By Scott Caulley
How long has it been since you really read the Gospels?
Maybe, like I, you remember stories about Jesus brought to “life” with flannelgraph figures in Sunday school classes. Because of my upbringing, I am blessed with wonderful memories of Jesus with the lost sheep, Jesus with the man born blind, Jesus and the lame man lowered through the roof by his faithful friends.
And maybe you, like I, have heard many sermons taken from these Gospel stories. For us, as well as for children, these stories are brief, action filled, and work well as freestanding units. They lend themselves to simple, moralistic lessons easily grasped by adults and children.
But the Gospels offer us far more than exciting stories or easily digested morals, and some Christians—too many Christians—miss the contemporary relevance of Jesus’ teaching.
I have a few suggestions for better ways to use the Gospels in our personal study, worship, and discipleship.
First, consider when the Gospels were written, and for whom.
While we do not know all of the specifics, we do know the Gospels were written starting in the generation after Paul. Paul ministered and wrote in the 30 years or so immediately after Jesus. The first of the Gospels was written shortly after Paul’s death, that is, starting in the second Christian generation.
But that doesn’t mean the written Gospels marked the first time Christians had heard these stories. Those believers were the recipients of the Gospels not only well after the events, but also well after many of them had heard, learned, and revered the stories and the message. The Gospels were written by Christians and for Christians, many of whom by that time had grown up in the faith. So what were the Gospels for?
The Gospels were not mainly for telling the prehistory of the early church’s story.
Of course, the history is part of the point, especially with Luke and Acts. But there is a great deal more to the purpose of the Gospels than conveying the origins of the Jesus movement—“how we got here.” Given that many of the first hearers likely grew up with the stories, we should ask how they might have reacted to their particular written version of the story when they first heard it read—to Mark’s story of Jesus, or Matthew’s, Luke’s, or John’s.
We can see that the four evangelists (Gospel writers) wrote the same story, but in four different ways.
Why four Gospels? Among scholars, theories abound. Apparently the Gospel writers had something to say specific to their own Christian audience, not just about who Jesus was, but about who Jesus is, “as living Lord!”1
We understand that the history of the early church is not all we need to know; rather, we need to follow Jesus. So it was with the Gospels. They were written, in part, to teach discipleship.
Mark’s Gospel is notoriously harsh in its presentation of the 12 disciples.
Early in his ministry, Jesus tells the parable of the sower, and invites his disciples to decide “what kind of soil are you?” He follows this with, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23).2 Jesus doesn’t ask that of only his 12 followers, but of every potential disciple. Through Mark’s Gospel, Jesus was also asking this of Mark’s audience, and through the same Gospel he is asking it of us.
Throughout the second Gospel, the “official” disciples are slow to understand Jesus’ message and are resistant to it. It was surely an encouragement to Mark’s readers to know that the heroes of the faith, the apostles, were not always so great. They, like we, needed help with their Christian walk. Jesus teaches them (and us) about true discipleship by “pulling out of the crowd,” so to speak, a series of unknown and unlikely people who were living illustrations of the attitudes Jesus was trying to instill in the Twelve (Mark 8-10).
Along with teaching the story of Jesus, Mark’s Gospel may fairly be described as a “discipleship training manual.”
Matthew has organized teaching material into topical sections.
This is no mere antecedent to the Jesus movement. Matthew tells us Jesus is the One through whom God is fulfilling the promise to Abraham (Matthew 1:1); as the culmination of the Abrahamic promises to Israel, Jesus embodies the blessings to the nations, which begin to be realized in the kingdom. For kingdom people, there is no more “business as usual” ethics; “tax collectors and prostitutes” will go into the kingdom before the chief priest and elders (Matthew 21:31).
