6 Ways to Transform Your Reading of the Gospels
The gospels stand at the very heart of God’s Story, and how we read them really matters for our Christian life, for our grasp of our place in the Kingdom of God, and for our understanding of the “gospel” as reflected in those gospels.
Yet, the gospels can be a bit challenging to navigate at points. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke follow roughly the same overarching narrative line, they also differ in numerous ways in terms of emphases, what they include, and the audience they address. John takes a different approach altogether from the other three. Further, some of the cultural dynamics we encounter in the gospels may seem foreign, and aspects of Jesus’s teaching can seem esoteric if we don’t understand what is going on in context.
Over the next few blog posts I want to focus on 6 guidelines for reading the gospels in a transformative way.
There are many guidelines I could mention, but here are the six on which I want to focus your attention:
1. Read Matthew, Mark, and Luke from “the Earth Up” and John “from Heaven Down”
2. Read Each Gospel for Its Unique Perspective
3. With the Miracle Stories Ask, “What Does this Tell Me about the Identity of Jesus?”
4. Understand the Cultural Context to Discern the Impact of Jesus’s Teaching
5. Read the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the Climax of the Stories
6. Ask, “What are the Kingdom of God Implications for My Life?”
Earth Up and Heaven Down
Our first principle is, read Matthew, Mark, and Luke from “the Earth Up” and John “from Heaven Down.” As noted by Darrell Bock, whom I interview on “Reading the Stories of the New Testament” in Read the Bible for Life, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus from “the earth up.” What this means is that these gospels present the disciples (and other people) in a process of discovering the true identity of Jesus. Their “earthy” perspective—that they are dealing with a mere human being—is gradually expanded to a “heavenly” perspective. Jesus is no mere human but, rather, is the Son of God and has been sent by the Father to earth to accomplish something that only he can do.
For example, in Mark 2:1-12 we find the story of the healing of a paralytic at Capernaum. You remember the story. So many people were packed into the town, swarming around Jesus, that the friends of the sick man couldn’t get to him for help. If you go to the ruins of Capernaum today, you understand why. The houses were built very close together, often sharing an outer wall, and pathways were narrow. A crowd would close off the flow of foot traffic completely.
So the friends climb up on and walk across the roofs of the houses (which would have been flat), dig out a part of the roof above Jesus, and lower their friend down to him. Jesus’s response to their faith was not to say to the man, “You are healed,” but “Your sins are forgiven!” Offended and caught off guard, the Scribes respond, thinking, “Why does He speak like this? He’s blaspheming! Only God can forgive sins!” As Darrell Bock said in our interview, it is like you hear a little game show bell go off—“bing, bing, bing, bing, Right answer!!” What Jesus did (healing the guy) and what he said, “Your sins are forgiven,” begin to reveal things about Jesus.
Another example of “from the Earth up” is the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi in Luke 9:18-22. The public opinion polls about Jesus were saying, “He is John the Baptist,” or “Elijah,” or “one of the ancient prophets.” People generally did not understand Jesus’s identity at all. “But you, who do you say that I am?,” he asked the disciples. To which Peter replies, “God’s Messiah.” In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus tells Peter that this has been revealed to him, so he is blessed. But Jesus was not going to be the kind of Messiah they expected, a royal king who would drive out the Romans. He goes on to explain, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day” (Luke 9:22). This made no sense to the disciples. It was a complete disconnect. That is why Peter pulled Jesus aside and corrected him, saying in effect, “Jesus, you must have that suffering and dying part wrong”: “Oh no, Lord! This will never happen to you!” (Matt. 16:22). To this Jesus responded harshly, “Get behind Me, Satan!” Peter still had a lot to learn about Jesus’ identity and its implications.
One of the very helpful things about reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke “from the earth up,” is it reminds us that we need to read the gospels “with fresh eyes,” asking the Father to teach us more about Jesus and the Kingdom. Are you growing in your understanding of Jesus as you read and study these books? Also, we need to remember that our non-Christian friends are in a process of discovery about the identity of Jesus, and it is normal for that to be a process as we share with them about Jesus.
Now John’s gospel approaches the story of Jesus from the opposite perspective, offering us as reader’s crystal clarity on who Jesus is right from the get go. We get a “heaven down,” or cosmic view of Jesus right from the start: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John intentionally parallels Gen. 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Later in John 1:29 John the Baptist proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John the Baptist’s role was to “reveal” Jesus to Israel, and John the disciple’s gospel focuses on moments when that revelation was very clear.
So as you read the gospels, approach Matthew, Mark, and Luke ready for gradual discovery that leads you to worship. As you read John, read in celebration and worship that prompts you to want to discover more about our Lord!