“Meaning of verse uncertain”: What To Do When Biblical Data Is Difficult

Puzzled male shrugging wearing lab coat

The title of this post comes from footnote “a” in the Jewish Study Bible for Genesis 4:7. The note simply states, “Meaning of verse uncertain.” I have no idea why the authors decided that note was necessary.

However, if you have practiced preaching through books of the Bible or even large sections of books of the Bible, then you have hit verses or phrases within verses that were difficult to interpret.

In his excellent little book, Reading The Bible Wisely, Briggs writes, “Alongside this doctrine [of the “clarity of Scripture”] I would like to set the difficulty of Scripture, which is not, to my knowledge an equally well-known theological position, but which can certainly be maintained alongside a view of ‘clarity'” (p. 54).

So, for instance, the JSB’s translation of Genesis 4:7 reads, “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin crouches at the door…” (uncertain verses in italics).

What’s a preacher to do when coming face to face with uncertain meaning?

  1. Place less focus on the lexical meaning of individual words (in this case, “uplift”). Scan the range of meaning provided by scholars, but don’t agonize too long there.
  2. Place more focus on the larger context. You already know how important context is to meaning. It’s especially important when dealing with difficult biblical data. Simply read the story of Cain and Abel and you’ll discover that Cain has the opportunity to be like his younger brother if he does right. Cain could gain God’s attention like Abel did, but Cain must do the right thing. “Uplift” has to have something to do with Cain’s status before God. Briggs writes, “Scripture is clear, let us say, on the macro level. On the micro level it is persistently difficult to pin down” (p. 66).
  3. Place most emphasis on what the passage is designed to do to the Church. Emphasize how Believers respond to this preaching portion as an act of worship.
  4. Be clear about the Gospel so Believers can believe before they obey.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid of partial interpretations. Virtually every Sunday I come away knowing I could have done more research and come to better conclusions (about some minutia). I am content with partial interpretations (without being satisfied with shoddy work!).

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion has a place where the footnote above would fit. If so, I hope these suggestions might help you preach with Spirit-given confidence in your partial interpretations.

Preach well for the sake of God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


P.S. If you haven’t read Briggs (Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously. Revised Edition.), you’ll enjoy the 100-page paperback. It’s rare that a small book delivers such large insight.

Being Aware of Fluctuating Authority

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The image above is an attempt to show what might happen to a preacher’s authority during the sermon. The red line shows how our authority fluctuates while we communicate God’s Word. Below the line equals a loss of authority; above the line means the authority of God’s Word is coming through loud and clear.

I’m assuming that a preacher doesn’t have authority because he is preaching. Our authority comes from the combination of our office (we are soul-watchers according to Hebrews 13:17) and communicating God’s Word. There are minutes in the sermon when I may not be communicating God’s Word as much as I think I am. Think about sermon time devoted to…

  • illustrations
  • jokes
  • secondary applications (the Word teaches us to give financially, but I specify how and how much)

I’m only beginning to think this through. The issue may not be only authority versus no authority. It might be an issue of levels of authority (higher and lower). In this case, “pure” explanation of God’s Word might contain more authority than a funny illustration.

This has made me think carefully about how well I’m communicating God’s authoritative Word. Luke 4:32 records, “and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.”

In his book, Preaching: A Biblical Theology, Jason Meyer writes, “Scripture….is ‘God preaching’ in a complete and unqualified way because Scripture is free of error. Our preaching is not. A preacher cannot claim that people have heard from God simply because they have heard the preacher’s sermon!” (p. 239). We have to make sure sermon seconds are saturated with accurate explanation and application of God’s Word.

Before Sunday, look over your sermon notes and get a rough idea of how many minutes are over the line and how many are under the line.

Preach well for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).



When Our Theology Gets in the Way of Meaning


If I’m not careful, there are times when my semi-sound theology gets in the way of discovering the meaning of a preaching portion. For instance, in Luke 18:18 “a ruler” asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In my earlier years I would have followed many preachers I had heard and said something like, “Obviously, the ruler didn’t understand the Gospel because he asks, ‘what must I do…’ You don’t do anything. You can’t do anything!” However, jumping to that conclusion sends you away from Jesus’ teaching. Actually, Jesus doesn’t quarrel with this ruler’s wording at all.

