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 the shape of leadership

How to Preach on the Bad Men and Women of the Bible

Addressing difficult texts

Chris Colvin on August 30, 2018

As the apostle Paul put it, “All Scripture is … useful for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16). As a preacher, you are always looking for content that strikes the right chord with your audience. No place in the Bible is off-limits to that exploration. But some passages are seemingly too difficult or intimidating to approach.

If you’re finding yourself preaching from the same set of texts over and over again, you may want to change it up. But where do you start? Maybe you’ve always wanted to preach expositorily, going verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible. But you were hesitant because you knew at some point you’d hit a roadblock, a Scripture that is too hot to handle.

I want to encourage you to step up to the challenge. First of all, preaching from a variety of biblical texts will bring more balance to your teaching. You will also equip your audience with a higher level of biblical literacy. Dive in and take on the texts that seem too hard. Both you and your audience will reap the rewards.

Follow the Leader

The most common way to preach narrative texts is to take a moralistic approach. You tell the story of a character’s life and explain how to emulate his or her godly characteristics.

This can be a powerful way to present biblical truth to your audience. What better way to teach on resisting temptation than by looking at Joseph’s bold stance in Genesis 39? The opening chapters of Proverbs give us some clear direction on how to pray for and apply wisdom like Solomon. And surely you’ve heard a sermon series or two about leadership principles from the life of Nehemiah.

The best way to stay balanced as you preach on the example of one of these Bible heroes is to find support elsewhere in Scripture, specifically in the New Testament. In other words, use Scripture to interpret Scripture. For instance, James makes it clear that seeking wisdom is not only healthy but produces a stronger faith (James 1:5-8). That’s a great text to use in support of Solomon’s example of seeking supernatural wisdom.

Think of the Bible as a mirror. We hold it up to our own lives to examine what is out of sync with God’s perfect design. But we can also use it on itself, examining how the Holy Spirit develops or reinforces a certain topic in Scripture. Remember that as you preach on the morals of biblical characters.

Bad Role Models

When you preach on the moral example of any non-divine character in the Bible, things often become complicated. Nobody is perfect, except Jesus. So we have to layer in caveats about the bad behavior of many heroes of the faith.

By offering your audience a glimpse of how the Son of God intersects history and changes it, you will show them how He can change their lives as well.

Solomon is a great example of wisdom, until you read about how many wives he had. Moses is a strong, principled man, until you read that he murdered an Egyptian. Noah was a righteous man on the earth, until he got drunk and engaged in questionable activity.

When you follow the moralistic model of preaching, you might end up painting yourself into a corner. Imitate one part of a biblical character's life, but not this other. And definitely not that! Is there a better way?

Another Approach

When preaching the great stories of Scripture, I recommend a Christ-centered approach. Find where Jesus shows up in the text, and focus on Him.

The entirety of Scripture is about Jesus Christ. The Old Testament anticipates Him, the Gospels proclaim Him, and the rest of the New Testament books testify to Him.

Here are three steps to take as you prepare to preach from a narrative passage:

1. Clue in to the context. Dig in to the context of the passage, first in its language and grammar, and then in its place in the book at large. Pay attention to specific words and phrases. Outline the surrounding text to capture the flow of thought.

Next, find the cultural context. What were the social norms at the time? Where did the story take place, and how did geography affect it? What are some things about the culture people understood at the time that we should account for now?

2. Connect the dots. Once you have the immediate context down, place it in the wider history of redemption. The Bible is really one story of God and His people. He created them, but they rejected Him. He then set in motion a way to bring them back.

Find out how the story you’re preaching on fits into that grand scheme of the Bible. Understanding which side of the Cross it falls on will go a long way toward discerning the eternal truths it teaches.

3. Close the gap. Now that you have a good handle on what the story is telling inside and out, close the gap by underlining the overall truth it conveys. What would God have us do in light of what this text reveals about His Son? This takes the passage from its moral example into a more practical direction, one focused on eternity rather than a limited worldview.

For instance, the genealogy of Jesus in the opening chapter of Matthew may seem like needless information. But as you study it, specific names will shed light on the story of redemption. Matthew points out Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah’s wife. Other than Mary, these are the only women mentioned; yet difficulties fill their stories. By focusing on their individual narratives, you get a greater sense of why Jesus came and how much the world needed a Savior.

Closing the gap can take stories of immorality, tragedy, and questionable behavior and reveal a Christ who was behind the scenes all the time. The point of preaching is not just telling stories that inspire action. That is one aspect, sure. But the greater task is presenting a compelling vision of who Jesus is.

By offering your audience a glimpse of how the Son of God intersects history and changes it, you will show them how He can change their lives as well. If you keep that in mind, you can confidently tackle the challenges of preaching on the bad men and women in Scripture.

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