We close the week on this Friday looking forward to our next sermons, Sunday morning. This is because, in just about every Bible text, we face unanswerable questions, things we simply don’t know. So, what do preachers and teachers do with those uncertainties? Do we take creative license? Do we guess and make up things? Do we speculate? Or do we just tell people that we don’t know? It’s a great practical question from Mark who lives in Montana.
“Dear Pastor John, hello! Jesus tells us in John 12:49, ‘I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment — what to say and what to speak.’ And we trust that ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God’ (2 Timothy 3:16). So, I have long struggled with how much embellishment and speculation we should bring into the pulpit. Scripture does not include every possible detail for us. And the church through the ages has, in many cases, tried to fill in these gaps. Commentaries frequently say things like ‘this may refer to.’ Or they use qualifiers like ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ to explain meanings that are uncertain. So, here’s my question. Is it okay for teachers and preachers to conjecture about what the Bible doesn’t say? How much speculation should we bring into our sermons?”
Well, let’s start with the easy part.
Preachers Must Tell the Truth
A pastor, a preacher, above all things, should be honest. If he’s not honest, none of his other qualities — not even his faith or his love — will count for anything because the people simply won’t be able to trust him. They won’t be able to trust that he has faith or trust that he really loves them. A dishonest pastor can’t make up for dishonesty by other virtues because it’s foundational, and it’s foundational because truth is foundational. Honesty means telling the truth. Preachers must tell the truth.
“A preacher, above all things, should be honest.”
And what that means here in the context of this question is that he can’t say he knows what he doesn’t know. It would be a lie, and God won’t honor that. In other words, if he’s not sure what a word or a phrase or a sentence in the sermon text means, he must not say he is sure what it means.
So, the first principle of how much uncertainty you admit into a sermon is that you admit as much as you must in order to be honest with what the people need to know. Now, that doesn’t mean that you need to mention every single thing you don’t know — that would take way too long. The problem is not that there are many things we preachers don’t understand and won’t understand until Jesus comes. That’s not the problem. That’s true of all preachers. The problem is with stating as true what you don’t know to be true.
Now, that’s the easy part.
Honesty in Interpretation
Mark is asking not mainly about presenting speculations as true, which is dishonest, but about presenting speculations at all. That’s more complicated. And even though you don’t have to tell your people every Sunday everything you don’t know about the text, you probably will have to tell them some things you don’t know about the text.
“Over time, we will lose the trust of our people if we are constantly skipping difficult sentences.”
At least, if your people have grown to expect that you are a faithful expositor, and you don’t skip over hard things just because they’re hard, then they’ll want to know what your explanation is for the next sentence in the biblical text. And you might skip some things because you’re dealing with some large text, say, and you can’t touch on everything. But over time, we will lose the trust of our people if we are constantly skipping difficult sentences because we’re not sure what they mean.
So, what do you do? If you see something in the text and you’re not sure what it means — some words, some phrase, some logic — what do you do? You tell people honestly that you’re not sure what this word or phrase or logic or situation means. Then you tell them what you think it means, and you give them the reasons why you think what you do that they can see in the text.
And then you tell them one or two of the other possible understandings and why you don’t lean toward them. And then, if you can, you show them elsewhere in the Bible that these two or three alternative interpretations are all true to reality. They’re true to reality, even though you’re not sure which of those realities is being referred to in this text. In other words, you’re not going to say that one of the possible interpretations is contradictory to the reality that other passages in the Bible clearly teach. You’re not going to fault the Bible as contradictory. You’re going to give your people the possible interpretations, which in fact could be true given what is taught elsewhere in the Bible.
Emissaries of Infallible Truth
Now, there’s one other angle on this issue of bringing speculation into Christian preaching that I want to mention. And I think Mark is getting at this in one of his concerns as well.
It has to do with the use that preachers make of sociological, or philosophical, or psychological, or even canonical backgrounds to what the text says, which may or may not be the case. And it’s not obvious from the text. So a preacher might say, “Paul got this emphasis from the stoic philosophers, and then he Christianized it.” Maybe, maybe not. Or they might say that such and such a paragraph is an early Christian hymn. Well, maybe, maybe not. Or they might say that Paul was fond of attending the Olympic games. Well, maybe, maybe not. Or they might speculate that Paul was a widower, or they might venture that he was a type-A personality and would be an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs. Or they might say that every reference to the Son of Man is an allusion to Daniel 7.
Now, my guess is that what’s going on in some preaching is that the preacher has ceased to think of himself as an accountable emissary of God’s infallible truth, whose job is to call people to believe things for which they’re willing to risk their lives. And instead, he’s fallen into the pattern — a kind of academic pattern or public-communicator pattern — of seeing himself as an interesting communicator who needs to hold people’s attention with fascinating details that may or may not be the case.
They Come to Hear God
So, my closing warning would be this: to the degree that a preacher builds his sermons with materials that people cannot see for themselves in the Bible, to that degree he loses authority, and he loses the power to build faith, and he has passed over into entertainment — even theologically rich entertainment, canonically captivating entertainment, which he thinks the people will find interesting, fascinating, intriguing, whether they see it in the text or not.
In fact, one of the yellow flags that I spot in preaching is when the pastor says, “Well, I find it intriguing that . . .” and then he gives me an interesting twist on the text with no support that I can build my life on. And I want to stand up and shout — I never have, but maybe I will — “We’re not here to learn what you find intriguing, Mr. Pastor. We have come to hear the word of God. Tell us what God has to say to us, and if you don’t know, tell us you don’t know. And then go back to your study and get on your knees over your books and your Bible, and wrestle until your hip is out of joint. And then when you’ve got a message from God, bring it to us and we will be very, very thankful.”