“Irresistibly drawn to Jesus.” That phrase describes many who have come to faith after reading the Gospels. Most of us love the Gospels because we love Jesus, and the Gospels bring us face to face with him. For some the Gospels are so familiar, though, that they miss truth contained there. A few helps can prevent that from happening.
When he was growing up, Vince Antonucci’s parents never took him to church. Maybe it was because his mother was Jewish and his father was a professional gambler. Regardless, he knew nothing about Jesus. He says, “As far as I know, I had never even met a Christian.”
But as a college sophomore, he was watching television on Easter morning and happened upon a religious show that looked comical. “An old man sat, or sunk really, into a big red-leather chair. Questions flooded my mind: How old is this guy? Is he going to live through this program? Had he become physically incapable of getting out of that chair? Shouldn’t someone help him?
“Then Old Man spoke, ‘We’ve been studying the last week of Jesus Christ’s life. Today we’re going to talk about. . . .’ He named something, but I don’t remember what. ‘Now most scholars believe,’ he continued, ‘that this event happened on Tuesday of Jesus’ last week, but today I will prove to you through the evidence that it actually occurred on Wednesday of Jesus’ last week.’”
“Jesus Invaded My Heart”
Antonucci thought that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard. If it happened at all, how could you prove something that happened thousands of years ago? And what did it matter whether it was Tuesday or Wednesday? He turned the TV off, but his curiosity was piqued. He borrowed a Bible from his girlfriend and started reading the Gospels.
Antonucci explains what happened next.
As I read, I discovered the Bible’s outlandish claim that there was a God who loved me and sent Jesus for me. I learned that this God allegedly wanted a relationship with me and that he promised real and eternal life through Jesus . . . and I knew I had to know: Is it true or a hoax?
After months of reading and researching the Bible, I became convinced that it was true. And I found myself drawn to Jesus. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help it. He was the coolest person I had ever come across. His character, his personality, his sense of humor, his sense of mission, his priorities, the way he was so subversive.
I still didn’t know any Christians but decided I wanted to be one. Actually that’s an understatement. It wasn’t just that I decided to become a Christian; it was like Jesus invaded my heart.1
First Among Equals
Antonucci is not the first person to pick up the Gospels and find himself irresistibly drawn to Jesus. While all of Scripture is equally inspired, I would venture to say more people have come to faith reading the Gospels than any other books in the Bible. Because they bring us face to face with Jesus, these four books—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are unique among the canon. One scholar calls them “first among equals in New Testament genre.”
Indeed the Gospels are some of the most beloved books in Scripture. Here we see our Lord in living color. We listen wide-eared to his spellbinding sermons, we marvel wide-eyed as he calms a storm with a word, we jump back startled at his whip and indignation in the temple, we feel tears well up at his own tenderhearted weeping at Lazarus’s grave, we smile at his sense of humor as he walks disguised with the travelers on the road to Emmaus.
We love the Gospels because we love Jesus.
But there is a danger in reading the Gospels. Because they are such familiar terrain, sometimes we can walk into the Gospels with an overconfident stride. They are oft-traveled territory, and so we think we know our way around. Our familiarity can breed carelessness, and we can too often overlook important details. Perhaps there is more to the Gospels than what we think we know.
Missing an Important Clue
I once heard a preacher retell the parable of the lost sheep this way: “A shepherd had 100 sheep, and he would count them each night as he put them in the fold. But one night he counted 98, 99 . . . and he realized one was missing. Leaving the other 99 in the fold, he searched high and low for the lost sheep. When he finally found it, he carried it home and called together all his neighbors to rejoice with him: I have found my lost sheep!”
Sound familiar? But something is wrong in the retelling. Did you catch it? In the Luke 15 parable, the shepherd does not leave the 99 in the fold. He leaves them “in the open country” or “in the wilderness.”
What? This is a crazy shepherd! It’s one thing to leave the 99 safely protected, but quite another to leave them vulnerable in the open—at the mercy of bandits, weather, or wolves. This shepherd is so urgent that he risks being labeled careless—even risks great loss—to go find his one lost sheep. What kind of shepherd would do that?
I know of a Shepherd with that kind of crazy love . . . but the preacher I heard retelling the story missed the textual clue that pointed to Jesus’ risky, costly pursuit of lost people. Maybe because of familiarity, he glanced right over a shocking, telling phrase in his passage.
Perhaps there is more to the Gospels than what we think we know. They look simple on the surface, but like a field with hidden treasure, these books are rich in meanings easily overlooked. Martin Luther said the Gospel of John “was like a river shallow enough for a lamb to wade, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim.”
That’s why the wise reader will give them a closer reading. This article will suggest three principles for a clearer, deeper reading of the Gospels. But first, we should make sure we understand the unique characteristics of Gospel literature itself.
What Is a “Gospel” Anyway?
We know that gospel is the simple good news that Jesus died for our sins and was raised back to life (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Gospel literature, on the other hand, is not so easy to define. While it shares similarities with ancient hero stories, biographies, and memoirs, Gospel literature does not neatly fit into any preexisting category. In fact, one scholar says, “If a first-century librarian in Alexandria, Egypt, got a copy of the Gospel of Mark, where would he shelve it? The answer: He would have to build a new shelf.”