In v. 22 Jesus proceeds to give the ruler one more thing to do, something he refused to do: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor…and come, follow me.”

So, if, because of your theology, you jump to the conclusion that the ruler asked Jesus the wrong question, you will have a difficult time with Luke 18:18-27. If you are going to jump to a conclusion, try this one: What Jesus told the ruler to do could not earn eternal life, but was a vital part of inheriting it. Like all good works, they are proof of genuine saving faith. Had the ruler said “yes” to Jesus’ instructions, he would have displayed evidence of being saved by grace and placing His faith in Jesus.

Before Sunday, see if your theology might be causing you to jump to conclusions that might be hurting your chances of discovering the meaning of your preaching portion. Is there any place where you might say, “God can’t be saying that because I know that (fill in the blank with the particular theology that seemingly cancels out the slice of meaning in question)”? It is risky because there may be times when I have to adjust my theology to the Bible. Imagine that!

Preach well for God’s glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:21).


Why the Question, Why?, Adds Theological Depth to Your Sermon



In Luke 18:9 we read: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”

The “what” part of analysis might define self-righteousness as the feeling that we’re basically good and, therefore, acceptable to God. That’s certainly an important part of preaching Jesus’ parable.

We add theological depth to the sermon by asking why we feel that we’re basically good and, therefore, acceptable to God. During this segment of the sermon we delve into our depravity–how the human heart works.

That alone would be a good reason to move from “what” to “why.” For instance, I’ve met some non-Christians and some Christians who feel they are good because they compare themselves to others. I’ll never forget one person telling me they felt they were okay with God because they were better than Michael Jackson. I didn’t expect this from an elderly gentleman.

But there’s another reason to spend time talking about why we feel self-righteous. When we explore “why,” we create new angles from which to explain the Gospel to Christians. The bad news of the Gospel isn’t that only the “worst” people are condemned. The bad news of the Gospel tells us that “there is none righteous” period.

So, at some point in the sermon I might ask congregants: “How does faith in the Gospel move us from being self-righteous to being “one who humbles himself” (Luke 18:14)? I want them to see a connection between their faith in Christ and their ability to not be like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. I want them to see a connection between their faith in Christ and their ability to be like the tax collector who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion highlights sin. If so, along with explaining what the sin is, spend some time exploring why we commit that sin. You can do the same with righteousness too. What kind of attitude or action is being held up for us to emulate? Why do Christians do that? How does the Gospel create that righteousness?

Preach well for God’s glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Guest Post: 10 Pointers For Young Preachers


This week’s post is from Peter Mead of the UK. For the past several months I’ve been reading and profiting from Peter’s blog, biblicalpreaching. I’ve enjoyed his humility, balance, and Christ-centered approach to preaching in church. Peter graciously agreed to write this guest post and I hope you’ll benefit from his insights. Even though I’m no longer considered a young preacher, his 10 pointers were extremely helpful. Enjoy!

Optimized-Peter Mead

10 Pointers for Young Preachers

I am way too young to be called a sage, but I don’t get called young any more either. So while there is better advice to be found, here are some pointers from me for young preachers:

  1. Get to know God. Never settle for knowing about God. Make it your life’s greatest ambition to really know and love the God who loves you.
  1. Be a Bible person, not an issue person. It is tempting to let certain issues define your ministry, but these will shift over the years. Instead of choosing a pet issue, develop an infectious passion for the Bible.
  1. Determine never to be a glory thief. Decide now that showing-off has no place in your preaching. Always point listeners to Christ and not to yourself. God delights to lovingly give glory, but never steal it.
  1. Learn to discriminate feedback. People will praise a public speaker. You are more likely to lose your way through hyped up praise than through nasty criticism. Learn to pursue and process genuinely helpful feedback.
  1. Don’t let your homiletical skill get ahead of biblical and theological awareness. People will praise a public speaker, but they need a preacher who is biblically and theologically healthy.
  1. Don’t let your ministry profile get ahead of your character. Let your ministry move forward at God’s pace, otherwise you may get a profile too heavy for your character to bear.
  1. Be proactive, but not self-promotional. Look for opportunities to serve, to learn, and to grow, but be wary of leaving God behind as you chase “more strategic ministry.”
  1. Learn to read wisely. Invest time in reading quality rather than quantity, widely rather than just your favorite author, and selectively rather than getting stuck in books you no longer want to finish. Prioritize books over blogs!
  1. Do not journey alone. Preaching is often a lonely ministry. Prayerfully pursue mentors and prayer partners who can speak into your life. Find a string of Bible read-through partners and chase God together in His Word.
  1. Have a lifelong conversation with God. There are too many technically capable and theologically informed preachers that have no meaningful relationship with God.

