What is Biblical Exposition?
If you’re part of Westgate Church, or have visited us on a Sunday morning, it’s probably pretty obvious that the preaching of God’s Word is an important part of our gathered worship. The sermon receives the most time during our service. The songs we sing and prayers we pray emphasize the same message as the sermon. It occupies the central location in our order of service. Even the pulpit sits in the center of the platform up front. And each sermon reflects somewhere between 15 and 20 hours of the pastor’s study during the week. It’s not an exaggeration to say the preaching of God’s Word is the center of our gathered worship.
All of this is not without reason. In fact, it’s very intentional, and it reflects our commitment to what is often called biblical exposition.
So what is biblical exposition? And why is it so central to our gathered worship? These are the questions we’ll explore in this series of posts. We’ll start here with the first one: what is biblical exposition?
WHAT IS BIBLICAL EXPOSITION?
There are no shortage of books on biblical exposition, and a rather wide variety of definitions among them. My goal here is not to survey those, but rather to clarify what we see as the essence of an exposition.
Let’s start with a definition. An exposition is the kind of sermon where the message and aim of the sermon are controlled by the message and aim of the biblical passage being preached.
Pastor Mike Bullmore describes it like this: “The preacher says what the passage says, and he intends for his sermon to accomplish in his listeners exactly what God is seeking to accomplish through the chosen passage of his Word.” He continues, “Imagine God sitting in the congregation as you preach. What will be the expression on his face? Will it say, ‘That’s not at all what I was getting at with that passage.’ Or will it say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I intended.’”(1)
So to exposit the Bible is to preach in such a way that the message and aim of your sermon are controlled by the message and aim of the biblical text being preached. And I think there are five key marks of an exposition.
THE MARKS OF AN EXPOSITION
1. An exposition must be faithful to the biblical text.
This is the essence of exposition. It is God’s Word that his people need to hear, not the preacher’s. In the Bible God is speaking. The preacher is a herald who speaks on behalf of God. And so my foremost goal and responsibility as a preacher is to be faithful to what the biblical text is saying, and hence what God is saying. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:2, “we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
2. An exposition should be obvious from the biblical text.
Not only must a preacher be faithful to God’s Word, but the biblical basis of his sermon should be readily observable as worshipers listen with Bibles in hand. Again, it’s God’s Word they need; not mine. Preachers don’t speak out of our own authority. As heralds, our ability and responsibility to say ‘Thus says the Lord,' is contingent upon our faithfulness to the supremely authoritative Word of God.
And so people should not have to take our word that this is what the Bible says. They should be able to see it for themselves in our preaching. The message should be obvious from the biblical text. Our congregations should be able to follow the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:11: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
3. An exposition should connect God’s Word to the life of his people.
This may seem obvious, and it may not seem like a unique mark of expositional preaching. But it’s central to the very nature of what makes a sermon a sermon.
There is a difference between describing a text and proclaiming it. And too many “expositions” are nothing more than descriptions of a biblical passage that are disconnected from the people who are listening. They have no teeth, no clarity, and no compelling impact on the people of God. The message of an exposition should be faithful to Scripture and obvious from it, but it should also bring that message to bear on daily life in clear and compelling way.
4. An exposition must be centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Luke 24:44-49 says,
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
An exposition must be centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here we’re talking about both content and power. The power of a sermon for changing lives does not rest in the eloquence or persuasiveness of a preacher, but in the cross of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit to apply that redemption to sinners. That’s why the apostles had to wait for the Spirit to come before they went public with the message of Christ.
And if we are faithful to Scripture, then we will follow Jesus’ own exhortation in Luke 24 and show in the content and the application of our sermons how every passage in Scripture in some way points to or flows from Jesus’ substitutionary life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the hero of the story, not you or me. Which means that our applications have to go beyond moralisms or performance-based measures (‘just try harder’). They need to call God’s people to obedience while drawing them ever closer to the transforming grace of God in the power of the Spirit.
5. Expositional preaching prioritizes working through books of the Bible.
This mark is not quite on the same level as the first four. It is possible to exposit a passage of Scripture in addressing some topic, and I do that from time to time. But because messages are communicated through context, and context is bigger than just the passage you’re in, and each passage plays a role in the larger book that it’s part of, I believe that exposition should prioritize working through whole books of the Bible (as opposed to bouncing from topic to topic). More on this in a later post.
A sermon is expositional when the message and aim of the sermon are controlled by the message and aim of the biblical passage being preached. And that exposition must be faithful to Scripture and obvious from Scripture. It should connect God’s Word to the life of his people, and must be centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it’s usually done by working through books of the Bible.
Other pastors or books might define exposition more narrowly or more broadly, but when we talk about exposition at Westgate, this is the kind of preaching we’re committed to. And we’re committed to it because we believe it’s essential to our calling as pastors, and necessary for the life and health of our congregation.
More on the necessity of biblical exposition in our next few posts:
1. Mike Bullmore, “A Biblical Case for Expositional Preaching,” 9Marks Journal, May/June 2007.