Crafting the Exposition
There are two extremes preachers fall into when it comes to introductions, illustrations, and conclusions.
Some preachers build the sermon using the homiletical elements, neglecting the priority of the text. They take off strong. They get to a cruising altitude and pilot the sermon without running into turbulence. Then they land smoothly at the same airport from which they took off. It was good flight. The important homiletical policies and procedure were followed. And the congregation enjoyed the ride so much that it never noticed they did not actually go anywhere. These craft-first preachers are lauded as great communicators. But they fail to preach the Word, to the spiritual detriment of the large crowds that sit under their preaching.
Other preachers rightly focus on the God-intended meaning of the text. The process is saturated in prayer for illumination (Ps 119:18, 34). The meaning and grammar of the words are carefully studied. The literary and historical context is considered. Cross-references are looked up. The best commentaries on the text are reviewed. The doctrinal themes and theological significance of the passage are unearthed. The preacher does his best to rightly divide the Word of truth. But there is a heavy fog in the pulpit, because diligent research was not fleshed out in sermon preparation. Careful study became sloppy preaching because the preacher did not craft his introduction, choose his illustrations, or plan his conclusion.
Expositional preaching often gets a bad rap for being dry, boring, and lifeless. But zombie preachers should be indicted, not expository preaching. The problem with some expository preaching is that it is exposition but it is not preaching. It is obvious the preacher knows a lot about the text. But the divine message of the text is not preached. Or, the various elements of the sermon fail to make the biblical message clear.
When the craft of the sermon overrides the message of the text, it is performance, not preaching. But the burden for truth that drives the expositor to study hard should also drive him to prepare well. The ancient herald was under orders to proclaim the message of the king to the people. This all-consuming duty shaped the herald's message and the presentation of that message.
This is the expositor's charge. True expository preaching strives to be both faithful to the text and clear in the presentation. It is for this reason that introductions, illustrations, and conclusions should matter to the expositor. It is not about being creative, eloquent, or impressive in the pulpit. It is about preaching the Word faithfully and clearly to the glory of God and for the salvation and sanctification of those who hear.
Christ-exalting preaching is text driven. It is also clearly communicated. Faithful preachers do not impose their own ideas on the text. They also do not ramble through their introduction, manipulate in their illustrations, or crash-land during their conclusions.
Craft the Introduction
I typically begin my sermons with a word of prayer. I pray publicly to express dependence on God to help us speak faithfully and hear clearly. Then I read the sermon text without comment. I will have the rest of the sermon to explain and exhort. I believe this practice of beginning the sermon by reading the text affirms the authority of scripture. After praying and reading the text, I state the title of the sermon. The title is intended to be an encapsulated preview of the message. Next, I proceed to the formal introduction of the sermon.
The introduction is the front porch of the sermon. The front porch welcomes guests to your home. But you do not arrange the living room furniture on the porch. You do not hang a big-screen TV on the porch. You do not serve dinner on the porch. The front porch is only transitional. It welcomes guest to your home and leads them to the front door to enter the house. Sermon introductions work the same way.
Sermon introductions should be brief. Too often preachers spend a major chunk of their allotted time in the introduction. It seems they are sticking all the material they could not find another place for into the introduction. Then they get to a point where they say, "I wish I had more time to deal with this." You did! But you spent it in the introduction. Don't spend too much time setting up the message of the text. Get to the text and trust it to do the work in the minds and hearts of the congregation. The introduction should point toward where the sermon is headed. But the goal of the travel agent is not to captivate with descriptions of exotic locations. It is to get the traveler on a plane to that destination.
The introduction should set the text in its proper context. A text without a context is a pretext. Expository preaching seeks to explain what the text means by what it says. Context is essential to understanding what the text says and means. The three rules of real estate are location, location, location. The three rules of Bible exposition are context, context, context. The introduction should sketch the big picture of the text. Likewise, the introduction should state the main point of the sermon. You don't have to prove, defend, or apply that point yet. Tell them where you are going in the introduction and then take them there in the body of the exposition. Presenting the literary and historical context roots the text in the world of the text. Stating the point of the sermon in a clear, present tense, active sentence roots the text in the world of the congregation. The expository sermon then becomes a bridge between the text and the congregation that connects them to the truth of God's Word.
Choose the Illustrations
Sermon illustrations are like windows on a house. They help the listeners see the point and understand how the point lives in the world beyond the sermon. This is one of the key lessons we can learn from the preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels. The preaching of Jesus was sound, faithful, and profound. It was also filled with illustrations, word pictures, and parables. Many times Jesus preached remarkable sermons by telling simple stories. Jesus exemplified the power of illustration in preaching.
