The open Bible returned the preacher’s confused stare as he read through Judges 19. Head down, staring into the text he pondered his options. It was a good story. Well, most of it was good. He had difficulty when the Levite dismembered his murdered concubine and sent her, limb by limb to the twelve tribes of Israel!
How on earth could he preach such a text? How could this ghastly account hold any application for his congregation? He began thumbing through the pages of his worn Bible. Was it better to preach from another text? Yes, it was better to do that. The new stewardship drive was getting underway next week…
If you preach regularly, the above account contains a familiar ring. As preachers we often encounter texts from which we’d rather not preach. The text mentioned above serves as a suitable example. Is it possible to preach a meaningful sermon to your congregation from a text such as Judges 19? I believe it is. More than that, I believe sermons from these kinds of texts are valuable.
Why should you seek to preach these difficult texts? These texts have something to say. I believe God did not inspire Biblical writers to compose accounts that have no meaning or application. God has something to say to your people through these texts just as he has something to say through Romans or Isaiah. All Scriptures are sermon worthy. True, some are more sermon worthy than others. Yet all can be preached. It is important, at this point, to define exactly the class of difficult texts with which this article deals. When one considers the topic of difficult Biblical texts many types of difficulties come to mind. For example, there are texts that are difficult because they perplex our understanding. The following pericope is difficult for that reason.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:53-54, NIV)
A preacher will find this text difficult because he may not be sure what Jesus meant by a disciple eating His flesh or drinking His blood. Other texts are difficult because they are challenging to live. Jesus’ words to love one’s enemies is a good example. As preachers we often encounter texts from which we’d rather not preach.
Biblical texts are difficult for many different reasons. Obviously, this article can not deal with all categories of Biblical difficulties. This article defines a difficult text as a pericope in the Bible that offends our sense of ethics and violates our scientific understanding of the world. It is also a text that is difficult to apply effectively to a modern American audience.
Let me expand this definition by detailing five main reasons why these types of texts prove challenging. First, in this category of difficulties the text conflicts with our moral and emotional sensibilities. We know our modern sensibilities are subservient to the authority of Scripture. However, we may still feel an underlying emotional discomfort with a difficult pericope. For example, we find Judges 11, where Jephthah sacrifices his own daughter, morally and emotionally difficult. We cannot comprehend a father sacrificing his own daughter. So these kinds of texts elicit an immediate, possibly intense, negative emotional and moral response from the reader. I do not believe this emotional and moral reaction is true of only modern readers.
I think it is reasonable that these accounts elicited a similar response from the ancient readers as well. I believe it is safe to assume that the first readers experienced similar emotional responses when they read or heard them. I believe these texts have always been difficult.
Second, these texts may also be difficult because they violate our modern way of thinking. Modern Americans think differently than ancient Hebrews, apostles, Romans and Greeks. The account in Genesis 30:37-43 serves as an excellent example of this kind of difficulty. In this account Jacob sought to increase the size of his speckled flocks over those of Laban, his father-in-law. Jacob took cut branches of almond and plane trees and peeled back the bark exposing the inner white wood. He then placed these branches in the water troughs. When the flocks gathered at the troughs and mated in view of these speckled branches they produced speckled and streaked offspring. This text is problematical because it violates our modern understanding of breeding. We know that having animals breed within sight of speckled bark does not result in speckled offspring. As a result, our initial modern reaction to this text is one of skepticism. We want to know that this account is true. Yet it runs headlong into our modern way of thinking. It causes us difficulty. The problem is with us, not the Scriptures themselves.
Third, these difficult texts also offend our modern sense of justice or equality. They don’t seem fair. For that reason many modern readers find texts such as Ephesians 5:22-24 difficult. It reads, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now, as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (NIV) In this day of N.O.W. and Feminist thought, these verses are difficult. They are difficult because they appear to relegate women into a servile relationship to men. As such they violate the modern American sense of gender equality. Many find them chauvinistic.
