October 30, 2014

And the hardest text to preach is…

by Jesse Johnson

This week I attended the Expositor’s Summit at Southern Seminary. It’s a conference for pastors who love expository preaching, and the messages have been very powerful. John MacArthur preached on parables, HB Charles on the doxology at the end of Ephesians 3, and Al Mohler on Genesis 22 (in the next few days, the audio will be posted here).

There was also a panel discussion where each of the speakers was asked what the hardest passage of scripture is that they have ever preached. Here is what they said:

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John MacArthur identified three. He mentioned how difficult it was to prepare his sermon on the table of nations (Gen 10; I actually was there when he preached that message). He also said how hard it was to preach Zechariah verse-by-verse (the series is here, and my favorite of those messages is this one, on chapter 12).

But I was surprised to hear MacArthur say that his series through 1 John was particularly hard on him spiritually. He said that because John was so black-white, is-isn’t, will-won’t, that he found himself trying to soften 1 John’s edges by filling out his messages with Paul’s writings. The result though was that he often had a knot in his stomach, feeling like he was somehow being less than faithful to the full weight of what John had intended. I’d never heard MacArthur say anything like that before.

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HB Charles said that the most difficult passage he ever preached was the war in Daniel 11. He said his intent was to only preach the first six chapters of Daniel, but one of his elders encouraged him to finish the book, and he joked that the book almost finished him. He said Daniel 11 was so complicated that he did his best to sort out the battle, and then simply declared to his congregation that the point is: GOD WINS, and then he just left it there (if anyone knows where to find that message, let me know in the comment thread).

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Al Mohler said that for him, the hardest passages to preach are the Psalms, because the emotion and suffering in the Psalter is so intense and corporate that it is outside the experience of most American Christians. In other words, the suffering he has experienced in his life does not match the pathos of Psalms. But Mohler did add that the increase in persecution in the world is going to have the effect of making the true emotions of the Psalms more relatable to contemporary Christians. While the Psalms may have been difficult before, they likely won’t stay that way for long.

[An interesting side-note: Mohler said that the increase in persecution in the world has made him more strongly premillennial than ever].

What about you? If you preach, what has been the most difficult passage for you to exposit for your people? Let us know below:

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Gavin C.

    Last year I did a 9-week exposition through Psalm 51. That was a difficult series just based on the content and the reality of the wickedness of our own heart. It was an emotional and spiritual battle every Sunday.

  • Natalie

    Studying Daniel 11 was one of my Wow! moments. Finding out who all those kings were and how God had shown so much world history to Daniel was just amazing to me.

    • I can relate, Natalie. My first foray into the book of Daniel was through MacArthur’s series on this book.. (http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/scripture/daniel ) JMac’s Daniel sermons added a depth and richness and awareness of the-events-of-the-day (right to “today”) that blew me away.

      Hey Jesse-thanks for the audio link to this conference! I look forward to listening!

      Our pastor has been preaching through 1John the past several months..what a marvelous sieve to be taken through, even as we also consider what grace and mercy we’ve been given through Christ!

  • Eric

    Several years ago, I preached through Genesis. Genesis 19:30-38 describing Lot’s incest with his daughters was quite challenging. Several commentators stated that a preacher should just skip it. Main emphasis was Lot’s lack of humility in not going to live with Abraham which may have solved the problem of his daughters not having husbands which, of course, led to not only the heinous sin of incest but also brought about two of Israel’s worst enemies.

  • Kenny

    Even though I have preached through 1 John twice, 1 John 3:1-10 is difficult. People have many more questions from that section.

    • Jas25

      I agree and I’m almost certain that’s the “black and white” of this book that MacAurthur was talking about as well. It feels like it nearly demands that we soften the edges because the very first chapter of the same book tells us those who claim not to sin deceive themselves (among other scripture).

      I know it’s a contrast that helps us not to slip into the other error of taking “everybody sins” as an excuse to keep areas of our lives from God. That certainly doesn’t make it simple to explain without weakening it’s effect!

  • Lance Rodman

    The Sermon on the Mount, and especially 5:17. Just because it is so seminal and so deep and so rich. It isn’t necessarily hard, per se, but because the Sermon on the Mount is so theologically complex in that it touches everything from justification, end times, Jesus’ fulfilling of the Law, and almost every other doctrine in the Bible. One of my favorites, but one of the most difficult to preach through in 45 minute chunks.

  • I was there when John MacArthur preached through 1st John and it had a profound impact on my life!

