A Pastor’s Reflections: Did I Explain the Text?

When I evaluate a sermon or my own preaching the second key question I ask is whether I adequately explained the biblical text. This is a distinct issue from the first question, namely, Did I exegete the biblical text? Exegesis is foundational to a solid sermon—it ensures that you accurately represent the text in your sermon and don’t introduce foreign ideas to the Bible. In other words, in a sermon the preacher wants to open a window to the voice of God—in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” (I.x). But as important as exegesis is to a solid sermon, another vital element is explanation.

In the post-exilic Israelite community we find the principle of explanation recorded in the text: “They [the Levites] read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). The priests did not merely read the word and leave the people floundering. Yes, as the Westminster Confession teaches, the Word of God is abundantly perspicuous (clear) in matters of salvation (I.vii). But it also acknowledges that there are some portions that are not “plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” Hence, preachers need to exegete the Scriptures to ensure their message is text-driven, but they also need to explain the text to their congregation. In the previous post I said that preachers need to tell their congregations what time it is rather than tell them how the clock was made, and now it might appear as though I’m giving contradictory counsel. How can you explain a text without showing all its parts in great detail?

There is a difference, I believe, in spouting off about Greek and Hebrew terms for which the congregation has no knowledge versus ensuring that the congregation understands what’s going on in the passage. I once preached from Isaiah 6 and told the congregation that the word for holy was the Hebrew term qadosh (queue the sound of a fighter jet screaming by at Mach 2 over the heads of the congregation). While it was important for me to know the meaning of this term in my exegesis of the passage, it was unnecessary for me to quote the Hebrew. I only needed to say that holy means set apart and that the seraphim repeated the term three times to indicate the superlative to convey that God is the holiest of all beings. Quoting Hebrew to people who don’t know Hebrew might sound impressive but it’s telling the congregation how the clock is made. Telling the congregation what the term holy means and why the text repeats it three times lies at the heart of explaining the text.

So, did I explain the text? Related questions are, Did the congregation walk away from the sermon and have a better understanding of the biblical passage? Did the congregation learn something about the text? The last thing you want your congregation to do is to walk out of church, be filled with awe and wonder, but ultimately be unable to tell you why they are filled with these affections. The only way that people will mature in their faith and move from milk to solid meat is if they have a better understanding of the biblical text. While preaching and teaching are distinct things, part of the task of preaching involves teaching your church what the text says. In so doing, you will train and equip your congregation for every good work and lead them, most importantly, to a greater relationship with our triune God.