Archive for the ‘preaching NT narrative’ Category

Verse by Verse Preaching (pt 4)

Similarity No. 3:

The Continuity of Exposition

If preaching is to be primary, it demands a certain kind of preaching, specially, biblical preaching. To this end, Lloyd-Jones and MacArthur have been known for their expository pulpits, a fundamental approach that involves long series through entire books in the Bible. Whether preaching verse-by-verse through whole books, or through sections within books, both men have used the lectio continua approach, meaning “continuous expositions.” This comprehensive modus operandi has served a balanced diet to their well-balanced congregations.

New Life Into a Classic Form

Amid many barren pulpits, Lloyd-Jones so gave himself to sequential expository preaching that, Old insists, he was “breathing new life into a very classic form.” Lloyd-Jones was able to “recover and popularize” expository preaching “throughout the English-speaking world.” He accomplished this resurgence at a time when “classic expository preaching…had all but died out.” Resisting this trend, Lloyd-Jones insisted: “The message should always arise out of the Scriptures directly.” In other words, the sermon must start and stay with the Scripture, saying explicitly what the text says. But more than that, Lloyd-Jones asserted: “It should be clear to people that what we are saying is something that comes out of the Bible. We are presenting the Bible and its message. That is the origin of our message.” In short, he maintained that true preaching “must always be expository.”

By this approach, Lloyd-Jones delivered over 4000 sermons from his Westminster pulpit, preaching twice on Sundays, once in the morning and once in the evening, and on Friday evenings (September to May). Further, he conducted regular journeys throughout the English countryside, preaching at least two to three times during the week, including numerous pastors’ conferences.

Lloyd-Jones’s Sunday morning sermons were intentionally directed towards Christians. From his Westminster pulpit, he preached through: 1 Peter (twenty-five sermons, 1943-1944), 2 Peter (twenty-five sermons, 1946-1947), Philippians (thirty-seven sermons, 1947-1948), 1 John (sixty-seven sermons, 1948-1950), and Habakkuk (six sermons, 1950). The most famous Sunday morning series by Lloyd-Jones was the Sermon on the Mount, a thorough treatment of Matthew 5-7 (sixty sermons, 1950-1952).

Other Sunday morning series included an exposition of John 17 (thirteen sermons, 1952-1953), Psalm 73, (eleven sermons, 1953), Spiritual Depression from Psalm 42 (twenty-one sermons, 1954), Revival (twenty-six sermons, 1959), Ephesians (260 sermons, 1954-1962), Colossians 1 (fourteen sermons, 1962) and the Gospel of John chapters 1-4 (1962-1968).

In the Sunday evening messages, Lloyd-Jones was purposefully evangelistic, preaching through: Isaiah 35 (six sermons, 1946), Isaiah 40 (nine sermons, 1954), Psalm 107 (seven sermons, 1955), Authority (three sermons, 1957), Galatians 6:14 on the Cross (nine sermons, 1963), Psalm 1 (four sermons, 1963), Isaiah 1 (nine sermons, 1963), Isaiah 5 (seven sermons, 1964), Joy Unspeakable (twenty-four sermons, 1964-1965), and Acts 1-8 (110 sermons, 1965-1968). In addition, Lloyd-Jones started a Friday night Bible study, early in his Westminster ministry, focused primarily upon Christians, an on-going series which became enormously popular. His first Friday night series was on Great Doctrines of the Bible (eighty-one sermons, 1952-1955). Far from being dry lectures, these messages were delivered with all the elements of dynamic preaching. This series was followed by his magisterial exposition of the book of Romans (372 sermons, 1957-1968), culminating in Romans 14:17, when he retired from the Westminster pulpit.

The Only Legitimate Way to Preach

Like Lloyd-Jones, MacArthur made the same commitment to expository preaching. He writes: “Preaching and teaching must be expositional, setting forth as clearly, systematically, and completely as possible the truths of God’s Word and only those truths.”  MacArthur emphatically asserts: “It is for that reason that expository preaching—preaching that systematically and thoroughly explains the meaning of Scripture—is the only legitimate way to preach.”  Consequently, he states that the message must never originate with himself:  “The preacher’s responsibility is not to create messages from his own wisdom or cleverness or to manipulate or sway his listeners by means of his own persuasiveness of charisma but to interpret, explain, and apply God’s Word as clearly and completely as possible.” This is the genius of MacArthur’s preaching. Starting at the first verse of chapter one and moving consecutively through the entire book, he simply reads, explains, and applies God’s Word. MacArthur is a mouthpiece for the biblical text.

