The Priority of the Gospels

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

• • •

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.

26 thoughts on “The Priority of the Gospels

  1. Full disclosure… I once tried to make it through Capon’s book because of all the raves I heard about it, but I just couldn’t finish it. Page after page of heady-thinking like this was a bit too much for this tiny brain of mine.

    That said… Thanks for sharing this snippet from “Between Noon and Three,” Tom aka V!! I actually made it through and understood this small dose! Good stuff!!


  2. Whenever someone attempts to introduce a radically differ­ent insight to people whose minds have been formed by an old and well-worked-out way of thinking, he or she is up against an obstacle. As Jesus said, their taste for the old wine is so well established that they invariably prefer it to the new. More than that, the new wine, still fermenting, seems to them so obviously and dangerously full of power that they will not even consider putting it into their old and fragile wineskins.

    But now try to see the point of the biblical imagery of wine-making a little more abstractly. The new insight is always at odds with the old way of looking at things. Even if the teacher’s audience were to try earnestly to take it in, the only intellectual devices they would have to pick it up with are the categories of the old system with which it conflicts. Hence the teacher’s prob­lem: if he leaves in his teaching a single significant scrap of the old system, they, by their very effort to understand, will go to that scrap rather than to the point he is making and, having done that, will understand the new only insofar as it can be made to agree with the old — which is, not at all.

    Perhaps the phrase “precluding the conversion of species in an argument” will do for a name for this teaching technique that Jesus uses in healing on the Sabbath, and that I have used in presenting you with grace in the context of an adultery. Were Jesus to have waited till sundown to heal the man’s hand, the Pharisees would have seen his good deed as congruent with everything else they already knew. If they had then tried to put a messianic interpretation on it, they would have envisioned Jesus as the kind of Messiah they were ready for (a victorious and immortal one) and not as the kind he knew himself to he (a suffering and dying one). He was at pains, you see, to present them with a proposition that was totally unacceptable to them — namely, that the kind of Christ he would be must suffer, and die, and on the third day rise again. The species of his argument, if you will, was that he would be a different Messiah than they expected. He must not therefore offer their minds illustrations that would allow them to convert that species into its opposite. If he heals after sundown, the very goodness of that act — the very legitimacy they attach to it — will seep back and erode his main point: they will acclaim him only as the long-awaited man on horseback who is coming to punch the enemies of the Lord in the nose.

    Note too, please, that this precluding of the conversion of the species is not an incidental device in Jesus’ hands; it is his chief method. He comes from Galilee, whence arises no Messiah. His disciples are a ragtag lot of outcasts, likewise from Galilee. He consorts with a Samaritan woman, he eats with publicans and sinners, he is a glutton and a winebibber, he dies accursed, hung on a tree — and so on and on. He constantly couches his an­nouncement of the kingdom in words and deeds that are at odds with his hearers’ expectations for the kingdom, precisely in order that seeing, they might not see, and hearing, they might not understand. He instructs them with a constant awareness that the one thing they must not do is see, because they would see wrong, or understand, because they would only misunderstand.

    Capon, Between Noon and Three


  3. Anabaptist believe:
    A high view of the Bible
    Emphasis on the New Testament
    Emphasis on Jesus as central to all else
    The necessity of a believer’s church
    The importance of discipleship
    Insistence on a church without classes or divisions
    Belief in the church as a covenant community
    Separation from the world
    The church as a visible counterculture
    Belief that the gospel includes a commitment to peace
    Commitment to servanthood
    Insistence on the church as a missionary church


  4. Anabaptism includes Amish, Hutterite, Mennonite, Bruderhof, and Church of the Brethren denominations.



  5. Exactly!!

    And yet again it comes down to: this is nothing you can do for yourself!

    (Flipping both the world’s philosophy of “do everything for yourself, because no one else will” AND the Pharisaical religiosity of “must keep the Law and amp up your holiness” on their collective heads.)


  6. Interesting that the little children, the babies, were being brought by their parents to Jesus, obviously not coming by themselves. They are utterly dependent on the good will and intentions both of their parents and of Jesus. They are sort of like poor Lazarus lying outside Dive’s gate: totally helpless to prevent or intend anything, they can only receive good, or bad. Jesus promises that they, like Lazarus, will receive good from God their Father. And what of us?


