How does one prepare and preach an expository sermon?
First of all, we must consider what an expository sermon is. In a topical sermon, a preacher covers a major theme like love, salvation, or forgiveness, but the outline arises from the thought process of the preacher instead of from a Scripture text or series of texts. In an expository sermon, the theme, outline, and applications arise from the text and not the author’s thought process. The chief aim of exposition is to present the original author’s intent behind the passage and apply it to a contemporary audience. This is done through using grammatical, historical, and textual principles.
With all this considered, we will reflect on ten steps to preparing and preaching an expository sermon.
1. Choose a Passage.
When looking at a chapter of the Bible, the paragraph breaks, which are typically 3-10 verses, are usually preached. It’s a small section of Scripture with a common theme. To help confirm the fact that these verses are related and will preach well together, look at expository commentaries and sermons to confirm. Did others preach this same section of verses? Did they broaden it or make it smaller? The fact that others have treaded the same ground (and we get to look at how they did it) helps encourage the preacher preparing a sermon over the same verses.
To find sermons on the same passage simply Google it. For example, “Philippians 4:6-7 sermons.” Or research sermon sites like preceptaustin.org or bible.org and look up sermons on the specific book or passage.
2. Gather Five to Ten Commentaries and Sermons for Research.
Why is it important to gather and research commentaries and sermons? It is good to remember that the Bible is an ancient historical book; therefore, it can’t just be read devotionally. We need to know how an ancient Jew or Gentile would have read a specific passage over 2000 years ago. What is the historical background? Was it written during war, peace, or persecution? Is there anything culturally relevant that we need to know to better understand the passage? Is there anything in the Hebrew or Greek that isn’t conveyed by the English? Commentaries and good sermons will help us mine the riches of the passage.
Another reason it is important to study commentaries and sermons is because God has chosen to build his church through the ministry of pastors and teachers. Ephesians 4:11-14 says that God gave pastors and teachers to equip the church for the work of ministry, to help it come to a unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to help it mature, and to protect it from false teaching. This is not just true for the congregation on Sunday, but it is also true for preachers. Preachers must be built up by other pastors and teachers before they build up their congregation. This is how God has chosen to equip his church. It is no more right for a preacher to say, “I don’t need to study commentaries and sermons because I have the Holy Spirit,” than it is for a church member to say, “I don’t need to listen to preaching on Sunday because I have the Holy Spirit.” God equips his saints through gifted teachers. As Christ’s body, we must rely on the gifts of others. The preacher must drink deeply from theologians, Greek and Hebrew scholars, and pastors who have preached for forty years. By doing so, their sermons become wealthy and their congregations are enriched. Great preachers don’t neglect their research.
As you study, it is good to gather a diverse range of writings on the passage. Get devotional commentaries like Warren Wiersbe’s Be Commentaries, William MacDonald’s Believer’s Bible Commentary, and David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary (free here). Get expositional commentaries (imagine a commentary and sermon combined) like John MacArthur’s NT Commentaries and Kent Hughes’ Preaching the Word Commentaries. Get a few exegetical commentaries (which are a little more technical) like Tyndale OT or NT Commentaries and The Bible Speaks Today. And finally, find one or two good full manuscript sermons. I am a big fan of Pastor Steven Cole’s sermons (click here).
3. Read the Passage Several Times.
As you read, pay attention to coordinating conjunctions—words that join two or more words, phrases, or clauses—such as: and, but, or, nor, so, because, and if. These little words are important for understanding what the passage means and how the parts relate to one another. Conjunctions also are important for discovering main points and sub-points (and therefore sermon points and sub-points). It may be helpful to underline or highlight these and any other key words (repeated words, action words, words that demonstrate the theme, etc.). In addition, while reading, ask the text questions: Why does he say that? What does it mean? What is the main thought? How does this apply to our contemporary context? Are there any major doctrines taught or implied in this passage that I should teach? In light of the text, are there any false doctrines or contemporary threats that I should refute or expose?How should I order the main thoughts in a sermon outline? If you gain any insights or are left with pressing questions, write them down and seek the answers when researching the commentaries and sermons. (It may be helpful to create two separate Word documents: a notes page and a sermon page. You will set aside the sermon page until step five when you transfer essential insights from your notes page to the detailed sermon outline which you will have started on your sermon page.)
