“Good morning, church. Please open your Bibles to Zephaniah 3:8.”
With rare exceptions, these are words that most pastors have neither said nor congregants heard in their churches. A review of most church websites and sermon databases will find sparse sermons from the book of Zephaniah (and other similarly-untrodden passages of Scripture). As most pastors plan out their preaching calendar, Galatians is far more likely to be chosen for a verse-by-verse series than Joel.
The same tendency can be found in those who preach as “pinch hitters” for the church’s pastor-teacher. An associate pastor or visiting preacher is less likely to preach Paul’s visit to Malta (Acts 28:1–10) than one of the early chapters of Acts. A Pauline epistle, with its built-in transition from proclamations of transcendent truth to implications and applications for the believer, is more likely to be selected than an incendiary little tome like Jude. A series through Isaiah 40–48—which has a landscape dotted with descriptions of the dazzling attributes of God—is a more likely choice than a series through Esther, which does not so much as mention the name of God.
For those committed to the inerrancy, infallibility, sufficiency, and clarity of God’s Word, we understand and affirm what Paul declares in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (emphasis added). Every book, every chapter, every sentence, every line – even “the smallest letter or stroke” (Matt. 5:18)—proceeds from God, and has been given to us by God so that we might know Him more intimately, worship and serve Him more faithfully, and proclaim Him more urgently. So when it comes to selecting texts of Scripture to preach, why is it that we are more likely to select Psalm 51, Romans 12:1–2, or Ephesians 2:8–10 rather than 1 Chronicles, Ezra, or 3 John?
This article does not seek to diagnose the motives (because the author cannot) of faithful preachers across the globe—and throughout the centuries—in regularly favoring familiar texts. Nor is what is written here intended to minimize the importance of preaching more recognizable, oft-preached texts. Rather, this article is an appeal to preachers to preach overlooked passages of Scripture; that is, to preach texts which might not otherwise be brought to light in a modern church. This appeal is grounded in the following five reasons.
1. A preacher’s decision to preach through less-traversed sections of Scripture will have the constructive effect of confirming what Scripture teaches about itself.
Preachers of God’s Word are followers and proclaimers of Christ who are committed to the Word of Christ (Col. 3:16). As such, Christ’s undershepherds are called not only to affirm that all parts of Scripture are profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), but that every word in Scripture comes from God (2 Pet. 1:20–21), and that every jot and tittle of Scripture is true (John 17:17). The God who breathed out the Bible was not holding His breath when He gave us the book of Nahum or moved Luke to pen the genealogy recorded in Luke 3:23–28. All Scripture is of God, from God, and worthy of proclamation to God’s people. Preaching from less-preached passages demonstrates that the preacher actually believes that what he is proclaiming is not merely the words of men, but the very word of God (1 Thess. 2:13).
2. A pastor’s preaching from lesser-known texts offers his listeners a well-balanced diet.
The importance of this insight is easy to overlook in a day when “pastors increasingly are finding themselves wearing many hats, including that of preacher, counselor, administrator, PR guru, fund-raiser and hand-holder. Depending upon the size of the church he serves, he may have to be an expert on youth, . . . something of an accountant, janitor, evangelist, small groups expert, and excellent chair of committees, a team player and a transparent leader.”1 However, as men called by God to preach His timeless Word, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the chief responsibility of the pastor is to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet. 5:2) and to tend to Christ’s sheep (John 21:15–17). Central to this charge is a pastor’s devotion not only to prayer, but to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). As John Owen has noted: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.”2 Just as “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), shepherding God’s people comes through feeding them, and feeding them specifically well-balanced portions of the soul-nourishing word of God.
Every faithful pastor wants strong, healthy sheep. An effective way to increase the spiritual nutrition of a body of believers is to preach widely from the counsel of God, including difficult and oft-avoided texts. It is important for God’s people to hear preaching from both Testaments, from a variety of literary genres, and from pages of Scripture in believers’ Bibles that otherwise might be stuck together. As we strive to fulfill our task of “equipping the saints for the work of service” (Eph. 4:12), it ought to be the pastor’s aim to provide his flock with a variety of tools to disciple, counsel, minister, share, and love one another, as well as to practice the various other “one anothers” of Scripture. Preaching from diverse sections of Scripture builds doctrinal dexterity and spiritual strength in the people God has allotted to a pastor’s care.
3. Preaching neglected texts of Scripture will progressively cause the preacher to wonder at the wisdom of the Word.
God has always used “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27), whether it be communicating to Balaam through a donkey (Num. 22:21–39), or communicating to His precious people through fallen men like ourselves. Preaching every portion of Scripture will help the preacher to truly appreciate that it is not his wisdom, but rather God’s, that carves, convicts, and calls. This will help the preacher to root out the default tendency that all preachers have (this author included) to ascribe glory to self—even if only subtly—rather than to ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name (Ps. 29:2).
