Did Jesus Preach Topically?
By Ed Vasicek
I love to question assumptions. Assumptions blind us to the truth; they narrow our minds to endless possibilities. We sometimes call this narrowing of options, "Paradigm Blindness." The problem of Paradigm Blindness is huge, and we all experience it. I certainly have not have risen above it!
One assumption (in the world of preaching philosophy) that has been accepted without challenge is this assertion: "Jesus preached topical sermons." There are a number of other assumptions implied here: (1) Jesus style of teaching is what church leaders should emulate, (2) we have all the words Christ spoke while on earth within the Bible, and (3) Jesus ministry as Messiah was not unique, so we should imitate not only his character, but His lifestyle. I personally disagree with all the above (though I have felt like turning over tables a few times!).
I would like to challenge the assumption that "Jesus preached topical sermons" apart from determining arguing whether the above assumptions are valid.
First, we must remember that whatever Jesus said WAS an exposition. Since He spoke the Word of God, listeners heard him section-by-section, verse-by-verse.
Secondly, in His teaching, Jesus was often expositing a text. The reason many of us struggle with real meaning of much of the Sermon on the Mount (a sermon many believe lasted 2 hours or more but of which only 11 minutes have been preserved) is because we fail to realize that it is an exposition!
Based upon the Jewish tradition of teaching and applying passages of Scripture (midrash), I believe a segment of the Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of Leviticus 19:15-18, " 'Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the LORD. Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
This forms the basis for Jesus teaching about judging consistently (Matt.7: 1-2), reconciling to an offended brother (Matt.7: 23) and anger toward ones brother (Matt. 7:22).
Another passage that Christ was expositing seems to be Deut. 15:9-14, "Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: 'The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,' so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
"If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your wine press. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you."
Jesus applied this text when teaching about giving ones tunic as well as ones cloak (Matt. 7:40) and being extravagantly generous (walking the extra mile, Matt. 7:41) and giving to anyone who asks of us (Matt. 7:42).
The Sermon on the Mount is challenging, but it becomes more intelligible once we contemplate the Torah portions under discussion (yes, there is some guesswork involved!). It is precisely because Bible teachers do not recognize that Christ is engaging in expository preaching (midrash) that we have such difficulty harmonizing these passages with other portions.
The same is true with the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24-25, which relies heavily upon texts in Daniel, Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. Christ's lesson to Nicodemus about the new birth is more or less an exposition upon Ezekiel 36:24-27 and 37:9-10.
The bottom line, of course, is that Christ did – at least sometimes – use exposition. The Book of Hebrews is an exposition of a portion of the Book Of Numbers. The difficult Hebrews 6 passage is clarified when we study it in light of Numbers 14.
Although I admit topical and textual sermons have their place, there is an added benefit to exposition: the preacher himself is forced to grapple with difficult passages he might otherwise evade. We are forced to dig into the Old Testament/Jewish roots of our faith to find answers, thus modeling a faith that celebrates thinking and the pursuit of truth. More than anything else, topical preaching evades many of the difficult questions and some of the toughest issues (creation, prophecy, deep theology, etc.). Done right, expository preaching deepens both those eager to learn and the pastor.