This is a step where we can easily derail. Even if we have done our first seven steps well – handling the text accurately and comprehensively – and even if our eighth step has helped us to have confidence that we have grasped the meaning of the passage, there is still much possibility of error in our ninth and final step. The major problem is that we sometimes forget our purpose at this stage – and we fail at this in two particular ways.
Recall the four basic steps of Bible study: observation, interpretation, correlation (or verification), and application. The first seven steps of the (more detailed) exegetical process entail observation, interpretation, and primary verification. The eighth step completes the verification process. So the first eight steps of the exegetical process correlates, basically, with the first three steps of basic Bible study. By comparing the more complex process (exegetical) with the simpler process (basic or introductory Bible study), it is apparent that the final steps of both are to be very practical – meaning, having to do with practice. Once we have understood the meaning of the text, what are we supposed to do with it? James reminds us to be doers of the word and not just hearers only (Jam 1:22).
The first purpose of exegeting and understanding the text is so that we might follow it. Of course, we must recognize the distinction between primary application (for the initial audience) and secondary application (for you and I). The Scriptures were written not only for the original audience, but also so that you and I might be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). Consequently, there is no passage of the Bible that we can’t draw from in our own personal lives. We just need to draw correctly. Consider, for example, Ezra, who, as is recorded in Ezra 7:10, sought to learn the law of God, to practice it and to teach it. Notice the order in Ezra’s process: learn, do, teach. We mustn’t learn simply so we can teach others. We must learn so we can grow closer to our Lord, understanding Him better. So this final step (exposition) is not first about preparing an explanation of the passage for someone else, it is about me putting the passage into use in my own life, and doing so with proper understanding of the passage in mind. The first of two major ways we can fail at understanding the purpose of exposition is to focus on training up others before allowing myself to be trained.
The second purpose of exposition is to communicate God’s word to others, ultimately for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ (Eph 4:12; 2 Tim 3:16-17). And here is where we often get it wrong: when we think that we are the ones equipping people, we have missed vital Biblical data. It is not you and I that equip others – it is the word of God. His word equips, and it is the task of exposition (after we practice) to help others understand how to handle God’s word for themselves. Rather than create followers who are dependant upon us for their daily sustenance, we need to be helping disciples to grow in the ability to feed themselves. Consider this: of all the instances the word feed is used in the NT, it is never used as an imperative to pastors – or anyone – with respect to spiritually feeding others (the only exception is Jn 21:15, in which Peter is given specific direction from Christ). Even in the Lord’s prayer, the disciples were to ask the Father for their daily bread (Mt 6:11). In short, our job is not to create dependants who have to come to us for feeding. Rather, it is to train up disciples who will have not only the ability to feed themselves, but also the ability to teach others to feed themselves as well (2 Tim 2:2). We must keep this goal in mind as we communicate the Bible to others.
If that goal is firmly in mind, then we can avoid the second major mistake of exposition: the failure to show our work. It is remarkable to me how many exposition textbooks describe accurately the exegetical process, and then when they move into the subject of exposition, they suggest the exegete hide his or her work from those they would teach:
“Don’t use Greek and Hebrew words.” “Don’t talk about grammar.” “Don’t get into the technicalities.” “Just give them the big idea.” “Don’t exegete from the pulpit.”
I can’t emphasize enough how completely wrongheaded these suggestions are. If the goal is to help people to develop their own abilities to handle the text, then I absolutely must model these things in my own exposition. If I don’t, I am equally as guilty as the father who refuses to allow his children to see how a meal is prepared – ever. How will those children handle the responsibilities of life when they have no one around to feed them and they must do it themselves? Elsewhere, I have suggested that we are not chefs, preparing fancy meals for people’s delight, but instead we are teaching people how to cook for themselves. If we don’t show those we are training how to do the basic exegetical tasks necessary for their own feeding, then how effectively can we possibly be at training them? It is a terrible travesty when anyone creates dependency in anyone else. And when we don’t teach people to think, study, and function on their own, we are being very, very cruel.
