The Gospels are inherently suited for preaching because their origin lies in the preaching of Jesus and of the early church and the goal of their composition is preaching, kerygma.1
As with the preaching of other genres of literature, so in preaching the Gospels, the preaching-text must be a unit. In the Gospels the basic units are called “pericopes” (paragraphs). In the light of the discoveries of form criticism, one might tentatively formulate the general rule that for preaching the Gospels the preaching-text ought to be a pericope.
At times, however, key verses may serve as a suitable preaching-text, though these verses must, naturally, be interpreted in the context of their pericope. Moreover, especially with scenic narrative, it may be advisable to preach on a number of consecutive pericopes.
One cannot advocate, therefore, that every preaching-text from the Gospels be a pericope, but one can advise that every preaching-text, whether large or small, be a unit. Frequently, rhetorical structures such as repetition, inclusion, and chiasm are pointers to ideal preaching units.
Since these textual units today are constitutive parts of the written Gospels, they must be interpreted in the light of their Gospel context. This rule implies that it is inadvisable to create one’s own preaching-text by combining pericopes or verses from different Gospels, for this procedures mixes decidedly different literary and historical contexts and intentions. For example, combining verses from Mark, Luke, and John in order to preach a Good Friday sermon on “The Seven Words from the Cross” fails to do justice to the Gospel context of each of these words.
The Gospels are ideally suited for series of sermons. One may prepare series of sermons not only on scenic narratives but also on discourses. The composite discourses of Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 24-25 lend themselves especially well to series of sermons. William Hull suggests, for example, a series of eight sermons on the Sermon on the Mount:
1. The Keys of the Kingdom (5:3-6)
2. The Creativity of Conflict (5:7-10)
3. Great Expectations (5:13-16)
4. The New Morality (5:17-48)
5. The Secret of True Religion (6:1-18)
6. The Priority of the Spiritual (6:19-34)
7. The Journey Inward (7:1-12)
8. The Great Divide (7:13-19)
The other four composite discourses on various aspects of the kingdom of God lend themselves equally well to series of sermons.2
Once the preaching text has been selected, it must be interpreted holistically, that is, justice must be done to all of its dimensions. Since this holistic interpretation needs to cover more dimensions than were treated by the traditional grammatico-historical method, we shall approach it from three angles: the literary, historical, and theological.
In literary interpretation one seeks to ascertain the meaning of a passage by focusing on the words. Questions here concern grammar, syntax, figures of speech, double meaning, divine passive, repetition, parallelism, inclusion, chiasm — whatever will help uncover the author’s intended meaning. With narratives, one must also consider questions concerning plot, scenes, characters and their words and actions, the narrator and his point of view, and narrative techniques.
Literary interpretation also reminds the preacher of the need for understanding the preaching-text in its literary context. The immediate context may make one aware of a theme of which the preaching-text is a part, or a narrative or saying which contrasts with or parallels the text. The literary context of the whole Gospel provides opportunity to discover how the text functions meaningfully as a part of the whole; how it, in its own way, conveys the author’s meaning and fulfills his purpose. All these procedures are similar to those in literary interpretation of other genres.
Comparing Parallel Passages
More than with any other genre, literary interpretation of the Gospels affords an opportunity to compare parallel accounts, for all four Gospels relate basically the same events and teachings, albeit in different ways. The object of comparing parallel accounts is not to try to discover what happened precisely or to harmonize the Gospels,3 but to discover the specific message of the chosen text in its own particular Gospel.
Comparing parallel pericopes offers at least two benefits: “First, the parallels will often give us an appreciation for the distinctives of any one of the Gospels. After all, it is precisely their distinctives that are the reason for having four gospels in the first place. Second, the parallels will help us to be aware of the different kinds of contexts in which the same or similar materials lived in the ongoing church.”4 Thus the differences among the Gospels are not a drawback for preachers but an aid that can be utilized for discerning the specific point of the text.
Preachers will most frequently compare parallel pericopes in the Synoptic Gospels, though the Gospel of John, too, can sometimes be fruitfully compared with the Synoptics (e.g., its placement of the cleansing of the temple).5 As far as the Synoptics are concerned, scholarly opinion generally holds that Mark wrote first and that Matthew and Luke used Mark (and other sources) so that any differences among parallel passages indicate that Matthew or Luke purposefully omitted the pericope, rearranged it, or modified it. Thus any differences would reflect the purposes of Matthew or Luke.
