So You Want to Read the Gospels?
Christianity is not about believing in some vague idea of God in heaven; it’s about Jesus. As the apostle Paul says in Philippians: “(we) want to know Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:10-11), which is more important than a high paying job, a good retirement plan, or even being the president. Jesus died for us, but that’s not all there is to it. He called us (several times) to follow him. The greatest danger to Christianity at any time is not knowing Jesus well enough to follow him.
The best place to start in seeking to know Jesus is the gospels. As Christians, it is important to read them regularly, both on our own and especially with other believers, so the stories shape our lives. In the coming weeks, we will have posts about each of the gospels so we can make the most of them for our lives. But, beforehand, let’s talk about the gospels in general. There are a few important things to have in mind as we read the gospels, so that the Jesus we take out of the gospels isn’t a Jesus of our own creation and so we don’t miss out on how the gospels are meant to work.
What are the gospels about and what are they for?
You might think this would be a dumb question. It’s not. If Jesus matters only because he died to forgive our sins so we can make sure we get to heaven when we die, the gospels would be pretty short stories and we wouldn’t need all the extra stuff. Nor would there be a need for more than one of them. The gospels are stories about God’s kingdom showing up and God re-writing our world through the life and death of Jesus.
The gospels were written for already believing Christians, to remind them of how Jesus re-writes our world and calls us to be witnesses to that. They were not intended to introduce people to Jesus, nor to simply give us the history of Jesus’ life. If that was the case, again, they would all be the same. The gospels are not informational; they are transformational.
Here is the bottom line: people around us should be introduced to Jesus through our lives because we are formed by the stories of the gospels. We learn from the gospels so our lives become what people “read,” and, through us, experience and know Jesus.
Why are there four gospels?
From the earliest days, the church insisted on keeping four gospels. We need these four stories because the life of Jesus cannot be simplified into one gospel writer’s perspective. And don’t try to make them all fit or tell the same exact story. You can’t. The gospel and the life of Jesus are not one size fits all. We need all four gospels, with their different perspectives, because the revealing of God’s kingdom in the life of Jesus is multi-dimensional.
And in case you are wondering, the differences between the four gospels does not mean they are not historically true. That is asking a modern-minded question. The gospels are not modern literature. The gospels were written at least a couple decades after the events of Jesus’ life. Only two were eye-witnesses, and no one in the first century kept detailed, chronological accounts of what actually happened.
Have you ever heard a husband and wife, after being married 25 years, argue about some obscure detail from their wedding reception? Sorting out who is right is nearly impossible. And after a while, it becomes clear that who is historically accurate is not really the point. Whether or not the event took place is not in question. What matters is the point of the story, and each person has their own take on it. It is the same with the gospels.
For these ancient writers, the whole point is to say something about God’s kingdom coming in Jesus’ life by retelling stories of what he did and said. This is why they all narrate Jesus’ life in a different order. Each gospel invites us to listen to how it tells the story of God’s kingdom “at hand” in Jesus in its own way. Trying to force the gospels to fit modern ideas of history is not helpful. Neither is trying to merge them all into one story. When we do these things, we end up trying to squeeze the four gospels into a box they were never intended to fit, and we end up missing out on how God gave them to us in the first place.
You MUST Read the STORY
We live in a world where we only have (or make) time to read a single verse a day, or maybe a few paragraphs. While this can be helpful, it is important to know the gospels are not meant to be read in little snippets. The gospels are stories, not soundbites of Jesus. If we fail to read them as whole stories, we are actually failing to appreciate the way the Holy Spirit has given them to us. Think of explaining a scene in your favorite movie without giving a synopsis of the overall story. You can’t without risking misunderstanding or losing the integrity of the scene. It is the same with each individual gospel, since they all tell the story of Jesus differently. We should read to understand more than a certain thing Jesus did or said. We should read to listen to the entire story, to get caught up in it, to let it become part of our lives.
God gave us gospels to tell the story of God’s kingdom in Jesus because the Christian faith is not a matter of doctrine or belief alone. It’s about living in the story. The gospels give us Jesus in action, in real life. Through the gospel writers, Jesus still invites us: “Follow me!” For that, we need the gospels to guide us.
Questions for reflection:
Why do you read the gospels? How have you read and applied them in the past?
What difference does it make if you read the gospel to find information about Jesus, instead of reading to be transformed by the story?
As you read the stories in the gospels ask these questions:
1. What does this gospel story tell us about Jesus and how the kingdom of God is being revealed?
2. How is this story inviting us as Christians to follow Jesus? What examples, negative or positive, are being highlighted?
3. How might the point of this gospel story “come alive” in my life?
1. Perhaps you don't have the time to read more than a couple of verses right now in your life. Or perhaps you lose focus when you try to read a larger portion of Scripture. Or perhaps you just don't enjoy reading all that much. Consider listening to the Scriptures. There are lots of great apps out there with audio books. We would like to invite you to check out "Daily Audio Bible" as just one option.
2. Life keeps us on the go. If you haven't already, download "The Bible App" so when you have that extra time waiting in line, or waiting for the kids to finish soccer practice, or waiting for that meeting to start, you can pull up the Bible on your smart phone device before you tackle that next level of Candy Crush!
3. Think about the stories you have heard about who Jesus is: the nativity, various miracles. parables he told, his last days, his resurrection. Which ones have had the greatest impact on your faith journey? How have they helped you understand who Jesus is? Go back and read a favorite or two asking yourself the questions Kyle posed above.
Dr. Kyle Fever is currently teaching New Testament and Biblical Studies as part of the Master's Institute Seminary as well as serving as an adjunct faculty member at other schools and serving as the pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Adair, IA. He formally served as the Beyond Ministries Director for IOLBC and will be our featured speaker at one of our 2019 Family Camp sessions.