4. Read the Commentaries and Sermons and Document Insights.
While reading, write down anything that is insightful and useful, like how they worded a sermon point, how they grouped certain verses together under a sermon point, illustrations, explanations, word studies, and cross-references. Cut and paste these in an orderly manner onto your notes page. Since this will be an expositional sermon, try to initially place these insights into separate categories under each verse that they help explain or illustrate. For example, if you were preaching Psalm 1:1-6, make Psalm 1:1 a heading, then Psalm 1:2, etc. As you continue to study, you will discern sermon point headings that summarize the contents of a verse or group of verses, like Psalm 1:1 may fit under the heading The Path of the Wicked, Psalm 1:2-3 The Path of the Righteous, etc. As you research and see how other commentators and preachers have grouped the verses and placed them under headings, it will help with creating your own outline.
5. Create a Detailed Sermon Outline.
On a separate document, develop three to five sermon points from the passage that summarize the main thought of a part of a verse, a verse, or a group of verses. Many of these will become clear in the midst of your research. Consider developing actions points instead of thematic points, as it helps the audience better remember them. For example, if the theme for Psalm 1:1 is The Path of the Wicked, instead say Stay Away from the Path of the Wicked. And if the theme of Psalm 1:2-3 is the Path of the Righteous, instead say Follow the Path of the Righteous. After you develop the skeleton of your outline, flesh it out by cutting and pasting essential explanations and insights from your notes. This will make it easy to rewrite in your own words or to directly quote.
6. Fully Manuscript the Sermon.
Fully manuscripting sermons is important for word clarity, hiding the sermon in your heart, being able to preach it again in the future, and also for making it available to your congregation or a wider audience. Your full manuscript should have these items:
An Introduction: The introduction should SHOCK the hearers in the sense that it tells them why they must listen to the sermon and why it is important. It will also prepare listeners for what will follow. The introduction should include three elements: a theme, an interrogative question, and an organizational sentence. These are explained below:
-A Theme: The theme is the main idea that flows from the passage. Think of one word or phrase that is continually mentioned, implied, or sums up the passage you are preaching. For Psalm 1, it might be The Blessed Life or The Happy Life (as “blessed" can be translated “happy”).
Another helpful tip in discerning the theme is that it often includes a subject and a modifier. The subject answers the question, “What is the author talking about?” and the modifier answers the question, “How does the author limit the scope of the subject?” The modifier completes the subject by focusing and defining it. For example, the subject of Ephesians 6:10-19 is “spiritual warfare.” But the modifier is probably “standing firm” as it is mentioned in one form or another four times in the passage (v. 11, 13, 14). Therefore, the theme is “Standing Firm in Spiritual Warfare.” Similarly, the subject of 1 Corinthians 13 is “love”; however, the modifier is probably “excellent,” since the passage is introduced by, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). Therefore, the theme might be “The Excellency of Love.”
-An Interrogative Question: This is the theme of the passage translated into a question by the using one of the following: who, what, when, where, why, or how. For example, the interrogative for Psalm 1 might be: “How can we live the blessed life?” The following sermon points will then answer that question. For example:
How can we live the blessed life?
Stay Away from the Path of the Wicked (Psalm 1:1)
Follow the Path of the Righteous (Psalm 1:2-3)
Understand the Destiny of the Wicked (Psalm 1:4-6)
Understand God's Favor over the Righteous (Psalm 1:6)
-An Organizational Sentence: The organizational sentence tells the audience what will happen in the sermon. It is often the last part of the introduction. For example, “In this sermon, we will look at four keys to living the happy life.” The audience will then have their ears and hearts ready to receive the four keys or principles for living the happy life. When the organizational sentence is not included, the audience is more susceptible to feeling lost during a sermon, asking questions like, “Where are we?” and “Where are we going?”
