This is a two part post. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow. My target audience is my fellow pastors/preachers and those who would desire this office of “Overseer.” There are real difficulties in committing to preach systematically through entire books of the Bible in what we call passage by passage or verse by verse exposition. Part 1 will deal with those difficulties. Part 2 will address the solutions.
Difficulties and Solutions in Preaching Systematic, “Book-Length” Exposition
The process is mentally taxing
It is hard work to systematically work through a text of the Bible from an academic and mental standpoint. My practice is to translate the text from the original language (which depending on the particular text could be a few verses or an entire chapter); do grammatical outlining; do discourse analysis (this is known by many names such as block diagraming, arcing, phrase diagraming, etc.); determine the contextual flow of the passage and of the larger context which can include an entire book of the Bible; examine all relevant cross-references (perhaps translate them as well); and then consult several commentaries before I even begin to write the sermon itself. It is quite another task to move then from this stage of sermon preparation to the sermon writing stage, and this stage is no less important or difficult because during the sermon writing, the goal is to not let the academic effort show. An expositional preacher needs to descend from the academics to teach God’s perfect Word to God’s people in an intensely practical, knowable and relatable way to every one regardless of age, gender, or education level. Though this process should take place in all forms of preaching God’s Word, it seems that systematic exposition of a Bible passage warrants this effort even more. There are many times when I simply have to get up from my studies, walk around, get a cup of coffee or go visit a church-member simply to give my brain a rest.
The process is spiritually convicting
Having been preaching in a pastoral role for nearly 13 years, I have always tried to make my main form of preaching detailed, systemic exposition through entire books of the Bible. Having preached through the books of Romans, Ephesians, Timothy, Peter, and currently through the Gospel of Matthew, I have encountered many passages of Scripture that not only challenged me mentally and linguistically, but also spiritually. It is not easy to preach through passages of Scripture that do not seem to fit within my rather comfortable theological presuppositions. It is humbling to preach a passage of Scripture having come to an interpretive understanding that contradicts tightly held opinions, especially when it is my own formerly tightly held opinion. And it is even more difficult when I must sit staring at the Biblical passage that I must preach on Sunday that clearly confronts my own sinful temptations and failures. Perhaps even sinful failures I have just fallen into. No one would deny that it is much easier to skip those painful little paragraphs that confront the preachers heart, yet I am convinced that it is not better.
The end goal feels rather daunting
I first realized this when I got half-way through Romans doing systematic, expositional preaching. I had an epiphany of sorts when I understood that I could go back and start Romans all over again and do a better job because I was finally starting to truly grasp the Apostolic letter. But then it hit me, but if I do that, I will never be able to have the clear conscience Paul had when he said that he had not neglected to preach the “whole-counsel of God.” It also occurred to me that if I was to be faithful in pastoring God’s people, then I would have to plan to preach and teach in the same church most likely until the day God took me home to heaven. God’s book is a big book and it takes a lifetime to master, if it is even possible to be mastered. This daunting nature of systematic expositional preaching can easily be avoided by simply choosing a list of helpful texts and topics, memorizing them well, preaching through them in a few years then moving on to some other ministry to do it all over again. That kind of preaching ministry is not so daunting, but is it good?
Application can be sometimes redundant
Many books of the Bible have one clear theme and many supporting sub-themes. In fact, careful analysis of the entire Bible will reveal that the entire collection of sixty-six books in the Bible has one main theme and many sub-themes. Thus, when you commit to preaching systematically, passage by passage through an entire book of the Bible, it will sometimes get redundant. Preaching through Romans doesn’t do this so much because the Apostle clearly moves from subtheme to subtheme in his treatise on God’s work of salvation, the Gospel. Ephesians clearly moves from the first half’s doctrinal explanation to the second half’s practical application in relatively smooth form. But when I started to preach through the Gospel of Matthew, I quickly discovered that long passages of Scripture that must be broken up for clarity’s sake, each had the same application, Jesus’ authority as Messiah-King. Perhaps more than the people hearing the preaching, the preacher can begin to feel like his sermons are all saying the same thing in the end. And quite frankly he probably is. This can tempt a preacher to abandon the systematic exposition of the Scripture for the more interesting waters of jumping from topic to topic just to “keep it interesting.”
Passion can be sometimes waning
This is a real and serious struggle. Systematic exposition of the Bible is not supposed to be boring lectures. Sadly, it has received that stereotype from what could only be described as dead-preaching. Exposition is not pontificating about particular Greek words or describing the intricacies of the Jewish burial rites for 45 minutes. Exposition is not a lengthy history lecture or a running commentary on what each word means in the passage. Exposition is simply explaining the normal, main point of the text, derived ultimately from the immediate context having examined grammatical, historical and authorial forms. And then applying that main point in such a way that it moves the hearts and minds and even bodies of God’s people into obedient action. Action that is implied or commanded from the plain explanation of the text. Thus for exposition to be done correctly, there must be a call to action that is passionately and sincerely preached. But when sermon twenty-three on the Messianic authority of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew is preached, and the call to action is to follow Him in faith, it can be difficult for the preacher to keep the same fire and passion in his proclamation. Or perhaps when the sermon is about how to care for widows in the church and what ages they should be from 1 Timothy, the temptation to the preacher is strong to just “skip that one.” This is especially difficult for Pastors when well-meaning saints remark that such a passage “didn’t do anything” for them or other purportedly helpful critiques.
So is it worth it? Should we abandon systematic, passage by passage, exposition of entire books of the Bible? Should we go to a topical approach of preaching? Or perhaps one popular method today is to preach systematically, but to take even larger passages and skip over details to get to the “good stuff;” is this good enough? Part two will attempt to answer these questions.