In all, MacArthur has delivered some 3,000 expositions at Grace Community Church. For over forty years, he has stood in one pulpit and faithfully expounded the Scripture, Sunday by Sunday. On Sunday mornings, MacArthur has preached, verse by verse, through: Romans (1969), the Gospel of John (seventy-eight sermons, 1970-1972), Acts (103 sermons, 1972-1975), 1 Corinthians (eighty-one sermons, 1975-1977), Ephesians (sixty sermons, 1978-1979), the Gospel of Matthew (226 sermons, 1978-1985), 1 Timothy (fifty sermons, 1985-1987), 2 Timothy (twenty-seven sermons, 1987-1988), Philippians (forty-six sermons, 1988-1989), 1 Thessalonians (thirty-six sermons, 1990-1991), Philemon (four sermons, 1991), 2 Thessalonians (seventeen sermons, 1992), Titus (twenty-four sermons, 1992-1993), 2 Corinthians (ninety-six sermons, 1993-1998), the Gospel of Luke (298 sermons, 1998-2008), the Gospel of Mark (2009-2011).

On Sunday evenings, MacArthur has likewise expounded: Habakkuk (three sermons, 1969), 1 and 2 Peter (1969), Hebrews (forty-three sermons, 1972-1973), Galatians (twenty-four sermons, 1973-1974), Colossians (twenty-three sermons, 1976), Zechariah (nineteen sermons, 1977), Daniel (thirty-one sermons, 1979-1980), Romans (124 sermons, 1981-1986), James (thirty-four sermons, 1986-1987), 1 Peter (fifty sermons, 1988-1990), 2 Peter (twenty-seven sermons, 1990-1991), Revelation (eighty-seven sermons, 1991-1995), Genesis 1-11 (forty-nine sermons, 1999-2001), 1 John (forty-two sermons, 2002-2003), 2 John (four sermons, 2003), 3 John (two sermons, 2003), Jude (fifteen sermons, 2004).

In addition, MacArthur has also preached the following topical expository series: The Superiority of Christ (seven sermons, 1972), The Second Coming of Jesus Christ (twenty-three sermons, 1973), Is the Bible Reliable? (twelve sermons, 1974), God, Satan, and Angels (nine sermons, 1975), The Charismatic Movement (twelve sermons, 1977), Spiritual Bootcamp (four sermons, 1978), True Worship (eight sermons, 1982), The Anatomy of a Church (eight sermons, 1983), Heaven (eight sermons, 1987), Spiritual Growth (four sermons, 1988), Seven Steps to Spiritual Stability (six sermons, 1989), Whatever Happened to the Holy Spirit? (six sermons, 1989), The Love of God (six sermons, 1994-1995), The Fulfilled Family (eleven sermons, 1996), A Biblical Perspective on the Middle East and Terrorism (four sermons, 2001), The Doctrines of Grace (ten sermons, 2004), Spiritual Terrorism (ten sermons, 2004), Making a Case for the Bible (five sermons, 2006), Why Every Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist (six sermons, 2007), The Kind Of Worship God Desires (five sermons, 2008), Romans chapters 3, 4 and 5 (ten sermons, 2009), Hebrews 11 (twelve sermons, 2009-2010), 1 Corinthians 13 (four sermons, 2010), 1 Corinthians 15 (six sermons, 2010).

Journal Article written by Dr. Steven Lawson (used with permission).


Did you ever hear the one about . . . .

The idea that the high priest would tie a rope around his ankle before entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur so that his body could be pulled out if he went down while performing his duties? (It’s a myth).

What about the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna) being a perpetually burning trash dump? (It’s a myth too).

Someone asked David McCullough about his perspective on writing history. He said, “ . . . there’s no need ever to trick things up, to sugar this or that, or use dramatic devices to make it interesting. You just try as best you can to make it as interesting as it actually was.”[1] In a sense, this is the role of good expository homiletics. The task of the preacher is to get out of the way and let the people hear God speaking in the narrative. Having done all the necessary spadework, “This message should be clear and easy to follow, while remaining faithful to the biblical author’s progression of ideas.”[2]

[1] Diane Osen, ed., The Book that Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), 106-07. I am indebted to Matthew Waymeyer for calling my attention to this particular quote (personal communication, Oct 18, 2009).

[2] Donald R. Sunukjian, “Sticking to the Plot: The Developmental Flow of the Big Idea Sermon,” in The Big Idea of Biblical Preaching: Connecting to People, eds. Keith Willhite and Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 111.

Where did Peter deny Jesus?