Further, preaching such passages will help the man of God to see that his is no ordinary vocation. His job is not to read off a list of cherry-picked passages of Scripture in order to get his people through the week. Instead, his job is to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). He does so by viewing Scripture— in all of its texture and nuance and beauty —as divine treasure. In other words, preaching the more obscure passages of Scripture will steer the preacher away from the tendency toward calloused professionalism, and instead toward a warm-hearted devotion for God and His Word. We should strive to be the sort of men Charles H. Spurgeon spoke of:
Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord—not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts.3
The more we study and preach texts that are often lost in the pages of Scripture, the more we will become such spiritual “silkworms,” which undoubtedly will have an edifying effect on not only our own hearts, but also on those of our hearers.
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4. Preaching from less-familiar biblical texts will force the preacher to labor in his study as he does the work of extracting the main idea from a passage.
The preacher will not be able to rely on “muscle memory” in preparing his sermons, since he (and many others) have not already done the exegetical work. He will have to struggle to find the timeless truth God has communicated in the text. He will need to dig deep into the languages, dredging up his knowledge of Hebrew accents to determine where a line of thought ends and the next begins, and coming to an understanding of why a New Testament author used a particular case ending on a Greek noun. He will need to be aware of the various literary devices used by the different human authors of Scripture, as he seeks to grasp the nuances God by His Spirit intended to communicate through the text. He will need to determine where his chosen text fits on the arc of the biblical-theological storyline. He will need to craft a homiletical outline which packages the main idea of the passage, and then translate that main idea to the twenty-first century audience to whom he will soon be standing before. No matter how overlooked or obscure the preacher’s chosen text may be, he must be able to extract a main idea, and frame his sermon around that main idea.
Only after that main idea has been identified is his sermon ready to be preached. As the famed British preacher John Henry Jowett once noted:
I have the conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labor in my study. . . . I do not think any sermon ought to be preached, or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.4
A church’s prior lack of familiarity with the passage to be preached does not excuse the preacher from laboring diligently toward extracting and articulating the main idea of the text.
5. Resolving to preach from the more remote recesses of Scripture will make a preacher an increasingly dependent man of prayer.
All Christians are called to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). Pastors, and especially preachers, must be devoted men of prayer. John Smith’s remarks on this subject are both sobering and helpful:
Prayer is the life and soul of the sacred function; without it, we can expect no success in our ministry; without it our best instructions are barren and our most painful labors idle. . . . prayer often gains a success to little talents, while the greatest without it are useless or pernicious. A minister who is not a man of piety and prayer, whatever his other talents may be, cannot be called a servant of God, but rather a servant of Satan, chosen by him for the same reason that he chose the serpent of old because he was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. What a monster, oh God, must that minister of religion be, that dispenser of the ordinances of the gospel, that intercessor between God and His people, that reconciler of man to his Maker, if he sees himself not as a man of prayer.5
Certainly each of our sermons ought to be bathed in prayer, but the reality is, when we are handling otherwise obscure or unfamiliar sections of Scripture, our dependence upon the Lord through prayer will be even greater. Anything that drives a preacher to his knees in prayer is, in God’s eternal economy, a good thing. Preaching less-heralded texts of Scripture is one such catalyst of the preacher being increasingly reliant upon prayer.
Several years ago, I attended a question-and-answer panel where a preaching pastor was asked why he had recently decided to preach through a particularly difficult and under-preached section of Scripture. The question posed (by another pastor on stage) was: “Did you lose a bet?” The question elicited laughter from those in attendance, but ultimately what it signaled was a lack of reverence for God’s Word, and a lack of seriousness concerning the charge all preachers have to preach the full counsel of God. As preachers of God’s Word, the decision to handle and proclaim tougher texts is no laughing matter. Instead, we all ought to have such a love and reverence for the Word that we see those rare passages as divinely-appointed opportunities to probe the remotest corners of Scripture, for the building up the body in the church of Jesus Christ, all to the glory of God.
For more on everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our free guide: Handling Scripture.
 D.A. Carson and John Woodbridge, Letters Along the Way (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993), 127.
 “The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government”, in The Church and the Bible, The Works of John Owen 16, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 74.
 “Mr. Spurgeon as a Literary Man,” in The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon, Compiled from His Letters, Diaries, and Records by His Wife and Private Secretary, vol. 4, 1878-1892 (Curtis & Jennings, 1900), 268.
 John Henry Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work (New York: Harper, 1912), 133-34.
 Thomas K. Ascol, ed., Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2016), 106-107.