Christmas is just a few days away. Could there be a more perfect time to discuss the New Testament gospels? The biblical story begins with creation and ends with the restoration of God’s creation. But the heart of the story is the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Everything either points forward or looks back to this brief, but climactic, period of time. It’s ironic that our entire society measures history according to this one life. But what some observe merely because of the historical development of the modern calendar, we acknowledge in spirit and truth, realizing that everything we are as Christians, everything we believe, and everything we hope for is all rooted in what Jesus did in 1st century Palestine.
Since this part of the story is so essential, it’s important that we understand how best to read and study the gospels. Probably the first thing we notice about the New Testament gospels is that there are four of them. Why four? Well, instead of having one official, tightly-controlled version of the life and ministry of Jesus, we have four. And these four accounts were written by very different authors. According to early tradition, Mark wrote his gospel from the perspective of Peter, drawing on his personal accounts. Matthew and John were also eyewitnesses, but writing at different times with extremely different styles and perspectives. Luke wasn’t even Jewish. He was a Greek physician and understood the need for careful research (since he wasn’t an eyewitness) and detailed historical writing. These authors even arranged their material differently, some putting everything in careful chronological order, and others arranging the events and teachings according to topic.
But while these writers wrote at different times to believers in different settings and using different approaches (no sign of imposed uniformity here), it becomes very clear that they are recounting the same story, communicating the same message. The differences are real, but they tell us of the same Jesus, and the same faith and hope in him.
As you read the gospels, it’s important to not fall into either of two extremes. The gospels record the historical accounts of Jesus, his ministry and the responses of the people. But these books are much more than history. If you only focus on the historical details, you’ll miss the pulsing life of the story. On the other hand, these stories are more than inspiring myths or spiritual metaphors; they’re actual historical events. When these authors wrote the gospels, they were writing what they knew to be true and authentic. We study the gospels today because we firmly believe that these things truly happened.
Variations among the gospels
Now, for many thoughtful readers, the historical nature of the gospels brings up a number of questions. I remember as a child reading the gospels—with the words of Christ conveniently in red—and I noticed that the statements of Jesus often read differently in one gospel when compared to another. These weren’t glaring contradictions, just variations in the wording. But I was an analytical kid, and it bothered me. How could this be? Wasn’t this the inerrant Word of God, recording the words of Christ? How could there be any difference between the gospels?
I came to learn that the common, everyday language for Jesus, his disciples and the local Jews was Aramaic. When Jesus originally spoke the words we read in Scripture, he wasn’t speaking Greek, but Aramaic. Later, some of his disciples recorded these teachings for other believers. And they naturally wrote these accounts in Greek because it was the common language for Jews (and Gentiles) throughout the Roman empire and even beyond. As you might guess, whenever you have different people translating, there are bound to be variations in the results. They’ll convey the same meaning, but use different words. (Just imagine four different people independently translating a story from Spanish into English. Are they going to choose the same English words every time?)
It’s also helpful to know that the original biblical manuscripts didn’t include any quotation marks. They weren’t used in the ancient world, and the people then didn’t expect precise, word-for-word quotes the way we sometimes do. When you see quotation marks in Scripture (and the words of Jesus in red) this is the work of the translators and scholars, not the original writers. 1st century people were comfortable with conveying the essence of what someone had said instead of the exact wording. For instance, a child asks, “Mom, can we have some ice cream before dinner?” And she replies, “That’s a bad idea because it will ruin your dinner.” And the child reports to his waiting siblings, “No, she said we better not ‘cuz we won’t eat our supper.” Is this word-for-word? No. But is it accurate? Sure it is, and people then commonly summarized what someone else had said in a similar way. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we run across slight variations in the statements of Jesus.
As with any other writing in Scripture, we need to understand the historical context of the gospels. In many ways, the gospels have a unique setting. Jesus came to establish a new covenant with his people, one based on his grace-filled sacrifice for us, and our faith in him. But most of the events recorded in the gospels took place before Christ’s death on the cross. So these teachings and stories are still looking forward to and anticipating the death and resurrection of Jesus. They share much of the same perspective as the Old Testament.
