Bible Narratives Are Often Gloriously Ambiguous

This article originally ran on The Gospel Coalition. Used by kind permission of the author.

Author: Chad Ashby is pastor of College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Mindy, and their five children. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he completed an MDiv in biblical and theological studies. Chad blogs at After Math. You can follow him on Twitter.



This point might make your toes curl up inside your shoes, but the narratives of the Bible are ambiguous. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the Bible is false, untrue, misleading, or culturally confined.

But its stories are ambiguous.

Perhaps you remember being introduced to literary tools in your high school English class—simile, metaphor, figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, analogy, and so on. Think of ambiguity as a literary tool. Biblical authors use ambiguity as a way of inviting you to the party. If you’re reading a story that lays everything out plain and simple, with the moral overtly stated and the villains and heroes clearly labeled, there is not much work left for you, the reader, to do. But the Bible is not interested in disinterested readers. The Author wants to suck you in.

The Bible is not interested in disinterested readers. The Author wants to suck you in.

Take Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for instance. The play was written to be performed with no set and minimal props. Why? Because we’re meant to imagine not just any town, but our own. Without specific details to create distance between the events and our experience, the unfolding narrative becomes proximate, immediate, real.

Why is it that we easily remember Esau’s red hair or Joseph’s technicolor coat? Because we are seldom told about any character’s appearance or apparel. How is it that we have four Gospels and not a single author bothered to mention the physical appearance of Christ? Much like Wilder, biblical writers knew that for transcendent storytelling, less is usually more.

Intentional ambiguity also allows for multiple, overlapping interpretations and applications. A good author is not content to tell you how he thinks about the characters, the plot, or the outcome. Part of the delight of reading is being able to draw your own conclusions and make your own inferences. What fun is a connect-the-dot when all the dots have been connected for you?

Not a 19th-Century British Novel

Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreFrankenstein—you know the ones I’m talking about: introspective tomes with a decidedly omniscient narrator. They’re great novels. But the Bible is not one of them. We hardly ever get to hear the characters’ inner thoughts; we hardly ever get a blunt description of a character’s motives.

This stark difference might be unsettling at first, since we’re so used to being made privy to a character’s intimate thoughts and motives. By contrast the Bible can seem impersonal, the characters distant.

There’s a difference between intentional and unintentional ambiguity. Unintentional ambiguity is sloppy writing and poor communication. Intentional ambiguity, though, is an author’s prerogative.

The frustrating thing, at times, is that we know the biblical Narrator is omnipotent. God himself knows exactly why characters act the way they do. On rare occasion, the Spirit gives us a brief peek into someone’s mind, but by choice he keeps them hidden from us most of the time. Instead of lengthy inner monologues, we have to infer from a character’s words and actions where the heart lies.

The fall of King Saul and King David are mirror images of one another (1 Sam. 15; 2 Sam. 11-12). Their confessions are eerily similar: “I have sinned!” (1 Sam. 15:24; 2 Sam. 12:13) However, only one king is forgiven because only one king’s heart is truly repentant. Determining which and why—the ambiguity is a divine invitation to explore our own murky hearts.

When an author intentionally withholds information, he does it because the story is actually better that way. Ambiguity is the biblical author’s way of winking at his readers. When you and I are able to read between the lines and discern motives, connections, and desires without that information being overtly stated, it’s a win-win for both the author and us.

Like Real Life

Does any life event have just one lesson? Can the experiences in our lives be boiled down to heroes and villains? Do we ever fully comprehend the inner desires and motives of the people we interact with? Do we even fully comprehend our own thoughts and motives?

Biblical narratives read like real life.

Stories rarely end with a succinct nugget of truth like one of Aesop’s fables, a “truth we can use.” Sometimes we’re left bewildered as to who the true heroes and villains actually are.

This is for our good. There’s always another lesson to learn; there are multiple correct ways to apply the story. Scripture’s narratives refuse to be boiled down to a single “moral of the story”: Is the wilderness encounter of David and Abigail (1 Samuel 25) about the power of hospitality, healthy conflict, trusting God’s promises, or a vision of the virtuous woman? The line between hero and villain can be blurry: Is Jacob more virtuous than his uncle Laban—or are both shameless opportunists? Inner desires are questionable; motives are a guessing game. From a human standpoint, why exactly did Judas betray his Lord?

Ambiguity makes all of this biblical beauty possible.

Do we ever fully comprehend the tapestry of God’s sovereignty that hangs behind the events of our lives or the lives of others? Biblical narratives are rich and deep and will never be fully exhausted. There’s always room for more exploration, for another angle, another application. In fact, I’d argue that narrative is often more readily applicable to life than strict directives.

In a society increasingly divided, many want to draw God’s Word into their own interpretive universe. They will fail every time. Intentional ambiguity is a gravitational force that draws us into orbit around God’s Word, never vice versa.

In some sense, the ambiguity of biblical narrative shows us who God is—a God who will never be fully comprehended. He will forever be explored, for he has new mercies tucked around every corner, and new joys for us each morning.