  7. –> “He does seem to like to confound people’s assumptions, to turn many things on their heads.”

    I’m leading a study in Luke with a Saturday men’s group and this seems to happen over and over and over again… Jesus flipping the world’s way and people’s assumptions in a complete opposite direction.

    Example: we recently looked at Luke 18:15-17. “People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'”

    Did you catch that last line??? I’m not sure I ever believed Jesus said “never” about ANYTHING, yet here is a NEVER statement: if you don’t receive the kingdom of God LIKE A LITTLE CHILD you will NEVER enter it!!! Yikes.

    And the “flip” here is… little children were regarding as NOTHING in the culture of his day! And suddenly he’s telling everyone – “FLIP YOUR NOTIONS! Like little children is how you are to receive this thing that you think you need to be all holy to achieve!”


  8. I have to echo the disciples’ question to Jesus after he had told them how difficult it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, and ask, “Who then among us Americans can be saved?”


  9. He does seem to like to confound people’s assumptions, to turn many things on their heads. The great Zen teachers were similar, and the reason for doing this was to jar people out of their normal way of thinking and encountering reality. Jesus sometimes sounds so similar to the Zen teachers in his approach, especially to answering questions, that I can’t help but wonder if he’s also trying to jar people out of normalcy, although his ultimate goals are no doubt different from the Zennists.


  10. I do often ask, “So what’s the good news in this?” I mean, even Jesus’ skewering of the self-righteous teachers of the law and Pharisees in Matthew 23 contains one HUGE nugget of good news, even for them.

    V37…”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…”


  11. Speaking for myself…

    I’m closing in on age 65, looking forward to my socialized medical coverage ;o) , and I’ve been reading the Gospels (and Paul and others) since at least age 8 — and what I’ve come to realize is that each of the Gospel accounts tends to favor a particular flavor of Jesus. If you try to use Jesus as a lawgiver then watch out–the dude isn’t consistent! If you try to use Jesus as a justice warrior, watch out because there are times when he says to bear with the injustice. If you try to use Jesus as a moralist he’ll let you down by dismissing immorality. And, if you try to use Jesus as the Great Change Agent then you will learn that when it’s all said and done it doesn’t look like much changes–especially myself.


  12. When I was a newbie Christian, I loved Paul’s writings. They seemed to illuminate what it meant to be a good Christian, and I soaked his writings in maybe more so than any other part of scripture — maybe even more than the gospel accounts which, at the time, seemed pedantic to me. (Yeah, go figure…LOL.)

    Then came a time when I felt that some Christians had turned Paul’s message of “what it meant to be a good Christian” into a kind of passive/aggressive legalism. A few of my Christian friends seemed to focus on one or two lines out of each epistle and make big deals out of them–like “salvation-breaking” deals. And found myself beginning to bristle at his writings for what I was hearing them become: a veiled legalism hidden beneath a thin fabric of grace.

    More recently, I’ve been able to turn Paul’s writings back around to how I now believe they were originally intended: and that is NOT to illuminate what it means to be a good Christian, nor to become some sort of passive/aggressive legalism, but to illuminate the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, whenever I read them now, I ask myself, “What is the Good News that Paul is trying to illuminate here?” Even those periodic verses that fundamental Christians claim as their “line in the sand” stands against the world and secularism, I ask myself, “What is the Good News for the world who needs to hear the Good News in this?”

    Grace. Yep. Jesus or Paul, it’s all about grace and God’ love for all His creation.


  13. “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.'”

    Well, this is exactly what we do in the Orthodox Liturgy, and so do Catholics, and Protestants with an actual liturgy. It is the Gospel book (MMLJ) that always rests on the altar, not the whole Bible.

    Interestingly, between the end of the Holy Saturday Vespers service in the afternoon – which is full of its own kind of joy in anticipation and the beginning of Pascha – and the beginning of the actual Pascha Sunday liturgy near midnight, the book of Acts is chanted. It’s the “next step” in the movement of redemption, the beginning of the outworking of the Kingdom of God after the giving of the Holy Spirit. After having heard all of the Gospel narratives of the Passion and the Vespers Gospel about the women going to the tomb and finding it empty and meeting the angel – after all that, the Gospel appointed for Pascha is the Prologue to the Gospel of John (1.1-17) – the foundation and meaning of it all. So, everything about Redemption gathered into one sweep of Gospel readings plus Acts during the whole of Holy Week. I think that’s so ingenious.

