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How Should We Read the Gospels?

Our method of reading the Gospels must respect the means God used to inspire them in the first place. The Gospel writers are saying something about Jesus in each episode and they are saying something by the way they link the smaller stories together to form the larger story.

To arrive at a method of reading the Gospels that matches the means of God’s communication, let’s transform these two central purposes cited above into two simple interpretive questions. (1) What does this small story tell us about Jesus? (2) What is the Gospel writer trying to say to his readers by the way that he puts the smaller stories together? The chart below depicts the two central interpretive questions for reading the Gospels.

↓ Episode 1 ↓ Episode 2 ↓ Episode 3
What is this episode telling us about Jesus? What is this episode telling us about Jesus? What is this episode telling us about Jesus?
→ Episodes 1, 2, and 3
What is the Gospel writer trying to communicate to his readers by the way he connects these stories together?

Take the familiar story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–42 as an example. Step 1 is to read the story and understand its message, usually a message that centers around Jesus.

↓ Luke 10:25–37 ↓ Luke 10:38–42 ↓ Luke 11:1–13
Here we discover the principle that doing good things for God can sometimes cause us to miss God himself. Martha’s desire to put on a feast for Jesus causes her to miss the best thing: listening to Jesus.

Before moving on, give this a try. Read Luke 10:25–37 and Luke 11:1–13 and ask the question: What is the main idea of each story? What does this story teach me about Jesus? What does Jesus teach in this story? What do I learn from Jesus’ actions captured in this story? We will learn a lot more about how to read individual episodes later in this unit, but for now we want you to summarize the main idea. Take a look at how we tried to capture Luke’s message.

↓ Luke 10:25–37 ↓ Luke 10:38–42 ↓ Luke 11:1–13
We see the principle that love for one’s neighbor should transcend all human boundaries such as nationality, race, religion, or economic status. Here we discover the principle that doing good things for God can sometimes cause us to miss God himself. Martha’s desire to put on a feast for Jesus causes her to miss the best thing: listening to Jesus. Jesus teaches us how to communicate with God through prayer (11:1–4). This is followed by a parable on prayer (11:5–8) and an exhortation to pray (11:9–13).

Step 1, then, is to understand the main message of each story, a message usually focusing on the life and teachings of Jesus. In Step 2 we need to put the episode of Mary and Martha alongside the surrounding episodes to see what Luke is trying to communicate to his readers (and to us) by the way he has arranged the material. Look at our summaries above and think about what these three stories have in common. Do you see any connections? Look below to see what we came up with.

↓ Luke 10:25–37, Luke 10:38–42, Luke 11:1–13
The common theme seems to be relationships. In the first story we are told that followers of Jesus should be loving neighbors to people in need. In our second story we are taught that listening to Jesus should take priority over “religious activity.” Finally Luke emphasizes our relationship to God in 11:1–13. Followers of Jesus need to know how to relate to their neighbors (service), how to relate to their Lord (devotion), and how to relate to their Father (prayer).

We cannot be 100 percent sure we have captured Luke’s intention here, and different readers may see different connections. Don’t force anything. Try to stick with the main idea of each passage and you will discover some great insights into the Gospels.

Up to this point we have seen that reading the Gospels consists of asking two main questions, questions that correspond to the two central purposes of the evangelists: (1) What is taught in each episode? (2) What is taught by the way the episodes are linked together to form the larger story? In the next part of this unit we will explore both questions in more detail, beginning with how to read individual episodes.

1. How to Read Individual Stories

There are some basic interpretive guidelines for discovering theological principles in specific stories. We will illustrate the rules using the story of Jesus’ calming the storm (Mark 4:35–41) and a few other texts.

35That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

a. Ask the standard questions that you should ask of any story: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? We list a few observations of this passage to illustrate the process.

