The majority of our Bible is narrative. My own unscientific observation is that most expository preaching does not come from these narrative portions. Theologically minded expositors tend to gravitate toward epistolary literature because it is assumed (falsely) that it has a more “natural” feel and way of outlining itself making for more easily preached sermons. However we should not give up so easily on what God has authoritatively inspired as His Word. Our congregations miss out on a balanced diet of God’s counsel if our sermons tend toward myopic readings of the text and exclude narrative.
Over the next few posts I want us to think about one segment of narrative preaching. I will focus primarily on narratives that are found in the Gospel accounts but some of what I say here can be more broadly applied to other narrative portions as well. I am not trying to exhaust this subject but I simply want to get us thinking about this important aspect of gospel preaching.
What makes gospel narrative different?
There are at least three characteristics of gospel narrative that distinguish it from other biblical genres as found in the gospel accounts (such as parables, prophecy, etc. although there can be overlap of these genres). There will also be overlap between these following characteristics since they all relate to the central motif of the story.
1. Unity: Narrative weaves together the unity of Scripture and the message of each Gospel. In one sense, each story stands on it own and can be preached as an individual story, such as the squabble over the Sabbath in Matthew 12. However, each narrative is tied to a context wherein the author is expressing a larger theme and purpose. For example Matthew 12 is tied to the preceding context in chapter 11 where the rejection of the Messiah is highlighted and followed by the chapter 13 parables where the Messianic rejection reaches a thematic climax in Matthew. So on the one hand each story is an individual unit but we also need to keep in mind that there is a larger context. Multiple narratives are often tied together to support a larger theme or theological point. Matthew is a prime example of this as he uses narrative to introduce the central sermonic features of his Gospel account (I will explain this in more detail in a later post). So we need to ask questions in our study: What function does the individual narrative play in the Gospel in which it appears? How does this narrative pericope support the larger theme and storyline? How is the story under investigation connected to other stories in the near context?
2. Theology: It is probably self-evident that narrative does not develop theology the same way a wisdom passage or an epistle would. We should not assume that narratives do not teach theology or that we are relegated to preach only the main theme of a gospel from every story. I think there is an unbalanced tendency among some schools of thought to emphasize larger theological themes and ignore more nuanced theological points and even applications. For example, it has been pointed out by numerous writers that such a tendency is built-in to the foundations of the biblical-theological/redemptive-historical movements of preaching. It is healthy for us to be reminded that while narratives teach us about “creation, fall, and redemption” they also teach a lot more. The theology of a narrative is developed through the progression of a story rather than through precept or outright principle. Our example above using Matthew 12 (along with Matthew 11) has a similar theological point to Romans 9:30-33 yet these two passages are stated and developed in vastly different ways. Paul essentially states the point while Matthew illustrates the point over two chapters by recounting the historical rejection of the Messiah by the Jewish leadership. We’ll look at how to recognize the theology of a narrative and its application in a subsequent post. For now, I simply want to point out the obvious as a starting point.
3. Theme: Each narrative communicates a big idea or more accurately a “theme.” I have always secretly struggled with the bold assertions of some homileticians who confidently assert that each passage has only one “big idea.” A whole community of publications has arisen around this principle and I’m not always sure it helps the expositor. I don’t want to split hairs over this issue but it might be accurate to say each narrative has a theme and that theme cannot be separated from the larger theme of the gospel account in which it appears. One should also be careful not to import one gospel writer’s usage of a story into another writer’s usage of the same or similar story. For example, we have to ask “Why did Matthew place a narrative in a particular location in his account?” I would contend that each gospel writer has structurally thematic concerns for every narrative that is included in his account. To state it more baldly, the narratives are not simply compiled haphazardly or thrown into a gospel without careful thought to its placement. Each individual narrative pushes the focus back to the larger theme of the book. Narrative is structured in such a way that every feature supports this theme.
In my next post I will examine how we can unpack gospel narrative in our study and preaching.