Thursday, January 28, 2010

Preaching from the Synoptic Gospels

At yesterday's Ministers' Fraternal at Bradford on Avon, Phil Heaps gave a talk on "Preaching from the Synoptic Gospels". I can't replicate his illustrative white board doodlings, so you'll have to make do with these notes:
1. Form
The Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke share some unique characteristics that cannot be found in other examples of New Testament literature (although there is some crossover with the Gospel According to John). For example, in Mark we have an extended passion narrative that is preceded by short self-contained units of narrative and teaching. Mark 8:27-33 is the turning point of the Gospel. After that point Jesus and his followers travel the road to Jerusalem (8:34-10:52), a journey that culminates in Passion Week (11:1-15:47) and the resurrection narrative (Mark 16).
Matthew and Luke's Gospels are similarly structured, but each includes an introductory nativity narrative that is lacking in Mark, (Luke 1 & 2, Matthew 1 & 2). Narrative sections often have a verse that clearly sets out the purpose of the story. Luke 19:1-10 is not primarily about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus, but Jesus seeking the lost tax collector - Luke 19:10. Luke 15:1-7 & 8-10 are about seeking and finding lost a sheep and coin respectively, but the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) carries an unexpected twist. The "prodigal son" is lost and found (Luke 15:24), but questions remain concerning the Pharisaical older brother (Luke 15:28-32). The twist addresses the problem raised in Luke 15:1-3.
2. Opportunity
Preaching on the Synoptics give us the opportunity to address the central issues of the Christian faith:
1) Person of Jesus - who is he?
2) Mission of Jesus/Nature of God's Kingdom
3) Radical call to discipleship
3. Challenge
We need to be sensitive to the redemptive-historical setting of the Synoptics. The Gospels have one foot in each testament, being rooted in the Old Testament and anticipating the fullness of New Testament revelation. The Evangelists wrote with historical integrity, not reading later church issues back into the period of Jesus' earthly ministry. We ought to be aware of this in our preaching. When Jesus is called the "Son of God" in the Gospels we should not always read the title in the light of later Nicean orthodoxy. Sometimes it simply means that Jesus is the true King of Israel (Psalm 2 cf. John 1:49). Come the Epistles, "Son of God" often means "God the Son". That fuller understanding is certainly not absent altogether from the Gospels. Witness the Trinitarian baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19. Jesus is "Immanuel, God with us", Matthew 1:23 & 28:20. Note also Matthew 11:27.
All of the Gospels are grounded in the Old Testament.
John the Baptist's ministry is set against an Old Testament background. Mark 1:2 cites Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3. In Luke 1 & 2 we have a story of barrenness overcome that is redolent of Old Testament incidents, (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Hannah etc), plus Old Testament-style songs of praise by Mary and Zacharias. Matthew 1 & 2 begins with a genealogy in the style of Chronicles followed by five fulfilment texts citing the Old Testament.
Sometimes the Gospels simply allude to the Old Testament. The wise men who visited Jesus in Matthew 2 remind us of foreign dignitaries paying homage to Solomon. That Jesus faced his enemy, the devil in Matthew 4 immediately after his anointing with the Spirit in Matthew 3 is similar to David's experience with his enemy, Saul after his anointing. John the Baptist baptized people in the river Jordan, reenacting Israel's passage through the Jordan to the land of Canaan. All that was lacking was a Joshua (Jesus) to lead them to the Promised Land. Old Testament covenant blessings and curses are mirrored in Matthew 5 & 23.
One of the ways the Gospels bear witness to the deity of Christ is by applying Old Testament Scriptures to him, Matthew 3:3 cites Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3, which are about the coming of the Lord God to his people. In preparing the way for Jesus, John the Baptist was preparing the way for God.
The New Testament Epistles present a clear doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (1 Corinthians 15:3). This teaching is also found in the Gospels. Luke 22:1, 7 & 13 connect Christ's death with the redeeming Passover sacrifice. Luke 22:20 refers to the new covenant in Christ's blood cf. Jeremiah 31:31ff. Luke 22:37 cites Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant's substitutionary death. The cup in Luke 22:43 alludes to the cup which the Lord makes the wicked drink in the Psalms. Also, the passion narratives deliberately allude to the covenant curses (Jesus is crowned with thorns, handed over to the Gentiles, mocked, plunged into darkness ect), making the point that at Calvary Christ was made a curse for us.
Case study: Mark 4:35-5:43
Mark 4:35-41 (Storm)
Mark 5:1-20 (Demoniac)
Mark 5:21-34 (Sick woman)
Mark 5:35-43 (Jairus' daughter)
In each case we have a problem: a storm, evil in people, sickness and death.
Also, each episode exposes human helplessness. The disciples are helpless in the face of the storm. The Gadarenes cannot to rid the demoniac of the evil power that possessed him. Doctors were unable help cure the sick woman. All are helpless when it comes to the death of Jairus' daughter.
The solution to each of the problems is the same: the word of Jesus, Mark 4:39, 5:8, 27, 34, 41.
By way of application we should not try to spiritualise these events. Rather they should be seen in the setting of the kingdom of God. Jesus' ministry prefigures the age to come. He will deal with chaos in nature, evil in people, sickness and death. Charismatics make the mistake of expecting Jesus to act in exactly the same way now. They assure the sick that they can come to Jesus for healing. He certainly may heal the sick by his power. But the kingdom has not yet been consummated. Natural disasters, evil, sickness and death will still occur. But all will be dealt with when Jesus returns. This has apologetic value. We live in a fallen world. Tragic events like the earthquake in Haiti will happen. But in Jesus God has acted to rescue this world from the the effects of sin. The atheist has no hope that things are going to get better. Those who belong to God's kingdom and follow Jesus the King will seek to show compassion to their fellow human beings (Matthew 5:3, 43-48). Inspired by Jesus' healing ministry Christians have cared for the sick and helped those in need.
This led to some stimulating discussion on issues connected with preaching on the Synoptics. After lunch we drew up a programme for fraternals in the coming year. We'll be looking at "The Christian and the State", "Preparation for Baptism", "Structure and freedom in worship" and "Preaching for a decision".

1 comment:

Brother Arron said...


Thanks for this. Really helpful stuff. Phil is my Pastor's son, but I've never had chance to hear him preach myself. I'm looking forward to it though :D

In Christ,