The Benefits of Expository Preaching

By Dr. Jeff Manning

Am I crazy? That thought was on my mind as I stood before the congregation of Unity Free Will Baptist Church on the first Sunday morning of August 1991. I had just been voted in as the Senior Pastor four days earlier, after having served as the Youth Pastor for nine months. As I stood there, safely anchored behind our large pulpit, I proceeded to ask my people to open their Bibles to the Gospel of John. My text that day was John 1:1-18, and in my introductory comments I told the church that I would be preaching through the entire Book of John on Sunday mornings—chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, verse by verse. And by God’s grace that’s exactly what I did. Over a year later after 50-plus sermons, I finished what I had started by preaching from the last section of John 21.

I do not remember exactly what motivated me to preach expositionally through John’s Gospel, but that decision was one of the wisest decisions I have ever made, not just in my pastoral ministry, but in my whole life. That decision set the course for my next 20 years of preaching, all at the same church. Since then I have preached through smaller books like Jonah, Ephesians, and Colossians, and much longer ones like Ecclesiastes and Romans. I have taken three weeks to preach through Philemon and nearly five years to preach through Matthew.

No, I do not preach through biblical books exclusively, but it is what I do the vast majority of the time. I am convinced that it is the best way to preach God’s Word. Notice, I did not say it is the only way, but I am firmly convinced it is the best way. Topical sermons are certainly necessary at times, but if the preacher is not careful, his desire for relevance and a contemporary flavor to his sermons can lead him to preach topically too often. Plus, topical sermons make it much easier to read a passage of Scripture and then quickly lead your people away from the text, not into the text. If a preacher ever thinks that what he has to say is more important than what God has already said, he is delusional and needs to rethink his calling.

What Is “Expository Preaching”?

When it comes to expository preaching, the biblical text is the dictator. The subject of the sermon comes from the text. The structure of the sermon comes from the text. The text rules. The author’s intended meaning for the original recipients dictates and determines what kind of application is made during the contemporary preaching event. Haddon Robinson’s definition of expository preaching is still classic: “The communication of one biblical concept derived from and transmitted through an historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the preacher and then through him to his hearers” [1].

I concur with John Stott’s assessment that “all true preaching is expository preaching” (italics mine), and with his statement of clarification: “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” [2].

An example of expository preaching can be found in Nehemiah 8:8, where Ezra and the Levites read a portion of Scripture from the Pentateuch, “gave the sense” of that passage, and made sure everyone “understood the reading.” The focus was clearly on the Mosaic text, with careful exegetical attention given so that the text was properly interpreted, and with expositional attention given to make sure the people understood how the text applied to their lives and needed to be obeyed.

As the preacher goes from the pages of Scripture to the actual preaching event, there must be two vital components: exegesis and exposition. Exegesis refers to the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. This is an historical and literary task, trying to reestablish the original setting of the passage and the authorial intent of what was written to that particular audience.

Exposition refers to the process of taking the original, intended meaning and building a sermonic bridge to the contemporary world. Exposition deals with the development of the sermon so that, with God’s help, it will be authoritative because it is anchored to the authorial intent of the text, and relevant because its truth is properly applied to today’s listeners.

Expository preaching begins with exegesis and ends with exposition. Both are necessary. Without exposition, the message will sound like a biblical history lesson. Without exegesis, the message may be nothing more than rhetoric without God’s power and authority. Perhaps Nolan Howington’s analogy best illustrates this relationship: “The exegete is like a diver bringing up pearls from the ocean bed; an expositor is like the jeweler who arrays them in orderly fashion and in proper relation to each other” [3].

What Are the Benefits of Expository Preaching?

The benefits and advantages of preaching expositionally, especially through biblical books, have been well documented in various books on preaching, but I will mention a few of the greatest benefits as my church and I have experienced them.

First, it relieves an incredible amount of stress. It relieves so much anxiety about what to preach next. After all, there are only 1189 chapters and over 31,000 verses to chose from! Those who contend that the preacher should “hear from the Lord” and “preach what the people need each week” are, in my opinion, very presumptuous. I have utmost confidence in the Lord’s ability to lead me to preach a particular book of the Bible that He knows will meet the needs of my people while I am preaching through it. With that kind of leadership in your preaching ministry, a lot of stress is kicked to the curb.

Second, it honors the nature of Scripture. God’s Spirit did not move holy men of old to write a topical textbook or a systematic theology. He led them to write narratives, histories, letters, poetry, prophecy, and other genre. And when you preach the Word in the form that God gave it, you are giving the highest honor to that Word.

