Inspired Preaching in the New Testament: An Introductory Look
A. Boyd Luter
As good news addressed to the church, the written Gospels themselves are a form of preaching (kerygma). Moreover, the Gospels are rooted in the preaching of Jesus and the apostles.
"Jesus came... preaching" (Mark 1:14).
The tradition of preaching from the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus continued with the apostles (Acts 5:42). In addition, other persons shared in gospel proclamation (Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11); in fact, the whole church at times became involved in forms of preaching (Acts 8:4).... From the beginning, preaching seems to have been varied in both mode and content.
One of the most characteristic features of Acts is the presence of many speeches interspersed throughout the narrative. Altogether these comprise nearly a third of the text of Acts, about 300 of its approximately 1,000 verses.
The preaching recorded in the Gospels and Acts is (to be guilty of vast understatement) powerful stuff! It is, quite honestly, difficult to imagine more skillful and spellbinding communication than Jesus' masterpiece, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). And consider the astoundingly far-reaching, heart-piercing impact (Acts 2:37) of Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost (2:14-36): three thousand conversions (2:41)!
We live in a rapid-fire culture, which is very different from the New Testament era in many respects. However, we may be more alike in regard to one overlooked area than we ever notice: the tendency to summarize. For example, a running summary of the key points of the President's State of the Union address seems, to many among us, long and drawn out in comparison to the sound bites that are the staple of the nightly news.
As we look at Scripture through this kind of cultural lens, it never occurs to us to ask why the messages recorded in the New Testament are so short. By contrast, the information provided in the Scripture itself very clearly points to the fact that the actual presentation of what we have of Peter's second message in Acts lasted some two and one-half to three hours (compare Acts 3:1 and 4:1-3). Longer still was Paul's seemingly impromptu "talk" (Gk. logos) to the believers in Troas (Acts 20:6-7), which began after the evening meal and the congregational taking of the Lord's Supper ("gathered together to break bread") and continued until midnight.
Similarly, we believe the vast majority, if not all, of the sermons included in the New Testament books are likely summarized. That perspective does not, however, undermine the nature of those sermons in any way. They are, without question, the most extraordinary (not to mention divinely inspired and inerrant!) examples of preaching available, worthy of our most reverent and meticulous study.
In keeping with that perspective, the remainder of this chapter will deal with, in overview: (1) the importance of preaching, as revealed in key passages in the New Testament; (2) the nature of preaching in the New Testament, as understood from the major terms used; and (3) the major instances of preaching seen within the books of the New Testament. The final section, a brief introductory consideration of the major book-length genres (i.e., literary forms) in the New Testament, will set the stage for the next chapter. There we will begin to lay out our case for viewing the New Testament books in their entirety (i.e., whole) as preaching.
Out of respect, many classic treatments of how to preach begin with a discussion, usually brief, of the importance of preaching. The following section is our attempt, however feeble, to lay out seven principles that reflect the high regard for preaching reflected in the New Testament.
The Lord Jesus pointedly preached the nature of servant leadership to the apostles (Matt. 20:20-28). Apparently that humbling lesson was branded on Peter's heart at that time, and he never forgot it. When, in later ministry, it was necessary for him to speak to the issue of proper leadership, he unashamedly presented it as an integral part of the way local church leaders are to handle their roles (1 Pet. 5:3).
Such church leadership roles require articulating the Word of God (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). Hence, even as Jesus preached as a natural outgrowth of being the classic servant-leader (Matt. 20:28), so must preachers today view themselves as servant-leaders at core and pulpiteers in the overflow of such servant-leadership. That biblically informed perspective, as simple as it may seem, transforms entirely the way one perceives "greatness" (Matt. 20:25-28) in ministry, including greatness in preaching.
Christ's marching orders to his church at the end of the first Gospel (Matt. 28:19-20), better known as the Great Commission, are structured as an imperative with three related participles. The command is to "make disciples." The disciple-making process is made up of three steps: (1) go(ing); Because of its form and emphatic position in front of the governing imperative, not a few scholars choose to render the Greek poreuthentes here as a virtual command: "Go." Others, however, prefer to translate the participle as "when you go" or "as you go."(2) baptizing; and (3) teaching.
