How to Read the Bible — and Preach It
Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. On Friday, Pastor John, we talked about how you write books. This week we’re talking preaching to celebrate your new book on preaching — Expository Exultation. Today’s question is from a preacher named Brad.
“Hello, Pastor John! How do you define expositional preaching? I ask because to many in my neck of the woods ‘expositional preaching’ is opening the Bible, reading a text, and proceeding to say a lot of true things about that text. While this approach is better than many alternatives, so often what seems to be missed is the main point of the text. Thus, God’s agenda in the text is sometimes lost for what the preacher found most interesting, or curious, or personally uplifting. What would you say to preachers and to congregants looking for expositional preaching? What exactly is it?”
Missing the Point
Well, I totally agree with Brad. If you don’t tell people the main point the biblical author is trying to communicate in the text, you’re not doing faithful exposition, no matter how many good things you say about the text. No matter how many interesting things or true things or how much application you give, it isn’t exposition.
Here’s my definition: exposition is communicating to people what the biblical author was trying to communicate through his inspired words. But I want to hasten to say that in my new book, Expository Exultation, I go way beyond that definition of exposition. I think many young preachers, and probably older ones as well, get the idea that in exposition we are dealing mainly with getting ideas from the biblical author’s head into the head of those who are listening to the preaching.
More than Ideas
When I use the language of finding the author’s intention in our exegesis and then transferring it into the minds of the listener through exposition, I can give the impression that the main task of preaching is idea transfer. Of course, I don’t want to belittle that.
Exposition can never be less than that because there are life-changing ideas in all the chapters of the Bible. These ideas do need to be known by Christians. But it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that the intentions of the inspired writers of the Bible are never — and I repeat, never — to simply transfer information from their minds to our minds. Their intentions are always — and I repeat, always — larger than information transfer.
For example, when Paul says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Romans 5:1), his intention is not only that our minds would have some new ideas. He doesn’t want us to just know that justification is by faith and that through this one can enjoy peace with God.
His intention also includes that we grasp this, that we see with the eyes of the heart, that we are moved by the wonder and the beauty and the glory of what justification is and what faith is and what peace is and what God is.
He does not only want us to know what all those words mean, but taste what all those realities are so that the reality behind the words becomes an experience of our whole being. That’s part of their intention. If this is true, then exposition can never — and I repeat, never — be content with idea transfer.
When I define exposition as communicating to people what the biblical author was trying to communicate through his inspired words, I include in “what the biblical author was trying to communicate” not only the ideas, but the reality behind the ideas — the reality of God, the reality of justification, the reality of faith, the reality of experiencing peace with God. I include the experience of those realities.
“It is prostitution of the biblical text to not pray and seek to embody emotionally the reality behind the text.”
The transformation that comes through the experience of those realities are all included in what Paul wanted, intended, hoped, and prayed would happen as he wrote that sentence for the Roman Christians. That is why I define preaching not just as exposition, but as expository exultation — that’s e-x-u-l-t-a-t-i-o-n, not e-x-a-l-t-a-t-i-o-n.
It is, in my mind (I hope I don’t overstate it), prostitution of the biblical text to deal with it in a way that does not pray and seek to embody emotionally the reality behind the text so that our people don’t just hear ideas, but see the reality behind the ideas being experienced by the preacher.
Let me see if I can sum it up like this. I was at a conference recently where my assignment was to talk for twenty minutes about what I would do if I were 22 again. One of the things I wanted to say was that I would read my Bible every day if I were 22.
I would read my Bible every day for the next fifty years. No misses. I would read it more often than I kiss my wife, because sometimes she’s not with me on a trip, but my Bible is always with me on a trip. I’m sure I’ve read my Bible more days than I’ve kissed my wife. That’s really important to kiss your wife. But it’s more important to read the Bible, because otherwise you won’t kiss her like you ought to kiss her. But that’s another podcast.
Since I wrote this new book on preaching, I am so keenly aware of how many layers there are to reading your Bible every day — what that really means.
I’ve learned a few things in the last fifty years since I was 22. If I were 22 again now, the way I would state my Bible-reading resolution would go like this. And this is my intention to summarize what a preacher does with his Bible, both for his own soul and for his people.
I would resolve every day in reading my Bible to push through the haze of vague awareness to the very wording of the text. I would push into and through the wording of the text to the intention of the author’s mind, both human and divine. I would push into and through that intention of the author to the reality behind all the words and grammar and logic. I would push into that reality until it became an emotionally experienced reality with emotions that correspond to the nature of the reality. I would push into and through this proportionately emotional experience of the reality behind the text until it took form in word and deed in my life. I would push through this emotionally charged word and deed until others saw the reality and joined me in this encounter with God.
Really, what I was doing in describing my resolution as a 22-year-old to read my Bible every day was describing the task of the preacher and what I have come to see as the great and wonderful calling of expository exultation.