Preaching NT Narrative (characterization)

One of the most natural ways to develop narrative is through its characters. Ryken observes that “it requires more literary education to acquire the tools of plot analysis than it does to interact with the characters in a story.”[1] I think we identify with characters easily because we understand what it is like to feel the loss of a cherished friend (John 11:35), the panic of a desperate situation (Matt 14:15–17; Acts 27:14–44), or the joy of new life (Luke 1:67–79). What makes NT narrative unique is that it takes common experiences and sets them along the backdrop of God’s unfolding redemptive plan.

It is important for preachers not to develop the characters of the Bible into psychological case studies. Sermons  emphasizing “Three Lessons from Peter’s Denials” or “Five Leadership Lessons From the Life of Paul” are not always misguided. However, when approaching NT characters in this way, there is great temptation to preach a preconceived agenda rather than the meaning of the text. One must remember more significance is being conveyed than the mere temporary matters experienced by the characters. There is a redemptive story line binding together each scene and character with a God-oriented focus. Specifically, the preacher exposes this by tracing the theme of the individual author through the account. Kaiser rightly concludes that “the interpreter’s and expositor’s attention must be centered on God’s role in the narrative. This reminds us that all efforts to concentrate on the human character in a story while failing to locate God’s actions in the narrative are wrong . . . bypassing the point that the author was making.”[2] This is not to say that practical, ethical, and moral applications should not be included in the exposition but that all applications made are connected to the redemptive shape of the text.[3]

Bowman demonstrates how characters are typically used in a biblical story.[4] His analysis reveals that the interpreter must go the extra mile in his study and show how each character is used within a narrative passage.

First, a character’s own actions and interactions with others will help find the central motif in the narrative. Matthew notes a parenthetical aside concerning John the Baptist (Matt 11:2–6) when John sends word to Jesus to request clarification. Undoubtedly, John realizes he will soon give his life for the faith (cf. Matt 14:3–12) and wants to be assured he has not fallen prey to a case of mistaken identity. Jesus confirms His own divine status to John by the miraculous works he has done (Matt 11:5). However, John’s question is not the main point of the larger narrative. Contextually, John’s faith and humble dependence are juxtaposed with the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matt 11:7–24). Matthew uses the two accounts to demonstrate different responses to the same Messiah. This example shows that a character’s actions are often part of a larger purpose within a narrative.

Second, a character’s own speeches will help develop the theology and central message of a narrative. In the book of Acts, Luke uses pivotal sermons and short speeches to show the progressive and transitional nature of the burgeoning church. From Peter’s powerful sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–36) to Paul’s ministry to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:8–28), the reader is introduced to many examples of a maturing and expanding church. Through every successive sermon, speech, and dialogue in Acts the central theme (Acts 1:8a) is progressively developed. The expositor should pay close attention to how an individual character’s speech is used to teach theology (e.g., Acts 2:29–36), to show progression in time (e.g., Acts 20:31), and to indicate transitions in the larger narrative (e.g., Acts 7:1–8:3).

Third, speeches of one character often highlight the importance of another character. In NT narrative, the focus is obviously on the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah. For example, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is a Christ-centered sermon highlighting the fact that Jesus was/is the long-anticipated Messiah from the Davidic lineage (Acts 2:14–36). The same point is made in a different context through Gabriel’s angelic speech to Mary (Luke 2:26–38). Practically, a preacher can look for a unifying theme or central theological idea within such a speech.

Without characters, there would be no story. For this reason, preachers should be careful to develop the characters as the NT author intended and not in a way that promotes an outside agenda. Characters serve the overall point of the passage even if they are a prominent figure in the story. For example, it is reductionist to say that the point of every NT narrative is Jesus is Lord. While that is an overarching theme of the NT, the individual writers of narrative have taken pains to develop such themes by drawing out the manifold implications of such truth. One of the primary ways the NT authors accomplish this is through characterization. Expounding these nuances through preaching will help to reveal vivid contrasts, hidden motives, and highlight progressive development in the larger storyline.

[1] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 71.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 70.

[3] Others have made a similar point about preaching redemptively from the OT. See Ligon Duncan, “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament,” in Preaching the Cross, Mark Dever et al., eds., (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007), 64.

[4] Richard G. Bowman, “Narrative Criticism: Human Purpose in Conflict with Divine Presence,” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 29-30. See also Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching, 69.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Tom Bohmfalk on February 24, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Paul, S. Lewis Johnson preached a powerful sermon on the crucifixion. He focused in one part on Joseph of Arimathea. He did an excellent job of showing that the cross is what changed Joseph from a secret disciple to one who “gathered up his courage and went in to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus.” It was very inspiring and a good example of preaching a narrative.
    Tom B

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