Third, it teaches your people how to study and interpret the Scriptures in context! Plus, it helps whet their spiritual appetite for the Word. They can come week after week with “anticipatory curiosity” because they know what text you are preaching next and, if they choose to study ahead, that curiosity will aid their learning.

Fourth, it protects the preacher from pastoral ruts. All preachers have those spiritual hobbyhorses he most likes to ride. Every preacher has themes and subjects he is most comfortable preaching and those hot buttons that he really enjoys pushing. Preaching through biblical books almost guarantees balance in preaching—as balanced as the Bible is! Subjects and themes the Holy Spirit has deemed necessary will be repeated. You will be able to join with Paul and one day say, “I was faithful to preach the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20.27).

Fifth, it keeps the preacher accountable. It requires him to preach what God says and not what he wishes God had said. It will force him to preach the hard texts that may have been ignored otherwise. Plus, such systematic preaching through books will force you to study. Laziness and expositional preaching are about as compatible as Duke and North Carolina basketball fans during March Madness!

Sixth, it helps produce a mature body of believers. If a pastor is under less stress and therefore able to devote more time and attention to deliberate, exegetical, systematic study of the Word and preparation of expositional sermons, over time you will inevitably have a far more balanced pulpit ministry and therefore a more mature congregation. Eating a balanced diet is essential for good health. Without such balance, the body will not receive all the vitamins and minerals that it needs. Similarly, believers need a balanced spiritual diet. Without it, they will not receive all the “spiritual nutrients” necessary to live a Christ-honoring life.

No matter how appropriate it is for a pastor to have a burden for the lost and a desire to reach them with evangelistic preaching, no congregation needs to hear an evangelistic message every Sunday morning. Nor do they need to hear preaching about standards and convictions every week. They need the God-ordained balance that expository preaching through biblical books guarantees.

No, the actual word expositional is nowhere found in our English Bibles. However, if Paul were writing 2 Timothy 4:2 today and using today’s homiletical vocabulary, he just might pen it like this: “Preach the Word expositionally,” and think to himself, It will greatly benefit you and your people!

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[1] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 21.

[2] John R.W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 125-126.

[3] Nolan Howington, “Expository Preaching,” Review and Expositor 56 (January 1959): 62.

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 About the Author: Jeff Manning has served as the Senior Pastor of Unity Free Will Baptist Church in Greenville, NC for over 20 years. He holds degrees from the Free Will Baptist Bible College (B.A), Bob Jones University (M.Div.), and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He and his wife Jennifer have three children: Jena, Jake, and Joanna. Jeff is also an avid coffee drinker and Duke basketball fanatic.

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7 Comments

    • Thanks, Jacob. God’s blessings on your every attempt to advance His kingdom!

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  1. This is a very succint explanation of expository preaching and its benefits. Good job! I’m excited that many pastors are becoming more aware of the nature of expository preaching and adopting it as their primary their preaching style.

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    • Thanks, Jeff. The more biblical expositors we have the better. Keep on serving the King!

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  2. As someone who just spent 2.5 years preaching through Luke, I will attest to the benefits of this style of preaching. You get to preach the story, and it challenges you not to skip the awkward or difficult texts. It is a challenge to make a commitment that size, and I had a lot of good (well, I thought they were good!) ideas during those 2.5 years that I had to set aside due to the commitment I had made, but I’m glad I did it, and I imagine I’ll jump back into it soon. Maybe a minor prophet, though–Just coming off the end of a long-term relationship with Luke, I’m not sure I’m ready for another relationship of that size right now. Maybe soon, though.

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    • Keith, kudos for your 2.5-year expositional journey through Luke! In my opinion, your “good ideas” don’t necessarily have to be set aside due to your commitment to preach through a particular biblical book. Especially with longer books, it may be a “good idea” to take a breather and preach something different before resuming the book study. Those “good ideas” may be the Lord leading you to preach material that He knows is needed by your people. I took a couple such breaks during my series through Matthew. With one of those “interruptions,” I took 12-14 weeks and preached a series on stewardship.

      Keep up the good work of faithfully preaching the Good Book!

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  3. I haven’t been preaching weekly for a long time (about a year and a half), but between preaching Sunday AM/PM during that period, I have found this later approach to be wise. We’ve done smaller books like Philippians and Colossians which have taken 3-4 months each, and then done more of a summary exposition of 1-2 Samuel. However, I am doing shorter things too such as a 4-week series currently on “Keeping the Sabbath.”

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