A number of years ago I was about to preach for the first time in a certain church. As I arranged my papers and books I noticed a sign near the top of the pulpit. It was a quotation from John 12:21: "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." I have since learned that these words are fixed to the pulpits of many churches as a reminder to the minister that one non-negotiable purpose of preaching is to show to the congregation the glories of Christ. I remember getting a little nervous as I thought about that sign, wondering if Christ was clearly set forth in my sermon.
It is possible to lose sight of Jesus in one's theology, like a person admiring the beautiful colors of a painting but failing to notice the image the colors depict. But to theologize without Christ is to forfeit the foundation of our faith. We become like Peter, who knew his theology but took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink (Matt. 14:30). We must fix our eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2). One of the best ways to do so is to spend time in the Gospels.
Here are six suggestions for profiting from the Gospels.
Read Large Portions
The Gospels are not proverbs. Gospel writers have not compiled pithy and self-contained nuggets of truth; they have told a story. Their story is best understood—and felt—when read in large chunks. If you've ever listened to a full audio story while on a long drive, you understand the power of continuity. Longer readings of the Gospels preserve the story's movement. Shorter readings break up the flow.
Witness God at Work
Gospels have the specific purpose of describing God's redemptive acts. The first question we should bring to the Gospels is not, "What must I do?" but "What is God doing?" Gospels are theological biographies that tell the greatest news ever: As Calvin put it, the Son of God has come in the flesh to "deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life."
By seeing God working in the Gospels we can develop a sturdy theological view of life. Because the Gospel authors write from a transcendent viewpoint, they can help us understand God's supernatural purposes behind natural events. Knowing, for example, that Jesus allowed a sick friend to die so that his friends might believe (John 11:15) can assure us that God is doing more than meets the eye. In order to be shaped by the Gospels we must not read them simply as moral lessons.
Keep Jesus at the Center
Biblical history is essentially the history of Jesus who fulfilled God's promise to send a mediator to repair the breach between God and man (Gen. 3:15). This theme is blatant in the Gospels; other characters come in and out of the story, but it never ceases to be about Jesus in His role as mediator. Christ came to fulfill the badly-deteriorated Old Testament offices of prophet, priest, and king (Jer. 8:1–3). As prophet He teaches us God's will; as king He rules over history and judges the thoughts words, and deeds of men; and as priest He lays down His life to save His people. With gripping clarity, the Gospels tell "no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come—that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles" (Acts 26:22–23).
Like all good stories, the Gospels draw us into the world of the narrative, enabling us to powerfully sense the God who is with us. The Gospels exude the kind of details that help us imagine that we are breathing the same dust the disciples breathed as they followed Jesus. We feel, for example, Jesus' other-worldly love as He "saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them" (Mark 6:34). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each present the gospel message not as a dry legal brief but as a fast-paced historical account of the ministry of the Savior of the world.
Notice what God Loves and Hates
In the Gospels God interacts with men—sometimes blessing, sometimes cursing—always teaching which type of life He honors, and which He rejects. We learn about this life in the Epistles through doctrine; in the Gospels through illustration. The characters in the Gospels can be like mirrors. Sometimes we see an image that resembles us (for better or for worse). Sometimes we see an image that doesn't resemble us (again, for better or for worse). We see a remorseful Judas fail to repent (Matt. 27:3). We observe Pilate violate his conscience out of self-love (Mark 15:14, 15). We watch Peter confess Christ and then falter (Mark 15:1–15). The characters in the Gospels literally lived before the face of God in Christ. As we watch them we should ask, "Where am I in this story?"
Submit to the Great Teacher
In the earlier days God spoke to his people by the prophets. But He has spoken His final word through "His son, whom he has appointed heir of all things" (Heb. 1:1). When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain God's voice boomed from heaven: "This is my beloved Son, hear him!" (Mark 9:7). Jesus speaks through the entire Bible. But there in the works and words of Christ, the will of God takes on flesh and blood and communicates to us in a uniquely powerful way. If we did not have the Gospels we might miss God's tender invitations, His firm warnings, His solemn commands.
You and I need to see Jesus. We can see Him in all of Scripture (Luke 24:44-45). But we cannot miss Him in the Gospels.
William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This article is adapted from his new Bible Studies on Mark.