Normal people do not build houses with no windows. They also do not build houses that consist of only windows. Similarly, you must not allow illustrations to dominate the text of the sermon. So, keep them short. Don't use too many of them. Select them carefully. Practice integrity with the facts. Avoid manipulating emotions. Be careful of "indecent exposure" in the pulpit. Guard family and counseling confidentialities. Don't be the star of your own stories. Make sure the illustration speaks for itself. Comedians say that if you have to explain the joke, it bombed. So it is with illustrations. Sermon illustrations are to make the exposition clear. You should not have to do an exposition of the illustration. Sermon illustrations are servants of the text in expository preaching. If you have to choose between the text and the illustration, always side with the text!
One way to keep illustrations is their place is to make sure the illustrations actually illustrate. Do not tell a story just to tell it. It may be humorous, memorable, or compelling. But you are not to be a pulpit storyteller. You are to be a faithful expositor of the Word of God. Any illustration you use should be to shed light on the text. It should illustrate the exposition of the text and exhort the hearers to be doers of the Word.
Practice scrutiny in choosing illustrations. Ask hard questions before you insert the illustration into the sermon. What is the point of this illustration? Is this illustration about what the text is about? Does it make the text clearer? Does it get in the way of the text? Will this illustration connect to the listening congregation? Could this illustration shade the mood of the congregation in a way that hinders them from continuing to think through the text? Am I using an illustration to clarify or to cover for a weak argument?
Consider the principle of illustrative mention. Every major truth of scripture has a corresponding biblical illustration. Joseph illustrates fleeing temptation. David illustrates the danger of sexual immorality. Ananias and Sapphira illustrates consequences of lying. And many other persons or events illustrate biblical truth. Use scripture to illustrate. All of the sermon illustrations in the world are not as rich with meaningful illustration as the Bible itself. As you use scripture to illustrate, you continue to teach scripture as you illustrate. And, your illustrations will carry the divine authority.
Plan the Conclusion
A sermon should be a self-contained unit, consisting of an introduction, main body, and conclusion. There are exceptions. But exceptions are not the norm. Very few preachers are skilled to preach one sermon over three or four weeks. From week to week, the sermon should formally begin and decisively conclude. My advice to pastors is to preach series through books of the Bible. I reject the notion that pastors must keep the series under six weeks to keep the congregation's attention. I acknowledge that we live in a mobile generation with a short attention span. This is no reason to abandon consecutive exposition. But as we preach extended series, each sermon in the series should stand on its own. For this reason, the sermon conclusion is just as important as the sermon introduction.
The sermon conclusion should be an actual conclusion. Do not start with a bang and end with a fizzle. Do not preach until you run out of time or material. Do not plan the sermon and just "let the Spirit lead you" at the end. The conclusion of the sermon should be strategically planned and skillfully executed. The pilot's ability to take off and climb to a cruising altitude is all for nothing if he cannot land the plane. The conclusion of the sermon safely lands the plane. The purpose of the sermon should be clear in the preacher's mind. The elements of the sermon should be united around the main idea of the text. And, there should be a sense of movement forward toward a logical conclusion.
The conclusion of the sermon is not the introduction. This is not a time to introduce new material. The exposition of the text should be done in the body of the sermon. Do not use the end of the sermon to stick in everything you did not get to say yet. The conclusion is the time to review where you have been, not a last chance to get in a few more sermon nuggets. All that has been preached should be brought to bear on the hearer in the conclusion as a call to action. To hear the Word without doing what it says it self-deception (James 1:22). The wise man builds his house on the rock by doing what the Lord commands (Matt 7:24-27). The conclusion should issue the sermon's final challenge to observe all that Christ commands (Matt 28:20).
There are two groups in the audience who need this final challenge. As pastors-teachers, we regularly preach to professing believers. The pastor who is committed to expository preaching must think about the sermon in practical terms, not just exegetically, theologically, or homiletically. What we preach on Sunday should equip our people to follow Jesus where they live on Monday. Yet we must not assume that professing believers are true Christians (Matt 7:21-23). There will be many in our pews who walk in a false presumption of salvation. This Sunday-morning mission field should burden us to conclude by calling unbelievers-be they professing Christians or conscious unbelievers-to repent of their sins and call on the Lord for salvation. Point the congregation to the Lord Jesus Christ in the conclusion. Finish strong by calling your hearers to trust and obey Christ. "Him we proclaim," declares the apostle Paul, "warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ" (Col 1:28, ESV).
This article originally appeared in Expositor Magazine, No. 7, Sep/Oct 2015.