Preaching Difficult Texts

 |  December 4, 2019

Preaching is hard. Our responsibility to rightly divide the word of truth requires discipline and diligence (2 Tim 2:15). And, the magnitude of our task and ultimate accountability before the Lord is humbling and, in many ways, overwhelming (cf. Js 3:1). But the typical challenges of interpreting and applying the Scriptures are sometimes compounded by especially difficult texts. There are a variety of reasons why certain texts pose challenges, and each of these requires our prayerful consideration.

Doctrinal Convictions

Many of the difficult texts we struggle with are related to the thorny doctrinal truths embedded in them. Yet, sometimes the sermonic hurdles are not the result of controversial doctrines or hermeneutical disputes. Often times they are challenges that are self-imposed by how we handle the passage. In both instances, there are important principles that can help us.

Teach the truth of the text

It is not uncommon for a specific doctrine to hijack our entire sermon. Timeless truths that are either explicitly taught or implicitly referenced in the preaching passage, along with our favorite ‘pet’ doctrines, can distract us from actually expounding the meaning of the text. While our messages should be theological in nature and we must be intentional to teach “sound doctrine,” there are very few passages that are actually written for the purpose of expounding a particular theological truth. Even texts that are more theological in nature are not comprehensive. As a result, we often feel the need to explain other aspects of the doctrine that are not germane to our passage. But we must remember, Scripture is propositional revelation and what it reveals about who and how God is should always invoke a faith-oriented, Spirit-empowered response. Therefore, the doctrine of the passage should always be explained as the premise for the practical principle the text intends to evoke.[1]For example, some of the richest Christology in the New Testament is found in the kenosis passage of Philippians 2:6-11. However, this Christ-hymn is actually part of a larger point that Paul is making in the preceding verses related to his readers’ need for selfless humility and mutual service (2:1-5). The incarnation has huge implications (which is why Paul uses it as the impetus for the Philippians!), but it is easy for us as preachers to lose sight of the main thrust of the passage if we get lost in the beauty and depth of this doctrinal truth that undergirds it.

Triage the theology of the text

Allowing the doctrines of the passage to function according to their foundational purpose does not always eliminate the challenges. Sometimes there is doctrinal ambiguity in the passage that our people look to us to clarify for their understanding. In these instances, we are obligated as shepherds to address their spiritual confusion, concerns, and curiosity. But, we must do so in a responsible manner that requires humility and wisdom.

Different Contexts

In addition to the doctrinal truths in a text, other hermeneutical issues can present challenges for us as preachers. Some of these relate to evaluating various contextual landscapes that include a blend of Scriptural, spiritual, and social factors.

Navigate the cultural context

Being textually faithful and culturally relevant are not mutually exclusive. Balancing both is not easy, but it is necessary. While most of us are devoted to considering the various historical contexts as part of our textual exegesis, we must also be mindful of our contemporary contexts involved in our cultural exegesis. The truths of Scripture are timeless and we cannot compromise them for the sake of relevance. At the same time, we must be aware of the congregation to whom we preach, consider the culture we are challenging them to engage, and adapt our delivery accordingly.

This means we must learn to strike the balance of grace and truth by standing firm in our biblical convictions while maintaining a spirit of compassion. This includes being careful not to extend Scripture beyond its textual assertions that would make us modern-day Pharisees, “teaching as doctrines the commands of men” (Matt 15:9). As certain cultural issues arise in the text, we should acknowledge their volatility, avoid grandstanding in ways that condition our people towards self-righteousness, while also upholding God’s holy standards and the grace of the gospel.

Consider the canonical context

Difficulties also arise when we are preaching passages from biblical genres like narrative, prophecy, poetry, and apocalyptic literature. These types of texts can be homiletically and hermeneutically challenging, making it difficult to be textually faithful and explicitly Christ-centered. Sermons very quickly become theologically ambiguous and promote moral pragmatism. But, we must be willing to go beyond ‘sermonizing’ these texts and identify the redemptive truths of the passage that are epitomized in the gospel. By interpreting the text according to the grand narrative of redemption, we can direct our listeners to the transforming power of Christ who is the fulfillment of the sacred Scriptures.

Delicate Circumstances

Sometimes the greatest challenges that make certain texts difficult to preach actually stem from our pastoral heart. The truths of a biblical passage can sometimes seem to reopen old wounds or pour salt into fresh ones. But faithfulness to the Scriptures in delicate circumstances can yield some of the sweetest spiritual fruit in the lives of our people.

Be sensitive to personal issues

Faithful involvement and investment in the lives of our people alert us to difficult issues and circumstances they are facing. Inevitably, these things come to mind when we are preparing our sermons and our text addresses them. It is tempting to sidestep the challenge of careful preparation that considers sensitive subjects like broken marriages, sinful habits, lost loved ones, or financial turmoil. Instead, we must look for ways to speak redemptive truth into their lives without making them feel exposed or ashamed. Even if we are not aware of specific situations or struggles, as we prepare our sermons we must consider the realistic possibility of people dealing with the related issues in the text. When we shrink back and timidly avoid, naively overlook, or intentionally ignore the needs of our people, we short-circuit what God is doing in their lives. On the other hand, when we are faithful to preach the text with sensitivity to personal issues, we can trust the Lord to work in the lives of our people.

Be sensible with church issues

In addition to the personal difficulties, challenges also arise on the congregational level as we consistently expound the Scriptures. As pastors, we must exercise wisdom as we apply the truths of a passage to the family of faith. A variety of factors including our leadership tenure, the seriousness of the issues, the current dynamics in the church, or inherited circumstances, can all influence how directly we address the congregation. While discernment is necessary, none of these should keep us from drawing out textual implications for the lives of our people. Failure to address significant and appropriate church issues is irresponsible leadership. We must feed the flock by preaching the whole counsel of God and being sensible when dealing with church issues.

Ultimately, the inherent challenges of preaching are compounded by texts that are difficult because of doctrinal convictions, different contexts, and delicate circumstances. But, as we faithfully expound the Scriptures we can be confident that God will honor his word and will accomplish what he desires (Isa 55:10-11).

Scott Pace is Associate Profess or Pastoral Ministry and Preaching, Dean of The College at Southeastern, and the Johnny Hunt Chair of Biblical Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.


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