Book Review of Meyer’s “Preaching: A Biblical Theology”

Books on preaching abound. Most of them deal with methodologies or the how-tos of preaching. Rare are the books dealing with the theology of preaching. Jason Meyer’s Preaching: A Biblical Theology, makes a landmark contribution in filling that void. An associate professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College and Seminary, Meyer succeeded John Piper as pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church a few months before this book’s publication. He wrote this book out of “a deep-seated concern that preachers no longer tremble at the task of preaching and do not devote the time necessary for true preaching to flourish” (Appendix 1). Meyer’s approach resembles that of his predecessor who wrote in his Foreword, “The main aim of preaching is not the transfer of information, but an encounter with the living God.” 

Mindful of the influence of Piper’s preaching in his life and ministry, Meyer shows us in this book that the Scriptures must remain the bedrock undergirding every preacher’s philosophy and conviction in the solemn task of preaching. He explained that the approach he took in this book is different from other books on the theology of preaching, seeking to address the deficiencies he found in setting a sturdier biblical foundation for preaching. He is mainly concerned not in merely giving proof-texts to argue for preaching as found in Scripture, but to develop a biblical theology of preaching from Scripture (Appendix 2). He points out that the Bible is not a manual or how-to book on preaching, but a story. So, we need to examine preaching or the ministry of the word and the role it has played within the contours of biblical theology.

Meyer states the thesis of his book in Chapter 1, noting the three sequential phases included in preaching (stewarding, heralding, encountering), “The ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.” Drawing from biblical supports from the storyline of Scripture, he will argue that preaching must be “expository.” This term must be defined carefully especially today because some critics of expository preaching will often point out that this method of preaching has no or little biblical precedent, that it was not exemplified by Jesus’ or the apostles’ preaching, and that it is a modern and Western construct popularized by Western seminaries. Misunderstandings and misapplications of what makes preaching truly expository make Meyer’s arguments necessary and helpful.

The book has five major parts. Readers can find the meat of Meyer’s arguments for expository preaching in Part 3, discussing the what (ch. 17), the how (ch. 18), and the why (ch. 19) of expository preaching today. He defined it as “re-presenting the word of God in such a way that the preacher represents the God of the word so that people respond to God” (ch. 17). So, for Meyer, expository preaching is not just a methodology, but a philosophy. But it deals with methods, nonetheless. So, how does one preach a sermon that is truly expository? “The way to preach an expository sermon is (1) to share what the point of the passage is, (2) to show why that point is the point from the passage, and (3) to shepherd the flock according to where the text leads when applied to the present circumstances of the congregation” (ch. 18). 

Standard definitions of expository preaching mainly deal with the first part (to share the point of the passage), but Meyer emphasized that it is not enough for the preacher to say the main point of a biblical text, but also demonstrate it in such a way that the congregation will see that it is truly the main point of the passage. In this way, it will teach them not only to learn how to approach the study of Scripture for themselves, but also helps the preacher to anchor his authority in the text and not merely to tell people to trust his words. Parts two and three (show and shepherd) are crucial because some sermons in the guise of being “expository” are not truly expository if they treat an expository series with a topical methodology, or even if the treatment is expository but with little amount of verification, or ignoring the need for application, seeing application to the life of the congregation of a text as optional extra.

Meyer spends the majority of his book in giving biblical precedent in supporting his arguments in “the what and the how” of expository preaching. The summary of his arguments can be found in Chapter 19 (The Why of Expository Preaching). He presents six arguments to support his main thesis: “Though the Bible does not contain the phrase ‘expository preaching,’ the concept is thoroughly and demonstrably biblical.” 

  1. Biblical examples and commands related to preaching can be found in seed form. 
  2. God spoke specific words entrusted to human stewards. 
  3. These words were written in a specific form, carrying divine authority. 
  4. There are warnings not to twist or add to God’s word. 
  5. Preaching will shift somewhat according to the specific stage of redemptive history. 
  6. Expository preaching is a multifaceted philosophy involving more than just a biblical theology of preaching.

