R-Rated: The Importance of Preaching R-Rated Texts
R-Rated: The Importance of Preaching R-Rated Texts
I'll admit I was fighting mad. I was so angry, in fact, that I was forced to recite the Beatitudes to myself over and over to calm down. And the worst part was, what had me so worked up was a Sunday school lesson.
A curriculum used by many evangelical churches sent out word to teachers before Easter that, not to worry, the Easter lesson would be non-violent. Children, after all, it was explained, cannot handle the gruesome reality of crucifixion. The theme of that week's lesson, then, would talk about resurrection without talking about death. Children would be told that Jesus is our "forever friend." He went away for a little while, and his friends were sad, but soon he came back and everyone was happy. How, I wondered, could we share the gospel with children if it is a gospel without a cross?
The truth is, though, many preachers face the same temptation on any given Sunday. Now, most of us are nowhere close to preaching the life of Jesus without crucifixion. We know that the Cross is central to what makes us Christian. But many of us lose our nerve when we come to other parts of the Bible that seem graphically violent—and the Bible is full of such passages both in the Old and New Testaments.
The challenge of R-Rated texts
When a Bible-believing pastor commits to preaching to his church from the Word itself—and teaching through the whole counsel of Scripture—he is setting himself up for a temptation that preachers who use Scripture to illustrate "life principles" don't face. The temptation comes when the preacher is moving through the text of Scripture and they happen upon a passage such as the slaughter of the Amorites, the incest of Lot, or the rape of Dinah. How, they wonder, should they preach Jael jamming a tent-peg through the temple of her sleeping enemy, or Ehud forcibly emptying the bowels of Eglon with his sword? How, they wonder, can they preach such a dark, graphic, explicit passage without people assuming that God is disturbingly blood-thirsty or that they've entered into some sort of doomsday cult?
The temptation, then, is to seek to relieve the tension by either A) evading the text altogether or B) pivoting from the passage to a moral or spiritual object lesson. "Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord at Gilgal. Are you ready to hack your depression to pieces?"
The problem with this approach starts with the fact that preaching this way is an immediate signal to those who take the time to read our holy Book that we are, quite simply, embarrassed by the Bible. This means, for those of us who hold to the apostolic doctrine of inspiration, that we are embarrassed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Christ, we imply, has breathed out truths that we don't need.
There is no need for embarrassment, however, and there is no need for evasion. God has called us to be ambassadors of his gospel; he has not called us to be his defense attorneys. And, actually, if we learn to preach the "R-rated" texts, we are well on our way to knowing how to preach the whole Bible.
The reason, after all, that we are reluctant to preach these texts is because we don't know how to apply them. God commands an entire nation to be killed by Israel. We know it would be wrong to say, "You go and do likewise." And, indeed, if we preach these texts in isolation, we have little to say that makes sense from what we know from other parts of the Bible. And yet, we know how to handle this, and we do so all the time.
Witness of the Holy Spirit
Every preacher knows that one must preach a verse in context. No one would preach through Romans 1 and 2, for instance, on the sinfulness and condemnation of all humanity, Jew and Gentile, by pretending not to know that Romans 3-4 speaks of the gospel provision for that fallen humanity through the Cross. Verses are not only interpreted in terms of the contexts of the rest of the book in which they are found, but also in the context of the whole canon. The Bible, after all, is not a collection of merely human writings. The Bible is the witness of human prophets and apostles, yes, but it is also the witness of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:16-21). As with any author, the Spirit has a point to make, a point that is seen in particular passages but a point that is also seen in the whole of the biblical witness.
That point is not just a "what," but a "Who." In the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul teaches us that God's plan for cosmic history is part of a blueprint, "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:10). Every text of Scripture—Old or New Testament is about Christ and his gospel because, at the end of the day, everything in reality is about Christ and his gospel. The Bible is telling many stories, but these stories cohere in one story—a story about Jesus of Nazareth (Col. 1:16-17).
The importance of asking 'Why?'
Why then does the Bible speak so explicitly about people doing wicked things to one another? It is not for our prurient curiosity. The Bible points out, instead, the radical fallenness of the human condition, and also then points out the good news that God redeems a humanity, through the gospel, even as depraved as the one Scripture describes. And why does the Bible speak of such seemingly morally questionable things as, say, the slaughter of the Canaanites by Israel?
God set apart Israel as a chosen nation for a reason. This reason is that through this tribe-nation was to come the promise to Abraham. The offspring who receives Abraham's promise is one man, Christ Jesus, who in turn then shares the blessings of that promise with the nations (Gal. 3). That's how we make sense of Israel's story—and ours.
So when, for example, God commands the destruction of enemy nations, we ought to prompt our congregations to ask why—and to see the answer in the gospel. First of all, we ought not to have moral problems with God. As the giver and taker of all human life, God is able to exercise judgment in his way and at his time, and he is right in all his judgments. We can only understand why these violent acts happened, though, if we see what God is doing in Christ.
It is through Israel that God brings to us the Christ. If the nation were to have been destroyed by the Canaanite nations around them, the covenant nation would end. There would be no Bethlehem, no Cross, no empty tomb, no redeemed universe. God chooses and protects and fights for Israel because "from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever" (Rom. 9:5).
This provides a teaching opportunity for the congregation. If we apply these texts directly to us, bypassing Jesus, we end up with wickedness. See, for example, the way some in early America saw themselves as a "new Israel" with authority to drive out the American Indian people as the "Canaanites in the land." They had no such authority, because they were not the covenant nation that came to fulfillment in Christ. The church has been explicitly disarmed (Matt. 26:52-54). We fight not with physical arms against physical enemies but with the Spirit through the power of the gospel (Eph. 6:10-20).
Preaching the violent texts enables us to teach our people, and to remind ourselves, of the key to interpreting the whole of the Bible—through the rubric of Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). And such preaching also reminds us that, while the people of God are to be non-violent, the gospel by which we are saved is violent indeed. Jesus is not merely our "forever friend." He is no mere example of moral principles or of fortune cookie wisdom. He's the cosmic sovereign over the universe, who was tortured by the Roman Empire until his flesh hung like rags, as he bucked beneath the curse of the Law for our sins. This message isn't "safe for the whole family." The gospel brings about peace and wholeness and reconciliation, but it only through the blood and gore of the most graphic and disturbing sight imaginable: a Cross.
Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.