An ancient Syriac document, allegedly recounting the instruction of the Apostles, enjoins: “The apostles further appointed: At the conclusion of all the Scriptures let the Gospels be read, as being the seal of all the Scriptures and let the people listen to it standing upon their feet: because it is the Gospel of the redemption of all men.”
• Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord
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
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Some years ago I suggested in a 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 be primarily formative for 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. The Gospels form the root, the rest of the New Testament is the fruit.
- 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 and the different portraits of him that are given.
- 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 have been part of a historic, liturgical Protestant tradition for some years, I observe the value of a more Story-shaped life and community. Observing the Christian Year (built around the Gospels and the main events in Jesus’ life) has a lot to do with that. 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.