Mathewson, Steven D. The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002. 279 pp. $26.00.
Reviewed by Kyle D. Rapinchuk
The ministry of preaching is a tall order when one considers not only the weightiness of the task but also the sheer volume of biblical material. Such a great amount of Scripture makes it inevitable that much of it will be left unexplored from the pulpit in any given congregation. Nevertheless, though not every passage can be preached in every church, it is alarming the number of pastors who have entirely disregarded Old Testament narratives as preachable material. Moreover, among those who do venture into Old Testament narratives, a vast number do so poorly or do not do so expositionally. In his book, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, pastor and professor Steven Mathewson laments this same problem and seeks to rectify the situation by teaching pastors how to preach Old Testament narratives effectively (20).
Mathewson divides his work into three sections. Part one, “From Text to Concept,” encompasses chapters two through seven and focuses on the task of exegesis. Mathewson argues that the first step in preparing any narrative sermon is to begin with exegeting the text to find the author’s main point (34). Once the author’s main point is ascertained, the exegete can move on to the “big idea” of the text (39). Mathewson then develops the significance of plot (primary concern), characters, setting, and point of view. In chapter seven, “Narrowing the Focus,” Mathewson provides guidance for determining the big idea of a text.
Part two, “From Concept to Sermon,” which consists of chapters eight through fifteen, is concerned with crafting the sermon. Mathewson suggests that a narrative sermon must answer three functional questions: explanation, validation, and application (95). The next two chapters, nine and ten, focus on condensing the author’s big idea and drawing from that big idea a purpose of the sermon. Though the purpose of the sermon does not necessarily need to be synonymous with the big idea, it must be derived closely from the big idea or the sermon lacks solid biblical foundation. Chapters eleven and twelve focus on the process of shaping and structuring the sermon. Mathewson provides a detailed analysis of various types of sermon shapes, suggesting that narrative material lends itself to an inductive rather than deductive approach, though he does discuss nuances such as a flashback and inductive-deductive model (112-121). He follows this discussion with tips for outlining a sermon as well as giving examples. Chapter thirteen gives practical advice for effective storytelling, while chapter fourteen explains the importance of a good entrance and exit (introduction and conclusion) and gives specific examples such as use of questions, quotations, and moving right into the story, which he terms a “cold open”(148). Finally, chapter fifteen is devoted to the sermon delivery, providing information regarding effective speaking, staging, gestures, props, etc. Ultimately, his main point in this chapter is to exhort the pastor to internalize the message. While these other things may be helpful, it is organization, internalization, prayer, and rehearsal that are most vital to delivery.
Part three, “Sermon Manuscripts,” includes five manuscripts on Old Testament narrative texts from Mathewson, Donald Sunukjian, Paul Borden, Haddon Robinson, and Alice Mathews. The purpose of these manuscripts is to help the reader “see theory put into practice” (27).
Mathewson’s book is endorsed highly on the back cover by several well-known and respected pastors, including Donald Sunukjian, Warren Wiersbe, and Tony Evans, and for good reason. There are numerous strengths in Mathewson’s book that make it an indispensable resource for pastors. One such strength is Mathewson’s recommendation of other sources and his genuine humility. In his preface, Mathewson notes how he is by no means a first-class Hebrew scholar, nor is he among the upper echelon of modern preachers. Nevertheless, he does recognize that his interest in both fields as well as his experiences as pastor and professor give him credibility in his endeavor to write the kind of book that he needed when he first started preaching (14-15). Additionally, though his clarity and insight into the topic throughout the book show his considerable wisdom and knowledge of the subject, he frequently references and recommends other books and authors. Such a willingness to recommend sources exhibits his humility and exemplifies his pastoral concern for preparing other preachers as well as possible for this difficult task by giving them every opportunity to find good resources on the subject. Two of the more obvious sections where he does this are in Appendix B, where he highlights some good Old Testament commentaries, as well as in chapter seven where he gives a brief overview of seven helpful works on the subject of Old Testament narrative (79-81).
Mathewson’s plentiful reminders and explanation of ways that Old Testament narrative preaching differs from epistolary literature, for example, are a significant strength. He makes these comparisons on several levels. For one, he reminds his readers that while many biblical texts preach well deductively, narrative sermons are almost always best preached inductively (113-121).Mathewson makes a similar appeal to introductions and conclusions. He notes that many times a story is an excellent way of either introducing or concluding a sermon. However, when preaching a narrative, using a story in the introduction is usually ineffective. Moreover, using one in the conclusion may “steal the spotlight from the Bible story” that has just been preached (150). Finally, Mathewson shows this awareness in contrasting the way in which illustrations function in a narrative sermon. Illustrations are often used to arouse the audience’s attention and stir emotion. However, a narrative sermon, being itself a story, overshadows any need for this type of illustration. Rather, Mathewson argues that illustration in narrative preaching is important in helping a preacher “explain, validate, or apply a concept” (144). Thus, narrative preaching does not preclude the need for illustrations, but it gives them a different function or purpose. In these ways, Mathewson does an excellent job of highlighting the differences in narrative preaching from other forms while providing the preacher with the necessary tools to make these adjustments.
If there were more space, one could enumerate dozens of other strengths of the book, from the use of part three as an example of the methods described in parts one and two, to an analysis of his clear presentation of point-of-view and the sticking power of the big idea. Given the overwhelming strengths of Mathewson’s work, little can be said about its weaknesses. One such weakness, however, is the brief treatment given to the purpose of the sermon. Mathewson is clear in presenting how the purpose of the sermon does not necessarily need to match the big idea of the author, but it must be related closely. However, he is less clear in exactly what this looks like, particularly in drawing the distinction between the purpose of the sermon and application. Mathewson posits that the purpose of the sermon “describes what the truth should accomplish” (108). As an example, he suggests such purposes as “hearers should set up one lunch appointment” (110) or “hearers should write out a list of five to ten people with whom they have some sort of conflict” (111). In each of his purposes, he argues that they must be “measurable.” After the brief four page chapter concludes, the reader is still left somewhat unclear as to how a measureable purpose of the sermon differs from specificity of application that other preaching books or classes might promote. Given the closeness of these two aspects of the sermon, it would be helpful if Mathewson spent more time on the subject and gave the same sort of helpful contrast between these two areas as he does between narrative sermons and other sermons as highlighted above.
Mathewson has written an incredibly practical book on Old Testament narrative preaching that should continue to be a standard for preachers and teachers for years to come. It is the type of work that not only gives theory, but also shows how it is put into practice. Consequently, preachers of any education should be able to use this work and see how they can appropriate this same method for their own ministry.