When the passage is just too hard: ten tips for preaching the really tough stuff


confusedThis week has given me the preacher’s headache: a really, really difficult passage.  One of those ones where the commentaries delight in saying, ‘This is one of the most problematic texts in the canon’.  One where you start to wonder if you will have anything useful to say come Sunday, or if anyone will notice if you skip three verses.

For what it’s worth I have God trying to kill Moses, and his wife circumcising his son and calling Moses a ‘bloody bridegroom.’  And it’s festooned with translation problems that I can’t bore people with, and moral/theological ones that I must. Yes, it’s in your Bible.  Yes, it’s this Sunday.

So, even though I’m still working on this, here’s how I handle those really pesky passages.  It’s common sense, but it’s surprising how often experienced preachers come to rely on shortcuts

1. Go really slow with the text.  If you’ve stopped doing sentence flow diagrams, start this time.  If you’ve stopped with the original languages, fire them up.  If your language skills are a tad rusty (ahem) and you haven’t bought expensive bible software, try the excellent STEP Bible from Tyndale House.

2. Pray constantly as you work. The Lord knows your people’s needs, and the passage for this Sunday has been eternally chosen to meet it.  Work with him as you study, doodle, or go for a run.

3. Go really wide wth the translations.  Again, the chances are that you use one English translation, or possibly two – but now’s the time to grab some others, old and new, to see if they have fresh light for you.  Among the new ones I check the latest ESV and NIV, Holman and New Living Translation. Old? The Revised Version and the American Standard are still worth looking at because they’re designed to expose problems rather than gloss them.

4. Give yourself much more than your usual amount of time with the text and context; read, read and read again.  Get the narrative and logical flow in place, and work to see the movement in the material.

5. Go really slow with the commentaries; read them very carefully, because those writers will have had to pack a lot into a little space.

6. Go really wide with the commentaries  The chances are you have narrowed down to a favourite few for the book you’re preaching on, but this time it’s really worth blowing the dust off the rest. Study Bibles, one-volume commentaries, multi-volume series dictionaries; they’re all worth consulting in a crisis, even if you don’t normally have the time. The older guys, Reformers and Puritans, often have excellent insights because they aren’t tripping over contemporary scholarship’s fads.

7. Ditch some commentaries fast.  So I have developed a particular dislike against one author’s contribution in one high-profile evangelical series.  His aim seemed today to show me that the text is more difficult than I imagined, that he could dazzle me with his cleverness, and then leave me, twenty pages later, with nothing preachable. Well, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  He caught me out two weeks ago by tangling me up in his clever-dickery.  This week he lasted five minutes before I used him as an expensive and glossy mat for my coffee mug.

8. Ask the obvious questions, over and over.  With my problem passage today the light went on only when I asked the boringly obvious, ‘What is God doing in this passage?’  That was the clarifying moment.

9. If in doubt, be honest and simple.  Tell people what you don’t get, but show them as far as you can how the passage points to Jesus.  They’ll be grateful to have a truthful teacher, one who knows the limits of knowledge, but who is probably much further down the road than they are anyway, and able to bless them with something.

10. And give it time.  I had a penny-dropping moment the week with a verse in Galatians that I don’t think I’d ever really seen the point of, but which suddenly swam into such devastatingly obvious focus that wondered why I hadn’t got it before.  It just takes time.

So cut yourself some slack.  This sermon isn’t going into print, and it doesn’t even have to go on the web if I don’t want it to.  It doesn’t hurt people to know that their pastor isn’t an omniscient theologian with an infinite library, but someone who struggles with the text along the way as well. And by showing how you handle this passage and find a way to Jesus, you’ll be teaching them how to solve other ones for themselves.

Which can’t be bad.


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6 comments on “When the passage is just too hard: ten tips for preaching the really tough stuff”

  1. Thanks for this Chris. So reassuring to read that you ditch certain commentaries after 5 mins! I often do that. I had exactly this issue last week (albeit with a different passage) and certainly tried a few of these myself. They helped. I also found at the end of a pretty uninspiring morning that putting into practice the words of the old “Why don’t you” theme tune of going and doing something ‘less boring instead’ for a bit helped me come back to it a bit fresher. What do you think about listening to someone else speaking on the same passage? That was what eventually helped me. Not that I said what they said, or used their outline – but one phrase they used simply made everything fall into place. Thanks for your blog by the way. It’s one that I always read and find helpful.

  2. I’m not a minister and have no pastoral responsibilities but occasionally I’m asked to fill in. I have to take a mid-week meeting soon as part of a series on Judges, and I’ve been allocated chapters 17-21 to do in one session. Battling against the unhelpful thoughts that this is both unfair and unrealistic, I’ve really struggled. But these thoughts of yours have been really helpful. I’d not come across the STEP bible before, and although I use ESV and NIV, hadn’t thought of using the NLT or Holman before – and as these are available online, that’s a great help. It’s also strangely encouraging to know that pastors and ministers sometimes struggle too. Thanks!

    1. That sounds like a daunting preach, but remember you can never be exhaustive, and always have to leave stuff out. Experienced preachers can do the whole of a biblical book one sermon, or just one word – it’s a matter of the necessary style and preparation.
      Don’t rush it – we all struggle, in may ways!

      1. I tried to follow your advice, but I failed miserably. Ashamed to say I was 45 minutes – this can be quite a long listen when even an accomplished speaker is involved, but for an amateur it is almost unforgivable. To their great credit the folk were tremendously patient and gracious. The experience fuels my prayers for preachers!

  3. Oh dear! Remember that one of the most coveted Oscars goes to Best Editing – and the film that wins that often goes to win Best Film…

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