The heart of the story: Jesus

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.

Four Gospels
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 they’re 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 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.

Historical context
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 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 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 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:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus [see above]

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

Every time it happens I get a little frustrated. You’ve probably seen this too. Someone on a TV talk show is trying to discredit a biblical teaching. So they say something like, ‘Yeah, well, David not only committed adultery but he murdered the woman’s husband to cover it up, Lot did shameful things with his own daughters, and many of the men in the Bible had slaves and multiple wives! Do you really want to live by the Bible?!’ And so they make a classic mistake that sometimes Christian believers make as well. When we begin reading the stories in the Bible we need to remember an important principle:

1. Just because somebody in the Bible does something doesn’t mean the Bible is teaching us to do the same thing.

Now this is just common sense, especially when we’re talking about biblical characters who murder and sleep around. Of course we’re not supposed to follow their example! (Actually, the fact the Bible shows its “heroes” as they really were—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is strong testimony to its truthfulness. It would have been easy to whitewash the stories of the patriarchs,  but the biblical writers didn’t do that.) But when people in the Bible do things that aren’t blatantly wrong, we sometimes fall into using them as a model.

Have you ever heard someone say they were going to ‘put a fleece before the Lord’? Do you know what this means? It means asking God to give you a sign indicating what decision you should make. ‘Lord, if you want me to take this job, then make the third car I pass be a yellow Porsche Boxter S.’ Why is this called putting a ‘fleece’ before the Lord? Because of the story of Gideon in the 6th chapter of Judges. But if you read carefully, Gideon’s ‘fleece-putting’ wasn’t to determine God’s will; it was to ask God to prove to Gideon that God would really do what he had already said he was going to do! Gideon’s behavior wasn’t a sign of faith, but of unbelief. Clearly, this is an example we don’t want to follow!

2. The main thing the biblical stories do is tell us a story.

In the letters to the churches, we found direct commands and instructions. Biblical stories don’t work this way. The story of David and Bathsheba never directly tells us that adultery and murder are sinful. But it very clearly illustrates how low even a godly man can fall into sin, and the consequences of sinning in this way and then trying to hide it from God. While the stories may illustrate important truths (and even, in a sense, teach us insights), we need to be careful to not base any specific teaching on a biblical story. The teachings we follow—and teach others to follow—should be clearly taught somewhere else in Scripture, such as in the letters to the churches.

We also need to avoid reading the stories in the Old Testament as if they’re some kind of fable with a moral at the end of each story. Now, it’s not that Old Testament stories don’t vividly illustrate important lessons for us—many do. But not all of them. And if we insist on finding a nice, neat lesson to every biblical story, we’ll end up over-simplifying what we’re reading in Scripture. In the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, is the main point really about honesty and fairness? Is this the most significant thing going on in this story?

3. The stories in the Old Testament are part of a bigger story.

Hopefully, you’re still thinking about the importance of context. What is the context of the Old Testament stories? We’ve discussed this briefly before. Genesis begins with creation, quickly moves to Noah and the flood, and then narrows the story to Abraham and his family, particularly his grandson Jacob (renamed Israel) and Jacob’s sons. The books of Exodus through Joshua tell of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt, establishing his covenant with them, and eventually bringing them into the land he had promised them. Judges through 2 Samuel take us from the early history of the tribes of Israel, when they were led by judges, to Samuel the last judge of Israel and Saul the first king of Israel, and finally to David the prototypical Israelite king. 1 Kings through 2 Chronicles tell of how the nation was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and how each nation fell into idolatry, eventually being conquered by an outside force and taken into captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the people being allowed to go back to the land, and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. Esther tells of events that occur among the Jewish community who didn’t return to the land.

A good study Bible will give you more background on each of the books. But the point is that when you read the stories in the Old Testament, you need to be aware of where the story fits into the bigger story of what God is doing with his people. And, of course, the stories in the Old Testament ultimately lead to Jesus in the New Testament. When we look back at the Old Testament stories, we see them through the lens of Jesus. We recognize how Jesus puts these stories into proper perspective and often makes seemingly inconsequential accounts jump out at us. So when you read stories in the Old Testament, be aware of where you are in the bigger story of the Old Testament, and where you are in the even bigger story of God’s grand plan as recorded in Scripture.

4. Don’t try to find secret or hidden meanings in the biblical stories.

Some of you may remember the controversy over supposed Satanic backward messages in rock music. Eventually most Christians realized it was much better to pay attention to what the songs were unambiguously saying when you played them forward! (The Christian rock band Petra recorded a backward message that said: “Why are you looking for the devil when you should be looking for the Lord?!”) In a similar way, the important things that Scripture has to tell us are found in the clear biblical writings and stories. In the story of Abraham seeking a wife for his son, Isaac (Genesis 24), Abraham does not equal God, Isaac does not equal Jesus, and Rebekah does not equal the church. The story is about precisely what it seems to be about—Abraham seeking a wife for his son Isaac. Don’t turn historical accounts into some secret allegory. When we try to find these kinds of hidden meanings, we invariably lose the real significance of the story.

5. Don’t just see the story, observe how the story is told.

After you read a few stories in the Bible, you may notice they’re not much like modern novels. We aren’t given elaborate descriptions of people or scenery. This isn’t the way stories are told in Scripture. So when you do see details, pay attention. They are there for a reason. Have you ever watched a movie, and a character lays an envelope on the desk, then the camera lingers on the envelope lying there? You know it’s going to be important later, don’t you? It’s the same idea with these details in the biblical accounts. When Judges 3:15 notes that Ehud was left-handed, it’s going to be important to the story. When the birth of Jacob and Esau is described, along with the physical characteristics of each infant, we can know this is significant.

Notice how the dialogue in a story develops. Much of the stories in the Old Testament are told through the dialogue. And be on the lookout for repeated themes. If you’re watching an old black and white movie on TV, and two men wearing hats, boots and gun belts walk out into the middle of a dirt street with old wooden buildings on each side,  people scrambling to get out the way, and a blinding sun glaring overhead—what’s about to happen? An Old Western gunfight, right? Watch for these kinds of motifs in the biblical stories. For instance, notice how many stories in the Old Testament have to do with barren women who eventually have children. Notice how many older brothers are passed over while the younger is chosen. These patterns give us insights into what God is doing with his people. And, as with the letters to the churches, be watchful for repeated words and phrases. These can often open up deeper layers to the story.

There are amazing, captivating accounts recorded in the Old Testament. It’s okay to get swept up in the story. They’re good stories! Just remember these stories aren’t there just to provide entertaining reading. They communicate something important to us about how God interacts with his people, and how the smaller stories fit into a much larger plan. And don’t forget the most important principle for reading Old Testament stories:

In every biblical story, the hero is always God.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1 [see above]

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle