Chapter 113

Topical Preaching on Theological Themes

How to preach expositionally when a theological idea is the order of the day.

I entered my first pastorate with enthusiasm, confident I could preach for several years using paragraph-by-paragraph, through-a-book exposition. I'd start with Ephesians. That would take a good year, maybe longer. Ephesians was theologically solid and relevant. Then on to 1 Corinthians. That would take two years at least. I'd do some Psalms along the way and preach through a narrative like Genesis or Matthew. Of course I would break away to expound some key texts for special occasions: Isaiah 9:6 at Christmas, for example.

Then reality visited, an incident that demanded church discipline. I should have known. Ours was a new church plant and had no experience in or policy for discipline. It was simply in the bylaws that church discipline would be practiced in a biblical manner when necessary.

Ready or not, it was time for a topical theological expository sermon. Our congregation needed a biblically based message on what church discipline was, why we practiced it, how we would do it, and what we could expect as a result. Since no single text or paragraph covered all those questions, I preached several passages topically.

A few weeks later, as prelude to a baptismal service, I preached a topical message on baptism. I pulled together a unified sermon based on several passages dealing with the subject, a topic no single text or paragraph covered exhaustively. I was learning not only the necessity of preaching topically, but also how to preach a topical theological sermon expositionally.

Exposition takes a preacher progressively through an exegetical understanding of a text/paragraph, through a theological interpretation of the passage, through a homiletical application, and into practice. Topical expository preaching is a subset of exposition that takes two or more passages through the same process.

I divide topical exposition into three kinds: theological, biographical, and contemporary issue (watch for articles on the latter two in coming weeks). To address what the Bible says regarding a theological topic—church discipline, baptism, marriage, divorce, temptation, trials, forgiveness, and hundreds more—I use topical theological exposition.

Here are five essentials for preparing topical theological expositions.

1. Decide on the theological topic you want to preach.

Sometimes a topic just shows up, as in the case of church discipline, or a funeral, or building dedication. Otherwise we can discover topics through personal devotional studies, praying about key doctrines, knowing your congregation's theological strengths and weaknesses, and being sensitive to people's questions and struggles. Sometimes a key word or concept surfaces during a book exposition.

While an endless supply of theological topics will likely come to your attention through these means, you must decide which are essential and guard against preaching on a few favorite doctrines again and again. Topical preaching demands discipline to remain objective, comprehensive, and balanced with other styles of exposition.

2. Identify all passages you want to explore.

While preaching through Matthew, I came across Jesus' command, "Be of good cheer," (9:2). I discovered the phrase was but a single Greek word tharseo (qarseow). I thought there might be something theologically significant about the use of this term and decided to locate all its uses.

Ultimately, each passage in its context must address your theological subject. In addition, each passage must contribute something to the topic the others don't. At this point, however, be as exhaustive as possible. If your topic is church discipline, you'll discover only a few passages on the subject. If you wanted to preach on forgiveness, however, you'd have to select a workable handful from more than one hundred passages that speak about forgiveness.

I usually start my search with a concordance, both English and Hebrew or Greek. Computers have made this work much easier. I also use topical books like Torrey's The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge or Lockyer's All the Holy Days and Holidays, reference Bibles with topical indexes on the margins and in the back, and theological dictionaries or wordbooks. Often I'll look up the topic in a systematic theology to see what passages are considered essential. I usually have little trouble finding multiple passages to study. The challenge is in deciding how many and which ones to study further.

In the "Be of good cheer" message I found the term tharseo used eight times in the New Testament, but only four times by Jesus. One of those four was a synoptic repetition. That meant I had only three passages to take through the expositional process. Thirteen or thirty passages is more usual.

3. Discover the exegetical and theological meaning of each passage in context.

To maintain biblical authority, sermons must fully expound each passage preached. Doing full expositions for multiple texts/paragraphs simply takes multiple amounts of time and work. There is no substitute. Many preachers avoid topical exposition for this reason. Others skip the discipline of exposition—but compromise their authority along the way.

As you get into your exegetical/theological exposition, you may discover that a certain passage doesn't really deal with your topic after all. Scratch that text and go on to the next. Your increasing understanding of each passage may also cause you to narrow the subject of the sermon. Instead of preaching one sermon on rewards, you may decide to preach a series of sermons on rewards: what are rewards, who gets rewards, who gives rewards, the basis on which rewards are given. Preaching a series could help cut your weekly preparation significantly.

As I exegeted the three "Be of good cheer" passages in their different contexts, I found that Jesus consistently used the imperative to encourage: a sinner he was forgiving (Matthew 9:2), the disciples for whom he had just appeared (Matthew 14:27), and the apostles he was sending into the world (John 16:33). From a theological perspective I determined these three commands of Jesus were not merely accidental parallels. They were clearly intended words of encouragement to the readers of the Gospels.

The question of what biblical passages mean and whether they are intentionally speaking to the proposed sermon topic will be answered in your exegetical/theological exposition. While different interpreters will discover different meanings and intentions for the same passage, your use of a text/paragraph must be honest and defendable.

4. Articulate a single, unified theological proposition.

Until you can express the synthesized message of all the passages you've pulled together under the same topic, you cannot expect to preach a clear, single-subject, topical exposition.

My first try at a theological proposition for my topical message was, "The good cheer of God's forgiveness, presence, and victory encourages needy sinners, disciples, and apostles." I abstracted it further to, "The good cheer of God's blessing encourages needy people."

5. Follow the usual homiletical process.

Apply the single, timeless truth to your own and your listeners' lives. Try to keep your homiletical proposition simple. Simplicity isn't always possible because topical sermons often have multiple complements to the same subject.

My homiletical proposition was longer and more complex than I prefer, but taken point by point, I think it was clear. The way to get God's good cheer of encouragement into your life is,

  1. Trust Jesus as your Savior
  2. Obey Jesus as your Lord
  3. Go, tell of Jesus' victory

I had noted that the sinner's problem was guilt, the disciples' problem was fear, and the apostles' problem was despair. These three needs were relevant to my contemporary audience. In fact, these needs are universal. Those universal needs and the specific responses to those needs lead to this outline:

  1. Get God's Good Cheer of Forgiveness into Your Life (Matthew 9:2).
    1. Sinners have a problem with guilt.
    2. Jesus says, "Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven."
    3. Trust Jesus as your Savior.
  2. Get God's Good Cheer of Presence into Your Life (Matthew 14:27).
    1. Disciples have a problem with fear.
    2. Jesus says, "Be of good cheer; it is I."
    3. Obey Jesus as your Lord.
  3. Get God's Good Cheer of Victory into Your Life (John 16:33).
    1. Apostles have a problem with despair.
    2. Jesus says, "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
    3. Go, tell of Jesus' victory.

In pastoral ministry, topical preaching on theological themes is unavoidable and—if done expositionally—invaluable.