December 2, 2020

Getting to Know the Gospel Better

First Things First
Restoring the Gospel to Primacy in the Church
Part Two: Getting to Know the Gospel Better – Introduction

• • •

“It may be patently obvious, but it’s not to most: they called these books ‘the Gospels’ because they are the gospel.” (Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel).

I suggested in last week’s post that, just as the Jewish people consider the Torah of Moses to be the most important “book” in the Hebrew Bible, so Christians should view “The Gospel of Jesus” according to Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, and John to be the most important book of the New Testament.

This five-fold “book” of witnesses is the Gospel, and it is this “book” that is designed to form the Christian believer’s theology, identity, and calling. The NT epistles are secondary, built upon the Story told in these books. They show the outworking of the Gospel in the life of the Church and her mission in the world.

  • How well do we know the books of the Gospel?
  • How does the church emphasize their importance and the priority of knowing them and internalizing their message?

Orthodox Jews hear the entire Torah over the course of a year. On Shabbat (Saturday) mornings, a weekly section (“parasha“) is read, selected so that the entire Pentateuch is read consecutively each year. This cycle of readings culminates with a special celebration known as Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah). Conservative and Reform congregations may use a three-year cycle.

Traditionally, Jewish boys memorized the entire Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) from ages 6-12!

Liturgical Christian churches that follow a lectionary in Sunday worship read passages from the Gospels regularly. However, this is not as systematic or comprehensive as Torah reading in the synagogue.

For example, in the Revised Common Lectionary our church uses, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are emphasized in the triennial cycle: Year A – Matthew, Year B – Mark, Year C – Luke. The Gospel of John is read in part each year during the major seasons of Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The Book of Acts is not traditionally considered a “Gospel” and is therefore read at other times of the year, and only in portions.

While I appreciate hearing passages from the Gospels each Sunday in our worship, especially in the context of the liturgical year, I question sometimes whether we might not strengthen our understanding by helping believers better grasp the big picture of the Gospels as books. I am not sure we always “go deeper” into the unique emphases and messages stressed by each Gospel witness so that we learn and appreciate the Story of Jesus from the various perspectives out of which it is told.

I would like to suggest that churches should make learning the Gospels the primary focus when it comes to the content of their spiritual formation efforts.

In spiritual formation (also known as “discipleship”), our main way of shaping Christian identity, theology, and calling should reflect the emphasis and structure of the Bible itself. Since the Gospels/Acts are the primary narrative of the Gospel, we Christians should be immersed in them to the point that they become our Story. Our goals should be to help one another…

  • Learn the Story.
  • Learn how each Gospel writer tells the Story.
  • Learn the distinctive emphases each Gospel witness brings out of the Story.
  • Learn how the different Gospels show that Jesus fulfilled the Story of Israel as told in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Learn to know the Person who is at the heart of the Story.
  • Learn to know how the Gospels proclaim “the Gospel.”
  • Learn how the Gospels are designed to shape the community that bears Jesus’ name and continues to proclaim his Gospel throughout the world.

In my experience, which has largely been in non-denominational evangelicalism to this point, this has not been an emphasis in our spiritual formation. Our “soterian” Gospel (which sets forth a “plan of salvation” for individuals) has focused much more on doctrine, propositional principles, practical paraenesis (instruction for living), devotional piety, and evangelism. We have not been, by and large, people of the Story but rather people with a statement of faith, and a moral and missionary agenda.

Now that I am part of a historic, liturgical Protestant tradition, I am seeing the value of a more Story-shaped life and community. Observing the Christian Year has a lot to do with that (more on this in future posts). This observance can only be strengthened by a deeper and fuller immersion in the Gospel texts themselves, so that the Story becomes the very atmosphere and ethos of our lives as individuals, families, and church communities.

Jesus-shaped Christianity will grow out of the soil of a Story-shaped Gospel.

The more we immerse ourselves in the Story and get to know the Gospels, the greater the impact the Gospel of King Jesus will have in and through us.


  1. sowarrior says

    I second your motion.

    It’s amazing how many Christians think that how Jesus lived, taught and ministered is completely irrelevant for us today.

  2. Amen! I’ve long lamented the lack of study of the gospels in evangelical churches. (I’ve often said the only things more neglected in a Baptist church than the third verse of a hymn is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) I think there are three primary reasons for this, two of which you hit on.

    First, as heirs to the Reformation we focus on Paul and justification, as though the battle were still going on (which largely it isn’t – I don’t know the last time I talked to anyone who honestly was trying to ‘earn’ salvation or thought they impressed God enough to merit a place in heaven – God is going to take everyone you know). The gospels just don’t have that deep ‘theology’ that Paul has, though in recent years the so-called ‘New Perspective’ has given us new insight that questions whether Paul was really fighting alongside Luther.

