Chapter 2

A Definition of Biblical Preaching

I intend to supply a definition of biblical exposition and to present a case for it. It seems to me that these two tasks belong together in that the case for biblical exposition is to be found in its definition. Here then is the definition: To expound Scripture is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God's voice is heard and his people obey him.

Now let me draw out the implications of this definition in such a way as to present a case for biblical exposition. The definition contains six implications, two convictions about the biblical text, two obligations in expounding it, and two expectations as a result.

Two convictions about the biblical text

(1) It is an inspired text. To expound Scripture is to open up the inspired text. Revelation and inspiration belong together. Revelation describes the initiative that God has taken to unveil himself and so to disclose himself, since without this revelation he would always remain the unknown God. Inspiration describes the process by which he has done so, namely by speaking to and through the biblical prophets and apostles, and by breathing his Word out of his mouth in such a way that it came out of their mouths as well. Otherwise his thoughts would have been unattainable to us.

The third word is providence, that is, the loving provision by which God has arranged for the words that he has spoken to be so written down as to form what we call Scripture, and then to be preserved across the centuries as to be accessible to all people in all places and at all times. Scripture then is God's Word written. It is his self-disclosure in speech and writing. Scripture is the product of God's revelation, inspiration, and providence.

This first conviction is absolutely indispensable to preachers. If God had not spoken, we would not dare to speak, because we would have nothing to say except our own threadbare speculations. But since God has spoken, we too must speak, communicating to others what he has communicated in Scripture. Indeed, we refuse to be silenced. As Amos put it, "The Lion has roared—who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken—who can but prophesy?" that is, pass on the Word he has spoken. And similarly, Paul echoing Psalm 116 wrote, "We believe and therefore we speak." That is, we believe what God has spoken, and that is why we also speak.

I pity the preacher who enters the pulpit with no Bible in his hands, or with a Bible that is more rags and tatters than the Word of the living God. He cannot expound Scripture because he has no Scripture to expound. He cannot speak because he has nothing to say, at least nothing worth saying. Ah, but to enter the pulpit with the confidence that God has spoken and that he's caused what he has spoken to be written and that we have this inspired text in our hands, why then our head begins to swim and our heart to beat and our blood to flow and our eyes to sparkle with the sheer glory of having God's Word in our hands and on our lips.

That is the first conviction, and the second is this.

(2) The inspired text to some degree is a closed text. That is the implication of my definition. To expound Scripture is to open up the inspired text. So it must be partially closed if it needs to be opened up. And I think at once I see your Protestant hackles rising with indignation. What do you mean, you say to me, that the Scripture is partly closed? Is not the Scripture an altogether open Book? Do you not believe what the sixteenth century Reformers taught about the perspicuity of Scripture, that it has a see-through quality, a transparent quality? Cannot even the simple and the uneducated read it for themselves? Isn't the Holy Spirit our God-given teacher? And with the Word of God and the Spirit of God, must we not say that we need no ecclesiastical magisterium to instruct us?

I can say a resounding yes to all of these questions, but what you rightly say needs to be qualified. The Reformers' insistence on the perspicuity of Scripture referred to its central message—its gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone. That is as plain as day in Scripture. But the Reformers did not claim that everything in Scripture was plain. How could they, when Peter said there were some things in Paul's letters that even he couldn't understand? If one apostle did not always understand another apostle, it would hardly be modest for us to say that we can. No, the truth is we need one another in interpreting the Scriptures. The church is rightly called to hermeneutical community, a fellowship of believers in which the Word of God is expounded and interpreted. In particular, we need pastors and teachers to expound it, to open it up to us so we can understand it. That is why the ascended Jesus Christ, according to Ephesians 4:11, is still giving pastors and teachers to his church.

Do you remember what the Ethiopian eunuch said in the chariot when Philip asked him whether he understood what he was reading in Isaiah 53? Did he say, "Why of course I can. Don't you believe in the perspicuity of Scripture"? No, he didn't say that. He said, "How can I understand it unless somebody explains it to me?"

And Calvin, in his wonderful commentary on the Acts, writes about the Ethiopian's humility, and he says that he wished there were more humble men and women in his day. He contrasts that humility with those whom he described as swollen headed and confident in their own abilities to understand. Calvin wrote:

And this is why the reading of Scripture bears fruit with such a few people today because scarcely one in a hundred is to be found who gladly submits himself to teaching. Why, if any of us is teachable, the angels will come down from heaven to teach us. We don't need angels. We should use all the aides, which the Lord sets before us to the understanding of Scripture, and in particular preachers and teachers.

