Honor your heroes with 24 Memorial Day Quotes for Preaching.
Preaching Articles

It’s Sunday morning and you’ve just told your congregation, “The Bible says _______.” You pick the topic. It could be about the role of women in the church, how your church is organized, the gift of tongues, baptism, or whether or not we have a free will or predestination.

Similarly, it could be about a particular passage of Scripture where there are competing views about what the author of that passage meant. (For example, what did Paul mean when he talked about women and head coverings in 1 Cor. 11:2–16?)

My question to you, regardless of what the topic or passage might be, is, “Are you absolutely sure that’s what the Bible says?”

Now, before you answer too quickly, let me ask you another question. Do you currently believe everything today that you believed five or ten or twenty years ago? Of course not. Why? Because you’ve grown. You’ve learned. And you now know things you didn’t know five or ten or twenty years ago.

However, if we went back five or ten or twenty years and I asked you, “Are you absolutely sure that this is what [Paul] meant in this passage?” you probably would have answered, “Of course! That is what Bible says!” But you now believe differently.

So if you’ve changed your position on different passages and topics over the past five, ten or twenty years, what makes you so sure that what you currently believe to be true is, in fact, what the Bible says? Your own track record suggests that might not always be true.

Now before you begin to label me a liberal or heretic, let me just remind you of something usually covered in Hermeneutics 101: the hermeneutical spiral. If you’ve never gone to seminary or haven’t heard of the hermeneutical spiral, the easiest way to conceive of it is to imagine a spiral on a page. In the center of the spiral, there is a dot. And from that dot, you have a series of rings that emanate out from that dot — farther and farther from it.

The dot is what the writer of a passage meant to say. Unfortunately, you and I aren’t that writer, so we can’t fully know what the author meant. What makes this worse is that none of us can arrive at any text without our own preconceived notions. We bring our past, our personalities, our learnings, the lessons of our past teachers, our denominations, the podcasts and messages we’ve listened to, the books we’ve read, the conversations we’ve had and our culture to the text.

What that means is that the first time we read a passage or study a Biblical text, we bring all of that with us — which is why we usually start out far on the spiral. We may think that this is what Paul meant, but we may be way out of line.

Then as we read more of Paul, as we study more Scripture, as we learn from others, as we study the culture Paul was writing in, or as we read commentaries, we begin to get a better picture of what Paul meant, and we get closer to the dot. A few years later, we go back and study the same passage and all of a sudden we see it in a new light and, hopefully, move even closer to the dot.

The great lesson of the hermeneutical spiral is that we can never be sure that we’re actually on the dot. Realizing that fact ought to foster some level of humility on your part and mine about what “the Bible says.” Why? Because only God and the author of the text know for sure exactly what they meant. Which means that while we may think we know the dot  … we may not.

One of my family’s friends is a famous poet (the kind where they hold symposiums to talk about and discuss his poetry). I remember having a conversation with him years ago and asking him about that experience of being in a room and having other people talk about what they thought he meant and him just listening to their ideas while sitting in the back of the room. He told me it was rather humorous and that “nobody ever got it right.”

Think about that. Here is someone who wrote a text of poetry in the same century and in the same country as those who were interpreting it — and they couldn’t get it right. And these were scholars — people familiar with poetry and its “rules and conventions” — not just lay people. What does that say to you and me who are living millennia away in different cultures and social-economic circles? Well, I think one of my former seminary professors put it best years ago when he said, “Bruce, God did not call us to be certain knowers. Rather, he called us to be responsible interpreters.”

In other words, you and I have to be careful when we say, “This is what the Bible says!” Why? Because we may be wrong.  This side of heaven, we can never say with absolute certainty, “This is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote __________.”  We can only say, “To the best of my knowledge, I believe this to be true.”

When it’s all said and done, humility is a good thing in biblical interpretation (let alone Christ-followership). Plus, it’s a great thing to model for your congregation. Instead of them thinking that they can just come up with any old interpretation of a passage and because they came up with it, believe it to be what the Bible actually says, they’ll realize that they have to learn both humility and hermeneutics.

By modeling to your congregation that God calls us not to be certain-knowers but to be responsible interpreters (and to humbly hold our positions), you’ll be training your congregation to be better Christ-followers.

