Don Carson on Expositional Preaching

It is often objected that the New Testament writers and preachers rarely resorted to anything we would recognize as exposition when they treated Old Testament texts, so why should we be bound to do so when we treat texts of either Testament?

The question is important, and deserves a full essay, even a short book. But for the moment, we should note the following:

(1) In some ways the objection is hard to sort out because, on the one hand, there are relatively few sermons in the New Testament (and then only relatively brief reports of the entire addresses), and yet, on the other hand, we can only guess at how many of the pages of the New Testament began as sermons and were re-written into the books we now have. In other words, it is not easy to make direct comparisons between sermons in the first century and sermons today. For the former we must develop a series of inferential arguments-the stuff of an entire chapter or two.

(2) Some sermons in the New Testament have as their substance the exposition of two or three significant Old Testament texts. One thinks, for instance, of Peter’s address on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36), much of which is given over to expounding Joel 2:28-32; Psalm 16:8-11; and Psalm 110:1, in the light of their fulfillment in Jesus. In fairness, Peter’s Pentecost sermon is scarcely a prepared address for a regularly scheduled service. Yet in some ways, its use of Scripture is therefore all the more compelling: not only have Peter and the other believers been thinking through the ways in which Jesus fulfills Old Testament expectation, they make their defense of these points by expounding some of the relevant texts, even at a moment’s notice.

(3) Other New Testament sermons or quasi-sermons appeal to Scripture pretty straightforwardly, though in a variety of ways and contexts. Stephen’s ad hoc address just before his martyrdom (Acts 7:2-53) largely follows the homiletical pattern of many Old Testament Psalms that selectively review earlier Old Testament history to draw some moral and spiritual lessons (e.g. Psalm 78). In that sense, Stephen’s speech is largely an exposition of Old Testament history. Even then, he quotes and appeals to specific texts (Amos 5:25-27; Isaiah 66:1-2). When Philip converses with the Ethiopian eunuch, he begins by explaining the passage at hand, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, relating it to Jesus (Acts 8:35). Many have argued that the various sections of Hebrews began as sermons or sermon notes. That is not quite provable, of course, but one is struck by the way some units, such as Hebrews 3:7-4:13, are in fact careful and detailed expositions of one particular Old Testament text-in this case, Psalm 95:7-11-set within the sweep of Old Testament history.

(4) The person who raises the challenge may be thinking of a broader question than one that focuses on exclusively on sermons. He or she may be arguing that the New Testament use of the Old is so frequently bizarre that we should lighten up a bit and stop criticizing those whose use of the Bible today is a wee bit bizarre. The subject has captured a fair bit of my time during the last quarter-century. All I can say here is that when some of the principles of the various forms of biblical typology are well understood and delimited, the New Testament use of the Old is a good deal less bizarre than some initially think.

(5) One of the interesting things to observe is that both within his letters and in the way he is presented in Acts, Paul uses actual texts from the Old Testament a good deal less when he is dealing with biblical illiterates than when he is addressing those who have some knowledge of the Old Testament. One might compare his sermon in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:15-47) with his address in the meeting of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31). But even in the latter, what Paul is actually expounding is a substantial part of redemptive history. It is highly doubtful that his auditors would have known any part of the Old Testament text. Yet this is what Paul explains. Further, each clause is doubtless a “heading” in what would have been a very long address (while the report provided by Acts takes two minutes to read)-and in most cases one can offer a pretty good guess as to the line Paul would take to develop the heading, precisely because he has worked out many of these points elsewhere. Paul did not have the option of passing out Bibles in the Areopagus: printing was still almost a millennium and a half away. By contrast, a speaker today addressing, say, biblically illiterate university students, may well make many of the same points Paul made while either providing each of his auditors with a printed handout of the relevant texts, or projecting them onto a screen, with an offer of free Bibles thrown in.

(6) Jesus’ handling of Scripture presents something of a special case. I would be prepared to argue that many of the interpretive stances displayed by the writers of the new Testament can be traced back to Jesus himself. But in at least one way his preaching was unique. In some instances, he followed the synagogue custom of reading Scripture and then offering a homily on it (e.g. Luke 4:16-27), but his “homily” was along the lines of “This Scripture that has just been read is being fulfilled in me”-a stance his followers could not repeat, except derivatively as they tried to show that the relevant Scriptures really did anticipate the coming, ministry, death, and resurrection of their Master. Something similar to Jesus’ approach to Scripture in Luke 4 is found again in his handling of Scripture in large parts of the Sermon on the Mount (esp. Matthew 5:17-48). Not a few of his parables are designed to change common misinterpretations of the dawning of the biblically-announced messianic kingdom (Mark 4; Matthew 13).

(7) Already in the Old Testament, there is ample precedent for careful biblical exposition-indeed, one might almost say, for Bible conferences. One thinks especially of Nehemiah 8-9. The Scripture was clearly read, and then the Levites made it clear (the expression might well mean that they translated it, from Hebrew to Aramaic, which most folk then used), and then gave the meaning “so that all the people could understand what was being read” (8:8). Such biblical exposition in this instance precipitated national revivial and reformation.

(8) In any case, there is a raft of biblical texts that speak of the powerful priority that the Word of God must have in our thinking, ruling, priorities, sanctification, growth (e.g. read carefully through Deuteronomy 17:18-20; Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 1:2; 119; John 17:17; Romans 12:1-2). Preaching that genuinely makes Scripture a priority must be a good thing.


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Filed under 9 Marks, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching

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