The Hidden Fault Line of Expository Preaching

by Pat Badstibner, President of World Prayr, Inc.

Danger, Danger Will Robison they’re going to preach verse-by-verse this morning.

Now, before I get started let me say that some of my favorite teachers are expositors and I love good expository preaching, but often it is nothing more than instructions on how to be better, have a better life or change without creating lasting change. Imagine tomorrow that you stumble on a five-page letter I wrote my wife Becky, but rather than starting at the beginning of the letter you start on page 3.  On page three you see me discussing things with Becky that I’ve been discussing with her for some time.

You see me giving instructions on things that need to be done, need to be addressed and need to be taken care of. You see me encouraging her to take certain steps, take certain actions and follow up on certain things. Now, if you read the letter you might think; “WOW, Pat sure is bossy.” You might ask, “Where is the love in this letter?” Not realizing that you have started in the middle of the letter, missing the first two and a half pages in which I proclaim my affection, adulation, and love for Becky. If you had started in the beginning, you would have seen a love so rich you would have seen that the instructions you read on page three were to protect that loving relationship in order that others could see how much love existed between Becky and me.

There would have been no question in your mind of where the love was or where the affection in my letter was. No longer would you see those instructions as something Becky had to do to earn my love, maintain our relationship or make me happy but you would now see them as a guide to ensure that our love could be experienced in its fullness and depth of sweetness. You may even desire to be in such a loving relationship yourself.

Yet, because you read my letter out of context, apart from the loving message in the beginning, all that is seen is law and instructions on how Becky was to conduct her life, what her actions should be and what she should do. Rather than seeing Becky as a treasured jewel, loved beyond measure and that which I desire more than my very life, you may walk away feeling that if Becky doesn’t act certain ways, perform the way I want her to my love for her will not be as rich and I will be strongly displeased with her. Rather than seeing that these instructions and directions are there because I love her you may see them as a measuring stick for me as to determine how much I think Becky loves me.

In the halls of Christendom can be heard those reading page 3 of my letter to Becky without beginning at the beginning of the letter, for example, as they expound on a passage like 1 Peter 4:7-10 uncovering truths, instructions and directions found in this passage. Nonetheless, just as with those who are found reading page three of my letter these truths leave their listeners with the feeling that there are indeed things they can do to improve their lives, be happier, find within themselves the answers to maintaining their relationship with God and ensure that God’s love flows freely.

Yet, just as the reader who did not start at the beginning of my letter but page three read my letter out of context so does the expositor who begins in 1 Peter 4:7-10 without reminding their listeners of the gospel truths found 1 Peter 1:1-6. Not only do they take the passage out of context, but the expositor has also failed to meet the need. They surely have given most of their listeners what they want but not what they need.

On any given Sunday morning in the great lecture halls can be found the Samaritan woman at the well. She has come back to the well to draw from the well the same polluted water she has drawn before. Water that is polluted from the words “do more, it’s up to you,” “try harder,” “change this and step it up.” The water she is drawing can never sustain her, will always leave her thirsting for more and having to return to the same polluted well. Life is not happy, she knows that life is not as it should be, she’s searching for something that will bring her what she so desperately longs for, to be loved, to matter and to be significant.

Along with the Samaritan woman can be found the daylong laborers who have labored tirelessly doing all that they thought was right. Yet, they now see others who have not labored as they have and are now secretly crying out unfair. They are unhappy that their lives don’t seem to be as easy as those who appear to have labored less. They are in search of that which will enable them to make their labor easier. They want better instructions for next week so that they will not feel so drained, so tired, so worn out from laboring so tirelessly.

Along with the Samaritan woman and the daylong laborers is found the self-righteous brother. They have seen their brothers and sisters who showed very little love to the father, who didn’t act the way a son should obtain blessings, their inheritance, their reward, life as they wanted and now, they feel unloved. They feel they have lived life as they should, done all the right things, said all the right things and yet life is not working as they feel it should.

Not only is life not working as it should, but they also find those who call themselves brothers and sisters getting more, though not living as they should. They are found questioning the Father’s love for them, wondering why the Father feels so distant and why it feels that the Father’s love is not flowing freely towards them.

If they have come to the hall to listen to the great orator expound on the truths of 1 Peter 4:7-10 then the Samaritan woman may find herself getting instructions on how to have a better marriage, how to have better communication, how to be a better mate, how to draw water from the polluted well better or how to even change the well they are drawing from to a different well. The daylong laborer will find what they came for, as well. They will surely find instructions on how to improve their labors, how to change their work habits, how to invest their money so that they do not have to work as hard or retire early and how to work differently. The self-righteous better will indeed find; “how-to” steps on maintaining their relationship with the Father, improving their relationship with the father, removing the restrictions on the relationship with the Father so that love flows freely and how to please the Father so that the Father smiles on them with more favor.  

The expositor though who only reads from page three of my letter or 1 Peter 4:7-10 has taken truths out of context and thus will do more harm than good. As they leave their listeners with hope in their ability to change, be different, do better and step up their game. Their listeners remain self-reliant, self-sufficient and feeling it lies within them to make life work, easier and maintain their relationship with the Father. They have not dispensed the water that quenches the thirst of the Samaritan woman that causes her to leave stating, “never has such a man told me such things.”

Surely others have dispensed the same or similar advice that will tell her how to have a happier marriage and make life work. The daylong laborer has been told how to make his labors easier, no doubt. And the self-righteous brother has been given how-to steps in having a closer walk with the Father, right?

This begs the question will giving them more of what they have heard really change their life or meet what they really need? If the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again, while expecting different results then why do we think that hearing hints and shades of the same instructions and directions just packaged differently really will create change in us? Do we really believe that found within those who simply expound on truths that allow us to keep looking within will enable us to experience rest from our labors and increase our knowledge of the love of the Father?

It is the failure, fault, and weakness of the expositor who gives no thought to the fact that his listeners are made up of the Samaritan woman, the daylong laborer, and the self-righteous brother. Thus giving them nothing more than that which they want, rather what they need. What they want is answers, instructions, and change that will enable them to make life easier, happier and better. What they need is to be broken of such efforts, to reminded over, over and over again that life is found outside of them.

In order to give this, the expositor must recognize that what their listeners really are in search of is to be loved, significant and to know they matter. The expositor is only able to meet these needs when he begins at the beginning, not the middle. When before going to 1 Peter 4:7-10 he keeps his exposition grounded in the gospel found in 1 Peter 1:1-6.   

No matter how many times they have started at the beginning of the letter. Only here will the Samaritan woman be awakened to a life-changing love and desire instructions not to gain but to give. The daylong laborer will no longer seek to labor for life but labor because they have found life. And the self-righteous brother is able to see how deeply His Father loves not because they have earned or entitled to it, but because it is a one-way love that comes from the Father and flows freely.

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