Preaching is at the very heart of the Great Commission. The central God-ordained means given to the church to advance the Great Commission is His Word, preached and proclaimed in the power of the Spirit.
It is no wonder then that Paul placed such a priority upon preaching when he solemnly charged Timothy to “preach the Word, be ready, in season and out of season – reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul summarized the entirety of his apostolic ministry with these words: “we preach Christ crucified.”
Therefore, the preaching of the Word of God is among the most significant activities on earth. The proclamation of the Word is where the living Christ is mediated to His people through His Word.
Preaching is at the very heart of the gospel reaching the ends of the earth
But Biblical exposition is hard work – beautiful and satisfying work, but it is, nevertheless, work. Ask any expositor and he will tell you that preparing to preach is a sweet fusion of both pleasure and pain, of both exhaustion and exhilaration.
The question is, then, if a man aspires to preach and handle the Word with precision and power, where does he begin? What is a step-by-step process whereby he could go from exegesis (i.e., the study of the text) to exposition (i.e., the proclamation of the text)?
This is the very question I seek to address in this article. This article is for all who read it, but it is especially for men aspiring to ministry. It is written for the man who desires seminary training in the future and yet, would like some help in teaching faithfully in his current ministries.
Here are seven steps that will help you journey from exegesis to exposition, and everything in between.
#1: Preparation (Doing a background check)
This first step can begin to take place weeks before you actually preach. It’s not a long step, but it is a crucial one nevertheless. As soon as you know that you will be preaching (and assuming you know your text), you can begin to assemble your study tools. Read the best materials that you can find on authorship, background, and contextual issues related to your text (Note: I find that the introductions to the best commentaries are really the most useful for this).
If preaching from Ephesians, for instance, immerse yourself in materials that will make sure you are not only acquainted with the basic history of Ephesus, but especially with the direct contextual issues related to Paul’s writing of the book. In other words, knowing the Biblical author’s intention behind why he wrote a particular book will function as the gravitational center that makes sense out of each chapter, paragraph, sentence, and phrase. If you have enough notice before you preach, schedule a few days or even a week to breathe the contextual air and background of whatever book you’re preaching from. This will help you feel more familiar with the ancient world of the text. Instead of immediately trying to make your text relevant today, immerse yourself in the dust of Ephesus. First learn what the text meant to Ephesians before you consider its implications for Americans.
#2: Exploration (Absorbing the whole book and your passage)
This step is probably concurrent with #1, but the goal here is to explore the book or letter as a whole, by reading it again and again and again.
Get the book absorbed into the bloodstream of your soul
Learn the author’s vocabulary, style, theology, cadences, as well as the flow and progression of the book.
At this point, you’re not getting lost in the details, rather, you are absorbing the book at the 30,000 ft. level. You are looking at the forest right now, not the trees. How many times should you read the book? As many times as time will allow. It is probably best to do this exploration stage with a pen in your hand or your fingers at the keyboard of a computer. Write down all of the “big picture” observations you see – including a broad outline of the book as a whole. Doing this stage well will help you to understand the text you are preaching within the larger context of the book.
Study the intertestamental period followed by the first half of the historical books of the New Testament in a self-paced, interactive format.
After you have a good grasp on the book as a whole, you should then do the exact same kind of exploration at the micro-level. You will now be looking at the passage from which you will preach in light of your understanding of the book as a whole (let’s call this “Step #2b”). Read your particular text dozens and dozens of times, recording every nuance . Getting the text digested into your heart through immersion and absorption is what makes or breaks preaching.
#3: Delineation (Detailed outline of your text)
During step #2b at the micro-level, you will inevitably begin to see the author’s structure. This is crucial, because the Biblical author’s main points and structure is to be the main points and structure of your sermon. Your exposition of a Biblical text should mirror the emphases of the biblical author. So as you do step #2b above, begin to form a detailed outline of the text.
Two hints for help in this step: first, this detailed outline (oftentimes called an “exegetical outline”) probably won’t be the exact outline from which you preach. Your outline in your sermon will be more polished than your exegetical outline.
Second, the best way to determine the Biblical author’s emphases and flow of thought is to look at the main verbs (e.g., commands, indicatives) and transition words (e.g., therefore, because, since, although, so that, etc.). These words alert you to the progress of the author’s argument. The main verbs and transitions will not only shape the structure of your exposition, but they will also define what some call a “big idea” or thesis (see below in step #5 for explanation).
#4: Meditation (The process of exegesis and study)
Now for the heavy lifting—the study and exegesis of the text. The reason I insist on calling this portion of the process “meditation” and not “study,” is because: a) meditating is how the biblical authors instruct you to read the Bible; and b) any true study of the Scriptures is, in its essence, meditation.