Who? (characters)
  • Jesus (vv. 35, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41)
  • Disciples (vv. 35, 36, 38, 40, 41)
  • Crowd (v. 36)
What? (story line)
  • While crossing the sea, a storm comes up, and the waves nearly swamp the boat. (v. 37)
  • The disciples wake Jesus, who is sleeping on a cushion in the stern of the boat. (v. 38)
  • Jesus rebukes the storm then rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith. (vv. 39–40)
  • The disciples are terrified by Jesus’ authority over the sea and ask, “Who is this?” (v. 41)
When? (time)
  • When evening comes, the disciples and Jesus begin to cross the sea. (v. 35)
  • During the storm Jesus the carpenter sleeps, and the fishermen disciples fear for their lives. (v. 38)
  • After Jesus rebukes the wind, the sea grows calm. (v. 39)
  • After stilling the storm, Jesus asks his disciples a couple of tough questions. (v. 40)
  • After the calming of the storm and Jesus’ questions, the disciples are terrified. (v. 41)
Where? (place)
  • Jesus and his disciples head to the other side of the sea. (v. 35)
  • They are in the boat. (v. 36)
  • The waves are breaking over the boat. (v. 37)
  • Jesus is in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. (v. 38)
Why? (reason)
  • The disciples wake Jesus because they were angry at their teacher’s indifference to their safety. (v. 38)
  • The wind and waves calm down because of Jesus’ rebuke. (vv. 39, 41)
  • The disciples are terrified because they realize that Jesus has authority over the sea. (vv. 40–41)
How? (means)
  • The disciples use a question to rebuke Jesus. (v. 38)
  • Jesus calms the stormy sea by his spoken word. (v. 39)
  • Jesus uses questions to rebuke the disciples. (v. 40)
  • The disciples verbalize their fear in the form of a question about Jesus’ identity: “Who is this?” (v. 41)

From these simple questions we make some significant discoveries about the story. Because Jesus and the disciples appear in almost every verse, we know that the story focuses on Jesus’ relationship to his disciples. What is Jesus trying to teach his followers? Will they learn the lesson? Also, by contrasting Jesus’ response to the storm with that of the disciples, we see the difference between faith and fear. Jesus sleeps in trust while these professional fishermen frantically bail water in fear of drowning. We notice too the power of Jesus’ spoken word. Even the stormy sea is subject to him. The role that questions play in this passage is interesting. The disciples question Jesus’ indifference. Jesus questions the disciples’ lack of faith. This causes the disciples in turn to question Jesus’ identity: “Who is this guy who can control the sea?”

b. Look for interpretive instructions from the author himself. Often a Gospel writer will help readers see his point by offering clues in the story’s introduction. The author may say something like, “When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable” (Luke 14:7). Without even hearing the parable, you can guess that it will have something to do with spiritual pride or humility or both.

The introduction to the Sermon on the Mount reads like this: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said” (Matt. 5:1–2). From this introduction we know to read the sermon that follows as teaching directed to people who are already following Jesus rather than to people who are considering discipleship.

Often the author’s interpretive clue will appear in the conclusion to the story. In Mark 4 the story climaxes with the disciples’ question in the final verse: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” We are left with the distinct impression that Mark wants his readers to know that Jesus is something more than your average rabbi (or “teacher”). He even possesses divine authority over the powerful forces of nature!

In the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Matthew 19, the last line reads: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (19:30). Jesus is turning the world’s values upside down. Those who have given up everything to follow Jesus now should not worry; they will indeed be first in God’s kingdom.

Occasionally a Gospel writer will include a parenthetical remark to clarify the intended meaning of the story. In Mark 7:1–23 Jesus confronts the Pharisees and teachers of the law over the issue of ritual purity. Mark then adds these words: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (7:19). With this comment, Mark draws out the implication of the story for his readers. What makes a person clean or unclean is a matter of the heart, not the digestive tract.

As another example, remember when Peter and John ran to the empty tomb? Peter went inside first. Scripture says that when John finally entered the tomb, he “saw and believed” (John 20:8). The Gospel writer tacks on this comment: “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). This remark makes it clear that at this point John’s faith was based not on a particular reading of the Old Testament, but on his experience of seeing the graves clothes without the body; the tomb was empty, Jesus had risen, John saw and believed!

You can expect to find theological principles in stories by looking to the author himself for help. Often you will find such explicit instructions in the introduction or conclusion to a story or in the author’s parenthetical comments.

c. Take special note of anything that is repeated in the story. Stories often use repetition to convey theological truth. As you read individual episodes in the Gospels, be alert for what shows up again and again. While reading John 15 you will notice that the word “remain” (or “abide”) appears over and over. In Matthew 23 the repeated expression “Woe” conveys an unmistakable tone of warning to the reader. In Matthew 5 Jesus repeatedly highlights the uniqueness of his teaching using the phrase “You have heard that it was said…. But I tell you….”

When the Gospel writers repeat a word or theme or when a particular character figures prominently, pay attention! Authors use repetition to signal an important truth, and you don’t want to miss it. What theme do you see repeated in Luke 12:22–34 below? (Write down words or phrases that repeat that particular theme.)

22Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
27“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

d. Be alert for places where the story shifts to direct discourse. Direct discourse occurs when the characters speak directly, that is, when their words appear in quotation marks in the text. By isolating the direct discourse you can usually see the heart of the story. Notice how the direct discourse in Mark 4:35–41 really does give you the story in a nutshell:

v. 35: “Let us go over to the other side.”
v. 38: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
v. 39: “Quiet! Be still!”
v. 40: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
v. 41: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Another example that comes to mind is Jesus’ transfiguration, where we hear God’s voice: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5). After Jesus had predicted his own death, God’s reassurance must have meant a lot to disciples struggling with the notion of a crucified Messiah.