Going means to make the gospel message available (i.e., by proclamation) to "all the nations" (28:19). The baptizing (28:19) is for those hearers who respond to the going with the gospel in saving faith. The teaching is for those new believers who have been baptized and need to be taught in order to begin to grow toward full obedience (28:20).
Therefore, the Great Commission, as the Lord Jesus Christ laid it out, basically turns out to be a double-dose of preaching with baptism sandwiched in between. The "in-breadth" preaching is the offering of "the Good News" to everyone, everywhere ("all the nations"). The "in-depth" preaching is the ongoing biblical instruction of baptized believers that makes for the maturing of the next generation of those who will seek to carry out the Lord's commission by preaching "wide and deep." Together, it can be rightly said that these complementary aspects of preaching are designed to function as nothing less than our Lord's designated "one-two punch" to reach the world and biblically transform the hearers of his message of Good News.
Since it is tucked away at the very end of the body of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, many people have never noticed the following words: "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus" (Rom. 15:4-5).
Now, at first glance, this passage may not seem to have anything to do with preaching. Such a view would, however, be premature and very shortsighted. That can be seen quite readily by comparing the flow of thought in these two verses:
Obviously, Paul is here saying that God is the source (Rom. 15:5) of the "perseverance" and "encouragement" that come through instruction in the Scriptures (Rom. 15:4). Thus, there is great encouragement to preach and to persevere in doing so, that others might be encouraged and persevere as a result of hearing the proclamation.
Inspired Scripture is to transform the life of the person being equipped for ministry (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But that change is not an end in itself. At least one very crucial part of the wider ministry role is faithful proclamation of the Bible (2 Tim. 4:2) and, relatedly, evangelism (2 Tim. 4:5). Hence, the Word of God is expected to first apply to the preacher and then, through him, to his hearers. There is no guarantee, though, that it will be received by those hearers (2 Tim. 4:2-4). With God's human "mouthpieces," the key issue is faithfulness (2 Tim. 4:5), not eloquence or success.
When we back off and consider this passage for a moment, it seems that Paul is basically saying to Timothy, "Just let Scripture 'do its thing.' Just allow it to do what the Lord designed it to do." Put another way, God breathed out (i.e., as inspired revelation) his Word to us, and, as a result, our belief structures and lifestyles are retooled. In turn, he expects us to faithfully "breathe out" (i.e., as inspiring preaching) his written Word that others might be doctrinally and behaviorally renovated.
Since one part or another of the psalm is quoted four times in the space of nineteen verses, it is quite clear that Hebrews 3:7-4:13 is an extended practical exposition of Psalm 95:7-11. It is fascinating to track the thought of the writer of Hebrews in his use of the Psalm 95 citation. He seems to have focused in particular on how David, in Psalm 95, had paralleled the sad events at what was named Massah and Meribah in Exodus 17, which had taken place well over four hundred years before David's time, to the tendency toward hard-heartedness among his hearers in his day. From an interpretative standpoint, David viewed Exodus 17 as timeless in its application and, in Psalm 95, he did in fact apply that timeless truth in a very timely manner.
The author of Hebrews does much the same. He picks up on the word today in Psalm 95 and uses it repeatedly (Heb. 3:7, 15; 4:7) as his biblical base-point for timely application to his hearers. As a skilled preacher but one who is very compassionate toward but realistic about the current stubborn and unbelieving mind-set of his audience, he hammers on the need to respond now (i.e., "today"). It could be said very accurately that he is "preaching for a verdict" in Hebrews 3-4. At the very least, the writer is seeking to let the "living and active" Word of God (in this case, Psalm 95) do its "piercing" (Heb. 4:12) and transforming work in his hearers' lives.
It is sometimes noted that Revelation 1:3 is the only place in the Bible in which a blessing is pronounced for reading Scripture. Such a statement is totally well intended and is true... as far as it goes. It must be noted, however, that when the verse says, "Blessed is he who reads," it is not talking about sitting down and reading the Scripture silently, as is customary to us.
Rather, there is a very important reason "he who reads" is singular in Revelation 1:3, while "those who hear" is plural. The dynamics of this verse have to do with the oral setting of a church service. One person is standing and reading the Book of Revelation, while the congregation "hears" (there was no printed, or even hand-copied, document for the congregation to follow along during the reading).
Hence, the "reading" of Revelation 1:3 has basically the practical force of preaching and, again, it is preaching for a behavioral verdict. The process to receive the "blessing" in Revelation 1:3 is not complete until there has been application of what has been heard and resulting lifestyle transformation. That is what is meant by the last phrase: "And heed the things which are written."