The Body of the Sermon. The body includes the sermon points and their explanations. After each point, the text it summarizes must then be observed (what does it say), interpreted (what does it mean), and applied (how can we apply it). Observation takes place as the preacher points out grammatical, historical, and cultural aspects of the text that are important for interpretation. Interpretation takes place as observations and other cross-references are used to explain the meaning of the text. It is important to remember that Scripture interprets Scripture and that Scripture, properly interpreted, never contradicts itself. Therefore, other verses should be used either from the context of the chapter, the book, or the whole of Scripture to explain the meaning. Finally, application occurs as contemporary equivalents to the ancient context are found. In order to find these, one should ask questions like, “How are the people in this context similar to people in ours? How is the setting or conflict similar to ours? What were the applications for the original audience? What are the timeless truths for all mankind?” As a general rule, the closer the equivalent to the ancient context the more authority the application has; however, the farther away the equivalent the less authority it has. For example, in many cultures, it is hard to find an equivalent to eating food offered to idols, while greeting one another with a holy kiss would correspond to any modern greeting. Again, typically you will have three to five sermon points--each explained through observation, interpretation, and application.
The Conclusion. The conclusion is a brief summary of the sermon points or a focus on the primary application/exhortation of the sermon.
How long should the manuscript be? In general, it takes five minutes to preach a one-page manuscript (single-spaced). Therefore, if you plan to preach for twenty-five minutes, your manuscript should be five-pages long. If you plan to preach for forty-five minutes, your manuscript should be nine-pages long. One of the great things about fully manuscripting is that it helps you to better control the length of your sermons.
7. Read the Sermon Manuscript Several Times, while Highlighting, Editing, and Tightening It.
By continually reading/meditating on the manuscript, you will hide it in your heart. By highlighting or underlining main sentences in each paragraph, it will make it easier to quickly prep before preaching. Also, while reading, take note of the manuscript sections you plan to read verbatim during the message. Obviously, it would be wise to read the passage and the cross references (unless you have great memory). If there are great quotes from commentaries or sermons, plan to read those as well. Otherwise, briefly look at your main points and highlights throughout your preaching to keep you on track. In addition, when you read the verses, cross-references, and quotes while preaching, use those moments to quickly look ahead on your manuscript.
8. Preach the Sermon.
While preaching, be aware that it is normal to feel unprepared, to feel like the sermon has not fully come together, and to feel like the sermon has slipped through your hands like sand or water. Do not be alarmed. Often God makes his preachers weak so they will not depend on their flesh (2 Cor 1:9). God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (cf. 2 Cor 12:9). If God calls you to preach often, you will learn to expect this feeling of inadequacy and also the accompanying power that follows.
9. After Preaching, Be Careful of Temptations.
There is the temptation of discouragement because you feel like you could have preached better. There is the temptation of succumbing to outside criticism. Some criticism is constructive, and we must listen to it and improve. However, the enemy loves to criticize the preacher with the hope of discouraging, weakening, and ultimately trying to shut his mouth. Be aware that this is the nature of preaching—full of discouragements (as well as joys). But then there is also the temptation of pride if our preaching went well and was well received. God fights against the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). By God’s grace and through discipline, practice humility. Give thanks to those who compliment you, and at the same time, give praise to God since he is the source of every good work we accomplish (Phil 2:12-13, Eph 2:10).
10. Pray, Pray, Pray!
Pray before you study, pray while studying, pray while writing, pray after writing, pray before preaching, pray while preaching, and pray after preaching. Also, ask your friends and congregants to pray. Paul said this in Ephesians 6:19-20:
Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Paul asked the Ephesians to pray for God to give him the right words and manner in preaching. He asked for prayer to preach it fearlessly twice. No doubt, this represents the constant threat of fear that often accompanies preaching. There is a fear of mishandling God’s Word; there is a fear of failing; there is a fear of being rejected; there is a fear of upsetting people, and even a fear of persecution that might come from proclaiming the truth. Paul also asked the Colossians to pray for his preaching (Colossians 4:2). Preachers should not be shy about asking for prayer. It is a fruit of humility, and it’s a healthy discipline for our congregations. And ultimately, power, clarity, and boldness in preaching come from it.
As you prepare and preach God’s Word, may there be constant grace on you and the hearers and may God be glorified through it all. In Jesus Name, Amen.
 McDill, Wayne. The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching - Second Edition (Kindle Locations 1877-1878). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.
 McDill, Wayne. The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching - Second Edition (Kindle Locations 1591-1592). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.