I recently heard of a pastor who began most of his sermons the same way, “This passage is really difficult. I have struggled this week to understand what God is saying here.” Sometimes such expressions aren’t meant to convey the relative difficulty or ease for the pastor in interpretation, but instead, they have wrestled with its personal application and the Spirit’s movement in their lives. For this particular pastor though, it had resulted in a decrease in his membership’s engagement with the biblical text. They approached the Bible as something too advanced for them to comprehend on their own, and it was best and safest for them to await their pastor’s interpretation so they didn’t get something wrong. I doubt this pastor ever sought out to breed uncertainty in his flock, but his repeated refrain had led his church away from biblical engagement.
Certainly, there are a host of interpretive decisions the pastor-exegete makes each week in his study that require specialized skill and advanced training. References to decisions such as grammatical structures, obscure interpretations, or engagement with the textual apparatus are likely to reach only a niche audience and lack broad appeal. They might make the pastor appear intelligent, but more likely they will inhibit the impact of his sermon due to the lack of applicability in the lives of his congregation. They might be awed, but they will not be aided.
How then, or to what level is it helpful to teach biblical interpretation in a sermon? Three words come to mind as I consider this: Slow, Wide, Deep.
We want to teach our people that a significant part of interpretation is simply slowing down. This instruction does not require any specialized skillset, but it is likely different than the way most of them will live their lives and engage many of their daily tasks. They need to slow down. As they slow down their rate of reading, they are more able to discern how various aspects of the text work together. This necessity of extended exposure to the truth of God’s Word is especially important in familiar passages which they might have heard preached or taught dozens of times. Do not allow them to miss the simple beauty of the Nativity or the stunning transformation of Ephesians two. Draw their attention to the text through repetition, explanation, and reflection.
If you are engaging in a verse by verse approach to preaching, it is helpful to teach your people how the truths you are mining from the biblical text are validated in other books of the Bible. This teaches them the principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture. We understand more difficult passages by the light of plain teachings on the same subject. Help them to develop a love for searching the Bible widely so they come to understand God’s nature, salvation, and sin from a variety of places instead of merely one book. You can show them the unfailing love of God in Malachi 1:2 in the face of a wayward remnant alongside Paul’s faithful entreaty to the Galatians to turn back to the true Gospel. Expose them to more than Pauline letters and Old Testament history. The Bible’s breadth reveals the character and majesty of our God. Help them to be wide in their interpretation.
Lastly, they need to have an appreciation for the deeper truths and nuanced theology of the Bible. Not everything they will read in the Bible is going to be immediately obvious. There are occasions when they are going to have to sit and puzzle, pray, and read external sources to understand what the Bible means. Help them to not fear the possibility/certainty that they are going to encounter difficult passages. When we, as pastors, treat difficult passages as easy for us, we work against the encouragement of our people and move them from being serious students of God’s word to those who don’t ponder the deep truths of God’s word. As you encounter page after page written on some seemingly minor interpretive decision within commentary, this might be a good opportunity to help your congregation realize what is at stake in this passage. I’m not suggesting an exegetical paper presentation take the place of your sermon, but neither is it beneficial for us to treat casually consequential and difficult passages. The clarity of your exposition matched with interpretive signposts for your audience will help them to interpret deeply.
Matt Beasley is Staff Elder and Pastor at Ridgecrest Church in Greenville, Texas.