I believe that the systematic expository preaching of Scripture is not the only means of teaching the gathered church, but that it is the best. There are few models which can match working book by book, verse by verse, in terms of the exposure gained to the texture of Scripture’s concerns and expression, and the original authorial intent which God contrived, and through which he spoke. As with any asset, however, there are costs entailed in the upkeep of this approach, and there are risks of loss and damage if it is not handled appropriately. Dull and boring procedural plods through a passage with cursory application, a ‘take it or leave it, here’s what it says’ approach which never desires or aims at the believer’s heart, and a whole host of other risks attend teaching through the Bible in a linear systematic way. One other danger, which may not be so obvious, is that of missing the logic of the passage we are studying.
That last statement might seem contrary to the aim and to the realisation of expository preaching. Surely it is the lightweight, hummingbird, thematic, cherry-picked, life-coach approach to preaching which ignores logic? Surely as expository preachers exegesis is our bread and butter, our concern with the meaning of what a passage says reaching down to the atomic level of individual units of meaning, of tenses, cases, and prepositions? How in that surgical environment could the logic of a text be missed? The answer is that both the author and the readers/hearers of biblical text inhabited a thought-world with its own norms and assumptions, with its own points of contact with the world and with the conscience. There are times when the line of a passage rests on a shared assumption, there are times when an entire cultural milieu is the operating system for how truth is taught. In some ways these matters are resolved by context, but they are also often reliant on structure.
Particularly in the New Testament epistles it is vitally important to remember that these were originally documents designed to be read, and also studied. This means that the line of logic would be preserved in the worship of the church precisely because they would often be conveyed in their entirety, with their holistic concerns being allowed to breathe fresh air. In our own context, where preaching occupies between 30 to 45 minutes of our service, and where exegetical work is required to unpack and apply the meaning of verse or a paragraph, we can run the risk of diluted, or even distorting what the biblical author meant. This might mean that we at times break up the structure of passage, reverse engineer it, perhaps even invert the order in which we approach verses. A recent passages that I have preached on might illustrate this:
An ethically shaped gospel or gospel-shaped ethics?
Titus 2 is a pointed and practical discourse on how the gospel affects and directs the course of our most basic human relationships. Crete was a culture bedevilled by idleness and consumerism, an obese individualism which was vulnerable to apathy in line with the culture, and legalistic apostasy in reaction to it. Titus is to face this axis of antipathy to gospel ethics with plain and clear teaching about how Christians are to live at each stage of their lives, and how they are to relate to one another. The chapter opens with an injunction from Paul to Titus to teach ‘sound doctrine’, and from there older men, older women, younger women, and younger men are addressed in turn.
This is precisely where a systematic expository approach to the text is on a knife edge in terms of logical fidelity. This is a section of ten verses, and I am going to need at least one sermon to tackle and untangle what Titus is to teach here, and so I might be tempted to launch into the ethical injunctions which Paul proposes straight away. The problem with this is that I might deny the gospel by doing so, and side with the false teachers on Crete rather than Titus as an apostolic envoy. If I give the people in the pews the ‘oughts’, the imperatives, the injunctions, the exhortations to live as Paul says and then leave them to labour on these alone then I have, to paraphrase Christopher Ash, simply asked them to put several new bricks in the rucksack they carry into their week. Not only that, but while I might be capturing the letter of what these ten verses say, I have entirely lost their spirit.
All of this ethical warning hangs on the hook of the first word of Titus 2:11 – ‘for’. What follows is a sumptuous picture of the glory of the gospel, and the grace the gospel grants to live to and for God. The salvation which Paul exults is both apparent and effective. Christ has given himself (v14), the grace of God has brought ‘salvation for all people’, but Paul is aiming this content in an ethical direction: ‘training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live…’ (v12), ‘who gave himself for us…to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works’ (v14). The gospel is the ground on which we are declared righteous, and it is the ground from which our lives demonstrate righteousness. A hearer of the text in a Cretan fellowship would more readily have grasped this as they heard the text as a whole – the modern preacher might easily cloud, obscure, or even deny this truth because of a programmed approach to teaching manageable amounts.
The answer to this problem may well lie with reverse engineering, with leading those who listen to us through Titus 2:11-15 first, patiently laying out the content and effect of the gospel, emphasising that Paul will lean on these indicatives as a means to Christians on Crete being enabled to embody the imperatives. This might feel risky, it might feel like a denial of the divine ordering of the material before us, but undertaken in a considered and textually respectful way it actually serves to preserve rather than pervert meaning.
Reverse engineering is harder work than a blandly procedural approach because its means immersing oneself in the entire text of a biblical book while preaching individual passages. It means wrestling with structure, listening sensitively not only to what is being said, but why and how. It means spending enough time in a text to have floor plan of what it says in its entirety so that we might preach its individual units with integrity.
This reverse engineering is not only advisable in epistles, but can be needed in narrative, in prophecy, even in the wisdom literature. It can provide vital context, it can link seemingly unconnected content, and it can establish a logical one in the minds and hearts of those who hear, so that the gospel is constantly the visible foundation of all that we teach and preach.