What Is the Foundation of an Expository Sermon?

May 23, 2013

In a recent Preaching Points podcast Jeffrey Arthurs argues that the exegetical idea is the foundation of an expository sermon.

What is the exegetical idea? It is essentially “a summary of the text.” It is when you “bring all of your exegetical details together and show how they relate to each other to state the dominant idea.”

An expository sermon, then, is at its core the proclamation of this central idea. It has to be that way, as Arthurs notes, because as God’s messengers

we don’t make up this message. We don’t alter this message. We simply herald what God has already communicated.

If you’ve read Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching, you’ll remember that the exegetical idea, as he defines it, is comprised of two parts: the subject and the complement. The subject is the question the author is seeking to answer, and the complement is the answer the author gives to that question. The subject and complement combined make up the exegetical idea.

Need an example? Arthurs takes a brief look at Psalm 133 to illustrate.

David writes,

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

The thesis of Psalm 133 is presented right out of the gate. David is clearly talking about unity. However, Arthurs’ comments at this point are highly instructive and extremely important. Don’t miss what he says.

Most preachers will be satisfied simply to preach about unity from this text, because obviously that’s what it deals with. But we want to go further and deal more specifically with the authorial intention. And the discipline of the exegetical idea will help you get there. (emphasis mine)

He’s right. Our tendency as preachers is to stay on the surface and preach on the general subject matter of our text. But in doing so, we often fail to really communicate the uniqueness of the text and convey the a/Author’s intended message.

In other words, if the author’s intention is a nail and our exegetical idea is the hammer, it is our job to hit the nail squarely on the head. If we don’t, we may still hit the nail but do damage to it in the process. The original author’s message may come out slightly slanted or badly bent.

Here, then, are the two components of Arthurs’ exegetical idea for Psalm 133:

  1. Subject (Question): “How did David extol the goodness and pleasantness of unity among God’s people?”
  2. Complement (Answer): “By comparing that unity to the anointing oil poured on Aaron at his consecration and comparing it to the copious, life-giving dew of mount Hermon falling on Mount Zion.”

Yes, when combined the two end up becoming a “long, fairly complicated sentence,” but the idea behind the exegetical idea is to summarize what the author said. In the case of a short poem like Psalm 133, the exegetical idea ends up being a restatement of the text to a large degree.

Why is this exercise and discipline critically important? Because once you have your exegetical idea, you have your message. But if you hit the nail squarely on the head, it’s not really your message. It’s God’s message. And that’s why it can be said that “the foundation of an expository sermon is . . . [an accurately derived and formulated] exegetical idea.”

Kerry McGonigal

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In Adam by birth but in Christ by grace. That's my story. Husband to one and father of three. Pastor, homiletics teacher, and passionate proponent of expository preaching. If you like what you've read and want to be notified of future posts, take a second and subscribe via RSS or email (on the right sidebar). Opinions expressed here are my own.

3 responses to What Is the Foundation of an Expository Sermon?

  1. Interesting to hear Jeff after … many years. He and I were in Dr. Minnick’s Pulpit Speech class in 1977-78.

    • Really? That’s quite interesting. Have you read his book Preaching with Variety? I have found it be very accessible and thought-provoking when it comes to preaching the various biblical genres.

      • Haven’t read it, no. I’ve had some contact with Jeff through the years, “ran into him” online when he was at Multnomah in Oregon (I think that’s where he was). I could say that Dr. Minnick taught him everything he knows… but Dr. Minnick taught a lot of us. If I recall correctly, Jeff was a speech minor. I recall thinking that he was too “speechy” when we were in Pulpit Speech. Listening to him now, I see the benefits of that training, but he has lost the “speechy” quality. I should say that I don’t discount a speech minor, one of my sons went that route (did you have Rory in your classes?). But for the benefits of the speech minor, one has to overcome the “performance” mindset – not sure if I am expressing that well. It’s nice to hear Jeff speaking now, he shows the signs of good training and lots of experience. Of course, we all have changed from those years and hopefully we have all improved.

        It is funny how I can recall many of the names from that class. Perhaps because Pulpit Speech (like Freshman Speech) was such an agonizing and traumatic experience! At least it was for me. I don’t mean that as a complaint, but because I always viewed this class as one of my most important classes. I can barely recall other classmates from other classes, but Pulpit Speech stands out. I can recall specific instances and much humiliation.

        I’ll have to look Jeff’s book up. Thanks for the tip.

        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3