Fourth, the pericope does not clearly state the main point of the text. Judges 19, again, serves as a worthy example. What is the main point of this gory account? Obviously, it is not saying that it is appropriate for us to dismember murdered concubines! No, there must be something more to it. Indeed there is. The main point of the account is not readily apparent. It does not jump out from the verses boldly identifying itself. It only reveals itself after careful study.
Fifth, these texts are difficult because the application of them to our modern audiences is difficult to determine. Again, notice the account of Jacob and his speckled breeding program in Genesis 30:37-43. What is the application point of this account? Do we apply it by saying to our listeners that we should go out and do as Jacob did? Or again, how do we apply Ephesian: 5:22-24 to our congregations that live in a world awash with feminist thought and values? These texts are difficult because they are difficult to apply in a meaningful way to our modern congregations. Even if we manage to determine the main thought of the text applying that thought to our listeners is not easy.
So then, a difficult text is one that violates our moral and emotional sensibilities. It runs counter to our modern way of thinking scientifically. It challenges our sense of equality and justice. The main point of the text is not readily apparent. Finally, it is difficult to apply effectively to a modern listening congregation. Difficult texts will share these five characteristics in greater and lesser degrees. All of them will be present in some form.
Once you have identified why a text is difficult what is the next step? Being committed to the authority of the Scriptures I believe these difficulties can be addressed appropriately and effectively in sermons. Let me suggest a two point strategy for preparing effective sermons from difficult texts. The first step is to identify the main idea of the text. By the main idea I mean the original idea of the pericope as the first readers would have understood it. It is best to think of this idea as being composed of two halves. The first half of the idea is the subject. The subject answers the question; What are these verses talking about? It is not enough to state the subject as one word, such as “grace”, “mercy”, or “forgiveness”. Such a statement is too general and leads to poor application of the text. Rather, in determining the subject of the main idea you are seeking to determine exactly what the text is talking about. So it is better to state the subject as, “Why should these people give thanks for God’s grace.” Or, “Why is it always good to give thanks to God?”
You will notice that I stated the subject in the form of a question. It is best to state the subject of a text as a question to be answered. The complement becomes the answer to that question. The complement of the idea discloses what the text is saying about the main idea. So, if the subject of a text is, “How has God shown these people his mercy?” The complement could be, “He withheld his judgment for the present time.” Once you have determined the subject and complement of the text place them in one complete sentence.
(Subject) God has shown these people mercy by
(complement) withholding his judgment for the present time.”
Remember; the subject of the main idea answers the question; “What exactly is this text talking about?” The complement of the main idea answers the question; “What exactly does this text say about what it is talking about?” A series of questions helps you through this process of determining the main idea of the text.
1. Is the pericope well defined and complete? Determine the boundaries of the text. For the sermon from Judges 11 included with this article I determined that Judges 11: 29-40 were the boundaries of the text. I used the climax of the story as the scripture reading for that Sunday. I brought the rest of the story in when I discussed the background of the text in the sermon.
2. What is the text talking about? In answering this question you will want to see if the pericope repeats certain words, phrases, or images. You will also look for such things as repeated images. For example, in Proverbs the image of The Sluggard occurs repeatedly. In Judges 11, a text we will deal with more completely below, Jephthah is a Judge, an important image for that account. Because as a judge he should have known better. You will also need to determine what is going on in the immediate context of the pericope. When you read about Jephthah’s background you will see that his character was not the best. At this point roughly draft the subject in question form. I stated the subject for Judges 11:29-40 in the following question. “Why was Jephthah’s vow wrong?” You will notice that I’ve made a judgment at this point. From my exegesis of the text I decided that Jephthah made a serious mistake in making this vow to God. I bring this out in the sermon.
3. What’s the text saying about what it is talking about? You can answer this question by looking for repeated words, phrases, and images. This process is very similar to determining the subject. You will then want to write out a draft of the complement. Remember the complement answers the subject’s question. For this sermon the complement is: “Because he refused to take God at his word, and made a pagan vow that cost him the life of his daughter.”
