Preparing An Expository Sermon

Title: Preparing An Expository Sermon
Category: Preaching
Subject: Sermon, The Expository

In the preface of his excellent book on expository preaching, Haddon Robinson noted that “a reader might understandably assume that anyone writing about preaching must consider himself a master of the discipline. Not so!” Robinson said, “I know the agony of preparing a message and then having preached it, feeling that I knew … nothing about the preaching art.”[1] Though I have been preaching for nearly 30 years, I confess that I still feel very much like a novice when it comes to the preparation of sermons, particularly expository sermons. Nevertheless, it is my assignment to share some basic principles associated with this task.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in dealing with the actual process of sermon preparation said, “Some seem to think that there are absolute rules in this matter; but I suggest that that is not so. I therefore merely put forward some tentative suggestions based on my own understanding, and my own experience, of these matters.”[2] Essentially, that is all that I can hope to do in the scope of this chapter.

My conclusions and suggestions on this subject are by no means exhaustive. In fact, they will hopefully prove to be rather elemental and thus understandable. My objective is…

To offer the reader some principles for the preparation of an expository sermon. The essential nature of such preparation is clearly seen in Paul’s words to young Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15 when he said, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (italics mine).

With that in mind, let us first consider…

I. The Concept Of An Expository Sermon

In order to understand what is meant by “exposition” and the significance of an “expository” sermon, let’s notice…

A. The Different Classifications Of Every Sermon

James Braga said, “There are many kinds of sermons and various ways of classifying them. In an attempt to classify sermons, writers of homiletics (the art of preaching) use different definitions, and in using these definitions there is considerable overlapping in classification.”[3]

Some listings include such categories as Biographical, Narrative, Personal Testimony, Historical, Theological, and Ethical. But as Braga states, “The least complicated method is to classify them as topical, textual, and expository.”[4]

A topical sermon begins with a particular subject or concept and then references various portions of scripture for the premise and the points of the sermon. One preacher cleverly suggested that Isaiah 28:9-10 gives us the Biblical formula for a topical sermon. “You develop and build the doctrine as ‘precept upon precept,’ like laying bricks. Each separate Scripture text for the sermon presents a precept. … You gather a little from over here and a little from over there (i.e., different precepts from different portions of Scripture) and you cement them all together with a common theme to build them into the whole.”[5] Though many subjects and themes are woven into the fabric of scripture, the limitations of this method will soon become apparent if the preacher attempts to isolate and present a new topic every week, in every sermon.

The textual sermon is basically a miniature model of exposition. This type of sermon is usually based on one or two verses of Scripture as opposed to a longer passage typically covered in an expository sermon. As with the expository sermon, the development of the sermon and its points are derived from within the text. This approach has the advantage of communicating a brief text that is more easily digested and retained by the listeners. However, this method may fail to reveal the unity and continuity of an entire passage, chapter, or book in the Bible. 

The third classification is the expository sermon, so let’s think now about…

B. The Definite Components Of Expository Sermons

On several occasions, my dear friend Evangelist Jack Green has reminded me that if I want to clearly define and know what preaching is, then I must look to Nehemiah chapter 8. There the Bible tells us that “Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose … And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people” (Nehemiah 8:4-5). Then verse 8 says “they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (italics mine). Truly, this is the embodiment of expository preaching, for expository preaching is explanatory preaching!

The concept of exposition is also clearly seen in Paul’s command for Timothy to be “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15” where the word “dividing” means dissecting and exposing or expounding.

Alfred P. Gibbs declared that “Of all the types of sermons, this (expository), though perhaps the most difficult, is the very best.” Gibbs went on to say, “By exposition is meant the opening up (exposing), or the unfolding and explaining of a passage of Scripture. The word comes from two Latin words: ex meaning ‘out,’ and pono, ‘to place.’ … An exposition of a Scripture portion is therefore the placing out, or the displaying of the truth contained in the passage selected.”[6]

Exposition is the process of analyzing and exposing the selected portion of scripture, and (through careful attention to context, language, meanings of words, and flow of thought, as well as a consideration of any relevant theological, historical, biographical, or geographical factors) discovering what the text says and what it means. The expositor should also consider the passage in light of any pertinent hermeneutical principles. Then, he should determine how this portion of God’s word applies to the hearts and lives of the listeners.