  • James

    That’s easy. I preached 1st Corinthians 5 two years after a Church split where the previous pastor was publicly dismissed for unrepentance and stealing. It just so happened that the majority of disgruntled members came back that Sunday. I had been preaching verse by verse through Habakkuk, Ephesians, the first four chapters of 1st Corinthians and the first time they showed up was on 1st Cor. 5!! I remember panicking in my office because I didn’t want to change the sermon because of their presence yet I didn’t want to appear that two years later I was cowardly taking shots from the pulpit. I preached it. And as Paul said the Lord kindly and gently stood with me.

    Good article Jesse

    What about you?

    • The geneologies in Ezra. Mostly because they are very similar, so you get to tackle that 2xs!

  • Frank

    HB Charles doesn’t post his messages online. Though they’re on the iOS app. You can find the Daniel series on that app. Just FYI.

  • Lyndon Unger

    When I was in Bible College, we took a homiletics class where we would have to share a short (5 minute) devotional each class to kick things off.

    Being the rather confident budding Bible scholars that we were, a group of my friends would pick passages for each other and then try not to laugh as the unlucky victim tried to pull a short encouraging thought out of the passage they were given by the group. Some of the “devotional killer” winners were:

    1. Zech. 5:5-8.

    2. Ez. 23:28-30 (we all agreed that 23:18-21 were “off limits” for a classroom devotional).

    3. 2 Ki. 3:26-27.

    4. Gen. 34:25-29.

    5. Ps. 137:8-9.

    6. Ez. 41:5-11.

    Those are all hard passages to preach, at least when isolated. Not theologically hard, but rather somewhat awkward to explain in 5 minutes due to their subject matter.

    Our professor figured out what we were doing, no doubt, but I have a suspicion that he enjoyed watching the victim suffer the consequences of the foolish game more than all the rest of us.

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  • Clay Johnson

    Nehemiah 3. It’s basically a Jewish phone book.

  • Sir Aaron

    And here I was thinking a 26 week series on Leviticus would be tough.
    I’m a little disappointed by Al Mohler’s response. I realize expositing God’s Word is an enormous responsibility. But every once in a while, I want to take one of these Pastors and tell them to “get a grip.” David wasn’t exactly persecuted for his religious beliefs. He was a King with more wives than he could “lie with” in a year if he saw one of them for only one week. Every person in Mohler’s congregation (and every other congregation) can related to having intense problems in their personal lives or at work or wherever else. People get fired. They get arrested. They have to deal with gossips and backbiters. They have to deal with onerous government regulations. They have family members who will not talk to them. Or friends who bitterly betray them. Or have to go out of town for their jobs and face tremendous temptation to do evil. I think most people are fully capable of relating to the psalmist. Maybe not at that particular moment in their lives but at some point.

    • Jas25

      I’ve always found the “American Christians have it too easy” complaint to oversimplify what it means to be Christian. We serve a God who not only expects more from those who have more (which makes sense as 100% is 100% regardless of how much it is) but also expects us to see trials as opportunity.

      Every culture has it’s own unique tribulations, but our perspective should always be that they’re character building opportunities (and having no trials is a trial in itself because we need to avoid temptation all the more).

      David wasn’t always singing as a king with lots of wives though. When he was running for his life because the king that he devoted his life to protect was hunting him out of petty jealousy and a bunch of his friends had decided to stick with Saul, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would envy him.

      • julie

        Me too, Jas. Why do we always have to be criticized? Why do we always have to apologize for “having it easy”? Who has it easy? No Christian that I know. Well, except for Al Mohler, I guess. Every true Christian that I know is going through a very difficult trial(s) and suffering: a husband with kidney cancer, parents with Alzheimer’s, rebellious children who have cut off contact, rejection from neighbors and friends for sharing the gospel with them, chronic pain, unsaved spouse, death of loved ones, persecution. Yes, I said persecution. We have changed the meaning of this word in 21st century Christianity. Now it must mean having your house or church burned down, physical attack with loss of life or limb, or having bibles confiscated. But by this definition was Jesus Christ persecuted before He went to the cross? Yes, he was, in the form of rejection, hounding, criticism, pursuit, badgering, suspicion, insults, etc. We do not do true Christians any favors by denying them the comfort and encouragement of the scriptures when we tell them that they just aren’t suffering enough. How much is “enough” for these people?

    • Tom

      “But every once in a while, I want to take one of these Pastors and tell them to “get a grip.” David wasn’t exactly persecuted for his religious beliefs. He was a King with more wives than he could “lie with” in a year if he saw one of them for only one week.”

      And before he was a king, he was a wanted fugitive leading a ragtag band of mercenaries, having lost the favor of King Saul due to the latter’s madness. While he was king, his own son turned on him and forced him out of Jerusalem. While he was king, he watched other people whom he loved deal with the consequences of his sin. At the end of his life, he had to deal with an attempted succession crisis.
      He was also responsible for leading a nation surrounded by hostile neighbors and, if one reads between the lines, riven by internal dissension.
      David’s life was not a bed of roses–or if it was, no one removed the thorns.

