Braving Hard Passages: Hard Passages to Holiness
Words hardly do justice to the experience of preaching and teaching God’s word. Irony is the blanket from which the preacher cannot free himself. After all, the hope of glory is Christ in you (Col. 1:27), but those in whom Christ resides are, by themselves, corrupt, polluted, wayward, deaf and blind (Isaiah 35:5; 42:6-7, 16-17; Rom. 3:1-9; Rev. 3:17). This is how God describes people—even his people in whom he resides, because his residence does not eradicate all sin during our lives. Broken hardly does justice to this condition. Viciously, deceitfully, relentlessly opposed in our self-assured sincerity is more like it. When considering the topic of “hard passages” we might do well to adjust the angle from which we look.
One is reminded of Abraham Heschel’s statement: “Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness.” From this perspective, every passage in God’s word is hard to read, understand, preach and hear. There are only hard passages because living the Christian life is a hard passage.
Jesus spoke this way. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard leading to life, and few are those finding it.” (Matt. 7:14). Then he coupled that with warning us against false prophets. Hmmm. Part of the difficulty of the path leading to life is that it is populated by those who handle God’s word so that it seems easy—easily understood, easily accessible, easily adored, easily acted upon. Sincerity with a smile is their stock in trade. They are allergic to conflict of any kind. They hyperventilate when a debate breaks out regarding the interpretation of any passage of Scripture. All controversies are immediately swept aside by appealing to the simple gospel. Billions die and go to hell, why we debate . . .
Everything the Word made flesh is against and abolishing is what I am, what we his covenant people are, in and by ourselves. No wonder Paul’s words, “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” is set within the context of suffering. Yet we in America live in a culture in pursuit of the avoidance of suffering that thereby inflicts and enflames suffering, and often unknowingly. Heschel was correct: What “horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world.” Sort of raises the question as to how comfortable one can become in such a world.
Yet we must live in this creation. God brought it into existence, placed us in it; our lives are an extension of it. He subjected it and us to futility, to bondage to sin and its consequences. Still he is rescuing his creation and his covenant people from this death through his Word and Spirit. These are not mere ideas upon which to intellectually dwell, or implement for social and political improvement, but chiefly and intensely personal realities determined, governed and actualized by the personal Triune God. He has revealed himself supremely in his Son. The Word became flesh and lived an earthly life for more than three decades in order to destroy the works of the devil (1John 3:8). No wonder he was described as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We have no record of him ever smiling or laughing. That’s not inconsequential.
That God’s word became flesh highlights what takes place when we read the written text of Scripture—we engage with the resurrected and reigning Lord Jesus. God’s written word is no mere written text. It describes itself as living and active. Our exegesis—reading the text to discern its meaning—involves us in a titanic struggle to submit to Jesus. Among other things, it means we never depart from reading Scripture unchanged or failing to act. Either we are at work being conformed into the image of God’s Son, or being conformed to the world. Sin is either being rooted out of us, or we are being reinforced in our sin. We dare not presume that we can easily discern which is happening at any given time. To those who had vast portions of the Old Testament memorized, but who were constantly arguing with Jesus, the question was asked: “Have you not read?” (Mt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31).
God’s word tells us that conformity to the image of God’s Son means we cry, “Abba, Father” in the midst of a life of suffering to become like him (Romans 8:12-17). The written text of God’s word through the work of God the Holy Spirit is the primary means through which we experience sanctifying sufferings. The passages are hard because the passage is hard that is the highway of holiness. But the Good Shepherd walks with us through this valley of the shadow of death, and we do not remain unchanged.
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (NY, NY: HarperCollins, 1962; reprint Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), x.