Some passages feature almost exclusively the dialogue between main characters. John 4:4–26 is a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Perhaps the conversation between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman was worth preserving for its shock value alone, since as John notes, “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (4:9). By studying the contents of the conversation, you can see clearly what John intended to communicate to his readers about Jesus. Direct discourse generally offers an exceptionally clear window for gazing at the theological message of the story.

When trying to identify theological principles in individual stories we must askthe standard narrative questions, pay attention to the author’s own interpretive instructions, note what is repeated, and concentrate on direct discourse within the story. The story of Jesus’ calming the storm in Mark 4:35–41 might be summarized as follows:

Jesus exerts his power over the sea and responds to the storm himself by trusting the Father during a difficult circumstance.

Now let’s look at how this story connects to surrounding stories.

2. How to Read a Series of Stories

The second interpretive question for reading the Gospels expands the context beyond any one story or episode to the surrounding stories: “What is the Gospel writer trying to say by the way he strings together the individual stories?” Since the Gospel writers could not tell us everything about Jesus, they have selected material and arranged that material to send their first readers (and us) a powerful, life-changing message about Jesus.

Are there reliable guidelines for reading a series of stories or episodes? We believe there is one central guideline that can be applied in a number of different ways. The most important thing to do when reading a series of stories is to look for connections. This is exactly what you learned to do already using scenes from Mark 8. Look for common themes or patterns. Search for logical connections like cause and effect. Pay attention to how episodes are joined together (e.g., transition statements or conjunctions). Notice how the stories differ at key points. Compare the characters, paying close attention to Jesus, the main character of the Gospels. Focus on his identity, his mission, his teaching, and responses to him. Seeing connections used by the author will help you discern the intended message.

Let’s search for connections between Mark 4:35–41 and surrounding stories. When we look at what occurs before 4:35–41, we find a large section consisting of Jesus’parables “by the lake” (4:1). The series of parables set off by the word “parables” at the beginning (4:2) and the end (4:33–34) indicates that 4:1–34 should be seen as a unit. Beginning in Mark 4:35 the parables stop, and we see a change in location (from beside the lake to the lake itself) as well as audience (from the crowds to the disciples). These changes strongly suggest that Mark is beginning another unit in 4:35. As a result, we should read the story of Jesus calming the storm (4:35–41) with the scenes that follow rather than the parables that precede.

How, then, does Mark 4:35–41 connect with the larger unit beginning in 4:35 and ending in 5:43 (or maybe even 6:6a)? The following chart summarizes the message of the individual stories.

Mark 4:25–41 Mark 5:1–20 Mark 5:24b–34
Mark 5:21–24a
Mark 5:35–43
Jesus exerts his power over the sea and responds with faith during a difficult circumstance. Jesus casts out a legion of demons, restores a man to his right mind, and sends him out as a faithful follower Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage who, because of faith, touched him, then confessed him publicly. Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus from the dead in the presence of Peter, James, John, and the girl’s parents.

When we look for connections between the episodes in 4:35–5:43, we notice several common themes:

  • Life is hard. People experience the threat of death, satanic attack, disease, and death itself
  • Jesus is sovereign overforces that are hostile to God. First-century people feared some of the same things that we fear: the sea, the demonic, disease, and death. Jesus has power over these.
  • We should trust Jesus in the midst of the desperate situations of life. The water was threatening to swamp the boat, the demoniac could not be restrained, the bleeding had lasted twelve years, and the daughter was dead. The common thread running through this entire section is the hopelessness of the situation. Jesus calls us to faith. He scolds the disciples for failing to have faith in the middle of the storm (4:40). He commends the woman with the hemorrhage for her saving faith (5:34), and he tells Jairus not to fear, but to believe (5:36).

Mark’s message to his first-century audience and to us becomes clear (see the horizontal box below):

Mark 4:25–41 Mark 5:1–20 Mark 5:24b–34
Mark 5:21–24a
Mark 5:35–43
Jesus exerts his power over the sea and responds with faith during a difficult circumstance. Jesus casts out a legion of demons, restores a man to his right mind, and sends him out as a faithful follower Jesus heals the woman with the hemorrhage who, because of faith, touched him, then confessed him publicly. Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus from the dead in the presence of Peter, James, John, and the girl’s parents.
Through his mighty works Jesus shows himself sovereign over the forces that are hostile to God. Demons, disease, and death strike fear and hopelessness into the hearts of people. Mark’s first-century readers were facing persecution and hostility. Through this series of stories, he assures them that Jesus has power over everything they fear! He can calm the sea, he can cast out demons, he can heal diseases, and he can raise the dead. They should trust him in the midst of the desperate situations of life.

