May 6, 2015, is a day that I will never forget. It is the day that my precious daughter, Madison Elizabeth, entered this world. But that date also signifies a series of events that my wife, Alicia, and I will always have ingrained in our minds. I’m sure it wasn’t completely quiet in those terrifying moments, but to me, all I can think of is the uneasy, nervous silence that seemed to envelop the room.
When Madison was born, she didn’t appear to be breathing. Her skin was a very light shade of blue. Sensing that something wasn’t right, Alicia began asking the doctor and nurses what was wrong and why Madison wasn’t crying. I will never forget how quickly and confidently the maternity nurse started to do precisely what she was trained to do. Without indicating any level of panic, she swiftly, yet ever so subtly, carried our precious, newborn baby girl over to the post-birth station in the room, cleaned out her nose, put an oxygen mask over her tiny face, and began doing small compressions on her chest. I followed her across the room and silently prayed to our sovereign God while feeling completely helpless, uttering the only words I could muster in my mind, “Please, God. Please, God.”
Within seconds, Madison began to breathe. Her complexion started to improve rapidly, and the nurse could see from the rest of her vital signs that she was ok. Now, thankfully, the result of that experience was joy. We were able to let out a collective sigh of relief and then rejoice at the birth of our healthy baby girl. But if she had not begun to breathe, our experience at that moment would not have been joy. Instead, it would have been sheer and utter grief. We would have been devastated. So, for us to see Madison, our newborn child, demonstrating the vital signs of life and vitality made all the difference in our world. And it still does today, as we enjoy and experience the thriving, energetic life that Madison Elizabeth displays every day.
Like my dear Madison, there are local churches all over the world that have stopped breathing. They are lethargic, lifeless, and in need of resuscitation. As we look to God’s Word, we are given a description of what distinguishes a church of health and vitality from a so-called church that is lifeless and ineffective. The difference between the two makes all the difference in the world. Instead of taking our cues from the culture and looking to secular strategies for the standard of ministry success, we must look to the Word of God. Rather than listening to the many, ever-changing voices from the world, we should be listening to nothing else but “Thus saith the Lord.”
Therefore, biblical preaching is one of the most essential and foundational aspects of everything a healthy, thriving church is and does as part of its very DNA. It’s preaching that is expository in nature, as it exposes and expounds upon, not human opinions and philosophies, but the very Word of God. We see a profound demonstration of this in the book of Nehemiah. Following the reconstruction of the wall, the beautiful event described in chapter 8 began to unfold as the redeemed, reestablished and reorganized people of God started to seek obedience to him through reading and preaching his Word.
Expository Preaching Proclaims the Word of God
Verses 1–3 describe the scene:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
It is essential to ask why the people gathered together this way. The Jews were commanded to publicly read the Law, or the Pentateuch, every seven years during the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut 31:9–13). Moses provides the rationale for doing so in verses 12 and 13, saying:
Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God.
This event described in Nehemiah 8 was seventy years in the making. Throughout the seven decades of their exile, the people of God could not fulfill the command of public proclamation given to them by God due to being scattered among foreign nations. So here, at this moment, is the end of that seventy-year drought of disobedience and dysfunction. Upon the request of the people, Ezra opens the scroll of God’s Law before the entire congregation of those who could understand the Word being proclaimed.
The nineteenth-century Scottish pastor, Alexander Maclaren, once provided a likely description of the event, saying,
It was a picturesque scene. The sun, rising over the slopes of Olivet, would fall on the gathered crowd, if the Water-Gate was, as is probable, on the east or south-east side of the city. Beneath the fresh fortifications…which would act as a sounding-board for the reader, was set up a scaffold high above the crowd, large enough to hold Ezra and thirteen…men…seven on one side of him and six on the other. There, in the morning light, with the new walls for a background, stood Ezra on his (pulpit), and amid reverent silence, lifted high the sacred (scroll).1Alexander Maclaren, The Second Book of Kings, from Chap Viii, and the Books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, (United Kingdom: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1908), 374-375.
This picture of Ezra standing to proclaim the Word of God to the people of God for the glory of God points us to the importance of expository preaching. Like the physically redeemed Jews, who were celebrating God’s provision and goodness, for both the past and the present, the spiritually redeemed body of believers in Christ share in the celebration of God’s goodness and grace by declaring, “Open the Book!” We don’t need to hear the futile ramblings of human philosophies. Just give us the Word of God. Let us listen to the voice of our Creator. Let us hear the heart of our Savior. Therefore, one aspect of expository preaching is simply exposing God’s words. It’s putting a magnifying glass, if you will, on the Word of God and declaring what God has declared.