Furthermore, you’ll be giving yourself an out when you realize that something you’ve taught for years to be true isn’t what you believe any longer. It’s not that the Bible changed, just you and your understanding of it — which will be a good moment for you, your congregation and the church at large. As the saying goes, “A little bit of humility does a body good.”



Bruce D. Johnson is the President of Wired To Grow, a business growth coaching, consulting and executive education firm located near Charleston, SC. (www.WiredToGrow.com) and the author of “Breaking Through Plateaus” (www.BreakingThroughBook.com). Prior to that, he was the founding pastor of a church he started with two families that grew to 2,000 people. You can reach him at bruce@wiredtogrow.com

 

Browse All

Related Preaching Articles

Talk about it...

David Buffaloe

commented on May 25, 2013

great points!

Michael James Monaghan

commented on May 25, 2013

it's a great article to ponder . One thing we might remember though is that 'the bible interprets itself if we can learn how to handle it correctly . Much of how we read it is that imposed on us by tradition.(?). Take 'The Lords Day' in Revelation . How many read it as Sunday ?. It's the only place in the whole Bible where those words appear . Does it matter ?. Yes it does as Christians are told to 'rightly divide the word of truth'. It's a discipline to be learned and something to be aspired to .

Paul M League

commented on May 25, 2013

In general, I think Bruce makes a salient point. Michael's comment is also valid. I would like to add that in order to interpret the Bible in context and with some reasonable hope of accuracy (proper hermeneutics), one has to see it as the ultimate literature and read it accordingly, in the various genres in which it is written. If one gets overly woodenly literalistic whole points will be missed and misinterpretations occur. I stand by the position of Hank Hanegraaff in his 2008 book "The Apocalypse Code" and encourage all commentators to this venue to read this most valuable book.

Bruce Johnson

commented on May 25, 2013

Gentlemen, thanks for you feedback and encouragement. The original title of this article was, "Certain Knower or Responsible Interpreter?" And that's really what I was trying to get at. Way too many preachers give off the impression that they know with certainly what something means (i.e. What the Bible says about ..." or "God's Way to ..."). When in reality, we ought to say, "What I believe Paul was trying to say was ..." It's the certain knower part that causes so many (both inside and outside the church) to distrust us (especially when godly men and women have differing opinions on the same text). Acting like and teaching our people to be responsible interpreters?and not certain knowers?will help all of us to be better followers of Christ, lead to better interpretative work, and make us and our messages more winsome to both people inside and outside of the church. As the last line says, "A little humility does a body good!"

Kevin Kleinhenz

commented on May 26, 2013

Bruce I think when reading this I asked, about the things I believed 25 years agowhen I started preaching. The truth is I have "moved" somewhat in my interpretation of certain subjects and preach them differently but NONE of those areas were "essential" for salvation subjects. This is very important. Am I to tell my congregation that I "feel" Paul was telling us in I Corinthians 15 that Jesus rose from the dead? or that I "think" it's important to believe in the Resurrection of Christ? I would have to say that it may be more accurate to state that we need to start sharing with our congregations the difference between "doctrine" and "theory" or "our opinions". When I share on the subject of the timing of the Lord's return I am careful to separate what the scripture teaches as "absolute" (Jesus is Coming again) and that which I think it "points to"(The timing of that event). Seems like without caution in this area we would lead our people to believe we can't be "absolute" about much in scripture. Just my thoughts. Kevin

Michael James Monaghan

commented on May 26, 2013

Paulm , I've just read a precise of a review of 'The Apocalypse Code . The review is by Dr Norman Geisler on the prophetic years.com and, far from being 'over woodenly in his interpretion ', Frank Hanegraaff is thought to be too liberal . Frank is alleged to use an 'allegorical' method of interpretation; plain meaning to 'deeper' meaning;literal promises to 'spiritual' promises; Jewish tribes to 'Gentile tribes;a literal resurrection to a 'spiritual' resurrection etc . Dr Geisler is surprised at Frank Gs stance and does not agree with him .There are comments by readers too . It is thought Replacement theology and Dominion theology supported. Reviews of books are a good idea if possible ?.

