Preaching a Hard Passage
In my previous article, I gave a critique of some kinds of sermons that I have heard recently. While I was speaking to a friend a few days ago, he said I should have included an example about how I would go about preaching.
This was a great suggestion, so in this article I will give a short (as I can) walk through of a passage and how I might handle it in a sermon. Of course, I am not an expert preacher, but I think the general ideas and method demonstrated here can be helpful. The text we will look at is (the notorious) Galatians 3:10-14.
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “the righteous one shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “the one who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.Galatians 3:10-14 (NASB)
Where does one begin?
In context, Paul is upset (to put it mildly) with the Galatian church. They are forsaking the gospel and are trying to live by the law (Torah) rather than by faith. Paul draws a parallel between the experience of the Galatians and the life of Abraham. Just as Abraham was counted righteous by faith, so the Galatians received the Spirit-by faith.
Paul teaches that anyone who tries to live by the works of Torah are under a curse because of Deuteronomy 27:26. But why does Paul think this? It is because the Torah cannot bring blessing but rather stifles it. Because the Torah has failed to bring blessing, it now only brings curses.
Then Paul moves to verses 11-12 to reinforce this point. Because the law cannot bring the promised blessing, no one can be justified before God. Citing Habakkuk 2:4, Paul is showing that it is faith that is able to bring life.
But in verse 12 we see the opposite to the previous verse. The Torah “is not based on faith” meaning that Torah is additional to “by faith” and is built upon the more fundamental relationship between God and his people. Citing Leviticus 18:5, Paul shows that while in the Old Testament era, the Torah mediated blessing but that blessing was never fully realized.
Paul then returns to his train of thought from verse 10. Christ has liberated from the curse of the Law (Torah) (important to note this is not the Torah itself, but the curse that the Torah gives, by becoming a curse. Paul cites Deuteronomy 21:23, a law about not leaving a criminal’s body to hang on a tree overnight.
Verse 14 is very important because it gives us the purpose of Christ’s liberating action. The two purposes are
- that the blessing of Abraham would come to Gentiles in Christ
- that we would receive the promised Spirit by faith.
Some important observations about the passage as a whole:
The passage is dominated by the theme(s) of blessing and curse. We have Abraham who is blessed, but the Law (Torah) stifled that blessing and instead created curse. Because there was curse and not blessing, Christ liberated us from the curse of the Torah and as a result brought to us the blessing of Abraham and the Spirit.
Preaching Galatians 3:10-14
How would one go about preaching a sermon that included a passage like this?
One of the first things is to not be afraid to include some of the finer details. Obviously not too many, but we should not think of our church audience as ignorant. Take the time you need to make sure the passage is fully articulated without trying to rush through it.
Be clear. For example, it may be unclear what exactly the blessing and curse is in the passage. State that answer plainly: “the blessing is the covenant promised made to Abraham, the curse is the covenant curse in the end of Deuteronomy.”
Also, do not feel like you need to force an application for a passage such as this. Many times, when Paul writes, his longer more ‘theological’ passages are the set up for his application for the church.
One should take time to dwell on and appreciate what the text is saying. In fact, we could say that the application is to enjoy and meditate on this aspect of salvation. We do not always hear a sermon that talks about salvation in terms of covenant blessing and curse. The thought of Christ dying for us to bring to us something promised so long ago to Abraham may give people a new way to view the work of Christ.
By taking a little extra time in a sermon to discuss these things, it will be easier to speak on passages that are later in the book. For example, in Galatian 3:10-14 we see the Spirit as something Christ has given us by liberating us from the curse of the Law. When we get to the Galatians 5:16-26 on the flesh and the Spirit, we now have a better understanding of salvation and the Spirit to read the passage with.
I hope that some of the above comments are helpful. Preaching is a great but difficult task, and all preachers should always seek to strengthen their homiletical skills. Of course, not everything here will be useful for preaching any passage. The above example fits best for the Epistles (which I find most of assembly sermons to cover), but an approach for narratives would be very different. In the end, we must all desire to preach God’s work with truth and enthusiasm.
[Author’s Note: I understand that my thoughts on Galatians 3:10 are the minority view. In this article I am trying to demonstrate an overall method or principle and not to debate the finer points of exegesis. It is okay if you disagree.]