    Second, as noted, the gospels are ‘story’ – narrative, and we Westerners don’t know how to deal with that. We like bullet points and logical outlines. It’s hard for us to find ‘theology’ in the gospels so we relegate them to morality lessons (the Good Samaritan and so forth). However, the gospel writers are teaching theology through their narrative. For example, Mark 4:35-5:43 contains a series of incidents, all designed to show Jesus’ lordship – lord over nature (stilling of the storm), lord over demonic powers (Gerasene demoniac), lord over sickness (woman with hemorage), lord over death (raising of Jairus’ daughter). That is how narrative teaches theology, but as Westerners we don’t appreciate the depth of theology the gospels contain.

    Third, I think the influence of the Reformation, and more particularly, Dispensationalism, has relegated much of what we find in the gospels to the ‘Old Covenant’, and of course, that doesn’t apply to us (other than to show us how far short we fall and our need for a savior). However, again with some help from recent scholarship, there is a growing appreciation that Jesus’ teaching (and theology) are about the Kingdom and how that Kingdom (and its ‘citizens’) functions in this ‘age’, as well as where it’s all going.

    Thanks for reminding us that the ‘Gospel’ is found in the gospels. They do much more than simply provide a setting for the crucifixion and resurrection.

    • Greg,

      “Second, as noted, the gospels are ‘story’ – narrative, and we Westerners don’t know how to deal with that. We like bullet points and logical outlines.”

      I think you’re right about this, but I think this might be changing. I’ve been teaching through Matthew for over a year, trying to let the story of Jesus inform us, and I think people can relate to Jesus in a very real way when Jesus isn’t reduced to bullet points. I try not to not even use handouts, but tell the story, give details and background info where needed, and let the story inform our application.

      • Yes, I think you’re right and I’m beginning to see this too. This might be one of the unintended (or unexpected) benefits of post-modernism.

      • Clay Crouch says

        Bravo in your use of imagination to engage your congregation in the gospel narratives! It is sorely needed in our “just the facts, ma’am” culture. Could it be that imagination holds a key to bringing the teachings of Jesus to 21st century western civilization? Harvey Cox’s, “When Jesus Came to Harvard – Making Moral Choices Today”, does a wonderful job exploring this.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Second, as noted, the gospels are ‘story’ – narrative, and we Westerners don’t know how to deal with that. We like bullet points and logical outlines.

      And breaking the story up into one-verse verbal-component magic spells.

      Third, I think the influence of the Reformation, and more particularly, Dispensationalism, has relegated much of what we find in the gospels to the ‘Old Covenant’…

      Dispensationalism (seven-syllable theobabble) itself is a result of the Age of Reason’s and Victorians’ mania for logical outlines with NO discrepancies. As Chaplain Mike put it once, it’s a result of looking upon the Old Story as an engineering manual.

    • Adrienne says

      Greg ~ could you expand a bit on what you mean by “Paul fighting alongside of Luther”.

      • Adrienne,

        That opens another can of worms not directly related to CM’s post (so I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it, and apologize profusely 🙂 ), but basically, some ‘New Perspective’ writers, most notably Wright and Jimmy Dunn, have called us to a fresh read of Romans. As I have been teaching Romans for the last few months I have come to appreciate that Paul’s concerns and Luther’s concerns were quite different. Paul’s argument is quite complex, and this is not the forum to unpack it, but Paul’s primary concern in Romans 1-3 is countering Jewish claims of ‘covenant status’ based on ethnicity (descent from Abraham, like in Galatians) and the argument that opening salvation to Gentiles, and apparently abandoning Israel, makes God unfaithful to Israel and that he doesn’t keep his promises (if what Paul preaches is in fact true). Paul’s argument is that God is faithful and just (righteous) and the ‘Christ event’ (Gospel) demonstrates his righteousness, covenant faithfulness, and saving action (probably what is really meant by ‘righteousness of God’ rather than ‘imputed righteousness’; in grammatical terms, this is almost certainly a ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’ genitive rather than a genitive of source) despite the fact that Israel herself has proven unfaithful (3:2-3). Again, too much to unpack here, but Paul and Luther were arguing for very different things.

  3. Paul as an apostle of Jesus was fully committed sharing the Gospel of Jesus (Romans 1:9-16, etc.), though we are most familiar with his gospel presentation in propositional rather than narrative form. I don’t think that makes his personal encounter with Jesus a less important communication of the gospel.

