Yesterday I shared four thoughts on how to explain a biblical text well. Here are four more.
5. Explain visually, not just conceptually. When an idea becomes clear to a listener, they don’t say, “Ah, I grasp your conceptual logic!” No, people say, “Ah, I see what your saying.” What do they see? A clear picture of the idea being explained. We need to engage listeners at the level of imagination. There is a screen in the hearts of listeners and by fault it begins foggy and confused. Clear the smoke and form images as you explain the text, or as you describe the application. If you can see it, they will. If you are grasping for concepts, they see smoke.
6. Let the structure do its work. As you help people see the structure in a passage, it will begin to explain itself. Orient listeners to the “chunks” before diving into the details. Give a newcomer to town the landmarks before explaining details of smaller side streets. Highlight connectives or repetition in content so the shape starts to form on the page – “Notice how many verses begin ‘By faith…’ in this section. As you scan down the page you can see, ‘By faith…’ in verse 3, ‘By faith…’ in verse 4, etc. Eighteen times the writer does that. But then in verse 13 that pattern is broken. This four verse thought in the middle is being marked out as the central pivot of the passage. Let’s zero in on that pivot…”
7. Take people there, or bring the truth here. Decide whether you are going to transport listeners to back then and describe things so vividly that they can smell the air, or whether you are going to bring the biblical truth to today with a contemporary simile, “this is like…” Weak explanation tends to flow from indecision about listener location. Take them there, or bring the Bible to today. Actually, do both, but do both deliberately and definitely.
8. Judiciously use explanation from others. Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of people who are better at explaining that text than you or me. We should be ready to take advantage of that. But they aren’t standing where you are. They might be Martin Luther, but your listeners may be ready to dismiss him because of some perception they have of him, or they may be hard-pressed to distinguish him from his namesake in the twentieth century. They might be a great contemporary scholar and commentator, but your listeners may be distracted by their funny sounding name (they don’t know anything else about him/her), or by your superior learning (they don’t have books like that). When you use someone else’s explanation, start with “one preacher put it like this…” and then add further details judiciously for your particular listeners.