This might seem like a really obvious thing to say, but I think it needs to be said. We have to really work hard in order to really know a passage before we preach it.
It is very easy to assume we know a passage. It is very hard to recognize how much we don’t know. But learning to think clearly about your own thinking is a critical skill for the preacher.
Here are some thoughts to consider:
1. Knowing a passage involves more than knowing some highlights or landmarks in it. After reading a passage and spending some time in study, you may be able to identify some key features of the passage. You might be able to say that there is the truth in verse 3, and the truth in verse 5 and then the conclusion in verse 9. Do you know the passage? No, you are aware of some highlights in the passage.
2. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to launch preaching points from phrases in it. You might feel ready to preach because verse 3 mentions justification (and you have some things to say about justification), and then verse 5 mentions hope (and you have a nice illustration you want to share about hope), etc. Are you ready to preach the passage if you have some good preaching points ready to launch? No.
3. Knowing a passage involves more than being able to talk about each phrase with theological truth. But what if your preaching content is not illustrations, but rich theological truths? Maybe you have a whole theology of justification that you can launch in verse 3, and then you can make a presentation on sanctification because of a key word that appears later in the passage? Surely if it is rich theological truth, then you are ready to preach? No. Not if the passage is not saying what you are planning to say. Just because wind appears in John 3 does not mean that I should preach about God’s view of changing weather patterns from it.
4. Knowing a passage involves more than reading some commentaries about the passage. It is not a bad idea to have some conversation partners in your study. Other live humans can be super helpful. As can published ones. But even if I can quote from impressive commentaries, it does not mean that I really understand the passage yet. By all means use the best resources you can access, but remember the goal is still for you to understand the passage, not just to have studied things written about it.
5. Knowing a passage involves understanding the details as they work together in a coherent whole. This is where many preachers seem to stumble. They do reasonably well with the details. They speak theological truth. They associate that truth with the wording in the passage. But if they don’t recognize how the details are working together in the passage, they don’t know the passage. Remember, your goal is not to study a passage in order to find a sermon. Your first goal is to study it in order to understand it.
6. Knowing a passage involves understanding the flow of thought in the passage, with an awareness of context. A passage sits in a book, as part of the whole. If you don’t understand how the passage works in the book, how can you really grasp what the passage itself means? So we need to study each passage in its whole book, as well as whole Bible, context. The point is, each passage was written to communicate something specific, and we need to figure that out. Our job is not to generate meaning by creativity, but to find meaning by dogged humble persistence.
7. Knowing a passage means being able to explain it so that the original author would affirm your grasp of its essential meaning. That sounds like a bold goal. It is. That is why we can’t just study until we feel a message emerging. As preachers we can generate messages out of nothing. But God has given us something very specific. And unless we grow in our confidence that it is possible to communicate the essential meaning of a passage to a level where the original author would affirm our explanation, then we will not put in the work necessary to be ready to preach.
Implication? The big implication of this post is simple. Don’t be so confident that you know the meaning of a passage. Study more. Study longer. Study humble. Study persistently. Make it your goal to know the passage better than you ever have before, to be able to handle questions about specific aspects of the passage, and be willing to explain the meaning of the text even to the original author himself…and then start thinking about how you will preach it!