But if God has given us the Scripture, he's also given us teachers to expound the Scripture. And those of us who are called to preach must remember this. Like Timothy, we are to devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture and to preaching and teaching. We are both to read the Scripture to the congregation and to draw all our doctrinal instruction and exhortation out of it.

Here then is the biblical case that God has given us in Scripture a text that is both inspired, having a divine origin or authority, and is to some degree closed or is difficult to understand. And therefore, in addition to giving us the text, he has given us teachers to open up the text, explaining it and applying it to people's lives today.

Two obligations in expounding the text

Granted that the inspired text needs to be expounded, how should it be done?

Before I try to answer that question, let us address ourselves to one of the main reasons why the biblical text is to some degree closed and difficult to understand. It concerns the cultural canyon, or ravine, that yawns wide and deep between the two worlds—the ancient world in which God spoke his Word and the modern world in which we hear it. When we read the Bible, we step back two millennia beyond the microprocessor revolution, beyond the electronic revolution, beyond the Industrial Revolution, back, back into a world that has long since ceased to exist. So even when we read the Bible in a modern version, it feels odd, it sounds archaic, it looks obsolete, and it smells musty. We are tempted to ask, as many people do, What has that old Book got to say to me?

Don't resent the cultural gap between the ancient world in which God spoke and the modern world in which we live. Don't resent it because it causes us problems. It's one of the glories of revelation that when God decided to speak to human beings he did not speak in his own language, because if God has a language of his own and had spoken to us in it, we certainly would never have understood it. So instead he condescended to speak in our languages, particularly in classical Hebrew and in common Greek. And in speaking the languages of the people, he reflected their own cultures, the culture of the ancient Near East and of the Greco-Roman world and of Palestinian Judaism. And it is this fact of the cultural conditioning of Scripture, of the consequent tensions between the ancient world and the modern world that determines the task of biblical exposition and lays upon us our two obligations.

(1) The first obligation is faithfulness to the biblical text. You and I have to accept the discipline of thinking ourselves back into the situation of the biblical authors—their history, geography, culture, and language. If we neglect this task or if we do it in a halfhearted or slovenly way, it is inexcusable. It expresses contempt for the way in which God chose to speak to the world. Remember, it is the God-inspired text that we are handling. We say we believe this, but our use of Scripture is not always compatible with what we say is our view of Scripture. With what painstaking, meticulous, conscientious care we should study for ourselves and open up to others the very Words of the living God. So the worst blunder that we could commit is to read back our twenty-first century thoughts into the minds of the biblical authors, and to manipulate what they said in order to conform to what we would like them to have said, and then claim their patronage for our opinions.

Calvin again got it right when in his preface to the commentary on the Letter to the Romans he wrote a beautiful phrase: "It is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say." That's where we begin. Charles Simeon said, "My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there and not to thrust in what I think might be there."

That, then, is our first responsibility—faithfulness to the ancient Word of Scripture.

(2) The second obligation is sensitivity to the modern world. Although God spoke to the ancient world in its own languages and cultures, he intended his Word to be for all peoples in all cultures including us at the beginning of the twenty-first century in which he's called us to live. And therefore the biblical expositor is more than an exegete. The exegete explains the original meaning of the text. The expositor goes further and applies it to the modern world. We have to struggle to understand the world in which God has called us to live, that is rapidly changing. We have to listen to its many discordant voices and especially to the questions it is asking. We have to feel its pain, its disorientation, and its despair. All that is part of our Christian sensitivity in compassion for the modern world.

Here then is our double obligation as biblical expositors: to open up the inspired text of Scripture with both faithfulness to the ancient Word and sensitivity to the modern world. We are neither to falsify the Word in order to secure a phony relevance, nor are we to ignore the modern world in order to secure a phony faithfulness. It is a combination of faithfulness and sensitivity that makes the authentic expositor. But because it is difficult, it is also rare. The characteristic fault of evangelicals is to be biblical but not contemporary. The characteristic fault of liberals is to be contemporary but not biblical. Few of us even begin to manage to be both simultaneously.

As we study the text, we need to ask ourselves two questions in the right order. The first is, What did it mean? If you like, What does it mean? because it means what it meant. As someone has said, "A text means what its author meant."

