Getting the Most Out of the Gospels

This week I’ve had the opportunity to teach at the Woodside Leadership Institute on the topic of reading and interpreting the Gospels. Often though it seems like teaching Biblical interpretation is like a biologist teaching a class on dissecting a frog. Get over the smell of the formaldehyde, poke and pick apart a passage, push the guts to the side and look for the “nugget of truth” that sits at the center of the whole thing. That kind of approach is boring and smelly. 

I want people to be, as my friend Aaron put it, “enchanted by the story.” I want them to love reading the Gospels and more than anything to love the Jesus of the Gospels. So this outline (along with a few exercises) was my attempt to help teach everyday people how to engage and enjoy the Gospel books well. 

Read “Supernaturally”

I owe this term to John Piper’s book Reading the Bible Supernaturally. What I mean by it is that we are incapable of reading and percieving the glory of God in Christ by our own natural means. Paul states, “The person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually” (1 Cor 2:14). The reason is that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). 

All this to say that apart from a miracle of God, in opening our eyes and hearts to perceive the glory of God in Christ told in the Gospels, we will utterly miss the point. Jesus often asks religious leaders—the so-called “experts” of the Bible in his day—“have you not read?” Sure they had. Yet they were blind and didn’t see the glory of God in Christ. The same peril is in front of us unless God by his Spirit regenerates our hearts to delight in his glory in Christ. 

To read supernaturally then is to come to the Bible with a dependence and hunger asking for God to show us the treasures of Christ. We pray and say “Open my eyes” and “help my unbelief” and “show me your glory.” Reading in this way is a prayer the Lord loves to answer and meet us in. “Sir, we would see Jesus!” 

Read Distinctly

By this I mean, read the Gospels as the unique pieces of literature that they are. Too often I find Bible scholars and teachers mashing the Gospels (particularly the Synoptic Gospels) together to form some sort of “harmony” of Jesus’ life. The problem, to me, is that this misses the particular point and emphasis that each Gospel writer has in his presentation of Jesus. Luke didn’t write so you would cut up his story and glue it together with bits of Mark and Matthew. He wrote with style, emphasis, color, and purpose! Read Luke for Luke’s perspective. The same goes for Mark and Matthew and John. 

That does not mean however that we should never compare and contrast parallel accounts in each of the Gospels. That’s in many ways where the particular emphases show up. But let Mark speak for Mark, Luke for Luke, and so forth. Mashing the Gospels together misses the mark in terms of what the specific author is communicating, and the beauty of Jesus he presents that is unique from the other Gospel books.

Read with Curiosity

Ask questions. Lots of questions. Whenever you are reading the Gospels you should be asking good questions. Who is the main character? What are they doing? Why is this story told here? Where is Jesus at in this specific part of the narrative? Be a good detective and ask piles of questions about the text. 

When you ask questions, its good to have a few study resources alongside you to help you answer those questions too. I think having a solid study Bible on hand can be very helpful in answering those questions. The CSB Study Bible is one exceptional resource to help answer those questions. Get a notepad, your Biblical text, and a study bible and ask away. The person who doesn’t ask questions never learns or grows (and they won’t see glory!). 

Read Communally

I mean this in three ways. First, read with friends. Read the Gospels with others and ask your questions together. Think, pray, explore, challenge, and grow in community as you read the text together. I don’t believe the Bible was meant to be read in isolation or solidarity. The Gospel writers themselves wrote these accounts to be read in community. Reading them in that fashion brings light to everyone’s eyes and helps us see the things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. 

Second, read with dead friends. By that I mean read the Gospels with a trusted navigator who has gone on before and laid down a helpful account interpreting the Gospels that has stood the test of time. My favorite (and one that always helps me love Jesus more) is JC Ryle. He wrote an entire set of “expository thoughts” on all four Gospel books that were meant to be read around a dinner table with a family. They are engaging enough for children to listen to and understand, and warm and deep enough to help the oldest Christian continue to grow. This set by Banner of Truth is the best modern printing available. 

Finally, read the Gospels with non-Christians. The Bible is a missional book. It sends us out to make disciples of Jesus. Reading with non-Christians gives them the opportunity to hear the word of Christ and believe. The best evangelism class and technique is to read the verbally inspired Word of God with non-Christians. Go for Mark. Check out Christianity Explored for a means to read the Gospel with unbelievers in 7 weeks. 

Read Humbly

Finally, read with humility. Critics who come to the Gospels seek to destroy and pick apart and pillage. They want to refute God. They won’t see His glory. 

Yet if you come to the Gospels with humility and say, “I don’t know if I will understanding everything, or even why everything here is right and true and good but I want to see,” I believe you will find great things. We are worlds, cultures, and ages apart from Jesus’ life in the first century. We shouldn’t think that everything the writers of the Gospels communicate will look or act like what we believe it should in the twenty-first century. However, if we come with humility (or what has been called “faith seeking understanding”), we will be able to overcome our modern objections and sensibilities and see better the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

Get to Reading!

This list is in no way exhaustive, but I have found these approaches to reading the Gospels to be formative for in reading and seeing my heart warm in its love for Jesus. The biggest challenge is to read, read, read. Read the Gospels. Let them be part of your regular Bible reading diet. You will never exhaust the stories and glory of Jesus in reading the Gospels in this life. Take up and read!