    • That’s true, but what exactly did Paul’s presentation look like? In Rom. 1:2-4 he describes ‘the Gospel of God’ – predicted in the OT, Jesus as son of David (human story), Jesus ‘appointed’ ‘Son of God in power’ (resurrection/exaltation), resulting in forgiveness of sins. We have a couple of examples of his presentation in Acts, and probably none in his letters (since his letters deal with issues in churches [even Romans] and aren’t sermons to non-believers)

      In Acts 13 he preaches to Jews. The presentation: predicted in the OT, Jesus as son of David (human story), Jesus death, resurrection, and exaltation, resulting in forgiveness of sins. Sounds a lot like Rom. 1:2-4. This seems to be his pattern to Jewish audiences (cf. Acts 17:1-15).

      His preaching to Gentiles probably followed the pattern in Acts 17:16-34. He introduces them to a god they don’t know (the ‘root’ problem in Rom. 1:18-23), tells them this God has acted through Jesus, his death and resurrection, to bring about forgiveness of sins. (cf. Acts 14:14-18). The basic human problem in Paul’s thinking isn’t failure to keep the Law, but failure to know the one true God and honor him as such. The good news is this God reveals himself for who he is – and he does so in Jesus.

      I doubt his presentation sounded much like a revivalist or ‘The Romans Road’ or ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’. I’m guessing it probably sounded a lot like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (though these weren’t written when Paul started preaching).

      • Yeah, it is interesting that in Acts 17 Paul describes the gospel by quoting Epimenides’ poem where Minos says to Zeus:
        “They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one [i.e.because the Cretans thought Zeus was dead, therefore mortal]
        Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies
        But you are not dead, you live and abide forever
        For in you we live and move and have our being.”

        I have a hard time seeing a modern evangelical preacher detouring from the Romans Road to quote pagan seers in their gospel presentation… I doubt I would have the nerve to do it. Yet Paul freely lifts from their mythology and narrations, even as he later denounces its veracity in his letter to Titus.

        More importantly, if when I read the letters of Paul I come up with a different gospel than found in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, my default troubleshooting should start with the assumption that my systematic theology is misunderstands Paul.

  4. Joseph (the original) says

    each of the Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, together with the writings of the Apostle Paul, do create the framework of our theology…

    each writer gifted in different ways & therefore emphasizing some things over others.

    i think Paul being the formally trained theologian (seminary trained) would reflect a Talmud approach to his faith. detailed. cerebral. formal treatise presentation. his was the exception, not the norm in the early years of the Church. also, he was the Apostle to the Gentiles, which meant he dealt with all the major philosophies & world religions so unlike Jewish thought he had to address theological concepts in ways that were on par with thinking elites of his day…

    i do appreciate the simplicity of the gospels that does not have much technical theology overwhelming the believer whose faith is like that of a chlid. i like there are no formal details Jesus taught about church structure, leadership, tradition, worship expression, complimentarianism (shout out to previous discussion), issues regarding homosexuality, political perspectives, scientific proofs of YEC, who is in & who is out, etc. i think His emphasis of the “kingdom” provides a much more generous orthodoxy than what became that of the Church. in fact, i think there was a discussion once about whether the kingdom of God/heaven as Jesus taught much more extensive than that of the Church…

    anyway…good considerations this morning…

    • Joseph (the original) says

      and then a consideration from the recent First Things First, part one posting+discussion…

      This is not a matter of inspiration. Most of us know 2Timothy 3:16-17 — “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

      could be the reproof (good term) & correction within the context of discarding teachings such as YEC only & complimentarianism. re-proving the gospel in light of the kingdom as Jesus portrayed it & not thru the narrower lens of church traditions, doctrines, anathemas, claims, etc.

      yeah…i see how the 2 grander concepts fit nicely together…

  5. You won’t hear any argument from me on this! I too have found the church year and a focus on the Gospels and the life of Jesus to be incredibly helpful for feeling like I’m a part of that Story. That’s why instead of being a pure evangelical I’m now Episcemergicostagelidox.

    To me the most important aspect of the Gospels is that they show us, most directly, who Jesus is. The other books are more focused on what Jesus does for us and what we do for him. But the Gospels just show us Jesus, and when we see Jesus, we’re seeing the only perfect representation we’ve been given the character and passion of God. The epistles explain Jesus to us; the Gospels show us why we should trust him. The epistles help us serve Jesus, but the Gospels help us fall in love with Jesus, which is far more important in the end.

    (Yes, I know the line isn’t quite that clear-cut between the two, but I hope my point is clear.)

