Peril on Both Sides

I’m thankful that preachers are increasingly aware of the Bible’s big picture and are preaching accordingly. I’m grateful to see preachers focused on understanding and explaining how the Bible is a cohesive, coherent book, and doing this by exploring the many connections within it. This compares favorably with using the Bible as little more than a collection of isolated proverbs to be hauled out to prove whatever point a preacher wishes to make. But it has been my observation that this focus on unity can inadvertently cause confusion. It turns out, as with so much of life and ministry, that there is peril on both sides of the equation.

Become a Patron

It is a mistake to treat a passage as if it stands alone, isolated from the rest of Scripture. Rather, every passage fits somewhere within a great narrative that takes us from creation to consummation, from the past and too-short glories of Eden to the future and eternal glories of paradise. We haven’t understood it properly until we’ve understood it within this drama.

In this way, every passage relates to every other, and every passage relates to the whole. Thus, there will be some connection between any two passages within any given book. If the preacher is tackling some verses in chapter 4, he needs to make some study of chapters 1 to 3. Further, he needs to maintain some consideration of how this passage fits within the greater narrative of the whole Bible. Often he will find that his verses have a substantial relation to some others. When Paul calls upon children to obey their parents in the Lord, the preacher ought to be thinking of Jesus honoring his parents while growing in wisdom, stature, and favor, and, beyond that, all the way back to the fifth commandment.

We only interpret the Bible properly and truly when we interpret it as part of this whole. Thus preachers should look for links, explore them, and draw our attention to them. They shouldn’t stretch or find them where they don’t exist, but they also shouldn’t neglect to demonstrate the unity of Scripture. Preaching a text requires considering the cross-references.

But if it is a mistake to treat a passage as if it stands alone, it is also a mistake to treat a passage as if it has absolutely no meaning apart from the rest of Scripture. Rather, every book, every passage, and every verse does have a point and purpose all its own. Each one was written for a specific purpose and makes a particular contribution. Each can be preached as a coherent unit.

The preacher who tackles Paul’s instructions to children shouldn’t spend too much time in Luke or Exodus. Rather, he ought to stay focused on Ephesians. He must make the major thrust of his text what Paul says to his young Ephesian protégé, not what the whole Bible says about parents and their children. He needs to preach the text, not the cross-references.

It’s a tricky balance, this. It’s a tricky balance to account for the unity of scripture but without following endless trails that, though interesting, may actually detract from adequately preaching the text. The way I figure it, it’s wise to occasionally encourage the congregation to “turn with me to…” a passage directly or indirectly related. But it’s also wise to mostly keep the congregation focused on the one text. It’s wise to point out what all of Scripture says about a theme, but it’s also wise to mostly show what this piece of Scripture says about the theme. It’s good to make those references, but better to make them quick and supplemental.

Like so much else in preaching, cross-referencing is most often a good opportunity for the preacher to do his work in the study but not to show his work in the pulpit. It is unhelpful to never show how books, passages, and verses relate to one another, and unhelpful to never demonstrate how the Bible is one book that tells one story. But it is equally unhelpful to always show the links and, in that way, to fail to preach the singular thrust of a passage. Account for the cross-references, but don’t major on them. Stick to your text, preacher!