You’ve probably heard of expository preaching …and exegetical preaching …and topical preaching. If you’re looking for clarity on how these differ from each other, you’re not the only one.
But understanding exactly what each means can help you use different methods to preach with variety and power in different moments.
Sure, theological terms can be complex and confusing. But they’re critical distinctions that can help you translate the Scriptures into powerful sermons, all the same.
In this article, I’ll drill down on expository preaching. But before we do that, let’s start with a simple (but profound) question: how would you define preaching?
What Is Preaching in the First Place?
So, what exactly is the point of preaching? What’s the goal?
First, preaching is more than teaching. After all, Paul separates pastors from teachers when he lists the five-fold ministry in Ephesians 4, where he distinguishes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers from each other.
If a teacher instructs, what is a pastor (or any other church leader, for that matter) doing when they preach?
Tim Keller, in his book on the subject of preaching, helpfully points us to a passage where Paul says a preacher’s job is “proclaiming… the testimony of God” (1 Cor. 2:1).
So first, preaching is first a proclamation.
A further distinction between preaching and teaching is that while teaching instructs, preaching also exhorts and invites. So while preachers teach, they also go beyond that.
Preaching takes Gospel truths, explains them, and makes them clear to your audience. Critically, preachers also show them how to apply those truths in their lives.
Preaching is a proclaiming of God’s Word into both individual lives and the “life” of a culture. It is a persuasive proclamation that also has a boldness to it.
Neither preaching nor teaching comes primarily from our thoughts, ideas, opinions, or convictions but instead comes from God’s Word. Faithful preaching is our best attempt to explain the truth of God’s word as it relates to the people we serve and our culture.
Beyond the basic definition of preaching is where topical, expository, and other terms come into play.
So let’s break them down.
How Important Is Choosing a Preaching Style?
While there are many nuances here, most preaching styles are broken down into one of the following categories.
- Expository preaching — Preaching through a passage of scripture.
- Exegetical preaching — Preaching that explains the historical and original context of the passage.
- Topical preaching — Preaching on a topic, theme, or narrative but also roots that message in scripture.
There isn’t only one way or the right way to preach. Some people will tell you this is the case, but each of the styles above can be a faithful way to preach.
Proponents of expository preaching often criticize topical preaching as “shallow” or not faithful to the Bible.
So, to be abundantly clear, I don’t believe that.
Here’s why. Expository preaching is no guarantee of faithfulness if a preacher’s “take” on a passage happens to align perfectly with their opinions on it.
It’s just as easy to impose your own interpretation on a text when you preach expositorally or exegetically as it is when you preach topically. Conversely, you can be faithful to the text using any of these approaches.
With this context established, let’s drill down further on expository preaching.
Defining Expository Preaching
Expository preaching usually involves moving through a passage of Scripture verse by verse or pericope by pericope as you explain it to a congregation.
However, the way you go about that process can look very different.
Four Different Approaches to Expository Preaching
Expository preaching is much more than cracking open the Bible, reading some verses, and riffing to your congregation—although that happens far too often. Thoughtful expository preaching requires a lot of patient preparation.
Here are four different approaches you can take when preparing an expository sermon.
The Verse-By-Verse Approach
This is the most popular format.
In it, a preacher works through Scripture one verse at a time (no surprise, right?). As they go along, the preacher explains what the verses mean and what they have to do with our lives.
The strength of this approach is that, when done right, the text becomes the hero of the sermon. Both the topic and the preacher have to take a back seat and let the text shine on its own merits.
The challenge here is that if you’re not creative or thoughtful about applying the text to peoples’ lives, people can get bored, especially unchurched people.
Done well, though, verse-by-verse exposition can be very effective. Here’s an example.
Years ago, my friend Mark Clark (when he was Lead Pastor of Village Church) preached through the Gospel of Matthew. They were in it for three and a half years with no sermon series changes. They even had the same logos, title — the works.
You might think the topic would have gotten dry and too predictable. But guess what? During that time, they baptized over 700 people.
Similarly, I’ve preached through books in different seasons (Esther, Job, James, and even Revelation) and found that if you bring people’s questions to the text as you study and prepare, you’ll have no problem working through even long passages of scripture over time. We spent six months in Revelation.
And Martyn-Lloyd Jones was a master of this kind of expository preaching. If you look up his work, you’ll find volumes and volumes of sermons just on Ephesians alone. Similarly, Andrew Lincoln has written a large masterful commentary on Ephesians. Short books don’t have to be short on meaning.
The Thematic Approach
Not to be confused with topical preaching, a thematic approach to expository preaching involves the preacher focusing on a paragraph or two of scripture and pulling out a theme.
In traditional preaching styles, it would be called the “one big idea” of a sermon. This can work exceptionally well, particularly since a single-point sermon can be a very good way to make an idea stick.
While you can still move through a passage verse by verse, throughout the sermon, you simply return to the main topic or “big idea” to make the point.
The Puritans were masters at this kind of preaching. That’s why, if you read their books (say John Owen or Richard Baxter), they are often 300 pages of amazing and deep theology that hover around one or two passages of Scripture. Calvin adopted a similar approach to some of his sermons.
