I love the Bible. And I love getting to teach it. Maybe I am weird, but I really love the hard parts of the Bible. There is something that happens, first within the heart of a pastor, and then within the heart of the congregation when challenging texts are on display, especially texts that are not "culturally acceptable."
I have a confession to make: I brought the Crossroads Family through the entire book of Leviticus at the rate of about a chapter a study. Shocking, isn't it? I decided to subject the congregation for half a year to me preaching through the "graveyard of many read-through-the-Bible attempts." I decided that we needed to deal with all that was in that great and inspired and terrifying text. And we did. Our mid-week gathering grew in the process. People wanted to hear and understand the Word of God, and they appreciated the fact that their pastor wanted to wrestle with one of the most challenging parts of God's Word with them.
In order for us to help people understand why a hard passage is in the Bible, we first need to wrestle with and understand why it is part of the inspired text.
So I want to take you behind the veil, into the Holy of Holies (do you see the Levitical allusions?) of how you can walk through a hard text with your congregation. I will use the word HARD to give you insights. However, before you read this article, I would first listen to the Leviticus 17 message that is associated with it. That way, you can experience the message, and then you can look behind the veil to see how I got at the text.
Help the people understand why it's in the Bible.
As pastors and teachers, our job is to help people understand, not only the Word of God, but also the God of the Word. The Bible is not just great literature (and it is that!). The Bible is the revelation of the God of all creation. It is our job to help people understand why a challenging passage is in the Scriptures.
But here is the catch: In order for us to help people understand why a hard passage is in the Bible, we first need to wrestle with and understand why it is part of the inspired text. As preachers, we know that there is a reason why it is in there. But unfortunately, we shy away from the hard texts because we would rather not do the heavy lifting of probing into texts that we have to work at. We would prefer the immediate gratification of low hanging fruit than the delayed gratification of having to work for it. As the old saying goes, "If you rake, you get leaves, and if you dig, you get diamonds." So with that vein, we have to be willing to dig into hard texts to find the gems contained within them.
So the topic of blood has a rich Biblical heritage overall. But specifically, Leviticus is essential to understanding the major themes of the Bible. Things like holiness, sacrifice, purity, sin, atonement, and the restoration of relationship with God are all seen clearly. I have to constantly remember that the folks at Crossroads are coming to learn because they don't know it yet. So make sure you draw those things out in their local context (exegesis) and the global context of the arc of the Bible. It is our job to proclaim to the people how the Lord has tied all things together.
Admit that the Bible is challenging.
This seems like a "no-brainer," but it isn't. Sometimes we want to pretend that all of this is just normal. It isn't. It wasn't normal thousands of years ago when God called the people of God to be unique. It wasn't in the greater culture of the Roman Empire at the times of Jesus and the Apostles. And it definitely isn't normal in the west in the 21st century. But just because it isn't normal for today, or because it is challenging, doesn't mean that it is wrong. Actually, it is the truth of God! So we need to first admit that a passage of Scripture is challenging, either for us to understand, or for our culture to come to grips with. This does a few things. First, it allows your hearers to realize that their hang-ups or misunderstandings are shared by others. Second, it aids in our unpacking of our cultural values and dissection of them in light of the Scriptures. Finally, it allows us, as pastors, to be in process, with our understanding being in process, along with the people with whom we follow Jesus.
Some of the things contained in the Bible are hard to comprehend. Preachers need the freedom to admit that things are challenging. The alternative is to minimize the mystery of the ways in which God works. Many of us have chosen that route, but God's ways are mysterious and challenging. Think of the Leviticus 17 passage. An animal has to die in order for atonement to be offered. The children of Israel were many. That would mean the very public death of many, many animals. Why would God want that? Or allow that? In our cultural milieu, this is a challenge and one of many reasons that people reject the God of the Bible. But by admitting that it is challenging, we can assuage the "this is absurd" reaction to the death of many animals so that we can move towards "this is why this is important to God."
Release the Word from cultural hang-ups.
Let me fill you in on a little secret: Every culture believes that it is right about everything. But every culture is not correct. Culture is fluid and dynamic. Its proclivities change like the seasons. Our culture looks back on former cultures in horror at the things that they did. And if the Lord tarries, people will look back on our generation and be shocked by some of the things that we valued. But interestingly enough, no culture is humble enough to admit that they are probably wrong about many things.
I share that with you because part of the task of the preacher is not only to exegete (draw the meaning out of) the text, but preachers are also tasked with exegeting the culture we speak into. We are called and empowered by God to call into question cultural assumptions, destabilize them in their errors and then to re-stabilize them with the finished work of Jesus. That is the prophetic power of the pulpit. And preachers, we need the pulpit to be prophetic in every generation. Especially in this generation! As pastors, we have to be willing to do the dirty (and often harrowing) work of calling into question our own status quo. The prophets did that in their generation. Jesus and his apostles did it in their generation, and the Spirit of God has always been working through the preached Word of God to continue that in our day. We need to release God's Word from cultural hang-ups.
In the Leviticus message, you may have noticed that I took a very definite line. The focus of our challenge with the death of animals for the atonement of sin is that we do not understand the holiness of God. Sure, it's easy for us to admit that we make mistakes. We know we do, and everyone else knows we do, especially God. But we can't fathom the cost of such mistakes. Because we are so used to being flawed, we have a tendency to be casual about it. But the text reminds us that a holy God is not casual at all about sin and impurity. Sin brings death because holiness, justice, and righteousness demand it. Do you see how, by addressing a mistaken cultural value, you can show people more clearly who God is? That is a powerful tool in the hands of the Spirit, coming from the heart and mouth of a preacher.
Display the finished work of Jesus.
We preach because we believe in the finished work of Jesus. Jesus lived the perfect life, died the death that we deserve, rose again conquering sin and death, and lives forevermore. Jesus' finished work included the sending of the Spirit to seal and empower the people of God. Ultimately, Jesus will return, restore, and renew everything. We are confident that God began a work and will be faithful to complete it. This is the message that we love to preach. No matter what the text is, Jesus is on display. Jesus said, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me." How many of us wish that we had Jesus' exposition of the Scriptures given to the fellows on the road to Emmaus? The finished work of Jesus is on display, in some way, on every page of our Bibles.
The gospel of Jesus has power when it is proclaimed. So we always have to bring the message around to how this points, displays, or showcases God's work in Jesus. You don't have to wait until the end of the message either. In every text, and especially in the challenging ones, we must show the people Jesus. We must show them how this foreshadows Calvary's cross where the sinless Savior died. We must show them how the empty tomb fixes a broken world. This was effortlessly easy in the Leviticus 17 passage because Hebrews 9 quotes the passage and directly relates it to Jesus' death. Just like that, a very challenging passage becomes part of God's redemptive story.
In conclusion, I simply want to encourage you to preach the hard texts with boldness in the Spirit. God ordained that those texts would be in the Word. And God ordained that the Word would be preached in this generation. God even ordained that the text would be preached by us. Let's help the people of God glorify God by understanding and embracing the challenging parts of God's Word.
Daniel Fusco is the Lead Pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, WA.