The origin of the Gospels is more complex, however, than Matthew and Luke simply writing their Gospels with Mark’s Gospel open before them. Morna Hooker raises some pertinent questions: “Is it the text of Mark as we know it … that was used by the later evangelists? Where they diverge from Mark, is it because their theological motives compel them to make changes? Are the alterations due to other reasons — perhaps stylistic or accidental? Most important of all, are such divergences perhaps not primarily alterations of Mark, but due to the fact that an evangelist has chosen to follow a tradition other than Mark’s, even where the two Gospels are to some extent parallel?”6 With these questions unresolved, it is more prudent to follow Grant Osborne in focusing on the “differences between the gospels rather than depending on a too-rigid theory regarding the direction of the influence.”7
The question remains how one goes about analyzing the differences among the Gospels. In explaining the use of Aland’s Symopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, Gordon Fee suggests that one “should be looking for four things: (1) rearrangements of material …, (2) additions or omissions of material, (3) stylistic changes, (4) actual differences in wording. A combination of these items will usually lead you to a fairly accurate appraisal of the author’s interests.”8
Consequently, the following questions are appropriate for a Gospel text: Is this pericope (the preaching-text) found in other Gospels? If not, does its inclusion in this Gospel (like the parables of the Rich Fool and the Rich Man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke) point to the author’s interests and purposes? If it is found in another Gospel but in a different context, does the different arrangement of the preaching text shed light on the purpose of its author? Has the author “added or omitted anything? What verbal changes has he made? Are they merely stylistic? Are they more substantive? Do the changes reveal the author’s interests? his unique emphases? Does the adaptation of… [the] pericope align with a series of such changes, either in the larger context of … [the] pericope itself or in the whole Gospel?”9
These questions probe for the specific point of the text. For it is that unique message that must be proclaimed, not, as Bastiaan Van Elderen puts it, “a forced and watered-down harmonization. In some cases where an event is recorded in the triple tradition, three distinct, although related, interpretations are possible. The homilete must choose that interpretation which meets the needs of his audience, just as the Gospel writer interpreted the event to meet the needs of his readers.”10
The fact that one compares Gospels in one’s exegesis does not mean, however, that the sermon will necessarily highlight such differences. Much exegetical work never reaches the pulpit but remains in the study. Walter Liefeld advises pointedly that “differences that are inconsequential to the purposes of the sermon and that are unlikely to be a problem … in the minds of the congregation, should not intrude into the sermon.”11
Nevertheless, when the contrast with another Gospel clarifies the point of the preaching-text, it may be beneficial to share this insight with the hearers so that they, too, can see the reasons for the particular focus of the message and may learn, moreover, to appreciate the fact that the Lord gave us four Gospels instead of only one.
Historical interpretation directs our attention specifically to the author, his audience, the historical-cultural background, and the occasion and purpose for writing. All four Gospels, it is clear, have different authors, different audiences, and were written against varied historical-cultural backgrounds and for different occasions and purposes. In the light of these differences, the wonder is not that the Gospels are so different but that they are so similar!
Historical interpretation seeks to understand the text as it was understood by its original audience. Narrative criticism tends to bracket out the historical dimension and concentrate on the self-contained story-world. But historical interpretation is the only objective point of control against subjective and arbitrary interpretations. Moreover, historical interpretation leads to better understanding of a text because it looks for the historical question (the question or perceived need of the original audience) to which the text is the answer.
A complication in historical interpretation of the Gospels is that the preacher is confronted by two historical horizons (in addition to his own), the life-setting of the historical Jesus and that of the Gospel writers. Actually, redaction critics speak of three life-settings: that of the historical Jesus, that of the primitive church which transmitted the tradition, and that of the Gospel writers. Homiletically, however, the significant life-settings are those of Jesus and of the Gospel writers.
With these two settings, preachers face the question of which horizon to use in their exposition. Many preachers almost automatically opt for the life-setting of Jesus. For example, the missionary discourse of Matthew 9:35-10:42 receives an explication regarding Jesus instructing His disciples and an application for the church today. In other words, the sermon has two historical foci: in the past, Jesus instructing His disciples, and in the present, the contemporary church. Such sermons, however, neglect the significance of the life-setting of the Gospel writer addressing the early church.