The Narrative Approach
This approach goes through a passage of Scripture phrase by phrase or in larger chunks (depending on the size of the passage).
As you go along, though, the focus is on approaching the passage in a more narrative way than strictly verse by verse.
Those who criticize a narrative style might do well to remember that 76% of our Bible is presented as a narrative or poetry.
A narrative approach is critical for a book like Job. If you go verse by verse, not only will you be in it for months, but without the larger story and context, a single Sunday’s worth of verses would lack the power the story as a whole gives each of its characters and themes.
In addition, a verse-by-verse walkthrough of Job might work against the style and artistry of that book—so much of which is rooted in powerful storytelling and imagery. Job is poetry and theology woven together; if we treat it like prose, we violate its intended purpose (and, ultimately, its meaning).
As I mentioned above, Mark Clark preached through Matthew for over three years. There were Sundays he would preach just a phrase like “Jesus went across to the other side to such and such a village,” and that would be enough.
He would talk about Jesus (Christology) and break down the missional aspect of his “going.” If you were adopting a similar approach, you might dissect the difference between reaching villages and cities and how they informed the culture of Jesus’ day.
By the time Mark would bring in modern examples, quotes, commentaries, philosophies, and spoke to the skeptics, etc., his 40 minutes were up, and he would carry on the next week.
In contrast, he would hit the Parable of the Sower or the Feeding of the Five Thousand and preach the whole thing (20 or more verses) in one fell swoop.
Why the change of pace and shift to a narrative style? Because you need the whole story of feeding the 5000 to help the story make sense.
The Topical Approach
Finally, expository preaching can be topical. I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but hang on.
Tim Keller was a master at this. (Yes, that’s our second Keller reference. He was an amazing preacher!)
If you attended Keller’s church and examined what you heard every week, it may have felt that you were in a topical series about something. If you looked a little closer, though, the center of every sermon was an actual passage of Scripture. His approach was a beautiful blend of exegetical preaching applied topically.
The series might be about “Reaching New York” or “Marriage” on the surface. But at the core of each message was an exegetical reading of text from Acts, Ephesians or Genesis.
He would work through this and explain the text even while bringing in cultural references—anything from The New York Times to a Broadway musical.
What Keller excelled at wasn’t just biblical exegesis but cultural exegesis. He knew his audience as well as he knew the biblical text. A good expository sermon will carefully exegete the culture and audience as well as it exegetes the text.
Choosing Your Expository Preaching Approach
So… Which one of these approaches is the best one?
The answer is that it depends.
The best way to choose the kind of approach to take with an expository sermon is to let the text lead you toward the format that makes the most sense.
Does a topic stand out in a certain chunk of scripture? Is a verse-by-verse approach best for the next sermon? Let the text guide and your specific ministry context (i.e. your congregation and the people you’re trying to reach) be your guide.
The Distinction Between Expository and Exegetical Preaching
As hinted earlier, exegetical preaching is another option for preachers. After all, I used variations of the term ‘exegesis’ to explain expository and even topical preaching.
So, what exactly is exegetical preaching?
Grace Theological Seminary defines exegesis succinctly, describing the discipline as “the critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture.”
In other words, exegetical preaching tends to focus more on analytical, academic presentations of the study of scripture—it stays rooted more in the first century (or 7th century BC) than the 21st Century. Expository preaching seeks to take that same information and turn it into a format that is relatable and applicable to peoples’ lives today.
Exegetical preaching, then, is the clean, raw analysis of the text.
How to Use Exegesis to Build an Expository Sermon
As I already mentioned, though, for many preachers, especially those with a lot of unchurched people leaning into a message, you cannot simply bring your exegesis to the pulpit and call it a day. The text needs context, and that’s true in explaining its original context and relating it to today.
It’s the interpretation and the application together that make it an effective sermon.
Another way to think about it is that all great expository and topical sermons involve great exegesis, but not all great exegetical preaching leads to great exposition or topical application.
My take is that pure exegetical preaching is best left for seminary professors, bible study, or a congregation of insiders who have little passion for reaching the world around them. Without application to the modern world, the hearing will be largely lost on most people.
The Benefits of Expository Preaching
In a time where many (honestly, most) growing churches approach preaching from a topical vantage point, it’s important to remember the benefits of expository preaching.
- Teaches a strong appreciation of the Scriptures by directly exposing a congregation to the Biblical text.
- Hones both the preacher’s and listener’s ability to interpret scripture.
- Restrains you as the preacher from getting too off-course.
- Captures the power of the text in context.
- Allows the preacher to confront cultural counterpoints to sound theology naturally.
So… Get Preaching
All four approaches to expository preaching can be effective.
Making the text and its meaning the main thing, people’s eyes will tend to focus on God rather than your ministries, churches, or yourself.
You can do that using expository preaching. And if you’re a topical preacher, including some expository book series sometimes can be a welcome addition to your roster.
Preaching the text faithfully always results in a better response, regardless of the style you use to apply it.