Preaching NT Narrative: Don’t Flatten Out the Gospels!

Let’s say you’re getting ready to preach John 18:1-11. During your study, you pull your Harmony of the Gospels off the shelf and you notice that the apostle John fails to include some key details that are recorded in the parallel accounts in the Synoptics. For example, although John does record how Peter cut off the ear of the slave (John 18:10), he fails to mention that Jesus then “touched his ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51). This important detail, you decide, cannot be neglected during your sermon. In fact, when you come that point in John’s narrative, you not only cross-reference Luke 22:51 and proclaim the power and compassion of Jesus as demonstrated by this miracle, but Luke’s account of the healing actually becomes a key point in your sermon, perhaps even the “high point” or focus of your entire message. Is this a faithful way to preach NT narrative? I would argue not.

Now don’t me wrong—I love my Harmony of the Gospels. In fact, I use it so often that it’s falling apart. But at the same time, harmonization can be abused when we preach the Gospels. My concern is this: If you’re preaching a passage from one of the Gospels and you blend into your sermon all the information found in the parallel passages, oftentimes the end result is a flattening out of all the Gospel accounts so that each of them is made to say exactly the same thing as all the others. In doing so, I fear that you miss out on the distinct contribution that each Gospel writer is trying to make in the context of his own Gospel. As Paul Lamey suggested in an earlier post, it is good to use outside details to provide the larger context and a glimpse into the culture, but keep in mind that the Gospel writer’s meaning is found sufficiently in the text itself.

Take John 18:1-11: If the healing of the slave had been crucial (or even necessary) for John to communicate what he wanted to say in his Gospel, he would have included it. He was an eyewitness of the healing, and he most certainly remembered that it took place. So it obviously was not needed for the point he was trying to make in the context of his own Gospel. Therefore, to the degree that the healing becomes a central point in your sermon, to that same degree you have departed from “message” of the biblical writer and substituted a different message in its place. And that’s not expository preaching.

5 responses to this post.

  1. That is a great point about the stylistic emphasis in each Gospel. It is important in keeping the tension of the narrative going as you preach! Narrative preaching is definitely different than an epistle.

  2. Excellent point. Especially since John tells us why he is writing (as do all the Gospel writers).

  3. Posted by Gregg on February 19, 2010 at 8:42 am

    This is an excellent post! I am preaching through John’s gospel now. I have been tempted to supplement from the Synoptics but have for the most part resisted for this reason. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing – you helped put that in perspective. But I do feel it is important to see exactly what John was thinking in a particular passage verses “flattening it out” with out info. Thanks!

  4. Amen, amen, and amen Matt!

    Preach the text not the event.

  5. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on February 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    “Preach the text and not the event.” That’s good Paul. I like that. You should write a book.

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