Related Resources:

Legalism vs. Liberalism vs. Gospel – A Helpful Chart about Staying on the Line

The hermeneutical principle called “Staying on the Line” teaches the biblical truth that God wants us to take Him at His Word, not adding to what He has said or subtracting from it. 

To truly stay on the line of God’s Word, we need to understand the what (the content) and also the why (the intent) of Scripture. When we fail to adequately understand each of those, we find ourselves on shifting ground, prone to both legalism and liberalism.

I recently came across a helpful chart that shares theological examples of how legalism and liberalism may manifest themselves. (Gospel in the chart is interchangeable with The Word of God.)

*This helpful chart is from Romans 1–7 For You by Timothy Keller, copyright 2014 by The Good Book Company, used by kind permission.


Other Resources about Staying on the Line:

Dick Lucas on Preaching the Melodic Line: How Grand Themes Enrich a Sermon

Many musical compositions come back to a key melody time and time again. The sound track of many movies even feature a key melodic line that helps tell the story and carry emotional weight. In a similar way, books of the Bible have a “melodic line” that repeats, sharing the book’s main idea and intended response.

There’s no one more qualified to go deeper on the what, the why, and the how of preaching the melodic line than our preaching hero, Dick Lucas. Lucas, now retired, founded the Proclamation Trust to raise up the next generation of Bible expositors. (Listen to our conversation with Dick Lucas on his life and legacy.)

Listen below or read the transcript of the interview that originally ran on PreachingToday.com.



PreachingToday.com: What do you mean when you talk about preaching the melodic line of a text?

Dick Lucas: I didn’t invent the term melodic line, but it’s become quite well known. The melodic line is taken from the fact that a piece of music has a tune or a line going through it that holds the whole thing together. We want to show that in a New Testament letter, for example, a theme holds the whole thing together. Therefore, to take verses and passages out of the context of that melodic line, that theme, that argument that runs through the letter, would not be profitable.

For example, 2 Timothy 3:16 is often taken out to prove the inspiration of Scripture, which, of course, it does prove. But if you put it in the melodic line of the letter, you find it is Paul’s instructions to Timothy as to how he is to continue his ministry, and Paul is saying the one equipment Timothy needs for his ministry is the Word of God, which will enable him and train him in righteousness and correction and all the rest of it. I know a principal of a theological college who is determined to bring everything in the curriculum under 2 Timothy 3:16. That is, he wants the Bible to control all the other disciplines. That’s really what Paul is saying to Timothy. Although the verse does teach the inspiration of Scripture, and indeed without that the Scriptures would not be powerful to do the work, the verse is talking specifically to the person of God — to the minister, to the pastor, to the teacher — and telling him how he is to be fully equipped.

How does that principle work itself out in the preparation of a sermon?

Say I’m doing a series on the Epistle to Jude. It starts with that wonderful statement that we’re kept by Christ, and it finishes with that wonderful doxology, “Unto him that is able to keep you from falling.” If you look at the material in the middle of the Letter, the emphasis is on how we are to keep ourselves from disaster through obedience to the faith and to the standards God has laid down. There is a remarkable balance. God keeps his people — we all know that. But the letter is saying it’s not enough to know God keeps you. The sign that God is keeping his people is that they’re keeping themselves. That gives me a grip on the Letter. It shows me what it’s about, where it’s going. There are some tricky and important verses in Jude I might spend a whole sermon on, but if I’ve got the pattern and argument of the Letter, it’s going to make a good deal more sense.

When you preach on one section of a Book, do you still scan the entire Book to bring out this melodic line?

It’s one of the most important disciplines of the preacher. It’s alarming if you go to a church where a team of preachers is doing a series on Hebrews, for example, and each preacher has a different idea what the Book is about. It’s absolutely essential to know the way the melodic line, the argument, the theme of the Book, is going.

What are some of the secrets you’ve found for finding the melodic line of a Book and for weaving that in and out of a sermon in a way that keeps people interested?

That is the hard work of preparation. It is exciting to find the reason why the Book was written. The difficulty is that the scholar, in writing his commentary — and of course they’re essential for us as part of our work — inevitably will be a detail man. He will tell you what every word means, where it comes from; he’ll tell you about every dot and comma. That’s fine, but I also want to know why it’s there; and that the commentators are not usually so good at, because their scholarly skills are honed for the technical matters.

If I wrote a letter to a friend saying I was catching a train and would meet him at Cambridge at three o’clock, and that letter was dug up in 2,000 years, the scholar would not be interested in why the letter was written. He would look at the details of the letter and write monographs on them. For example, in the letter I might have said I would call in at McDonalds on the way to Cambridge. The scholar would say, “This fellow 2,000 years ago must have been a Scotsman and had Scottish friends he called in on.” Then somebody else with a Ph.D. would discover McDonalds was a café. All that is interesting, but it’s not what the letter was written about. The letter was written to say, “Will you meet me at three o’clock?” So the letter of 2 Peter is written to warn me that I will be carried away from my stability unless I grow in the grace and knowledge of God. That governs the whole letter. So I need to know why he wrote the letter if I’m going to look at the details.

