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4 WRONG ASSUMPTIONS PREACHERS CAN MAKE

Over the past several years, I have grown deeply committed to expository preaching. By expository preaching, I mean a progressive (and slow) verse by verse interpretation, proclamation, and application of the scripture that seeks to preach through the entire Bible over time, book by book, spanning both the Old and New Testaments. The goal of biblical exposition is to preach the text. While there are certainly times for topical sermons, the aim is to let the scripture govern the topics, rather than formulating the topics and searching the scriptures. In understanding that a variety of themes and doctrines will surface while preaching through the Bible, the goal of expository preaching isn’t to preach themes, but to preach the text. A good axiom may be “acknowledge the themes, trace the doctrines, but always preach the text.” A good expository sermon always (1) follows the contours of the text at hand. (2) May turn slightly to trace pertinent subjects within the text but always remains grounded within the text at hand. (3). Always moves towards application from the text at hand.

Perhaps the greatest reward of expository preaching is that it challenges the pastor to think biblically about his own ministry context and preaching. There has been a great deal of growth and challenges to much of my ministry training. I was trained at a Southern Baptist seminary and was not trained in expository preaching. This was something I picked up from watching other faithful pastors and preachers. The lessons below, I believe, are lessons that all flow from a firm commitment to preaching expository sermons.[1]

WRONG ASSUMPTION #1 - YOUR FLOCK UNDERSTANDS THEIR BIBLES.

As a pastor, I cannot tell you the number of times I have encountered members and guests with some, well, interesting opinions about the Bible and interpretations of texts. More than that, I am often asked about theology and biblical interpretation. This is to be expected, given my calling as a pastor. It does come with the work. Yet on another level, I often encounter people who voice, in humility, that they simply do not understand the scripture. They do not see the overarching story of the Bible or how the various parts make up the whole. Moreover, they voice their need for someone to help them understand the Bible. Even something simple, like reading and reflecting upon a passage, can sometimes be met with little grasp of the scripture.

In one sense, this is to be expected. The Bible can be a confusing book. It’s a large book containing a variety of genres. Moreover, who can count the number of interpretations on any given passage? What about all the denominations? Isn’t that why we have a pastor? Fair point. However, I do not want to ignore the readability of the scripture. God has revealed His word to us in a way that we can understand. We don’t have to parse Greek words or understand Hebrew in order to understand the scripture. We have it in a language, by God’s grace, familiar to the people. Let me implore the reader now, find a bible in a readable translation, and simply start reading. You’ll be amazed at how much is understandable.

Yet, expository preaching aims to help the hearers rightly understand the word of God. When a pastor works through books of the bible verse by verse, he is forced to deal with context and language to help his hearers fully grasp the meaning of the biblical text. Further, because of the continuity between the Old and New Testament, a faithful expositor is forced to interact and help the congregation understand the story and flow of scripture. For example, in preaching through Galatians, the apostle Paul grounds his argument of justification by grace through faith in Christ in the story of Abraham from the book of Genesis. I cannot tell you how many people came and expressed their gratitude for me walking through Genesis 15-21 when preaching through Galatians 3-4. Many of them shared they never realized how the two texts fit together. Others were simply grateful for my care to include the Old Testament citations. The truth is, there was no way to preach that text without the Old Testament and without understanding the Old Testament. In short, expository preaching helps the church understand their bibles and how the story of the Bible fits together.

WRONG ASSUMPTION #2 - YOUR FLOCK IS ALL BELIEVERS.

I remember a friend said to me early in my pastorate, “just preach the word and let the Lord build His church. In the end, it will be enough. The sheep will come to receive their nourishment, and the goats will scatter.” He went on to say that week in, and week out, the Lord’s word will accomplish all it intends. It will not return void. The word will land on the heart of the hearer in different ways. For some, they will hear the word and rejoice. For others, they will hear the word and become angry, and don’t be surprised if some arrows start flying towards you, brother. This dear brother went on to say, you won’t have to do much else to attract resistance, but just keep preaching. When it seems like not much is happening, I promise more is happening than you realize. Let the Lord continue to build His church. Keep on preaching, and you’ll be amazed at what the Lord does through simply and faithfully preaching the scripture.

