“Jesus lost control of bodily functions” and other unhelpful statements

I recently listened to a preacher make an impassioned exhortation to his congregation saying nothing out of the ordinary. However, in his passion, he said something about Jesus’ death on the cross that stirred things in my mind and not in ways that are helpful. In the midst of it all he said that “Jesus lost control of His bodily functions while on the cross.” Let’s think about this for just a moment.

Why would a preacher state such a thing? The most probable answer is to underscore the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross and His complete loss of dignity. To be sure, everything about the cross was filthy, repulsive, and gross. Another reason might be to correct the sanitized version which is often depicted in works of art and film (however more recent films tend to accentuate the gore). Truth is always stranger than fiction and in this case a whole lot uglier. A third possible reason is to simply be shocking as if nailing a body to wood is not shocking on its own merits.

Whatever the reasons there is something troubling about these sort of statements when interjected into a sermon. They have no support in Scripture! Could this have happened? Well, sure, a lot could have happened but the Spirit of God decided that it was not necessary to know such details. Furthermore, such details add nothing to the meaning of the text nor do they clarify any background information to the scene. How we think about such things says a lot about our hermeneutic and whether we believe the meaning of the text is rooted in authorial intent or in our cleverness. Does stating that Jesus lost control of His bodily functions make Him appear more human? His cross more shocking? His death more real? If not, then how is this helpful?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Paul,

    You are absolutely right. There’s a point at which historical, medical, and/or forensic accuracy veers suddenly into gratuitous graphicness for graphicness’ sake. when discussing the graphic nature of crucifixion from the pulpit, or even in a small group, we need to be careful not to overdo it.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Squirrel

  2. Posted by Jerry Wragg on May 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Paul –
    This kind of “extrapolating” has become the most popular technique of today’s preachers who claim to do Bible exposition. They assert principles from a passage which are then nuanced in clever “hipster-speak” so as to avoid anything “old” sounding. The net result, more often than not, is an imprecise explanation of the meaning of texts, and very little attention given to the ancient context before its present implications are preached. To be sure, all effective preaching exhorts the will of present-day hearers, bringing out the timeless spiritual implications God intends for His people. What is disturbing, however, about today’s trend is that those who most frequently do this seem largely unaware of just how illegitimate their “extrapolations” are at times, and they don’t seem able to discern what led to the interpretive errors. Hermeneutics of this sort are nothing more than looking at a passage in English, finding a familiar theme, drawing out a truth-claim related to contemporary life (usually surrounding some troubling, irritating, depressing, or rewarding part of earthly life), ignoring the cultural, geographical, language, and historical elements of the ancient context, and re-teaching the significance of the passage in the most attention-grabbing, pithy, in-your-face terminology possible.
    A recent example may help:
    On Paul’s preaching in Athens, one pastor asserted, “Even Paul quoted the two most popular rock stars of the day” (stated as a justification for beginning a worship service with provocative music from a secular band) – Now, Paul didn’t actually quote “rock stars,” but rather the popular poets of the day. Is it wrong to “extrapolate” that the famous poets of 1st century Athens were the equivalent of today’s popular music celebrities? Not necessarily. In fact, if public fame in the artistic arena today is similar to ancient times, no preacher is at fault for illustrating that fact as a way of bringing a more vivid understanding to the context of Scripture. But here’s the problem:
    (1) Listeners sometimes miss the crucial distinction between drawing a general parallel for vividness and setting forth the historical and cultural facts of a text. It’s quite probable that without clarification, some listeners would be left with the impression that Acts 17 tells us Paul enjoyed, as a missionary, a steady diet of the secular music of his pop-culture (an unlikely notion wholly without warrant anywhere in Paul’s writings) –
    (2) The more serious problem is that this particular pastor was using this “extrapolation” as a descriptive example of how Paul’s personal familiarity with secular pop-culture was used to attract unbelievers to the gospel. The pastor then used this alleged “Pauline technique” to justify playing highly controversial and morally questionable secular music at the beginning of a Sunday service where God’s people gather to worship Him.

    So here we have an example of what some, at first glance, may assume is simply a helpful way of communicating the context of the Bible in clever contemporary lingo. When used, however, to justify the intrusion of morally questionable elements into the worship of God’s people it subtly undermines the proper interpretation and legitimate implications of the text being studied. I have no problem using today’s normal vocabulary to teach the truths of Scripture, and every effective preacher works hard to bring fresh, clear, and vivid articulations of all that God’s word reveals. The distinction must be made obvious, however, between using modern-day parallels of ancient things and the actual meaning and implications intended by the author and discovered by careful exegesis. The latter must always govern the former, never the other way around! Preachers today who are quick to pull contemporary rabbits out of ancient hats offer only the illusion of bible exposition. The real truth is found in the intent of the original!

    Trembling at His Word,

    Jerry

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