Editor’s note: This is an eight part series by Charlie on expository preaching.

Hebrews 4:12-13 teaches us that the Word of God is the eyes of God, as it were, that look into and pierce the soul in such a way that the sinner knows, in no uncertain terms, that he has been exposed. The Word exposes his sin, his faults, his short-comings, his hopes, his dreams, his deepest needs, and so many other things. The Word exposes the fullness of his life before God because it doesn’t live on the surface of things but rather pierces into the heart of every matter upon which it touches.

And this soul-exposing work paves the path for the grace of God in Christ because grace only has meaning when a sinner has been exposed. Undeserved favor can only be dispensed when an undeserving soul has been found out. Thus, in order for the glory of grace to be revealed, the truth and depth of our souls must first be revealed and this happens best when the piercing Word of God is systematically unfolded in the presence of sinners.

The teaching of Hebrews 4:12-13 applies not only to the overall message of the Word, or to a given pericope, but to the actual words of the Word. In other words, to preach the Word of God is to preach the actual words of God.

For instance, if I was to develop a message from Hebrews 4:12-13, I would begin by carefully analyzing every word and the syntactical relationships between those words. Then, having done that work to the best of my ability, I would simply ask the question: What is the author trying to communicate with these words? What is the main idea? What are the subordinate ideas and how do they relate to the main idea? How does the main idea of this text apply to my life as well as to the lives of my hearers? So the interpretive path I seek to follow is this:

Words → Syntax → Meaning → Application

Words are the material from which ideas are built. Syntax is the manner in which ideas are built. Meaning is the content of ideas. Application is the purpose for which ideas are built. Thus, it’s imperative that preachers learn to follow this path in this order, for too often we make the mistake of beginning at the end. That is, we seek to discern and articulate the meaning or application of a passage far too early in the process and in this way we allow our ideas to overshadow God’s ideas.

Certainly, the forest is more than any one tree or combination of trees but the forest can only be rightly understood as the individual trees are understood. Just as the trees give rise to the forest, so the words of God give rise to the Word of God. Therefore, we must seek to understand the former in order to properly interpret and present the latter.

Now, once the preacher has completed his study and begins formulate the message, he may or may not go into detail about any given word or combination of words. Just as the ox feeds on grain which never makes it to market, so the preacher feeds on certain details of the text that never make it into the sermon. Those details are often given by God simply to feed him or to augment his overall understanding of the passage. This understanding will inform and impact what he says but it will not necessarily comprise the content of what he says.

Whatever the particulars of the message become, the preacher must learn to allow the actual words of God to formulate his thinking and shape his sermon. Again, to preach the Word of God is to preach the actual words of God. Anything less than this produces something less or other than a sermon.

Admittedly, it’s all too easy, and sometimes tempting, to start with a text of Scripture but end up preaching our own ideas, or to subtly use a text of Scripture for our purposes rather than to elucidate it for God’s purposes. This is in fact the tendency of every preacher. Every one of us wants to be God. We want our thoughts and ideas to carry the message, impact the people, and shape the life of the church. For some of us this tendency is loud and brash and right on the surface, for others of us it’s more subtle and quiet and cleverly disguised. But one way or the other it’s there and it must be rooted out.

One way to root it out is to develop a fierce commitment to the actual words of God both in our study and preaching. Paul’s admonition to Timothy was to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:1) by which he did not mean, “Use the Word as a starting place but feel free to add your own ideas.” Rather, he meant, “Let your thinking and speaking emerge from the specific words and overall ideas of the Word and do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).

The reason Paul stated his admonition in this way is because the Word of God alone is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, the Word of God alone breeds maturity in the people, ensures sound teaching in the church, and gives preachers the tools they need to “be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, [and] fulfill [our] ministry” (2 Timothy 4:1-5). The Word of God is truly living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing the soul and exposing the sinner before God. The wisdom of pastors may be captivating at times but it does not even compare to the Word of God.

Thus, in order to develop expository sermons that glorify God and transform lives the preacher must discipline himself to pay close attention to the actual words of the Word and let his ideas and passion emerge from them.

In the next post we will consider the relationship between prayer and preaching, but for now let me ask the following questions: To what extent does your preaching process value the words of the Word? How does your process help you move from words to syntax to meaning to application? What in particular tempts you to use the words of God for your own purposes rather than to advance God’s purposes? In what ways have you seen the words of the Word glorify God and effect transformation in people’s lives through your preaching?