I have found his wisdom to be entirely accurate. I cannot tell you how many times after preaching Sunday, I had an email waiting in my inbox come Monday morning or was met with a comment about something I said in the pulpit. Most often, these were comments of great encouragement. “Keep preaching the scripture, brother!” “Pastor, I needed to hear that; thank you!” “Thank you for standing on the word, amen!” Still, others were critical. Wrestling with discontentment and wanting me to see their side of the matter. I humbly engaged and gave an attentive ear, but my heart was continually fixed on the word of God.

Now, I in no way want to imply judgment on someone who disagrees with me about an interpretation, nor would I suggest that someone wrestling with my preaching is a nonbeliever. What I can say, however, is that several of those who voiced their discontentment continued to do so with an increasingly vehement voice. This is wasn’t just a matter of disagreement. It was an aggressive dissatisfaction with me. Over time, it became clear their problem with me was a deeper problem; they didn’t love the word. Nothing I said in accordance with God’s word would satisfy them. By simply opening up the scriptures, bolding preaching the word of God, and lovingly calling for faithful follow-ship of Christ, they lost interest, fizzled out, and left the church.

What I can say without hesitation is that faithful exposition of the scripture elicits a heart-response from the hearer in a unique way. God uses his word to reprove, rebuke, and exhort those who hear with great power.[2] God uses the sword of his word to bring correction and draw a distinction among the sheep and goats. I can say with certainty this observation to be true within my time in ministry, the churches and pastors who faithfully preach the scripture expositionally over and above topically not only consist of more mature congregants but the power of the word is felt within their worship and church life. Pastor, you need not worry about tickling ears. Rest assured, some within your congregation do not love the word as a true disciple. Know that by opening up the scripture and simply preaching the word, the goats will rise up among the flock, maybe even attempt to voice their frustration about you, and eventually leave. The Lord’s church is not a mixed community but a community of born-again believers. Pastor, preach the word!

WRONG ASSUMPTION #3 - YOUR FLOCK DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THEOLOGY.

There is a common misconception within the evangelical church today. It is the idea that people do not care about theology. I specifically remember one mega-church pastor being asked why he didn’t emphasize theology to the congregation. His response was, “my people don’t care about that stuff.” Even in my ministry training, I was told on several occasions that your congregation won’t care much about Greek words or theological lingo. I understand the sentiment behind that, but theology does not happen in a vacuum. Theology is meant to be lived, and more importantly, theology is intended to be applied within the local church.

In the end, the church is built upon Christ and the truth of Christ. Right thinking leads to right living. If the church doesn’t stand on truth, the church doesn’t stand at all—doctrine matters. Theology matters to your people whether they realize it or not. Whether they believe it or not, every person holds to a particular theology about life, God, and Christian faith. Everyone is a theologian. The question really becomes, are you a biblical theologian or not? Pastor, you can’t afford to skip on explaining the truth of God’s word. You cannot shy away from expounding on and teaching about doctrine.

Once again, expository preaching forces the preacher to tackle doctrine. Further, exposition forces the preacher to address difficult as well as weighty and controversial doctrine. Know the church benefits from these discussions. The church is challenged to think biblically. This is a good thing. It is through this process that the church grows in maturity.

Further, let me encourage you not to detach your theology from Christ. Doctrine rightly understood pushes and conforms us to Christ. In doing so, right doctrine propels us to love our neighbor. If you ever sense love for Christ or love for neighbor waning as you grow theologically, be warned something is off.

I know that by preaching expository sermons, our church has grown theologically and in Christian maturity. Our church's vision statement is “that we may present every person mature in Christ.” [3] Doctrine matters. Teach your church rich, doctrinal truths. Your congregation will one day thank you for it. If you church doesn’t care about theology, then it is likely because they haven’t been taught to care about theology nor have they been taught the importance of theology. May the Lord use you to heighten your flock’s concern for sound doctrine.

WRONG ASSUMPTION #4 - YOUR FLOCK EXPECTS YOU TO “HIT IT OUT OF THE PARK” EVERY WEEK.