Do you generally find a key verse that tips you off, or is it repetition that cues you in on the key thought?

Sometimes it is a key verse. One of the verses we used recently was Hebrews 13:8. It’s what I call a “kitchen calendar text”: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Few people have the foggiest idea what it actually means. But it’s a key to Hebrews, because it is saying that Jesus Christ, in his work as a priest and in his bringing the revelation of God, is remaining forever and ever. If the Queen of England remained forever and ever, Prince Charles would never be king. So if the priest stays forever and ever, there will never be another priest. That tells me that the theme of Hebrews has to do with the finished work of Christ on the cross and that there doesn’t need to be another priest, because he’s the priest forever and ever. If he’s a priest forever and ever, that means he’s finished his redemptive and reconciling work, and there’s a final message the church has been given to which nothing can be added. Hebrews begins by saying God has spoken many times in the past, but he’s spoken finally by his Son. If you put those two things together — the finished work and the final word — you have the message of Hebrews, but you’re not likely to get that without going through the Book and saying, What’s the argument running throughout it? The writer is saying: Don’t slip away from this Word. Don’t add to it, because the work of Christ as a priest has been finished and you are reconciled to God. If you’re reconciled, then nobody can do anything to make you more reconciled and more acceptable.

How do we train people to have the mental discipline to follow a line of reasoning, to get into the text and see the big picture with us?

Most people prefer order and logic to muddle. We sometimes should say to the preacher, “Order! Order! Where are you going? What’s your order?” Most people prefer the preacher to have some kind of order so they know which direction they’re meant to be going. We call that “logic on fire.” That comes from Martin Lloyd-Jones, who said the sermon should be known by its logic, but that logic must be on fire, so it’s not just cold, academic logic.

The great sermon of Paul to the Athenians is exactly that: logic on fire. It has a clear line of teaching about their ignorance and why they are ignorant and what they ought to do about it. Some people like emotional muddle, but after a while they prefer to have their mind addressed and satisfied. It’s like when we were kids. We liked all the wrong food, but as we grew up we preferred more nourishing food. As you grow up spiritually, you prefer something that nourishes your mind as well as your heart.

On Sunday I’m going to be preaching on the Ethiopian in Acts 8. One of the things we have to do when we come to a familiar story like that is to look at the structure the writer uses in telling the story. The writer has a hand in this and is telling the story with a point in view. Now you can use that story in a number of different ways. I read a book on personal evangelism based on the Ethiopian story, and that is legitimate. I’ve often kept that story up my sleeve when I’ve been asked at short notice to speak to businessmen, because it’s a story of a businessman who met Christ. But neither of those reasons is the reason Luke tells the story. Luke tells the story because the church in Acts 8 is beginning to go out into the whole world. It’s the time when the disciples are driven out of Jerusalem, first to Samaria and then to the outermost ends of the earth. So Acts 8 stands as the first chapter in that great expansion of the church out into the world. And Luke wants to tell us what is true evangelistic ministry.

Now I imagine Luke’s study was pretty untidy, because he’s got material coming in all the time of preaching, of campaigns, of wonderful things, of persecution and so on. But he actually spends a whole chapter with two stories — Simon the magician, which is a false picture of ministry, and the Ethiopian and Philip, which is a true picture of ministry. So I want to know what he’s got in his mind when he writes the story. He’s wanting to say to me: Philip, led by the Spirit, is giving you a pattern of how to evangelize. The first point is that the Ethiopian says to him, “How can I understand this Book without a teacher?” Luke is saying the Bible is not self-explanatory, that God has appointed teachers. Then when I turn to the Pastoral Epistles, I discover only one professional qualification is needed to be a minister: he’s got to be an apt teacher. So when I come back to the Ethiopian, I find it fascinating that the Holy Spirit sends Philip into the desert, into an evangelistic campaign that can’t have been a very welcome invitation, where he meets one person reading a Bible he doesn’t understand. The Ethiopian says to him, “Will you come up and guide me?” And the Greek word simply means “explain it,” “teach it to me.”

So Luke is telling me that evangelism starts at understanding the Scriptures and that evangelism is not collecting scalps; it’s not getting people emotionally tied up, and it’s not asking for a decision when people don’t know what they’re being asked to decide about. It starts with Bible teaching. It’s immensely encouraging to a young minister who feels he ought to leave evangelism to the professionals when he’s told, “If I teach the Bible, I’m beginning the evangelistic enterprise.” That comes from looking at the structure of the story.

At Proclamation Trust we have a preaching principle called “Question Time.” We take that from the passage in the synoptic Gospels where Christ is under fire with questions. He often asks a question in return. In fact, occasionally he says, “I won’t answer your question until you answer mine: Where did John the Baptist get his authority from?” And they don’t want to answer it, so he says he won’t answer. What we learn is that the preacher is not there primarily to answer the questions people have; he’s primarily there to present the questions God is asking us.

When I was ministering at universities, I used to be pushed up against the wall by students, and they used to batter me with questions. God was in the dock. The impression was that if I could tell them why God had made the world in such a rotten way, they might possibly presume to believe in him. That is a completely wrong way to go about Christian apologetics. God is not in the dock. It is we who are in the dock. My job as a preacher is to bring to people’s attention the great questions God asks that they would never hear otherwise.