Believing Your Sermons, Especially When They Don’t!


Can you tell when your listeners don’t believe you? If you’re an expositor you could ask it this way: Can you tell when your listeners don’t believe God (because you’re telling them what God is saying)?

One of the values of preaching without notes or with few notes is that you have lots of time to look at your listeners. The only problem is that you get to see them not reacting to the message. Do you ever see this look on Sunday?


It would be easier on us if we didn’t!

I see this most often when God’s Word asks for praise and thanksgiving. Probably I’m part of the problem. I’m from Maine and Mainers (not, “maniacs”) aren’t known for celebrating. Probably part of the problem is being in Lancaster County. Folks in the County aren’t famous for showing much emotion (okay, maybe for the Eagles, Steelers, Flyers, and Phillies). And then, we’re a fundamental kind of Bible Church. I often joke about what that does to our emotions.

But, as you know, much of the problem lies with our carnality. We simply are not gripped by God’s grace like we should be. We seldom relish our riches in Christ. But I need to.

It is important for me to believe my own sermons, especially when some congregants don’t. And I need to fight the urge to allow their look to pull me into the same lack of feelings. It’s a good thing I really believe this Word of God. Sometimes preachers have to believe for the congregants. And in doing so, sometimes God’s Spirit will prompt me to ask them, “Do you believe that?” Sometimes my question will actually help them realize they really do believe it, even though they haven’t been showing it.

Before Sunday, make sure you’re ready to react emotionally to God’s Word and be prepared to help your listeners do the same.

Preach well for His glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Bolstering Faith: The Big Picture of Sermon Application

The big picture concept.

One thing that helps me prepare for each Sunday sermon is reminding myself of the big picture. It’s easy for me to get lost in the exegetical details and even the specific application of a preaching portion. For example, preaching on Titus 2:11-14, I could think that urging us all to welcome the grace of God as a personal trainer to transform us into the image of Christ is sufficient. That is what that Text is saying and doing: the grace of God trains us to say “no” to two things and say “yes” to more things.

But, there’s a bigger picture than that. In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus asks, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That’s what God is looking for now and later: saving faith, sanctifying faith. A good proof-text could be from Hebrews 11:6 “But without faith it is impossible to please him…”

Before Sunday, look at your application (locate what your preaching portion is intended to do to the Church). Ask how faith in Christ is linked to that application.

In the case of Luke 18:1-8, for instance, making sure we’re praying when Jesus returns inevitably means making sure we believe the Gospel. We pray to the degree we believe. Luke said, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” What do you think is the condition of my faith if I have lost heart? Right. If I’ve lost heart, I’ve lost faith first. Or, you could at least say that I’m struggling with my faith when I’m very discouraged.

One way to think of this is:

Every act of disobedience is first and foremost an act of unbelief.

That means in order to attack disobedience, we should first attack unbelief. The opposite is also true: every act of obedience is first and foremost an act of faith. So, to urge obedience, we should first urge faith.

Preach well for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:21),


How To Preach Marathon Series (without losing people in the process)


Over the years I’ve had the privilege of preaching through long books of the Bible such as Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah. This past Sunday I completed a marathon series through the Gospel of Luke.

Why preach through books of the Bible? Let me answer by giving my answer to another question I’ve been asked: What’s wrong with a steady diet of topical preaching?

Preaching through books of the Bible does what a steady diet of topical preaching can’t do: help parishioners see the continuity of God’s revelation by preaching verses in their immediate and canonical context.

