How (Not) to Preach the Gospels
I grew up in a city that features the second longest beach in the world—the Marina Beach in Chennai. Marina Beach, one of the busiest in the world, is also one of the deadliest. Though the waters seem friendly and inviting, even experienced swimmers can quickly find themselves caught in a dangerous undertow, pulled out by rip tides, and buried in a watery grave.
Sounds ominous, but that’s an image I often think about when I’m trying to preach the Gospels. Wide-eyed preachers approach these books with a sense of familiarity and excitement, ready to unveil these portraits of Jesus for their congregations, and then unexpectedly find themselves tossed about and struggling, crying out “Someone, help me!”
The Gospels give us beautiful portraits of Jesus; they give us rich theology. But they come with their own set of hermeneutical and homiletical challenges—challenges we must know how to navigate to faithfully proclaim Christ. Here are five “no swim zones” to avoid, five ways not to preach the Gospels:
1. Don’t preach the Gospels as a set of isolated “pericopes” without reference to their larger story.
The Gospels include a number of events and discourses from Jesus’ life, woven into a coherent literary whole with a theological purpose. Most evangelicals rightly avoid a historical-critical approach that sees the Gospels as a patchwork of unrelated stories with questionable historicity. But the ghosts of these historical critical approaches still haunt evangelical preachers when they preach individual units of text—pericopes, to use a word common in Gospel studies—with no reference to the literary flow and larger theological story of each Gospel.
The Gospels aren’t an anthology of short stories each with their own moral. Rather, they’re theological narratives. We must therefore help our hearers pay attention to the theological message of each writer and the particular emphases of each Gospel. In preaching them, we must show our hearers both how smaller literary units contribute to the whole, and how the whole affects the meaning of each individual story.
For instance, in Matthew’s Gospel, the preacher must beware the temptation to preach the parable of the sower (Matt 13:1–23) merely as a call to hearers to be “good soil” that receives the Word rightly. Rather, this parable must be understood in its place in the plot of Matthew’s Gospel. These parables explain why the kingdom of heaven that has arrived in Jesus’ person and message is all but invisible and is rejected by many. The parable of the sower reminds us of the sovereignty of the sower in the already/not-yet dynamic of the kingdom. Though the seed of the Word will face circumstances that seek to destroy, choke out, or wither its advance, the sower will finally be vindicated, for this seed will ultimately bear fruit far beyond expectations.
2. Don’t preach the Gospels without showing their place in the Bible’s larger story.
The Gospels are both coherent literary accounts, and the climax of God’s grand story that began in Genesis, unfolds through the Old Testament, and culminates in Christ. Each Gospel presents Jesus the Messiah as the fulfillment of the Old Testament storyline in different ways:
- Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the one in whom the kingdom of heaven has arrived in fulfillment of the Scriptures.
- Mark shows us that Yahweh has made his promised return to save his people in the enigmatic person of the Son of Man (Dan. 7:13–14; Mark 14:61–62), who in a dramatic plot twist is also the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53:11–12; Mark 10:45).
- Luke portrays Jesus as the promised Redeemer of Israel and the nations, the One whose suffering and glory was anticipated by the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.
- John boldly yet allusively presents Jesus as the true Temple, the true manna from heaven, the true light of God’s presence with his people, the true Shepherd of God’s people, the true one in whom the Old Testament hope of resurrection is fulfilled, the true fruit-bearing vine that Israel failed to be, and above all the Great i am who has come to dwell with his people.
Preachers must help people see, as Luther said, how the Old Testament is “the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies,” while also helping people see how Christ brings Scripture’s storyline to a climax and sheds new light on all that has gone before.
3. Don’t preach the Gospels by substituting a history “behind-the-text” for the text itself.
Preachers committed to Scripture should steer clear of another error of critical methodologies: the urge to create a history “behind-the-text” and preach that history instead of preaching the text itself.
What do I mean by this? Historical-critical methodologies have long advocated re-creation of the “historical Jesus,” a supposed wise sage or political zealot (or someone else) who stands behind the highly embellished presentations of the Gospel authors. While evangelicals balk at such ideas, we find ourselves guilty of the same mistake, when, in the interest of apologetics or harmonization, we try to re-construct “what actually happened” and preach that narrative instead of preaching what each Gospel writer is telling us in inspired words. This particular ghost of historical-critical past seems to favor appearances during Christmas season and Passion Week when preachers make a mash of the infancy or passion narratives to recreate and preach their own version of Christ’s birth or death.
Of course, good preachers should employ a wise and judicious approach to harmonization both for apologetic purposes (to help our hearers see that the Gospels complement rather than contradict one another) and for hearing the unique voice of each Gospel. We must, however, resist the urge to preach our own speculative reconstructions with the same authority as the authority of the inspired text itself.
4. Don’t preach the Gospels as if the red letters are more inspired or important than the rest of Scripture.
This point ought to be taken for granted among evangelicals, but the false dichotomy between Jesus’ words and the rest of Scripture is like the unclean spirit that keeps returning to possess churches that have once been exorcised of its influence. For example, it’s becoming increasingly common today, even in evangelical circles, to claim that Jesus “never condemned homosexuality”—or that Jesus advocates a brand of “social justice” that’s different from Paul or other parts of Scripture. When preaching the Gospels, we must be careful not to claim that the Gospels somehow reveal Jesus to us in a way that the rest of the Bible does not, for all of Scripture reveals Christ and him crucified.
Moreover, all of Scripture is the Spirit-inspired product of the Son’s redemptive work: all the words of Scripture are the words of Christ, not just the red-letters (John 14:26; 16:13–15). All of Scripture is God-breathed and is the Word of God (2 Tim 3:16).
In preaching, therefore, we should avoid any kind of verbiage or emphasis that indicates otherwise. Beware the deadly undertow of setting the “red-letters” or “words of Christ” or the Gospels themselves over against the rest of the Old or New Testament!
5. Don’t preach the Gospels without preaching the gospel.
The Gospels have been famously described as “passion narratives with extended introductions,” and rightly so. The shadow of the cross looms large in all four Gospels. As Don Carson says, “In each case the narrative rushes toward the cross and resurrection; the cross and resurrection are the climax.” It’s tempting, for instance, to preach Matthew’s temptation narrative (Matt. 4:1–11) as revealing the example of Jesus overcoming temptation through applying God’s Word. And in one sense, it does. We fail as preachers, however, if we do not also preach this narrative as demonstrating Jesus’ identity as the true and greater Israel and the true and greater Adam, overcoming temptation where all who have gone before him have failed.
Jesus continues living in perfect obedience till once again he hears the voice of his tempter saying “if you are the Son of God,” questioning his divine identity and sonship. But this time, he’s not hungry in the wilderness; he’s now hanging naked on the Cross (Matt 27:40). And yet again, he again overcomes through obedience, thus saving his people from their sin and being granted all authority in heaven and on earth.
The Gospels are portraits of Jesus. But above all, they’re portraits of Christ crucified, the Savior of his people. From the manger to the empty tomb, therefore, our sermons ought to bleed, pointing our hearers to the crucified Messiah King who suffers and dies to redeem his people and rises again to reign over his inaugurated kingdom. The first preacher to herald the arrival of Jesus called him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Go and do likewise!