I still remember the Sunday well. After closing the service in prayer, I was making my way to the front pew to collect my things when one of my church members intercepted me. Assuming he was simply wanting to offer me kind words of encouragement like normal, I turned to give him my full attention. Instead, he asked a question that still haunts me: why did you skip over those verses in the middle of the passage?
The truth is, I didn’t think anyone would notice; I prayed no one would notice. My hope was that the rest of the sermon would draw attention away from the fact that I honestly had no clue how to explain and apply those verses. No such luck. And my brother-in-Christ loved me enough to come and ask what I’m sure other church members were wondering: why did you skip over those verses in the middle of the passage?
Consistently preaching through books of the Bible is beneficial for pastors and churches, but when you commit to preach through books of the Bible, it’s just a matter of time before you come upon an incredibly difficult passage. Let’s say you decide to preach through the book of Genesis. Sunday after Sunday is going great until you reach Genesis 6 and the Nephilim. Who exactly are they? Or maybe it’s the book of Exodus, where you hit a tricky passage immediately. Are the midwives lying to Pharaoh in chapter 1, and if so, does God reward them for their deception? The question is not if we will be faced with hard passages to preach, but when. And when we are faced with the decision to preach difficult passages or skip over them, which will we choose?
As difficult as it might be to interpret and preach through tricky passages, there are tremendous benefits for our churches. First, we can build our people’s confidence in our preaching. This might sound self-serving, but it’s not. More and more people—even Christians—are plagued with doubt and hesitant to trust any form of authority, even their pastor. They are bombarded with worldly messages that might cause them to question us, our authority, and even the Word we proclaim. If we regularly skip over difficult passages, we are inviting them to lose confidence in us and the task of preaching. They are well aware that we aren’t perfect and don’t know everything, but by competently handling the hardest of passages and seeking to answer the questions they have about the passage in our sermons, we are showing them they can have confidence in us as their pastor.
Similarly, preaching hard passages can increase one’s confidence in God’s Word. As pastors, we want our people to love and trust God’s Word. Moreover, we want them to recognize the relevance of God’s Word for their lives. But what are we telling our people if we consistently gloss over difficult verses and passages we come to? I’ll tell you what it says to them: this passage must not be important; this verse must not be relevant to my life; this part of Scripture is impossible to understand. What a travesty for our people to lose confidence in God’s Word because of the way we handle it. But when we preach through especially difficult passages, we can help our congregation develop confidence that all Scripture is “able to make [one] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15–17). Even the most difficult of verses are breathed out by God and able to transform lives. How wonderful it is when believers have full confidence in the power, relevancy, and truthfulness of God’s Word.
Pastors must also recognize that every time they preach difficult passages, they are teaching their people how to engage with difficult passages. Just as our church members learn how to pray as we regularly pray before them, our people learn to interpret Scripture through the way we handle Scripture. Imagine your people confidently seeking to interpret and apply the most difficult passages in the Bible on their own, because of the way you handled hard passages in your preaching. As we faithfully model how to interpret and apply hard passages from the Bible in our preaching, our people’s confidence in God’s Word will grow, along with their ability to interpret and apply those passages themselves.
Let me conclude with three ways Pastors should handle difficult passages in their preaching.
Humbly. As a pastor, I have always found encouragement in Peter’s admission that he struggled to understand Paul’s writings at times (2 Pet. 3:15–16). It reminds me that no matter how much I pray, study, and stand on the shoulders of giants before me, there will be certain passages where the meaning will seem to stay out of reach. During these times, we need humility, a willingness to admit that we simply don’t understand a passage, and a dependence on God to help us understand.
Honestly. If we are not entirely confident in our explanation and/or application of a particular verse or passage, what good is it trying to hide it from our people? Our people will likely pick up on our uncertainty. Why not admit that there are differing ways that a passage can be understood, and explain why each are valid? For example, years ago I preached through the Gospel of Mark. But when I came to chapter 13, most of the passage was unclear to me. Even after praying, studying, and researching what commentaries suggested, I still found myself struggling to offer one explanation of Mark 13. Therefore, when I preached the passage, I admitted to my church that it was a hard passage, and I explained multiple biblically faithful conclusions, while also sharing why I believed a particular interpretation was more likely than the others. My congregation appreciated my honesty that Sunday, and I believe it caused them to have more confidence in me as their pastor.
Confidently. As pastors, even if we are uncertain about a particular verse, we can still be confident because it is part of the Word of God. The Word of God—not our explanation of it—is living and active (Heb. 4:12). The Word of God is able to make one wise for salvation, beneficial for encouragement, teaching, correction, training, and equipping (2 Tim. 3:15–16). So as you stand before your people in humility and honesty, be confident in the power of God’s Word proclaimed to change the lives of those who hear. Even the most difficult to understand passages in the Bible are still the inspired Word of God. Confidently proclaim them.
Maybe as you plan out your preaching calendar, you notice a specific passage in the future you know is going to be especially difficult. Let me encourage you to approach it with humility, trust in the power of God’s Word, pray for God’s grace, and preach the hard passage!