Kingsbury argues that “the missionary discourse of Jesus, like all of His great discourses, is meant to communicate at two levels: At the level of the story Matthew tells, it is the earthly Jesus in each speech who is addressing Himself to the disciples or to the Jewish crowds; but at the level of Matthew’s own historical situation, it is the resurrected Jesus in each speech who is addressing Himself to the Christians of His church.”12 Hence the question facing the preacher is, Which historical level do I use in sermonic exposition?
Some homileticians allow for sermons to be based on either level. For example, Leander Keck writes, “In principle, where the same material is found in all three Synoptists, four sermons are possible: one from each of the Evangelist’s treatment and one that focuses on Jesus in His situation.”13 But can one focus on Jesus’ situation without acknowledging the viewpoint of the Gospel writer? Can the present text be used simply as a window offering a neutral view of the words and deeds of the historical Jesus?
Fee and Stuart remind us that “the Gospels in their present form are the Word of God to us; our own reconstructions of Jesus’ life are not.” Should one, then, ignore the level of the historical Jesus and opt solely for the canonical level? Fee and Stuart suggests that “good interpretation may require appreciating a given saying first in its original historical context as a proper prelude to understanding that same word in its present canonical context.”14
In seeking to come to terms with the two horizons, preachers ought to place themselves in the sandals of the Gospel writer and from that position survey the scene. They will observe, on the one hand, that the Gospel writer addresses his Gospel to a specific community and shapes it to meet that community’s circumstances and needs. They will observe, on the other hand, that the Gospel writer accomplishes his purposes by turning to the immediate past and relating what Jesus said and did. Thus the Gospels indeed present two horizons, neither of which can be understood without the other.
For purposes of interpretation, however, the life-setting of the Gospel writer is primary. As Van Elderen puts it, “The Sitz im Leben in the Gospels is that of the Evangelist, and it is in that perspective that the Gospels should be interpreted. The Sitz im Leben Jesus [life-setting of Jesus] can elucidate details, but the interpreter must always realize that he is seeing the event or saying through the eyes of the Evangelist — in the Sitz im Leben des Verfassers [life-setting of the writer].”15
In approaching the text, then, the life-setting of the Gospel writer is primary, but it, in turn, leads the preacher to the life-setting of Jesus. Consequently, in preaching one need not choose one life-setting over another but must do justice to both as they come to expression in a particular Gospel. This procedure is usually an extension of the purpose of Jesus.
Dwight Moody Smith strikingly expresses this view by calling Jesus the “redactor” of Mark, that is, “Mark expresses Jesus’ intention over against His original disciples … Jesus warns His disciples that the gospel is centered in suffering and death, not in miracles…. Mark has composed his work exactly as intended, so that the purpose of Jesus might shine through.”16
How, then, does one do justice to both life-settings? Suppose that the preaching text is the missionary discourse of Matthew 10. It would be quite natural for the preacher to begin the sermon at level 1 with Jesus’ instructions to His disciples, to continue to the expansion of level 2 with the risen Lord’s instructions to the early church, and from there to move to the Lord’s instructions for His church today. In other words, moving in the sermon from level 1 (the disciples) to level 2 (the early church) naturally forms a bridge to reaching level 3 (the church today).
This example does not mean to imply, however, that the two horizons in the text can always be easily distinguished, for frequently the horizon of the Gospel writer is not apparent but gives way to the horizon of Jesus — Jesus and His disciples, Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, etc. If one were to formulate a general rule it would be that one must indeed preach Jesus’ deeds and teachings, but always from the viewpoint of the particular Gospel writer and as the text functions in his Gospels and not from a self-made historical reconstruction.
