While it is, of course, possible (and sometimes desirable) to preach expository sermons textually—in Romans this week, in the Psalms the next, and in Haggai the following week—there is something about the very discipline of exposition that makes it impossible not to pick up the threads of an argument that begins in one chapter and runs on for several more. Few passages are complete in themselves, requiring little, if any, reference to preceding verses or what follows (individual psalms taken as whole psalms are one example, though not if only one or two verses of a particular psalm constitute the text). It is very difficult to read Paul without following a lengthy argument that unfolds over lengthy passages requiring a series of sermons to unpack. It might be helpful, then, to ask, “What are some of the advantages of the consecutive expository sermon?” Below I’ll summarize what I see as six advantages of this methodology:
1. Expository preaching introduces the congregation to the entire Bible.
J. W. Alexander writes, “All the more cardinal books of Scripture should be fully expounded in every church, if not once during the life of a single preacher, certainly during each generation; in order that no man should grow up without opportunity of hearing the great body of scriptural truth laid open.”
In an age of relative biblical illiteracy in many parts of the world, the need to preach the whole Bible, rather than serendipitously picking a text from here and there, is all the more urgent. Writing over a century ago, William Taylor opined,
I have seen a slimly attended second service gather back into itself all the half-day hearers that had absented themselves from it, and draw in others besides, through the adoption by the minister of just such a method as this; while the effect, even upon those who have dropped casually in upon a single discourse, has been to send them away with what one of themselves called “a new appetite for the Word of God.”
2. Expository preaching ensures that infrequently traveled areas of the Bible are covered.
The inspired quality of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16–17) implies that the whole canon—”all Scripture”—bears the mark of divine authorship. Our knowledge and holiness are hampered to the degree we neglect certain portions of Scripture. What preacher will preach from Zechariah, Jeremiah, or Revelation (except it be a favorite text or two) unless driven to it by a programmatic attempt to preach through the whole Bible? Large tracts of the Bible will never be touched unless the discipline of consecutive expository preaching forces the preacher to do so.
3. Expository preaching prevents preachers from unwittingly shaping the way their hearers read their Bibles.
Large areas of the Bible are rarely read by many Christians. They arouse greater dread than the Mines of Moria did for Gandalf and Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring. Consequently, the Bible is reduced to favorite verses, underlined or highlighted to provide steppingstones through murky waters. Preachers who jump from text to text, ignoring difficult sections of the Bible, reinforce this tendency. By contrast, consecutive expository preaching can inculcate sound habits of personal Bible study. The congregation can absorb the necessary principles of sound interpretation, almost by osmosis, through such repeated forays into relatively obscure passages from week to week in the pulpit.
When Paul asked the church at Colossae to pray that he might be able to preach “plainly” (Greek, phanerosis, unveiling, exposition), he was asking that he might bring out from the text what was inherently there. Paul, likewise, made the claim with respect to his preaching at Corinth that “by the open statement of the truth” he refused “to tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2). By renouncing distortion (tampering), the apostle insists that what he did was to “expose” (Greek, phanerosis) what was already there in the Word. Hearing that done, week after week, cannot but cement form and content.
One of the most heart-enriching experiences for any preacher is to hear someone bring something out of a text that reflects (albeit unwittingly) what he has done countless times in the pulpit. As Robert Dabney puts it:
A prime object of pastoral teaching is to teach the people how to read the Bible for themselves. A sealed book cannot be interesting. If it be read without the key of comprehension, it cannot be instructive. Now, it is the preacher’s business, in his public discourses, to give his people teaching by example, in the art of interpreting the Word: he should exhibit before them, in actual use, the methods by which the legitimate meaning is to be evolved. Fragmentary preaching, however brilliant, will never do this.
Stott, in an interview given in 1995, speaks to this issue:
We want to let the congregation into the secret as to how we have reached the conclusions we have reached as to what the Bible is actually saying... And gradually, as you are doing this in the pulpit, the congregation is schooled not only in what the Bible teaches but in how we come to the congregation as to what it teaches. So we have to show the congregation what our hermeneutical methods are.
4. Expository preaching is the only preaching method that exposes a congregation to the full range of Scripture’s interests and concerns.
Why would a preacher desire to choose as his subject divorce, polygamy, or incest other than the fact that they arise naturally in the course of exposition? Many a hearer will accuse preachers of a conspiracy whenever the Word begins to “meddle” (as they say in Mississippi). Happy is the preacher who can point to the text and say, “That subject just happens to be in the passage we’re studying this morning!” It is only by the sustained use of the lectio continua method that large sections of Scripture can be covered, including those areas less well known and traversed but containing truth designed to shape us into Christ’s image.
5. Expository preaching provides variety to sustain a congregation’s interest from week to week.
If variety is the spice of life, then the pulpit needs to show it by a preaching style that reflects something of a great journey, with ever-changing landscapes and challenges.
What makes Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings so utterly spellbinding is the sheer variety of its style. Moments of intense drama are interspersed with slow-moving developments of character and background. The latter is indispensable for the former, and, indeed, without those less-hurried moments, the dramatic sections would lose their power. Suddenly dipping into the journey through the Mines of Moria to the Bridge at Khazad-dûm would make no sense unless we had journeyed with the hobbits all the way from Rivendell and, indeed, from Hobbiton itself.
Not every sermon should be explosive in nature, and it is only in the discipline of consecutive expository preaching that the necessary elements can be set in place for the drama and excitement of certain passages to have their intended effect.
6. Expository preaching, better than any method I know, aids preachers in thinking and preparing ahead.
Not only does it free preachers from the tyranny of having to choose a text (and then choosing another, and then another, when the text fails to yield to the preacher’s tapping!) it enables him to think well ahead. Certain themes can receive greater and lesser emphasis if the preacher knows that an occasion will come again soon, in the next chapter perhaps, for a more sustained examination of them. Every book of the Bible contains passages which are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16), and preparation for these can take place well in advance.
Faithful expository preaching, whether textual or consecutive, is “a most exacting discipline,” according to Stott. He adds:
Perhaps that is why it is so rare. Only those will undertake it who are prepared to follow the example of the apostles and say, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God and serve tables…. We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2, 4). The systematic preaching of the Word is impossible without the systematic study of it. It will not be enough to skim through a few verses in daily Bible reading, nor to study a passage only when we have to preach from it. No. We must daily soak ourselves in the Scriptures. We must not just study, as through a microscope, the linguistic minutiae of a few verses, but take out our telescope and scan the wide expanses of God’s Word, assimilating its grand theme of divine sovereignty in the redemption of mankind. “It is blessed,” wrote C. H. Spurgeon, “to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your spirit is flavoured with the words of the Lord, so that your blood is Bibline and the very essence of the Bible flows from you.”
In the end, that is what we desperately need today: preaching that unpacks the Bible’s message and conveys a sense of the reality of God’s presence. In the end, only faithful expository preaching can do that.