A Pastor’s Reflections: Exegetical Landmines
I can remember being in seminary and as I would learn about various books of the Bible or encounter passages of Scripture I would make a mental note that I wanted to preach and teach such things. I accumulated my wish list and mentally filed it away in my brain for future reference. On that list, however, were a number of books and passages that I knew would be challenging for a number of reasons. In a nutshell, these books and passages were filled with exegetical landmines, so to speak. Let me explain.
There are some books of the Bible that are tough to preach simply because of their sheer size. The major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) come to mind along with the book of Psalms. To engage these books will likely entail a multi-year commitment. Other books of the Bible have very knotty passages. The disputed ending of Mark, for example, presents a number of challenges. Many of our Bibles contain the phrase, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.” There are other passages that come to mind, such as 1 Corinthians 14:34, “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.” Another challenge comes with books such as Revelation—opinions are all over the board regarding how to interpret this portion of Scripture. If you wade into the waters of some of these books of the Bible unprepared, you could quickly find yourself out of your depth. You don’t want to get into your sermon prep on Wednesday (or Saturday night for those who like to burn the midnight oil) and realize that you’ve stepped on an exegetical landmine and you’re not quite sure how to preach the passage. In all seriousness, I’ve had a colleague who would call me on Sunday morning with exegetical questions about tough passages. I suppose the last minute is just as good as the first, but that kind of pressure would drive me batty. So what is a person to do?
First, ask a seasoned pastor what books of the Bible present the easiest entry point for preaching. What can a newly minted minister cut his teeth on? What book of Scripture does not present too many difficult challenges for a Sunday School teacher? Second, if you work hand to mouth, that is, studying the week before you teach or preach, then you definitely want to choose some level ground. I.e., select simpler books of the Bible. Third, if you want to tackle the harder material, that’s definitely desirable, but there are some books that require that you study a lot before you step into a pulpit or lectern and speak intelligently about your text.
Allow me to illustrate this counsel. When I started my pastorate, I began by preaching on the gospel of Matthew. I prepared my sermons hand to mouth. This, for me, was fairly level ground. By comparison, I knew there were many steep hills in the book of Revelation. So I first studied the whole book over a period of six months, developed my lecture notes, and then once I was convinced I had a handle on it, went public with a series of Sunday School lectures. I waited a number of years before I tackled the daunting ending of Mark.
It’s important that you carefully approach your preaching or teaching plan because you don’t want to undermine the confidence your congregation places in your ability to explain the word. You also want to afford yourself the time to study more intently upon the difficult passages—this is, of course, a tacit admission that you might not be as smart as you think you are. Moreover, especially for new ministers, you can build trust from your congregation—they can see that you carefully and wisely exegete the Scriptures so that when you come to those tough passages, they will trust your judgment. The last thing you want to do is walk into the pulpit with wet ink still on your seminary degree and announce in one of your first sermons, “You see the words in your Bible, but they’re not really Scripture, so we’re going to ignore them.”
Be wise—plan ahead. Consult with seasoned pastors and teachers. Study hard. And then, when you’re ready, get out your climbing gear and ascend some of the Bible’s spectacular peaks and lovingly and humbly take your congregation with you to see the wonders and glories of God’s word.