Okay, so how do we do it right, then? Show your work! Exegete from the pulpit – from the dinner table, the sofa, and anywhere else you are given opportunity. Where there are people willing to learn, show your work in the text. Teach them how to do that work themselves. It’s just that simple.
And please, please…stop writing sermons, and let the Bible speak for itself. A sermon can’t equip anyone. God’s word can and does. Which would you rather provide?
Now that the dead horse has been sufficiently pummeled, let’s move on to some specific methodology for communicating the Bible to others. Please keep in mind what follows is only a suggested way to prepare for communicating the Bible – it is certainly not the only acceptable form of delivery. The key is whether or not we are allowing the text to speak on its own terms and showing people how to handle it for themselves. That is the goal of the process that follows.
First, provide a verse analysis or a running commentary on the passage. Generally this can be as simple as basic summary of each passage in relation to the overall context, or it can be as complex as including every discovered element of exegetical insight. In either case (and all those in between), the content should be the direct result of the exegetical study.
Second, summarize principles (universal truths applicable to all), primary application (intended response of the initial audience), and secondary application (intended response of you and I). If a universal principle is evident in the passage, it should be noted as crucial to both primary and secondary application. Primary application relates directly to the original intended audience, while secondary application relates to later audiences, including the exegete. Principles and applications should be stated with clarity and conciseness to ensure that keys have been grasped.
Third, identify the impact of the passage on your own life and begin to act upon it. Just as it is throughout the entire study process, the passage should have personal impact. Remember, James exhorts believers to be doers of the word and not merely hearers (Jam 1:22-27), and later cautions against being too “ready” to teach. Before the edification of others must come the application to one’s self. Remember Ezra:
For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to practice it and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel (Ezra 7:10).
Ezra’s priorities show a focus on (1) diligence necessary for study and learning, (2) being an effectual doer and practitioner of all that God had said, and (3) only then being a faithful teacher of Scripture. While it is easier to focus on how the passage will be delivered to a target audience or congregation than to consider its impact on ourselves, the godly examples of the Bible demonstrate how important personal devotion and godliness is to God. Practice comes before teaching. The adage says, “Them that can’t do, teach,” but in the context of Biblical teaching, it is more accurate to say, “Them that would teach (and even them that wouldn’t) must do.”
Fourth, develop a presentation of the passage for the edification of others. Here is an effective basic pattern for the structure and delivery of an exposition: (1) reading of the entire passage to be covered, (2) prayer for guidance in study, (3) basic summary of background and context, (4) reading of individual section (sentence, verse, or paragraph), (5) relating of section to the overall context, (6) summary of each section’s verse analysis and exegetical key points, (7) highlight principles and applications at appropriate points, (8) offer a brief summary of overall exegetical context, highlights, and principles and applications, and finally, (9) prayer for wisdom and strength in order to be an effectual doer of the word, to the glory of God.
Examine, for example, the exposition recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-12. Note in particular the emphases regarding both the content and the response. The content – the textbook – was the word of God (8:1). It was prayerfully considered (8:6). It was opened and read from (8:3, 5). It was explained, to ensure that the hearers understood (8:8), and it provided calls to action and encouragement (8:10). In response, the people gathered to hear it (8:1). It was heard attentively (8:3) and respectfully (8:5). It was received as true (8:6). It was received patiently (8:7). It elicited personal response (8:9). It resulted in worship of God (8:6). It was understood and acted upon (8:12).
Why do we study the Bible? Why should we allow it to abide richly in us? Why should we be doers of it? Why should we teach it to others?
The answers to these questions go a long way in helping us to understand how to do these things. Let’s not forget our purpose as we engage in the process. God has a purpose in communicating His word. Let’s not stand in His way by doing a poor job of understanding it, a poor job of obeying it, or a poor job of communicating it.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth. It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-11).