In Part One of this article, I explained that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are more than divinely inspired, historically accurate biographies. They are that, to be sure. But each writer’s distinctive approach to telling his material gives us nuance and knowledge we would never have received from one writer alone.
This week we consider principles to help us get the fullest meaning possible from what I call these “pastorally interpretive narratives of the life of Christ.”
Read Behind the Lines
The first principle of Gospel reading is read behind the lines. In other words, look at the history and culture behind the Gospel stories. Often we can see a story’s truth clearly only when it’s placed against the historical/cultural/geographical backdrop. As 21st-century Westerners, we must put ourselves in ancient Jewish sandals to understand their culture. We will need to do some hermeneutical excavating to brush away the accumulated dust of the centuries to get back to the original setting. This background can take us to new depths of understanding.
For example, look at the Old Testament background. In Mark 6, the disciples are straining mightily to row across a stormy Sea of Galilee in the middle of the night, so Jesus leaves his mountainside prayers and begins to walk across the water to them. Amid the lightning flashes, the disciples see a figure atop the waves and cry out in fear, “It’s a ghost!”
Mark then gives a curious description of Jesus, “He was about to pass by them” (Mark 6:48). Was Jesus going to just walk past the exhausted disciples without helping? Maybe he was going to wave as he went by, “Good luck, boys! See you on the other side!” What’s going on here?
Only when you hear the Old Testament music in the background does the passage make sense. The language is from Exodus 34 when God reveals himself, as his presence “passes by” Moses. Jesus here is revealing himself as God to the disciples, even referring to himself with the divine name “I AM.” (This is the literal translation of “It is I” in Mark 6:50.) The Old Testament background helps us make sense of the story.
Look also at the geographical background. Take Jesus’ statement after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi: “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). A powerful statement by itself, but against its geographical backdrop, the words ring even stronger. Caesarea Philippi stood at the base of a cliff, and a spring of water flowed from the mouth of a cave set in the bottom of the cliff.
Water was a symbol of the underworld, and the pagans there believed their fertility gods left the earth each winter, entering the underworld through the cave stream. To entice the gods’ return each spring, the residents of Caesarea Philippi engaged in wanton sexual immorality. They then believed the gods returned to the earth, emerging back through the cave and its stream. To the pagan mind at Caesarea Philippi, “their city was literally at the gates of the underworld—the gates of hell.”1
All of this underscores Jesus’ courage. He does not make this bold declaration of victory from the safety of headquarters far behind the lines; he makes it on the very front lines of the spiritual battle.
Of course, don’t forget to dig into the cultural background. Kenneth Bailey is a New Testament scholar who taught for 40 years in the Middle East. He found that peasants in the remote villages of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq often lived life largely unchanged from biblical times. He would sit with a group of sheepherders and farmers and tell the parables of Jesus, which they had never heard before. From their reactions, Bailey gained cultural insights into how these stories would have been heard by their original Middle Eastern audiences.
One day as he spun the story of the prodigal son, he was surprised when he told of the son’s request to the father for his share of the inheritance. The men laughed at this part of the story. It was so outrageous that they thought it was funny. Bailey probed further:
“Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?”
“Could anyone ever make such a request?”
“If anyone did, what would happen?”
“His father would beat him, of course!”
“This request means—he wants his father to die!”2
Like No Father in the Past
Bailey went on to tell how the son left, squandered the money, shamed the family name, and eventually came home filthy and humiliated. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, a son in good standing bowed to his father and kissed his hand, but a son who had committed such travesties against his father would be expected to fall to the ground and kiss his father’s feet.
After beating the son, the father might grudgingly allow him to return home, where he would have to work hard to earn his way back into favor. Under no circumstances would a Middle Eastern patriarch have ever run to his son—even one in good standing. It was considered unseemly.
So when Bailey said that the father saw his son at a distance and ran out to greet him, embracing and kissing him, the men in Bailey’s circle were furious, even disgusted. They said, “This man had no dignity! For a man to run through the streets, his robe would kick up around his thighs; his legs would be exposed to the children. That would be shameful. He would be the laughingstock of his village. No father would run to his son. It would never happen.”
This is amazing love! Ibrahim Sa’id, himself an old-school Middle Eastern patriarch, comments on the three parables in Luke 15, “The shepherd in his search for the sheep, and the woman in her search for the coin, do not do anything out of the ordinary beyond what anyone in their place would do. But the actions the father takes in the third story are unique, marvelous, divine actions which have not been done by any father in the past.”3
The father humiliated himself to welcome his humiliated son. And that, of course, is a picture of the cross—a God willing to humiliate himself to welcome back his sinful children.
