Archives For Explanation

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.


Never attempt to proclaim what you can not explain! The one most important of the functional elements of preaching is explanation. The arrangement, the illustration, the application, and the exhortation are of little value apart from responsible exposition of the truth of the passage. Homiletics is a helpless sham apart from accurate hermeneutics.

~ Scott Tatum

Homiletics Minus Accurate Hermeneutics Equals “Helpless Sham”

Enjoy these preaching-related links and summaries from the past week. Especially note Peter Mead’s helpful 3-part series on explanation in preaching.

9 Teaching Methods of Jesus – ProPreacher

If you want to be an effective preacher or teacher, model your methods after Jesus.

Preach the Word, tell stories, be shocking, craft sticky statements, use object lessons, repeat yourself, create experiences, and practice what you preach.

Preaching Distractions – Rainer on Leadership #008

Jonathan and I explore some personal stories and some reader submissions from a recent post on preaching distractions. We talk about plumbing issues, flying shoes, ripped pants, overzealous janitors, and more. We also cover how to recover when something like this happens, and how best to prevent them from happening. While the ministry of a pastor should be taken very seriously, we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

Listener Levels – Peter Mead

Preaching involves explanation.  That is, when we preach, we need to offer some explanation of the passage’s meaning.  But it needs to be more than that.  We need to offer explanation of the passage’s meaning at a level appropriate to those who are listening.

Listener Levels: 7 Suggestions to Improve Accessibility – Peter Mead

How can we improve at offering explanation that will help people at the lower range of understanding?  Perhaps your preaching goes over peoples’ heads, but you want to explain the Bible in a way that is accessible to younger Christians or less biblically literate folk?

Listener Levels: 7 Ways to Add Steak to the Diet – Peter Mead

What if your biblical explanation is typically at a level lower than many of your listeners?  What are some suggestions for adding steak to the diet of listeners that are needing it?

What Did It Look and Sound Like in Jonathan Edward’s New England? – Justin Taylor

The center of attention in the Puritan meeting house was the pulpit, or “the desk,” as New Englanders commonly dubbed it for its  importance as the locus of biblical scholarship in their midst. . . . from start to finish Puritan worship services centered on the Scriptures.

Bold, Daring Audacity Vs The Pretty Boy Preachers – Colin Adams

Many preachers just want to be ‘nice.’ They cherish being winsome above being earnest. They desire popularity above faithfulness. They tremble more at the thought of offending their congregation, than they fear the thought of offending their God.

These links and summaries are offered for your consideration and evaluation because they relate to preaching. Their inclusion does not necessarily imply my whole-hearted commendation. I can’t even recommend everything I write. As always, read with discernment.

How often do we simply assert our main point in a sermon, read a couple of supporting verses with little to no comment, and then move on to illustrate or apply the concept?

Someone says, “So, what’s wrong with that?”

Well, maybe nothing is wrong with that, depending on the nature of the text or the general knowledge and maturity of the audience.

But in many cases there may be significant problems with that approach.

  1. The Connection Is Not Clear. Unless the point being made is self-evident (i.e. on the surface), it may not be clear to your listeners how you got that point from those verses. Simply reading the verses may not be sufficient to make the connection in their minds.
  2. The Application Is Not Accepted. Unless people accept the stated idea in good faith because they instinctively trust you, they may not readily accept the idea as biblical, and therefore, any applications that flow out of that sermon idea may not be embraced as having God’s authority behind them.
  3. The Conviction Is Not Strong. Even if people do accept what you’ve said without requiring justification from the text, they are less likely to hold that truth with the same degree of personal conviction as they would if they saw it unmistakably for themselves from the text. 
  4. The Teaching Is Not Biblical. The practice of actually showing people from the Bible where you’re getting your ideas from provides wonderful accountability against saying things that just aren’t biblical.

I try to operate by this general rule: If I can’t show my listeners clearly from the Bible where I’m getting a main idea, I’m not going to make it one. In fact, this is how I tend to filter through the commentary literature. The author may have what sounds like a great idea, but if I can’t “see it” for myself in the text, how am I going to “show it” to my listener? And if I can’t “show it,” then I probably shouldn’t “say it.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to show my listeners or that I will show them; it means that I could show them if I had time and wanted to.

Nor does it mean that I have to have a Bible verse for everything single thing I say. There are obviously times when you engage in doctrinal synthesis and make logical extrapolations and applications. There are also times when you have to assume the basis for certain statements due to time constraints or other considerations. But in general my default should be to show from the text whenever possible and not just tell, especially when it comes to my main ideas.

Allen Ross in Creation and Blessing writes,

Too many so-called expositors simply make the one central idea the substance of their message. The narrative may be read or retold, but the sermon is essentially their central expository idea–it is explained, illustrated, and applied without further recourse to the text. This approach is not valid exegetical exposition. In exegetical exposition, the substance of the exposition must be clearly derived from the text so that the central idea unfolds in the analysis of the passage and so that all parts of the passage may be interpreted to show their contribution to the theological idea. (47)

In other words, we must labor to help people connect the dots. We must show them how we arrived at the general idea from the particulars of the passage. It is not safe to assume that people will see or make the connections on their own. So show them. Don’t just tell them.