I’m pleased to announce that later this month Kregel Academic in Grand Rapids will publish my book Interpreting the Gospels and Acts. This book opens up the whole tool box of exegesis and exposition, from dealing with textual variants and varying Bible translations to writing a sermon that’s relevant for a contemporary audience. You can read the first chapter here. I’m grateful that several seasoned professors and preachers have endorsed the book. It completes Kregel’s Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis series, which has a companion series on the Old Testament. As I explain below, when I began teaching I never thought I would write a book on the Gospels and Acts. Back then it was all about Paul.
The New Book
Interpreting the Gospels and Acts covers the entire gamut of studying and communicating the New Testament narratives found in the Four Gospels and the book of Acts. The chapters are as follows:
- The Genre and Structure of the Gospels and Acts (including embedded genres and the arguments of each book)
- The Historical Setting of the Gospels and Acts (surveying social and cultural backgrounds)
- The Theology of the Gospels and Acts (major themes such as the kingdom of God, and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of Jesus)
- Preparing to Interpret the Gospels and Acts (breaking down textual criticism and translation theory)
- Interpreting Passages in the Gospels and Acts (explaining and illustrating a step-by-step exegetical methodology)
- Communicating Passages in the Gospels and Acts (strategies for application and homiletics)
- From Text to Sermon: Two Examples (working with case studies from Mark and John)
- Selected Resources (a comprehensive, classified bibliography)
One helpful feature of this book, and of the others in the series, is the use of case studies that show the suggested methodology in action. The material on textual criticism discusses Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, and Acts 8:37. Acts 2 is employed to show how contextual analysis works in Luke-Acts. A study of Acts 2:37-47 provides examples word studies, line diagramming, syntactical phrasing, and bridging the worlds of the original and contemporary readers. A study of Jesus and the Spirit in the Gospels and Acts illustrates biblical theology. Moving from text to sermon is demonstrated by studies of Jesus’ parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-20 and the awesome prologue to the Fourth Gospel, John 1:1-18.
The Ongoing Journey
Good exegesis and exposition does not occur in a vacuum. It is a given that biblical interpreters need an awareness of the historical context of the Bible. Awareness of oneself and of one’s audience is arguably just as important. Those who wish to interpret the Bible accurately must be conscious of the subtle ways in which their own historicity influences their methods and conclusions. My journey with the Bible began when God brought me to himself during a Bible study in Romans when I was a senior in high school. My first teachers made sure that I received a Scofield Reference Bible soon after I came to faith. When I look at that Bible today, I notice that the heavily worn pages in one section show that the Pauline corpus was my canon within the canon. My first formal studies in Bible and theology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels also stressed Paul. I came to love Paul’s letters, especially their complicated syntax, linear arguments, and theology of redemption in Christ. The classical dispensational theology I received early on also lionized Paul, and it tended to relegate the Gospels and Acts to the status of an appendix to the Old Testament that provided the historical setting for Paul’s theology of grace. All this led to a dissertation on Romans 5:12–21.
The publication of Robert Gundry’s controversial Matthew commentary in 1982 drew my attention to the genre of the Gospels and their theological message. A month-long study trip to Israel soon afterward led me to love the land of the Bible and to realize that historical geography and social history play an important role in the exegetical process. Reflection on dispensationalism led me to what has become known as its “progressive” version and a greater appreciation of the theological unity of the whole Bible, centering in the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus (not Paul). Early studies in the Gospel according to Matthew showed me that my grasp of Second Temple Judaism was totally inadequate, and led me to studies at Hebrew Union College. Perceptive readers may notice these influences in the pages of this book, as well as in my previous publications on the Gospels.
During the journey I’ve concluded that reading a letter can be interesting, but what’s really interesting is the story behind the letter, and how the letter moves the story ahead. It’s really about the story, not the letter. The letters of Paul make sense only when they are viewed as part of the ongoing story of Jesus, who chose Paul. The story of Jesus makes sense only when it is viewed as the ongoing story of Israel, whose story it fulfills. The story of Jesus is the center of the story of God, the grand biblical meta-narrative stretching from Genesis to Revelation. Paul tells us that Christians center their existence in God’s story every time they participate in the bread and the cup, proclaiming Jesus’ death and anticipating his coming (1 Cor 11:26). Like a bridge connecting two islands or an archway connecting two buildings, the Gospels and Acts connect the story of Israel to the letters of Paul and the reminder of the New Testament. Interpreting the narratives of the Gospels and Acts accurately is essential for the church’s journey in the ongoing story of God.
Two who came before
Anyone who wishes to communicate the message of the Gospels and Acts well should read On Christian Doctrine (De Doctrina Christiana, 397 CE) by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). This essay is about understanding and communicating the Bible. One key point Augustine makes is that any interpretation of Scripture that does not lead Christians to the love of God and of neighbor is a mistaken interpretation (Doctr. chr. 1:36). This brilliant insight links accuracy in interpretation to its ethical outcome. Later in the essay Augustine described the goals of Christian communication as teaching, delighting, and moving (Doctr. chr. 4:10-12). Here Augustine calls interpreters of the Gospels to communicate accurately, beautifully, and persuasively. Those who communicate the Gospels and Acts need to be exegetes, artists, and advocates.
In 1539, when he was only thirty years old, John Calvin (1509-1564) published his commentary on Romans. Calvin’s letter to his friend Simon Grynaeus forms a sort of preface to the commentary, one that expresses Calvin’s basic approach to biblical exegesis. At the beginning of the letter, Calvin says, I remember that three years ago we had a friendly discussion about the best way of interpreting Scripture. The plan which you particularly favoured was also the one which at that time I preferred to any others. Both of us felt that lucid brevity constituted the particular virtue of an interpreter. Since it is almost his only task to unfold the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to expound, he misses the mark, or at least strays outside his limits, by the extent to which he leads his readers away from the meaning of his author. Calvin went on to say near the end of the letter, It is, therefore, presumptuous and almost blasphemous to turn the meaning of Scripture around without due care, as though it were some game that we were playing.
It is my hope that Augustine’s and Calvin’s ideals for interpreting and communicating the biblical text have been modeled and will be furthered by this exegetical handbook.
Soli Deo Gloria.
We conclude with Peter’s interpretation of the message of the Gospels for Cornelius and his household:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts
from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing
the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is LORD of all. You know
what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee
after the baptism that John preached—
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power,
and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under
the power of the devil, because God was with him.
We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in
Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him
from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not
seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—
by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one
whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets
testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of
sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34-43 NIV)