Steven W. Smith is Dean of The College at Southwestern and author of Dying to Preach, winner of Preaching Today’s “Book of the Year” in 2009. He is married to Ashley. They have two daughters (Jewell and Sydney) and one son (Shepherd).
*Editor’s Note: This post is the second in Dr. Smith’s series, “Deep Preaching.”
Deep sea diving is dangerous. You can deplete yourself of oxygen, do permanent damage to your body, and of course die a slow painful death by drowning. These fears are very real to the deep sea diver, and they are no less real to the preacher.
So, why go deep into the meaning of a Scripture?
Consider the risk: the preacher can spend so long in the icy black of commentaries, online resources, and exegetical nuance that he cripples himself by the fear of saying something wrong. He might spend so long there that he picks up words and phrases that do not translate well for surface-dwellers. And, then there is the greatest risk of all – he might not surface on time. Perhaps he is so enthralled in the depth of his study that when he finally looks at his watch, he realizes he does not have enough time to surface! It is Saturday night and he is still a hundred feet below the meaning of this text. He still does not know what this text means. He then enters the pulpit with a half-prepared alchemy of the collected thoughts of others, garnished with a compelling introduction and conclusion.
Besides, we have heard deep preachers before: boring, academic, exegetical – no thanks.
Even though the fears are real, if the preacher is going to dispense truth he must sink deep enough to find the truth, surface in time to present the truth, and polish it in a way that makes the truth accessible. He must sink to find the treasure and surface in time to make the truth shine.
If the Risk is So Great, Why Go Deep?
The reason is clear: the meaning of a text is rarely on the surface. If what our people need was naturally on the surface, then Scripture would only need proclamation and not explanation. A few thousand years have passed since the writing of Scripture. A lot has changed. There has been a shift in the way we communicate and learn – from an oral tradition, to a written tradition, to a literate tradition, to an electronic tradition, and now to principally a visual tradition. The way we communicate, and thus the way we learn has radically changed. To borrow a phrase, these realities separate the modern listener from the ancient text.
Also, when God composed Scripture He imbedded it with meaning in its structure as well as its substance. The way sentences and clauses are shaped carry meaning. Yet, there is also meaning on the macro level as well as the micro level of Scripture; on the structural level of the cannon of Scripture. What superficial, cursory reading of Scripture will see that the Warrior Messiah image of Rev. 19 is directly lifted from Psalm 2? Will the most studious of our people see Psalm 78 is fulfilled in Matt 13? These textual relationships are real. They have meaning. They were meant to be seen. And, they are not on the surface. They must be mined from the bottom with the daunting slough of hard work.
It might be good to stop here and recognize that this metaphor may be offensive to some. After all it suggests that the people are on the surface, and that they are far separated from Scripture. Surely this line of thinking is suspect. Isn’t the word of God for all people? If all truth is God’s truth isn’t all truth for all people? Don’t we all have access to Scripture? Or are we so arrogant to think, as the character Mack bemoaned in The Shack, “God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects.”
I am not sure how wide reaching this line of thinking is, however, the objection is out there and we have to address it. So are we suggesting by this metaphor that understanding Scripture is only for the spiritually or cultural elite? Of course not. Perhaps two responses are needed.
First, we need not confuse God’s accessibility with His intricacy. God is accessible. I happen to believe that giving people a copy of God’s word is a wonderful way to share the faith. In fact, when I have the chance to share my faith I find that whatever text I am preparing or meditating on is a great entry point. This is especially true of the parables. What parable it is does not matter. All of them are about the kingdom and they all ultimately provide a way to share the Gospel. Why? Because God’s Word is accessible to all people at all times in an unlimited number of ways. We are all swimming in the tsunami of grace that was brought to us by the sweet simplicity of God’s accessibility.
This does not mean that Scripture is always easy to understand. There are a number of texts that do not make sense on the surface, or even after a few readings. The majority of these are actually easy to understand if someone has a basic understanding of how Scripture relates to itself or the cultural background in which it was written. In other words, a medium amount of training can equip one to understand most of Scripture. To deal with the other hard texts, one needs a little more training.
So again, God is both simple and complex. And since words reveal character, we anticipate that His word is both simple and complex. God is accessible – therefore His word is accessible. God is intricate, nuanced, and complex – His word reflects that as well.
God Expects Us to Go Deep
But, one might say, doesn’t it bother you that you are suggesting that the average person can’t get the meaning of certain passages at first blush? It really doesn’t. I don’t think it bothers the average person either. My experience is that they want to hear from someone who has thought about these things more deeply than they have to provide insight, wisdom, and counsel. And beyond this lay expectation, there is a divine expectation as well. Scripture is clear about the fact that pastor’s are to guard the sacred trust with their very lives (I Timothy 4:16; 6:20; II Timothy 1:13,14; 2:1-7; Titus 1:9). Nothing is clearer from Scripture than the fact that those held accountable for preaching have a dual stewardship: to protect God’s sheep and protect God’s Word. We keep the sheep safe by keeping the sword sharp. Both stewardships come from God.
So, when we mount the pulpit, God expects us to be deep. Our people should expect that we have gone deep. Not muddled or convoluted preaching, but preaching that demonstrates that we have wrestled with the text long enough that we are clear; we know the meaning to the best of our understanding. This is the objective. When it is clear to us, it has a chance to be clear to them. The greatest compliment one could pay a preacher is when they say, “Now I know what that text means.”
We may think of this as a nice, but unattainable, goal for those who are really going to get into their preaching at a high level. But really, it’s what our people want.
People will excuse about any kind of preaching except boring preaching. But remember that there are two types of boredom – intellectual boredom and emotional boredom. Preachers often fear emotional boredom so we try to make people laugh and cry in the sermon. However, it is possible to be emotionally engaging and intellectually boring. This, in my opinion, is a chief reason why more college students are not engaged in church. Their pastor stimulated their emotions; he just did not make them think. He surfaced before he sank.
Deep diving is dangerous. However, the risk of sinking deep is no greater than the risk of staying on the surface. In the first you die, in the second your people die. And at the end of the day, if we have to tell our Dive Master that we almost died while trying to get people deep, He will understand. He’s made that dive before.
 Young, William P. The Shack: where tragedy confronts eternity. Newbury Park, CA: Windlown Media, 2007.