To read the Gospels well, then, we must read behind the lines, discovering the original historical and cultural setting. Tools that will help here are a Bible with good study notes like the NIV Study Bible, a Bible encyclopedia like Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, and commentaries like The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig Keener.
Read Before the Lines
The second principle of Gospel reading is read before the lines. In other words, look at the literary context before (and after) your Gospel story. Often, we pay close attention to context when we’re in the Epistles, but because the Gospel stories seem so self-contained, we sometimes fail to look at the surrounding chapters for a connecting thread. We need to ask: How does the passage I am reading fit into the larger story of the Bible book I am reading?
One contextual clue to watch for is story placement. For example, Mark 8 records one of Jesus’ strangest miracles. When Jesus touches a blind man’s eyes (after spitting in them!), the blind man can suddenly see . . . but not clearly. Everything is fuzzy. He says, “I see people; they look like trees walking around” (v. 24). So Jesus touches his eyes a second time. Only then is his sight fully restored. Jesus concludes by telling the man not to go into the village to tell others what had happened.
What happened here? Why didn’t the first touch get the job done? Did Jesus experience a power “brownout”? Did Jesus foul the first pitch off before connecting for a home run?
No, and the following story in Mark 8 reveals what Jesus was up to. In the next paragraph, Jesus quizzes the disciples about his identity:
“‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:27-30).
In the text immediately before this strange miracle, Jesus labeled the disciples’ failure to understand his identity as a kind of spiritual blindness (Mark 8:18). Now in the text immediately following the strange miracle, the disciples are slowly starting to understand. But it’s a multistage process—just like the miracle. In fact, note the parallel structure of Mark 8:22-26 and Mark 8:27-30:
• Physical blindness of man; spiritual blindness of disciples
• Partial restoration of sight; partial understanding of Jesus’ identity (John the Baptist, Elijah, prophet)
• Full restoration of sight; full understanding of Jesus’ identity (the Christ)
• Command not to tell others yet; command not to tell others yet.
So Jesus’ two-stage healing of the blind man, while historically true, is also an enacted parable of what he’s trying to do with the disciples. Slowly they will see with complete clarity who he really is. Looking closely at the placement of this story gives us the clue to its meaning.
An Unusual Fire and an Unfaithful Friend
Another contextual clue to look for is word usage. Pay attention to how a particular word is used in the larger context of the Gospel you’re reading. For example, after Jesus is arrested in John 18, Peter follows him to the high priest’s house and waits, warming himself in the courtyard by a fire. John 18:18 uses the unusual word anthrakian—literally a “charcoal fire.” Of course, at that fire, Peter denies Christ three times.
The Gospel of John (indeed the New Testament) uses anthrakian only in one other place. In John 21, after the resurrection, Jesus meets Peter on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. There Jesus is preparing a beach breakfast for his disciples, and to cook the fish, John tells us Jesus has built an anthrakian. Surely the smell of the charcoal smoke reminds Peter of his great failure only a few weeks before.
But then Jesus reinstates Peter, commissioning him three times (no accident!) to feed Christ’s sheep. By repeating the word anthrakian, John has deliberately linked the two stories, and we learn this amazing truth: God can turn the place of our great fall into the place of our great call!
Whether it’s story placement or word usage, pay close attention to the larger context of the Gospel you’re reading. Don’t just read your little passage. Read before and after to see how your text connects.
Read Beside the Lines
The third principle of Gospel reading is read beside the lines. In other words, compare the passage you are reading to the parallel accounts (if there are any) in the other Gospels. Parallel studies in the Gospels can be wonderfully eye opening for two reasons.
The first reason is that a parallel account can make a difficult meaning in your Gospel passage easier to understand. For example, in Luke 14:26 Jesus says, “’If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother . . . such a person cannot be my disciple.’” Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Are Christians required to feel a seething bitterness toward our parents? No.
The parallel passage in Matthew 10:37 makes Jesus’ meaning plain: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” We aren’t commanded to disown our parents; we are instead called to make our love for Christ even greater than the love for our parents.
What Are the Author’s “Life Themes”?
The second reason parallel studies in the Gospels can be eye opening is that they highlight each Gospel’s distinctive. The differences in the Gospel writers’ versions of the same event from Jesus’ life often highlight the unique themes each Gospel author wanted to emphasize.
C. S. Lewis said we all have only one or two “life themes.” I think it’s true that every preacher really has only two or three sermons that he preaches under a thousand different titles. John Maxwell’s life themes are leadership and character, James Dobson’s is family, John Piper’s are the sovereignty of God and the joy of following Jesus, Don DeWelt’s were prayer and the Holy Spirit, and almost every sermon Dudley Rutherford preaches will somewhere sound the note for evangelism.