When I was preaching to yuppies in London, many of whom in their twenties were beginning to make a great deal of money, I asked them questions like, “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” I would simply put before them a profit-and-loss account and say, “I can gain the whole world. I can take over Harrods. I can take over the Bank of England. I can become a multimillionaire and then die and lose my soul and go to hell eternally. Where is the profit in that?” They never had anybody put that question to them before. That question which God asks us in Christ’s words is infinitely more important than a question they might ask me, which is largely a result of their ignorance, because they’ve not sat under Bible teaching.

So in “Question Time” we’re trying to say the church ought to be on the front foot, not the back foot — not because we want to be proud or difficult, but because actually we are the people in the dock and God is the one who is asking the questions. The preacher needs to know his responsibility.

Take Psalm 2 It begins with that magnificent question: Why do the rulers and kings of the earth unite together and rage against the Lord and his anointed? That’s not a question anybody ever asks. The questions we ask and that are on our daily paper are: Why do the Palestinians and Jews fight against each other, and why can’t we stop them? That’s an important question. That’s not the question the Bible is asking. The Bible is asking: Why is the world fighting against God? “Well,” says Mr. Jones, listening to that, “I never knew it was.” We can then go on to the New Testament and show that we are all by nature not apathetic toward God but antagonistic. You and I didn’t learn that until the Holy Spirit began to teach us what an enemy we’ve got in our own hearts toward God. But you soon learn that as a pastor or a Christian worker, because you talk to people about Christian things and find an enormous hostility whenever the thing comes close to them. Psalm 2:1 raises that great question, which people would never otherwise hear.

Interview used with kind permission of Preaching Today and The Proclamation Trust.

Sarcasm in the Bible?! Dale Ralph Davis on How Old Testament Narrative Uses Sarcasm

Sarcasm in the Bible?! NO WAY

Actually, yes way according to Dr. Dale Ralph Davis. In his helpful book The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts, Davis explains why sarcasm is used in Old Testament narrative and provides a few examples:

Occasionally the biblical writer dips his pen in acid and uses mockery, derision, or put-down to drive home his point. The device may not be prevalent but likely occurs more often than a casual reader thinks.

One thinks immediately, of course, of Elijah’s taunting the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18:27. Elijah alleges that Baal may be preoccupied with a plethora of ‘divine’ activities like travel, napping, or using the facilities. But one finds such ridicule elsewhere, if perhaps less blatantly. One overhears it when Laban accuses Jacob of stealing his household deities: ‘But why did you steal my gods?’ (Gen. 31:30). Any full-blooded Yahweh-worshiping hearer/reader would think, ‘My, what sort of gods are those that can’t keep from being pilfered?’ And anyone who is possessed both with orthodoxy and a sense of humor (too often a rare combination) laughs when these deities ‘feel’ both Rachel’s warmth and weight while she is ‘indisposed’ (31:34–35). The same ridicule seeps out of Micah’s helpless rage toward the Danites in Judges 18:24: ‘You take my gods that I made and the priest, and go away, and what have I left?’ (ESV). What indeed! And, of course, the biblical writer is at his nasty best when describing the divine ‘trauma’ of Dagon before the ark of Yahweh in 1 Samuel 5:1–5; not only do the Philistines have to pick Dagon up but would’ve been most happy with an ample supply of super-glue. One even hears a hint of mockery in the common but repeated ‘made’ in 1 Kings 12:28–33 (Jeroboam’s cult) and in 2 Kings 17:29–31 (imported pagans in the land of Israel). Note too the helplessness of pagan resources in Genesis 41:8, 24, and in Daniel 1:20; 2:1–11; 4:6–7, 18; 5:8, 15, all of which smells like devout scoffing—because those helpless resources are the foil for the true God’s provision via Joseph and Daniel.

One of the most subtle but powerful samples of sarcasm comes in Daniel 3. Here all of Nebuchadnezzar’s civil service corps is to observe the required moment of silence before his 90 by 9 feet image. It’s likely a government-sponsored loyalty exercise; devotees can naturally go back to their private superstitions and ‘personal faith’; they simply need to worship here if they want to keep their jobs—and their lives. The pressure is powerful; after all, it’s the law. And when all the satraps and postal workers have their back sides in the air and their noses in the sand before Nebuchadnezzar’s giant dummy on the Plain of Dura, well, it’s hard to resist. The ‘church music’ alone is impressive (vv. 4–5, 7, 10, 15). And yet the writer both tells the story and mocks the ‘worship.’ He both reports and ridicules at the same time. At least I think so. He repeatedly uses the verb ‘set up’ (Aram. qum) as he refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s image, nine times to be exact (vv. 1, 2, 3 [twice], 5, 7, 12, 14, 18); one can also throw in ‘made’ twice, vv. 1, 15). Perhaps I’m seeing things, but highlight the usages of ‘set up’ in your text, read it over noting them, and it all seems to have a cumulative impact. It’s a ‘set-up job,’ as we say. It’s as if the writer is saying, ‘It may seem fearful (because it has all the muscle of the government behind it), but it’s a farce! If you can see behind the mask, if you can see the falsehood and stupidity of it all, if you can hear heaven’s laughter over it [Ps. 2:4], you need not be taken in by it. True, the furnace is hot but the image is just hot air. It’s simply a little posturing by a human king strutting around in his big international pants’ (cf. Isa. 46:7).

