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!

 

Dear Woodside… Reset Your Reading

“But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”” (Matthew 4:4, ESV)

It’s April 21st. Do you know where your 2016 Bible Reading Plan is? You know, the plan you dedicated yourself to on January 1 and that you promised yourself you would get through this year? The plan that was going to be the plan to end all plans and demonstrate your growth and discipline and ability to comprehensively read the Bible in the entirety of the year. The plan that maybe got sideswiped by a week of sickness, busyness, and maybe a day or two of indifference? Yep - that plan… 

Now before the tidal wave of guilt crashes down upon you, let me encourage you; I’m right there with you. Not that I’ve given up or am so far behind in the plan that I’ve abandoned it. But I do know the difficulty of keeping up with the plan, and the frustration of getting behind in it. I will confess, I am behind myself in the plan too. But I haven’t given up. 

A few years ago I was encouraged to just keep working at these kinds of plans. Actually, the encouragement was to daily make some progress. Just read one chapter a day. Even if you only read one chapter a day you will still get through the Bible in the space of three years. How many people do you know who have read through the Bible in the space of 10 years, let alone 3? 

I want to encourage you in this because our hearts can lean a few different ways when our spiritual work lags behind. On one hand we can despair, give up, and fail to make progress because we feel the hole has been dug so incredibly deep that we will never catch up. If this is your present state of mind, you may be in danger of thinking that your acceptance before God is based on your performance. Remember, Christ has completed the work you failed to complete so that in him you are identified as perfectly acceptable because of Christ’s work. Don’t despair, continue to press forward because you are already accepted. 

On the other hand we can see the “law” of the Bible reading plan and believe that if we get back at it, catch up, and complete our Bible reading plan this year then we are really special. We might look with proud sorrow upon our meager friends who haven’t kept up like we have, and who haven’t performed like we have, and feel a tinge of judgment that they aren’t as close to God as we are. The reality is that even our righteous accomplishments are insufficient, and even filthy in the light of God’s holiness. We must repent of our self-righteousness. 

These two perspectives can be applied to any good work; we either despair of not doing the work, or rise up in pride because we did do something good! But our hearts need something greater — we need a righteous one who gifts his good, perfect work to us and we need a superior one who humbles us to see our need and call us to repentance. 

This is why the gospel must be central to all things for us. Christ must be the center. Our Bible reading is a means, a vehicle, by which we get to Christ and know Christ and grow in Christ. But it is by no means a substitute for having Christ. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for keeping up on their Bible reading plans but failing to see him in them (see John 5:39). And Jesus encouraged sinners to be sustained and nourished and grow by every word that comes from the mouth of God (see Matthew 4:4).

Let me encourage you, as I have, to reset your Bible reading plan and more importantly, reset your heart. Why are you reading? Why are you failing to read? What motivations stand behind your pursuit of engaging and embracing the Bible? May it be only because you long to see Jesus and be nourished by His word. May it never be to check off a box of superiority and self-righteousness. Let’s allow the gospel to reset our lives in every way. 

This Sunday

Sunday we will continue our pursuit of wisdom by receiving from the Proverbs instruction in regard to wealth. Our ambition is to allow Christ, who is our wisdom, to shape every area of our heart to be in alignment with him, including our money. To help you be ready to sing on Sunday be sure to check out our setlist that we’ve put together on Spotify to be ready on Sunday.

  • Mighty Warrior
  • Even So Come
  • Place of Freedom
  • O Praise the Name
  • Restore My Soul

India Mission Opportunity

Also, we wanted to be sure to remind you about the India Mission meeting this Sunday at 12:30. Lauren from our Life Impact team will be hosting the informational meeting in the conference room for any who are interested in going on a short-term, overseas mission trip to India with Woodside. The trip will take place in October this year and we are excited to see how God will use us to advance the gospel in India among those in need. 

May the Lord bless you as you head into this weekend. I am eager to see his grace speak into our lives again as we gather. Please let me know if there is any way I can be in prayer for you.

