In the following edited excerpt from his book, Touching Others with Your Words, Chuck Swindoll explains the purpose of the body of a sermon, defines exposition, and teaches how to order your message.
A truly impactful sermon—in fact, any effective speech—begins with good research. That’s what prompted me to find a good seminary once I discovered my calling. I didn’t go to school to learn how to preach; I went to seminary to have something to say. The professors at Dallas Theological Seminary taught me sound doctrine, but they didn’t stop there. They handed me a shovel and taught me how to dig into God’s Word on my own to find answers to the problems that my congregation and I would inevitably face.
Two Important Words: Exegetical and Expository
Preaching that is “exegetical” means the message is drawn out of the biblical text. Preaching is said to be “expository” when sermons explain the meaning, purpose, and import of a given Bible passage. And, of course, for a speech to be called a “sermon,” it must create within each listener a crisis of the will that urges a specific response. The exegetical expository preacher’s sermon won’t revolve around a hot topic ripped from the headlines or a clever insight he gained through personal experience. Rather, he chooses a book of the Bible, divides it into manageable segments, and then preaches a sermon from each segment in order, from beginning to end. On any given Sunday, the passage itself provides the subject.
A preacher might also preach a series of messages around a particular subject, such as marriage or the family, a Bible personality, a specific doctrine or some prophetic theme. The preaching can be exegetical and expository if the sermons are based on a compilation of passages that speak to the topic at hand.
A Consistent Order to Follow
While I don’t have a standard outline, I do follow a reasonably consistent order. My introduction states a problem as experienced today, connects the problem to my audience, and then transitions to the Bible to find answers. I then describe the time, date, author, audience, and circumstances of the Bible passage to highlight similarities between our situation and that of the ancient audience. I highlight specific features in the Bible text that support one or more timeless principles. I call attention to other passages that provide additional clarity or insight. Before concluding, I turn timeless principles into practical, meaningful, actionable suggestions based on real-life challenges. The conclusion then challenges each individual to turn the suggestions into imperatives, depending upon his or her specific situation. (Since all of that is so crucial, I suggest you go back and read the paragraph again.)
The Body of Your Message
Most of my research can be described as very detailed observation. I have studied the biblical passage to discern the author’s original intent for the ancient audience—his purpose for writing and the problem he attempted to correct—all the while thinking about how their circumstances relate to those of my contemporary audience. So, the digging I do really pays off here.
The body of my message essentially retraces my steps in research, showing how the problem plaguing us today also afflicted the original audience. I want individuals in my audience to see their own struggles reflected in the Text and to identify with the historical individuals in a poignantly personal way. Making this connection is crucial. When your audience feels the pathos of the passage and relates to the humanity of the people involved, they will stay with you for the duration of the message.
My purpose in the body of the message is not to teach history, but to teach about life and the application of Scripture to living. If, in the process, people learn about geography, history, theology, or Greek grammar, great! But that’s not my overriding purpose for including those details. I try not to exhaust the Text; otherwise, I risk exhausting the audience. I guard against becoming too tedious. Everything I say must serve the purpose of connecting life today to the passage at hand.
Another great feature of exegetical exposition is the opportunity to teach people how to study the Bible on their own. Homiletical exposition merely communicates the fruit of your work in the study. There are times for homiletical exposition. When your audience has no access to a Bible while they’re listening, or when the audience is hostile to the Bible, or in circumstances that call for pastoral care, such as funerals, weddings, ordinations, and receptions. But when you have the opportunity to preach exegetically, do it! Don’t leave your exegesis on the pieces of paper you throw away. Incorporate your digging process into your notes. People want to know where you found your answers and how you arrived at them. Moreover, they want to know how to find their own answers in the Scriptures. Show them . . . by example . . . as you preach. Explain, explain, explain. They will love it as long as you remain enthusiastic and keep it interesting.
In summary, I leave you with a list of guidelines from my book, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs.
If you want to be a trustworthy expositor, there are some key principles you need to keep in mind:
- Stay with the text (that’s focus).
- Make certain your comments square with the Scriptures (that’s accuracy).
- Use terms that even the uninitiated can understand (that’s clarity).
- Remain sensitive to your audience and connect with them (that’s practicality).
- Be real and, when necessary, unguarded and vulnerable (that’s authenticity).
Those are good checkpoints with which to grade any lesson that is taught or sermon that is preached.1
1. Charles R. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2016), 191.