The Purpose of the Author
Historical interpretation also raises the question of the author’s purpose. This purpose may be discerned most easily when the life-setting of the author and his audience is known, for the author seeks to proclaim Jesus and His words and deeds as a focused response to the questions and issues faced by the community he addresses. Unfortunately, little is known about the recipients of the Gospeel except for what can be discovered from the Gospels themselves. Nevertheless, careful research in and comparison of the Gospels will reveal something about the community addressed and the purposes of the author.17 For example, Mark likely wrote from Rome to some Gentile constituency.18 One of the major purposes of Mark is to show that “Jesus, the Messiah, had chosen to suffer.”10 This purpose is clearly enunciated by the structure of Mark: “The first eight chapters are dominated by the Messianic secret (e.g., Mark 1:34, 44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36). But at the watershed in Mark 8:27-9:1, the secret is out, namely, that Jesus as the Son of Man will suffer and die. Therefore, the last eight chapters are dominated by the Messianic suffering (e.g., Mark 8:31: 9:31; 10:32-34; 14:22-25). In that sense, Mark is a martyrology which defines faith in terms of a cross, i.e., as the willingness to save one’s life by losing it (Mark 8:35).”20 Other themes in Mark are illuminated by that overall purpose, themes such as the messianic secret, the cost of discipleship, the passion, and the parousia.
Matthew addressed a Jewish Christian community for the purpose of giving assurance that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the promised Messiah, the long-awaited King of Israel. This purpose elucidates underlying themes such as fulfillment of prophecy, the authority of Jesus, God with us, the kingdom of heaven, references and allusions to Moses, the mountain, the law, the missionary mandates (chapters 10 and 28), and Jesus’ promise to remain with His church.
Luke addressed the Greek Theophilus and probably other Greeks. He states his purpose in so many words (1:4): “that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” Thus the purpose of Luke is to present Jesus as the Savior of Gentiles as well as Jews, particularly those of “low estate” (1:48). Consequently, Luke places his Gospel in the context of world history (Luke 2:1; 3:1, 38) and records Jesus’ concern for the sick, the poor, women, Samaritans, tax collectors and sinners,21 as well as Jesus’ mandate for the church to bring the good news “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
John probably addressed a mixed audience which included “Jews of the Dispersion.”22 Like Luke, he also states his purpose in so many words (20:31): “These [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” The purpose of calling his hearers to faith in Jesus the Christ elucidates subsidiary themes such as his anti-docetic emphasis on the incarnation (1:14 and 6:51-56) and his emphasis on faith as communicated in series of stories about belief and unbelief, sight and blindness. John’s purpose of showing the way to eternal life ties in with the purpose of Jesus’ own coming, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10), His being “the way” (John 14:6), and with the theme of experiencing eternal life here and now.
Universal Kingdom History
Historical interpretation should also remind preachers of the relation of the passage to the universal scope of kingdom history. Although this connection is frequently overlooked, it is homiletically significant because kingdom history links the historical horizons of the text with the horizon of the contemporary church, thus bringing into view the text’s relevance for today.
In contemporary biblical studies, this kingdom history is sometimes referred to as “story time”: “Mark’s narrative (narrative time) is part of a much larger story (story time), and its purpose is to show the meaning of that larger story by taking a small part of it and showing how that small part reveals the meaning of the whole.”23 That larger “story,” actually history from creation (Mark 10:6) to parousia (13:24-27), includes the church today and thus forms a direct link between the message for the church then and the church today.
For example, Kingsbury points out that Mark sees “salvation history” as two epochs: the time of Old Testament prophecy and “the time of the gospel (1:1, 14-15; 13:10). The time of the gospel extends to the end of time…. In Mark’s perspective it is Jesus Himself who is pivotal to the whole of the history of salvation …. The claim that Mark advances by means of his scheme of the history of salvation is that the cross of Jesus is pivotal to the entire history of God’s dealings with humankind.”24 With this vision of kingdom history, preachers need not search far and wide for the relevance of the cross of Jesus, for the church they are addressing is historically related directly to that cross.
Luke is better known for his view of “redemptive history.” He divides world history into three epochs, “first the era of the Law and the prophets, lasting until the appearance of John the Baptist. From then to the Resurrection and Ascension is the era of the Gospel, the ‘middle of time’ (16:16). This links on to the era of the church, in which Luke is writing and which will last until the parousia, the second coming of Christ.”25
Whether the Gospel writers divide world history into two epochs or three, however, several important simularities should be noted: first, the Gospel writers do not merely tell a closed, self-sufficient story as frequently assumed by narrative criticism but relate their “story” to world history; second, they teach that Jesus’ history on earth is central in and pivotal for world history; and third, they show that the (historical) church is a direct result of the Christ event. Thus the Gospel narratives are inherently relevant for the church of all ages, for they tell the story of the church’s Founder and Lord.