Bruce Johnson

commented on May 26, 2013

Kevin, I think we're in agreement that you can preach with conviction that Christ is risen. But if you look at the examples in the article like the role of women or what Paul meant by head coverings in 1 Cor. 11, I'm not focusing on the core of our faith. But even what we may think is core, may not be to others (i.e. Calvinists vs. Arminians). Or, let me give you another example that I'll probably write about soon on church structure. I can't tell you how many churches preach that their style of church leadership is the biblical way?even though they're all different. Even funnier is the way they define the terms (one church will define elders as all lay people, another will define elders as all pastors, another will define elders as pastors of other churches, another will define elders as a combo, while another will define elders as only men over a certain age, etc.). And despite those differences, somehow God is blessing all those different structures. Which is what causes me to suggest that a better approach than being a "certain knower" is to be a "responsible interpreter." Finally, I'm not arguing that you shouldn't take a stand, just to hold it humbly because you might be wrong and there are probably godly people who differ (just pull out three commentaries on any passage and you'll probably find differences of opinions from people who've spent years studying the passages you and I have a short time to study in any given week). Hope that helps clarify what I was saying (which, by the way, was meant to be a freeing thing).

Bill Williams

commented on May 26, 2013

Excellent article, and very relevant to many of the conversations I've participated on this board! Conviction and humility are not mutually exclusive, and yet we must be very careful never to confuse arrogance with conviction. "Responsible interpreters"--I like that phrase! It takes the task of interpreting Scripture seriously while at the same time recognizing that, as Paul writes, "we know in part and we prophesy in part."

Bruce Johnson

commented on May 26, 2013

Bill, I couldn't have said it better! Perfect! B

Paul M League

commented on May 26, 2013

Michael, we do not want to get too far adrift of Bruce's central point. However, I do wish to reply to your comment. I have read Hank Hanegraaff's "The Apocalypse Code" over 6 times and do not find agreement with anything you have reported from the review. Dr. Geisler and Hank are both colleagues and friends...but they do disagree on any number of issues of our faith. Please consider obtaining and reading the actual book itself, and not reviews, before expressing and/or coming to such conclusions.

Michael James Monaghan

commented on May 26, 2013

Thanks Paul . I cannot say I will purchase Frank Hs book , but while I take Dr Geislers and others comments on board , I was expressing their findings not mine :). The fact you have 'read the book 6 times' is noted too . Did you learn anything to enrich your faith ?. As you say , we mustn't get too far of the central point of Bruce's subject . Another tradition that is presented as true doctrine ? is 'the righteousness of Christ ' as that which is imputed to the believer . The Bible speaks of 'the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ '. This 'righteousness' is said to be the righteous deeds of Christ , done for us , prior to His substitutionary death on the Cross . ?. www.middletownbiblechurch.org under 'Reformed errors for info'.

Michael James Monaghan

commented on May 26, 2013

excuse my double commentary ; but at a certain church , there is a dear saint who for mischief or concern keeps choosing that hymsong ; 'My hope is built on nothing less, that Jesus' blood and righteousness ........ ' here is the classic doctrine of Christs active and passive obedience. His 'active' obedience in life is said 'to have kept the law for us ' and then 'died on the cross for us '. Thus it is called 'the righteousness of Christ ' . But the Bible only speaks of 'the righteousness of God ' imputed or credited to us .(?). However , I can sing most of that song with gusto ; 'My hope is built on nothing less ,than Jesus and God's righteousness ...' because it's the 'righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ '. The part where the author of the hym refers to 'the covenants ' I have to defer , because the 'Covenants belong to Israel '. Please see 'The Covenants' obt.org.uk a free download .

