Preaching NT Narrative (Scene)

The scene or setting is the location and time in which a narrative takes place. The scenery provides the literary context and shape for the story.  Not long ago, I purchased a theological book containing major problems due to a printing error. In every sentence and on every page, there was not a period, comma, or any sort of punctuation. Needless to say, trying to read the book was chaotic, and I was glad to find that a corrected version had been released. Ignoring the setting of a narrative is like reading a story without punctuation. The reader may follow along for a while, but contextual nuances will be missed, and every scene will appear to run together.

The temptation for many preachers is to skim over scenic details in order to get to the “meat.” The most famous sermon Jesus preached, the Sermon on the Mount, is a favorite of many expositors; yet, the important details of the narrative framework are often overlooked. How many sermons on the Beatitudes deal with the scenery that Matthew gives in 5:1–2? What about the four chapters of mostly narrative that precedes the sermon in Matthew? How does the author use these scenes to set up the Sermon on the Mount? If we ignore such details, we might miss the emphasis on Jesus’ authoritative teaching that Matthew is bringing together. (cf. Matt 7:28–29). If we ignore scenic details in the text, passages like the Sermon on the Mount become a discombobulated collection of proverbial sayings.

Understanding where we are in a text will help answer various questions. For example, why do over ten thousand people show up on the grassy hillside of Bethsaida where Jesus is having a private retreat? What happens at Bethsaida is the only miracle that is recorded in all four Gospels, the feeding of the five thousand (Matt 14:13–21; Mark 6:32–44; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:5–13). Where did all these people come from and why? Why are they hungry? Why is the scene probably more chaotic than the tranquil picture often communicated? The people came from numerous villages in the upper Galilean area (Matt 14:13, “the cities”), but the reason they came is detailed in the narrative. These thousands have shown up out of nowhere in response to the ministry of the Twelve that Jesus had previously sent out (Luke 9:1–9).[1] The Gospel writers assume the reader will understand that this dramatic arrival will set a scene even more dramatic when these same people healed by Jesus later abandon Him (John 6:66ff).

Familiarity with the scene can also help stir the imagination. It is unnecessary to invent details or embellish a scene beyond what the text states. Preachers should be careful of making dogmatic assertions or emphasizing details the text does not. During Christ’s temptation, we learn that Satan took Jesus to the “pinnacle of the temple” (Matt 4:5; Luke 4:9). At this juncture in preaching the narrative, we might explain that the eastern portion of the temple had a 912 foot long portico that was raised high in the air. The southeast corner of the portico was a steep 140 foot (43 m) drop to the street and 300 feet (91 m) to the valley. It may have been from here that Satan tempted Jesus to jump and prove His messianic credentials. It is not necessary to be dogmatic on this detail because we cannot be certain. However, noting this as a likely possibility and even comparing it with a similar height in our own context (equivalent to a thirty-story building) will provide the hearer a greater understanding of what is happening in the story. Flat preaching simply notes the bare details while scenic preaching uses the details to transport the hearer into the world of the text.

Scene is also important because it frames the various pericopes of a text. For this reason, what is true of OT narrative may also be true of NT narrative. “In Old Testament prose the scene is about the most important unit in the architecture of the narrative.”[2] Scene conveys aspects of time and place, but it also bridges gaps in the flow of the text. In the feeding of the five thousand, we learn that it was late evening in regards to time and in the grassy outback of Bethsaida in regards to place. However, scene is more than noting these sort of details.

Grasping the scene means identifying the surrounding scenes. For example, the scene of the miracle feeding is a response to Jesus’ hearing of Herod’s paranoid suspicion that John the Baptist was back from the grave (Matt 14:1–2).[3] Noting these sorts of changes in the text will help us convey important movements in place and environment. This will also relate the individual scenes to the overall structure of the book which will help us maintain a focus on the big picture.

So what does this practically look like? First, take note of changes in time. The authors will use indicators like “now then,” “after these things,” “so when,” and “at that time” to signal scenery change.[4] Second, watch for movements from one place to another. Is the scene happening on a mountain, in the Temple, on a boat, or in a house? What would the people in the scene notice and see? These are aspects which help the preacher bridge the gap between the ancient world and our world. Third, are there changes in narration?[5] Kaiser’s practical advice is helpful:

The task of the interpreter, teacher, or preacher, then is to begin the study of each narrative by marking off the scenes in each story. This process is similar to the way one would break up a prose passage by marking off the individual paragraphs. Once these divisions are made, it is helpful to compose in one’s own words a brief synopsis of what is being said or happening in each scene, for this will function much like the topic or theme sentence functions in prose paragraphs.[6]

[1] Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations in this dissertation are from The New American Standard Update translation.

