The other day, when my biking buddy Avi and I turned onto one of our favorite trails, we saw a new sign, “Uneven surfaces may exist.” Now, I knew what the sign was getting at: this wasn’t just a general observation that such a thing as uneven surfaces might theoretically exist somewhere. Instead the sign wanted to warn us that the surface of this bike trail might be uneven on spots. I understood the intent, but the writer in me was irritated. Why didn’t the sign just say it outright? “Watch out for uneven surfaces ahead!” Or better yet, “Watch out for rough pavement ahead!” We’re not talking about “surfaces” in general, but pavement in particular.
It occurred to me as I rode on that this sign provided some insight into my work as a teacher and preacher. Sometimes we exposit a text or deliver a message in a way that’s just theoretical—“Uneven surfaces may exist”—when the real point is “Watch out for rough pavement ahead!” Scripture, the source book for our preaching and teaching, is rarely if ever just theoretical. There’s almost always a warning, exhortation, or direction for us, if we pay attention.
And there’s another step beyond (1) “Uneven surfaces may exist,” and (2) “Watch out for rough pavement ahead.” This step would tell the listener where the rough pavement is, and ideally how bad it might be: “Caution: Pavement washed out at the 3.6 mile mark. Prepare to dismount.” With a sign like that, I can be ready to respond when I most need to, and not have to sit on the edge of my bike seat the whole ride watching out for some unspecified uneven surfaces. This illustration highlights the importance of being specific and concrete in the craft of teaching. It’s one thing to say that we Yeshua-followers should practice compassion, as he taught us to do. It’s another to describe what that compassion would look like in a clash with your rebellious 15-year old son, or a manipulative boss.
And there’s still another stage in my sign-improvement project. I’d like the sign to tell me what to expect beyond the rough pavement, and whether I’ll ever be able to remount my bike again. Let’s say the pavement is washed out at mile 3.6, and I have to walk or carry my bike around it, but then it’s smooth sailing again before I even hit mile 4.0. That would be good to know, and would reassure me that I’m on the right road, and it’s all going to work out.
So, here’s the progression of improved signage, and homiletics:
Poor: “Uneven surfaces may exist”
OK: “Watch out for rough pavement ahead!”
Better: “Caution: Pavement washed out at the 3.6 mile mark. Prepare to dismount.”
Best: “Caution: Pavement washed out at the 3.6 mile mark. Walk your bike for a few minutes and then return to the trail. Happy cycling!”
I know, it’s getting to be a bit too much for a road sign, but you get the point.
The night before we took this bike ride, our chavurah was studying 1 Peter 3, including verses 18b-20:
[Messiah] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Ruach. Through the Ruach He also went and preached to the spirits in prison. Long ago they disobeyed while God kept waiting patiently, in the days of Noah as the ark was being built.
There are various interpretations of this famously difficult passage. It’s good to remember, though, that it’s not just a theoretical, uneven-surfaces-may-exist sort of message. If we focus on the theoretical, we might wonder how Yeshua could proclaim to the dead, and whether they might respond, or what these spirits are doing in prison and why they get to hear the proclamation when others don’t. It’s interesting stuff, and I believe we can actually answer those questions. But Peter’s point isn’t just theoretical, and realizing this helped our chavurah get to something better and more relevant in our study. Peter isn’t just telling us there’s rough pavement ahead (much less that rough pavement may exist). He’s preparing us to face the trials that will inevitably come our way by reminding us that when Yeshua was put to death in the flesh—the ultimate trial—he was made alive in spirit so he could proclaim his victory. Peter is underlining a point he’d just made: It is better to suffer for doing good (if it is God’s will) than for doing evil (3:17). The rough pavement of suffering lies ahead, just as it lay ahead of our Master in his earthly course, but it ends before long and there’s smooth riding beyond it—just as there was for Messiah when he was made alive to proclaim his victory. That’s a road sign of hope that helps us find our way.