The Challenge of Narratives 2: Gospels – Part I

Peter has extended comments on this post.

When we come to interpreting the narratives in the Gospels, we are faced with a couple of potential difficulties.  I’ll call it the double challenge of more than one:

1. More than one “author” of the parables. Our goal in interpretation is to grasp the author’s intended meaning.  But which one?  There’s Jesus telling the story in the first place, around AD30, in Aramaic, somewhere in Galilee or Judea.  What did Jesus intend for those original hearers to grasp and learn?  But then there’s Luke, for example, retelling the story, around thirty or more years later, in Greek, to a reader somewhere in the Greek speaking world.  Primarily our concern is with what Jesus intended, but we’d be naïve to think that Luke’s intent was unimportant.  Luke did not struggle to focus, and thereby put together a random gospel.  No, he sequences his material with precision and skill.  We see this when different gospel writers frame the same content in a different sequence of material.  But that is another challenge again.

Next time I’ll give the other half of the challenge, the other “more than one!”

Not a Rule, But a Commitment to Expository Order

I split the preparation process into two.  Stages 1-4 focus on the text.  Stages 5-8 are concerned with forming the message.  Before beginning to think about the message, it is a good idea to consider the listeners (audience analysis).  Until this point the focus is on the text.  From this point on the focus is on both the text and listeners.

Obviously it cannot be a rule that no thought should be given to the listeners in the first half of the preparation process.  Our minds will naturally and often wander onto those for whom we care pastorally.  We will see points of application.  We will have illustrative thoughts coming to mind.  We will remember that their questions of the text must be answered if they are to receive a full message.  At times in the process we will mentally jump ahead and make a note for later in the process (an illustration, a helpful nugget of the wordsmith’s craft, etc.)

However, we should have a strong commitment to keeping our focus on the text in the first part of our preparation.  Brief and even frequent thoughts related to our listeners may be acceptable.  Periodic leaps forward in our notes to record a thought for later in the process is fine.  But first and foremost our objective is to understand the passage.  What did the author mean?  What was his purpose?  What is the idea conveyed in the text itself?

We must make a firm commitment to first truly study the Bible, rather than hunting for a sermon in the sacred text.  The study process should lead to application in our own lives, which should naturally then lead on to an applied message for our listeners.  But our first task is not to find a message, but to let the Scripture be master of our lives, then of our message.  A commitment to expository preaching is a commitment to study the text first.  It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it is a commitment.

Stage 3 – Passage Purpose

The second stage of passage study is all about interpreting the details in the passage. This stage is not complete until you get to the idea, which is actually stage 4. In order to distinguish the stages somewhat, I tend to view stage 2 as determining the flow or outline of the text’s content. This third stage focuses our attention beyond content alone. As you study the passage, you are studying not only the author’s content, but also his intent. Why did he write this passage and what was he trying to achieve? It is the understanding of both content (stage 2) and intent (stage 3) that leads to a full understanding of the passage, its idea (stage 4).

Previously – There have been several posts addressing the issue of authorial intent or passage purpose. Why was the text written as well as purpose and preaching, both touch on this stage significantly. Two posts on preaching help to clarify that the author’s purpose may differ from ours, but we must be careful not to bend the text too far to achieve our own purposes.

To see a full list of all posts that relate to stage 3, please click on the menu to the right.