    • Have you ever been to a third-world country where the only source of water was a well, there no electricity at night, where Christians live among people who are hostile to their faith and very existence? I have. And I agree with Mohler. For all our struggles, we have it pretty easy. That’s not something we need to apologize for, but it is someone that should humble us.

  • Johnny

    I imagine preaching an interesting sermon of the final chapters of Ezekiel on the temple dimensions would be tricky.

    • Libbydaddy

      I wonder…maybe with modern preaching amenities ie powerpoint, video clips, a sunday school entrusted design and display – could get the entire church body involved. And there is always doctrine, always doctrinal truth somewhere. Praise God for His Holy Word!

  • Josh Deng

    What does premillenial mean?

    • Jim Swindle

      Premillennialism is the idea that Jesus will return before (not after) the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation 20.

      • Tom1959

        Depends. on if the person means Historic Premillenialism or Dispensational Premillenialism.

        Rather than try and explain what I mean, here is a link to show what I mean. http://www.fivesolas.com/esc_chrt.htm

  • Cary Cox

    I preached verse by verse through the book of Judges a while back. There were several difficult texts, but dealing with Jephthah’s vow and the Levite and his concubine definitely tops my list! However, the response was very good. I tried to explain the meaning for Israel at the time it was written, as well as the big picture in the Bible’s overall storyline, pointing to Jesus Christ: the flawless Rescuer-King these flawed Judges cause us to long for! That series was a big blessing to both myself and our congregation. I encourage my brother pastors to tackle Judges!

  • Funny (or providential!) that I would read this article at this moment because I’ve been going through 1 John verse-by-verse (Part 29 – should finish at Part 31) and the verses that I’m speaking on THIS Sunday – 1 John 5:16-17 – “sin that does and does not lead to death” – have been real sticklers for me. But I’m counting on the Holy Spirit and Occam’s razor (the obvious and simple interpretation is the best one) to get me through it!! And all of you out there could pray for me, I’d appreciate it!!

  • Jerod

    Sermons in Isaiah have been the most challenging to me so far, for the following reasons: 1) The Hebrew text is unusually sophisticated at times–at least it was for me. Structure and complex grammatical features made outlining a joyful challenge at times;
    2) the political and historical background (which is itself profoundly complex) changes throughout the book as different portions were written during the reign of different kings (cf. 1:1), each of which brought their own set of problems;
    3) without cheesing the text (i.e., with unwarranted types, etc) I wanted to portray to my 21st century Gentile audience (consisting of college students, no less) how the text not only points to Christ, but how it is just as relevant and weighty for their lives today as it was for 8th century Jews.

  • Chris Pascarella

    I got “stuck” to preach Daniel 8, 10, 11, 12 when our church was going through Daniel this summer. I concur with Charles that Daniel 11 is the hardest text to preach. Not only does have a lot of complicated details and history, it’s hard (though not impossible!) to see how it applies to the life of the church today.

  • Tim Baker

    Sermon on the Mount was incredibly tough on me spiritually. It was introspectively painful and continued to make my heart long to be fastened to the Rock.

  • Tim Viers

    28 And
    Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have
    followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the
    throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the
    twelve tribes of Israel.

    I have struggled with a slight speech impediment which caused me to lisp at an unfortunate time during a sermon on Matthew 19.

  • Jim

    1 Chronicles 21 and its sister text, 2 Samuel 24….good luck with that one

  • David Knight

    Fascinating blog post, Jesse. I have the MacArthur Commentary Series. In the commentary on First John, I think he does an excellent job of explaining the Apostle John’s black and white viewpoint. Also, in his book, “Twelve Ordinary Men”, he has a chapter on the Apostle of Love that gives us a pretty good sketch of John. These are no doubt the fruits that resulted, in-part, from MacArthur’s struggle to preach 1 John as the Holy Spirit intended. PTL!

    I also agree with Dr. Mohler on the Psalms. Thanks for the post, Jesse. I loved it, and I love reading The Cripplegate. May God richly bless you and your ministry.

  • A sermon from Deuteronomy on bodily fluids.

  • tovlogos

    “Al Mohler said…the emotion and suffering in the Psalter is so intense and corporate that it is outside the experience of most American Christians.”

    True, however, other than academic profundity, I would say, as Jacob and the ladder illustrates, depth and intensity of suffering happens, depending on who you happen to be.

    He also said: “…contemporary Christians, while the Psalms may have been difficult before, they likely won’t stay that way for long.” Because suffering will increase in the insulated Western comfort zones as the birth pangs increase. Some Christians wrestle deeply in their spirits even if their necks are not under the sword of the Islamics.

  • James Stagg

    The Our Father.

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