Exposition—Is That What’s Needed?

To hear some pastors speak, one would think that ‘exposition’ was the cure-all for modern preaching. Personally, I don’t agree. To set exposition over against other elements in preaching, as these men are inclined to do, is a great error that has lead to the rise of the Bible teacher who lectures in the place of the herald of God who proclaims. In Scripture we are called heralds, not expositors.

Of course I believe in exposition; without adequate exposition there is nothing to herald. Without proper exposition, the divine authority of the message is undercut. Now exposition is only a part—a very important part—but only a part of heralding; it is a serious mistake to equate the two. It is not because I am against exposition that I am issuing this warning. My concern is to counter the notion that preaching may rightly consist of exposition without, or instead of, heralding.

Now, I have been using the word ‘heralding.’ I must explain this currently neglected term. The common Greek word for preaching in the New Testament is kerusso. This word means “to speak like a herald, to cry out, to proclaim.” In the Greek city-states, which were true democracies (i.e., every citizen voted on every issue), the population was made up of three kinds of persons: slaves, freedmen, and citizens. In many places the citizens, those who alone had the power to vote, were in the minority. When a public question demanded a vote, therefore, it was the task of the kerux, or herald, to travel around the city proclaiming the fact and calling out the citizens from among the general populace. They then assembled at the call of the herald, discussed the issue, and voted.

The word for ‘church’ that is used in the New Testament is ekklesia, which means “the called-out ones.” It was first used to designate these Greek assemblies which consisted of the persons called out from the general populace by the herald. Thus, it expressed exactly the idea that God wanted to convey—that His people are called out of the world by His heralds to transact the business of the city of God.

The word kerusso, and its cognate, kerux, are used of both the preaching of the gospel to the lost and of the proclamation of God’s Word to believers. These basic terms appear in every sort of preaching context.

It is not my concern to discourage Bible teaching (in Scripture the herald is also called a teacher); I am interested instead in preserving the concept of heralding. The stance of the teacher-who-is-not-also-a-herald is the stance of a lecturer rather than preacher. He enters the pulpit to talk about the Bible rather than about God and the congregation. Moreover, he tends to put himself up front rather than the One who sent him. He is tempted to become the great expositor, the magician who knows how to open the Word and pull gospel rabbits out of it. His efforts are directed not so much toward changing people as toward explaining Scripture. His mission is to inform. While the herald also informs, he does so as a means to an end. Exposition is not a thing-in-itself; it is a part of something larger. Exposition is done with a focus. For him, exposition is a means of persuading the members of his congregation to believe or disbelieve something as well as a means of moving them to action. He is concerned about bringing God and the congregation into confrontation with one another in Scripture.

While what I have just said is not true of all who call themselves expository preachers, it is frequently true and in some respects—having to do with stance—true of just about all. The stance of the so-called expositor is that of someone talking about the text: “This passage naturally falls into three parts.” The stance of the herald is that of one who is talking to a congregation about their relationship to God from the Bible. The expositor says, “God told them …” whereas the herald says, “God tells you …” The stance of the former is that of a literary and theological analyst whereas the stance of the latter is that of one ministering the Word to the persons before him in order to bring their lives into conformity to God’s will. One speaks primarily of the long ago and far away in the Bible; the other speaks primarily of the present from the Bible.

Well, then, how much exposition does the herald do anyway? Just as much as the expositor. But he does it in a context. It is his concern that the purpose for which the passage was given by the Holy Spirit be uppermost in what he says and does when preaching. Therefore, he makes the Spirit’s purpose the purpose of the sermon. The exposition is not a thing apart; it is made to serve the telos, or intention, of the Holy Spirit in producing the passage. Exposition is done in the service of something else, not for its own sake.

I know that I will be charged with caricaturing expository preaching, but I have been careful to point out that what I am criticizing is a tendency growing out of a wrong understanding of the place of exposition that too often, but not always, characterizes it. To call preaching exposition rather than proclamation is a decision that, in itself, is clearly indicative of the tendency of which I have been speaking.

What, then, is the place of exposition in heralding? If it is not an end in itself, if it is not the goal of preaching and is not to be equated with preaching, then what part does it play in heralding? Exposition plays two important roles. First, exposition is the means by which the preacher explains what God has to say to the congregation about their relationship to Him and to their neighbors. Apart from exposition, there is no message to herald. The Christian herald proclaims the message of Another, not his own; exposition makes that message known. It is by exposition, when done within a context in which the congregation (rather than the Amalakites) is addressed as the subject of the passage, that God speaks His Word to His people today. Secondly, exposition which successfully enables people to understand what God is saying lends authority to the herald’s words. Listeners see where he got the message that he proclaims; they see plainly that it is not his message, but God’s, and that the herald is simply there to help them to understand what God is saying, to urge them to comply, and to show them how to do so. That is the place of exposition.

So, then, preacher, “herald the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Don’t merely expound it; herald it. Preach for correction, reproof, encouragement as well as to inform. Herald the Word! That is to say, proclaim it clearly, fully as God’s Word to men and women today and you will see life and growth as well as knowledge among those to whom you preach.

3 thoughts on “Exposition—Is That What’s Needed?

  1. Once again, crystal clear Dr. Jay. Thank you so much for continuing to serve the Lord…we need this kind of teaching.

    This clarified my reasons for concern about Christians in our area who praise/”worship” a local mega church pastor (aside from that being an obvious reason). He is an excellent expositor (and showman), yet fails to herald the Word. Ah-ha! I understand the difference and can now clearly explain it. Thank you so much.

  2. Came to this on Saturday afternoon September 6. Thank you for posting this article. There are a lot of great and powerful truths here ! GOD bless all of you and so continue to use you mightily for the sake of the Gospel.

  3. Great post. All too often we have Bible exposition without much proclamation, and proclamation without much Bible.