How (Not) to Preach the Epistles
If you haven’t read Expositional Preaching by David Helm, pause for a minute and order it. I wholeheartedly agree with Mark Dever’s endorsement, “If I were teaching a preaching class and could assign the students only one book, this might be the one.” And guess what? The book is about 100 pages and no bigger than your hand! I like quick and insightful reads. Here’s how Helm defines expository preaching:
It is empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text. In that way it brings out of the text what the Holy Spirit put there . . . and does not put into the text what the preacher thinks might be there.
My assignment is to explain how not to do that when preaching through epistles. Before I begin, let me confess that some of what I will share will be from my own personal failures as a preacher, and if you’re a preacher I’m sure some of what I write will expose some of yours. It’s really easy to deceive ourselves into thinking we are faithfully preaching the Word when we actually are preaching our own thoughts.
If you’re not a preacher, I encourage you to read carefully. Why? Because it’s really easy to think that we’ve heard a profound sermon, when in fact we’ve just heard someone butcher a text and read in and out of it things God never put into the text. Every believer needs to carefully consider how to listen to sermons to make sure the preacher preaches what the Word of God actually teaches. If the Word of God commends the Bereans for checking against Scripture what Paul preached, then it would be wise of you to examine carefully the sermons that are preached to you (Acts 17:10–11).
So, here are a few ways epistles should not be exposited.
1. Don’t skip reading the text.
How many times have you expositionally preached through an epistle and decided that you didn’t have time to actually read the text you’re preaching? Remember that the Bible, and not your sermon, is the Word of God. Paul exhorted Timothy “Until I come, give your attention to the public reading, exhortation, and teaching” (of Scripture), 1 Timothy 4:13 (CSB). Notice, Paul doesn’t say give attention only to your exhortation and teaching, but first he commands, “Give your attention to the public reading!”
It is the Word of God, not our thoughts about the Word of God, that God uses to transform believers from one level of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18). So preachers of the Word of God, make time in your sermons to read the Word. If you don’t have time, feel free to cut out jokes, anecdotal stories, and sports illustrations. Your folks probably don’t think you’re that funny anyway, and if they follow sports they’ve heard better insights than yours. And if you’re listening to someone preach through a text and they don’t read it, make sure that you do. The Bible is God’s breathed-out Word, your pastor’s sermon isn’t.
2. Don’t take ten years to preach through each letter.
Now I know I’m treading on sacred ground. So let me try to explain. There’s no sin in s l o w l y preaching through each letter of the Bible. Some of the church’s greatest expositors moved through the New Testament at a tortoise’s pace. Nevertheless, I appeal to letters of the New Testament really are just that—letters—and the original recipients would have heard them read and explained in a single sitting. While it’s certainly true that original readers shared common cultures and history with the authors, I still contend that letters can be meaningfully understood when preached over shorter periods of time.
Otherwise, what does Paul mean when he affirms the clarity of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 1:13, “For we are writing nothing to you other than what you can read and also understand. I hope you will understand completely” (CSB17). My pastoral concern is this: unless God grants you greater longevity than Abraham, if you take years and years to preach through each epistle, then how will God’s sheep experience that “all Scripture is profitable for teaching”? Our people need to hear and learn the full counsel of God. So if you’re hardwired to exposit very, very, very slowly through the Bible, then at least provide survey classes where your people can have an opportunity to hear the entire Bible taught.
As important as it is to carefully explain and apply an epistle like Romans, God’s people need to hear the man of God preach all of the epistles and all of the Scriptures and to apply all of God’s Word to their souls because all Scripture is profitable.
3. Don’t make it your goal to be relevant.
Why should you preach what apostles and prophets, who lived thousands of years ago, wrote to their pre-modern, pre-scientific, agrarian audiences? After all, times have changed. You know your people. You know their situations, their problems, and their needs. So every Sunday preach to them what you think they need to hear.
That style of preaching is so common today. But what did Jesus say? He said, “The one who speaks on his own seeks his own glory” (John 7:18).
There is a deep morality to preaching. God revealed his inerrant truth in the Scriptures and gave the twofold means to receive it (1) through humble dependence upon the Spirit (1 Cor 2), and (2) through the hard labor of precise exegesis (2 Tim 2:15). Pride and self-reliance will keep preachers blind and deaf to God’s truth and will foolishly embolden them to replace God’s infallible words with their own.