Paul M League

commented on May 27, 2013

Michael, YES, each time I read Hank's (not "Franks") book, I am enriched. Clearly, our Lord has mightily used Hank to help bring both deeper and clearer understandings of His Truth; hence, the Christian Research Institutes motto - "...because Truth Matters". You seem, however, to be drifting off into Calvinist and/or various expressions of reformed theology. I am not a Calvinist and, in fact, do not personally hold to any one of his systematic theological positions as best expressed in the infamous TULIP acronym. I hold to the views of George Bryson in his opus "The Dark Side of Calvinism - the Calvinist Caste System. To the extent to which other bodies of our faith support any of Calvin's 5 Points...I briskly turn the other way (i.e., as found in various expressions of the Reformed "movement". Hank's book helps one to understand and employ the tools of hermeneutics and exegesis in ways that are enriching; hence, the reason I return to this and other of his writings for guidance continually. Back to humility, while all Christians must be genuinely humble and humble in their sharing of His Word, we must also defend His Truth...and quite often with more vigor and certitude as the lives of our neighbors are at stake. It is truly a life and death proposition that can and should allow for firmness and clarity.

Michael James Monaghan

commented on May 27, 2013

Though I said Bruce's writing here was 'a great article to ponder' I didn't say that I agree or disagree with it . I don't understand what Bruce means in the fourth paragraph up . Paul was taught by the risen Christ, as well as knowing scripture very well . Paul told Timothy to heed the scriptures which he had known since a child,and no doubt Paul could say the same about himself ?. Paul was also the human author of much of the scripture we have , during and after the Acts period ?.**** Paul , I hope you wont mind , I looked at reviews of Hank Hanegraaf's Apocalypse Code on Amazon; after all they sell his books . There was mixed receptions. But as you say you have benefited , why not write a review too ? I'm more interested in getting to know the text of scripture ,rather than yet another book on Revelation and rebuttals of other writers - at the present time . Interestingly ? ,I think John may have written Revelation during the Acts period and that he did not live out a long life as most hold the tradition . Wasn't he one of the sons of thunder?. and what did the Lord say about him and James ?.

Paul M League

commented on May 27, 2013

Michael, I repeat, please obtain a copy of Hank Hanegraaff's "The Apocalypse Code" as it speaks for itself. I don't do book reviews, but I do, as my personal ministry, editing work for a Biblical scholar. On your point about the Apostle John...my studies show that indeed he did not live to the age of 95 as some posit, but for the very specific reason that had he lived through and past The Great Tribulation (i.e., the time period of the Jewish Wars and the total destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70; hence, the Orthodoz (Partial) Preterist viewpoint) that occurred in the generation to who Christ spoke His famed Olivet Discourse (Matt 24) he very surely would have written about that. That is evidence enough for me! Again, Hank's book goes deeply into all of this and most importantly explaining that the Bible is the greatest literature ever written; hence, it must be read as such placing great care on literary devices throughout i.e., parables, apolcalyptic language, metaphor, simile...the various genres that we find in all good literature. Without this perspective one will interpret Scripture in woodenly literalistic fashion, which takes away from its meaning (i.e., descriptions of Satan as a snake are not meant to tell us what Satan LOOKS like but what he IS like). Blessings, Paul

Michael James Monaghan

commented on May 28, 2013

Paul , the ' editing work ' you do for a 'biblical scholar ' wouldn't be for Hank Hanegraaf ?. :) . Though I appreciate there are ' literary devices' in scripture that it would be helpful to be aware of , the average christian may not be so literary enabled , but has to rely on the scriptures, the spirit of God, and then those teachers who may be gifts to the Church . But as Paul commended the Bereans for , should search the scriptures to see whether those things are so . Double check if you like ?. But do we ?. I agree with Hank that the Bible is the greatest Book in the world ; because , though penned by men , the ultimate author is God . Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit ; All scripture is given by inspiration of God; they are not stories men made up . So while we may eulogise men like Hank , he is not inspired in the way of the Prophets and Apostles . What Hank turns out is not inspired , though through study and gifting he may or may not open up the scriptures for his readers- well as he has for you ?. Though he may be flavor of the month to you now, it might always be so . There are other books of Hank's which you may not find so pleasing . But we can always be pleased and blessed by the reading of God's word , the Bible ?. Recently I heard a preacher who was an ardent admirer of William Branham , claiming that W.B's writings were as 'inspired' as Paul's writings. So all I can do is say take care and I commend you and myself to God and His word first and last .