Certainly, this verse should be clear to every believer. It is nothing less than a great "blessing" to internalize the Scriptures and let them have their way in our lives.
However, when the exegetical details above have been carefully sifted, it is clear that the original direct "blessing" was related to the oral reading and open-hearted hearing (i.e., "with ears to hear" [Rev. 2:7, 11, etc.]) of God's written Word, much like what we are calling "inspired preaching" in this book. That "blessing" is also still available to God's people as they hear the Word read and let the complementary power of its oral quality sink in on them alongside the effects of standard silent reading.
As will be seen in the next chapter, the normal way in which most letters and many other documents of the New Testament era were produced was through an author dictating to a secretary. The interesting thing about the Apocalypse is that, in this case, the primary (divine) author is the risen Christ (Rev. 1:5, 8). John serves as the human coauthor (1:4, 9) but, more than anything else, in the sense of serving as Christ's stenographer (1:11, 19).
Thought of this way, Revelation begins to look like what could be called a "relay-team sermon." Christ does most of the initial (inspired) "talking," so to speak, then hands the baton to John for editorial comments and passing the baton on to the churches (Rev. 1:4, 11; chs. 2-3), where the Apocalypse is read by either the courier or some leader (1:3), though the Holy Spirit is also "speaking" ("hear what the Spirit says to the churches"; 2:7, 11, etc.) through the reading and hearing.
Since this is the focus of the discussion in the next chapter, it will be sufficient, at this point, to point out that such interaction between the author/preacher (sometimes the Lord, as here) and another person writing the proclaimed content is not a puzzling occurrence in the New Testament, not even a rarity. As will be seen consistently throughout this entire volume, such instances are actually "windows" into the prevailing oral culture that was the New Testament era. In order to properly understand what we are dealing with, we must face the mass of such evidence and its significant implications. Otherwise, it is like refusing to wear a pair of glasses that can correct our myopia (nearsightedness) when studying the New Testament.
Before going further, it will be helpful to examine the primary words for preaching that are used in the New Testament. As will be seen, there are two primary terms for preaching in the New Testament, though there are also a number of other ways in which the function of preaching is described.
In the ancient world, the herald played the role of making public announcements or proclamations. In a society without print or telephones or television or e-mail (which we take for granted in our culture), the herald played a vitally important role.
There are two additional elements related to the role of "herald" (Gk. kērux) that need to be understood to explain why the term was applied so readily to preaching. In the first place, in almost all cases, the herald was not proclaiming the message (Gk. kērugma) on his own authority. He was speaking on behalf of someone else, often some high-ranking official. Secondly, the proclamation usually carried with it the force of an "appeal." In other words, it was anything but a monotone "announcement," such as the kind of thing that actor Ben Stein has perfected as his "signature" schtick.
The idea "to herald" (Gk. kērusso) is fairly common in the New Testament, being used about sixty times. Of these uses, one is found in 2 Timothy 4:2, a context spoken of above. When Paul commanded Timothy, "Preach the Word," it was precisely this kind of authoritative proclamation that the apostle had in mind. And that was particularly important for Timothy to hear at that point in time. He was naturally timid, anyway. But the wider context of 2 Timothy indicates that Timothy was thoroughly discouraged and beaten down, perhaps depressed. At the very least, in regard to his preaching responsibilities in the church at Ephesus, he was not oozing with personal confidence at the thought of going back into the congregational setting to preach.
By his use of kērusso here, Paul seems to be saying, "Tim, you have to take responsibility for what the Lord has called you to do and preach. But remember, you are not up there representing yourself, and you're not proclaiming your own message, expecting it to make all the difference in people's lives. You are 'heralding' the God-breathed message, which packs divine authority and has the power to transform your hearers, even as it has you."
That passage is disproportionately dear to me, because I am, naturally, a "timid Timothy" when it comes to preaching. Public speaking (of any sort) is the last thing in the world I would have done vocationally, if I had been allowed the final choice in the matter. But the Lord had other ideas. And, graciously, he continues to remind me that it is not my "word" that I proclaim. I represent him, and his Word packs a punch that mine never could. He wants me to be concerned with faithful "heralding" (2 Tim. 4:2-5) and he will take care of the rest.
