Jean’s Gospel: The Greatest Story Ever Told
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matt 7:24)
One reason I left my last church was over the neglect of the fourfold Gospel in weekly worship. It was not that my prior church, on that point, was all that different from other local evangelical churches I have visited. It has been my experience that in churches that lean conservative, the Pauline epistles often receive pride of place in evangelical pulpits; in the churches that lean health and wealth, the Old Testament books seem to be the go-to texts.
It occurred to me several years ago, that if Christianity is founded and sustained by the life of a single person, Jesus, then would it not be natural to focus Christian worship, including preaching, on his words and deeds. Moreover, we have his words and deeds in four historical, evangelical, biographies which are positioned at the very beginning of the New Testament. Thus the neglect of the Gospels caused me to experience both dissonance and discontentment in my prior church.
So that I am not misunderstood, I will clarify at the outset that it is not my position that the Word of God is less inspired, true or important in the epistles than in the Gospels. Nor is it my position that the doctrinal content in the epistles conflicts with or is less important than what is given in the Gospels. It is my position that both types of Scripture are essential, and that the epistles build on the foundation of the words and deeds of Jesus, which we have recorded in the fourfold Gospel.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20a)
My intention in this article is to highlight the distinction in teaching methods between the Gospels and the epistles, and how being aware of this distinction can make preaching, hearing and studying the Gospels very rewarding.
Unlike the epistles, the four Gospels are written in the form of a story. Thus, the Gospels were organized by each of the evangelists around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as historical, biographical stories for the intended purposes of engendering and strengthening faith and facilitating discipleship.
Matthew titles his Gospel, “Biblos geneseōs Iēsou Christou”, closely following and probably evoking for his listeners the opening words from Genesis 2:4 and 5:1, “biblos geneseōs” (LLX tr: book of origin). Mark titles his account: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Luke calls his narrative “an orderly account” (Luke 1:3) of “eyewitness” testimony. And John, also alluding back to Genesis, begins his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). Thus, right at the outset, each evangelist, in his own words and style, invites his listeners into the story that has forever changed the world – the biography of Jesus Christ.
Similar to the epistles, the Gospels were written to be read aloud in public worship. Therefore, the writers employ catchwords to signal to the listener an opening or closing of an episode or other defined unit of the story. For example, Matthew organized his Gospel around five major discourses, each of which ends with the catchwords, “when Jesus had finished”: Sermon on the Mount, 5:1-7:28; Mission, 9:35-11:1; Parables, 13:1-53; Relationships, 18:1-19:1; and The Future: 24:3-26:1. There are many other recognizable catchwords in the Gospels. In an oral culture where Scripture was read and taught on a weekly basis, these catchwords were quite valuable, but they can also benefit our understanding of the text if we learn to recognize them.
The final topic I would like to address this week is the method of teaching by story as compared with an epistle. In the epistles, doctrine is taught in a more propositional and often abstract form. For example, if you were looking for a succinct definition of “righteousness,” Paul defines it well in Romans Chapter 3.
Story telling does not typically work the same way. Imagine a grain of wheat: it has an outer husk, which surrounds the bran, which surrounds the starch, which surrounds the germ. When you read the Gospels, the evangelist often will introduce a theme or topic by presenting you with only the husk of the theme. This may cause you to recall a prior portion of the story to fill in the husk; or as is usually the case, the husk encourages you to continue reading to look for the bran, starch and germ of the theme as you progress through the story. This method of teaching, in my opinion, is attention-grabbing and rewarding. It also makes repeated readings of the Gospels very beneficial. There is enough treasure (to change the metaphor) in the Gospels to occupy a Christian for a lifetime of study.
I began making a list of major themes or topics which Matthew emphasizes in his Gospel (all, of course, fall under the grand themes of Jesus as the subject and discipleship as the application):
- “God with us”
- Jesus’ authority
- God as Father
- Kingdom/Reign of heaven
- Living from the Word of God
As an example of how Matthew develops a theme within the context of story, let us take the theme of “authority.” At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were astonished because Jesus “was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matt 7:29) As a reader, I recognized that the word “authority” is important here, but Matthew neither explains where in particular Jesus was exercising his contrasting authority or what Matthew meant by the word “authority.” So, recalling the Sermon, I began to mentally note many examples of Jesus exercising contrasting authority, such as Jesus’ authoritative interpretations of Torah in the six “But I say to you” examples in 5:21-48.
From there I kept reading for further unpacking of the theme of “authority”, and encountered the following episodes: Jesus has authority to heal the paralysis of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13); and to forgive sins (9:1-8). Jesus gives his disciples authority over unclean spirits and to heal every disease and every affliction (10:1). Jesus does not lord authority over his disciples like the rulers of the Gentiles do over their subjects, but exercises authority as a servant who gives his life as a ransom for many (20:25-28). In a confrontation with the chief priests and the elders of the people, Jesus refuses to tell them the source of his authority (21:23-27). Then at the end of the Gospel, the risen Jesus reveals to his listeners that “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” (28:18)
This is the method of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. I intend to add to my list of themes, as well as fill in more substance to each of the identified themes, and do the same with the other three Gospels, as I continue re-reading and re-hearing the fourfold Gospel in church and in private study, as part of my discipleship.
I encourage everyone to invest time enjoying the Gospels, or in the words of one church father: the memoires of the apostles. It was the words and deeds of Jesus that Luke was referring to when he wrote of the Acts 2 church: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We as the 21st century church can and should do likewise.
Like a great lake with a gently sloped beach, the Gospels are shallow enough for the children to wade and play in, and also deep enough for the underwater diver to explore in great depth. Amen.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31) Amen.