Every time we come to a biblical passage to preach it we should find ourselves going deeper. We don’t want to stay at a previous level of familiarity or response, because that is ultimately a recipe for growing stale ourselves. Here are five ways to probe a familiar passage for greater depth:
1. Mark up a clean print out of the passage. I find it helpful to print out the passage I am looking at. If my Bible is written in, then old markings can trigger old message outlines, or focal points of the passage. Even if the Bible is unmarked, the layout on the page can sometimes obscure details because of line breaks, columns, etc. So print out the text and analyse what you see. What words are repeated? What structure or flow of thought becomes evident? I was looking at Jonah 1 for the last couple of Sunday sermons. The use of the word “hurl” and “fear” both stood out, along with the centrality of the conversation between Jonah and the sailors.
2. Take the opportunity to probe the original language. If you are able to pick up the original text and read it, great, do it. If not, then a more technical commentary can help us delve to new levels of insight in a familiar text. My Hebrew is not good enough to just read the text straight, but a commentary helped me spot the intriguing use of the word for “dig” being used instead of the more natural word for “row” in Jonah 1. This more vivid term underlined the difficulty the sailors faced in rowing to shore, but also perhaps prefigured something of Jonah’s burial at sea. I might not make a big deal of that when I preach, but I want to at least notice it for myself.
3. Approach the passage from some different perspectives. You might ponder the passage from the perspective of different characters within the story (i.e. look at Jonah 1 through the eyes of the pagan sailors, or through God’s eyes, instead of just the more familiar Jonah perspective.) Or you could look at the passage using a couple of commentaries that aren’t your usual go-to resources from people you always agree with. You could even engage a passage with a couple of friends who would have their own unique perspectives.
4. Dig into the cultural background for new insight. We must never forget that we come to a Bible passage as an outsider. We may be familiar with the content, but we are not native in the historical context. A bit of digging can help us to gain greater insight into all that is being assumed or hinted at in the passage. Again, in Jonah 1, when the sailors asked Jonah where he was from, what was his occupation, what people did he belong to, etc., that sounds like an invitation to give a brief personal introduction. Actually, in that culture those questions would all be pointing in the same direction … which of your various gods have you offended? Is it your hometown god, or is it your career idol?
5. Prayerfully walk through the passage in light of your current circumstances. When we engage with a Bible text, there is always more to see in the text itself. But there is also the different eyes with which you see it. The truth doesn’t change. But your circumstances and experiences do. When we recently preached through Acts, we found the 2020 Covid-19 context gave us a fresh perspective for much of what was already so familiar. I am sure that Jonah will be the same this time through – same book, more to notice, and a different world in which to preach it!
What other ways do you find to go deeper when you come back to a familiar passage?