So there's our first word for New Testament preaching in a nutshell: Kērusso means to herald as an authoritative appeal. And preaching is still to be viewed as just such an authoritative appeal (i.e., on behalf of the all-powerful Creator and sustainer of the universe, to those made in his image, for whom he cares very deeply) in our day as much as it was in societies in which they knew instantly the function and delegated authority of a "herald."
The Greek verb angellō (from which we get "angel" [i.e., God's "messenger"]) means simply "to tell." It does not necessarily imply the tone of message being passed on, just that a message is being delivered. Theoretically, the message could be good, bad, or indifferent.
However, the addition of the little Greek prefix eu, with a range of meaning from good to splendid, changes things considerably. When the term euangelizō is used, the messenger is, unequivocally, delivering "Good News." There is nothing bad about it, other than in refusing to hear it or rejecting it.
So powerfully did the term euangelizō impact the ministry of preaching in the New Testament that we operate within a complex of its "kissing cousin" Greek terms to even carry on a decent discussion about preaching ministry. The Good News we deliver is, literally, "the Good News." That may sound like double-talk, but that is exactly what "gospel" (Gk. euangelion) means: "good news." And the person delivering that Good News can be called an "evangelist" (Gk. euangelistes). Some are evangelists specially gifted by the Lord (Eph. 4:11), though it appears that all are to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5), in faithfully preaching the gospel message, whether they possess the gift of evangelism (another of our spin-off terms from euangelizō) or not.
Preachers sometimes need to be reminded that, literally by definition, we are in the business of preaching "Good News." In a world in which the morning newspaper and the evening news are almost constantly focused on bad news, we can easily be sucked into that kind of mentality. In too many of our churches, we run into people whose countenances project the sense that "if there weren't bad news, as far as I'm concerned, there wouldn't be any news at all."
Nothing could be further from the truth! We preach "Good News." It is, in fact, "splendid news," the best news of all. As preachers, the Good News is that we can say to people, "I've got Good News" and the only sense in which "and I've got bad news" even comes up is in regard to those who turn away from the Good News. In that light, it is readily apparent why Paul could say, "I am not ashamed of the gospel [Gk. euangelion], for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).
As important as these terms are, the full essence of New Testament preaching cannot be balled up in "heralding" and "preaching Good News." There are additional ways to express what is involved in preaching, as well as other nuances that need to be clarified.
For just a quick sampler: In Mark 2:2 Jesus "speaks" (Gk. laleō) the Word. In John 1:15 John the Baptist "testifies" (Gk. manureō). In Acts 2:40 Peter "exhorts" (Gk. parakaleō) on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 18:26 Apollos "spoke boldly" (Gk. parrēsiazomai) in the synagogue. In Acts 23:6 Paul "cried out" (Gk. krazō) in the Sanhedrin. In Ephesians 6:19 Paul "made known" (Gk. gnorizō) the mystery of the gospel.
We may be more comfortable with the term preaching (whether the "heralding" or "delivering Good News" angle is in view). But all these other terms deal with aspects or dimensions of preaching that are equally important. Thus, as with beautiful flowers, "a rose (in this case, preaching) by any other name smells just as sweet." It still delivers the authoritative Good News that turns lives right side up.
Sometimes the impression is left that there were only a handful of great preachers in the New Testament era: Jesus, Paul, Peter, Apollos, and a few others. That is hardly the case—a point proven by the fact that the longest message recorded in the Book of Acts, one that was dearly characterized by wisdom and the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:10; 7:55), was delivered by Stephen (7:2-53).
The following is an overview survey of some of the "preaching and preachers" in the New Testament. Most of those we will see are "the usual suspects." Some may be surprising. Hopefully, all will be enlightening.
In the Gospel of Matthew, before the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, John the Baptist comes on the scene "preaching" (Gk. kerussō) in the wilderness (3:1). Jesus' preaching ministry in Matthew is elegantly structured as five major messages, the longest of which are the first (the Sermon the Mount), which is three chapters long, and the last (the Olivet Discourse), which is two chapters long. And, since Matthew records that Jesus fed crowds well in excess of 10,000 at least twice, it is highly likely that Jesus regularly preached to massive crowds. Clearly, to Matthew, preaching was a major consideration, since in the neighborhood of one-third of the First Gospel is fairly directly related to preaching.
