In preaching, you either preach texts or you preach topics. The difference is immense. The technical word for preaching a text is “expository”, or “expositional” preaching. In this type of preaching, a preacher picks a text of Scripture and seeks to expose the meaning of the text before the people. This includes consecutive expository preaching, or lectio continua (continuous expositions) which is the process of going verse-by-verse through books of the Bible. Not all expository preaching goes consecutively through biblical books, but all does seek to expose a specific text of scripture.
In topical preaching, the preacher picks a topic and then usually (but not always) adds several supporting texts to make his point. This can be done faithfully, but I think there are some inherent dangers in the practice.
Here are Five reasons why I preach texts:
1. God’s Word is Alive
” For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” -Hebrews 4:12
The Bible is not just another book. It is the very breath of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Because the Bible is not just another book, and because God’s word is alive, it must be handled with the utmost care and respect.
Paul charged Timothy to work hard at “cutting straight the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), or to rightly divide it. The Bible should not be handled in a willy-nilly fashion. The pastor must be zealous to faithfully and carefully handle God’s Word to understand what it is saying. After all, it’s alive.
My personal, independent thoughts and topics, even if I find a few texts to back me up, are not alive. The very words and letters of the Bible are inspired by God. I want to focus on what He has said, not what I have been thinking about on any given week.
2. Context, Context, Context
One of the inherent dangers of topical preaching is failing to adequately consider the context of a given passage. It is easy to hunt and search for a verse that will back up what you want to say. The potential problem with this is that removing a verse from its given context can skew the meaning of the text. A person can make the Bible say almost anything they want by taking it out of context.
Expository preaching (especially consecutive expository preaching) forces the preacher to examine the context of where the biblical author has been and where he is going. The Bible has been revealed the way it has been revealed for a reason. The basic operating assumption is, God gave us chapter 2 after chapter 1, but before chapter 3 all for a good reason. As Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert say in their book Preach:
“God didn’t inspire the Bible topically, and there must be a reason for that.”
It is also beneficial to the both the pastor and the church to be able to go back and remember and reference a past point that has already been uncovered to help understand the text at hand. This is a safeguard to properly interpret the text, and it ensures a greater depth to our teaching.
3. Tough Topics
If I was picking which topics to preach on, I would naturally avoid uncomfortable subjects. The human nature will naturally run away from topics that are unpleasant to talk about. Preaching systematically through the scriptures remedies that problem.
When preaching through a biblical book, you can’t avoid the tough stuff. God sets the agenda. You can’t avoid what the Bible teaches about divorce, homosexuality, male headship in the church and in the family, and the like.
This also safeguards the pastor from being accused of preaching at specific people or issues in the church. People can’t accuse the pastor of trying to single them and their problems out. Mrs. Applebee can’t blame the pastor for attacking her son who just got divorced, because everyone knows that he has been preaching through Mark’s gospel. The whole congregation can see Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark 10 coming from weeks, or even months away.
4. A Balanced Diet
One of the million dollar questions when preaching today is, “Is what I’m saying relevant?” Thankfully, if we are faithfully preaching biblical texts then the answer is always “Yes!”. God did not include any filler material in His book. He was not obligated to fulfill a certain page requirement. Everything that He has given to us, He has given for a reason. All Scripture is promised to be useful and profitable for His people (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Now, that doesn’t mean every pastor/teacher always handles every text in a relevant way. But the blame does not lie in God’s Word.
God has given us a balanced diet of truth. He knows what we need and what we do not need. We can trust that if God included it in His word it is valuable for our study and for our equipping. There is no such thing as extraneous divine truth.
This also keeps the pastor from harping on his pet projects. Every pastor usually has his “thing”. His “thing” is a hobby-horse that he loves to unload on. He usually has some project, topic, or some area that he gets very passionate about and loves to talk about. Preaching through the scriptures expositionally and systematically gives every biblical topic its due day and time, and keeps the pastor balanced.
5. It Points People to Jesus
Yes, every sermon, topical or expository, must point people to Jesus. And, Yes, there have been many a topical sermon that faithfully pointed people to Jesus and many an expository sermon which failed to do just that. Any sermon that does not point people to Jesus has failed.
However, in topical preaching, the impetus is on the preacher to stay focused on Christ. In expository preaching, the Scriptures themselves will continually remind us to look to Jesus and His gospel (Luke 24:27, 44). They are the ever-present witnesses reminding us of the One that all things were made by, through, and for (Colossians 1:16). Not to mention that Jesus, as “the Word of God” (John 1:1), is the pinnacle and peak of all God’s revelation . If Jesus is the end game of all of God’s revelation, then seriously studying God’s Word should always usher us to Jesus. To quote again from Dever and Gilbert, “An expositional sermon that has not made its way to Jesus has not understood its text rightly”.
There is human error in all forms of preaching. But I’m convinced that expositional preaching supplies more safeguards to help keep the pastor on the right track. These are some of the reasons why I preach texts.
For further study:
Preach –Mark Dever & Greg Gilbert
Famine in the Land -Steven Lawson
Between Two Worlds -John Stott
Preachers and Preaching -D. Martyn Lloyd Jones