Should Preachers ever say, "I don't Know!"

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Sunday evening, at one of our infrequent sessions with the interns (supper and Q and A), Ligon and myself were asked an interesting question, one which has remained with me: what does a preacher do when confronted by differing opinions about the exegesis of a particular text? I thought I'd put the whole thing to bed, but today I have to preach at the seminary chapel (an experience a bit like Daniel in the lion's den).

My text? Revelation 20!

Did I lose my mind, or what? I had the choice of any text and for some inexplicable reason, I replied to the e-mail from the Dean of Chapel, "put me down for Revelation 20."

As it happens, I take an amillennial, idealist view of Revelation and everything seems hunky dory apart from verse 5 which speaks of "the rest of dead did not come to life until after the thousand years were ended." I have to admit that interpreting this verse within an amill, idealist framework is tricky - no, make that down-right difficult! The issue revolves around the use of the word "resurrection": does it refer to a spiritual or a physical resurrection. Almost all commentators agree that in verse 5 the allusion is to a physical resurrection. Does, therefore, the use of the expression "they came to life" in verse 4 also refer to a physical resurrection: "They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years"? Premillennial interpretation insist that this is its meaning, whereas amillennial interpreters suggest that a spiritual resurrection is meant in verse 4 and a physical one in verse 5.

Enter Henry Alford, nineteenth century Greek scholar and editor of The Greek Testament - which ranks among one of the important and authoritative works on the Greek text of the New Testament. "If in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned . . .[if] the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave;  - then there is an end  of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definitive testimony to anything." Crumbs! Really? And more recently, William D. Mounce has written along similar lines: if "they came to life" in v. 4 "means a spiritual resurrection . . . then we are faced with a problem of discovering within the context some persuasive reason to interpret the same verb differently within one concise unit. No such reason can be found."

So what will I do? I have some options:

1.      I can spell out all the various possibilities.  But this is a sermon, confined to 25 minutes or so, and not a 2 hour class-room lecture. My choice of procedure would be different in the pulpit and the lecture hall. Preaching must, at the end of the day, bear the mark of authority - the authority of the Word that is, not the man who delivers the sermon. But whilst the preacher is not infallible, he is God's servant in proclamation. A sermon must not be uncertain and vague: "it may be this or maybe that." I believe that sermonically, I need to come to a definite opinion about what the text means.


2.      Sometimes, however, I just don't know what it means! Galatians 3:20 makes no sense to me at all. I noted this past week that John Piper told his congregation when preaching through Galatians that he wasn't going to comment on the verse since he didn't understand how it related to the anything Paul had just said. It is refreshing (on occasion) for a preacher to say, "I don't know what this means, but it is the inerrant Word of God." That gives enormous confidence to folk when reading their Bibles if the preacher finds sections of it difficult. Occasionally, Peter found Paul difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:16).


3.      I think it's the preacher's task to come to some understanding and state it. He may preface it with words of caution. I think I'll say something like, "you may read the 50 + pages in Greg Beale's commentary on Revelation, somewhere after the thousand page mark (which seems appropriate given that I'm preaching on Revelation 20!). But then, I'm preaching to seminary students.

Posted August 31, 2010 @ 8:30 AM by Derek Thomas

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