In the Gospel of Mark, by far the shortest (and often the tersest) Gospel, Jesus is the primary preacher. There are noteworthy examples of the Savior's preaching in Mark 3, 4, 7, 9, and 12. Mark's version of the Olivet Discourse, which is fairly similar to Matthew's, though lacking most of the parabolic material at the end of Matthew 24 and in chapter 25, is in Mark 13.
In the Third Gospel, there is a greater variety of those who could be said to "preach" in some sense. For example, even though their only hearers were each other, there is a sense in which Elizabeth and Mary "preached" to one another in regard to the messianic significance of the babies within their wombs (Luke 1:42-55). Then, several months later, Zacharias, John the Baptist's father, who had been muted because of his unbelief (1:20), had his tongue loosened by the Holy Spirit and "prophesied" (1:68-79).
As in Matthew, the preaching of John the Baptist is recorded (Luke 3). The featured preacher, though, is definitely Jesus, with messages found in Luke 4, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 22. Luke's version of the Olivet Discourse is found in chapter 21. It is noteworthy that all the preaching in the middle section of Luke's Gospel (chs. 9-19), often called the "Travelogue," are distinctive to Luke.
In the Gospel of John, it is solely Jesus who does the preaching. Whether it is evangelistic preaching to Nicodemus (John 3) or the Samaritan woman (John 4), or didactic teaching to the apostles in the Upper Room Discourse (John 14-16), or a number of other extended didactic passages (e.g., John 5, 6, 8, 10, 12), John has recorded many magnificent sermons that enrich our feel for New Testament preaching.
As has been seen, in the Gospels the dominant preacher is Jesus. It is daunting for any sinful human preacher to seek to emulate the proclamation of the sinless God-Man, since it is impossible to duplicate his level of effectiveness. But, although none of us will ever be Jesus, because he was human and divine, much that is helpful can still be learned from his "inspired preaching," to make for "inspiring preaching" today, as will be seen at various points later in the book.
The preaching in the Book of Acts changes dramatically from the Gospels, if for no greater reason than Jesus has ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9-10). It is the preaching of his primary followers, his closest disciples: apostolic preaching, dominated largely by Peter—with five major messages—and Paul—with seven major messages, but including several other notable (and surprising) examples.
The first great preacher of the infant church was unquestionably the apostle Peter. This does not seem strange to us, due to our immense respect for Peter as one of the "pillars" of the church (Gal. 2:9). However, from the standpoint of previous Scripture, it is nothing short of astounding! Consider his less-than-awe-inspiring record as the spokesman for the apostolic band following Jesus, in which he could plummet from a verbal spiritual "A+" to "Get behind me, Satan," in the space of seven verses (i.e., from Matt. 16:16 to 16:23). Nor is the reader's confidence in the likelihood of Peter's becoming a great preacher enhanced much by his denial of Christ (Matt. 26:69).
However, it is a dramatically different Peter that we witness preaching on the day of Pentecost. In the power of the Holy Spirit, three thousand people were converted through Peter's message (Acts 2:41). By the conclusion of Peter's second recorded sermon, the number of male converts is recorded as "about five thousand" (4:4), which implies that there were many women and children not numbered, perhaps easily tripling or quadrupling the number.
But before we can get used to the extraordinary evangelistic harvest seen in Peter's first two messages in Acts, the nature of Peter's messages changes significantly. In Acts 4, he speaks to the "rulers and elders and scribes" (4:5). In chapters 10 and 11, it is Cornelius the Gentile and his household in Caesarea. Then, finally, at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, Peter's message to the assembled "apostles and elders" (Acts 15:2) was to the effect that his ministry demonstrated that God was saving Gentiles "through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way" as he was the Jews (Acts 15:11). That was a powerful testimony, coming from the apostle to the Jews.
Interestingly, the next "preacher" in Acts is a nonbeliever: Paul's former pharisaic mentor, the great Jewish teacher, Gamaliel. In his "sermon" to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5, Gamaliel counsels caution in acting against the rapidly growing church in Jerusalem by citing known events from relatively recent Jewish history. He then draws this conclusion: If the church is not of God, he says, it will fall apart. If it is of God, though, it cannot be overthrown and the Jews will "be found fighting against God." This, of course, turns out to be an ironic preview of the Jewish persecution of the spread of the gospel and the church throughout the rest of Acts.