Here’s how I preach marathon series without losing parishioners in the process:

  • Trust that God’s method of preserving Scripture in library form (meaning the Bible is made up of 66 individual books) conveys meaning differently than topical preaching–even topical exposition–does.
  • Trust that, often, the verses selected for topical preaching serve a purpose found in the immediate context. This means God has a different reason for including those verses in the Canon than the preacher is giving in the topical sermon. We often only think of context providing meaning, but, in many cases, context provides purpose as well.
  • Keep the series together by linking every sermon to the books theme/purpose. In the case of Luke’s Gospel, Luke wrote to help a friend be certain about what he had been taught about Christ and Christianity (cf. Luke 1:3-4). Virtually every sermon title began with, “Making Sure We…” These keeps relevance at the forefront of each individual sermon.
  • Take strategic breaks for your sake and the sake of the congregation. My practice is to break a book like Luke in half (the same with Isaiah and its natural break around chapter 40). This break gives me time to preach on some things that are important to our faith-family, but not found in the particular book study. (It took 10 months to preach the first half of Luke, about 6 months to preach a series on the “one another’s” in the NT, and another 6 months to complete Luke.)

Before Sunday (and before the new year gets too old), I hope you will consider the value of preaching through a book of the Bible, no matter how long or short. Your congregants will be better for it.

Preach well for His glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:21).


Remembering the “Narrative” in the Birth Narratives of the Gospels

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I have to force myself to enjoy preaching at Christmas time. One of the many difficulties of preaching the birth narratives of the Synoptic Gospels is remembering that they are narratives. That means the subject of the sermon will come from the rising action (initial plot development) of, let’s say, Luke’s Gospel.

So, the description of the birth of Jesus functions within the larger storyline Luke is developing. Luke only gives us this much: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). That’s it.

But Luke has already told us his big idea: “it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account for you…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). This means that the event of the birth of Jesus and all surrounding events (births of John and Jesus foretold, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, Mary’s Song, the birth of John, Zechariah’s prophecy, Caesar’s decree, the shepherd’s vision, etc.) contribute to Luke’s idea.

It’s easy to focus only on the little narrative–the birth narrative–and miss Luke’s larger narrative. But Luke’s larger narrative contains the purpose for which all smaller narratives in his Gospel exist. That purpose is most important for our congregants. If you’re interested in learning how to allow genres, such as narrative, to signal dominant meaning, take a look at chapter 4 in my new book, Preaching With Accuracy (Kregel, 2014).

Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching

So, if you’re like me and you’re finished with the birth narratives for this year, Lord willing, remember the narrative part of the birth narratives for next year. If you are planning to preach from one of the early narratives in the Gospels this coming Sunday, before Sunday, check to see how the ideas in your mini-narrative fit into the larger idea of the Gospel writer. Allow that larger idea and purpose to drive your sermon.

Preach well for His glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.


P.S. Enjoy a blessed Christmas!

When Our Theology Waters Down Christ’s Warnings


If we’re not careful, our theology may cause us to water down Christ’s warnings in the Gospels. Let me give you two examples. I believe genuine Believers are eternally secure. But that belief can cause me to water down Jesus’ warnings. I believe in dispensationalism with a small “d.” But that belief can also cause me to water down Jesus’ warnings.

In Luke 17:20-37 Jesus answers a question about when “the kingdom of God would come” (v. 20). A strong warning is found in v. 32 “Remember Lot’s wife.” Like all of Luke’s Gospel (cf. 1:4 “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”), Luke records this discussion about the arrival of the Kingdom of God so we would be sure we will enter it when it comes.

However, it’s possible that our theology might cause us to say to our congregants: “That’s a warning that need not be heeded.”

Over the years, I’ve tried not to allow my belief in eternal security or my brand of dispensationalism to water down Jesus’ warnings. Rather than allow my theology to cancel out the warnings, I’ve worked hard to give the warnings full force while maintaining my theology.

That means the question for me is no longer, “Are we eternally secure?”, but, rather, “How are we eternally secure?” Part of being eternally secure means heeding Jesus’ warnings and not being like Lot’s wife. In order to be ready for the arrival of the Kingdom of God, I must not allow anything in this fallen world to capture my affections.

And, as far as dispensationalism goes, the mindset and faith Jesus describes as necessary for salvation at His Second Coming is the same mindset and faith needed to be ready for salvation-by-Rapture. V. 33 makes this clear: “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion contains any warnings and ask yourself if you are giving them full force.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation.