The Meaning of the Law
Rightly interpreting the law is the chief responsibility of those who serve as judges in our district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court. Every judge in every court evaluates evidence presented, they control how the hearings and trials unravel in their courtrooms, and most of all they are the “impartial decision-makers” who pursue justice according to the law. This means that their fundamental obligation is to rightly interpret and apply the law to every particular case. Judges of any kind are not above the law, but instead, the law stands above them as the authority in all cases. The job of the judge is crucial – they are to correctly interpret what the law means and so they can also correctly apply it to the particular case they are dealing with. On the other hand, misinterpretation of the law will always lead to a misapplication of the law. Any judge would tell you, understanding the meaning of a law is imperative for making judgments to ensure justice is served in every case. It’s what they have to know in order to make right judgments about cases today and tomorrow.
On a much higher level than state, federal, and constitutional laws, there is a supreme Law that deserves and demands the same treatment. I’m referring of course to the Book of the Law (Josh. 1:8), the guarding commandments (Psalm 119:9-10), the sacred writings (2 Tim. 3:15), the word of God (2 Thess. 2:13). The word of God is the “Scripture [that is] is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). And in order to live a godly life informed and instructed by the word of God, it is necessary to understand its meaning in order to correctly apply it to our daily lives.
It is this exigent task that the expository sermon seeks to accomplish. Expository preaching is preaching expositionally (as we’ve seen already), and this means that the expository preacher wants to explain the meaning of a text verse by verse, and then apply its meaning to the 21st century. What did Paul mean when he said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:3)? What did Jesus mean when He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3)? What did David mean when he said that the “Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1)? The expository preacher seeks to travel to the churches of Ephesus, the disciples of Jesus, and the Israelites under David’s rule and discover the original intended meaning of an author and bring it back with him to today’s contemporary world. And this is another reason why I love it.
Reason #2: I Love Expository Preaching Because It Properly Interprets and Applies Scripture
The goal of the expository sermon is to preach the original meaning of a passage. If that’s the case, it follows that the expository sermon would also properly interpret and apply that passage of Scripture under consideration. The expository sermon is seeking to find out what the author meant by what he has written and then apply it to the 21st century world. This is discovered through careful exegesis of every word, every sentence, every chapter, and every book of the Bible.
The topical approach to preaching is different than this, rendering it ineffective at communicating the author’s original intended meaning in a text. Topical preaching begins with a topic, not with the Scripture. If the topic is the starting place, it will also be the finish line in a sermon. The topical preacher will likely only consider the topic that he wants to preach on, and there is the automatic tendency to disregard the author’s meaning by what he has written in a text. This tendency is already present from the outset – because the structure, form, and shape of the sermon has already been determined by the chosen topic. If the frame of the sermon and its goals are determined by the topic, then what is really being preached? The topic is what is being preached instead of the Bible.
In the expository sermon, the text of Scripture determines the structure, form, and shape of the sermon. And because the expository sermon does this, it is the only approach to preaching that ensures that the Bible will be preached as it is. This will lead to a proper interpretation and application of the original meaning of a text because the sermon is derived completely from Scripture.
Additionally, the topical preacher may want to preach on a certain topic and choose a passage of Scripture that doesn’t even speak to that topic—or he may simply focus on the “felt needs” of the congregation or current issues of the day. That said, there are times when this is appropriate—when tragedy strikes or maybe when there is a special holiday—but even then we must be extremely careful to draw the meaning out from a text through careful exegesis and then preach it expositionally.
Two Pastors: Joshua and William
Joshua and William are both pastors in a rural community. Both of them believe the Bible is inerrant and they both agree that God’s word is what God’s people truly need. They meet for lunch every Tuesday and discuss how things are going in their churches. One day they discuss what they preached on last Sunday:
Joshua says, “I’ve been preaching expositionally through Titus. We started Sunday looking at the first four verses, and discussed Paul’s principles for ministry.”
William looks up at Joshua with one eyebrow raised and says, “You know, that’s funny – I’ve never noticed that in the text before. I’ve been preaching topically on the attributes of God, and last Sunday we looked at Titus 1:2 where it states that God never lies.”
Joshua replies, “Well Titus 1:2 does say that – it’s definitely true that God never lies. But what about the entire passage? What do you think it’s about?”
“Well, I haven’t looked at it in depth. We just used that one verse to support the fact that God is perfect and sinless,” says William.
Now, let’s evaluate their different approaches to preaching. What’s the starting point for the expository sermon preached by Joshua? The text of Titus 1:1-4. What’s the starting point for the topical sermon preached by William? The topic of God’s attributes. What was the content of their sermons? For Joshua, it was the principles for ministry as explained by Paul in each of the four verses of Titus 1. For William, it was one of God’s many attributes – perfection, and he sought support for this topic from v. 2 of Titus 1. Now, which sermon was more faithful to what Paul was saying in the text of Titus 1? Perhaps a look at the text itself may answer that question:
“Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;
4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith:
Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 1:1-4, ESV).
It seems that this entire passage is about much more than simply God’s attributes. Verse 2 does mention that God never lies, and we would imply from this that God is perfect if He cannot lie. But notice that there are about 86 other words in this passage – and Paul isn’t describing God’s character in whole of this passage. Now, we also do not want to say that William’s sermon was heretical. Of course it wasn’t – it is biblical and true that God is perfect and cannot lie. But in preaching, we’re not just trying to avoid being heretical, we want to be faithful. And which sermon do you think was more faithful to the biblical text? And which congregation was exposed to the full meaning of the text?
They used the same Bible, believed the same things, but had different approaches to preaching. And the failure of William’s sermon is that he missed the main point of the text, because he failed to allow the text to form and shape his sermon. He already knew he was going to preach on God’s attributes – consequently, because he didn’t discover the meaning of the text, it was impossible to rightly interpret and apply the entire passage.
Clearly, Paul is describing principles in his own ministry in this passage. By simply preaching on one part of one verse in support of a predetermined topic, the main overall point is missed. And if the main point of the text is missed, then you’re not doing justice to the text or the God who inspired the text. When the meaning is ignored, you cannot faithfully interpret and apply the passage.
Expository preachers want to know what the biblical authors meant by what they said and then preach it to their hungry congregations today. The expository sermon does this most faithfully – and this is another reason why I love it.