The Interpretation Canyon

Years ago I was teaching a class here at Calvary Bible Church about how to study, interpret, and apply the Bible. One Sunday, after I taught the importance of interpreting Scripture properly, a man in our church came up to me and said something like, “When I read the Bible, God speaks directly to me.”

As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is God’s word. Since it is God’s word, it communicates to God’s people; it is his way of speaking to us. So, when this man said, “When I read the Bible, God speaks directly to me,” I wanted to agree with him. I wanted to agree with him, but I could not. Since I had just finished teaching about how to interpret the Bible, his statement was not a statement of faith in the inspiration of the Bible. It was a rebuke. This man was rebuking me–indirectly and kindly, but still, it was a rebuke–for teaching that interpreting the Bible was necessary or important. My entire lesson on interpreting scripture was unnecessary, in his view. If God speaks directly to any and every Christian who reads the Bible, there is no need to develop or learn anything about interpretation.

If it is true that, “When I read the Bible, God speaks directly to me,” then what is God saying to me when I read Joshua 6:2-5? That passage says, “Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.’”

It is clear what God said to Joshua in Joshua 6 and what he was supposed to do with God’s word. Jericho was in front of him, it was a walled, fortified city. Instead of laying siege to it and starving the people out, or battering the gate with a tree trunk, God told Joshua and the Jewish people to just march around it. The wall would collapse after they did this thirteen times over seven days and then their army could attack the people inside with conventional weapons. God was calling Joshua and his people to trust him for a miracle to start the conquest of Jericho. They would have to fight (v. 5b), but only after God had miraculously done the hard part.

That was God’s word to Joshua and his people but if God is speaking directly to me in that passage, what exactly is he saying? I don’t live near Jericho and have no need to conquer it, so what is God telling me here?

Typically, if you believe that God speaks directly and personally through the word, you will take a passage like this one and allegorize it. You will read God’s promise to Joshua and think, “My boss’s decision not to give me a raise is like the walled, impenetrable city. I need to trust God to make his defenses fall so I can conquer the land and get that raise.” You might even go so far in claiming God’s promise that you drive or walk around the office building once a day for six days and then seven times on the seventh day before asking for the raise. That seems very spiritual, and you might even get that raise! But what if you don’t? Did you misunderstand the Holy Spirit? Do you misidentify Jericho–maybe it isn’t your boss or your company but your daughter’s boyfriend who needs to be defeated?

The Bible is God’s word and God does speak to us through the Bible, but not until we understand what he said to the original reader. This is one of the canyons I will try to teach you to cross.

The Three Way Tug

Photo Credit: Payton

As a pastor who teaches God’s word more than once a week, I find myself wrestling weekly with three competing tensions: faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. These three tensions feel, at times, like a three-way tug.

The first tension, faithfulness, comes from my desire to remain true to the text of Scripture. One thing I would never want to do is to distort the message of the Bible. Because I believe that the Bible is the authoritative message from God, my most basic commitment is to be faithful to what the Bible says.

I also feel a tug not only to remain true to the text of Scripture, but also to explain how the passage of Scripture is relevant to the modern audience. While the tension toward faithfulness to the text comes from my convictions about Scripture, this second tension comes from the people in my church. Every congregation wants to “get something out of” the message. I feel like many people come to church asking the unspoken question, “Why is Pastor Brian taking forty minutes to tell me about these verses?” I think it is a good question and I want my message to give them a great answer.

In addition to the tensions caused by the text and the tension caused by the congregation, I also feel a sense of tension that comes from my responsibility as a shepherd of the flock. This tension is similar to, but not the same as, the tension of relevance. I know that people come to church looking for a personal message from God, but I also know that the congregation has deeper needs than the ones they feel. They need to see how God meets them not only in their personal lives but also how his working in our lives connects to the larger work that God is doing. Ultimately, Christ will return and establish his kingdom. Right now, he is preparing for that coming kingdom by calling people into that kingdom by faith in the gospel. If our faith is only about us as individuals or our local church, we are not seeing or participating in the larger work that God is doing. We need to see that evangelism, missions, and even our growth in Christ is all connected to God’s larger work in the world.

So, there it is: the “three-way tug” of faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. This tug can cause my preaching to be imbalanced in one or two directions if I’m not careful. When pastoral obligation wins, the message challenges the listener to look beyond his or her felt needs to the larger issues in the church’s life. At its best, this kind of preaching confronts people’s worldview, asking them to choose the path of selflessness over selfishness. At its worst, this type of preaching degenerates into condemnation. The church may feel berated for not living up to the my ideals and is urged to “do better.”

When felt needs win the tug of war, the audience pays close attention as the issues they care most about are surfaced and addressed. They may find answers to their problems or comfort for their griefs and struggles. When felt needs preaching is at its worst, however, the message of the Bible can be distorted and made to say something that the biblical author never intended. Furthermore, an over emphasis on felt needs can sometimes fail to challenge selfish attitudes that God wants to change.

Finally, if my preaching leans too far toward interpretation, people in my church may feel like students in a classroom, collecting many facts or truths about the Bible. At best, this emphasis in preaching creates a congregation with extensive Bible knowledge. At worst, the church might know a lot but obey very little. This type of preaching may also leave people in their comfort zones, never challenged to reach out to the world around.

Biblical Preaching, as defined by my teacher Haddon Robinson, attempts to take these three legitimate tensions and allow the message to be shaped appropriately by them all. Biblical Preaching is a process; it is a series of steps that, when followed in their proper order, usually yield a sermon that is faithful to the Bible, relevant to the audience, and challenging to the local body. This is what I’m trying to do as a canyon crosser in my preaching and teaching ministry.