[2] J. P. Fokkelmann, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1975), 9.

[3] There are also syntactical indicators that may help preachers who use Greek in their study. For example, Matthew uses the conjunction γὰρ to introduce an excursus from a particular narrative (e.g. Matt 14:3-12) and then δὲ to signal that the narrative has resumed (Matt 14:13). Being familiar with these connections can help define and recognize changes in scene and plot structure.

[4] Matthew uses a consistent formula to transition between didactic and narrative passages in his gospel account (e.g., ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους in Matt 7:28; ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς διατάσσων in Matt 11:1; ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὰς παραβολὰς ταύτας in Matt 13:53; ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους in Matt 19:1; and ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάντας τοὺς λόγους τούτους in Matt 26:1).

[5] For more on this, see “narration” in subsequent posts.

[6] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching From the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 65.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on February 17, 2010 at 10:18 am

    I’ve come back many times waiting for post 2… Thank you for this series!

  2. Sorry for the delay Caleb. Sick children, growing church, and occasional sleep have kept me busy. I promise to keep the flow going.

    BTW: do you use a “feed reader” (e.g., Google Reader) to subscribe to blogs? I highly recommend it and you will know immediately when a blog has been updated.

  3. Thanks for the follow up. I just preached on John 6:1-13 this weekend and saw that the scene really helps to understand the enormity of the miracle. The change from Chapter 5 to 6 is also important because up to a year has transpired. Jesus has gone from relative nobody to superstar. My only problem is trying to figure out what information adds to the scene and what information doesn’t. That has been my struggle all along.

    The thing that has helped me most is only including scenic details that focus the hearer on the main point of the text and to allow other details to end up on the chopping board.

    This has been the struggle since I left seminary. I believe that we learned much about exegesis and not much at all about preaching. That is why I have keep reading and tweaking. It is good to know that you too are thinking about these topics. I often hear from guys ‘just preach the text’, Duh!? The exegesis is really the hard ‘science’ part and the preaching aspect is the ‘art’.

    Praise the Lord that He uses imperfect instruments like us!!!

    Keep it up my friend.

  4. Hayden,

    I agree with you. As we progress through this series, I hope to provide more “art” along the way.

    One of the issues you touch on is also linked to the problem of harmonization. We will be taking that up as well. This will need more explanation but for now I have settled on the idea that outside details (whether cultural, historical, geographical, or from parallel accounts) are cautiously “in-play” with the major caveat that they contribute little if anything to the meaning of the text under study. In other words I use outside details to provide larger context and a glimpse into the culture but the author’s meaning is found sufficiently in the text. I hope this makes some sense. I will be writing about this more in future posts.

    I appreciate your input. Preach the narrative!


  5. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on February 17, 2010 at 11:25 am


    It sounds like you want to add anther 45 units to the M. Div degree? :)


    No, i don’t have a “feed reader.” I just set up a facebook account if that tells you anything about me and technology.


  6. Caleb (and Hayden),

    They did add 45 units to M.Div. It’s called the D.Min in expository preaching. What’s stopping you?


  7. Caleb and Paul,

    I thought TMS was all about making us better at preaching the text??? I could think of some of the courses that I would ‘chop’ to make room for the 45 hours (starting with research and development).

    Also, you have to ‘be in ministry’ 5 years or more before you go for an M DIV, so our congregations have to suffer with us for 5 years before we learn the ‘how’ of preaching :-) I do not think that so many TMS guys ‘split’ churches for only theological reasons, but sometimes it is because they bore people with the text (myself included at the front of the line).

  8. Hayden,

    It is my understanding that enormous changes have taken place at the M.Div level in the preaching classes (I also believe they have chopped ‘Research and Computing’). Programs tend to reflect its most senior leaders which is also a generational phenomenon. Dr. Thomas had enormous impact on TMS in that the exegetical process was elevated beyond anything else. The process is indispensable but it can’t overshadow every other discipline (my opinion). I think a lot guys walked away from the program paralyzed and unable to communicate their exegesis.

    I think the problems with any seminary and their output has more foundational issues beyond what is being taught in the preaching classes. I think there are men going in who have not been “called” in any biblical sense of the idea and go to seminary expecting to be made into preachers. I really, really, really believe that churches call preachers not seminaries. For me, this is a game changer from the status quo. I feel a post coming on.

    thanks for the interaction,

  9. I am glad. It must have happened since 2005. There were a couple of guys that I was praying would go into research and not into the pastorate if you get my drift. (again, this coming from someone that does not have a natural preaching voice and has not arrived, but had enough affirmation from some godly men to test me out before I went to seminary)

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