Sarcasm is a form of humor. And I have observed that whenever Scripture is delightfully humorous it is also deadly serious. There is always a serious point being made when the biblical writer uses humor. Hence we should keep our ears tuned for sarcasm.

Excerpt used with kind permission of Christian Focus Publications.

Preaching to Make the Bible User Friendly

Preaching in a Way that Trains Bible Readers

Have you ever listened to a sermon and thought, “Wow, I could never get as much from that Scripture text as he did”—as if the preacher was a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat?

I have.

When the preacher is biblically faithful, this can be a beautiful demonstration of God gifting the church with shepherds and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). It may also expose a flaw: the preacher may not be training his flock how to read the Bible through his preaching.

Preachers need to see the preaching event as a key moment in church life that makes the Bible more “user friendly” for congregants. This will deepen their own time in the Word, growing them as disciples and equipping them for ministry (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Failing to do this will hinder spiritual growth by hindering Bible engagement, and could also leave congregants amazed at their preacher’s vast knowledge instead of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne address the importance of this in The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Disciple Making:

In his preaching, a pastor sounds the tuning fork so that the whole orchestra knows in what key to play. He teaches and guards the sound deposit of the gospel so that all may know it clearly and thoroughly (for how else will they speak it?). He shows them not only what the Bible says, but how they can read and speak that truth for themselves. He constantly teaches the sound doctrinal framework that shapes the Bible reading and speaking of the whole congregation. (117)

What does this equipping look like in practice?

This way of thinking doesn’t require an extra twenty minutes of specialized instruction in each sermon.

What it does require is first understanding the text deeply and knowing how God wants to use it to shepherd hearts (often called the transformational intent of the passage). We will also want to know the challenges our congregants face approaching Scripture so we can properly address them (i.e. does biblical poetry confuse them?). Lastly, we will want to model faithful biblical interpretation by using basic hermeneutical principles to explain our thought process and conclusions. Below are several practical suggestions of how to implement this.

Practical Suggestions:

  • Remind listeners the most important question to ask when reading the Bible: What does the text actually say?
  • Walk through the historical, literary, and biblical context of the passage.
  • Explain how to approach the biblical genre that your text comes from.
  • Explain how the individual parts of your text make up the big idea of the text.
  • Make sure sermons are not a mere oration on the subject that doesn’t flow from the text or so detail-focused you lose the text’s big idea.
  • Regularly point back to the book’s main ideas and explain how your text functions in light of the whole.
  • At the start of a new sermon series through one book of Scripture, encourage your people to read through the whole book in one sitting. You could also preach an overview sermon for a book before beginning a new series on it.
  • Fight the temptation to look to another text of Scripture before you stick your nose deep in the one you’re studying.
  • Note connecting words and their functions. How does the use of words like “therefore”, “for”, “in order that”, “then”, “now” help the author communicate his main point?
  • Lead listeners with thoughtful questions that direct them to the text’s authorial intent.
  • Help the text’s surprises jump out at your listeners.
  • Model asking good questions that uncover the author’s transformative intent. “You might notice in verse two, Paul says such-and-such. Now why would he say that here? Let’s look at verse three for the answer.”
  • Zoom out of your text to see its place in the context of redemptive history.
  • Explain biblical theological themes and how your text points to Christ.
  • Encourage your congregation to underline repeated words or ideas in their Bibles.
  • Have application undergird your teaching as a reminder that God means for Scripture to change our lives.
  • When explaining a hard to understand text, remind listeners that Scripture is its own best interpreter, and model how you think through the text.
  • Recommend and give away books that model faithful Bible interpretation.
  • Offer Bible reading classes/lessons or read the Bible more one-to-one with congregants.
  • Encourage equipped members to minister by regularly reading the Bible with others.

Just like people are more likely to embrace technology that is user-friendly, peppering your preaching with these suggestions over time will help your people better engage the Bible, which will nourish their faith, grow them in holiness, and spur them on to bear fruit.

And as that happens, there will be less magic tricks and exaltation of the preacher in favor of more “wow!” comments where they should be directed: God and His glory as revealed to us in Scripture.

How to Find the Big Idea of a Book of the Bible

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Want clarity in your preaching? Finding the Big Idea of a passage or biblical book is one helpful tool for doing just that. That’s why we teach it in the Training National Trainers program.

This clarity should make others take notice—like the wife of one Indonesian TNTer. She said this about her husband’s improved clarity in preaching:

“Even though you are only preaching a ten or twenty minute sermon [now], the message is very clear. Before TNT, you could preach for 30 minutes to an hour, and the congregation still didn’t understand anything!”

