“Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
2 Timothy 2:7
Sometimes pastors are told not to preach sermons that are ‘over the heads’ of the people. This advice is only partially true. Certainly pastors should seek to preach plainly to their people (Colossians 4:4) and speak to them according to their varying spiritual conditions (1 Thessalonians 5:14). And it is certainly the case that pastors should not make their sermons so academic and intellectual that the average Christian in the congregation cannot understand (1 Corinthians 2:1, 4). And it is without question that pastors must give milk to those who are babes in Christ and give solid food to the mature (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). The problem is that congregations are mixed assemblies. Both believers and unbelievers are present, as well as both spiritual infants and adults. So if pastors always address the lowest common denominator, they will spiritually starve those who are growing in their faith and moving on to maturity (Hebrews 5:11-14; 6:1). In point of fact, if pastors seek to ensure that they never preach a sermon ‘over the head’ of anyone, then their sermons will become very shallow indeed! Since unbelievers are present in the congregation, should we preach only evangelistic sermons? Surely not! We should also expose the problem that acting on this principle would pose for preaching expositionally through books of the Bible. God has diversified his revelation so that we encounter both milk and meat in his Word. What shall preachers do when they come to texts that contain subjects and themes that are ‘above the heads’ of the spiritual infants in the congregation? Should they ignore those themes and not preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)? Of course not! So we can see how foolish this advice can be if it is taken to mean that preachers should never preach a sermon that might be over the heads of some of those present in the congregation. What I am concerned about in this post, however, is how Christians should respond to sermons when they conclude that the sermon is ‘over their head.’ For I am convinced that many Christians will inevitably come to that conclusion in the context of a healthy preaching ministry, and I am equally convinced that Christians often respond to this reality in unhealthy ways. So here are some pointers.
First of all, if you are listening to a sermon and come to the conclusion that it is ‘over your head,’ please do not get discouraged. The pastor must preach to all levels of spiritual maturity, and if you are a new Christian or have only been a Christian for a short period of time, then it only stands to reason that some of the subjects he addresses will be new to your understanding and may seem ‘over your head.’ This does not necessarily mean that you are sinning in some way. Spiritual infancy is a natural stage of a Christian’s development. A baby is doing nothing wrong when it does not understand a mother’s instructions. Of course, encountering a sermon that is over your head could mean that you are sinning. It would mean that you are sinning if you do not understand it because you have been forsaking the assembly or not reading your Bible on a regular basis. It should come as no surprise to you that you do not understand the preaching of the Bible if you only read the Bible on Sundays. The Bible is God’s Word and our food. We need to read it prayerfully and carefully every day in order to profit from the preaching of it. When it comes to the preaching God’s Word, the pastor has a responsibility to make it as clear as he possibly can, and God will hold him accountable for that. But we must not forget that the listener has a responsibility. The listener must be preparing for the message by reading the Word, praying for understanding, and keeping free from all distraction during the delivery of the sermon. Understanding what we are to believe about God and what duty he requires of us does not happen automatically and effortlessly. We must keep our minds and hearts engaged in order to benefit from the sermon.
Secondly, if you conclude that the sermon is ‘over your head,’ do not give up. Many Christians have never been rebuked for their intellectual laziness. For some reason it is easy for us to recognize physical laziness, but we easily overlook intellectual and spiritual laziness. Sometimes we simply need to confess that we lack the mental discipline to attend to the Word. Again, I am not detracting from the fact that God made every person different and that he made some people smarter than others. But God calls every Christian to use the mind that he has given him to understand his truth. God blesses us when we think through what he has revealed. “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). We may not understand everything all at once, but we ought not to get discouraged by that. And in our feelings of defeat, we ought not to give up pursuing the truth to the best of our ability with the help of the Holy Spirit. When Christians do not understand a sermon, they can get frustrated or anxious or apathetic. But this is not the response that we should have as disciples of Christ. We should write down our questions and confusions and seek clarity. We might ask the pastor for other passages of Scripture that might help us or other Christian books that we might read or other sermons we might hear. The key is not to give up. Even in a sermon that is tremendously deep, most pastors will include something in the sermon for every level of listener. So listen diligently for something that you do understand and cling to that. Do not worry that you may not understand everything; give thanks that you understand something. Over time your spiritual wisdom and understanding will grow.
Thirdly, if the sermon is over your head, do not assume that the pastor is doing something wrong. He may in fact be doing something wrong. He has a responsibility before God to preach plainly and clearly and according to the different levels of the people. He may be trying to be too academic. He may be speaking in terms that only seminarians would understand. He may be making intellectual assumptions of the people that are not true. All of this requires prayer and care on the part of the preacher. After all, he wants to be understood. At the same time, it only stands to reason that at least some of his sermons, or some parts of his sermons, will be ‘over the heads’ of unbelievers and even spiritually immature believers.
Fourthly, when you come to the conclusion that the sermon is over your head, seek out mature believers to help you understand the things of God more accurately. Preachers are more than willing to answer questions about what they have preached or taught. Other more mature Christians may be able to explain what was confusing to you. The value of living in community is that we can assist each other in deepening our understanding of God’s truth. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
Spiritual growth begins when we recognize our poverty of spirit (Matthew 5:3). This means that we must begin by acknowledging how much we do not know about God and his will for our lives. When we come to God’s Word humbly confessing that we are ignorant of his truth, he will bless us with a deeper understanding throughout time. We should not delude ourselves that it will happen overnight. Nor should we give up and consign ourselves to failure, falsely thinking that we shall never move from milk to meat. We should be patient as we develop and allow the Holy Spirit to continue his work in us by and with his Word in our hearts.