After digging into the treasure mine of scripture, the particular principles and pieces that we find should then be assembled into a sermonic form that can be communicated to those who will hear the preacher. Exposition, then, is the process that produces the expository sermon.

Let us now elaborate on that which we have just mentioned in summary form, namely…

II. The Crafting Of An Expository Sermon

If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times when I was in Bible college, that “a call to preach is a call to prepare.” Our instructors were using that statement to express the expediency of preparing ourselves educationally for the ministry ahead. But the statement is equally applicable to the weekly preparation and study that leads to the actual delivery of the sermon. I remember hearing some men boast that ‘when you open your mouth, God will fill it.’ But the truth is, preparation precedes preaching, and the sermon must be developed before it can be delivered.

A. There Is Some Analysis Required In The Development Of An Expository Sermon

Analysis is a technique used in many fields such as mathematics, science, logic, and philosophy whereby something complex is systematically separated into its simpler, component parts. It is derived from a Greek word that has the idea of loosening and breaking apart. That is exactly what we are doing when we begin to analyze a passage of scripture. We are breaking it down into its component parts, words, phrases, and ideas.

As we go to the text to begin the process of analysis, there is a standard which must be maintained. We must approach the text exegetically rather than eisegetically. To clarify; while exegesis draws out the true meaning of the text, eisegesis occurs when the preacher reads his own pre-conceived ideas and interpretation into the text. We should draw our conclusions from the text, not impose our conclusions upon the text.

Proper analysis of the scripture in sermon preparation will involve several steps or stages, the first of which is…

1. The Isolation Of The Text

One passage out of all the passages of the Bible must be isolated as a focal point for the sermon that will be prepared. This ‘first cut’ in “rightly dividing the word of truth” has been called the preaching passage, the expository unit, or simply the sermon text.

Obviously, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the selection of the sermon text is absolutely necessary. But if you are preaching through a book of the Bible, the selection of the sermon text can be determined by analyzing the ebb and flow of thought in the chapter or section and by considering the paragraph divisions. In preaching through a book or doing a series of sermons in a particular section of scripture, I often find it helpful in determining the focal passage to see where other expositors began and ended their sermon text.

You might choose to preach on an entire chapter in the Psalms or a brief cluster of verses in Proverbs. In many of the narrative sections of the Bible that deal with events and people, the preaching passage may include a “literary unit”[7] that tells a story within the confines of a few verses or the scope of several chapters.

After the sermon text has been chosen, the next analytical step could be called…

2. The Infiltration Of The Text

Just as a cow has to graze in the field and then chew the cud before it can produce milk and eventually meat, the preacher has to graze in the lush fields of scripture through repeatedly reading the text, and then he must ruminate and chew on what he has read, through much meditation before he can give the milk and meat of the word.

One of my homiletical mentors, Evangelist Tom Hayes, often told me that meditation was a crucial element in sermon preparation for him. And it has been for me. I would suggest that any preacher spend as much time as possible pondering the text, marinating himself in it, and allowing all of the delightful flavor and distinctive savor of each verse to infiltrate his mind and heart.

Charles Spurgeon said, “Let us, dear brethren, try to get saturated with the gospel. I always find that I can preach best when I can manage to lie asoak in my text. … After I have bathed in it, I delight to lie down in it, and let it soak into me.”[8] As an expositor, you should penetrate the text through reading, and then allow the text to permeate and infiltrate you through meditation.

While prayer is a consistent element throughout the process of sermon preparation, at this stage it is especially important that we cry with the psalmist saying, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalms 119:18).

The most laborious and involved aspect of analysis is a step that could be referred to as…

3. The Investigation Of The Text

As with any type of investigation, this one begins with interrogation. Haddon Robinson mentioned a little line of verse that will help us in remembering the questions that need to be asked as we begin to delve into the preaching passage…

I had six faithful friends,

They taught me all I knew,

Their names are How and What and Why,

When and Where and Who.[9]

In asking these questions, the expositor aims to discover what the text says and what the text means. As John Stott said, “It is essential to keep these two questions both distinct and together. To discover the text’s meaning is of purely academic interest unless we go on to discern it’s message for today, or (as some theologians prefer to say) its ‘significance’.”[10]

In considering an interrogation of the text as well as its interpretation and implications (in addition to repeatedly reading the text), you will begin looking at the language and grammar of the passage using such resources as a concordance, a Hebrew or Greek lexicon, and tools such as ‘The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament,’ Gerhard Kittel’s ‘Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,’ W. E. Vines’ ‘Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words’ just to name a few.

