Bible study feels like a journey. Perhaps for others the terrain feels slightly different, but I can often discern three stages I go through in the process of studying a passage. I am not referring to exegetical method here, but rather to a sense of progress in my quest to understand the passage.
1. Apparent Clarity. Not in every text, but often the first reading seems relatively clear. Perhaps I recognize the characters, or note some rich preaching vocabulary or concepts. Whether or not I’m thinking about preaching it, the text seems initially clear. This stage does not last long. Once I start questioning the text, I soon move into the next stage:
2. Complexity and Lack of Clarity. As I seek to plumb the meaning of the passage, hunting for the author’s idea, it often becomes murky. There’s word study, lexical study, contextual analysis, wrestling with the flow of the text, alternating between synthesis and analysis, etc. At this point it is sometimes tempting to quit or go for a shortcut (like preaching multiple distinct ideas from the same text). If I prayerfully push on through, there is often the joy of arriving at the last stage:
3. Informed Clarity. This is where the relationship of the parts and the whole make sense. This is where the section is clear in its relationship to the flow of the book. This is a great place to get to in Bible study. This is the place I like to be before I think about preaching the text.
My fear for myself, and others seeking to be Biblical preachers, is that we will fail to preach out of a “stage 3” informed clarity. I see in myself the temptation to quit in stage two and preach some form of textual confusion (obviously we tend to paper over confusion to give apparent cohesion to the message). At times I hear messages where I wonder if the preacher even entered stage two at all. The presence of some “rich” preaching words seems to be enough to spark a whole message in some preachers! Let’s be sure to be diligent, to study and show ourselves approved, to push through to informed clarity for our own sakes, and for the sake of those who have to listen to our explanation of the text!