As Mark’s Gospel continues in 6:1–6a, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, where he faces rejection from those who assume they know him best. “Isn’t this the carpenter?” they ask (6:3). Mark’s closing comment reveals the tragic irony of this cold and faithless reception: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith” (6:5–6a). What a sad contrast to the hopeful message of the four preceding stories (4:35–5:43).

3. Applying the Message of the Gospels

Part of grasping God’s Word is moving beyond theological principles and truths to application. How does this work in real life? Much of what you learned in earlier on application will apply here. One of the most important things to remember when seeking to apply truths from these stories is that we should always keep the larger context in view. Saying that Jesus has power over hostile forces does not guarantee that he will always deliver us from cancer or car wrecks or other disasters. We should trust Jesus in the midst of desperate situations in life, but the rest of Scripture and all of history make it clear that his deliverance can take different forms. Sometimes he delivers us from immediate danger by prevention or healing. At other times he delivers us from ultimate danger by resurrection from the dead. When Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:18 that “the Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom,” he must have been speaking about ultimate and final deliverance, since, as tradition tells us, he himself died a martyr’s death. Perhaps now you can see why we need to “consult the biblical map” after identifying the theological principle since knowing how the principle relates to the rest of the Bible can help us apply the message responsibly.

What would be a legitimate application of the stories in Mark 4–5? How can we live out these stories in our day? Just before the second edition of Grasping God’s Word went to print, an airplane carrying a group of students and faculty members from Ouachita Baptist University (a Christian liberal arts school in Arkansas where we both teach) crashed when returning from a ministry trip. One student and the daughter of a professor were killed. How might this group of Christians live out the message of Mark 4–5? Remember, these stories teach that (a) life is hard, (b) Jesus is sovereign over forces hostile to God, and (c) we should trust Jesus in the desperate situations of life.

Living out the first principle is rather easy: Life is hard! Christians should not expect to be exempt from difficult situations such as disease and death.

The second principle is much more difficult to apply. If Jesus calmed the storm for the first disciples, why didn’t he “calm the storm” for our friends? We return again to the larger context. Even while on earth Jesus did not heal every sick person or raise every dead person. (We assume that even Jairus’s daughter eventually died again.) The first readers of Mark’s Gospel were facing intense hostilities associated with living faithfully in a fallen world. When Mark communicates that Jesus is sovereign over forces hostile to God, we believe that he intends for his audience to understand this in an ultimate sense. Jesus’ miracles are previews of what is to come, glimpses of what life will be like when his kingdom comes in all its fullness at his return.

The message of the whole New Testament is clear for those who have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ: in time “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). If you consider this to be an empty and irrelevant application, have you considered what it would be like to face the same trouble in this life without any help from the Spirit of God or the body of Christ and without any hope of a new heaven and new earth?

This brings us to the third principle: faith in Jesus. When we speak of faith, we are speaking about a wholehearted trust in Jesus. Faith means hanging on to Jesus even when the immediate circumstances look bleak. Whether the deliverance is immediate or ultimate, we should have faith in Jesus because Jesus has been, is, and always will be faithful.

Let’s return to Luke 10 for two more examples of how to apply the message of the Gospels. One principle we found in Luke 10:25–37 is that love for one’s neighbor should transcend all human barriers. Even on Christian college campuses there are outcasts created by barriers of appearance, race, economic status, intelligence, social skills, and so on. This story calls us to love our way through such barriers—befriending a “less attractive” person, tutoring a struggling classmate, reaching out to an international student, or forgiving an obnoxious roommate. Jesus teaches us in this story that not even religious excuses are acceptable when we refuse to love our neighbor.

In the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–42 we discover the principle that doing good things for God can sometimes cause us to miss God. The application of this one is not hard to see. Consider these questions. Do we take time to listen to the Lord on a regular basis? Are we obsessed with religious activities to such an extent that our relationship with God is drying up? Have we learned how to say no to some good things in order to say yes to God’s best? Jesus desires our fellowship, and that takes time.

To summarize, we have learned that we should read the Gospels in a way that matches how they were written. The evangelists wrote (1) to tell individual stories about Jesus and (2) to send a message to their readers (e.g., trust rather than fear) by the way they put these individual stories together into a larger story. We now turn our attention to special literary forms that you will encounter as you read the Gospels. Our two rules remain central, but there are a few tips for understanding these special forms.


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