Over the last few weeks at Life Church, we have been walking through the Old Testament book of Ruth. Last fall, we spent three months studying 1 Thessalonians. Prior to that, we spent almost eight months studying the book of Acts. This coming summer, we’ll devote fifteen weeks to studying a section of the book of Psalms – the Psalms of Ascent. From that habit, hopefully one thing is obvious: As a church, one of our primary commitments in preaching is to biblical exposition. That means that the normal pattern of our preaching and teaching involves walking methodically through whole books of the Bible, as opposed to preaching and teaching on selected topics or from selected texts.1
Why is biblical exposition important? Why have we made a commitment to it as a church? Here are four reasons why.
1. Exposition assumes that God knows better than we do what we need to hear. When we preach topically, the topic is selected by someone (usually me) other than God himself. That selection process does involve prayer, study, and contemplation, as well as input from other people. However the decision to preach on a topic is ultimately a human decision. When we preach through entire books of the Bible, however, God picks the topics. Yes, human decision-making is still involved, as we are selecting which books of the Bible to preach at any given moment. But a commitment to a book of the Bible will bring us to topics and ideas that God has selected that we might not otherwise select. This process assumes that God wouldn’t have placed an idea in Scripture if we didn’t need to hear it. And it assumes that we often don’t know what we really need to hear. But God does – and exposition allows his wisdom and insight, more than my ability, to select things that are helpful, timely, and relevant.
2. Exposition assumes that all Scripture really is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. Paul promised Timothy that this is true, of course. In 2 Tim 3:16-17, he said:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
I don’t know many Christians who argue against that idea. However we often assume that some Scripture is more valuable than other Scripture. We assume that certain texts, or certain types of texts, are more profitable than others. (That’s why we’re eager to spend time in the gospels and epistles and less eager to dive into wisdom literature or the minor prophets.) Over time, exposition corrects this assumption. Exposition pushes us to books and passages we would otherwise avoid, and we begin to see their usefuleness and power. Exposition takes God at his word on the value of every word of Scripture.
3. Exposition teaches people how to read the Bible. When I preach expositionally, my church can more naturally see the disciplines and study habits I employ as I study the text. When I preach verse by verse, the attention I am paying to the literary context, to the original occasion of the book, to the situation of the author and first readers, and to the text’s place in the biblical narrative is more visible. My study habits are on display, in other words. Over time, our church can learn from and begin to emulate those same study habits. Eventually, a commitment to exposition will make our church more biblically literate and make our church members better individual students of Scripture.
4. Exposition respects the Spirit-inspired intent of the orignal author. This point is the most abstract, but probably the most important of these four reasons why exposition matters. When I take a passage out of its God-given context, and especially when I preach it outside of its God-given context, it is much easier to make the text mean what I want it to mean than what it actually means. To borrow a phrase, it allows me to use the text the way a drunk uses a lampost, for support rather than illumination.2 I don’t believe I would ever do this intentionally, nor would I accuse others of doing it intentionally. But the context of a book is like a guardrail that keeps you on the road. When you step outside of that context, you are losing a safeguard that can keep you from going over the side of a cliff. I remember a sermon I preached long ago from 1 John 2. It was powerful. People were convicted. I remember vividly the Lord’s Spirit working in the room. But I also know now that I wasn’t particularly faithful to what 1 John 2 was really saying. Had I been working through the whole book of 1 John, had I been more focused on the context and original meaning of the book, I think I might have avoided the mistakes I made that day. Exposition helps us in this way. It keeps me from emphasizing what I want the text to say and pushes me back toward what its original author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wanted to say. In the end, “thus says James” means nothing. “Thus says the Lord” means everything. Exposition helps us ensure that we are hearing the voice of God in Bible study and preaching.
1 This doesn’t mean we don’t preach on selected topics or from selected texts, of course. I’m simply saying that the bulk of our preaching and teaching is expositional – verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book – rather than topical.
2 Though I don’t believe it originated with him, I’ve borrowed this phrase from David Helm and his excellent book on biblical exposition called Expositional Preaching.