As we turn to the New Testament, the first question is, “what are the Gospels?” Reading the story of Jesus well is the foundation of faith. For devotional thoughts leading up to Easter, see Knowing Him.
Believers do not sit passively waiting to hear the voice of God. They long to hear it. They believe God has not left humanity in silence, but has spoken loudly and clearly through “the Word” that is Holy Scripture and “the Word” that is Jesus the Christ. The opening words of the book of Hebrews confirms that this is true:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb. 1:1-3)
[Jesus is the center of the four Gospels. Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1628) shows the astonishment of disciples who realize who Jesus really is, after the resurrection.]
This is the big picture. God did not leave humanity in desperate silence. He spoke through men called prophets, and then he decisively spoke to humanity through his Son, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is not just the word of God, but is also the embodiment of God’s glory and very being. Jesus the Christ is the central theme of all of Scripture because his life, death, and resurrection provided a way of redemption.
Jesus takes the stage in the four biblical documents called “the Gospels.” Nothing could be more important in our reading of Scripture than understanding the meaning and message of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It would be easy to think these books are historical narratives because they tell the events of Jesus’ life. But they are more than that. The Gospels are also more than biography—the telling of one person’s story. The Gospels are a unique kind of literature because their purpose is to proclaim the truth that the Son of God appeared in Judea and Galilee, was authenticated by great miracles, was killed, and rose from death in final victory over sin, Satan, and death itself.
The Gospels are proclamation. Their authors are evangelists. So they do not read like modern historical accounts. Their authors were true believers, not just historians. Given the emphasis on truth in their writings, they can be taken as honest and truthful witnesses.
The first time I read through the New Testament, I remember being somewhat puzzled about why there are four Gospels. The simple answer is that four different people had their own reasons to write the true story of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel was written first, and much of his content appears in Matthew and Luke. Matthew tells more of the story and has a special interest in explaining the story of Jesus to first-century Jews. Luke, on the other hand, is trying to help a Gentile audience, and he says right at the start that he wants to offer “an orderly account” in order to bolster certainty in the faith.
John’s Gospel includes many actions not reported in the other Gospels. It also includes more of Jesus’ teaching, much of it in long discourses. The opening prologue of the Gospel gives a cosmic perspective:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:1-4).
New Testament scholar Leon Morris said the Gospel of John is shallow enough for a child to wade in, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim in. All the Gospels, not just John, require deep reflection and study over a lifetime to appreciate their meaning. Be careful if you think you understand “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), or “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38), or “your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). We may understand at one level, but the impact of the sayings of Jesus will always have greater impact on us the longer we study them. They take a lifetime to comprehend and apply. The greatness and the grace of Jesus’ teachings expand toward every horizon of life.
One last point: It is very easy to read the words of Jesus as if he were speaking directly to us, yet there is some risk in doing that. His teaching certainly is for us, and its meaning will transform our lives. But we still need to understand his teaching in its original context, as the Jewish Messiah speaking to his varied audience—disciples, followers, the curious, and enemies. And then we can explore how his truth applies to us.
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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.