Theological interpretation reminds preachers not to lose sight of the essence of the Gospels: the Gospels are the good news of God about God. In the Gospels, of course, that good news about God is the good news that God has come to us in Jesus Christ.
In the Gospels Jesus is presented as “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). “All things have been delivered to me by my Father,” He says, “and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27). “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” He says (John 14:9). Jesus is the Son of God, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Although the Gospels also make a clear distinction between Jesus and God the Father, their identity shows that Christocentric interpretation is ultimately theocentric.
In our description of the Gospels, we have already noted the centrality of Jesus Christ. Jesus has been called “the protagonist,” “the central figure,” “the subject around which every narrative turns.”26 The objective of all four Gospels is to relate what “Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). The turning point in all four Gospels is a confession of Jesus as the Christ.27 Most importantly, the climax of all four Gospels is the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, the centrality of Jesus in the Gospels can also be inferred from the fact that Jesus’ resurrection accounts for the very existence of the Gospels.
With so many indications that the Gospels are centered on Jesus Christ, it is strange that many sermons on the Gospels center on Mary, Anna, Peter, or Judas and thus turn out to be anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. The usual reasons for concentrating on these “minor characters” are variety, interest, and relevance: “These people of many kinds and varied backgrounds constitute a rich source of material for the development of sermons which speak to life as it is actually lived. Since many people identify more readily with other people than with principles and abstractions, sermons based upon the figures in the story will appeal strongly to many.”28
However noble the purpose may be, when biographic or character preaching lifts these characters out of their place in the Gospels and makes them the focal point of the sermon, it is no longer true to the nature and purpose of the Gospels because it detracts from the centrality of Christ. This is not to say, of course, that these characters have no place in the sermon, but that their place can never be center stage. For the Gospel writers never present these minor characters for their own sake or for their value as moral examples but for the sake of showing who Jesus is: His love, compassion, power, sonship, teaching, and mission. Christocentric interpretation and preaching demands that the focus of the sermon be ultimately on Jesus Christ.
The Context of the Canon
Theological interpretation also is a reminder to view the message of the text in its broadest literary context, that of the canon. As Matthew makes abundantly clear with his theme of fulfillment, his Gospel is intended to be understood against the background of the Old Testament. And not only Matthew, but the other Gospels as well need to be interpreted in the context of the Old Testament.
This procedure is required not only because all the Gospels proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises (e.g., John 19:24, 36-37 speak of fulfillment just as Matthew does) but also because all the Gospels are filled with references and allusions to the Old Testament. Missing these references and allusions may well mean missing the point of the text. We can understand the Gospels correctly only “via the detour of the Old Testament.”29
The message of the Gospel text must also be compared with the New Testament writings. We have already seen how comparing parallel pericopes can sharpen the point of the message. Subsequently comparing that message with other New Testament writings is not intended to tone down the specific point of the preaching-text but to corroborate and strengthen that point with the witness of the entire canon.
When the text has been investigated from all angles, one is ready for the definitive formulation of its theme. Formulating the theme of a Gospel text is no different from formulating the theme of Hebrew narrative: it must be an assertion (subject and predicate) that articulates the unifying idea of the text as intended by its author (from the viewpoint of the narrator). For example, the theme of Matthew 2:1-12 might be formulated as “Gentiles Worship the King of the Jews”; 7:13-14 as “Enter by the Narrow Gate”; 9-35-38 as “Pray for More Harvesters”; 11:1-6 as “Jesus’ Deeds Reveal that He Is the Promised Messiah”; 28:5-7 as “Jesus Has Risen: Come, See; Go, Tell.”
Once the theme of the text has been established, one needs to determine whether it can serve as the theme of the sermon or requires some adjustment because of possible further development in the canon. Sometimes the historical-cultural setting of the present congregation may also necessitate revision of the theme in order truly to communicate for this day and age the original message according to its canonical intent. In contrast to the theme of an Old Testament text, however, the theme of a New Testament text seldom requires major revision precisely because the text comes from the New Testament.