Finding the Big Idea of a book helps us see the focal point around which all of the ideas in the book are organized. It acknowledges that the writer had a message he was trying to communicate through the whole book, not just different ideas in separate passages.

Sweating through this exercise encourages greater fidelity in communicating what God is saying through His Word. What He says will be more clear to us, and we will be less prone to teach our own thoughts and ideas.

How Do We Find the Big Idea of a Book?

Finding the Big Idea of a book is hard work and a long process of working through a text with our hermeneutical principles in mind.

1. Read through the book several times.

There are no shortcuts for the hard work of Bible study. This can’t be a quick surface-level skim, but a deep and curious read.

2. Ask a lot of questions.

Try to understand the questions the book is deliberately raising and answering. We must move beyond the questions we have to the questions that the text is concerned to answer. The questions the text is raising and answering are the important ones for determining the meaning and the Big Idea.

The four questions below will help you discover what the author is communicating:

  • What does the author say?
  • How does the author say it?
  • Why does he say it here? Why in this way?
  • What is surprising about the text?

See more good questions under the heading: Asking Good Questions.

3. Look for clues to the Big Idea in the way the book begins and ends.

Often a writer introduces his reason for writing as he opens the book and comes back to it as he closes. Observing the way a book begins and ends will usually share themes that can be traced through the entire book.

At this point, it is vital to look for clues for the big idea, which is not the same as having a one-sentence Big Idea. That point will come, but there are a few more steps to take first.

4. Break the book into smaller sections and try to summarize what those sections are about.

This step finds the book’s structure and writes a big idea for each major part.

Looking for the structure of a book involves:

  1. the parts of a passage – the units of thought that contain the major ideas of the passage
  2. the connections of thought that hold the sections and major ideas of the passage together

5. Ask: What are the connections of thought between the major ideas of each section of the book?

Understanding how each section relates to each other will help us to see what the author is getting at in the book’s overall message.

6. Look for patterns, like the repetition of key words and ideas.

The repetition of key words and ideas shows us what is important to the author. Contrasts and progressions also aid our understanding of the book and may play a key role in arriving at the Big Idea.

7. Capture the Big Idea by stating it as one complete sentence.

This step pulls all of your thoughts together into one clear sentence. In order to do that, ask two questions:

  • What is this book talking about?
  • What is it saying about what it’s talking about?

Combining the answers to those two questions will help us state the Big Idea.


Below is merely an example seeking to demonstrate this idea and not to be considered the “right answer.” (Perhaps you can come up with a better Big Idea for 2 Timothy.)

What’s 2 Timothy talking about?
Answer: Enduring in ministry

What’s it saying about enduring in ministry?
Answer: That it depends on God’s grace and power.

Big Idea: 2 Timothy is saying that we should depend on God’s grace and power in order to endure in ministry.

How Should We Use the Big Idea of a Book?

  • Work hard to understand how a passage in a book connects to the Big Idea of the book.
  • Allow the Big Idea of the book to shape the message we preach or teach.
  • When preaching, draw attention to the Big Idea regularly. That will bring clarity and power to our preaching.
  • It will also stay with many people as they read the book on their own in the future.

May God richly bless your study of His life-giving Word!

Don’t Let Your Bible Keep You From the Bible

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In a recent interview with DesiringGod, Glenn Paauw, the Executive Director of the Biblica Institute for Bible Reading and author of Saving the Bible from Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well, shared how “Bible clutter” can provide a framework that warps how we engage with Scripture.

(“Bible clutter” refers to anything added to Scripture including chapter and verse numbers, study notes, cross-references, concordances, etc.)

The interview overlapped so much with the “Text and Framework” hermeneutical principle that we are compelled to share the interview mp3 and our notes below.



Unintended consequences from “Bible Clutter”:

  • Chapter numbers (added in the early 1200s by Steven Langdon, a church leader in England) and verse numbers (added in the 1500s by Robert Essien, a Frenchman working on a Bible concordance) can cause Bible readers to see books as fragmented collections of verses rather than an entire book.
  • Concordances, while being great reference tools, can change the way people interact with the text and hurt the plain reading of Scripture by neglecting the immediate or whole-book context of a passage.
  • While cross-references are helpful, they might prevent a reader from focusing on the text in front of them and wrestling with meaning. Again, what is primarily lost is a sense of context—something vital for faithful interpretation.
  • Many modern Bibles are designed for people who aren’t readers and who may not be very biblically literate. This pushes Bible publishers to make Bibles with helps, notes, and highlights because that is what buyers want.
  • While we may boast a confidence in Scripture, our true confidence might rather lie in a certain study Bible we align with theologically more than Scripture itself. Many feel Bible reading needs ‘guide rails’ to keep people from falling off of the theological cliff.
  • A temptation of using Study Bibles is engaging with study notes more than Scripture itself. Research on Study Bibles proves this is the case for many.
  • All of the colors and special designs common in many Bibles today (study notes, graphics, special sections, etc.) can draw people’s attention more than Scripture, which is generally left untouched.
  • We want to read Scripture and apply it to our lives fast. Our desire for quick application can short-circuit the study process by jumping to application to early or buying a study Bible that will apply it for us.