Next is the courageous "unto death" sermon preached by Stephen in Acts 7. Its lengthy retelling of the history of Israel displays a remarkable grasp of how Jewish leaders had so often tended to be "stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears and always resisting the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51). The confrontational and convicting nature of Stephen's sermon was not exactly designed to "win friends and influence people." It, of course, got him stoned.
This tragic ending, of course, would seem to imply that Stephen's preaching was a failure. However, when all aspects are considered, virtually the opposite may well be the case. Certainly Stephen was faithful in his ministry of preaching, even "out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2-5). And it may well be that a seed was planted in the mind and heart of Saul by the bold preaching of Stephen that later played a role in his conversion on the Damascus road (Acts 9).
The next preacher in Acts is Paul, and more of his messages are recorded than of any other preacher. Part of the reason is that four of his seven extended messages are in the context of defending himself within the Jewish and Roman legal systems (Acts 22, 23, 24, and 26). The other three are (1) in a Jewish synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13); (2) to the philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17); and (3) to the elders of the church of Ephesus at Miletus (Acts 20). These sermons seem to have been chosen to reflect the diversity of Paul's preaching situations.
It is widely agreed that one of the ways in which Luke has structured the Book of Acts is to parallel the ministries of Peter (in Acts 1-12) and Paul (in Acts 13-28). That being the case, it would be expected that there would be a parallel between the recorded observations of the explosive evangelistic response to Peter's preaching in Jerusalem in Acts 2-4 should be seen in the preaching ministry of Paul. That does, in fact, occur, as Luke describes the evangelistic overflow of Paul's preaching and teaching in Ephesus, particularly in the "school of Tyrannus," that, incredibly, reached "all who lived in [the Roman province of] Asia" (Acts 19:8-10).
The final example of preaching in Acts is James, in Acts 15. It appears to have been included because it is the decisive persuasive message that led to the consensus reached by the Jerusalem council.
In summary, the Book of Acts records a wide array of examples of preaching. While there are a considerable number of parallels between the preaching of Peter and Paul, each ultimately demonstrates flexibility and effectiveness in preaching in varied Jewish and Gentile settings, as well as on multiple occasions before authorities with incarceration on the line. The varied preaching of Stephen and James, as well as the ironic inclusion of a message by the Pharisee, Gamaliel, adds spice to the mix. Suffice it to say that Acts is a rich resource for insight in regard to New Testament preaching, both its theological basis and its outworking in ministry.
When I went to seminary in the early 1970s, many evangelicals were just beginning to realize that biblical hermeneutics might be somewhat more difficult than reading and understanding a newspaper. What most didn't realize was that the analogy between a newspaper and the Bible was indeed a useful one, just not in the way that it had been used previously, in emphasizing the simplicity of biblical interpretation.
Think about it: In a newspaper, there are a number of different kinds of literature, ranging, for example, from front-page hard-news stories, to opinion/editorial pieces, to self-help features, to obituaries, to comic strips, to television or movie reviews. And (even though we tend to take this for granted, having grown up in a culture with newspapers), each of these types of writing must be interpreted on its own terms (i.e., by the established rules of interpretation of its field), if it is to be understood accurately. If, however, a person who had never seen a newspaper picked one up and tried to read and understand it, how successful would the attempt be, without obtaining at least some basic background knowledge of how various kinds of newspaper writing function? Not very, I'm afraid.
While there are several kinds of shorter literary forms in the New Testament, it contains only three major types of literature: (1) historical-biographical books (the Gospels and Acts); (2) epistle/letter (from Romans through Jude); and (3) apocalyptic/prophecy (Revelation). As with our newspapers, for accurate interpretation to take place, each of these genres must be understood in terms of the established literary conventions of its day for that type of literary communication.
Since we will be covering the entirety of the New Testament in the remainder of the book, it is not my purpose here to discuss these three major genres in any depth. It is rather to whet the appetite for the fact that, to a significant degree, it is the distinctiveness of each that provides its flair. If "variety is the spice of life," then, as will be seen, the New Testament is a spicy dish, indeed.
