How to Preach a Text When You Don’t Know What It Means

Convictionless churches are empty churches. Sure, it may be cool these days to be noncommittal. Sure, backing off and saying that you “could be wrong” is transparent and will gain you some respect among a skeptical audience. Of course, giving all the possible interpretations of a passage of Scripture or a theological position is educational and disarming. But there is something different about preaching that requires the preacher to present a more anchored hope. It meant much more to the Reformers than, “I am going to stand behind this block of wood and give you some options about what to believe.” Simply put, that approach lacks conviction. And even if you are a diehard pragmatist only looking to fill the pews, this is not the way to go about it. Because, frankly, if you have little or  no definite convictions, then you are neither a preacher nor a pastor.

“Give them something to believe.” I am told that every time Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, ended his theology classes, he would say, “Men, give them something to believe.” People are looking for something to believe. They want to rest the weight of their anxiety upon something stable. They have enough instability in their lives. They don’t want to go to church to hear the preacher teach. They want him to preach. Teaching and preaching are not the same thing. They share quite a bit in the semantic domain of discipleship, but they also are distinct and need to be used intentionally. How are they distinct? Let me give you a few ways:

  • Preaching is exhortation; teaching is education.
  • Preaching is the discharge of the gospel of hope; teaching is discipleship of the gospel of hope.
  • Preaching puts wind in the sails; teaching put an anchor in the ground.
  • Preaching raises our eyes to the things we know with great conviction; teaching helps us to understand what things we can have legitimate conviction about.
  • Preaching tells you which option is correct; teaching gives you all the options.

But when you’re preaching, what do you do when you come to a passage of Scripture and you are unsure about what it means? Let’s be honest—this happens quite often. You are preaching through a book of the Bible, and you come to a place where the commentaries do not agree, there seem to be multiple legitimate options concerning its interpretation, and you are left scratching your head. You don’t want to be dishonest and just choose an option. And you don’t want to deliver a drawn-out sermon on what different denominations teach.

So what do we do? First, my advice, then I will illustrate.

  1. Briefly let people know there are multiple options, but don’t go through all the options in detail.
  2. Briefly tell people which one you are most convinced about and why.
  3. Preach with unashamed confidence the principles of the chosen option, giving them something to believe. So long as the principles are true, your integrity before the Lord will be covered.

But how can I preach with “unashamed confidence” something that I am not that confident about? Because the principles put confidence in your voice, even if you remain unsure about the exact understanding of this particular passage.

For example, in John 3, there is a confusing passage about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Jesus is waxing poetic about the new birth and how one must be twice-born to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is confused about this teaching and says, “How can these things be?” Jesus responds with a stern rebuke: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things?” (John 3:9-10)

According to Jesus, this teaching should not be new to Nicodemus, someone responsible as a Pharisee for educating Israel. The problem for the interpreter/preacher is that we are not really sure why Jesus comes down so hard on Nicodemus. After all, when we look back into the Old Testament, even with our fancy Bibleworks and Logos electronic study tools, it is hard for us to find the new birth. Some people find the new birth in the new covenant, but that seems problematic since it was still to come. Some people see it in Psalm 87 with reference to the gates of Jerusalem, but this seems entirely too obscure for Jesus to give Nicodemus such a strong rebuke.

In the end, I don’t know with certainty the answer, but I think Jesus is talking about the death that came after the fall. Being “born again” has to do with our spiritual life being revitalized through the gospel. God told Adam that the day he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he and Eve would die (Gen. 2:17). Of course, we all know how that went. He ate. He died. However, we know he did not physically die that day. Physical death became a part of his physiology as he and Eve were restricted from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22). That day, he died spiritually. His relationship with God was cut off. This is death of the soul. It is spiritual separation from God. And in order to enter into God’s kingdom, that spiritual death has to be remedied. That can only happen if the spiritually dead person is reborn with regard to his relationship with God. So there you have it. Rebirth is a prominent theological theme in the Old Testament, even if we don’t have it explicitly mentioned as such anywhere in the Old Testament.

Am I right? I am not sure. But as the best of the posible options, at least to me, it is the one I preach. And even though I’m uncertain, I retain my integrity. Why? Because even if I am wrong about this particular passage teaching the restoration of the failures of the garden, I am sure that the principles of the reality of spiritual death before God and the restoration of spiritual life are true. Therefore, I am still preaching truth, even if this particular passage is not meant to preach that particular truth. As Robert Chisholm, an old seminary prof of mine, used to say, “Good sermon; wrong text.”