In the upper room of a house in Jerusalem, Jesus made a break with the Jewish Passover and instituted a New Covenant meal that would be ratified the next day in His blood. It was also on this occasion that Jesus looked at the faces of His disciples and said something none wanted to hear, “You will all fall away because of Me this night” to which Jesus sources Zechariah 13:7 as support for His prophetic announcement (Matt 26:31). Peter would have none of such talk and pledged that he would go to the death with Jesus (Matt 26:33, 35). However, Jesus put His prophetic finger specifically on Peter and said to him, “Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (Matt 26:34).

According to John 18:17 it appears that Peter’s denials took place at the house of Annas, the former High Priest. However, according to Matthew 26:69 Peter’s denials took place at the home of Caiaphas, the current High Priest and son-in-law of Annas. Obviously, these are two different homes with two different men presiding. One well-known research professor comments on the John 18 passage with nothing more than, “In John, this was the time when Peter denied Jesus.” The problem is that such comments fail to resolve the obvious problem of Peter’s denials being in seemingly contradictory places.

The solution, however, is not difficult to see. In John 18:5 Peter makes his first denial of the night at the house of Annas during Jesus’ first Jewish hearing. Then he follows the crowd with Jesus over to the house of Caiaphas where Peter makes his further denials during the second Jewish hearing (Matt 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:55–65; John 18:25–27). So where did Peter deny Jesus? First, right outside the doorway of Annas’ house and then sitting in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house while warming himself by a fire.

Preaching NT Narrative (Narration)

The narrator is the voice of the writer. He informs the reader of specific motives, hidden thoughts, undisclosed actions, private conversations, and God’s perspective. The narrator reveals what we would otherwise never see or hear. Narration is like stitching on a quilt; it binds together the various scenes, plot structure, and characters. Noting the importance of the narrator’s role, Davis exhorts, “We want, when reading narrative, to get into the narrator’s own head, to know how he looks upon the matters he describes, or – what is the same for me, how God looks upon those matters.”[1]

The narrator is key because he assists the reader in rightly interpreting the meaning of the events in the story. In one sense, the narrator is omniscient because he knows what is happening behind the scenes.[2] Like the director of a movie scene, he is in charge of providing the right angle for the audience to understand the message. If we conclude something that was never intended by the author-narrator, we run the risk of missing the point of the passage. Block makes a similar yet applicable point in regards to OT narrative. He writes, “Biblical narrators were concerned not only to describe historical events, but also to interpret them. Indeed, it is in the author’s interpretation that we find the permanent message.”[3]

Recognizing various uses of narration in NT narrative can be a great help to the preacher. Although there may be a sense of reticence on the part of the narrator, it is still possible for the preacher to understand the narrator’s perspective.[4] There are four commonly recognized forms of narration within a story.[5] Noting the forms of narration will move the interpreter ever closer to the authorial intent of the story.

The first form of narration is reporting narration.[6] The narrator simply states or reports what happened either in the scene or in the events leading up to the scene. This form of narration is useful in understanding scene changes or bridging gaps in time. Reporting narration will typically be signified by words and phrases which indicate changes of time or place or introduce a didactic portion of Scripture. For example, Matthew uses narration to set the scene for the sermonic portions of his gospel account (Matt 5:1–2; 10:1–5; 13:1–3; 18:1–2; 24:1–3). The following are a few other examples of reporting narration:

Þ   “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus” (Matt 14:1).

Þ   “When the messengers of John had left” (Luke 7:24)

Þ   “Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another” (Luke 8:1).

Þ   “After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth” (Acts 18:1).

A second form of narration is dramatic narration. Ryken notes that “writers dramatize a scene as though it were in a play, quoting the speeches or dialogue of characters and noting the surrounding context.”[7] Whereas reporting narration is observed in short phrases and words, dramatic narration is played out over a larger scene. One of the clearest examples of dramatic narration is the account of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1–35). In this example, Luke is the narrator-author. The episode is an amazing debate over a crucial theological issue that risked dividing the early church and confusing the gospel. Luke uses various speeches, a letter, and individual conversations to dramatically recount this important scene. This form of narration will typically be more oriented toward characters and their speeches rather than elements of time.

[NOTE: We’ll discuss two more forms of narration in the next post]

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 12.

[2] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 206.

[3] Daniel I. Block, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” 413.

[4] This “reticence” on the part of the narrator is not a misguided caginess but a literary technique used to highlight various characters or points in a story. “The practical aspect of all this to be kept in mind as one reads is that the reticence of the biblical narrator, his general refusal to comment on or explain what he reports, is purposefully selective,” [Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 184].