As literature, the Gospels and Acts are unique in the ancient world, a truly artistic blend of history and theology in presenting the person, life, ministry, and saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. As God's Word, they are completely historically trustworthy, while reflecting the theological perspectives and emphases the authors chose to communicate most effectively to their distinctive audiences. Since it is virtually certain that what each writer presents is reflective of previous oral teaching to some extent (at the least, their own preaching ministries about Jesus), and since the first words in the Second Gospel are "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Mark 1:1a), the feel of what we could call the "semi-sermonic" pervades these books.
What I mean to say here is that, although they record the preaching ministry of Christ in what are almost surely summarized sermons, the more sermonic aspect of the Gospels and Acts is actually that, in their canonical form, they "preach" just as they are. Yes, we break them down into "bite-size chunks" for the purpose of preaching an expositional series. That is a great help for more in-depth understanding of the biblical text. But from a "big-picture" standpoint, in answer to the foundational questions "Who is Jesus Christ?" and "How did the church of Jesus Christ get started?" reading a particular Gospel or Acts without comment, holistically, as an extended "sermon" is hard to beat.
The New Testament Epistles bear a striking resemblance to the epistolary examples of that era that have survived (although, on average, they are several times longer than extra-biblical letters). Accordingly, they all have some form of introduction and conclusion, with a body sandwiched in between. In that respect, their format is basically identical with almost every sermon I have ever heard preached. This observation is, to some extent, a legitimate reflection of their oral/rhetorical quality, as will be seen clearly in the next chapter.
Beyond this basic form, though, the epistolary writings in the New Testament are anything but stereotypical. In length and feel, they run the gamut from the "brief note" feel of Philemon and 2 and 3 John to the sense of an extended logical treatise (e.g., Romans) or elegant rhetoric (e.g., Hebrews). Suffice it to say that the letters found in the New Testament are more like family members who have much in common but otherwise are very different. They are more than virtual clones of one another.
From the standpoint of relating preaching to the epistolary genre, at the very least it should be observed that the New Testament letters have the shape and the various sizes and tones of most of the different kinds of messages you hear preached. Longer, shorter—more formal, less formal—usually delivered against the backdrop of some practical occasion or issues... as much of a "stand-in" for preaching as could be conceived in that day. No wonder Harvey can say, "Letter writing was as dose to face-to-face communication as first-century correspondents could come."
The Book of Revelation is more like Daniel or Ezekiel in the Old Testament than any other book in the New Testament. It is legitimate to refer to it as "apocalyptic," given that is as dose to a title as we have for the book: "The Revelation (Gk. apokalupsis) of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:1). This explains all the mind-boggling "picture imagery" (i.e., vision symbolism) in the Apocalypse.
However, Revelation is not just apocalyptic. It is also more or less equally "prophecy" (1:3; which explains the specific predictions of a nonsymbolic nature) and, although this is not as high-profile, "epistle" (note the standard way New Testament letters begin [i.e., author, recipients, greetings] in 1:4), which is seen in the role the seven churches of Asia (1:4, 11; chs. 2-3) play in the book.
In many respects, Revelation is an extended message by the glorified Christ to the churches (compare Rev. 2:1 and 2:7) through an angel recorded by John as a kind of human secretary (1:1-2, 11, 19). Thus, from the very beginning the Apocalypse has the feel of a sort of exotic sermon. Between the uniquely blended genres and the subject matter, much can be learned about powerful and provocative preaching.
In regard to the study of these genres, though, what is often not grasped by evangelicals is that the New Testament era was a time in which the transition from an oral to a written society was far from complete. As John Harvey aptly observes:
The popular culture of the first century was, technically, a rhetorical culture. In a rhetorical culture, literacy is limited, and reading is vocal. Even the solitary reader reads aloud (Acts 8:30). The normal mode of writing is by dictation, and that which is written down is intended to be read aloud to a group rather than silently by the individual. Such a culture is familiar with writing, but is, in essence, oral. The predominantly oral nature of a rhetorical culture requires speakers to arrange their material in ways that can be followed easily by a listener. Clues to the organization of thought are, of necessity, based on sound rather than on sight.
In a culture of this type, communication was primarily conceived in the oral/aural dimension, even if it was written down and passed along in "literary" form. This means that, while we must, obviously, work with the written (literary) product of the New Testament books if we are to play fair with the realistic transitional nature of communication in the New Testament era, there is an equally important oral/rhetorical dimension that must be understood. Beginning to come to terms with that overlooked oral (dare I say "preaching") quality is the focus of the next chapter.