Think of the crime of replacing God thoughts with ours and then binding people’s conscience to them as if they are God’s. Therefore, let every faithful preacher surrender the entire preaching process from exegesis to exposition to the authority of God. Every preacher must commit to preaching what the text actually says and how the text says what it says. Why? Because every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter, and every book is God-breathed. Because the entire Bible, including every epistle, is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).
So preachers strengthened by the Holy Spirit must bear the weight of the responsibility of preaching God’s Word—not his pet peeves, not his hobby horses, not his worldly insights. The Word of God is living, and therefore it will never become antiqued or replaceable with the wisdom of any philosophy or any preacher.
4. Don’t skip studying the text.
Preaching with what Spurgeon would call “unction” in no way means preaching without studying. The Word of God demands of preachers that we labor at studying the text so that, like a tent-maker, we cut it precisely along its true lines (2 Tim 2:15). Every effort must be taken to make sure that what the preacher says, God has indeed said, and that result can only be achieved through diligent labor.
For instance, if you opened up a magazine and saw the words “He killed her,” how would you interpret it? A man murdered a woman, and there is a dead body somewhere. But what if you read that line in a sports magazine, or as a part of a political commentary, or in the entertainment section describing a movie? There in fact would not be a dead person or an actual murderer. Preaching what the text says requires reading precisely, and reading precisely means reading in context.
Epistles are letters to Christians, not systematic theologies. They have a historical context, a specific occasion. Chloe’s people sent Paul a letter with a list of problems (1 Cor. 1:10–11) and questions, and 1 Corinthians is God’s answer to those problems and questions (1 Cor. 7:25; 8:1; 11:17; 12:1; 16:1 etc.). The meaning in biblical letters therefore can be discerned by reading along through paragraphs, discerning the theme of those paragraphs, and connecting those themes to the historical context of why the letter was written.
Furthermore, authors convey meaning by the words they choose and how they arrange them. Consider the following statements: “My neighbor is quiet.” “Is my neighbor quiet?” “Neighbor, be quiet!” Each of those clauses uses the same words, but have different meanings because I changed the word order and relationship and function of the words. The faithful expositor needs to carefully follow the syntax of the text in the proper context in order to discern the authorial intent of the text. They need to investigate the relationship between words, phrases, and clauses. This takes work! But when done faithfully, Paul again offers the encouragement that through careful reading the reader can gain an accurate and clear understanding of the Word of God (2 Cor. 1:13).
Those who draw the meaning out of the text and preach what the text says will be blessed. Those who instead preach what they think the congregation wants to hear (2 Tim 4:1–4) will fail. So study and preach the Word. God ordained it as a means for your salvation and for the salvation of those who hear you (1 Tim 4:16).
5. Don’t skip prayer.
Why pray when preaching is an intellectual exercise of reading and interpreting a text and then communicating what you’ve read? If you can read and interpret, you should be able to preach. So why pray?
We should pray as we preach because there’s no weightier job on earth, and no one is adequate to do it without God’s help (2 Cor. 2:15–17).
If anything ought to make a man pray it’s to be a sinner standing before other sinners with the charge to proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.” It’s one thing to have the duty as an ambassador to represent a nation; it’s altogether another responsibility to represent the Sovereign of the Universe. Men misquote men all the time; men libel and slander one another. But the Bible explicitly warns that few of us should be teachers of God’s Word for we will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1).
Preacher, for your soul’s sake and for the sake of those to whom you preach, let the Word of God compel you to pray before, during, and after you preach. I’m reminded of a quote I heard attributed to Spurgeon that someone heard him muttering as he assailed his pulpit, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Brothers, without the help of the Holy Spirit there will be no conviction of sin when you preach; there will be no repentance, no victories, no growing in grace, no Christ-like transformations. All these are the work that God brings about through the preaching of his Word to his people by the working of the Spirit.
But be encouraged, brothers. If God has called you to preach, and if you do preach his Word depending on his Spirit, then no power in hell can hinder the outcome. God saves, God sanctifies, God encourages, God builds his church through the preaching of his Word. Be faithful, be humble, be diligent, and remain dependent. Let God, whose words brought the universe into existence, use you to herald the truth from his letters to the sheep he has called you to shepherd.
And if you’re not a preacher, let me remind you: faithful exposition exposes the precise meaning of the text. If you can consistently close your Bible during the Sunday sermons, if you consistently hear only stories and contemporary analogies, then lovingly encourage your pastor to preach the Word (1 Tim 4:1–2). If he or they refuse, then find a healthy church that does.