Lastly, what I have learned in preparing expository sermons week in and week out, is that the work of faithful exegesis is hard work. It is mentally taxing and physically draining. It is not uncommon for me as a pastor to put it in a 50+ hour workweek. There is no end to the job, and in most churches, the work of shepherding is left for one man to accomplish on his own. If he is blessed enough to have some faithful deacons, this is surely a great help, but there are many tasks in the end that only the pastor can do. The Lord has designed His church in this way. A faithful pastor cannot pawn off what the Lord requires of Him to do, and a pastor who seeks to honor the Lord in his vocation simply will not abandon his God-given calling. Still, most churches have shifted away from the biblical model of a plurality of pastors. My prayer is that there will continue to be a recovery of the biblical model of a plurality of pastors in the local church. Until then, however, the solo pastor is responsible for shepherding his flock, ministering to the needs of the body, guarding and defending his flock. After all of that shepherding work, though, the pastor still has yet another task. His highest calling remains ever before him; preach the word!

I have personally felt this weight each week as I prepare to divide the word of truth to the congregation. In one sense, preaching expositionally is a great aid to the pastor. Much of what he needs to say is right in front of him. He doesn’t have to go and search for a creative topic to grab the hearer’s attention. He needs not search for the latest trends or search his file folder for illustrations to add more pizzazz to his preaching. No, pastor, simply preaching the word is sufficient. Yet, in another sense, exposition adds a unique level of gravity and expectation. The text is set. It is your job to discover and adequately divide the word of God. As you study the original language and context, trace the flow and argument of the text, and eventually begin to formulate an outline for preaching, a sense of awe comes over you in the study. This is the word of God. Nothing less than my very best will do this week. Moreover, if God doesn’t meet me in the pulpit Sunday, I’m destined to fail! Oh God, how I need you!

If I’m not careful, this weight can produce in me a desire to perform. Over the years in ministry, I’ve become quite the perfectionist. One core value that I personally keep is that everything I do should be done with excellence. I dare say that if you surveyed the congregation I shepherd, nearly all of them would agree I preach with great energy and with great passion. I seek to empty myself at the pulpit each week. I come home exhausted after church. I’m a firm believer that preaching is not a rote recitation of your study but should instead be an interactive, dynamic exercise in which the preacher compellingly articulates the truth of God’s word to the people.

As you can imagine, that becomes difficult to do every week. The best way I know how to describe the feeling is akin to the batter at the plate who feels the pressure, whether from the crowd or within himself, to hit a home run at every at-bat. I’m learning to trust the same Lord who guided my sermon prep to guide my sermon delivery. I know this to be true, but truth be told, my heart is slow to believe.

When I was in little league, I had a baseball coach who measured runs-scored in terms of base hits. If we were ever down late in the game, the coach reminded each batter who stepped up, “okay, we’re down two runs. That’s no big deal, we just need five base hits, and we win. You don’t need to hit it out of the park. Just get one base hit. One base hit at a time. Just make contact. It’s okay, just try and get a base hit. That’s all we need.” I remember one instance our team got on a rally, ending the game with over 20 base hits in a row. We came back and won the game from a huge deficit. No one could believe it. The incredible thing is that no one hit a single home run, just base-hit after base-hit after base-hit, eventually won the game. There is a lesson there for the pastor wrestling with pressure to perform in the pulpit each week. Maybe it stems from the fear of man. Maybe things aren’t going as he wished in his church. Or perhaps he just wants to put his best foot forward each week. That type of weight will eventually crush anyone. Pastor, just get on base. Just swing and make contact, brother. We don’t need a home run. Just a base hit will do. Pastor, march in the pulpit with one aim and one aim only; Preach the word! It’s enough, and through it, the Lord will win the day in the end!

[1] It should be noted that these lessons are not specifically unique to expositors. Certainly, all pastors can sense and know of these assumptions from their own pastoral ministry. However, I believe there to be a heightened sense of awareness among expositors of God’s word by nature of their commitment to preaching verse by verse through the Bible.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Ti 4:2. “2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Col 1:28.

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