Once carefully formulated, the sermon theme can function as a guide for outlining and forming the sermon. As Fred Craddock puts it, “That one central idea provides a natural control over which materials are admissible into the sermon and which are not, the theme serving as a magnet to attract only the appropriate.”30
The Form of the Sermon
The sermon’s form should enhance its message. Guidelines for selecting the form of a sermon on New Testament narratives are the same as those for Old Testament narratives. The most appropriate form is a narrative which follows the development (story line) of the text. Following the sequencing of the narratve avoids casting the texts into a foreign mold which might distort its message. Moreover, it enables the preacher to highlight the major components of the narrative and signal the climax as these occur in the narrative.
For example, “in the familiar story of Jesus sleeping in the boat during a storm, the climax is not, as so often preached, in the calming of the wind and waves. It is rather the disciples’ question at the end of the story: ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him’ (Luke 8:25).”31 Thus the conclusion of this sermon can hardly be the assurance, true as this may be, that Jesus calms the storms in our lives, but the question (if not the answer to): “Who is this?”
In preaching the Gospel discourses, too, it is advantageous to follow the textual sequence. Sometimes rhetorical structures such as repetition and chiasm reveal natural breaks; more often, however, the content itself will reveal where shifts take place. In any event, since many discourses are of a composite nature, there appears to be little merit in changing the original order of the composition for contemporary preaching purposes. On the contrary, by closely following the development of the text, one not only honors the original composition but also derives the fringe benefit that the hearers are better able to follow the exposition in their Bibles.
The main guidelines for creating a form for the sermon is to use a form that simultaneously shows respect for the ancient text and is effective in communicating its message for today’s hearers. In thinking of the contemporary audience, one should select a form that creates interest, shows movement, and involves the listeners from beginning to end.
The Relevance of the Sermon
The relevance of a sermon on the Gospels is given already in the fact, observed above, that the Gospel relates the story of the Founder and Lord of the church. That relevance is enhanced by the fact that the Gospels as a whole as well as in their parts are open-ended and include Christians today. According to Amos Wilder, “These stories, long or short, in one way or another carry over into the future. The rounding off is usually in some sense still to come. The hearer or reader finds himself in the middle of the action. We are in the middle of the play…. God’s last word is still to be spoken…. The Gospels end with attention eagerly directed to the future.”32
When one sees the real relevance of the Gospels, one will no longer need to establish it by questionable means such as enjoining the listeners to imitate or shun the behavior of the minor characters, or by moralizing, psychologizing, or spiritualizing. The relevance of the Gospels is given in the revelation of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The basic relevance of the Gospels can be made more concrete, however. One way to do this is to discover the original relevance of a passage and make use of the parallels between the early church to whom the passage was originally addressed and the church today. Consequently, one should ask, How was this passage relevant for the church the Gospel writer addressed? If this relevance is not immediately evident, it can usually be discovered by viewing the passage in the light of the context and purpose of the whole Gospel. For in its context, every passage has a purpose since every passage seeks a response from the audience — a response of faith, trust, repentance, obedience, thanksgiving, praise…. The response sought indicates past relevance. Once a passage’s relevance for the early church has been established, that relevance can be transferred to the contemporary church via the analogies that exist between the church then and the church today.
Another way to concretize the Gospel’s relevance is to utilize the principle of hearer identification with a certain character in the narrative. However, this way is strewn with pitfalls. In order to avoid arbitrary and subjective identifications, one needs to defer to the intention of the author (narrator) in seeking to establish with whom the hearer should identify. Even so, difficulties remain. For example, Tannehill claims that “the implied author of Mark shapes a story which encourages the reader to associate himself with the disciples.”33 Paul Achtemeier disagrees, however, and argues that, “attractive as such an understanding is,… it is flawed at several critical points.”34
Kingsbury takes a more circumspect approach with the Gospel of Matthew: “Because the disciples possess conflicting traits, the reader is invited, depending on the attitude Matthew as narrator or Jesus takes toward them on any given occasion, to identify with them or to distance himself or herself from them.”35
Clearly, the question of identification with certain characters is not easy to resolve and can easily lead to arbitrary decisions. The only control we have is to inquire after the author’s intention. With every narrative one ought, therefore, to raise the question: With which character did the first recipients identify? Thus historical interpretation (again) functions as an indispensable control of subjective and arbitrary identifications. Whenever such historical interpretation validates identification with a certain character, one can seek to narrate the story in such a way that the present-day audience also identifies with this character and thus becomes involved in the story.
