The screen printer standing in my living room was trying to sell me on a new four-color process for the kids Bible club shirts my church needed. One problem: he came to the door asking for “Mike,” not “Mark” because I kind of forgot to tell him the truth… (I used to use a pseudonymous email address out of overblown security concerns.)
We still joke about that. He’s now one of my best friends. But back then I had no idea of the wonderful story of God’s grace in his life. He and his wife were brand new to the area, and my wife and I invited them over and started a friendship. We found out that this clean-cut young man had, not too many years back, been a drug addict. As a last resort his non-Christian family had sent him to a Christian program in a rural area. Most guys go there to get clean, and they’re willing to use the God stuff temporarily if it will help them get their lives back from drugs and alcohol.
But my friend’s experience was different: God wouldn’t let him be temporary. He got hold of this young drug addict’s heart. After graduating from the program, he immediately went on staff, then married the daughter of another graduate. The screen-printing gig was his first venture into “the real world” since coming clean and turning to Christ. He was full of faith, hope, love, and zeal. He and his wife found a church that was known for engaging (ahem, read: wild) worship services, not so much for theological depth.
Pins and needles
So I was surprised when, one Sunday, he called me and asked if he could come to my church, where the proportion of wildness to theological depth was rather different. “Of course!” I said; I was thrilled. But I immediately became afraid, too. My pastor was going through Isaiah. We had just made it to chapter 21, a somewhat recondite passage full of judgments on people such as the Dedanites, Temanites, and Kedarites. I had to listen to a lengthy expository message through the ears of a guy sitting next to me who, as best I knew, had never heard an expository sermon.
To make matters worse, the title of the message that evening was “Shuddering Over a Harsh Vision.” That was me: I envisioned my friendship with this guy ending. In my vision, he was looking at me like I was an alien, and he was heading back to a church where he could be sure he’d never have to hear about the Dedanites again.
My pastor, an experienced expositor who also taught preaching, said something at the beginning of the message that I’d never heard him say before: “This is one of those obscure passages of Scripture that, if it went missing, no one would notice.” Oh no, I thought. The pins and needles under my pew cushion grew longer, and I was required to sit on them throughout the detailed explanations required to get us all through Isaiah 21.
When the service was over, I couldn’t bear to ask my friend what he thought. I didn’t want to put him in the awkward position of having to tell me with a glazed expression, “Church is not supposed to feel like a sentence-diagramming party.” So I changed the subject of our conversation to something else, maybe football.
He changed it right back. With deep feeling he said, “Wow. . . Now there’s one part of the Bible”—and here he held up his hands to indicate the space of about a chapter—“that I understand.”
Shortly thereafter my friend and his wife were eating up the kind of in-depth Bible teaching I was afraid to introduce him to that Sunday; they listened with the zest of someone who has just discovered that meat exists.
Expository preaching is sometimes criticized (and sometimes rightly so) for being all about understanding and not about feeling. All head, no heart. But you had to be there to see my friend’s eyes. Few people get excited about hour-long expositions of Scripture. He did, because he had the new heart of the New Covenant. He hungered to know God’s words.
John Piper advocates preaching that is what he calls “expository exultation”—head and heart. And in my experience there’s nothing quite like it. The capacity for deep feeling is itself made deeper by a greater depth of exposition. I’ll never forget singing “The Church’s One Foundation” with my fellow church members after we’d been treated to an exposition of that foundation in Ephesians 2.
As is nearly always the case, Piper’s “expository exultation” is only an encapsulation of Jonathan Edwards, who said in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England,
I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (387)
After hearing a message on a harsh prophetic vision, a congregation is supposed to shudder—as Isaiah himself did in this portion of his book (“My heart staggers; horror has appalled me”). The Bible, rightly preached and rightly understood, creates negative feelings as well as positive in hearts made soft to God’s words. The Lord evidently thinks we need to hear passages of comfort as well as of warning. The Bible clearly instructs us both to love the Lord and to fear him. A New Testament preacher must bring in gospel comfort, too, but not by removing the teeth from God’s warnings.
Expository preaching—preaching that truly exposes what the text is saying—can never be merely dry, a matter of the head. Because God’s speech to his people comes with fearful power from a heart of love. The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It pierced my friend that day, and it hasn’t stopped. When I pray for success for my own and other’s preaching, the vision of my friend saying, “Now I understand” is never far from my mind.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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