As a teenager, I once sat through a conference session in which the primary speaker stressed how it was better to be an unrepentant, sin-loving pagan of a person than to be a Christian who waffled back and forth between pursuing holiness and imbibing worldliness. His justification for this stance was the letter to Laodicea from Revelation 3, in which he interpreted “hot” and “cold” as polar opposite ends of the spiritual sanctification spectrum. He relayed the anecdote of how he once asked several Christian teenagers to rate their spiritual fervor, and once they all landed near the middle, he responded by telling them that this made God wish he could “spew them out of his mouth.”
It’s certainly a nice mic-drop moment, and it makes a powerful point. But is that the letter’s true meaning?
The speaker certainly believed so, as did most of the pastors under whom I’ve sat through most of my life. The result of such apparent consensus was that for many years, I accepted that same thesis without much critical thought or interaction.
A few years ago, though, I was teaching through that same passage and just happened to encounter a resource that highlighted the ambiguity of its proper interpretation. Some scholars, I learned, posit that this reference speaks to the fact that Laodicea had no natural water source in the first century. Because of this, they imported both nearby Hierapolis’ steaming, health-giving mineral water and Colossae’s refreshing, cold water spring water. Due to the distance the water traveled from either location via aqueduct, though, it would be lukewarm upon arrival, rendering both the hot and cold water less useful.
In light of this, I was forced to go back and examine the long-held presuppositions that had colored my reading of that and other passages—presuppositions I had never even realized I had.
In the years that have followed, I have had many similar experiences as I’ve taught through passages and chapters that I have known since my youth. As a perpetual student of the Bible and Bible study practices, I would like to flatter myself with the thought that I am—or at least can be —completely objective when I approach a passage…even an exceedingly familiar one.
But I’m forced to admit this just isn’t possible—not for me, anyway. Whenever I open the Bible to study it, I bring years of spiritual biases and opinions to the table with me. And if I’m not careful, those biases can inform my understanding of the text as much or more than the text itself.
It is true, of course, that the Holy Spirit can supernaturally overcome these human failings in our studying. But that can’t be an excuse for intellectual laziness in our practices. The mature preacher ought to balance reliance on the power of God with honesty about his own shortcomings and the dedication to work through them. If we let our preconceptions about the passage we’re aiming to teach lurk in our conscious undetected and unacknowledged through our study, they will likely color and bend the result in ways we won’t recognize—and therefore can’t hope to critique or correct.
Better, then, to take the initiative in identifying them before we try and study the passage anew. Skipping this step can lead to errors such as preaching on the ridicule Noah received from his neighbors (although no such interactions are mentioned in Genesis) or speaking of how Jonah repented while in the belly of the great fish (even though his prayer is noticeably void of any such sentiment).
Before I firmly dig my teeth into the work of preparing a sermon or lesson, then, I generally begin my note-taking with a summary of what I think I will find, of what my previous study and experience has told me about this topic or passage. To some, this may sound like the passage is being twisted to fit my existing point—but it’s the exact opposite: My goal is not to substantiate a forgone conclusion, but to identify and challenge it, correcting and refining it as necessary. Sometimes, the final product is nothing like my initial summary, while sometimes it’s almost identical to that first thought. (Usually, it’s somewhere in between the two.)
One of the reasons diligent study is a prerequisite to powerful sermons is because it is the forge in which the impurities of misconceptions and misunderstandings are burnt away by the heat of the Word and the Spirit. Shoddy practices and unchallenged preconceptions only undermine that work and temper the heat of the furnace. But if we’re willing to let that process work within us as much as it works through us, our sermons become sharper, our words truer, and we more rightly present the Word of God to His people.
Brian Thomas is the pastor of East Main Baptist Church in El Dorado, AR with a Master’s in Biblical Studies from Liberty University’s School of Divinity. He is married and the father of four children and spends his free time lamenting the fact that he no longer has any.