If you and I played Bible trivia, you would win. I don’t remember all the details like the name of Peter’s mother-in-law’s neighbor’s younger sister. I can’t spout off the succession of the Israelite kings. Not being the smartest person in the room, I am, by necessity, at an advantage when it comes to interpreting the Bible with humility.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul told Timothy to “study to show himself approved.” How do we pour ourselves into hours of study while cultivating humility rather than allowing a mounting pride as we gain more and more expertise in each week’s sermon text? How do we exegete and interpret the text of Scripture so as to serve as “beggars telling other beggars where to find bread”?
First, we remember that while we are held responsible to study, the power to interpret and present the text comes from the Holy Spirit and not from us. If I write a letter to you, you understand much of what I am saying by reading the words. Still, my thoughts are deeper and more complex than what I have written. If I could stand over your shoulder and explain it to you while you read, you would understand it more deeply. That is what the Spirit of God does when we approach His Word with humility. In Isaiah 55, God says that His thoughts are higher than ours. So, to really get at the heart of what God wants to communicate to His people through the pulpit, I need the Spirit of God to “look over my shoulder” and tell me more than I could have ever unearthed on my own. As we dig deeply into the original languages, historical backgrounds, greater context, and more, we still need to diligently appeal the original Author for the deepest understanding of the text. While zealously performing our duty to research, we maintain the attitude of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
Next, we seek to remain cognizant of the fact that we are subject to the same determinations we lay on our hearers. We are not interpreting the Scripture for “them,” but rather for “us.” Paul famously stated in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” Similarly, in Matthew 23, Jesus rebuked the religious leaders for burdening their respondents with weighty imperatives while they were not willing to do the same. As we interpret and apply the Scripture, we are obligated to first weigh ourselves on any scales we wish to employ. This carries over into the proclamation as we preach in a way that communicates that the pulpiteer needs the message as much as the hearers.
In addition, approaching the text each week assuming you don’t already understand everything about it enables humility. We have all suffered the displeasure of someone asking a question and before we can begin to answer, they answer for us. Too often we approach God’s Word in this same manner, already “knowing” what we wish to say.
Finally, establishing the practice of preaching through entire books of the Bible will regularly exact humility in the preacher’s life. Why is this? When you teach verse by verse through a book of the Bible, you will often encounter difficult texts. Some are difficult to fully understand and others are arduous when seeking to adequately craft applications for the church. The result is a pastor who must beg God for wisdom to understand. From time to time my wife will hear me say late in the week, “I have constructed a sermon; now I am praying for the Holy Spirit to make it a message.” On other occasions, holding the sermon manuscript in hand while praying and praying through the “so what?” of the sermon, God gives the key to understanding and communicating the text as late as Sunday morning. God has ways to keep us humble as we interpret and proclaim His texts.
Any intellectual can prepare a speech; we are seeking a message from God for His people. To achieve such a result requires that our hearts mirror that of the Psalmist: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law (Psalm 119:18).”
Ronny Cooksey is the Senior Pastor of Sandia Baptist Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.