Two flawed approaches to engaging Scripture:

1. Seeing Scripture as a collection of inspirational quotations.

Many who do this take favorite verses like Philippians 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11 out of context and virtually ignore most other passages of Scripture. This greatly misrepresents what the Bible is and deforms us spiritually just like a pure cotton candy diet would. (Interviewer Tony Reinke deems these using verses in this way as “Scripture McNuggets.”)

2. Seeing Scripture as a self-help manual.

Some want to gather all of the Bible verses on a certain topic and create messages from those verses. This also strips verses of their context and fails to take Biblical Theology into account. Biblical theological themes develop throughout the Scriptures in various genres, and, as Paauw reminds, some accounts are not to be taken prescriptively but rather descriptively. (For example, Paauw says we wouldn’t build a doctrine of marriage on the example of patriarchs.)

A Better Comparison

A better comparison for the Bible is “the collected papers of the American Antislavery Society” because,

“the Bible is a collection of different kinds of writings, each of which exist in its own context, its own literary form, and they have to be taken as this kind of a collection. It is true that the collection of the Bible comes together to tell this amazing, redemptive, restorative narrative of what Jesus the Messiah has done. But the books themselves are the core units. The Bible is the collection of those things. It is not a collection of verses, so not a collection of little how-to passages. Again, it is a matter of receiving the Bible on its own terms, receiving the Bible in the form that God actually chose to give it to us. That, I think, is something that our modern format tempts us to move away from.”


How can we fight against “Bible clutter”?

“The first and the primary and the most natural thing to do with the Bible is to read individual books at length in their own terms. So understanding the kind of literature it is, who was the author, who were they writing to, what was the issue, those kinds of things are necessary.”

“We need to make sure we are always ready to listen to the text first…[not] our material [or thinking], which is not inspired… A real high view of Scripture says: Let the text be the text, and always seek to let it speak to me, even on things where I think I might have my mind settled… But we need to always be willing to say: What does the Word of God say? Not: What have I always said that the Word of God says?”

The true spiritual riches are found in engaging God’s Word directly, not going through another’s explanation of God’s Word.


Related Story from Honduras: “Take that Bible Away from that Man!”

How a Biblical Theology of Work Can Transform Your Life: Interview with Dr. Jim Hamilton

Biblical Theology of Work - Dr James Hamilton

Understanding how key biblical themes develop over time is essential for reading the Bible correctly and living faithfully.

One biblical theological theme that can transform our daily lives and identities is that of work. To discuss how a biblical theology of work can transform our work lives, I conversed with Dr. James Hamilton, author of a new book in the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series from Crossway called Work and Our Labor in the Lord.

Dr. Hamilton is the Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of several books, including God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment and What is Biblical Theology? among other commentaries and books on biblical theology. He currently serves as preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, KY in addition to responsibilities at Southern Seminary. The transcript of our conversation is below.


Kevin Halloran: On the first page of Work and Our Labor in the Lord, you write this: “Biblical theology…is the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors…to attempt to understand their worldview.” Can you explain how biblical theology shapes our worldview and why that’s so important?

Dr. James Hamilton: I can do that easily by contrasting it with a movie I watched last night on an airplane: Interstellar.

If you’ve seen this movie, the underlying premise—which I found so unbelievable that it took away from my enjoyment of the movie—is that our world cannot sustain life anymore. The earth is dying and there is a new Dust Bowl coming, and no one will be able to survive on earth. That kind of eschatology (or understanding of where things are going) then informs the work people try to do in the movie, and they actually think that they are trying to save the world—to save humanity. They accomplish it through supernatural feats of the manipulation of time, and it involves relativity and gravity (it’s a little complex, but honestly it was unbelievable).

Our worldview is the big story of where things came from, what we understand to be wrong, how we understand those things might get better, and where everything is going in the end—it is going to inform all of our lives. I think the Bible’s account of all those things—in spite of the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the so-called ‘sexual revolution’—is still the most compelling one available.

KH: The part of your book that most drove me to worship was the chapter on creation. It made me ponder the wisdom and glory of God in creating work. My question is this: why did God ultimately create work?

Dr. James Hamilton: Life would be pretty slow if we didn’t have any tasks to do… In the very good world prior to the fall, I don’t think we would know the frustrations, difficulties, feelings of lethargy, and lack of desire to do work. Minus all of the negative effects of sin, God created a world where there would be a rhythm of diligent labor followed by rest, and then more diligent labor where you actually accomplish something. You actually get to see something completed.

I can remember years ago, Elizabeth Elliot contrasted sweeping the floor with writing a book. She said, sometimes I really love to sweep a floor because I can see the fruits of my work. Whereas, if I sit down to write, I might not see that book for years. It’s great to mow the grass and see the fruits of our labor and see the lawn nice and trimmed. Work is a gratifying thing; it can be a physically exhilarating thing to engage in, depending on what kind of work we are talking about. And so, this may sound strange, but work is a gift, a mercy from God, something good that he created for us to engage in.

Work is a gift, a mercy from God, something good that he created for us to engage in.

