How Should We Read the Gospels?
When we read the Gospels, we need to understand that 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.
As we read, we need to ask two 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?
Let’s illustrate this using Luke 10:25-11:13.
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 encouragement to pray (11:9-13).
After we understand the main message of each story, we need to look at the stories alongside of the surrounding episodes to see what Luke is trying to communicate with how he arranged the material.
For these three stories, we could say:
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).
So we look at what is taught in each episode, and we look for what is taught by the way the episodes are linked together to form the larger story.
How to Read Individual Stories
Let’s look at Mark 4:35-41.
1. Ask the standard questions that you should ask of any story: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
2. Look for interpretive instructions from the author.
Look in the introduction and the conclusion, and look for clarifying statements. For instance, in Luke 14:7, Luke mentions in the introduction about Jesus noticing how the guests picked the places of honor at the table as the reason why Jesus told the following parable. Then in Mark 4:41, Mark concludes the passage by saying that Jesus is more than just a teacher because the wind and waves obey Him.
3. Take special note of anything that is repeated in the story.
John 15 repeats “abide.” Matthew 23 repeats “woe.” Matthew 5 repeats “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…” Authors used repetition to signal an important truth, and we do not want to miss it.
4. Be alert for places where the story shifts to direct discourse.
Look for when the characters speak directly. This generally offers an exceptionally clear window for gazing at the message of the story.
After answering these questions, we could summarize Mark 4:35-41 in this way:
Jesus exerts His power over the sea and responds to the storm Himself by trusting the Father during a difficult circumstance.
How to Read a Series of 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. So we need to not just read individual stories, but also see how they are connected to other stories.
The most important thing to do when reading a series of stories is to look for connections. Look for common themes or patterns. Search for connections like cause and effect. Pay attention to transition statements and conjunctions between stories. Notice the differences between the stories. Compare the characters. Focus on Christ: His identity, His mission, His teaching, and how people respond to Him.
How does Mark 4:35-41 connect with the surrounding context?
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.
Mark 5:21-24a, 35-43
Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus from the dead in the presence of Peter, James, John, and the girl’s parents.
What are some common themes?
-Life is hard.
-Jesus is sovereign over forces that are hostile to God.
-We should trust Jesus in the midst of the desperate situations of life.
-The common thread running through this entire section is the hopelessness of the situation. Jesus calls us to faith.
Let’s summarize the message:
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.
Applying the Message of the Gospels
As usual, when making application, we should keep the larger context in view. So when we say that Jesus has power over hostile forces does not guarantee that He will always deliver us from cancer or car wrecks or other disasters. Sometimes He delivers us from immediate danger by prevention or healing. At other times He delivers us from ultimate danger by prevention or healing.
How can we apply this passage? Think back to the principles: 1) Life is hard. 2) Jesus is sovereign over hostile forces. 3) We should trust Jesus in the midst of desperate situations.
1) Christ should not expect to be exempt from difficult situations such as disease and death.
2) This one is harder to apply because we are tempted to ask why Jesus doesn’t always do this for us. Why doesn’t He always heal us or calm our storms? We need to remember the larger context: Jesus did not heal every sick person or raise every dead person while He was on earth, so we shouldn’t expect Him to do that now. This is meant to be applied in an ultimate sense that can have specific results in the present but will be seen completely when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
3) Faith means hanging on to Jesus even when immediate circumstances look bleak. Whether the deliverance is immediate or ultimate, we should have faith in Jesus because Jesus is faithful.