So what did it mean when he wrote it? And then we ask the second question: What does it say? What is its message today in the contemporary world? If we grasp its meaning without going on to its message, what it says to us today, we surrender to antiquarianism that is unrelated to the present or to the real world in which we've been called to minister. If on the other hand we start with the contemporary message without having given ourselves to the discipline of asking, "what did it originally mean," then we surrender to existentialism—unrelated to the past, unrelated to the revelation God has given in Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ. We must ask both questions, and we must ask them in the right order.

Two expectations in consequence

If we are convinced that the biblical text is inspired yet to some degree closed and needing to be opened and if we accept our obligation to open the text in a way that it is both faithful and sensitive, what can we expect to happen?

(1) We can expect God's own voice to be heard. We believe God has spoken through the biblical authors, but we also need to believe that God speaks through what he has spoken.

This was the conviction of the apostles in relation to the Old Testament. They introduce their quotations from the Old Testament with one or other of two formulae: Either "It stands written," or "It says." Paul could even ask the question "What does the Scripture say?" We could respond to him, "Paul, come on now. What on earth are you talking about What does the Scripture say? The Scripture is an old Book. Old books don't talk. How can you ask, 'What does the Scripture say?'" But the Scripture does speak. God speaks through what he has spoken. The Holy Spirit says, "Today if you will listen to his voice, do not harden your heart." The Word of God is living and powerful, and God speaks through it with a living voice.

Now such an expectation, that as we read and expound Scripture God will speak with a living voice, that expectation is at a low ebb today. As someone has said, "We have devised a way of reading the Word of God from which no word from God ever comes." When the time for the sermon comes, the people close their eyes, clasp their hands with a fine show of piety, and sit back for their customary dose. And the preacher encourages it by his somnolent voice and manner.

How absolutely, radically different it is when both preacher and people are expecting the living God to speak. The whole situation is transformed. The people bring their Bibles to church. When they open it, they sit on the edge of their seat, and they are expecting God to speak. They are hungrily waiting for a word from God. The preacher prepares in such a way that he's expecting God to speak. He prays beforehand and in the pulpit that God will do it. He reads and expounds the text with great seriousness of purpose. And when he's finished, he prays again. In this great stillness and solemnity when his message is over, everybody knows that God is present and has confronted his people with himself.

That's the first expectation, and the second is this.

(2) God's people will obey him. The Word of God always demands a response of obedience. We're not to be forgetful hearers but obedient doers. Our spiritual life and health depends upon it. Throughout the Old Testament we hear the terrible lamentation of God, "O that you would listen to my voice." God says it still today. He kept sending his prophets to his people, but they mocked his messengers, they despised his words, they scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of Yahweh was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. The epitaph engraved upon the tomb of Israel was "They refused to listen."

I fear it's the same often today. Dr. Lloyd-Jones wrote in his great book Preaching and Preachers that the decadent eras of the church's history have always been those in which preaching has declined. It's true. Not only the preaching of the Word but the listening to the Word have both declined. The spiritual poverty of many churches throughout the world today is due more than anything else to either an unwillingness or an inability to listen to the Word of God. If individuals live by the Word of God, so do congregations. And a congregation cannot mature without a faithful and sensitive, biblical ministry and without listening to the Word themselves.

How should they respond? The response to the Word of God depends on the content of the Word that has been spoken.

  • If God speaks to us about himself and his own glorious greatness, we respond by humbling ourselves before him in worship.
  • If God speaks about us—our waywardness, fickleness, and guilt—then we respond in penitence and confession.
  • If he speaks to us about Jesus Christ, the glory of his Person and work, we respond in faith laying hold upon this Savior.
  • If he speaks to us about his promises, we determine to inherit them.
  • If he speaks about his commandments, we determine to obey them.
  • If he speaks to us about the outside world and its colossal spiritual and material need, then we respond as his compassion rises within us to take the gospel throughout the world, to feed the hungry and care for the poor.
  • If he speaks to us about the future, about the coming of Christ and the glory that will follow, then our hope is kindled and we resolve to be holy and busy until he comes.

The preacher who has penetrated deeply into his text, has isolated and unfolded its dominant theme, and has himself been deeply stirred to the roots of his own being by the text that he has been studying will hammer it home in his conclusion. The preacher will give people a chance to respond to it, often in silent prayer as each is brought by the Holy Spirit to an appropriate obedience.

It is an enormous privilege to be a biblical expositor, to stand in the pulpit with God's Word in our hands, God's Spirit in our hearts, God's people before our eyes waiting expectantly for God's voice to be heard and obeyed.