On a recent road trip, my wife and I downloaded an audio book and thoroughly enjoyed listening to The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a gripping murder mystery that showcases the flare of legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes. Toward the end of the book, as Holmes brings all the pieces of the complex puzzle together, he notes that …
The more outré (unusual) and grotesque an incident is the more carefully it deserves to be examined; and the very point which appears to complicate the case is, when duly considered and scientifically handled, the one which is most likely to elucidate it.
The biblical exegete is a detective: looking for clues … seeking to get to the heart of the issue rather than being misled by distracting side tracks.
While Holmes is speaking about unravelling a crime, he could just as well have been describing the exegetical task of unfolding the meaning of a biblical text. Not that any text is grotesque, but many are unusual and complicated, and the very thing we find hardest to understand, the word or idea that doesn’t seem to fit, the context that makes no sense, the twist, or omission, or odd detail, is often the clue to discovering the meaning of the text. The biblical exegete is a detective: looking for clues as to the intended meaning, following leads that initially don’t seem too promising, checking out details in case they are of significance, and seeking to get to the heart of the issue rather than being misled by distracting side tracks.
It is precisely here that both the joy and power of biblical ministry is found. Whether you are studying the Bible for yourself, engaging in group bible study, preparing a Sunday school lesson or writing a sermon, the same principles apply. We are to search the Scriptures and mine the text to lay bare what God is saying. It’s enjoyable because the Bible is full of surprises, twists, turns, subtle nuances, brilliant insights, and unplumbed depths. We can come back to a passage we have looked at dozens of times before and suddenly see something fresh. In such a discovery there is joy, delight, excitement.
Riches for All
When, through prayer, study and meditation, we unearth what God is saying, we find his words are powerful, penetrating and life-giving.
It is also the way to experience the power of God’s Word. If we gloss over the text hurriedly or approach it assuming we already know what it means or treat it as merely human rather than divine writing, we are likely to miss what God is really saying. We impose our ideas on it or merely skim over the surface of it, and then wonder why our message is boring or our Bible reading seems dull. But when, through prayer, study and meditation, we unearth what God is saying, we find his words are powerful, penetrating and life-giving.
Such discoveries of the treasures of God’s Word are not the reserve of only a few highly skilled, professional exegetes who belong to some priestly class of Bible interpreters. One does not have to be a detective of such exceptional standing as Sherlock Holmes to find these riches. Speaking of the riches of the kingdom, Jesus said:
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will (Matt 11:25–26).
While advanced exegetical skills can be learnt and aid us enormously—and while commentaries can shed light on things we otherwise would not know—real spiritual insight is given to those who study the Bible with humble faith: reading and re-reading it, meditating on it, praying for insight, submitting their hearts and minds to it, and asking that God would open our eyes to see wonderful things in his word (cf. Ps 119:18). Searching the text is not seeking out hidden meanings, weird encryptions, or deeper insights that can only be gained by the illuminati. The real meaning of God’s Word is the intended meaning, open to all who read it diligently, with faith in Christ and dependence on his Spirit.
Traps for Professionals
In fact, it may well be the “professional” preacher, the trained exegete, or the Greek and Hebrew scholar who struggles most to find the joy and power of God’s Word. That need not be the case, but it can be because there are a number of barriers to finding the joy and power of the Word that “experts” are particularly prone to:
- First, there is the risk that familiarity breeds contempt. If we know the Bible very well, we more easily come to a text thinking we already know what it means and therefore fail to wrestle with it as we should. Of course, great Bible knowledge is highly desirable, but only if we come to the Scriptures each time ready to learn more; submitting ourselves to it, and seeking its truth afresh every time. Given that pastors and preachers are usually under great time pressure, it is easy to take short cuts in sermon preparation, relying on past study not new discovery.
- Second, we are in danger of finding what isn’t actually there. Sometimes a preacher is commended for opening up what no one else could ever have seen in the text. The reality is, no one could see it because it wasn’t there! By exegetical sleight of hand, under the guise of scholarly insight, the message was actually the invention of a creative mind rather than the exposition of God’s clear and sufficient Word.
- Thirdly, we can too easily substitute writings about the Bible for study of the Bible. Today we are inundated with an array of commentaries, many of which are quite brilliant. But the old quip that it is surprising how much light the Bible can throw on the commentaries is sometimes apt. We can spend far too much time reading what others have seen in the Word rather than seeing it for ourselves. Or too much time chasing down controversies that are not germane to the central meaning of the text. There is no substitute for reflective reading, praying and studying the text for ourselves. Leave the commentaries till later.
- Fourth, we may fall for the temptation of looking for power in our rhetoric, illustrations, examples and analogies rather than in the Word itself. While illustrations and examples are tremendously important and helpful, there is risk that we depend on them for power. We worry that our message is weak because we do not have a killer illustration to open or close with. We forget that illustrations are merely tools to shine light on the truth of God’s Word, and it is the truth that is powerful. If we proclaim the truth accurately, freshly, clearly and passionately, we can be sure that God is able to work powerfully in people’s hearts, whether or not we have a great story to go with it.
If you are a preacher or Bible teacher, it is helpful to ask yourself, when am I most animated? When am I most moved, excited and passionate?
- Finally, we can find ourselves excited about the wrong things as we proclaim the gospel. If you are a preacher or Bible teacher, it is helpful to ask yourself, when am I most animated? When am I most moved, excited and passionate? Sometimes we might be most passionate when we are telling our great little story, and then much flatter when come back to the biblical text. Other times we might be most animated when we are attacking our pet-hate, launching a homiletical missile at some error, or riding one of our favourite hobbyhorses. But what should stir our deepest affections is the gospel itself. It is preaching Christ and all he has done, preaching God and all he is, preaching the gospel and all that it means, that should most stir our hearts and the hearts of our hearers.
The Road to Joy
One of the things that struck me in The Hound of the Baskervilles is the absolute delight Sherlock Holmes takes in a new case and especially a hard case. The case of the hound was one of the most perplexing he had ever encountered, and he loved it. He was wholly invested in searching out the matter and it occupied his mind fully until it was resolved. In the same way, every text we come to, every message we write, every lesson we prepare, should fully occupy our heart and mind. It takes discipline to approach it that way, but it is invariably the road to joy and power in ministering God’s Word, both to ourselves and others.