Meditation is nothing more than careful, methodical, and rigorous thinking about the text.
Here is a simple breakdown of what meditation entails:
- Absorb the text (read it, recite it, think hard about it from every angle)
- Interrogate the text (ask questions of the text as you read)
- Interact with experts on the text (utilize commentaries and study tools to stimulate better thinking about the text)
- Be satisfied in the text (savor the glorious truths you discover along the way)
While never forgetting the big picture of the text or getting lost in extraneous details, you meditate by working through each phrase of a text, squeezing each ounce of honey out of the comb, as it were, and savoring every drop as you do.
#5: Composition (Crafting the sermon)
Now for the writing of the sermon itself – this is what you will preach. In this step, you take the hours and days of accumulated gold you have found in the text and shape it into a format that can be effectively explained to others.
By now you already have your structure (from step #3), and now you should take your more technical exegetical outline and craft it into something more listener-friendly. Your points don’t necessarily have to rhyme or be alliterated, but they should be concise, compelling, and clear.
Remember also, that as you craft your sermon, your big idea/thesis is the gravitational center of your exposition. Everything in your sermon (i.e., introduction, main points, illustrations, conclusion, etc.) is in service of your big idea/thesis – that is, everything else in your sermon flows from or contributes to the big idea/thesis. Your big idea/thesis brings cohesion to your sermon—it determines whether you include something or leave it out—if you aren’t sure, ask yourself, does it develop the main point of the biblical author?
The big idea of your sermon is simply a summary of the Biblical author’s main agenda in the text. It is a compellingly worded, carefully crafted statement that calls a congregation to the life-change and transformation revealed in your text.
Endless debate exists on whether or not you should write a full manuscript (i.e., word-for-word) or use more condensed, abbreviated notes. Regardless of what you choose, this is how I organize my sermons. This may work for you, or you might go about it differently. For each main point of my sermon, I: 1) read the verse(s); 2) explain the verse(s); 3) illustrate the verse(s) and then, 4) apply the verse(s).
Doing it this way guarantees that you are constantly directing the congregation to look down at their Bibles and see for themselves the truth you are preaching from God’s Word.
#6: Recitation (Internalizing your sermon)
If possible, be sure to finish writing your sermon with enough time to internalize and even practice your sermon a number of times. You will want to be familiar enough with your notes to free you from the monotony of reading your sermon to the congregation. The goal is to feel comfortable enough to look your people in the eyes.
After all, preaching is shepherding, not regurgitation
If you are preaching on a Sunday, try to have your sermon finished by Friday, so that three to four times on Saturday and once early Sunday morning you can get your sermon absorbed into your own soul. Be sure also to go over your sermon out loud. This will allow you to hear any confusing or run-on sentences that need to be edited before you are in the pulpit.
#7: Supplication (How to pray before you preach)
Before you preach on Sunday morning, pray. A lot.
What should you pray? Pray for the people who are going to walk through the doors on Sunday morning with burdens and anxieties. People will show up, and whether they know it or not, they have a hunger that can only be filled by the living God through His Word.
Many will arrive on Sunday distracted, fatigued, discouraged, and not understanding that the proclamation of the Word is the very medication their aching souls need.
And so, you must pray – pray that Christ would meet with His people through His Word. Pray that Christ would manifest the sweet aroma of Himself through the text.
Pray that deeply embedded sin would be dislodged and replaced by new affections. And pray that Christ would work through His Word.
Although preaching is not the only thing the church does, it is central to the church’s mission. God is glad, through the foolishness of the messaged preached, to save those who believe (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:21). So learn to preach in a way that compels the lost to treasure Christ and that makes God look glorious, not you.
 Lexicons, grammar tools, reference books (i.e., OT/NT background issues), commentaries, etc. Also, when it comes to commentaries, oftentimes “less is more.” Too many commentaries pose the temptation to spend more time reading those than meditating on the text. My suggestion is to take the best 1-3 commentaries your pastor suggests (maybe a mix of technical/exegetical and more lay-level expositional) and use them for their expertise and keep you honest, but spend most of your time (hours and hours!) meditating on the text. See Step 4.
 An “indicative” is a declarative statement of fact that in NT texts carries the main weight of an author’s argument. Consider, for instance, Titus 3:4-7 where there are many verbs, but the main verb is “He saved us.” All of the other verbs in that text are complementary to this one. In other words, like an engagement ring, most every text has a main diamond of truth and other smaller diamonds that accentuate the beauty of the main one. Be on the look out for the main “diamond.”