Preaching the Gospels

Jesus is the main subject of each of the four Gospels. Therefore, the art of applying Gospel passages to Jesus is a relatively easy one. Nevertheless, there remain a couple of tricky exceptions, such as applying Jesus’ own teaching to Jesus and applying Old Testament concepts in the Gospels to Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus is directly teaching about Himself and sometimes Jesus is exhorting His hearers to behave in a certain way. Distinguishing when Jesus is teaching about Himself and when He is exhorting others is a very important first step. For example, Jesus is teaching about Himself, His ministry, and the Kingdom of God in Mark 4. In passages like Mark 4, it is important to help the congregation to see that the primary focus of the teaching is Jesus, not the congregation. When this is well accomplished, the task of applying the text to Jesus is successfully completed.

On the other hand, for much of Matthew 5-7, Jesus is exhorting His hearers. In passages like Matthew 5-7 there is a necessary step that often feels unnatural. That is, the preacher must first apply Jesus’ own teaching to Jesus Himself. For example, it is instructive to demonstrate for the congregation that Jesus perfectly exemplifies all that He is teaching to others. Where possible, it is helpful to point to actual places in the Gospel where Jesus illustrates the point He is teaching by the way in which He lives His life.

For example, Matthew 5:38-39, which instructs us not to retaliate, is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus on the Cross in Matthew 27. Once Jesus’ teaching is applied directly to Jesus, then the congregation can be exhorted both to do as Jesus commands and to do as Jesus does. This strengthens the overall message and ensures that we are consistent in our application of Scripture.

The other delicate point about applying the Gospels to Jesus, which is more challenging than the first, is identifying and applying Old Testament concepts to Jesus. Much of this work should be accomplished during the contextualization process. Nevertheless, it is important to mention this at this juncture also. It is not uncommon for Gospel passages to be nonsensical unless first rooted in the Old Testament. In these instances, the preacher must take the Gospel text, root it in the appropriate Old Testament text, and then reapply the passage to Jesus.

For example, in John 8:58 Jesus says to the Jews: “Before Abraham was, I Am.” The first step is to root this statement in Exodus 3:14 where God says to Moses from the bush: “I Am who I Am… say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” The second step is to clearly show that God’s self-revealed divine Name is ‘I Am.’ The third step is to then apply this knowledge to John 8:58 which provides the conclusion that Jesus is claiming to be God.

When we try to short-cut this process back into the Old Testament then we end up distorting what the Gospel writers are saying about Jesus. For example, if we do not take the time to understand clean and unclean legislation from Leviticus, we cannot understand Mark 7:14-23 or Luke 5:12-16, or a great many other passages.

If we cannot apply the Gospels to Jesus, then we will not be able to apply any part of the Bible to Jesus. The goal in this task is for every Gospel preaching text to focus on the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The simple act of contextualizing the text should make this an easy task.[1]

[1] For more on preaching Christ from the Gospels read: Greidanus, Modern Preacher, chapter 11.

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