Three things to avoid when reading a Gospel

We’re starting a new series: ReMeeting Jesus. Why? Next Guru Syndrome is everywhere. We need to re-meet Jesus. With fresh eyes. Here are three things to avoid when reading a Gospel.

Listen to the talk here.

Life is all about Jesus. He is our foundation. Yet the reality is that our culture is suffering from Next Guru Syndrome. We’re chasing the shiniest, latest, life hack. 

In the wash, it can be easy to miss Jesus. This can be compounded by how we inoculate ourselves to radical person and message of Jesus. 

We need to re-meet Jesus. Key to that will reading the Gospels with fresh eyes. Here are three ways of reading that we can fall into that really won’t serve us well. And then three ways that will serve us well. Ultimately, the interpretative key to meeting or remeeting Jesus in the gospels is found in Jesus’ simple statement, Follow me. When we read with the heart posture of apprentices of Jesus the lights switch on. 

Here are three things to avoid when reading a Gospel

1. Buffet Jesus 2. Unanchored Jesus 3. Olympic Jesus.


How to read a Gospel

Three things to avoid when reading a Gospel

As an aside as I go through these, if stuff feels a bit stale in terms of you and Jesus and particularly you and reading the Gospels, it may be that it’s because you’ve slipped into doing one of these. 

Buffet Jesus

At a buffet the food’s all laid out but you just pick and choose the bits you like. Thomas Jefferson was the famous buffet bible reader. He chopped all the miracles out of the gospels to make them sound how he thought they should. But really we all do it. We have favourite passages like Matthew 11 “Come to me all you who are weary…” But we avoid Jesus sayings like I came not to bring peace but a sword. 

Just reading the bits of the Gospels that we like feels great. Or better still not reading them at all for yourself but just hearing someone else talk about it i.e. book, podcast, blog. It makes sure that Jesus is exactly who you want him to be. He thinks the way you think and does what you would do. Problem is as we make him into our image we find comfort but no challenge. And over time Jesus becomes more and more like us to the point that he is 2D and boring. Why would I ask Jesus what he thinks when I know all his thoughts are simply mine with God’s stamp of approval?

One antidote to Buffet Jesus is reading unselectively or uncensored. So we’re teaching every verse in Matthew. We’re not editing. We want to actually, as best as we can, hear Jesus together. Uncensored. Unedited by our picking and choosing.

Unanchored Jesus

Reading like this involves ignoring any historical basis for the life of Jesus and therefore any idea that his truths claims would be greater than any other. Jesus’ life is like a Greek myth or a moral fable. I can then just take what I want and not have my life reordered. Again I’m comfortable and unchallenged by Jesus but over time my heart wanders looking for shinier things with no real reason to preference Jesus’ truth claims over any others.

One antidote to Unanchored Jesus is to read the Gospels as historical narrative. The Gospels are not blow by blow histories. Nor are they fantasy. They are historical narratives. Indeed the Gospels can be read as biographies of Jesus’ life. Matthew was written around 70-100AD. It was strongly informed by the earlier account of Jesus’ life recorded in Mark. These historical narratives are interested in what happened during Jesus’ life but they’re also very concerned with the significance, the meaning of what happened. They’re beautifully crafted authored by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As you read them as very intentional sequencing of events and teachings you begin to see the coherence of the message. 

So we read with respect for these ancient accounts and with curiosity as to the purpose. When we read Jesus we are confronted by an historical figure who’s existence is undebatable. I must then work out how I am to respond to him. Dismiss him as mad? Deny him as liar? Or bow before him as Lord? The historical nature of Jesus leaves me no option but to wrestle with his claims.

Anchor in the bigger story

Part of that anchoring is reading Matthew’s Gospel in the context of the bigger story of Israel. This is key to understanding Jesus and the significance of his life. The great thing is that Matthew is super aware of this. He includes 54 OT quotes in his gospel and hundreds of allusions to OT stories, in fact as you read Matthew you’ll begin to see that the way he’s ordered the story shadows so many of the main events of Israels history. Matthew, we’ll learn is saying, there’s a huge amount of continuity here. But there’s also discontinuity, cause in Jesus God is doing something that he has never done before. 

Olympic Jesus

I’m not in the Olympics and I never will be but I love watching them. I can switch on when I want to get excited, feel a sense of comraderie with the athletes or teams. I can analyse the races, gather statistics, make result predictions, even buy a team t-shirt. But then I can turn it off and get on with my life. 

I can do the same with the Gospels. I can read the Gospels as an observer, spectator. Sometimes I can be an enthusiastic, Jesus fan boy. Go Team Jesus. Or I can be a critic. That’s just dated thinking. But on either account I’m still just talking and thinking about it. I’m not doing any of it. 

One antidote to Olympic Jesus reading is to read the Gospels devotionally. I typically turn on a reading lamp to read the bible.  What if every time we read the Gospels together we make that heart decision to read this account of Jesus’ life under the light of the Risen Christ Jesus? That these actions and these words are to be cherished and are what I will devote myself to. This person Jesus is my muse. Then I cannot cheer or criticise at a safe distance. Then somehow this story, this person has reached my door. 

In short our antidote to Buffet, Woollies or Olympic reading is to read the Gospels as an apprentice of Jesus: uncensored, as Spirit breathed historical narrative, devotionally.

Which of those three is most present in your readings of the Gospels? Which is missing?


By Andrew Starr