One strange thing about life is that you can be very familiar with something, and still not know it well.
This month, my wife and I celebrate 20 years of marriage. We’ve spent in excess of 10,000 hours together. Needless to say my wife is very familiar to me. And yet, even to this very day, I’m still learning new and delightful things about her. Just because she’s familiar to me, I can’t assume I know her well.
When it comes to the Bible, nearly all Christians are familiar with the Gospels. Because … you know … Jesus. It’s part of your driver’s license as a Christian. You get saved, odds on you’ll be familiar with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
But you can be familiar with Gospels, and not know them well at all.
When I talk about knowing the Gospels, I’m not talking only about knowing random episodes in the life of Jesus.
Most of us might know an assortment of Jesus vignettes – the story of his birth, the healing of a paralytic lowered down through a roof, the parable of the prodigal Son, the account of the Last Supper. We know episodes. Scenes from a life.
But do we know the Gospels?
Because the story of Jesus is not given to us in little detachable bits. It comes to us in four Gospels – connected narratives – where those seemingly random bits of Jesus’ life have been deliberately sewn together into a story which is so much richer and more meaningful than a random highlights reel.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are storytellers. It’s not like my kids Lego box where you just throw together whatever bits you can find. No – these writers pick and choose events from Jesus’ life, and each tells their own compelling story. Each of them is painting a picture of Jesus that invites us to worship Him; trust in Him; follow Him.
Binge the gospels. Seriously. Treat them like a Netflix show that’s just dropped …
Here is a radical thought: the meaning of each Gospel is found in reading each Gospel.
Not reading bits of the Gospel, but seeing how this bit, flows into this bit, climaxing with this bit, such that by the end you no longer have bits – what you have is the good news according to Matthew or the good news according to Luke – and so on.
It’s the whole thing which constitutes their good news. The gold is hearing the full story.
They’re really not that big you know. It will take 45 minutes for the average person to read the Gospel of Mark in one sitting. Less than an episode of The Queen’s Gambit. 10 overs of Big Bash cricket. Yes friends – while you were watching the Married at First Sight Reunion, you could have read the Gospel of Mark.
Reading a Gospel seems daunting because we have all these cues to tell us we should stop reading. Most sermons are on tiny portions of the Bible. From a young age we are told to go deep on a single verse. Indeed, those verse numbers all throughout our Bible can subconsciously trick our brain into thinking that I’ve read a chapter, I should stop. I’ve read 10 verses, I need to ponder.
No you don’t. At least not on your first reading.
Binge the gospels. Seriously.
Treat them like a Netflix show that’s just dropped, and you can’t stop till you’ve watched all the way to the end. Plow through the whole story, from beginning to end. Do it at least once.
If you never read a whole Gospel, there are things you might never see.
Sure you will be confused about much. You won’t “get it all” on the first run through. Questions will remain, problems needing a solution. These can wait for a second reading, a third reading, a fifteenth reading. You can go back, again and again, to study in depth those tricky texts and problem passages. You can return however much you like to plumb the depths of this or that section. There is time enough for a reread.
But if you never read it whole, there are things you might never see. For example, you might never realise that Mark deliberately places Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ right in the middle of his story. It doesn’t sit in the middle of Matthew or Luke, who share the same episode. But Mark puts it in the middle because the incident is central to his overall Jesus-story. In that little moment Peter recognises Jesus is the Messiah, but refuses to believe that Jesus’ messianic task will involve suffering. Mark’s point is that Peter can only half-see the truth; he knows Jesus is Messiah, but he doesn’t understand what kind of Messiah – a suffering, serving, forgiving Messiah, not a crushing, militaristic, sword-wielding Messiah.
Mark puts this story in the middle because his whole Gospel issues this challenge to the reader: do you really know and understand who Jesus is and what he came to do? You might have your own expectations of what a Messiah should do. You might have written your own script, but do you trust in the real Jesus, whose path to victory is by way of a cross?
You only feel the full gut-punch of that insight if you read Mark as a story, rather than a series of loosely connected Bible bits.
Binge the Gospels. You’ve got enough time to go back and watch your favourite episodes later.
Dr Mark Stephens is Senior Research Fellow, at the Centre for Public Christianity.