I have been listening to sermons for 32 years. During that time, I’ve listened as a student, a preacher, and evangelist, and a son.
Blessed by Expository Preaching
I’ve been blessed all my Christian life (going on 32 years) to sit under expository preaching. Every pastor of every church to which I have been granted membership has been an expository preacher. Every one of them was either taught or influenced by Pastor John MacArthur–likely the greatest expository preacher of our day. MacArthur is the latest in a long, historic line of expository preachers. Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, and MacArthur are my three favorites.
Of course, there are many other wonderful expositors who have stood in pulpits. Maybe that line of fine, biblical preaching includes your own pastor(s).
What is “expository preaching?”
Dr. Jack Hughes, a fine expositor in his own right, defines expository preaching this way:
“Expository preaching is a method of crafting and delivering a bold, authoritative, commanding, clear, engaging, memorable, practical, and direct address of divine truth taken from one or more biblical texts, that are studied in their various biblical contexts, by a preacher who is gifted, called, and trained in Bible content, sound doctrine, theology, hermeneutics, and exegesis, so that the preacher handles with precision the Word of Truth, communicating to his listeners what God and/or the original author meant for his original audience to understand by what was written while preaching in a reproving, rebuking, exhorting, and admonishing way, so that God’s voice can be heard from the biblical text, through the preacher.”
While the expository preacher carries a great deal of responsibility every time he opens the Bible and explains it, responsibility for an expository sermon’s impact does not rest solely with the preacher. The listener has his share of responsibility, too.
If you ask many Christians today what “worship” was like for them on any given Sunday, they will probably describe the music and what, if any, emotional impact it had on them. Many professing Christians, especially, here, in the United States, miss the point of worship and they are myopic in their view of the elements of worship.
The point of worship, whether it is done privately or corporately, is to glorify God. While that can be accomplished through the singing of Christocentric, God-glorifying psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, there are other very important elements of worship–particularly in a corporate gathering of believers. Those elements include prayer, the reading of God’s Word, the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper and, when warranted, believer’s baptism.
Biblically-minded Christians understand the role and importance of the before-mentioned elements of worship. They see themselves as active participants in the worship of God through prayer, singing, the reading of God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper, and maybe even baptism as they affirm the testimony of the brother or sister being baptized. But if you ask many of these same biblically-minded Christians if they are active participants in the sermon, you might get that slight tilt of the head and inquisitive stare often seen in puppies.
Christians should never simply, dutifully sit through a sermon. They should participate in the sermon by being actively engaged in the practice of listening.
Reagan Rose, in his helpful article, “The Art of Enjoying an Expository Sermon,” explains the goal of listening to expository sermons. He wrote:
“Perhaps we do not place as high of an importance on listening as we ought because we misunderstand the goal of listening to a sermon. How often have you been asked, post-service, “Wasn’t that a great sermon?” But what makes a sermon great? Is it that the sermon was short? Is it that you learned something new? Is it that it made you laugh or cry? Is it that the preacher held your attention throughout? There’s nothing wrong with these things, but we must understand that the goal of listening to a sermon is not to be entertained, to learn Bible trivia, or to experience a range of emotions. The goal of listening to a sermon is that you would have your mind transformed by the Word such that your life would be changed more into the image of Christ by the power of the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God (James 1:22; Rom. 12:2).
“Expository sermon listening, therefore, is serious business.”
Rose succinctly lays out three important listening skills Christians can and should employ whenever they have an opportunity to hear a sermon. They are: listening actively (take notes), listening with questions (“What is this sermon about?”), and listening critically (like a Berean, as in Acts 17:11). I commend Rose’s article to you for further study.
Reflecting on how I’ve listened to expository preaching over the years, I can divide my Christian life of sermon listening into three primary seasons: student (1988-1998), preacher (1998-2008), and evangelist (2008-Present).
Listening to Sermons as…
When I first came to faith in Jesus Christ, I was blessed to sit under the preaching and teaching of a man who, to this day, remains one of my favorite expository preachers. His name is Jeff Steele. You likely have never heard of him, but I will never forget him. He pastored Cornerstone Church in Saugus, CA–the first church to which Mahria and I belonged after coming to faith in Christ.
Before attending Cornerstone Church, I had never heard a man preach from the Bible–read it and explain it. I had no idea that I was sitting under expository preaching. I had never heard the term. All I knew then, and what I know now, is that the man who was my first pastor introduced me to the Bible. And he did it verse-by-verse, book-by-Bible-book.
I fell in love with the Bible, under Pastor Jeff’s teaching. Without being told (at least I don’t remember anyone telling me), I learned not to settle for less than expository preaching. The Lord was so very gracious to me as a new believer. He allowed me to cut my spiritual teeth on the most biblical form of preaching.
Mahria still has the notes she took during Pastor Jeff’s sermon series: “The Life of David.” To this day and in her estimation, it is the best Bible teaching she’s ever heard.
Thank you, Pastor Jeff, for teaching me to always be a student of God’s Word.
In February of 1997, I participated in my first short-term mission trip. I was part of a Christian law enforcement ministry. A group of about 20 of us traveled to Caracas to provide tactical and ethical training to local police officers. It was an amazing two weeks of ministry.
It was during this trip that I first engaged in open-air preaching, although I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time. We had provided a day of training to students at the academy for the Dirección Nacional de los Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención (DISIP). At the time, the organization was considered the FBI of Venezuela. The recruits, some as young as 16, were required to build their own dorm rooms so they would have a place to live while in the academy.
