My mouth stood agape as I listened to a friend recount a Father’s Day sermon he heard. The message centered on 1 Samuel when David was chosen to be Israel’s next king. You might recall David’s father, Jesse, offered each of his seven other sons to be king before mentioning David. Samuel rejected each of them. As a last resort, Jesse mentioned his youngest son, David. The gist of the sermon was this: That experience created “daddy issues” for David. These “daddy issues” ultimately caused David to commit adultery with Bathsheba and murder her husband. The moral of the Father’s Day sermon was: Be a good dad.
I stood aghast.
To elevate Freudian philosophies and imbibe them with biblical authority is a clever way to undermine the sufficiency of Scripture. The theological implications run deep: (1) David was not responsible for his own sin; (2) he was a victim of the system; (3) and his father’s parenting style (or his environment or his village or his society) caused him to commit adultery and murder. No personal accountability. This is a direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture in the following way: The biblical author’s meaning has been sacrificed at the altar of contemporary relevance. In this particular case, it is an inherent assault on the gospel itself.
When the Audience Drives Interpretation
The temptation we all fight is the inner desire to give the text “a little help:” to spruce it up, to spice it up, to sensationalize it. Our hearts are drawn to depart from the biblical author’s intent in order to say something different, to convey something we think is more relevant, or to create shock-value so people will keep listening. Didn’t God contemplate the 21st century audience when He handed-down His self-revelation? Isn’t Scripture sufficient?
A recent mainstream example is J.D. Greear’s sermon on Romans 1 (which was plagiarized by others). He famously stated this concerning homosexuality:
We ought to whisper about what the Bible whispers about, and we ought to shout about what the Bible shouts about. And the Bible appears more to whisper when it comes to sexual sin compared to it shouts about materialism and religious pride.
This sounds super-spiritual, but it doesn’t hold water under scriptural scrutiny. To be fair, most who criticize Greear have not listened to the whole sermon. They should before they cast stones (listen here). Largely, he followed Paul’s intent regarding God’s wrath toward sinful humanity. However, Greear undid the entire sermon in that single comment. Any honest reading of Romans 1 (or any of Paul’s letters) cannot hide the fact that God speaks loudly concerning all sexual sin, including homosexuality. For instance, Paul never commands excommunication for materialism, but he does for sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5). He also declares no practicing homosexuals will inherit the the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Jesus speaks in perhaps His most graphic (even if metaphorical) images of ripping out eyeballs or amputating hands if they cause you to sin sexually (Matt. 5:27-30). The risen Jesus says the sexually immoral—as well as idolaters and liars—will burn in a lake of fire and sulfur (Rev. 21:8). These are not whispers.
I’m not one to come down hard on other gospel preachers. Anyone who speaks regularly has said things we wish we could take back. Yet, Greear doubled-down when challenged. Rather than walk-back or renounce his comments, he justified them, stating the message “got a lot of traction, and clips and summaries of this message were shared on a number of blog and podcast sites. It was one of the most widely distributed messages I’ve ever preached at The Summit Church” (read it here).
Herein lies the problem: Contemporary “perception” has injected itself into the interpretive process. Contemporary “perception” has become more important than the actual subject and emphasis of the biblical author. When that happens, Scripture is muzzled.
This example might have passed by us unnoticed but for the fact that Greear was President of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) at the time he made those comments. What’s worse, the current SBC President, Ed Litton, readily admitted to plagiarizing it (read it here).
The Main Thing Must Remain The Main Thing
If we truly believe in the sufficiency of Scripture (and we do), we must keep the subject of the text as the subject of the message. In sifting back through our articles on exegetical study, we need to review the following data points:
- What is the theme sentence of each paragraph?
- Are there any repeated terms which are defined or stressed?
- What is the special part that these paragraphs play in the overall theme?
Preserving the Subject of the Prodigal Son Parable
Parables can be the trickiest of all to determine the actual subject of the author because you must cycle through (sometimes) three “intents:” (1) the intent within the parable itself; (2) Jesus’ intent in telling it; and, ultimately (3) the biblical author’s intent for including it.
The prodigal son is a passage often used in evangelism: i.e., the son came home to his father, and you need to come home to your Heavenly Father, too. Certainly, that idea is “present,” but is evangelism the biblical author’s “subject?”
Remember the surrounding context? The Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus (Luke 15:2). Jesus responds with three scenes that illustrate a single point. That is, everyone in the whole chapter is rejoicing except for one person: The older brother.
Scene 1: A sheep was lost and then found; there was great rejoicing.
Scene 2: A coin was lost and then found; there was great rejoicing.
Scene 3: A son was lost and then found; there was great rejoicing, but . . .
Jesus emphasizes the only person in the 3-scene story who is “not” rejoicing: The bitter son.
All three scenes serve to set-up Jesus’ closing argument. The Pharisees are acting like the older brother! That break in the pattern of the stories is what sets it off as the subject of the parable-set and the subject of the sermon: namely, “critical spirits,” both then and now.
What if we were simply to skip the exegetical work and blame the older brother’s attitude on “daddy issues?” That would require no exegetical work. It might even gain a lot of traction. Clips and summaries might be shared on a number of blog and podcast sites. But, we must ask, “What is our ultimate goal in preaching?” Hopefully, not that. We must preserve, protect, and proclaim what God has spoken no matter what the contemporary “perception” might be. The world is watching us . . . but God it watching us, too.
J.D. Greear, “How the Fall Affects Us All: Romans 1:24-32,” January 2019.
J.D. Greear, “A Statement about My Sermon on Romans 1,” June 26, 2021 blog post.