How to Preach a Text When You Don't Know What It Means
Convictionless churches are empty churches. Sure, it may be cool these days to be noncommittal. Sure, backing off and saying that you "could be wrong" is transparent and will gain you some respect among a skeptical audience. Of course, giving all the possible interpretations of a passage of Scripture or a theological position is educational and disarming. But there is something different about preaching that requires the preacher to present a more anchored hope. It meant much more to the Reformers than, "I am going to stand behind this block of wood and give you some options about what to believe." Simply put, that approach lacks conviction. And even if you are a diehard pragmatist only looking to fill the pews, this is not the way to go about it. Because, frankly, if you have little or no definite convictions, then you are neither a preacher nor a pastor.
"Give them something to believe." I am told that every time Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, ended his theology classes, he would say, "Men, give them something to believe." People are looking for something to believe. They want to rest the weight of their anxiety upon something stable. They have enough instability in their lives. They don't want to go to church to hear the preacher teach. They want him to preach. Teaching and preaching are not the same thing. They share quite a bit in the semantic domain of discipleship, but they also are distinct and need to be used intentionally. How are they distinct? Let me give you a few ways:
- Preaching is exhortation; teaching is education.
- Preaching is the discharge of the gospel of hope; teaching is discipleship of the gospel of hope.
- Preaching puts wind in the sails; teaching put an anchor in the ground.
- Preaching raises our eyes to the things we know with great conviction; teaching helps us to understand what things we can have legitimate conviction about.
- Preaching tells you which option is correct; teaching gives you all the options.
But when you're preaching, what do you do when you come to a passage of Scripture and you are unsure about what it means? Let's be honest—this happens quite often. You are preaching through a book of the Bible, and you come to a place where the commentaries do not agree, there seem to be multiple legitimate options concerning its interpretation, and you are left scratching your head. You don't want to be dishonest and just choose an option. And you don't want to deliver a drawn-out sermon on what different denominations teach.
So what do we do? First, my advice, then I will illustrate.
- Briefly let people know there are multiple options, but don't go through all the options in detail.
- Briefly tell people which one you are most convinced about and why.
- Preach with unashamed confidence the principles of the chosen option, giving them something to believe. So long as the principles are true, your integrity before the Lord will be covered.
But how can I preach with "unashamed confidence" something that I am not that confident about? Because the principles put confidence in your voice, even if you remain unsure about the exact understanding of this particular passage.
For example, in John 3, there is a confusing passage about Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus. Jesus is waxing poetic about the new birth and how one must be twice-born to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is confused about this teaching and says, "How can these things be?" Jesus responds with a stern rebuke: "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don't understand these things?" (John 3:9-10)
According to Jesus, this teaching should not be new to Nicodemus, someone responsible as a Pharisee for educating Israel. The problem for the interpreter/preacher is that we are not really sure why Jesus comes down so hard on Nicodemus. After all, when we look back into the Old Testament, even with our fancy Bibleworks and Logos electronic study tools, it is hard for us to find the new birth. Some people find the new birth in the new covenant, but that seems problematic since it was still to come. Some people see it in Psalm 87 with reference to the gates of Jerusalem, but this seems entirely too obscure for Jesus to give Nicodemus such a strong rebuke.
In the end, I don't know with certainty the answer, but I think Jesus is talking about the death that came after the fall. Being "born again" has to do with our spiritual life being revitalized through the gospel. God told Adam that the day he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he and Eve would die (Gen. 2:17). Of course, we all know how that went. He ate. He died. However, we know he did not physically die that day. Physical death became a part of his physiology as he and Eve were restricted from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22). That day, he died spiritually. His relationship with God was cut off. This is death of the soul. It is spiritual separation from God. And in order to enter into God's kingdom, that spiritual death has to be remedied. That can only happen if the spiritually dead person is reborn with regard to his relationship with God. So there you have it. Rebirth is a prominent theological theme in the Old Testament, even if we don't have it explicitly mentioned as such anywhere in the Old Testament.
Am I right? I am not sure. But as the best of the posible options, at least to me, it is the one I preach. And even though I'm uncertain, I retain my integrity. Why? Because even if I am wrong about this particular passage teaching the restoration of the failures of the garden, I am sure that the principles of the reality of spiritual death before God and the restoration of spiritual life are true. Therefore, I am still preaching truth, even if this particular passage is not meant to preach that particular truth. As Robert Chisholm, an old seminary prof of mine, used to say, "Good sermon; wrong text."
Sometimes we need to settle for good sermons with wrong texts. Sometimes we are going to be unsure of the exact interpretation of a passage of Scripture, but we don't have to sacrifice giving our congregations something to believe due to the obscurity of our text. We can still preach the Word with full integrity by focusing on the principles that are universally true even if we end up being wrong about our interpretation. It is important that you let people know there is some legitimate debate and what you are about to preach could be wrong. But assure them that the principles that you preach are not wrong as they are found in other places in Scripture. That is how you preach a sermon when you are not sure what the passage means.
Give them something to believe.