KH: Like you express in the book, working is a way to reflect our working God. He created six days and rested on the seventh. That being said, what are some misconceptions Christians have about work that a biblical theology of work can clear up?

Dr. James Hamilton: I don’t know how widespread these misconceptions are, but I think people tend to think it stems from the judgment spoken on Adam’s work in Genesis 3:17–19. This overshadows the fact that Adam was supposed to work and keep the garden in Genesis 2:15 prior to the fall. Then their own experience of work being frustrating and perhaps misreadings of the book of Ecclesiastes where “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity” can lead people to the conclusion that the world is going to burn, my work doesn’t matter. They might also misinterpret that poem that concludes ‘only what’s done for Christ will last’—this kind of idea.

The Bible teaches that everything that we do has value and that our labor in the Lord, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:58, [and I do in] the subtitle of the book, is not in vain. This is because we are created in the image and likeness of God and we are to bring God’s character to bear on all creation in everything that we do.

KH: In addition to clearing up negative misconceptions of work, biblical theology also provides a positive power for believers as they think about work. How might a biblical theology of work encourage someone perpetually discouraged in his or her work?

Dr. James Hamilton: The Scriptures encourage us that, ultimately, we work for the Lord—[as] that classic statement in Colossians 3 says, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as for the Lord and not for men.” Discouragement tends to come from, maybe an overbearing boss who never says anything positive; a lack of acclaim or commendation… We counter that by remembering that ultimately we are working for the Lord and not for men. There’s an audience of one that I’m seeking to please.

In the new heavens and new earth, we’re not going to be these cloudy, wispy ghosts, we are going to be resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth, engaged in grand projects for the glory of God.

The whole Bible’s framework teaches that work was in the garden and continues after the fall. Now that Christ has come, there’s a possibility for the redemption even for the things that we engage in, and our hearts are renewed. We come at this as a remade humanity. In the new heavens and new earth, we’re not going to be these cloudy, wispy ghosts, we are going to be resurrected bodies in the new heavens and new earth, engaged in grand projects for the glory of God. If we have this broader framework, it will reinforce and inform the idea that we are really working for God’s glory.

KH: My last question might be a challenge because you wrote an entire book on the subject, but if you had to give a one-minute biblical theology of work, how would you do it?

Dr. James Hamilton: I would start with what Jesus said in John 10, “My Father is working until now and I am working.” A biblical theology of work starts with the idea that God is a worker. From there, I would say that as those made in the image and likeness of God, we are made to work. We are going to be most satisfied and most fulfilled when we are doing what we were created to do. From there, I would walk through that big story where God created good work in the garden. That work was judged as the result of man’s sin—it was made more difficult—and yet the man was mercifully allowed to do that work. The warning was that in the day you eat of it, you will die. He died spiritually, but I think through God’s words, he began to trust the Lord and he began to continue his work.

Christ came and has set in motion the renewal of all things in such a way that we live as children of God. We live in a manner worthy of the gospel in everything we do. I think that in all kinds of jobs there are ways to lay down our lives to benefit other people spiritually, and we work in anticipation of a renewal of all things when all tears will be wiped away.

When as the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “Would that I had thorns to battle” (Isaiah 27:4)—there will be no more thorns and thistles on the ground, and all things will be made new, and we will know as we are known, and we will be the Lord’s.

KH: Thank you Dr. Hamilton for the time to discuss Work and Our Labor in the Lord.

David Jackman on Staying on the Line of God’s Word (Hermeneutical Principle)

Staying on the Line - David Jackman

One of our convictional hermeneutical principles is Staying on the Line. Staying on the Line focuses on faithfulness and precision in handling God’s Word, encouraging preachers to tell the truth, the whole truth [not to go below the line], and nothing but the truth [not to go above the line]. (Download a PDF of our hermeneutical principles.)

“Don’t be more concerned with the structure of the sermon than with what the Bible itself is saying.” David Jackman

David Jackman, a friend of LRI and preacher/trainer with the Proclamation Trust, has released a helpful video going deeper on this foundational principle. If you like this video, you will enjoy the whole Equipped Series from the Proclamation Trust.



Staying on the Line - Hermeneutical Principle

Our four-year program called Traning National Trainers uses Staying on the Line as one of our key hermeneutical principles. Here is what Pastor Fred from Uganda said about staying on the line of God’s Word:

“I believe my ministry will change because of this training. From the time I started in the ministry, I had the conviction that I should ‘stay on the line,’ but I did not have this knowledge of what it meant to stay on the line. I would still end up using my framework. Now I have the tools to guide me and help me stay on the line.”

Learn more about our training or opportunities to partner to ignite a movement of God’s Word around the world.

#PreachingTip: Echo the Bible’s Tone

Echo the Bible's Tone

When studying a text, part of Asking Good Questions is discovering the tone of the passage. (Understanding the genre also helps us understand tone.)

David Jackman of The Proclamation Trust recommends that we Echo the Bible’s Tone in the video below. If you like this video, you will enjoy the whole Equipped Series from the Proclamation Trust.

Also watch: Staying on the Line

 

 

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