How to Be Interesting and Unhelpful

How to Be Interesting and Unhelpful

The point of this little exhortation is that, in handling the Scriptures, sanctification and speculation rise and fall in inverse proportion. As speculation increases, sanctification decreases. The more guessing the less blessing.

Few people would give their life for a speculation. Few will gouge out an eye or cut off a hand, because of a guess. Suppositions make weak expositions.

Here’s the sort of thing I have in mind.

Preachers, teachers, and Bible study leaders are sometimes tempted to speculate because the “possibilities” are so interesting.

  • For example, what about possible appearances of Christ in the Old Testament? When it says God was walking in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) could that have been Christ? Was Melchizedek really Christ himself in Genesis 14? When “the Lord” appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 was that a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ? When Jacob wrestled all night with “a man” (Genesis 32:24) was it Christ? Was the fourth person in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:25) Christ?

  • Could the splitting of the waters of the Red Sea be explainable by God’s using some cosmic catastrophe to create atmospheric conditions that caused the waters to divide?

  • Was there a written document containing all the material common to Matthew and Luke but missing from Mark, which we might call Q for German Quelle, meaning source?

  • Was the later poverty of the church in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26) owing to the misapplication of the early policy of having “all things in common” (Acts 2:44, 4:32)?

  • Was Paul a widower? Or did his wife leave him when he became a Christian? Did he have children?

  • Did Mary Magdalene have a crush on Jesus? Did Jesus have to deal with more temptations than we usually think?

  • When Paul prohibited women from teaching and having authority over men in 1 Timothy 2:12 was there a problem in that church such as women taking authority and teaching, who were unprepared to do so? Was that the only reason Paul prohibited them — they weren’t ready?

See What’s There

My point is that people need solid food, not possible food. They need a sure word from God, not a guess from man. They need a biblical “Thus says the Lord,” not a “Maybe God said.”

A fascinating five-minute homiletic detour into what might have been going in Corinth behind this or that text is a waste of precious time. And I think it trains our people to expect interludes of historical entertainment, and to mistake it for deep insight and spiritual food.

What is really there in the text of Scripture is bottomless, and staggeringly interesting, and provocative. Speculation is not necessary to hold people’s attention. If a pastor finds what might have been more interesting than what is really there in the text, he needs better powers of observation, not better powers of speculation. He needs a better feel for the wonder of what is, than a greater fancy for what might have been.

What About Poetry?

Two qualifications:

  1. Poetry and preaching are not the same. Illuminating fiction and authoritative exposition are not the same. I love poetry and fiction. These are by nature inventive. They too have their place and their power. But the sanctifying power they have is owing decisively to the deeper truths they convey, not the imaginative structures that convey them.

  2. When a text of Scripture is apparently contradictory, and there is little agreement on what the solution is, it is helpful for people to see one or two possible and plausible solutions. These will be more or less speculative. We tell our people we are not sure of the answer. We don’t want them to take our guesses as God’s word. But we offer our guesses so that they can see at least the possibility that there is a solution here rather than a contradiction.

Dive Deeper

So I say again, the crying need in the pulpit and the classroom is not to spend time speculating about what might have been the case, but to dig deeper into what is really there in the text. Most of us are still scratching the surface.

If we know for sure something that’s not in the Bible, and we see that it sheds true light on the Bible, that’s another matter. Let it be so. But my sense is that the secondary literature is no easier to interpret than the Bible. Which means that the secondary texts are no more clear than the biblical texts they supposedly illumine. It is a harmful thing to teach seminarians to see the Bible as needing help from outside, while failing to see that the outside documents also need help from the outside.

Pastors and teachers have very limited time for study. The ocean of contextually understandable Scripture is bottomless. My plea is simple: dive deeper in what’s there.


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John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.