Thursday, March 24, 2016

Should We Preach Harmonies?

Since the beginning of the year, I have been preaching expositionally through Mark's Gospel. I am reminded of a constant question I have when it comes to preaching: should we preach harmonies especially when preaching through the Gospels? For example, when preaching on the temptation of Jesus in Mark 1:12-13, should we fill in the gaps by referring the congregation back to Matthew 4? Or should we just preach what Mark has without making much of the details supplied by either Matthew or Luke? Sometime ago after completing my sermon series on Matthew, I discussed the issue. I offer that same post below.
 

After more than two hundred sermons, I have finally completed preaching through the entire Gospel of Matthew. Even then it feels as if there is still much to say. Nevertheless, each week during this process I turned to some of the same resources to aide my exegesis. John MacArthur is, without a doubt, at the top of that list. I utilized all of his sermons, four-volume commentaries, and numerous books.

Throughout the process, I noticed a trend in his preaching that is consistent throughout all of his sermons of the four Gospels. MacArthur has a tendency to harmonize the Evangelists (and he is not the only preacher).

This tendency is most prevalent in his handling of the passion of Christ. Though there is a general flow of the Gospels, at times one Evangelist will include a detail that the others leave out. Matthew includes the strange account of bodies being raised from the dead, Luke includes Jesus condemning Israel while carrying his cross, and John is perhaps the most unique. The tendency was to pause his exegesis of one Evangelist in order to "fill in the gaps" provided by the others.

Here is my question? Should an expositor adopt this practice?

After having preached through an entire Gospel I want to propose that though there might be times with "filling in the gaps" or harmonizing the Gospels might be necessary, the preacher should avoid this approach to preaching.

My reasoning is simple. Expository preaching has as its primary objective to proclaim to the congregation the author/Spirit's original intent. Therefore, isolating one's interpretation and presentation of the text to the author allows the expositor to proclaim that message. Matthew is unique from the other Evangelists. Each bring to the table a unique perspective of the same story. By isolating each Evangelists, the preacher can better handle the text.

Perhaps a few examples will suffice. At certain points throughout Matthew's Gospel, the Evangelists interrupts the narrative with a short vignette. In chapter 26, for example, the conspiracy against Christ is interrupted with the story of a woman (unnamed in Matthew's account) pouring an expensive perfume on Jesus. The purpose ought to be obvious to the reader: Judas and the scribes are conspiring to Jesus' death while an unnamed, humbled woman is in worship preparing Jesus for his burial.

Similarly, in Matthew 27, the narrative of Jesus before Pilate is interrupted with the vignette of Judas' suicide (found only in Matthew's Gospel). It seems to me that Matthew's purpose is theological. By interrupting the flow of the narrative, Matthew is juxtaposing a number of things including two acts of repentance (Peter and Judas) and two deaths upon a tree (Jesus and Judas).

This unique style of storytelling is lost when we spend as much time harmonizing the Gospels as opposed to allowing Matthew be Matthew. The Gospels are deeply theological and it is important to allow the theology of each Gospel to speak. Though we might turn to the other Evangelists for help occasionally, we must not let them drown out the voice of the author before us. If an Evangelist leaves out or adds a detail, let the interpreter make note because it is (or not) there on purpose.

This is why I prefer to isolate a book and author and allow them to speak. Each biblical writer is a competent theologian in their own right - a lesson I learned from exegeting Matthew.

So preacher, preach the text, not the harmonies.
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