    There is a daily lectionary of Gospel readings at oca dot org – mouse over the “Orthodox Faith” tab and click on “Scripture Readings” from the drop-down menu. I have an actual small Gospel book with all the daily readings listed in it. (It’s advertised as “pocket” size, but it’s not – would fit nicely in a briefcase or backpack, though.) The translation is good and readable, based on the ecclesiastical Greek version that uses the Septuagint as the foundational OT text (although the translators are comparing with the Masoretic). OT is still in progress.



  14. What is the goal of Jesus’ bluntness? Is it get us to act right, godly, justly? Or is it to get us to trust in him for a right relationship with his Father? That also seems to be what Paul is up to too. Jesus or Paul, it’s all about grace.


  15. Hearty Amen to this post. At least in Southern California, there is too much emphasis on Paul’s epistles. Preaching entire Gospels isn’t unheard of, but Paul definitely gets the lion’s share of preaching. Then again, often times, the way many interpret (notice I wrote interpret) Paul is easier to accept than what Jesus had to say. Jesus talks about giving up everything, dying to one’s self, millstones around necks and thrown into the sea. Paul, we interpret as grace, grace, grace.

    I may be painting broadly here, but the churches I have been in that is the way it seems. If not, then it is all legalism, which is the other end of the spectrum. Either grace or legalism.

    Where is Jesus and his teaching in all this, besides at Christmas and resurrection Sunday?

    Jesus is blunt, Paul is all about the grace, it seems.


  16. “We first receive God into our minds by receiving Jesus. The way forward then lies in intentionally keeping the scenes and words of the New Testament Gospels before our minds, carefully reading and rereading them day by day. We revive them in word and imagination as we arise in the morning, move through the events of the day, and lie down at night.”- Dallas Willard


  17. “Is it only or especially American Christians who are uncomfortable with the teachings of Jesus?”

    American Christians are pretty darn wealthy overall (at least by historical and contemporary world standards), and Jesus had some pretty blunt things to say about wealth. Additionally, I’ve seen some essayists make the case that American evangelicalism has focused on individual forensic salvation as a defense mechanism against criticism of its historic support of slavery. Take that how you will.


  18. +1

    I love the “It’s all about the Gospels, baby” vibe of this post, and it gets at the crux of a comment I made a few days ago about some churches/people being too rooted in Paul’s epistles. There is certainly a “Paul-shaped” spirituality out there that I don’t think even he would approve of. In my opinion, it would benefit Christians greatly to read one gospel account at least once a year to remind themselves of how Jesus did things.

    To that point, when I lead studies in the gospels I like to ask the group two questions as we tackle each section:

    1) If you were interviewing Jesus, what is he specifically telling you about himself here?
    2) What is Jesus unafraid of?

    Good post today!


  19. This is part of the reason I’ve joined up with Anabaptists. I don’t have to be shy about a Jesus-centered hermeneutic and emphasis on the Gospels.

    Interesting that the liturgical approach is what brought you to a similar place.


  20. Is it only or especially American Christians who are uncomfortable with the teachings of Jesus? It seems to me that the worldwide explosive growth of Christianity in the last century has been very much centered in and tethered to a penal substitution theory interpretation of the Pauline Epistles applied to the whole New Testament, and a sidestepping of the rigorous demands of the Jesus of the Gospels, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount/Sermon on the Plain. As for myself, I suspect that if my own feet were held to the fire of a church with the ability and will to “discipline” me according to the standards of the teaching of Jesus, I would be one among the many “pruned” as a result…I also suspect there would be even fewer of my fellow congregants left in the pews of my mainline church than there are now


  21. All I can say is a hearty amen. It would be a great first step to bring many churches back to Jesus-shaped spirituality. I suspect though that many would resist it too. It might drive some out of the church. The life and teachings of Jesus are especially uncomfortable for many american christians. There’s a reason we like to focus on what we think is the “gospel” found outside the Gospels… it makes us feel good in our cultural biases/assumptions. it gives us a pass in many areas… This refocus on His Story in the 4 Gospels might be a pruning device… as well as a disciplining method.


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