom book, historical book, a Gospel, or an epistle? Those questions may seem too obvious to ask, but they are vital to properly interpreting a passage.

Once he has the aerial photo, he needs to zoom in drastically. He has to focus on the text and its setting. He has to consider biblical backgrounds, biblical languages, grammar, logical structure and flow. He has to start zooming out slowly to the broader context of the passage, the book it is in, and what it contributes to the book as a whole. He has to keep zooming out to consider the text’s place in the storyline of scripture, intertextual connections with other books, quotes, references, and allusions outside the text.

Next, he has to zoom out so that today is in the picture. Once he has properly interpreted the passage for its intended meaning, he has to connect that to today to make application to his modern hearers. If his text is in the old covenant dietary laws or Sabbath laws, does that mean we have to follow those today? What relevance do they have? If his text is a miracle of Jesus, how does that apply? If the text involves John the Baptist, does that mean we should all move to the desert, wear camel hair girdles, and eat locusts?

His introductory material will likely consist of background and setting of the passage, so it can be understood. His points will be developed from the passage itself. His concluding applications will come from the exposition of the passage and understanding of its place in the progress of revelation. He then brings home the relevance of the passage for us today.

Tribal

The tribal sermon could come under the topical umbrella, but it is quite the specimen and deserves its own pin and info card in the display case. If you talk about tribal rhetoric today, you will most likely be understood to talk about blind, fanatical political allegiances and groupings, i.e., tribes. Tribalism is just that, blind allegiance and loyalty to one’s own group. Tribalists blindly adhere to the worldview of the group, the tribe’s body of dogma, and jargon. Tribalists are immediately skeptical of anyone or any ideas not within the group, and they immediately know who is in and who is out. Tribalists presuppose their own group and collective groupthink to be superior to all others.

What is a tribal sermon? Tribal sermons are generally topical, but stick to an approved and acceptable set of topics. Tribal sermons are immediately critical of everything outside the tribe and reinforces the superiority of the tribe by either directly affirming the group or indirectly affirming the group by censuring all the non-group. One evidential feature of tribal sermons is the preacher making statements and using key phrases, which are accepted and applauded without any explanation or actual expositional proof from the Bible.

If your pastor intends to preach a tribal sermon, he considers whether the text is one of the tribal prooftexts. He may recognize this text is where we go to prove X doctrine, or that text is where we go to prove Y principle. If the text is not one of the standard prooftexts, he will consider if it is equivalent or close to one of the prooftexts. If the text is not a standard prooftext, or it doesn’t intersect conveniently with a prooftext, he has more work to do. He must consider the tribe’s set of approved and acceptable topics and find some way to either preach that topic deliberately from the text, or bridge from the text to the topic.

He will need the appropriate introductory and concluding remarks. He will probably not try to get too creative and just stick with the tribal boilerplates. Regardless of the text or topic, tribal sermons tend to abide certain conventions at the bookends of the sermon. They start with some variation on how important the subject is that is about to be preached, how nobody today is preaching on this subject, how everybody else is wrong about it, or how nobody else knows or understands it. Advanced onset tribalism will even press these critical claims toward those “within the group” who are not sufficiently emphasizing the tribal talking points. Tribal sermons tend to be thin on application and more about what you know and who knows and don’t know. There’s always a looming threat of being “out” of the tribe and so loyalty is reinforced.

Summary

What sermon would your pastor preach from the selected text? What sermon does he preach from the texts he selects? One of the questions or debates about preaching is whether exposition is necessary or not. It may surprise you to hear this, but exposition is not necessary all the time. If your pastor intends to preach a topical sermon as described above, exposition is unnecessary. He can find inspiration for sermons all around him. He may even have a sermon he wants to preach and needs only find a text to preach it from. In that case, exposition is unnecessary.

If your pastor intends to preach a tribal sermon, exposition is unnecessary. The tribe already provides a set of topics and prooftexts that are acceptable. The Bible must always be filtered through these, so the real work involved is figuring out how to fit a text in when it doesn’t seem to fit naturally. He can make pre-approved statements and exposition is unnecessary.