Yet Jesus is right there in their midst, already telling them of how everything is changing. He’s fulfilling prophecies about the Messiah and the coming kingdom of God. He’s powerfully displaying his power over the enemy, casting out demons, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead. The ministry of Jesus was nothing less than light dramatically invading the darkness.
So this gospel period is a time when the Old Testament and the New Testament overlap. Many of Jesus’ teachings and examples are given while the people are still in the context of the Mosaic Law, but he’s preparing them for a direct relationship with God, through him, based on grace and faith. In Jesus, the kingdom of God (or rule of God) had suddenly come upon them, but he was not yet ushering in the kingdom in its fullness as he one day will. This is what theologians call the ‘already, but not yet.’ The kingdom was already in their midst, but it was not yet all-encompassing as it will be in the future. Also during this time, Jesus was preparing the twelve for a special ministry as his personally commissioned apostles.
To whom is Jesus speaking?
What does all of this mean for us when we’re reading the gospels? It means we have to ask ourselves, “To whom is Jesus speaking in this passage?” We can’t just assume that every statement applies to us. For example, in Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus gave these instructions:
So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.
So, to whom is this addressed? To New Testament Christians? Not unless we’re still supposed to be taking sacrifices to the Jewish Temple. Jesus spoke this to people in an Old Covenant context. We can learn from this instruction, but it wasn’t given directly to us. What about these instructions from Luke 9:3:
“Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes.”
Who was he talking to? Us? No, he’s giving these instructions specifically to his apostles (and he later changed these requirements even for them). Jesus gave many commands to the disciples that had a limited application during a unique period of history. If we try to fulfill these instructions now, we’ll just confuse and frustrate ourselves. So pay attention to whom Jesus is speaking. Thankfully, much of what he says applies to all of us the same way. Just make sure what the text says before figuring out what it means for you.
This is particularly important when reading the parables of Jesus. Many of his parables are so familiar to us, we naturally apply them to our lives today. But always take note of the setting, and just who is there listening to him. Many of the parables were meant specifically for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day; many more were intentionally aimed at the Pharisees. Again, this doesn’t mean these parables have no meaning for us, we just need to see what they meant to them then before we can know what they mean to us now.
No hidden meanings
As we talked about last week, look for the main point in the parables, not some secret, hidden meaning. We recently studied the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in Luke 13:18-21. It used to be common to hear people teach that these parables were speaking of abnormal growth (a mustard seed into a tree) and the permeation of sin (supposedly represented by the yeast). Not only is this interpretation technically incorrect (mustard plants naturally grow 10-12 feet; yeast doesn’t only represent sin), but it completely misses the point of the parables. The kingdom of God begins small and inconspicuous, but grows and spreads to a surprisingly large scale, as it was intended. And notice, if we insist that these negative interpretations are correct, then this is apparently what Jesus was saying about the kingdom of God—not some corrupted, institutional church. Is this really what he was saying about the rule of God? The lesson here? Don’t seek strange, esoteric, coded meanings to the parables of Jesus. Instead strive to understand what the parables would have meant in their original context.
Finally, also be aware that Jesus was a creative, colorful communicator. He used common figures of speech, including hyperbole (intentionally exaggerating to make a point). We do this all the time too. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!” “I’m so tired, I’m going to sleep for a week!” So when Jesus told the people (Matthew 5:29-30):
So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. . . . And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.
they understood immediately that he wasn’t literally telling them to starting gouging out and cutting off body parts. (Would gouging out your eyes really keep you from lusting?) They recognized that he was dramatically making a deeper point. A healthy common sense can be very helpful here. And the more you really think about what Jesus is saying and what it meant to them then, the more you’ll often see an underlying humor in the words of Christ. Have fun with your Bible study!
Most importantly, don’t forget why the gospels are the heart of the story. Don’t forget just who Jesus is, and what he’s doing in these accounts. At the time, the disciples couldn’t quite grasp the bigger picture. We need to make sure that we have the deeper significance firmly in our minds as we read and study the gospels.
[I'll be out of town next week, so there will be no Taking Root study. I'll have a new one for you the following week. Merry Christmas everyone!]
How to study the Bible series:
The heart of the story: Jesus [see above]