At the end of the day, some 100 students, instructors, and government officials stood at attention in a parking lot while I preached the gospel to them.
I came home from that trip on fire to enter full-time ministry, with no idea how a street cop would go about doing that. A few years later, I would resign from full-time duty with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, begin studies at The Master’s Seminary, and become a church planter.
My time at The Master’s Seminary, though incomplete, taught me the elements of the craft of expository preaching. The first sermon series I ever preached was a verse-by-verse exposition of the Book of James (about 60 sermons). I still have all of the sermon notes.
I had just begun an exposition of the Book of Romans when the doors of the church plant closed. For the next several years, I filled pulpits, preached at special events like Law Enforcement Appreciation Services, and preached at conferences.
When I listened to the sermons of others during this time, I listened as a preacher wanting to improve my own craft.
In 2008, I joined the staff of Living Waters–the ministry of Evangelist Ray Comfort. My mission was to develop and lead an aspect of the ministry called “The Ambassadors’ Alliance.” My primary function within that mission was as director of the Ambassadors’ Academy. The Ambassadors’ Academy was 3 1/2 days of intensive street evangelism training, with an emphasis on open-air preaching.
By this time, I had been engaged in biblical evangelism for about four years and open-air preaching for three. While I was still preaching from various pulpits, and while I will always listen to sermons with the hope of learning more about who God is and what He requires of me, how I listened to expository preaching shifted.
For the last dozen years or so, I have listened to expository preaching with the ear of an evangelist. Nowadays, I listen for doctrine, information, verbiage, and phrasing I can use in my open-air preaching or one-to-one gospel conversations.
Just today, someone on Facebook asked my permission to use my standard gospel presentation in a YouTube video. Of course, I said yes. The gospel doesn’t belong to me. When people compliment something I’ve said in an open-air sermon or one-to-one gospel conversation, I let them know that there is nothing new under the sun. It is unlikely that I’ve ever had an original thought. What I know I’ve learned. What I’ve learned about preaching and communicating the gospel I have learned from others. My evangelism is informed by other evangelists, apologists, and expository preachers.
I still listen to expository preaching as a student and a preacher. These days I listen most closely with the hope of hearing something I can use in my evangelism efforts. Listening to sermons this way bore fruit just a couple of weeks ago, as I sat under the preaching of my pastor, Mike Reid. You can read my testimony, here.
Probably the most important way to listen to a sermon, and probably the easiest form of listening to forget for those who are in any kind of preaching or teaching ministry, is to listen as a son or daughter of your Father in heaven.
Periodically over the years, I have caught myself in seasons in which I was in the Bible every day, but always for someone else. During these reoccurring seasons, I studied God’s Word for a sermon–either to stand in a pulpit or on a box in the open-air. Or, I studied for blog articles I was writing. Or, I studied to provide counsel to someone. Maybe I studied for a book I was writing. Or a combination thereof.
During these seasons, my primary motivation for listening to sermons and for studying God’s Word was so that others might benefit. Certainly I, too, was benefiting from the study. I often learned something that was new to me or something I already knew more deeply. These were and continue to be rich times in God’s Word. But in these times when I was looking at the Bible through the eyes of a student, preacher, or evangelist I often forgot to look at the Bible through the eyes of a child of God.
The story in Luke 10 of two sisters, Mary and Martha, is helpful.
Martha Served; Mary Sat
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her'” (Luke 10:38-42).
Martha served and Mary sat. Without explanation, you might be left to think I just accused Mary of being lazy. But that’s not the case. Even Jesus described Mary’s behavior as choosing “the good portion.”
Martha was so busy serving Jesus (a good thing for the true Christian–a very good thing) that she failed to spend time with Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, did not lose sight of the fact that it was more desirable to be in the presence of the Lord.
Keep in mind, there is no indictment of Mary in the text. Mary taking the time to sit at her Master’s feet in order to listen closely to what He had to say in no way indicates that she was either lazy or derelict in her duties. Luke enters no such facts into evidence. Furthermore, Jesus did not send Mary back to the house to help her sister. Rather, He fellowshipped with her and informed Martha that it was Mary who chose “the good portion.”
In reality, Martha was choosing temporal service over a relationship with Jesus Christ. She was choosing to get her house ready for Jesus over getting her heart ready for Jesus. Martha may not have been a follower of Christ as much as she was a hostess of Christ.
Genuine followers of Jesus Christ (again, I have in mind specifically those believers who frequently engage in preaching, teaching, discipleship, counseling, and evangelism) can drift into a Martha state of mind. They can engage in spending so much time listening and studying in preparation to serve and minister to others that they forget to sit at their Master’s feet. They become so engrossed with serving Jesus that they forget to spend time with Him.
Several times during my Christian life, this has been me.
I am thankful that my good and gracious God has seen fit to make me aware of these Martha-esque drifts when they happen.
Look; the work has to get done. Sermons have to be written and preached (indoors and outdoors). Classes have to be taught. Counsel has to be given. Evangelism has to conducted. But those very important activities don’t have to happen at the expense of sitting at the Master’s feet and hearing what He has to say through good, expository sermons and the simple reading of His Word.
Teacher; preacher; evangelist; counselor; discipler; parent: don’t forget and don’t neglect to spend time at your Master’s feet. The most important way to listen to sermons and the most important way to read the Bible is as a son or daughter of the King–a child who lovingly longs to hear what his or her Father has to say.