Yesterday I suggested that some preaching points pursued from minor details in a text can be well off-target. But does this mean we are constrained to a rigid main point only approach? Generally this wouldn’t hurt most preachers, but let’s say for argument’s sake that you are very conscientious on preaching the main idea in a text . . . are there some guidelines for commenting on the less central details?
1. Make sure you’ve understood how the detail relates to the whole before you say anything else about it.
Biblical narrative tends to be sparse in nature. Papyrus was expensive and the writer’s were sober. They didn’t waste words. So if a detail is present, assume the detail is important to the specific goal of the passage. Rather than rushing into an easy preaching point, be sure to make sense of the detail in the whole passage, and the whole passage in light of the detail. Once you know how it is working here, then maybe it bears some passing interest in its own right.
2. Make sure any comment you make concerning the detail is rooted in its context.
Plucking a phrase or sentence out of context to say something it doesn’t say . . . well that is the arena of the cults. Let’s not subtly prepare our people for the cults by modelling cult-like Bible handling in the pulpit (or they might go for it on their doorstep!) A text is saying something. You can’t legitimately say anything from a passage, be sure to say the passage’s something. Context will always be the key to correctly interpreting the meaning of a detail. If it doesn’t mean what you want to say, be patient until the passage does say that. Perhaps even select a preaching passage accordingly, but be committed to saying what the text is actually saying. Never force.
3. Make certain any passing applicational point is rooted biblically.
There may be a place for a passing application point, but be sure the application is genuinely biblical. Many a moralistic point has been made that is more preacher’s culture or personal preference than biblical teaching. Many are committed to the idea of comparing scripture with scripture during the interpretation phase of biblical study. I think more would do well to compare scripture with scripture in anticipation of making their applications. I think Haddon Robinson said a few times that there is more heresy per square inch in the field of application than in any other aspect of preaching.
More could be said on all this, what would you add, or clarify?
One thought on “Insightful Incidentals – part 2”
A good couple of posts, Peter.
What would I add? Probably the thing that I would add is this: Context is larger than the immediate passage. Sounds obvious, but so often missed. You used the Zaccheus passage in the previous post and it is a good one for this point. How often have you heard preachers assume that Jesus “just knows” Zac’s name, or that He rather pushily invites Himself to dinner? True, reading just this passage could give that impression, but reading the whole of the Gospels shows us that Jesus had sent disciples ahead to make precisely this kind of arrangement. So He knew in advance who He was to stay and dine with. Now all we need to suppose is that one of the disciples who had made the arrangements pointed Zac out to Jesus when he saw him in the tree.
Or take another example: I have heard many preach on how Jesus called the first disciples. How He was walking by the sea and saw them, called them, and they just dropped everything and followed. All true, of course, but what is often built upon is how attractive Jesus must have been, since He just shows up and these hard-bitten fishermen go with Him! That completely ignores the fact that they have already met Him some time before at His baptism. His call is not to “follow Him” as we tend to think of it, but rather He is saying “OK, its time to start preaching. You wanted to be with me, so come.”
We are far too good at reading the Bible in bits. I would urge every Christian to sometimes just sit down and read a whole book through in one sitting (no NT book cannot be read easily in a day). Things will come from that that cannot be found any other way.