Previously we examined the foundation of an expository sermon, that it is driven by the biblical text and that the proper understanding of the Bible is derived from proper hermeneutics or rules of interpretation. We also saw the crucial role that the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek play in a correct understanding of the Bible. Today we will look at the importance of taking the time to place the Bible in its proper historical context.
Historical Setting and Context
Another helpful and necessary step in the preparation of an expository sermon includes research into the historical setting and context of the section to be preached. Preaching within the context is extremely important for the proper interpretation of the text. Many errors in biblical interpretation stem from ignoring the hermeneutical principle of studying a text in its natural context. The saying, “A text without a context is a pretext” is true. By preaching through books of the Bible, whether verse by verse or paragraph by paragraph, the expositor can avoid the errors that can occur from not studying the context of the passage.
Of course, even by preaching expositionally through the Bible, the study of background and context is still necessary, but by preaching through a book verse by verse over a longer period of time the expositor does not need to re-study the context of each new paragraph as he would if he were to correctly preach a sermon from various texts—such as a topical sermon would require. That is not to say that such study of multiple texts would be impossible, but more often than not, topical sermons are most guilty of preaching “proof texts” that have no connection to the actual context in its original setting.
Along with studying the context, the faithful pastor who seeks to preach expositionally needs to make sure to study the historical setting of the book that he is preaching from. We cannot forget that the times in which the writers of the Old Testament and New Testament lived were very different from our own day. There are great differences in culture, geography, customs and languages. For proper interpretation to occur, the expositor must understand as much as he can about the mindset of the original intended audience whom the writer was addressing. Likewise, he needs to understand the place and time and situation of the human author who was writing. Certain historical insights and information not only assist the interpretation of the text, but in the preaching of that text this background information helps the Bible to come alive to our modern ears and reminds us that the Bible is placed in historical reality and mythical fairy tales.
In Nehemiah 8, one of the clearest examples in the Old testament of the exposition of God’s Word, Ezra the scribe “read from the book, from the Law of God, translating to give the sense so that they [the people] understood the reading” (Neh 8:8). In this example, the people’s culture, mindset and language had changed from the time of the writing of the Pentateuch and it was the job of Ezra, as it is the job of the modern-day expositor, to make the Word of God clear and to help the people to understand God’s intended meaning.
Some pastors will say that there is no need to study in such depth. After all, they reason, the disciples were mostly unlearned fishermen and none of them went to seminary. Yes, that is true to a point. But Paul was highly educated, as was Ezra and others. And every one of the biblical writers had something that none of us have–a first hand knowledge of the culture, language, geography, customs, idioms and nuances that surrounded them. They didn’t need to study those things because they were immersed in them and we are not. We come to the biblical text with a great disadvantage that almost nobody in the first century had.
We must remember that the Bible is God’s very words to us. They are not to be bent and molded to shape our intuitions, impressions and private interpretations. God’s Word is not to be used as a starting point for our favorite topics or a little inspiration for our creativity to be put on display. Neither is expository preaching a place to ramble on aimlessly with little insights and applications here and there like so many spiritual bread crumbs marking the way. God designed his Word with impeccable logic and form–pastors need to do the hard work of finding God’s intended meaning and deliver that to the Church. If they can’t, they either need to seek out further training, or if they won’t they need to get out of the ministry. The work of the Kingdom is too important.
Next we will look at some of the elements that mark out true expository preaching from false so-called expository preaching.