[5] See Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 43-45; John Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1978), 24-50; Shimon Bar-Efrat, “Literary Modes and Methods in the Biblical Narrative in View of 2 Samuel 10-20 and 1 Kings 1-2,” Immanuel 8 (1978), 19-31; Shimon Bar-Efrat, “Some Observations on the Analysis of Structure in Biblical Narrative,” VT 30 (1980), 154-73. There are also more elaborate discussions of narration such as a listing of fourteen “varieties of the narrator’s own discourse” in Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1985), 120-21.

[6] “direct narrative” in Ryken, 43.

[7] Ibid.

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.

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.

Preaching NT Narrative (simple plot structure)

The idea of plot may bring back memories of slogging through literature assignments from school days gone by. However, understanding the plot can be the preacher’s best friend. Simply stated, plot is the arrangement of “events”[1] or “incidents.”[2] Additionally, Greidanus explains that “narrative consists of the arrangement and interrelationship of the narrated events” (emphasis mine).[3] Therefore, plot is different from the setting in that plot reveals the interconnectedness of the various scenes. Mastering the plot of a narrative will help to build anticipation, suspense, and an appreciation for the unified message of Scripture.

The goal of the plot is to move the story to a place of resolution. Plot accomplishes denouement by pulling together the various scenes into a unified message. A plot can be simple or complex depending on the amount of excursions the text takes before it reaches a conclusion. Understanding the plot structure does not have to be difficult, but it is important. Stories move forward; therefore, the preacher must be able to build anticipation for what happens next. E. M. Forster noted that a narrative “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”[4]

The key to understanding plot is recognizing the various features that form the narrative. This is accomplished by locating the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the narrative. Simple plots are the most common in NT narrative.

Following Jeffrey Arthurs[5], we can illustrate simple plot structure in the narrative of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1–35.

  1. Background (15:1)
  2. Conflict (15:2–5)
  3. Rising Action (15:6–12)
  4. Climax (15:13–21)
  5. Resolution (15:22–35)

Probably the most important aspect of charting the plot of a narrative is showing unity. Some believe plot is intended to expose a unity of character or action,[6] but I prefer an emphasis on unity of meaning or message. Characters and actions can be uneven throughout a story, but the message is what remains constant. Plotting the structure of the narrative shows how the authorial intent of the message is developed and packaged through the story by the author. After marking off the scenes of a narrative, the preacher can begin to take note of how the plot structure brings together the “inner dynamics”[7] of the larger story. The plot reveals and moves the action to its intended conclusion. Understanding plot can also help build anticipation in preaching because it reveals the location of pivotal developments in the story. Practically, strengthening this area of our preaching will help familiar narratives come alive to our hearers. Davis is right:

Biblical narrative is laced with ‘shockers,’ whether major or minor. Sometimes we may be so familiar with the flow of a biblical story that we fail to be surprised when we should. We need to cultivate a ‘first-time-reader’ frame of mind. Usually biblical surprises prove instructive.[8]

[1] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 62.

[2] Aristotle, Poetics, 6.8.

[3] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 203.

[4] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), 35 quoted in Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 63.

[5] Jeffrey D. Arthurs, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives,” in Preaching the Old Testament, ed. Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 76.

[6] Ryken, 67.

[7] Ibid., 65.

[8] Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 19.

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.

Preaching NT Narrative (a French lesson)

I never studied French in school, but there is at least one word I know, “genre.” At its most basic level, the word genre refers to a “kind, type, style, form, or category.” For example, I am a fan of the literary-theatrical British series Poirot. The genre of these particular movies is largely considered mystery as opposed to western or science fiction. We make distinctions in genre far beyond the books we read and the movies we see. Restaurants, specialty boutiques, car dealerships, and newspapers all represent specific genres.

Usually, a newspaper contains information concerning world events, local calendar items, sports, obituaries, cartoons, and letters to the editor. Each of these items are considered to be types of genre, and each one has its own style, format, and structure. Obviously, the author of an obituary will not describe his subject like the author would the hero of a sports competition. Authors craft sentences with a particular goal in mind and with sensitivity to a particular audience. In order for readers to fully appreciate the nature of what they are reading, it is necessary for them to understand something of genre.

The Bible contains many different genres (e.g., poetry, history, lament, apocalyptic). Some scholars needlessly complicate genre analysis. They examine genre with little attention to the meaning of the text. A principle of genre analysis often overlooked is that genres do not explicitly identify their form but rather imply their form by the way they are structured. For example, if I see a man in a postal uniform at my mailbox with a large bag of letters over his shoulder, I can intuitively assume that he is not at my home to fix the plumbing. It is unnecessary for him to announce each time he delivers letters to our home that he is in fact a postal worker. In a similar way, when we say that the Bible contains genres, we are not quoting chapter and verse to defend the idea but rather making an observation about the form of literature the Bible contains.