    • pfletch says

      Thanks, Michael, your 2nd paragraph sums up perfectly what I have been thinking lately.

  6. Radagast says

    “While I appreciate hearing passages from the Gospels each Sunday in our worship, especially in the context of the liturgical year, I question sometimes whether we might not strengthen our understanding by helping believers better grasp the big picture of the Gospels as books. I am not sure we always “go deeper” into the unique emphases and messages stressed by each Gospel witness so that we learn and appreciate the Story of Jesus from the various perspectives out of which it is told.”

    I don’t know CM… I truly believe that the high liturgical churches, those that follow the liturgicl calendar and make the Gospel the climax in the Liturgy of the Word (followed by a Homily that hopefully delves deeper into its meaning) do make the Gospel central. I do admit that a top down approach focusing on the view of each gospel community is helpful in guiding the community to a deeper relationship, but this might be more appropriate for scripture study.

    Could it be that your years in evangelical circles, with its focus on Pauline thought has clouded what might be before you? In th ECLA churches I have visited there seems to be a focus on Gospel (though I cannot attest to the fact that the sermon following the Gospel continues with that focus).

    In the RC tradition the sole focus on Paul is as foreign as words such as complementarianism. Although Paul had many important things to say, the other pastoral letters, in support of the Gospels had important things to say as well.

    • I didn’ mean to sound overly critical of liturgical traditions in this area. I’m just encouraging us all to go deeper.

      • David Cornwell says

        “While I appreciate hearing passages from the Gospels each Sunday in our worship, especially in the context of the liturgical year, I question sometimes whether we might not strengthen our understanding by helping believers better grasp the big picture of the Gospels as books.”

        I think you are correct. The liturgical passages provide the framework from which a much deeper understanding can be taught and lived. There are ways to add context to a passage and bring better understanding of the book itself, and in so doing the real meaning of the gospel. Pastors and preachers have to work at doing this, but it’s important. This can be a long term and overarching goal.

        • CaseyRoh says

          I just wonder if this desire for/goal of helping believers grasp the big picture is as much of a homiletic issue as anything else in the liturgical traditions.

          Growing up Catholic and now Episcopalian, I feel like I had a pretty good grasp of the Gospel stories and relevance to life as a Christ-follower, but I have only had one priest who provided a good sense of context and how the gospel readings tie together from week to week to give us that bigger picture. Until I started more in-depth bible study, this one priest most profoundly helped me understand the Story and how my life fits into it.

          • First of all I believe we have to better know the Hebrew Bible to understand what Jesus was saying in first century Israel. We have to learn to think Hebrew rather than Greek. Our generation wants it to be logical and it isn’t always that way.

            Our church started the Bethel Bible Series a year ago. We have a core group that is spending 2 hours weekly in class with homework. We complete the Old Testament this month The first part took us 2 years because many of us “oldtimers” were having problems with the speed and our retention. We will take the time needed to do it correctly.

            Then our core group will start teaching in pairs (like the early Apostles) to multiple small classes throughout the congregation.

            I find a benefit from the study already. I better understand Father’s sermons and find myself digging deeper to understand what is being taught.

          • cermak_rd says

            One problem with that is that Christianity IS more Greek than Hebrew, or at least it’s a strong amalgamation of both. As I have immersed myself in Jewish thought and culture over these past years since my conversion, Christianity and its theology has appeared to me more and more foreign to my mind set.

          • Cermak, you might be interested in the book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Marvin Wilson, a former professor of mine and kind of an honorary rabbi. He trys to show how very Hebrew Christianity is, or should be at least.

            Here’s the wikipedia link for Marv:

  7. And to be honest I don’t even see Paul as always proclaiming exactly the same version of the Gospel as, say, James (the never-ending “faith without works is dead” vs. “faith alone” debate, which I won’t rehash here except to say it shows the idea of a monolithic Church in full agreement on all the essentials right from the beginning seems, well, a tad overoptimistic).

    • Radagast says

      I believe the element of time plays a part here – James is talking to a community that has been around longer than Paul (assuming James is written 20 to 30 years later) and the issues for the community are different from what Paul faced (Paul focusing on those adhering to Mosaic law)..

    • Chrissy th eStooges Woman (hah! I love writing that!), when James says that pure and undefiled religion is to:
      (a) care for widows and orphans and
      (b) keep oneself unstained by the world,
      I used to think those were two unconnected things. Lately I’m exhorted that if my religious practice doesn’t lead me to care for the widows and orphans and those for whom I get nothing in return, then chances are my belief system has been stained by the world, and I need to repent of a false gospel.

