Since the beginning of September, I have been working through the book of Jeremiah for my devotions. There is so much to draw out of this pertinent book, but one of the lessons God has been showing me deals with what we call Pastoral Theology. Scattered throughout the book are judgments against the pastors, prophets and priests of Judah because under their watch, the people of Judah committed spiritual adultery against the Lord.
In one such passage God condemns the prophets of Judah and Samaria for a list of things including adultery, profaneness, idolatry, lying, enabling the wicked, and preaching peace to those who deserve God's judgment. But one condemnation stood out to me and if I think about it long enough causes me to tremble. Among this list of sins is the sin of preaching a vision of their own heart and not out of the mouth of the Lord (vs16). The message they were guilty of preaching: peace to those who stood under God's judgment.
We could talk about the fringe Neo-evangelical crowd like Joel Osteen and Robert Schueller who only preach a message of positivity and it would be an accurate criticism, but it is often better to look at our own problems and let the word of God shine on our hearts. How often have we neglected to preach something because we knew people didn't want to hear it anymore? How often have we said nothing at work when everyone else is having a sinful conversation because we don't want to rock the boat? On the other side, have we even spoken words of comfort to someone who needed to repent? Are we not falling pray to the same desire to please the people?
This sin takes on a more subtle form in many of our Fundamentalist churches today. Either through laziness, lack of study, lack of carefulness, or even a belief that one should not study lest you interfere with the Holy Spirit; some have fallen pray to this sin. Rather than preaching the meaning and words of the text, they preach entire messages on their opinions. Usually, they find a word or even a phrase that just preaches well and then every point of their message is mere opinion about that one word or phrase. The temptation is strong when you see a problem but you just can't seem to find a text that really deals with it. So maybe one could say you are well-meaning, but abuses have slipped into the church because of such preaching.
As we approach the text may I suggest some questions to ask before we sit down to write:
What is the main point of the passage or even book? Many preachers get sucked into the minute word level details that they miss the overall flow of the book. They miss the forest for the trees. The purpose of the book directs the flow of meaning and thrust of the book. True exegesis does not ignore this larger level.
What is the structure of the passage? How does the author construct his argument or narrative? Seeing this structure will help you see where the main point is going?
What emphasis does the author put on certain topics? Emphasis is often seen by placing things in a different position than one would normally expect. In Greek, this may occur by placing the emphasized word at the beginning of the sentence. Emphasis is also seen by the repetition of certain words throughout the text.
What application does the author make? Every passage has exactly one meaning or interpretation, but it can have millions of applications. Application can become a trap if we are not careful to ground our application in the text. As an example, consider 1 Cor. 14:33 "For God is not the author of confusion but of peace." Many have taken rightly this text to preach that God is a God of order and not chaos. One could make an application that when you get up in the morning you should have a regular ordered routine including placing you toothbrush in a certain spot, your razor in another, and you deodorant in another; and that you should never vary from this order. Such an application would not be sinful per se, but it would be an abuse of the text and the spiritual authority of the preacher because this is not the meaning of the text. The application deals with tongues and spiritual gifts within the church. God wants things to be done decently and in order within the church.
What is the tone of the text? If Paul is being sharp and critical about a certain sin in the church, our message must not be consoling and uplifting. On the flip side, if the author is seeking to encourage people, why would we beat people up with the message.
There are many different ways to preach a text just like there are many different genres of the text, but one thing must always be true of God honoring preachers: that we preach the word and not our opinions. 2 Timothy 4:2 "Preach the Word."