Of course, exposition is always necessary if he intends to the preach the word as God gave it. Sorry, but I don’t know any way around that. So, who’s ready to play?

Do You Own an Ox?

"For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" ~ Isaiah 28:10

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little ~ Isaiah 28:10

How should we study the Bible?

We recently finished an expository study of Matthew’s Gospel. The whole series comprised 110 sermons from the text of the book. If you are interested, the sermons are being uploaded here.

Last Sunday we began our new expository study in 1 Corinthians. Exposition is the main course in our sermonic diet. It is the staple. This prompts the question: What is an expository study?

Exposition
Let me start by acknowledging that exposition is defined differently throughout the Christian world. Rather than deal with all the different conceptions of the term, I want to clarify what we mean by the word. In an expository study, we study a whole book of the Bible beginning, middle, and end. We do approach the study of the Bible with deliberate and biblical assumptions which drive our interpretation of the text.

All truth is God’s truth and His truth is one. There are not as many truths as there are people in the room. We do not approach the study of the Bible by taking a consensus poll asking: What does this mean to me or you? No, the preaching moment is when we are to hear the voice of God through the expounding of the Word He has given us. We are not post-modern relativist. We do believe in authorial meaning in the text. When dealing with the sacred text, i.e. the Scriptures, the author is the Holy Spirit who used human penmen. So our goal is to understand the meaning He, the Holy Spirit, intends in the words He inspired.

We interpret the verses in a concentric pattern. We first consider the verse in the immediate context of the passage where it is found. This is a group of verses that are connected in thought. This is close to our modern conception of a paragraph. The fancy term is pericope. We next consider the verse in the broader context of the book. We then consider the verse in the broader context of the whole Bible. These are concentric, so there is no private interpretation of any verse or passage that does not fit within the larger circles. In arriving at concentric interpretation, some technical aspects such as grammar and usage of words and phrases is also vital.

God has chosen to reveal Himself through written word in time. The Bible does not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, the context of the writing of the book, i.e. author, time, place, circumstances, is important in understanding the meaning of the text. The Bible is also eternal and that means always-relevant in all times, cultures, etc. There is a danger of locking the Bible in a particular time and culture and thereby nullifying its requirements on those outside that time and culture. This is a pervasive error today, so it is worth a few words of explanation. It can be fleshed out with 1 Corinthians as an example.

1 Corinthians
In responding to the church’s questions and addressing some serious problems there, Paul wrote, under the inspiration of the Spirit, to the church at Corinth. The letter, or book, is very specific to them and therefore unique. However, he drew repeatedly from the Old Testament to apply principles to their situation. This is despite the fact that the church in Corinth was predominantly Gentile and not located in Palestine and surrounding areas. It was also the first century A.D. and the last words of the Old Testament had been written 400 years before this time. Paul did not see the Old Testament as irrelevant to them though.

1 Corinthians is an interesting book where the error of locking the Bible in a particular time and culture is clearly seen in those who handle it. The book contains some difficult passages for our modern culture, particularly in the sixth, eleventh, and fourteenth chapters. Many preachers and commentators explain hard passages away by locking them into first century Corinth and declaring their irrelevance today, despite the fact that that was not how Paul viewed the Old Testament in the very same book they are dismissing. This now brings us to the last consideration of exposition.

Having interpreted and explained the verses as previously described, an expository study will then apply those verses in the contemporary context. We do want to know how the Bible applies today, but we cannot start there in order to get there. The Corinthians had a problem in giving financially to the Lord’s work. One of the ways that Paul confronted this was to appeal the principle of the Old Testament law in not muzzling an ox that was treading out corn. He did also commend the example of the Macedonian churches, but he derived the principles from Scripture and therefore bound the responsibility before God by Scripture.

If many of our modern church-goers could be transported back to first century Corinth, their first response to Paul’s letter would be, “I live in the city. I don’t even own an ox. Boy is that Paul out of touch.”