  8. humanslug says

    I think it’s a lot more beneficial to read the gospels as complete works, one at a time, from start to finish — rather than just reading “from” the gospels in isolated little snippets pulled out to support some theological assertion.
    For the past several weeks, I’ve been leading a church study on the gospel of Mark, and we just started at the beginning and are working our way forward one chapter at a time — though you have to watch out for some of those chapter breaks, which seem to have been poorly placed. But Mark is great for following Jesus’ ministry, from His baptism through the hills and along the shores of Galilee and the backroads of Judea and finally to Jerusalem and the cross. I’ve been amazed at how much more meaningful and clear Jesus’ teachings are when read in the contexts of chronology and setting. Where Jesus is what’s going on around Him actually makes a difference in understanding what He’s saying. And I think it’s both fun and enlightening to imagine yourself as one of His followers and think about how they must have felt or what they might have been thinking at different points along that amazing, life-changing journey. And much more than a collection of theological propositions, I think the gospels were intensionally written as literary journeys of revelation — revelation of who Jesus is as both a man passionately pursuing the will of His Father and as God expressing Himself as a man to a world that could not truly know Him any other way. They also reveal who we are in relation to Him. And in reading the gospels as a whole, I get the sense that Jesus didn’t come like an OT prophet to deliver a series of messages to God’s people — but that His whole life was somehow a single message that will never fit on a bumper sticker or be fully expressed through a million pages of theology or a million hours of liturgy or sermonizing. Oddly enough, that message seems to fit most snugly inside a childlike heart and is most fully expressed in simple, private acts of love and charity.

  9. The Gospels are great. The gospel is there, in them.

    It’s in the other books, as well. Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc..

    Preach it! Teach it! The Bible was written as a re-calibration of the preaching and teaching of Christ Jesus and His gospel.

    “Faith comes by hearing…”

  10. Chap,

    I’ve been studying and teaching through the Gospel of Matthew for more than a year now. I’ve also read McKnight’s “King Jesus Gospel” and am convinced that this point you’re making is right on the money. The gospels are the story, the epistles are deeper explanations of the mechanics of salvation (justification, sanctification, glorification), but these theological mechanics are not the gospel.

    In studying Matthew (and John a few years ago), I’ve come to think that there is absolutely no way to truly grow disciples unless we put before ourselves a clear vision of Jesus, and the vision is found in the gospels.

    I also think that a refocusing on the gospels as the gospel can have the added benefit of calming some of the rhetoric we here around debates such Calvinism vs. Arminianism. As McKnight pointed out last week on his blog, the gospel of the Neo-Reformed is Calvinism. When this happens, and I say this as a Calvinist leaning fellow, we raise the stakes in the debate because now the Calvinist feels that the core message of the Christian faith is at stake. But as McKnight has rightly pointed out, Calvinism is a soteriology understanding of the gospel, when the gospel rightly belongs in the camp of Christology. That is, the gospel is rooted in Jesus, while the mechanics of salvation is a secondary category.

  11. John Spong wrote a great book called “Reclaiming the Gospels.” It analyzes the synoptics in terms of several early liturgical calendars, including Jewish festivals. I know a lot of you hate Spong, but this book is nothing like what you might be thinking.The only (vaguely) “political” aspect is its view of the gospels as midrash–as a story–whose details are not meant to be taken as fact (but are more usually calculated to match the Torah readings for that day).

  12. Or as Martin Luther wrote in his “A Brief Introduction on What to Look For and Expect in the Gospels”:

    “The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is estab­lished as Lord. This is the gospel in a nut­shell.”

    Also, see this quote from J.I. Packer about the primacy of the Gospels in the life of the Christian:

  13. Jesus. Start with knowing His words. That’s what I like to share with Haitian friends who, like me, have been mired in traditions and religiosity. I agree the gospels are most important, but after Jesus himself. His words, when taken seriously, lead to dramatic change. And to more love for Him. Also, He put more importance on love for God and neighbors than anything. All the prophets and law depend on that, He says. Is it just me? Or does anyone else see a missed focus on knowing the Savior by His own words?

    • humanslug says

      No, it’s not just you.
      When we detach Jesus from the content of His teachings, then what we get is a kind of divine celebrity who can be propped up as endorsement or justification for all kinds of religious nonsense, abuses of religious authority, “righteous” wars and crusades (both military and cultural), mass marketing schemes, witch hunts, political candidates, really bad TV networks, etc, etc.

  14. Adrian Z says

    Came late to this thread but any suggestions of good reads or studies on this topic or actual gospel studies useful for working through