Charles Ingwe

commented on May 28, 2013

With due respect to Bruce's post, I wish to express my conviction that we need not be responsible interpreters, but responsible vessels for interpretation of scripture is not of men but God -EXOD 40:8. Paul telling Timothy to study so as to prove himself a workman who will not be ashamed is that not a call to the fact that the holy spirit who instructed the authors will as well teach us the correct position of what was written without us remaining in shame of error? The interpretation is given by the spirit, and humility in being patient to develop a closer relationship with the Lord leads to correct interpretation. Whilst there will always be positions of knowing in full at the end, even that position we shall clearly give to the congregation when we come across scriptures that need such a position because the holy spirit will tell us so. The trouble as to why we made many mistakes in our early days in ministry is due to not having the fruit of patience. Never wanting to learn that ministry is about first learning the meaning of my "sheep know my voice". The very Holy spirit that gave Daniel the interpretation of the dreams is still the very one who is interpreting His word today. What we lack is the fishermen character and have opted to have the interllectuals character. We go to scripture with the mind of wanting what we want to find and not the mind of being told what the Lord means. A sincere heart in word study God will always reveal to for He is building His church and He can't allow His sheep to be given unstable doctrine. A good leader has to show His followers that he is sure of where he is leading them or else they may choose for themselves where to go. In Gal 3, Paul calls the beloved ones as being foolish for he was very sure of what the Lord had given him. If the holy spirit has not given me I will tell the members truthfully, but if he has shown me I too need to tell them with affirmation. Let us go to him like babies and he shall teach us great things which in turn we shall correctly bring to the church boldly without error for with God all things are possible.

Bill Williams

commented on May 28, 2013

@Chales, I think you should recheck your reference of Exodus 40:8; I don't see what that verse has anything to do with what you wrote. Also, the reference you made to Paul's charge to Timothy actually disproves your point, and proves that made by the article. Paul charges Timothy to study. The teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit and the context of a relationship with God are both indispensable to properly understanding God's word, but they are not substitutes for the personal effort of responsible study and interpretation that are also indispensable.

Bill Williams

commented on May 28, 2013

@Michael, I think you're really missing Paul's point. All he is saying is, don't critique a work that you have never read, based only on the reviews of others. (By the way, one could argue that doing so could fall under the definition of gossip!) And he shares how that particular book has been helpful to him (in response to YOUR question, by the way). He is not "eulogizing" the author or claiming he is inspired or anything like that.

Charles Ingwe

commented on May 29, 2013

Br Bill, thanks alot, I slipped instead of Genesis 40:8, I stated Exodus. Scripture tells us here that Interpretation is of the Lord. Aveiling ourselves to study must rely on the revelation of the spirit and not our intellect. We need not be responsible interpreters but vessels for the word says the spirit of truth shall teach us. The key is to learn how to rely on his leading and hence we can say with affirmation " this is what the bible says ". This is where I said, when Paul tells Timothy to study and that he shall then not be ashamed, it means the spirit is able to aveil to Timothy the correct meaning of scripture such that Timothy can boldly say " this is what the bible says" without a day of being ashamed because once it is given by the spirit it stands correct. It is not right for anyone to follow what sound uncertain.

Charles Ingwe

commented on May 29, 2013

On Timothy being told to study, need it be noted that scripture study is different from all these others where you depend on human intellect. It is no wonder the pharisees were told that they did not know scripture dispite their unwavering time spent in study. Theirs was much dependant on human understanding. But Timothy is being directed to go to the word with the covering of John 16:13. The responsibility on the side of Timothy is to befriend scripture with full assurance of the guidance of the spirit as opposed to the study of the eunuch in Acts 8:27-31.