4. Having determined a rough subject and complement you will look for any imagery that you must restate. For example, in Proverbs you should restate image of “The Sluggard” as “The Lazy Person”. You will want to state these images using terms that are true to the text that your audience can understand.
5. At this point you may need to restate the idea in Subject and Complement form. So far we have a subject: “Why was Jephthah’s vow wrong?” We also have a complement that answers the subject: “Because he refused to take God at his word, and made a pagan vow that cost him his daughter.” Play with the wording. Work at making this subject and complement understandable for your modern audience.
6. Finally, you will state the idea in one sentence. For the sermon I wrote out the main idea as follows. “Jephthah’s vow was wrong because he refused to take God at his word, and made a pagan vow that cost him his daughter.” Now, where do you go from here? We have completed only half the task.
Preaching a sermon structured from the original idea of the text is incomplete. Such a sermon only preaches what the text meant to the original hearers, not to our modern audiences. The difficult part of preaching these texts is applying them to our congregations. So let’s call this original main idea the exegetical idea of the text. The exegetical idea is the main idea of the text as understood by the original listeners. You must apply this exegetical idea to your congregation. It will become the homiletical idea. The homiletical idea meaningfully relates the exegetical idea to your congregation. To accomplish this you will state the homiletical idea also in subject and complement form. A tool helpful in determining homiletical ideas is the Ladder Of Abstraction. Moving from an exegetical to homiletical idea means moving from the specific to the abstract. Notice the Ladder below.
The Ladder Of Abstraction
8. Mammal — John & Jane Backpew
7. Herbivore
6. Bovine Family
5. Has Four Legs
4. Farm Animal
3. Cow
2. Milk Cow
1. Bessie
One moves up this ladder from the very specific (Bessie the Cow) to the more general (Mammal). How is Bessie like the people of your congregation? One moves from the specific to the abstract. In this case you must move up the ladder until you reach a point that carries across to Mr. or Mrs. Backpew. Bessie is like your congregation because people and cows are mammals.
Let’s work our text from Judges 11 up this ladder. Jephthah in Judges 11:29-40:
5. A Man
4. A Man of Faith –> Modern Church Audience
3. An Old Testament Figure
2. An Israelite
1. Jephthah, a Judge in Israel
We get off the ladder at step four. Jephthah was a man who was trying to live his faith. He may not have done that very well, however, that is how he is like the people of our congregations. Notice that step five goes too far up the ladder since the application is not specific enough. So then, we will take this information and determine a homiletical idea for a sermon from Judges 11:29-40.
Jephthah is like our modern audience in that he was trying to live his faith. Furthermore, he was trying to be faithful to God in a way he understood. There is no doubt that Jephthah believed he was doing the correct thing in sacrificing his daughter. He was attempting to strike a bargain with God. If God gave him the victory, he would sacrifice the first one out his door to greet him. Jephthah faced a challenge that caused him to strike this deal with God. That challenge stretched his faith to its limits.
Now we begin to see points where this account applies to our congregations. There are times when we also attempt to make bargains with God as well. These bargains are as unwise as Jephthah’s. The draft of the homiletical idea for this sermon from Judges 11:29-40 reads as follows. Subject: “What should be our proper response to God in challenging situations?” Complement: “Our response to God in challenging times must be trust, not bargains.”
Working with that draft we will produce our final homiletical idea. The final idea is: “We must seek to trust God when we face challenging situations, not bribe him.” In the sermon we will express this idea with various phrases such as, “Trust God, don’t bribe him!” Now you are ready to write your sermon from this difficult text.
I have outlined in this article a method for preaching difficult texts from the Scriptures. In approaching these texts you must know why the text is difficult. You must determine its exegetical idea. From that exegetical idea you must define an appropriate homiletical idea. Paul wrote to Timothy that all Scriptures are God breathed and are useful for training in righteousness and equipping the saints (II Timothy 3:16f). Paul did not write that some texts are useful, or that only our favorite texts are profitable. Rather, all Scripture is God-breathed, even the tough texts. Let us then seek to equip our congregations for righteousness with the complete word of God.
Preach the complete Word. Preach the tough ones!

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