One of the great debates in preaching circles is whether to preach topical sermon series’ or expository series’ through books of the Bible.
I am sure you have met some people who have passionate opinions regarding one or the other. One camp says that preaching verse-by-verse through a book is tedious and becomes unengaging after a while. The other camp says that jumping all around the Bible is confusing and can lead to unfaithful exegesis.
No man of God desires to be unfaithful to the text. Neither does any preacher have ambitions of being unengaging.
I once heard of a preacher who preached from the book of Hebrews on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night for a long time. Pretty soon, people in the community couldn’t figure out how his congregation could understand him if he was always preaching in Hebrew!
Let’s face it. We aren’t Martin-Lloyd Jones, who spent 13 years in the book of Romans. That doesn’t need to be our goal.
What does need to be our goal is faithfulness to the whole counsel of God found in the biblical texts.
The trouble arises when you realize that being faithful to the book of Ephesians might take a year and half, and you know that your church will tire of it in about six months.
But what if I told you that preaching a topical and expositional book series simultaneously is possible? Not only is it possible, but it is also biblical, which is most important. Would you be interested then?
Two keys are necessary to excel at this type of preaching.
First, study the book as a whole so that you recognize the major themes or topics throughout a particular book you want to study and preach.
Take, for instance, Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. This a letter in which Paul has some definite theological and practical matters he wishes to communicate to this church and he does so in the first few chapters. But it is also a letter where Paul answers some of the church’s questions regarding certain disconnected “topics” such as marriage, matters of conscience, authority structures, communion, spiritual gifts, orderliness, and the resurrection.
Each one of these “topics” is a mini-series within the overall “exposition” of the entire book.
Another example is found in the book of Matthew. At the end of chapter four, Matthew states that Jesus, “went throughout all Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
At the end of Matthew 9 we find a restatement of this passage. This forms an inclusio, or bookend, for this portion of the gospel. This could be a topical-expositional sermon series about the focus of Jesus’ ministry within the overall exposition of the gospel of Matthew.
Paul’s letters to Ephesians and Colossians are especially geared for this type of preaching. In each, Paul takes time in the first part of the book parsing out the beauties of the gospel. In the second half of the book, he explains how and why the gospel is applied to practical areas of our lives such as church, parenting, and work. Each of those topics are worthy of their own mini-series within those books.
Another way to preach topical and expositional messages simultaneously is to identify themes that are sprinkled throughout a book. The gospel of John offers several possibilities such as light/darkness/night, the “I am” statements, the “signs” of Jesus, or how John uses the word group, “to know.”
By identifying the different themes or topics within a book, you are afforded the flexibility to change series’ titles or subtitles and graphics while remaining faithful to the text of one book.
So instead of taking two years to preach through a sermon series entitled, “1 Corinthians,” you can break it down into mini-series with various different titles that keep your flock engaged, anticipating, and excited.
The second key to utilizing this way of preaching through books of the Bible is transitioning from one topic to the next, or one mini-series to the next. Good transitions accomplish at least three purposes.
First, they keep your church grounded in the overall context of a book. You may think your people get tired of hearing the overall sitz im leben of a book, but trust me, they don’t. You, as the preacher, study it over and over, but they likely do not.
So after having spent three weeks on a theme, transition to the next theme of the book by casting an understanding of the overall context of the book. For example, you could say something like, “As we move from studying about humility to examining the joy of discipleship, let me remind you of what is going on as Paul writes this letter to the Philippian church from jail.” If your people do get tired of hearing about the context, then chances are that they at least know it, which is a good thing!
Second, transitioning gives you the opportunity to highlight the intended design of the book. Is there an identifiable reason why, in Ephesians, Paul moves from talking about living a life worthy of our calling in the church, and then in marriage, and then in parenting, and then in work? He is hitting all the major areas of our lives, and your congregation needs to know this.
Is there an identifiable pattern as the author of Judges moves from judge to judge? Perhaps! It appears that as you move through Judges, there is a decline in morality.
The third purpose of transitioning is to connect the mini-series to the overall theme of the book. You can then connect the overall theme of the book to the entire metanarrative of scripture. This gives you the opportunity to preach the entire bible, focusing upon Jesus, His redemption and coming consummation. Your church needs to see that the Bible is one main story broken down into mini-series’ of books, which are broken down into mini-series’ as well.
So rest easy. You no longer have to decide whether you will preach a topical sermon series or go through a book of the Bible expositionally. You can, and should, do both!