Jan 28, 2011 David Lang

Exposition Begins with Reading

Last week I wrote a couple of posts in which I said it is more important to read English well than to know Greek and Hebrew. I was, of course, deliberately being provocative by setting up a false dichotomy. It is not as if reading well is somehow incompatible with knowing Greek and Hebrew. My point was certainly not that Greek and Hebrew are unnecessary to good exegesis. Rather, it was that good exegesis begins with effective reading. If you know how to read texts well—a skill learned in one's native language—then you can easily apply that skill to reading the original languages. If, however, you lack that skill, learning Greek and Hebrew will not by itself make you a better exegete.

Now, it often happens that the process of learning the original languages can help develop literary acumen in those who had previously lacked it. Sometimes we learn our native language so intuitively that we never slow down to consider the ways in which communication takes place. In such cases, learning the grammar and syntax of Greek and Hebrew can help us to read our own language more intelligently. The best Greek and Hebrew teachers even encourage this. For example, I love the way Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek begins with English concepts and then relates those concepts to the Greek grammar being introduced. Mounce's text also includes "exegetical insights" which show how those grammatical concepts affect our understanding of specific Biblical passages. In doing this, Mounce helps to develop the kind of literary acumen I've been discussing.

However one acquires it, and whether one applies it to the Bible in translation or in the original languages, this literary acumen is essential to the task of exposition.

What is exposition? Here's a great explanation from John Stott’s Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century:

Whether it (the text) is long or short, our responsibility as expositors is to open it up in such a way that it speaks its message clearly, plainly, accurately, relevantly, without addition, subtraction, or falsification. In expository preaching, the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different theme, nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but a master which dictates and controls what is said.

Note the approaches to preaching which Stott contrasts with exposition. The first uses the text as "an introduction to a sermon on a largely different theme." Have you ever heard a sermon like that? The sermon may be wonderful, but at the end you find yourself wondering how what was said had any connection to the actual sermon text. The second approach uses the text as a "peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts." I saw that in a church my family visited when we first moved to a different town. The pastor preached for forty minutes from a powerful text in Ephesians, yet he only turned to the actual text twice during that entire time. In the end, the passage became nothing more than a peg on which he hung forty minutes of good advice. Although we liked a lot of things about the church, we never went back.

In contrast to these approaches, Stott holds up expository preaching which allows the text to control the message being preached. Put another way, an expository sermon draws its structure and message from the text itself. The expositor asks what the main point of a passage is and then seeks to make that the main point of the sermon. The expositor asks how the text communicates that message and then organizes his points and subpoints along those same lines. As Darrell Johnson puts it in The Glory of Preaching:

expository preaching is not about getting a message out of the text; it is about inviting people into the text so that the text can do what only the text can do.

If exposition involves inviting people into the text of Scripture, enabling them to read it for themselves with greater clarity and engagement, then it stands to reason that exposition must begin with reading. Unless the expositor knows how to read the text for himself with clarity and engagement, he cannot hope to help others do the same.

With Accordance, it is ridiculously easy to branch out from the text to dig into all kinds of helpful tools and study aids, but all of that digging must come after a unified reading of the text—even multiple readings. Otherwise, genuine exposition becomes impossible. If you want to avoid obscuring the text of the Bible with a "ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts," develop the discipline of reading the text as the first step to meaningful exposition.

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Archived Comments

Rod Decker

January 29, 2011 7:52 AM

Well said Dave. Stott's book on preaching is my favorite and you've quoted the heart of it. It's not the sort of "mechanics" book that tries to teach you step-by-step how to do it, but it does more than any other book I've read on preaching to communicate the  goral of preaching--even his title does that well.