We should all be interested in homiletics because what is preached to us is of great importance, and how it is preached affects how we comprehend what we hear.
Incidentally, if you would like to hear this post as spoken word, please scroll down to listen.
In a previous article, I gave a very brief evaluation of the three main styles of preaching currently popular – narrative, expository, and topical. However, I didn’t deal with how Jesus preached. He is our model in all things and so in our appreciation of preaching we need to be guided by His methods and practices.
We all know that Jesus often used parables and in essence, a parable is a story and so we could think that Jesus was simply a narrative preacher. But He didn’t just tell stories, He also asked questions to lead into his subjects, on occasions He expounded Old Testament scriptures, and at other times He just addressed a topic in a straightforward manner. Jesus was a narrative preacher, an expository preacher, and a topical preacher. But here is the thing, each time He preached He chose the method best able to meet his objectives. For instance, in his well-known Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) He addressed topics and also expounded on Old Testament scriptures. (Other examples of topical and expository preaching are in Matthew chapters 11, 12, 23, and 24). What is more, when Jesus preached/taught in a style other than parables, He did so with authority and clarity. Matthew 7:29 notes that He taught ‘as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law’. The Pharisees derived their authority from what previous theologians had taught and Jesus criticised them for this when He quoted from Isaiah 29:13, ‘their teachings are but rules taught by men’. (Matthew 15:9). But when Jesus spoke He used words like “I tell you” and his interpretations and declarations were definitive.
Why then did Jesus speak in parables so frequently?
This question was obviously on his disciple’s minds for they asked him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” (Matthew 13:10-17). His answer was surprising and even shocking; “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not to them” And then Jesus paraphrased Isaiah 6:9-10, ‘though seeing they do not see; though hearing they do not hear or understand’. A parable is a story that can be understood at more than one level. At a superficial level it can, for instance, be a story about a farmer sowing seed in his field, but at a deeper level, it teaches important kingdom truth. Those antagonistic to him and his teachings would understand the story but not the underlying truth, but his disciples would have insight into the truth. The parable of the types of soil is a good example of this. After Jesus had told this parable to the crowds the disciples came to him and asked him why he spoke in parables. I have quoted his answer above, but then He added, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it. “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:” (Matthew 13:16-19). Jesus then went on to explain to his disciples the spiritual truth that the parable contained.
The purpose of the parables was not just to hide truth from the opponents of the Gospel, but also to present truth to disciples and genuine enquirers.
For the disciples, they form the rich soil for the seeds of revealed truth, and to the uneducated and uninformed they present a way to gradually and progressively comprehend. Often Jesus would conclude a parable with a clear statement of the main point (i.e Luke 12:40) but on other occasions, He would tell similar parables that when taken together would make it easier for an enquiring soul to comprehend the sub-surface truth. This revelational aspect of the parables is captured in Mark 4:33-34; ‘With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything’.
Today’s church preachers and teachers don’t often deal with hostile crowds of unbelievers, but we do have to allow for enquirers and believers who have little education or exposure to typical westernised teaching methods. Narrative preaching (story-telling) is most beneficial to such people, while on the other hand, when communicating with mature believers or well-educated folk it is probably better to use an expository style and reserve narrative for vivid illustrations within the sermon structure. This dual approach seems to be as close to Jesus’ example as we can get.