Why is this declaration of God’s Word important? Because throughout Scripture, we discover that God creates through his Word. We see it at the very beginning of creation. Amid the formless and unfilled darkness of the earth, as the Spirit of God reverentially and affectionately moved over the waters, Scripture says that God declared, “Let there be light,” and the existence of light came into being (Gen 1:3).
Paul elaborates upon this point in 2 Corinthians 4. In verse 2 of that chapter, he says:
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
And what does God do through the creative power of his Word? Paul quotes Genesis just a couple of verses later, saying: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).
For churches to be the healthy, Spirit-empowered, eternal life-giving entities they’ve been called to be, they must proclaim the Word of God. As we reflect on our text in Nehemiah, we discover that the faithful proclamation of God’s Word begins with our attitude and posture toward it.
Expository Preaching Honors the Word of God
The text found in Nehemiah 8:4–6 continues:
And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
We find an initial expression of honor for God’s Word as Ezra stands on a platform above the people, not as a demonstration of his own exaltation or the exaltation of the men standing alongside him, but rather as the lifting up of the Word. Additionally, we see the honor shown for God’s Word in the people’s standing. And why did they do that? Because they wanted to demonstrate their honor and reverence for the words that proceed from the mouth of God. Of course, we could also add their verbal affirmation of ‘Amen, Amen,’ the lifting up of their hands, and even their attentiveness.
All of those are credible, valid expressions of honor for God’s Word, but ultimately, our text provides us with the culminating way in which we honor the Word of God, which is through our worship. Like the people standing before Ezra, we honor God’s Word by worshiping him. Reciprocally, we worship God by keeping his Word, which is at the heart of expository preaching.
Rather than preaching sermons saturated with quaint stories and fluffy anecdotes, a healthy church honors God by proclaiming, “Thus saith the Lord.” Instead of bouncing around the Bible and picking out random passages to pontificate upon, a healthy church says, “Give me the whole counsel of God’s Word.” When a church walks through the Bible together, book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, and verse-by-verse, the agenda of preaching no longer revolves around the opinions of the preacher but rather on the guidance of our God.
It’s like the choice of meals in my family. To be transparent, if it were only up to me, my family would eat pizza, boneless wings, and burgers for every meal. But I thank God for a wife who helps our family to have a wide range of healthy meals. The same is true for the Word of God but to an ever greater extent. Expository preaching provides the body with a healthy, God-honoring diet of the robust theological wisdom in his Word.
Expository Preaching Explains the Word of God
From there, our passage in Nehemiah 8 goes on to say:
Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
Notice that Ezra and the Levites, in this moment of spiritual revival we find unfolding in our text, were not content to read the Word, as if it were some religious ritual. Instead, they were helping the people of God to know both what the Word says and what it means. More specifically, they were teaching God’s people to understand the Law and apply it to their lives. And that’s precisely the purpose of expository preaching. It begins with God, by his grace, calling, and giving the desire to humanity to study and know his Word to teach it to others. It says of Ezra that he “set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
From that commitment to know and study God’s Word, not as an academic endeavor or intellectual exercise, but as a means to obedience and the teaching of others to do the same, this is why expositional preaching is so important. God works through his Word. It is through his Word that he creates, convicts, converts, builds up, and sanctifies his people. Unlike any other book known to humanity, God’s Word is alive. Hebrew 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
A healthy church seeks to rightly handle God’s living and powerful Word. That is the aim of expository preaching: to make the main point of a text from God’s Word the main point of the sermon. For it is through the proper understanding of his Word that his people are transformed. We see a tangible illustration of that transformation at the conclusion of our text. In verse 12, it says, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” May this be true of us as well. May we rejoice because we have understood the Word of God. May we commit ourselves to honor the Word of God to the point that we will cry out for its expository exultation if it is not being delivered to us week after week. As churches, may we rightly recognize and prioritize the importance of expository preaching.
May there always be men in our pulpits who boldly proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord!”
|Alexander Maclaren, The Second Book of Kings, from Chap Viii, and the Books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, (United Kingdom: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1908), 374-375.