Since the Bible does not always announce its various genres, it should not be surprising that Bible scholars have sharp disagreements when attempting to classify various passages as a particular genre.[1] I think Alter’s caution is helpful:

I am particularly suspicious of the value of elaborate taxonomies and skeptical as to whether our understanding of narrative is really advanced by the deployment of bristling neologisms like analepsis, intradiegetic, actantial. Occasionally, it has seemed necessary to use an established technical term in order to describe exactly a particular feature of style, syntax, or grammar, but I cling to the belief that it is possible to discuss complex literary matters in a language understandable to all educated people.[2]

By identifying principles of genre analysis, my desire is not to confuse the exegete but to assist him in a proper understanding of NT narrative. Genre can be defined as a kind of literary composition and narrative as a series of events communicated in a story. I am using the term NT Narrative to encompass the major style or form of the four Gospels and Acts. “By biblical ‘narrative’ we mean texts that recount events, whether real or imagined. According to this definition, narrative is the most common genre of material in the Bible.”[3] I realize there are possible subgenres and texts that may take on the character of more than one genre; however, our goal is to preach NT narrative more faithfully and not necessarily to categorize every pericope for scientific study.

[1] For example, scholars disagree about the genre of Matthew. Some have suggested that the canonical gospels are best qualified as “a subtype of Graeco-Roman biography.” See Dale C. Allison Jr., Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 142 n. 19. However, even Allison has fluctuated in his views concerning the genre of the gospels. “I once urged that Matthew is an omnibus of genres: apocalypse, community rule, catechism, cult aetiology, etc . . . I am no longer sure that this is the correct view,” 143. I believe the endless attempts to locate Matthew, for example, within the genre of Graeco-Roman biography is misguided since it largely overlooks the explicit Jewish nature of Matthew’s gospel. R. T. France agrees that, “It is of course true that the gospels were not written in a primarily Graeco-Roman context, and Talbert’s concentration on Graeco-Roman rather than Jewish literature means that his work can be seen only as an exercise in comparison across cultural frontiers,” in Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 125.

[2] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), x. Fisher emphasizes a similar point noting, “The most important fact about genre is that genres are generalizations. As such they are both true and false. They are not natural objects like animals, vegetables, or minerals. They are made by humans out of the mind’s penchant for observing similarities and differences in things, to provide order to understanding” in Walter R. Fisher, “Genre: Concepts and Applications in Rhetorical Criticism,” Western Journal of Speech Communication 44 (1980): 290. Also Ryken, “Such a myth of complexity, however is to be rejected. The literature of the Bible is subtle and artistically crafted but essentially simple. . . . Talking about the Bible’s literature does not require intricate tools and theories. It does, however require literary tools” (Leland Ryken, “And it Came to Pass: The Bible as God’s Storybook,” BSac 147, No. 586 [April-June 1990]: 137).

[3] Daniel I. Block, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story: Preaching the Message of Old Testament Narrative,” 409. Also Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “I Will Remember the Deeds of the Lord: The Meaning of Narrative,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, eds. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Moises Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 69.

Preaching NT Narrative (What is it?)

By biblical “narrative” we mean texts that recount events, whether real or imagined. According to this definition, narrative is the most common genre of material in the Bible . . .[1]

God has given us the ultimate and most powerful story, the Bible. Leland Ryken has observed that “Despite the multiplicity of genres found in the Bible, it is above all a book of stories.”[2] From beginning to end, the Bible contains stories of individuals (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Jonah, Peter) and groups (e.g., Israel, Jewish Pentecost, the Jerusalem Council). It would be correct to say the Bible tells a story which is God’s redemption of man;[3] therefore, the obvious fact is that “The Lord apparently values story, and we should too.”[4] If we are to be a people of the Book, we must understand the nature of how the Book is fashioned. Furthermore, when we preach the Bible, we must wrestle with the fact that narrative is the dominant genre of Scripture. Starting tomorrow, our goal in the next few posts is to understand the nature of NT narrative, its importance, structure, and features. Understanding the lay of the land will prepare us to effectively exposit NT narrative with clarity, conviction, and power.

[1] Daniel I. Block, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story: Preaching the Message of Old Testament Narrative,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, eds. David M. Howard Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 409.

[2] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992), 35.

[3] By “story” I am not suggesting mythological tales or fictional accounts. Throughout this series, whenever the word “story” is used in regards to Scripture, it is presupposed that the accounts are factual and actually happened unless the context suggests otherwise (as in the case of some parabolic passages).

[4] Jeffrey D. Arthurs, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives,” in Preaching the Old Testament, ed. Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 73.

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