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Why Expository Ministry?

July 2014

Dear Friends,

What encouraging news we have to bring you in the first item in this issue of the Record (pp. 3-4). One of the five bullet points in our Parish Profile, which has informed our search for a new minister, was that of expository preaching, to which our sole nominee is very committed.

It occurs to me, however, that some who have recently joined us might not be fully aware of why we have valued so highly the process of systematically and sequentially working through books of the Bible on Sundays and at our midweek services.

We could have adopted a topic-based approach, and many churches do this. And occasionally we have done so ourselves in the past, particularly at Christmas and at Easter. And we shall be looking at the book of Job thematically in terms of the problem of suffering, the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ questions, the nature of wisdom, but all these will be addressed by reference to particular chapters of the book, and within the general context of the whole book. In fact, it would be very helpful if we all read through the book in advance of the particular sermons.

There are occasions when it is good to deal with issues of contemporary interest. However, such topics may often best be addressed in special meetings or in courses. For example, Sandyford has run the Christians Against Poverty and Marriage and Marriage Preparation courses in which money and relationships, two of the major concerns of our times, have been addressed. A very real danger in an exclusively topic-based approach to ministry is that of pandering to consumerism, to what is trendy. With expository ministry, we start with what God has to say to us. While we can hear God’s voice in the topic-based approach, the starting point is more often what we feel our need to be. One final practical reason for not going down the topics road has been the burden it would place, in a vacancy, on visiting preachers.

Another approach adopted by a number of churches is to take various texts from the Bible in isolation. This is a method of studying the Bible favoured by many notable preachers, including Spurgeon (though he would relate the text to other areas of the scriptures). While so many of us have been blessed by this approach the major problem is of our not ‘preaching the whole counsel of God’, so necessary these days in giving theological stability to congregations. Without the sequential study of the Bible there is a real danger that we can distort the meaning of the text and/or avoid some of the controversial issues.

What is Expository Preaching?

The word exposition literally means ‘a setting forth, a narration, or display’. As applied to ministry, the term has come to mean the setting forth or explanation of the meaning or message of the biblical text. It situates a passage in relation to the past and to the present: what did the passage signify when it was written; what has it still to say to us in 2014? The context of the passage helps shape its interpretation.

The expository approach also relates each passage to the rest of the Scriptures, as part of a coherent body of truth. The notion of coherence is strengthened by the focus on the consecutive treatment of books or passages from the Bible.

Expository ministry can include the exegetical running commentary approach of Calvin (who, for example, preached 159 sermons on Job and 353 on Isaiah – this should give perspective to a minister (and to any others?) who enquired whether we were still in Isaiah!) It also extends to preaching on chapters of Scripture or even on one whole book of the Bible.

What are we ‘setting forth’?

I would have thought that the ‘what’ question could be taken as read. However, as I listen to debates from the General Assembly, it is quite clear that the authority of the Bible is often ignored. (A report on this year’s Assembly will be given by our commissioner, Garry Osbourne, in the next issue of the Record.) We start with the conviction that the Bible is God’s voice, that the Scriptures are ‘breathed out by God’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We need to get back to the chief cornerstone of the Reformation, sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, and reclaim the Bible as the sole authority of God in his church. As Jerry Middleton said in summing up, with a burdened heart, the counter-motion he proposed to the overture from the Legal Questions Committee: ‘We do not dialogue with God […] we listen’. In approaching the Bible, we need to have the attitude of Cranmer who, in the preface to his translation, recognized that we are on sacred ground:

every man that cometh to the reading of this holy book, ought to bring with him first and foremost this fear of almighty God.

How casual we can be in setting forth and in listening to God’s Word. Every time we open it we should be engaging in an act of worship. In this sense, expository preaching is as much about attitude to the Word as about method. As John Stott said:

Whether the Bible 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.(Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today)

A dual responsibility

If expository preaching is about attitude then we have to look at the responsibilities shared by both preacher and congregation. For the expositor, it is a challenging task. First of all, it is hard work. It is hugely time-consuming to delve into the background of the text, to tease out its significance for the original context and to see its relevance for today. How grateful we are to all who have come to preach in Sandyford! Some ministers have acknowledged that they have not preached on the passage or the book before but have been willing to do so to help us. One minister, having divested his flat of books on grounds of space, even went to the trouble and expense of acquiring two commentaries on the book of the Bible in question to ensure that his preaching was worthy of the subject.

However, for the expository preaching to have life and to be persuasive, study in itself is insufficient. In one of the books on preaching the writer compares some of his contemporary preachers to someone reading out the livestock prices. Now perhaps to some people livestock prices may be interesting! However, dull sermons are a contradiction of the tenets and goals of expository preaching.

The challenge is for the ministry to be part of the preacher’s soul, through prayer, meditation, and the help of the Holy Spirit.

The challenge for those who listen is equally demanding. In the first instance, to pray for the preaching. As the apostle Paul pleaded, despite being intellectually self-sufficient: ‘Pray also for me, so that, when I begin to speak, the right words will come to me’ (Ephesians 6: 19).

But much more than this: there is a need to prepare ourselves to receive the ministry, cultivating that attitude exemplified by the Bereans, who responded so positively in faith to the expository ministry of Paul and Silas. In this respect, we need to draw more on the indwelling Holy Spirit, who comes to us not with a soft pillow to have a rest in our lives but to inspire a hunger for the Word of God and an application of its teaching.

With very best wishes

Noël Peacock, Session Clerk

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