In Christ,
Jeremy

 

Dear Woodside... Make a Devotional Plan

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2, ESV)

2015 is almost in the rear view mirror. I can hardly believe it, but I am very thankful for what a great year it was for our family. At the end of the year I am often reflecting on the year that was and what God did in my life over the past 365 days. But I also like to take some time to look ahead and prepare for the year ahead. Now I am not one to make a lot of "New Years Resolutions" often because I don't get far into January, occasionally February, without finding myself in failure in those areas.

What I do like to do, and what I want to encourage you to consider this year, is to make a specific plan to grow in my relationship with Christ. I have to have a map of sorts laid out before I get to January 1st so that I know the terrain that I want to cover and the method in which I want to pursue engaging and connecting in God's Word. So I make a Scripture plan each year to help me walk through and with God in the Word, and in prayer.

I'd like to encourage you to do the same this year. It doesn't have to be an elaborate or incredibly complex plan. Just make a plan! Making a plan at least gets a direction in front of you for reading and praying. It gives you a trajectory to plod and pray and grow. Now, there are all kinds of great plans out there and certainly we have plenty of technology available to us today to help us track our progress in those plans. Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition has compiled a helpful "FAQ" of reading plans and locations to download or print them. Go for it! Find one and use it. Another helpful resource, for those who are technologically inclined is the YouVersion Bible App. There are all kinds of different reading plans included in this app, ranging from a few weeks, to a month, to all year. Again, pick a plan and set your course for the year ahead.

I know how hard it can be to make this a regular pattern, and many Christians -- myself included -- have struggled with this sort of thing year after year. Let me share a little bit of my personal strategy for this in the next year so that you can be instructed, and perhaps join me in this pursuit.

First of all I have a set course of reading based on the M'Cheyne Reading Plan. It goes through the entire Old Testament once in a year, and the New Testament twice. I will read through essentially four chapters each day, this takes me about 20 minutes or so. As I read I also want to spend some time in meditation and prayer each morning. So I've picked up Timothy Keller's devotional book The Songs of Jesus which includes reading a Psalm, or a portion of a Psalm each day and then some comments on it with a prayer. I have picked up a prayer pattern of Adoration/Confession/Supplication so I will reflect on the Psalm and through meditation on it pray in those three categories, usually writing and journaling those prayers. Between my Bible reading and prayer this usually takes my allotted hour in the morning.

Again, my encouragement to you is to read and pray. Create and cultivate a routine of listening to God in his Word and responding to him in prayer. Growth in our relationship with anyone means time with them, knowing them. So it is with our God. Let's make 2016 a year to grow in knowing God! I am eager to grow and walk with you and Christ together. I will see you Sunday.

In Christ,

Jeremy

 

 

Everything That's On My Mind (Almost) - March 20, 2014

  1. Daylight Savings "spring forward" transitions are for the birds.

  2. Automobile maintenance is also for the birds.

  3. I want to write a weekly fantasy baseball column this year. It'll be as if the team I draft is a real team, facing real things, putting me in the cellar on a weekly basis. I'm sure no one will be interested. 

  4. The kids are having Spring Break sleepovers this week. Basically they sleep in the same room and keep each other up goofing off until I go to bed.

  5. Go back and rewatch LOST. Better yet, watch LOST with someone who hasn't seen it all yet. Too much fun.

  6. So far there have been (at this writing) 164 entries into my giveaway. There's still time for you to join the party!
  7. Reading in Judges right now. Sobering how often Israel "forgot the Lord." I'm afraid I'm not the exception to that statement.
  8. I'm a vintage man. Safety razors, fountain pens, and a french press. Who need modern machinery?
  9. I'm being a homer this year and cheering for Wichita St. to win the NCAA Tournament. 
  10. I'm nervous and excited and anxious and excited over the way God has been orchestrating details for Journey the Way to own a building.
  11. The church isn't a building. The church is a people. Churches steward buildings for the glory of God. That even means being missional stewards.
  12. I've been blessed and encouraged beyond measure this week. God's kindness to me brings me to my knees. I don't deserve even a pin-drop of it.
  13. My wife is my biggest fan and supporter. She gave me a five-star review the first time around.