Some Christians downplay the Gospels. We don’t do it on purpose, of course. After all, those are the books about Jesus, so they must be important. But we still have a tendency to prefer the letters to the Gospels. Stories are interesting, but they’re also a bit messy and complicated. So it seems easier, faster, and clearer to skip past the stories and just hear Paul tell us what we’re supposed to believe.
In Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington offers nine excellent reasons that we should not do this. Beyond some nifty stories and fascinating parables, the Gospels have a lot to offer. And we’re missing out on a lot as Christians when we don’t allow us ourselves to soak in these life-changing narratives.
9 Things That Happen When We Read the Gospels
1. We connect with our own history.
Throughout history, many of our prayers, liturgies, and sermons have come directly from the gospels. Pennington points out that this Gospel-emphasis diminished after the Reformation, it is still true that the Gospels shaped Christian life and worship for centuries. We miss out on a lot of our own story when we fail to steep ourselves in the Gospels.
2. We understand the rest of the NT better.
People often talk about Paul as though his theological framework, especially his understanding of the gospel, was significantly different from that of the four Gospels. But the entire NT presupposes the story of Jesus presented in the Gospels. So, if we fail to spend adequate time understanding the Gospels, we really have no hope of understanding the rest of the NT.
3. We get in touch with the earliest NT traditions.
Although the written form of some of the NT letters are older than the four Gospels, the traditions behind the Gospels are our oldest Christian traditions. So, in the Gospels, we have some of our oldest testimonies of how Christians understood Jesus’ life and ministry.
4. We get a more direct sense of the Bible’s great story line.
Pennington argues that one of the great values of the Gospels is that they retain the narrative emphasis of the entire biblical story. We often make the mistake of thinking that the OT was all about stories, but in the NT we shift to doctrine and ideas. In the Gospels, however, we’re reminded that the NT is the climax of a much larger story.
5. We encounter the importance of the coming kingdom of God.
In many ways, the Bible’s great story line can be summarized as “the restoration of God’s reign from heaven to earth, spanning from creation to new creation” (p. 44). That is what the Bible means when it talks about the coming of the Kingdom of God. And the central message of the Gospels is that Jesus is the one in and through whom this becomes possible. Although this theme comes out in other parts of the NT as well, it is most clear in the Gospels.
6. We get a different perspective on biblical truth.
As Pennington says, “there are different languages or discourses of truth” (p. 44). In other words, we can talk about truth using things like narrative, poetry, and propositions. Each of these tells us something about truth, but they each do it in different ways. One of the great advantages to the Gospels, then, is that they make sure we hear the truth about Jesus through narrative and not just through the more propositional approach of the NT letters.
7. We get a more comprehensive view of truth than propositions.
This point flows naturally out of the previous: if narrative is another “language” of truth that helps us to see the truth in new ways, then we need the Gospels to get a complete view of the truth about Jesus. Propositions alone just won’t get the job done.
8. We grow in experiential knowledge.
It’s one thing for me to tell you that Jesus is a compassionate person. It’s another thing entirely to see that compassion in action as Jesus heals the sick and loves his friends.
9. We get an up-front encounter with Jesus Christ.
This point really brings all of others together and sums up the real point of reading the Gospels.
There is a reason why the fourfold Gospel witness has always stood at the head of the New Testament canon and why the Gospels have always been so beloved. It is because in them we encounter the risen Christ in person. We learn not just about him and what he theologically accomplished for us and what we are supposed to do as a result, but we get to see the sweet Lion and the roaring Lamb in action–loving people, showing compassion, teaching and discipling, rebuking and correcting, suffering and ultimately dying for us. We encounter him in a way unique to the Gospels.” (p. 48-49)