Sometimes we need to settle for good sermons with wrong texts. Sometimes we are going to be unsure of the exact interpretation of a passage of Scripture, but we don’t have to sacrifice giving our congregations something to believe due to the obscurity of our text. We can still preach the Word with full integrity by focusing on the principles that are universally true even if we end up being wrong about our interpretation. It is important that you let people know there is some legitimate debate and what you are about to preach could be wrong. But assure them that the principles that you preach are not wrong as they are found in other places in Scripture. That is how you preach a sermon when you are not sure what the passage means.

Give them something to believe.


  • Jonathan

    Interesting post. About the example you chose – I suppose there are plenty of ways people have tried to guess the interpretation of John 3, and for someone NOT to go to the Old Testament is daft.

    I hadn’t thought about Genesis and death before. I’ve always gone to Ezekiel 36:24-28 where you have water and spirit together, which Paul seems to pick up in Titus 3.

    Not totally convinced about being happy to settle for a good sermon from the wrong text though. I’ve had so many older men urging us to teach what the text means, so I guess I’m looking for a different answer to the problem of what to do when I don’t understand the text.

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  • Bart

    For side points in a message this is good advice, but if you don’t know what the passage as a whole means, for God’s sake, don’t preach it. How can you teach on something you don’t understand yourself? Move on to a text you can preach with full authority.

    • Lou G.

      Amen, Bart!

  • Kevin

    This is a helpful word – thank you!

  • Eric

    I appreciate the effort to address this question. Preachers are inevitably going to encounter this situation if they’re preaching exegetically through a text. Certainly the advice here is helpful and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with anything said. But I would suggest that when we encounter pieces of a passage that are unclear, that should often move us to view the text from a different magnification.

    I’ve been greatly helped by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert’s advice from their book “Preach” where they suggest to make it a practice to adjust your zoom level, so to speak, with regularity as you preach. This could be done by preaching on a single verse at times, and an entire book at others. But I think that this advice would also be very helpful in cases such as this scenario mentioned in this article. Instead of forcing yourself to land with conviction on an issue that you cannot firmly preach to your congregation with a clear conscience, we should “zoom out” on our magnification of the text until we reach a level where we are able to clearly see the text.

    Anyone who is familiar with computers or graphics knows that if you “zoom in” too close to computer images with low resolution knows that the image becomes very pixelated, making it difficult to get a good idea of what the big picture is. But if you zoom out to a reasonable level appropriate for that image’s resolution, the image becomes clear and you are rightly able to discern what that image is communicating. It should be as so with our preaching. If the resolution on the text is low and a close zoom makes it pixelated, then we are probably viewing that portion of the text with too much zoom in. Take a step back and view it in light of a broader truth found within the passage’s context.

    • Peter Krol

      Good points, Eric. If my understanding of a verse or two (e.g. John 3:9-10) is shaky, a good option might be to back out of it and expand the size of my text. A sermon on all of John 3:1-21 (or even the whole chapter) could give people more solid ground, thus more effectively giving them something to believe.

      Then I wouldn’t even have to spend time with numerous uncertain interpretive options regarding the details.

      Good post, Michael. Thanks for giving us a great topic to think about further!

  • Andrew

    Preach, Preacher! Thanks, great article.

  • Jeremy Kidder

    I think that the distinction between preaching and teaching to be very artificial and not grounded in the text. Jesus never preached as his disciples (when they were not part of a larger crowd) and I would be very hesitant to say that he never exhorted, gospelized or told them which option was correct.

    I think a more Biblical and lexical distinction would be:
    1. Preaching is done to primarily to unknown masses, teaching is done in smaller groups of people.
    2. Preaching is a monologue, while teaching can (and should) be interactive (just look at Jesus’ example).
    3. Preaching is announcement, declaration, and heralding, teaching persuades, argues, and reasons.
    4. Preaching cannot be done within existing relationships without setting them aside (thus the offence that occurs when I preach at my wife), teaching can (and should) utilize and build upon existing relationships.
    5. Preaching is primarily done and commanded in Scripture as evangelism, teaching is what the church is primarily commanded to do when it gathers (see the Pastorals).

    Anyway, those are some of my Biblical observations about the distinction between the two as I see them in the Bible.