The Gospel writers are preachers, and each one sounds the note for a few themes they especially want to communicate. For example, Luke wants to paint a picture of a praying Christ (and in Acts, a picture of praying Christians). Compare Luke’s Gospel to the other three, and you’ll notice that only he refers to Jesus praying at his baptism (Luke 3:21), at Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (9:18), and at the transfiguration (9:28, 29). I once heard a preacher say, “God has one Son who lived without sin, but he has no sons who live without prayer. Even Jesus needed to pray.” To that, Luke would have shouted, “Amen!” Look at places like Luke 5:16; 6:12; 11:1, 2; 18:1; and 22:32, and you’ll see he has added references to prayer that Matthew and Mark did not include.
Or consider another of Luke’s life themes: compassion for the poor and outcast. A parallel study makes this compassion evident. In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus teaches on our attitude toward money by saying things like “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” and “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In the parallel passage in Luke 12:33, 34, Jesus says the same kinds of things but then adds, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
In Matthew’s record of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). But in Luke’s record of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” in contrast to “you who are rich” (Luke 6:20, 24). While Matthew focuses on the spiritually poor, Luke draws attention to the materially poor. By the way, since both Gospels are inspired Scripture, we should not prefer one version over the other. One book makes this insightful observation: “On such points most people tend to have only half a canon. Traditional evangelicals tend to read only ‘the poor in spirit;’ social activists tend to read only ‘you poor.’ We insist that both are canonical.”4
So Matthew reminds us of the blessing in recognizing our spiritual impoverishment before God; but Luke reminds us of God’s special concern for the oppressed and disenfranchised. In the chorus of Scripture, we need both voices, so don’t seek to make them say the same thing. Any musician can tell you that singing harmony does not mean singing the same notes; it means singing complementary notes. That’s what Matthew and Luke do in their Beatitudes.
(To pick out these distinctives as you read beside the lines, an invaluable tool will be Kurt Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels, which lines up the Gospel parallel texts in parallel columns on the page for easy comparison.)
A Final Caution and Encouragement
A final word of caution is in order, and I’ll let Fee and Stuart word it:
The purpose of studying the Gospels in parallel is not to fill out the story in one Gospel with details from the other. Usually such a reading of the Gospels tends to harmonize all the details and thus blur the very distinctive in each Gospel that the Holy Spirit inspired. Such “filling out” may interest us at the level of the historical Jesus, but that is not the canonical level, which should be our first concern. . . . It is precisely their distinctives that are the reason for having four [G]ospels in the first place.5
But following that caution, I’d like to offer a word of encouragement. To understand the Gospels wisely and well, this article has challenged you to read behind the lines and before the lines and beside the lines of these four books. But the most important admonition I can give you is this: be sure to read the lines themselves.
When Joel Green began to write a book on the Gospels, he said he had always thought of himself as an ordinary Christian. He assumed all believers loved these first four books of the New Testament as much as he did. He writes, “Imagine my shock, then, when a close friend confided, ‘Actually, Joel, I never read the Gospels.’” Please, I entreat you: Do not let these four powerful books lie on your shelf, gathering dust, unread.
As a children’s church teacher, I am often asked to talk with children who are considering baptism. After attending church camp with a friend, a little girl named Tesslah decided she wanted to be baptized. I called her unchurched parents to ask if they would come to our church building on a Tuesday evening as I discussed baptism with their daughter. They agreed, and listened that evening as I explained to Tesslah what giving herself to Jesus meant.
Both parents came the next Sunday when I baptized Tesslah, and I noticed that her mother Karen came back the following Sunday . . . and the following Sunday. After three weeks, she approached me on a Sunday morning with one of our church’s free “take-one-if-you-want-one” Bibles in her hand. She said simply, “I’ve been reading this for three weeks, and I’m ready.” Unbeknownst to me, Karen had decided to read through the Gospels, and in those pages, she had come face to face with Jesus and wanted to follow him. I baptized her the next Sunday.
To put it simply: the Gospels can change your life. They are a treasure waiting to be discovered, and you now have some tools to start unearthing their transforming message. So pick up your Bible, open it to Matthew, and start reading. As Vince Antonucci (see Part One) and my friend Karen could tell you: you’ll never be the same.
1Ray Vander Laan, www.followtherabbi.com.
2Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 162.
3Ibid., p. 166.
4Fee and Stuart, 113.
Matt Proctor, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.