Archives For Exegetical Idea

Frag-men-tar-y Ex-po-si-tion

October 17, 2013

In a sincere effort to emphasize the text of Scripture and to keep their messages biblical, some preachers engage in what we could call “fragmentary exposition.”

Here is the typical pattern for fragmentary exposition:

  1. Break the text unit down into its component parts–i.e. words and phrases.
  2. Take up each word or phrase in the order in which it appears in the English text and develop it as a separate point.

Perhaps an example would help. Here’s a sermon excerpt from Romans 12:1-2 to illustrate what fragmentary exposition looks like:

My first point is Paul’s appeal. Paul begins v. 1 with an appeal. The word Paul uses means “to exhort.” He is not just giving advice. He is summoning the Roman believers to obey. This is not the only time in Romans where Paul makes an appeal. Turn to Romans 15:30 . . . And now turn to Romans 16:17 and let’s look at another instance of Paul making an appeal. . . . You also see Paul making appeals in 1 Corinthians 4:16; 16:15; and Philemon 10. So, then, it is important for us to recognize that the Bible is not just a collection of truth statements. It comes to us and appeals to us to live in light of those truths.

Transition: So we have, first of all, Paul’s appeal in v. 1. Next we have Paul’s audience–“brothers.”

The word translated “brothers” here is adelphoi. It reminds us of the family relationship that believers have because of Christ. This is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. For example, turn with me to the letter of Philemon. We have in this short epistle a powerful example of how individuals who were once estranged can be reconciled and become brothers in Christ. . . .

Transition: We have seen Paul’s appeal and Paul’s audience. Now, let’s consider Paul’s attitude reflected in the word “mercy.” . . .

Now, before I offer my critique, let me say that there are several commendable qualities here:

  1. The outline is simple, clearly stated, and (for all you ardent advocates of alliteration out there), it is alliterated. More importantly, however, the outline is derived from the text.
  2. Certainly attention is given to the words of the text, and the discussion that ensues is thoroughly biblical.
  3. Each word or phrase is considered from a big picture, whole Bible perspective.

There’s no doubt that this kind of preaching could and does minister to God’s people. However, there are several significant weaknesses reflected in this approach.

  1. Though attention is given to the details of the text, the individual parts are not related to each other.
  2. As a result, the idea of the passage is not clear. The audience may leave with a good understanding of the meaning of each word but still not know what Paul is saying in verses 1-2. One of our obligations is to show  our listeners how the parts fit together. How does this word relate to the next word? How does this phrase connect up with the big idea of the text? How do these verses fit into the immediate and broader literary contexts?
  3. One significant area of weakness is in the transition. The transition indicates sequence (“First . . . next . . .”) but does not reflect the logical relationship between the points.
  4. Also, the listener gets the impression that each word or phrase is a main point. And although each word and phrase is breathed out by God, it is not true that each word or phrase shares the same semantic weight or significance within the passage. Some words have a subordinate and supporting role to play. Therefore, we must stress the central thought while showing our listeners how the subordinate details relate to and contribute to the big idea.

So how could we make the preceding exposition a bit better? Consider this example:

The main point that comes out of v. 1 is this: Paul exhorts believers to consecrate their lives to God in light of His mercies. The word Paul uses in v. 1 for “appeal” indicates that this is not just good advice or his personal recommendation. No, it is a strong and urgent exhortation to consecration. And this appeal is directed to believers as the term “brothers” indicates. Those who are called to consecration are those who have come to believe the gospel that Paul preaches in the first 11 chapters of Romans. And it is that very gospel that serves as the basis for Paul’s appeal for consecration. Notice, v. 1, he appeals to them “by the mercies of God.” . . .

In this example . . .

  1. The main point is a complete thought representing the central idea of the passage. This is why I always encourage my students to steer away from topic or phrase outlines in favor of sentence outlines (or some combination of the two).
  2. The supporting details are covered much more quickly and succinctly because the explanation is “along the way” to the bigger point. The focus in the exposition, then, is on how these individual words and phrases relate to the larger concept.
  3. There is greater unity and coherence in this example because an effort is made to relate the parts and show how things fit together.

I applaud those who reverence God’s Word enough to take it seriously in their exposition. I appreciate those who want their preaching to be thoroughly biblical. But fragmentary exposition is not the best approach. Fragmentary exposition leads to a fragmentary understanding on the part of the listener. Instead, approach the details of the passage as a means to arriving at the main idea of the passage. Then preach the main idea as the main idea and keep the supporting cast in the background.