Matthew collects “kingdom parables”—stories describing kingdom attitudes and kingdom people; many of these can be found in chapter 13. He tells about Jesus and the Twelve, and their ministry in Galilee, but he also uses these stories to teach about life in the church. The reality of Matthew’s audience is in view (if an estranged brother does not respond to you or “two or three witnesses, . . . tell it to the church” [ekklesia]; Matthew 18:16, 17). Matthew is the only Gospel that uses ekklesia, the technical word for “church.” By this he telegraphs to his audience that these stories are not just history, but also are relevant to life in the church in the “here and now.” This is true both for Matthew’s readers and us.3
Jesus’ parables are not just “homey” moralizing tales, like Aesop’s fables or Grimm’s fairy tales. Moralizing tales are intended to uphold the status quo. But in his parables, in which out-group people are often the protagonists, Jesus teaches the radically new nature of the kingdom where the status quo is turned upside down.
Matthew’s “kingdom ethics” are perhaps best known from the Sermon on the Mount. This is no mere interim ethic for Jesus and the Twelve. This is “how to be a child of your Father in Heaven.” The teaching is intended for Matthew’s readers in their post-Easter setting, and it is intended for us.
Luke highlights the activity of the Holy Spirit from the very beginning of his Gospel.
Many believed the Spirit had departed from Israel, and that God would return his Spirit only when the Messiah came. By his early emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Luke clearly announces to his audience that Jesus is the Christ.
Luke begins his account of Jesus’ ministry in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). Jesus read from Isaiah 61, which proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; citing Isaiah 61:1, 2). Jesus concluded, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Luke is clearly telling us not just who Jesus was, but who Jesus is: the Messiah who has returned the Spirit to Israel. And, as suggested in Isaiah 61, Luke’s Gospel shows Jesus making a special point of ministering to the outcasts—the poor, the sick, women, Gentiles, “tax collectors and sinners.” The point is not just to show Jesus’ compassion, but to announce the new kingdom of God.
In the kingdom, there is no more “business as usual” ethics—that is, no more excuses that allow for the mistreatment of those the religious establishment would call outsiders. Instead, we recognize that we all are equal under God’s grace. In the kingdom—including our part of the kingdom, which began in Jesus and continues till he comes again—Jesus’ kingdom ethics should be at work.
Although we could say many similar things about John’s Gospel, the point is clear: the Gospels were written by Christians, for Christians, in part to aid them in their own discipleship.
The Gospels are not merely historical placeholders, they are not just background of the Jesus movement with only secondary (or no) theological importance.
It is worth noting that, during the first few centuries of the Christian church, the four Gospels were the most used (and therefore the most copied) of the writings that eventually became the New Testament. We now have more Gospel manuscripts, by far, than manuscripts of any other section or book of the New Testament.
In the Gospels, the early church recognized Christian Scripture and put this material to work in worship and personal study. This is a reminder of the centrality of the Gospels to the life of the church, including in the area of Christian discipleship.
So what do we make of all of this?
Yes, we study Paul’s writings and Acts. But we also study the Gospels as Christian Scripture. As did the early Christians, let us wrestle with the kingdom ethics preached by Jesus and portrayed in the Gospels as lessons to those first Christian readers, and to all believers ever since.
Let us take seriously Jesus’ teaching: “Love your enemies,” and “Love your neighbor” (as did the Good Samaritan) by becoming a neighbor to the poor, the sick, the foreigner—all the outcasts of our society. The New Testament teaches that, although it is not yet complete, the kingdom is here and it is real. If we are really “children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45, NIV), we should strive to act like our Father God.
The message found in the four Gospels functions as the prophetic indictment not just of godless culture, but also of quasi-Christian culture seduced by the glitz and false comfort of consumerism, caught up in society’s quest for money, youth, and power. True disciples of Jesus put his teachings into practice as we live out our own discipleship in our particular corner of the kingdom of God.
1See B. Thurston, Maverick Mark (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013).
2Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated.
3Christians have intuitively recognized that these instructions of Jesus are not just part of a short-term ethic for the Twelve, and have readily applied them to their later setting.
Thomas Scott Caulley is associate professor of biblical studies at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.