It is at this stage that you will also begin consulting various commentaries such as those recommended elsewhere in this book. It is helpful to study commentators whom you know will deal with the text in a theologically conservative way. You may find commentaries with which you do not agree. But a good rule of thumb in selecting and using commentaries and what they say about your preaching passage is that which Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

You should also determine as much as possible about any theological, historical, cultural, or geographical factors that have bearing upon the text. There are many resources and reference tools that can be utilized in gathering such information.

With so many pulpiteers posting their recorded messages and sermon notes on the internet these days, it is rather easy to glean from the discoveries of their treatment of your sermon text. Draw from many sources in your analysis of the text, and if lengthy quotes are cited, be sure to give credit where credit is due. Charles Spurgeon said, “He will be most fresh and original in his own thoughts who most diligently cultivates his mind by studying and pondering the thoughts of other minds. He who never quotes, will never be quoted, and he who does not read is not very likely to be read.”[11]

Before you begin arranging your material and constructing the sermon, it may be prudent at this stage to step away from your desk and allow for a time of incubation and further meditation on that which you have learned. Jerry Vines suggested that the mind should be “allowed to digest and assimilate the gathered information. Though the length of this time may vary, the subconscious mind is reworking and reorganizing the gathered information.”[12] Be sure to write down any insights that such meditation may produce.

Once you have thoroughly analyzed your preaching passage and gathered the fruit of that labor, you come to the point in this process where…

B. There Is Some Assembly Required In The Development Of An Expository Sermon

Just as analysis is the process of breaking the passage down into its component parts by examining the context, language, historical, cultural, and geographical factors through an exegetical study of the text;synthesis is the process of putting all of these pieces of information together in a form that will be communicated to those who hear the sermon. It is the process of combining and assembling those component parts and those informational elements to form a sermon outline or manuscript.

Assembling the sermon and putting it all together will involve…

1. The Arrangement Of Your Information

William Evans said, “The preacher is somewhat of an architect: it is his business to erect a structure out of the material he has on hand.”[13]

Typically, the sermons that I construct begin with a title, the text, and an introduction that incorporates some type of propositional statement clarifying the dominant theme of the sermon (or that which Haddon Robinson calls “the big idea”[14]). These will create an entryway into the body of the sermon consisting of the main divisions and sub-divisions (or points and sub-points). A strong conclusion will reinforce the propositional idea of the sermon as well as make plain the application and call for a response.

Let me offer a few brief suggestions about developing the body of the sermon. I have found it best to arrange the material in an outlined and orderly way. Just as God brought bones together and then flesh upon bones in Ezekiel 37, the preacher can construct a “skeleton” outline and then begin to “flesh it out” and put meat on it. So as not to get bogged down in one point, I usually try to maintain a balance in the development of my main points so that each one includes the same number of sub-points. Alliteration is a helpful tool, and as A.P. Gibbs said, “a good aid to memory; but the preacher should be careful not to overwork this method, for it tends to result in strained and artificial divisions.”[15]

Frequently, in developing the body of a sermon, my main points will be sequential and progressive. For example, I may begin with a premise point that lays a foundation and establishes the context and situation of the passage. Next, I would present a crisis point that reveals the existence of some situational or spiritual problem. Finally, I would deal with a point of resolution and how God has given an answer and a solution to the crisis or spiritual issue.

I would also suggest that the points and sub-points be presented in more of a dialogical way rather than as simple bullet points. For instance, rather than merely listing: I. The Primary Point, instead use this: I. Let’s Consider The Primary Point In This Passage. This dialogical approach will help you to communicate more clearly as you deliver your sermon.