Question: Do you see any additional weaknesses or problems with the fragmentary approach to exposition? Or, do you think the fragmentary approach is valid and valuable? If so, let me know why.


There are a lot of things to think about when preparing a message. But how many of us think about how we think? And let me go one step further–how many of us think about the way we are leading our listeners to think?

For example, should I begin my message by telling them what my big idea is and then proceed to lead their thinking out of that idea through further development. Or, should I begin my message by getting them to think toward the (yet unstated) big idea and then proceed to lead them into it by the time I reach my conclusion.

In other words, what is the shape or movement of my sermon with reference to my big idea (or proposition or homiletical idea)? And how do I want my audience to think about it?

Of course, what happens at the macro level in considering the shape of the entire sermon also takes place at the micro level in considering the shape of individual sections within the sermon.

For example, how am I going to get my listeners to think about my first main idea or point in the message? Should I move toward the idea? Away from the idea? Into and then back out of the idea? Should I circle around or perhaps work through the idea?

Or, if I’m honest, do I really have no idea? That, unfortunately, is the way some sermons come across. “What is his point?” the listener thinks to himself or herself. Or, perhaps more commonly, “I have no clue how that illustration or that cross reference or that bit of  historical background had anything to do with the point he stated earlier.”

That’s why we need to wrestle with the question of shape. We need to know at each moment where we are in relationship to our main idea(s). We need to consciously and deliberately employ shapes that communicate those ideas most clearly and effectively.

Four Basic Shapes

Here is one way to visualize the various shapes available to us. In his book Using Rhetoric John Jordan enumerates four basic shapes, patterns, or forms of developing the topic sentence within a paragraph. For our purposes (since we’re not writing a paper), think of the topic sentence as your exegetical idea, or homiletical idea, or main point. You can even think of it more broadly as any idea you want to get across in a message. And think of the paragraph as any unit of thought within the sermon (like the introduction or a main point) or the sermon as a whole.

1. The Triangle Shape

The topic sentence standing first makes the simplest and most reliable kind of paragraph organization. We naturally declare what we are going to say and then say it, thus forewarning and preparing our readers. Furthermore, this paragraph structure reflects the wide-spread method of thought, . . . operating in deductive logic, of moving from generalization to particulars. A generalization is made at the beginning of the paragraph, and everything in the paragraph derives from and supports that generalization. If everything cannot be derived from the topic sentence, then something is wrong with either the topic sentence or the paragraph. (123, emphasis mine)

2. The Wedge Shape

One can construct a paragraph on the inductive pattern by pouring in details and concluding with a generalization contained in a topic sentence. The writer then gives the illusion of actually working out what he wants to say in the course of the paragraph, before the reader’s eyes. Perhaps in his rough draft the writer actually is uncertain of what he wants to say. But by the final version this working out of the material must be just an illusion designed to encourage the reader to think with the writer. (123)

3. The Diamond Shape

[It is a paragraph] beginning with a topic sentence and ending with a similar sentence which repeats the idea in different terms and perhaps leads to the next paragraph. This type of paragraph expands from a generalization and then narrows back into one. Thus it benefits by using both modes of thought [deductive and inductive] , expanding and then narrowing, and leaves an impression of having nailed down the point. (124)

4. The Hourglass Shape

The topic sentence [is] in the middle of the paragraph, so that some of the details add up to the generalization and some derive from it. (124)

There you have it–the four basic forms or shapes for developing your ideas: triangle, wedge, diamond, and hourglass. They look great on paper, don’t they? In real life, however, things are not always so neat and tidy. There can be many combinations of these basic shapes in an actual sermon leading to more complicated and complex structures. That’s okay.

The question we should be asking ourselves is not primarily, “Am I using one of the four basic shapes above, and can I identify which one?”

No. The questions we should be asking are these:

  1. Is there a deliberate and purposeful shape to my sermon overall and to the individual sections within?
  2. Am I employing the best shape to communicate the idea of the text, to accomplish the purpose of the text, and to impact the listeners for Christ.

So, what kind of shape is our sermon in? We need to think about the answer to this question. In fact, we need to think hard about the answer to this question. The unity and clarity and effectiveness of our sermon, from a human standpoint, is at stake.

If you’d like to read more along these lines, I would recommend Dennis Cahill’s book The Shape of Preaching.

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.”