Parts 1 and 2 unravel the foundational biblical supports for Meyer’s arguments in Part 3. Part 1 (Ch. 1-5) presents a condensed biblical theology of the word. Meyer is careful in pointing out that to develop a more nuanced understanding of preaching, one must look not only at instances in Scripture directly related to preaching, but also from the vantage point of the stewardship of the word. A survey of the progression of redemptive history shows that preaching includes “stewarding faithfully, heralding fearlessly, and encountering reverently” (Ch. 2). How that stewardship looks may differ in different stages of redemptive history. At times he speaks directly, but at other times he entrusts proclamation of his word to others. Unlike the examples of human stewards in Scriptures, preachers today have unique stewardship in that we have a complete canon of Scripture and noninspired interpretation. That is indeed a massive paradigm shift. That is why he devotes more than half of the book in exploring in greater detail the ten paradigm shifts in Part 2 (Ch. 6-16) “to buttress the condensed biblical theology of part one.” 

In providing a survey of the first seven paradigm shifts (Ch. 6-12), he stressed how major characters in the Old Testament were called by God as stewards of the word, how they carried that stewardship faithfully in some ways and the beneficial effects of that faithfulness to others, and how they failed in many ways and the disastrous consequences of failing to steward God’s word faithfully. God’s judgment is not the final word. Overflowing comfort for God’s people and God’s preachers can be found in the stewardship of the Son (Ch. 13-14). The uniqueness of Jesus Christ as steward is evident in the fact that he has no fall narrative. He stewards the word faithfully. “Every sinful preacher knows that he needs more than just a model for his preaching; he needs a Savior.” The cross keeps us grounded, not inflated by our successes or deflated by our failures. Jesus sends his apostles (Ch. 15) to make him and his gospel known, trusting the Spirit’s power. Like them, we aim not to preach with human eloquence, but with clarity and faithfulness. But we preachers today are not apostles (with inspired writings) but pastors (with noninspired interpretations) tasked to steward the completed canon of God’s revelation and to shepherd a specific flock. So we must study the Scriptures diligently, know our congregation, trust that the word of God we have in Scriptures is sufficient to fulfill God’s purposes in the lives of his people (Ch. 16).

Part 2 is a lengthy read, an arduous task for busy pastors. Some readers who are already convinced of expository preaching may find these chapters unnecessary. Though that can be a perceived weakness of the book, Meyer wisely anticipates that and offers a suggestion to freely skip that part and go from Part 1 to Part 3 without any difficulty (which I did after attempting to read the first few chapters of Part 2). Those who need to read Meyer’s arguments the most may be turned off by this relatively thick volume, so a more accessible title including Parts 3 and 4 of the book should be considered for publishing.

Part 4 (Ch. 20-22) of the book proves that this book is more than just a biblical theology of preaching. Meyer gave rich insights from some areas of systematic theology and helped the readers apply these to preaching. In chapter 20, he reminds preachers that we have an opportunity to model in preaching a sound use of Scripture, and that expository preaching best models a sound approach to biblical interpretation. People learn how to read their Bibles from their preachers. In chapter 21, he reminds us that sin affects our fidelity to Scriptures. Expository preaching stays closer to the details of the text than topical preaching for it focuses more on what God has composed than what we preachers have composed. Does topical preaching have its place? Meyer will argue in chapter 22 that though topical preaching has perceived weaknesses, we are not to dismiss or demonize it because it has certain benefits if used occasionally. It has its place, but must be placed below the primacy of expository preaching. A steady diet of expository preaching is a much better strategy for the long term health of the church. 

The last part (Part 5, Ch. 23) is a culmination of Meyer’s consistent approach in not just making an argument for expository preaching but also in applying the gleanings from biblical theology to the hearts of the readers in almost every chapter. Calling us to trust the authority, power and sufficiency of God’s word, he wrote: “God does not need us to improve his word. Our part is to give the text a voice, not a makeover.” Therefore, before we preach the Word, we must soak ourselves in Scripture, dive into its depths, and mine its treasures. Improvement cannot be applied to the gospel and our Savior, but to our preaching. We must preach the word of the cross first to ourselves. Instead of just making arguments for expository preaching, Meyer exhorts the readers to “be an argument…Powerful, life-giving preaching has always been and will always be the best argument for preaching.” Preachers carrying a heavy burden in preaching will find encouragement from the Chief Shepherd who carries us.

Practitioners and advocates of expository preaching will find Meyer’s work an ally. Vocal critics of expository preaching will find it hard to mount a counter-argument to this work buttressed with Scriptural support through and through. But wherever you are on both sides of the preaching spectrum, you will be moved by this work not just to improve your preaching but to a deeper trust in the unchanging and supreme excellencies of our Savior who alone is the object and end of our preaching. “Him we proclaim” (Col. 1:28).

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