Assembling the sermon and putting it all together will further involve…

2. The Addition Of Your Illustrations

As this aspect of sermon development is covered thoroughly in another chapter of this book, I will not labor long here. But allow me to quote Woodrow Kroll who said, “According to the etymology of the word,illustrate means to light up, throw light upon, give luster to, illuminate. It has been correctly said that the illustration is to the sermon what a window is to a building. That is, the illustration lets light into a sermon the way a window lets light into a dark building.” Kroll goes on to say that “many times the truth which you present from the Word of God is too profound to be understood by the audience,” or “the audience is too ignorant of the Bible to comprehend biblical truth.”[16]

Our Lord’s frequent use of story and analogy in His earthly ministry should be sufficient encouragement to prompt every preacher to incorporate illustrations into their sermons. A personal experience, historical occurrence, current event, human interest story, humorous anecdote, or even another passage of scripture can be powerful tools in shedding light upon various aspects of your sermon.

Finally, in constructing and assembling your sermon, you should be ever mindful of…

3. The Application of your Injunction

While expository preaching is explanatory, the end goal is not merely the dissemination of facts and information. We are preaching the book that makes a difference in hearts. We are preaching for response and life change. And as Michael Fabarez writes, “Real expository preaching should continue to echo in the minds and hearts of congregants nor for a day or even a week, but for a lifetime.”[17]

A frequent criticism of expository preaching is that it is not applicable or relevant in our modern culture. Society is certainly different today than it was in Bible times, but as Woodrow Kroll reminds us, “As long as sin remains the universal problem and faith in Christ the universal cure, the Gospel message will be the most relevant message ever given.”[18] God’s word is applicable for today!

A studious analysis of the passage and a spiritual attentiveness in prayer can lead you to a specific application for the people that will hear your message; application that is driven home during the conclusion of the sermon. Richard L. Mayhue wrote that, “The conclusion should be in mind all the way through the preparation process. A pertinent question is, ‘As a result of this message, what changes does God want in my life and the lives of those who hear it?’ … The conclusion should start to take shape in your thinking.”[19]

Vines said that this final part of the sermon is more “summation” than conclusion; and “Like a lawyer during closing arguments, the preacher will bring to focus as clearly as possibly the timeless truths exposed in the message into one final thrust upon their minds and hearts.”[20]

These stages of development and preparation may not be evidenced in a regimented, sequential routine. A time of meditation, for example, may be repeated at different intervals of the process. Some of the steps in the process may take place concurrently with each other. You may find some powerful illustrative material or develop the main points of your outline early in the process, or these aspects may come later on. You need to understand that these suggestions may not necessarily involve a step by step method, though typically all of these aspects will be (and probably should be) included at some point and in some measure in preparing every sermon. But it is a fluid process that will vary from preacher to preacher and from sermon to sermon.

We are told that God has ‘magnified His word above His name’ (Psalms 138:2). Therefore we should make much of His word! The great apostle did not tell his young protégé to ‘preach about the word.’ He said “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). And I am convinced that the best way to fulfill that directive is through exposition. The late, great Vance Havner said, “I trust I am not one who pounds because he can’texpound.”[21] Brethren, if you are going to preach the word, then expound the Book! Amen.

[1] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000), 9.

[2] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 186.

[3] James Braga, How To Prepare Bible Messages (Portland: Multnomah, 1981), 21.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Victor Mowery, “Sermon Types.” And how shall they preach…?. April 5, 2010. Web. 10 Nov 2010.

[6] Alfred P. Gibbs, The Preacher And His Preaching (Kansas City, KS: Walterick Publishers, n.d.), 241.

[7] Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 55.

[8] Charles H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry (London: Banner of Truth), 124.

[9] Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 67.

[10] John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 221.

[11] Charles H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit – Volume 58 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, n.d.), 531.

[12] Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power In The Pulpit (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 196.

[13] William Evans, How to Prepare Sermons and Gospel Addresses, Electronic Database (WORDsearch Corp., 2006).

[14] Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 31-45.

[15] Gibbs, The Preacher And His Preaching, 257.

[16] Woodrow Kroll, Prescription For Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 169-170.

[17] Michael Fabarez, Preaching That Changes Lives (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002), 38.

[18] Kroll, Prescription For Preaching, 23.

[19] John MacArthur (Editor), Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997), 253.

[20] Vines and Shaddix, Power In The Pulpit, 207.

[21] Vance Havner, That I May Know Him, Electronic Database (Fleming H. Revell, 1948 via WORDsearch Corp., 2006).