Bill Williams

commented on May 29, 2013

@Charles, yes, Genesis 40:8 makes much more sense! Although, in order to be fair to the context, we must look at the whole verse in order to discover that when Joseph says, "Do not interpretations belong to God?" he is speaking about the interpretation of DREAMS, not of Scripture. In fact, there was no written Scripture at the time of Joseph. Now, I agree with much of what you wrote. Study by itself, depending on human intellect and understanding alone, is inadequate. This is demonstrated in the cases of the Pharisees and the Eunuch, which you pointed out. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us and teach us the things of God. So I believe you point is very well taken. However, I do not see this as being mutually exclusive from the task of responsible study and interpretation. After all, just as there is the Holy Spirit, there are also false spirits. 1 John 4:1 says, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world." Dependence on the Holy Spirit does not excuse us from using our minds. It simply gives us confidence that the Holy Spirit will guide us as we use our minds to the best of our abilities. By the way, humility and confidence are also not mutually exclusive. One can be confident in one's interpretation, while at the same time being open to the possibility that upon further examination of the Biblical evidence, one may change their mind in the future. The fact is, whether you realize it or not, we are interpreters. We interpret. Right now, our eyes are looking at pixels on a computer screen, and they are interpreting those pixels into words, which we further interpret into certain meanings. We all interpret. That is why the concern in this article is that we learn to interpret responsibly.

Charles Ingwe

commented on May 30, 2013

Thanks br Bill, I am blessed that you have given me your time. Kindly allow me to respond to the position of dreams being not scripture. I am fully alive to the issue of context. However, I wish to state that my position is that of borrowing from the dream context in that dreams are spiritually inclined and it is no wonder the physical mind analysis of the Pharaoh guys could not pick that as they could have easily picked the physical computer pixels. my physical mind is physically trained by physical masters in computers. Scripture is spiritual as it was given through inspiration. The word of God is spiritual and christ states openly that the words of God that he spoke are spirit- John 6:63. Hence if dreams need the interpretation of God then it falls in that scripture needs the spirit of God to be understood. Meaning that my mind need be one which is Holy spirit influenced. This however, does not mean you begin to feel like a spirit but the peace and assuarance of the meaning of what you get in the word. The spirit of God in me does not make me behave any strange. This does not mean that I must not be disciplined in being committed to study of the word but that I must be fully aware that this study is different from secular study and I must rely fully on the holy spirit leading. Responsibility must be in commitment to the word. The question is, how since there is the issue of false spirits as well? God in protecting the sanctity of His word He has given the gift of distinguishing of spirits. The position of say, but this is a gift and the spirit gives as He wills. Yes it is true but closing of the very chapter of 1 cor 12 in verse 31 kjv says covert greater gifts and NIV says desire greater gifts. Psalms 37:4 says delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. To me, a preacher of the word must see this gift as a greater gift and must learn to cry for it and that the faithful God, having seen that it is being sought after for the common good shall grant it. This must be the first position of a man of God. Crying for the tools that will make him divide the word with clarity and affirmation for surely, I can never follow a preacher who sounds like tomorrow he will change his direction. Christ says a blind person can not lead. This is where I said Paul when teaching on grace he was fully aware of what he was teaching them such that he told the Galatians as being foolish. Why was Paul so sure of explaining the Haggar/Sarah illustration as meaning two covenants? It was by the spirit. Once we learn how to be sure of the teaching of the spirit we shall not be uncertain. Only where the spirit tells us to leave matters for the end age should we too tell the congregation so. Christ told his audience on the time when the end was to come that only the Father knew that. When you have known the truth you speek with freedom and confidence. Honestly, I do not see a preacher who is not very sure if the word he has preached today won't change positions tomorrow being confident in leading members into a particular direction. Careful study of that context of responsibility will show traces of fear just because we messed up yesterday. In christ we can do all things rightly. We as well need to know that there are scriptures that can cover many issues and that having taught in a particular direction yesterday does not mean error always. Thanks again Bill for your sound exposition of the word.

Bill Williams

commented on May 30, 2013

@Charles, I, too, appreciate your response, as well as the spirit in which you have argued your position. I would say that I am in agreement with your overall point--the study of the Scriptures is not exactly like the study of any other discipline, in that it requires the Spirit in order to fully understand. And I think that it is a point that merits attention. The only thing I would disagree, in closing, is that I don't see a reason to lack confidence in the leading of a preacher who is open to changing his position, as long as that change is warranted by Biblical evidence. On the contrary, I tend to have MORE confidence in such preachers, because I know that they are not depending on their own human reasoning or on tradition, but rather they are depending on the Spirit and on the Word of God, wherever these may lead. There is no reason to have confidence in anyone who refuses to change directions when they realize they are going to wrong way! I have enjoyed our conversation, my Brother. I wish you God's richest blessings the rest of this week!

Join the discussion