But since a definition would be helpful, here’s a stab: The Gospels are divinely inspired, historically accurate, pastorally interpretive narratives of the life of Jesus Christ. By “divinely inspired,” I mean that the Holy Spirit guided the Gospel writers completely. He ensured that what God wanted to communicate was written in full and without error. By “historically accurate,” I mean that the Gospel writers were not fabricating stories about Jesus to fit their theological agenda. They were carefully preserving true accounts of Jesus’ life.
To be clear, their aim was not to write tightly chronological, factually exhaustive biographies, so the Gospels shouldn’t be pressed beyond their purpose. For example, Matthew 4 records Jesus’ third temptation as the one on the mountaintop, while Luke 4 places the mountaintop as the second temptation and the temple as the third temptation. This might seem like a mistake on Luke’s part, but Luke never implies that he has put the three temptations in strict chronological order. He has arranged them in a different order for emphasis, but Luke has not compromised the historical accuracy of his account.
Likewise, Matthew 8 records two Gadarene demoniacs, while Mark 5 records one Gadarene demoniac. Did Mark get it wrong? No. Mark never implies that he is being as exhaustive as a newspaper reporter might be. He does not say there was only one demoniac. Apparently there were two, but Mark is simply choosing to focus his narrative on one of the men.
The point: most alleged Gospel discrepancies result from attempts to make these books tightly chronological, factually exhaustive biographies—which they are not. This really bothers some ultraorganized people. (I have a friend with obsessive-compulsive tendencies who says, “I have OCD . . . only I like to call it CDO because then it’s in alphabetical order.”) Such people might wish the Gospels read more like a history textbook with timelines and date charts.
But as one author says of the Gospels, “When they were written, their function was to make saints, not historians.”2 The Gospels get their facts straight, but they’re not written to say everything about Jesus and to say it in chronological order. Rather, they were written to inspire faith (John 20:31). We must let the Gospels be what they’re intended to be: divinely inspired, historically accurate, pastorally interpretive narratives of the life of Jesus Christ.
But what in the world does “pastorally interpretive” mean?
“Why Did He Die Four Times?”
Joel Green tells the story of a friend who had devoted much time to building a relationship with a Japanese couple. In the course of their conversation one day, he encouraged them to consider the claims of Jesus by reading the New Testament. After a few days of reading the four Gospels, the wife surprised the would-be evangelist with the question, “But why did Jesus have to die four times?”3
To those familiar with the Bible, that may seem like a silly question, but it raises an important issue: why do we have four Gospels? Why not just one authoritative account? The simplest answer is this:
Different Christian communities each had need for a book about Jesus. For a variety of reasons, the Gospel written for one community of believers did not necessarily meet all the needs in another community. So one was written first (Mark, in the most common view), and that Gospel was “rewritten” twice (Matthew and Luke) for considerably different reasons, to meet considerably different needs. Independently of them (again, in the most common view), John wrote a Gospel of a different kind for still another set of reasons. All of this, we believe, was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.4
God did not choose to give us a single “life of Jesus.” He instead gave us four different accounts of Jesus’ life, each with its own unique emphasis, to communicate its significance in new ways to different audiences. He allowed Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the freedom to select certain stories, omit other stories, rearrange the order of stories and retell stories in their own language—all to meet the unique needs of their particular readers.
To be sure, we don’t always know exactly what those needs were. We can say, for example, why Luke emphasizes Jesus’ compassion for outcasts, such as the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, foreigners, women, and children. Only Luke tells us the stories of the anointing of the sinful woman (chapter 7), the widow of Nain (chapter 7), the good Samaritan (chapter 10), the prodigal son (chapter 15), the thankful Samaritan leper (chapter 17), Zacchaeus (chapter 19), and the conversion of the thief on the cross (chapter 23), and only Luke records the Pharisees accusing Jesus of “eating with sinners”—not once or twice, but three times (5:29-32; 15:1, 2; 19:7).
But we can’t say for certain why Luke emphasizes this theme. Is it because he wanted to encourage his readers who themselves were outcasts? Or is it because his readers are privileged and need challenged to love the outcasts around them? We don’t know, and we must exercise great humility in guessing at the Gospel writers’ motivations. But we can certainly notice what each writer’s unique emphases were.
So the Gospel writers were not creators; they weren’t making this stuff up. Neither were they simply compilers, gathering all known material on Jesus and putting it in a timeline. Rather, they were interpreters—each writer highlighting the truths in Jesus’ story that would most effectively minister to the people for whom he was writing.
That’s what it means when we say the Gospels are divinely inspired, historically accurate, pastorally interpretive narratives of the life of Jesus Christ. But how do we read these four books wisely and well? Familiar as they are, can we read them with fresh understanding? Yes, when we consider three principles for a deeper, clearer reading of the Gospels. I’ll explain each of these in part two of this article, appearing in next week’s issue.
1Vince Antonucci, I Became a Christian and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 11-13.
2Robert Stein, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 226.
3Joel Green, How to Read the Gospels and Acts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 25.
4Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 105.
Matt Proctor, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.