The difficulties of substantiating proper listener identification should not detract, however, from the most significant form of identification for relevant communication — the continuity between the contemporary church and the early church addressed by the Gospel writers. Smith summarizes this point well: “Today’s preacher and congregation have an invitation and a right to stand where Mark and his congregation or readers stood. So, as Mark addressed his church, preachers may also address their congregations. The preacher stands where Mark stands, who stands where Jesus stood. The responsibility is awesome! … We preachers do not, of course, assume the prerogatives of Jesus, or even of the evangelist. We simply convey their word. So for the preacher to enter into this relationship is not presumptuous. Indeed, the presumption is to presume to preach without standing in this relationship to the text, to its author, and to Jesus.”36
From The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text by Sidney Greidanus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988). (c) 1988 by Sidney Greidanus. Reprinted by permission.
1. Smith, Interpreting the Gospels, 20: “When the pericopes of the Gospels are taken as texts for preaching, one is in close touch with their original intent and purpose.”
2. Hull, “Preaching on the Synoptic Gospels,” 177-78; see pp. 178-80 for further suggestions.
3. For a critique of harmonizing the Gospels, see my Sola Scriptura, 205-7.
4. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible, 110.
5. Fee, NT Exegesis, 112-13.
6. Hooker, “In His Own Image?” 32.
7. Osborne, JETS 28/4 (1985) 405.
8. Fee, NT Exegesis, 113. For practical hints on using a synopsis, see pp. 103-16.
9. Ibid., 39-40.
10. Van Elderen, “Teaching of Jesus and the Gospel Records,” 115.
11. Liefeld, NT Exposition, 152.
12. Kingsbury, hit 33 (1979) 369.
13. Keck, Bible in the Pulpit, 110.
14. Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible, 113 and 114. More emphatically, Ridderbos posits that “it is necessary first of all to ask what the original sense of the passage was, and the later ecclesiastical interpretation must not obscure or obliterate the historical meaning, but as much as possible take its starting point in that historical meaning” (Studies, 45). Cf. p. 55: “This picture is not in the first place the result of reflection and interpretation only in behalf of the cares and problems of a specific local or regional church, but, on the contrary, an attempt to bring these specific and different aspects of the church’s Sitz im Leben into the wide horizon of the redemptive history of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, as these have been the very core and heart of the existing tradition.”
15. Van Elderen, “Teaching of Jesus,” 115.
16. Smith, Interpreting the Gospels, 40-41; cf. pp. 50-51.
17. Fuller, NT in Current Study, 86, suggests that “we must pay very close attention to their editorial redactions — the connecting links they forge between the pericopes, their arrangement of the pericopes, the alterations they make to their sources where we have them…. Also their selection and omission of material is significant.” See also Chapter 3 above on redaction criticism.
18. See Martin, NT Foundations, I, 214-16. For the pros and cons of Rome, see also Achtemeier, Mark, 128-31.
19. Davies, Invitation, 206.
20. Hull, “Preaching on the Synoptic Gospels,” 180. See pp. 182-83 for the incluusio of five controversy stories in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (2:1-3-6) and five near the end (11:27-12:37), thus underscoring that Mark is “an apologia for the message of the cross.”
21. See O’Toole, Unity of Luke’s Theology, 109-48.
22. Harrison, Introduction. 226.
23. Achtemeier, Mark, 45.
24. Kingsbury, Int 33 (1979) 364065. Cf. p. 368: “But whereas Mark construes the time of fulfillment as the time of the gospel, Matthew construes it simply as the time of Jesus (earthly-exalted). This time of Jesus extends from His birth (1:23) to His parousia (25:31:28:20).”
25. Koch, Book of Books, 127.
26. Achtemeier, Mark, 53.
27. See Frye, “Jesus of the Gospels,” 78.
28. Edwards, SWJT 21/1 (1978)64-65.
29. Frederikse, “De Verhalende Prediking,” 113-14.
30. Craddock, Preaching, 156.
31. Liefeld, NT Exposition, 64.
32. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric, 59-60.
33. Tannehill, JR 57 (1977) 394.
34. See Achtemeier, Mark, 47-49.
35. Kingsbury, Matthew, 13.
36. Smith, Interpreting the Gospels, 54.
The Gospels are inherently suited for preaching because their origin lies in the preaching of Jesus and of the early church and the goal of their composition is preaching, kerygma.1