  • Kreig

    It seems a little dishonest to stand up in front of people who are depending on you for truth (something true to believe in) and tell them lies or half truths. Instead of expositing the text, you are imposing your sermon onto a text that may/may not mean that. I think the goal of the pulpit ministry is to equip the saints, not simply inspire them. They need to be able to deal with these passages and teach others to do so too. I think we are starting an unhealthy domino effect if we teach people that the true meaning is less important than a good sermon.

  • Ben

    I appreciated this post. Very helpful as I continue in my training.

  • Ben

    I have a question about your third example about the difference between preaching and teaching. “Preaching puts wind in the sails; teaching put an anchor in the ground.”

    If I have misunderstood your analogy, forgive me in advance, but here goes:

    Sails and anchors have opposite purposes, and serve to hinder the effectiveness of the other. While I agree that preaching and teaching have distinct purposes, I do not believe that preaching and teaching ever work at cross purposes. It seems like teaching would have more in common with a car’s suspension (to help it handle better and more stably in a variety of unfamiliar situations) while preaching would be adding horsepower to the engine (to help the car power through steep slopes).

    It is entirely possible that I’m getting too caught up on your inclusion of the words “in the ground” when you could have been referring to a sea anchor, but those would not be “in the ground.”

  • Stephen

    I appreciate the distinction made between teaching and preaching. Piper makes that distinction as well, referring to preaching as expository exultation. As far as preaching hard to understand texts, I agree with the conclusions of the article. And just to clarify – we would never want to intentionally preach a good sermon with the wrong text – that of course would be a poor example to the sheep on how to interpret Scripture.

  • Reed

    I appreciate that this article condones outlining the alternate interpretations, even if not to delve into them very deeply.

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  • C Michael Patton

    Thanks for all the comments. Good stuff.

    I don’t think the fellow who said to skip the passage presents a valid alternative. There are so many passages that, if we are honest, we are not absolutely certain what the passage means. We can have a certain level of conviction about our interpretation (just like I have about my interpretation of John 3) and still preach this passage. The important thing is to have integrity before God that when we preach these passages that have multiple alternatives, we let the people know that there are other valid interpretations. That way, we are honest with the audience and are still handling God’s word with integrity. If we don’t do this, we are neither being honest with ourselves nor representing God’s reputation in a way that is honoring to him. Honesty is always the best policy, even when it may take away from the level of conviction with which we preach. (Sorry about the spelling; my spell check is not working!)

    • Quincy A. Jones

      Michael, you said:

      “The important thing is to have integrity before God that when we preach these passages that have multiple alternatives, we let the people know that there are other valid interpretations. If we don’t do this, we are neither being honest with ourselves nor representing God’s reputation in a way that is honoring to him. Honesty is always the best policy, even when it may take away from the level of conviction with which we preach.”

      Does this not effectively refute your own caricature of “convictionless churches”, i.e., someone saying “they could be wrong” or giving their people valid options. What is the difference between that and what you just said?

      We must be much more honest about the “options” then we generally are. Or to say another way, we must be much more honest about the flexibility we have with non-essential issues. If there isn’t flexibility then we cannot say with conviction “in the essentials unity, in the non-essentials (or doubtful things) liberty, in all things charity”…

  • Matthew James

    Thank you Michael for this helpful post. I totally understand what you’re talking about here.

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  • Jeff S

    Wow, I couldn’t disagree with this more. I don’t want YOU to give me something to believe in. Why would I want that? Why do you think that is your job, especially if this something isn’t something you aren’t even sure about? Why would I want you to preach something with conviction that you don’t really have conviction about?

    If you have an inclination, it’s fine to say this is what you *think* something says and say why you think it best fits, but just be honest and humble. I would MUCH rather sit under a humble and thoughtful preacher than one doing what you suggest here.

  • Brandon

    Wow, there are a lot of overly critical people commenting here. I get what you mean Michael. I went to a school where some of the Bible professors didnt stand on any one view. They would simply present all the options and leave you more confused on the truth than when you started the class.

    I agree, you have to stand for something. If you don’t know, let your people know that you don’t have all the answers. But let them now what you lean towards and why.

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  • Nick

    Michael, thank you for this reflection. I’m a bit more hesitant about the “right message, wrong text” being acceptable. I’ll have to think about it. But I really appreciate the reminder to preach with conviction, clarity, and commitment. The image of anchor and sail is a helpful one to functionally distinguish between teaching and preaching.

    I was told Lewis Sperry Chafer was fond of saying, “Men, don’t give them something to do. Give them someone to believe in.” At least, that’s the way I have it written in my notes. I don’t believe it detracts from your point, though. Thanks again. Blessings.

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