The Barnabas Ministry

Rescuing the Gospel From the Gospels
You're sitting in a church service and the preacher reads from the gospel of Luke:

Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it  (Luke 9:23-24)."

The preacher then makes the point, "If you don't deny yourself every day, you can't be saved."  Of course, this could also occur in a small group setting, a private discussion with a spiritual leader, or reading some spiritual book.

And there is no shortage of similar passages in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, where readers are commanded to:
In the hands of many churches, preachers and authors, each of these passages can be driven home with a similar teaching, "If you want to be saved, you must do xyz." Or else, "If you would just do xyz, you wouldn't have such-and-such problem." It all seems legitimate, and there it is, right in the Bible. Frequently, these statements are verbatim quotes right out of Jesus' mouth, and what the preacher says sure sounds pretty authoritative.

Is this how the gospels were meant to be understood and used in the church age? In this article, we will consider the proper context of the gospels and some of these passages and show how the proclamation of the gospel is sufficient for Christians and the church today.

The Context of the Gospels
Like all Scripture, the gospels have a particular context. The meaning and relevance of any gospel passage, like any other Scriptural passage, is dependent upon its context. If a passage can be given a meaning apart from its context, then any passage can be made to say almost anything and the Scriptures then have no real meaning at all. Passages need to be understood and applied in context, or else they become meaningless.

So what is the historical context of the gospels? The church began in 30 AD with the oral proclamation of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, his being Lord and Christ, and the possibility of forgiveness of sins and life in his name through faith, repentance and baptism. In the Scriptures, the first proclamation of the message of Christ after his ascension into heaven comes in Acts 2.

Most scholars date the canonical gospels from the 50's to the 70's AD at the earliest. Up until that point, the message of Jesus was spread orally. The initial message of the gospel, known as the "kerygma" (from the Greek term for "proclamation"), contained the basic message of Jesus. (For a further discussion of the kerygma, see the separate study on Gospel Proclamations and Responses in the Apostolic Church.) Some time after the beginning of the church, the gospels were written to document what was considered significant and/or helpful concerning Jesus' teachings and actions.

The important point to remember here is that the church got by with the oral proclamation of the gospel (as documented in Acts) for twenty years before the canonical gospels began to be written and distributed.

However, there is another context of the gospels, and that is the story of Christ's time on earth. This happens during the period of time prior to the birth of the church. The gospels do not seek to be pure biographies of Jesus. Only certain incidents and teachings are presented, and it is evident that those things that are presented are directly related to the intent and purposes of each author. If we look carefully at the gospels, we may be able to understand these purposes. This in turn will help us understand the individual gospels in their contexts.

The Purposes of the Canonical Gospels
Each of the gospels contains internal evidence concerning the purpose for which they were written. While there is some common material between all of the gospels, and especially between those known as the "synoptic gospels" (Matthew, Mark and Luke), each gospel has some distinctives that indicate its specific purposes. This can be seen in material unique to each gospel as well as differences in how common material is presented.

Scholars generally consider Mark to be the first gospel written, with Matthew and Luke later using Mark as a source. John seems to be independent of the other three. More could be said about this, and a good commentary or Introduction to New Testament should be consulted for further study. This study will proceed assuming the priority (meaning that it came first, not that it is most important) of Mark, acknowledging Matthew's and Luke's dependency upon Mark as well as other sources, and accepting the independence of John in its own right. However, the conclusions and the thrust of this paper are not dependent upon this particular understanding of the authorship of the gospels.

Mark
Mark is the shortest of the gospels. Early post-apostolic tradition attributes it to John Mark (Acts 12:12), who was said to be a close associate of Peter. Being the first gospel, we should notice that Mark invented a new literary genre with his story of the good news of Jesus the Christ. As stated before, a gospel is not a strict biography, but a combination of the events and teachings from the life of Jesus demonstrating the basis for his claim as Messiah (Mark 1:1). Mark's gospel tends to be quick-moving and spends about 1/3 of its volume discussing the events surrounding the crucifixion. Peter's confession of Christ in Mark 8:26 is critical to the gospel, being in contrast to the expectations of the Jewish people and the general denseness of the apostles concerning Jesus' destiny. This passage affirms what the gospel set out to prove-- that Jesus is the Christ.

Matthew
Matthew was one of the Twelve (Matthew 9:9, 10:3); he was also known as Levi. The gospel according to Matthew contains the same message as Mark (that Jesus is the Christ), but has three special areas of emphasis: 1) the kingdom of God, 2) the fulfillment of the Law and the promises to the Jewish patriarchs, and 3) the place of the Gentiles in the plan of God.

In Matthew, Jesus starts out proclaiming the kingdom (Matthew 4:17) and declares he is not out to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). Being sent only to the children of Israel (Matthew 15:24), in the end he sends the apostles to disciple the nations-- that is, the Gentiles (Matthew 28:18-19).  A critical point in the flow of this gospel is the parable of the vineyard tenants, where Matthew 21:43 states that the kingdom will be taken away from the Jews and given to a people who will produce its fruit.

Luke
Luke was a physician who accompanied Paul on various mission journeys and also wrote the book of Acts (Acts 1:1, notice the 'we' sections beginning in Acts 16:10). His gospel explicitly recognizes that other gospels have been written (Luke 1:1ff). His objective for writing is that his readers would know the certainty of what they had been taught (Luke 1:4).  We see that his gospel adds historical details to the gospel story, such as the actual rulers, chronological references, and particular geographic locations. Luke also pays special attention to ethical and humanitarian issues, something that may have been a particular interest for Gentile readers.

John
John, the "beloved disciple" (John 21:20-24),  tends to discuss events that blossom into discussions of theological importance. John seems to address topics having a bearing upon gnosticism and dualism, important theological issues of his time and place (Asia Minor, late 1st century). Gnosticism and dualism both held that the spiritual realm was "higher" than the earthly realm, and thus Deity could not be in the flesh. There were various moral implications of these philosophies that were at odds with Christian teachings. John pays special attention to these topics as he writes his gospel. Ultimately, his intent was that his readers would recognize the signs he writes about, believe in Jesus and have life in his name (John 20:31).

Commonalities and Critical Themes of the Gospels
While the gospels all have their individual tendencies, each of the gospels have some very important things in common.
It follows, then, that the gospels were definitely not intended to be used in the following ways:
Throughout the gospels, there are at least four clear-cut categories in view at various times:
  1. Concerning the proper meaning and understanding of the Law of Moses-- which was still in effect and binding during Jesus' earthly ministry.
  2. Concerning Jesus' identity as Messiah and the Messianic ministry on earth.
  3. Concerning things of the church age-- especially salvation through him and the spread of the gospel throughout the world.
  4. Concerning the eternal age and things of the end.
Determining which of these subjects or eras is in view is a central requirement to understanding and applying any part of the gospel. Sometimes more than one can be in view, this should also be considered. But things belonging to one category shouldn't be applied to other cateories.

If we are to understand the gospels in their context, they must be seen as they were when they were written-- as something that came along after the proclamation of the gospel, and as something that was definitely "good news."

Taking the Gospels Out of Context
We have seen that context is what determines how a teaching was intended to apply. Most bad usage of the gospels comes from failing to take that context into account. What is behind this taking the gospels out of context? There are several reasons that seem to apply here:
It should be noted there is something legitimate about each of these reasons. Certainly there is enough in both historical Christianity and the modern church that is not right or righteous, even if we can't agree on what those things might be. And just because we have a pet issue, it doesn't mean we are wrong. Perhaps there is an issue that is on our hearts for whatever reason, and we may happen to be right about it. Surely there is nothing wrong about this-- but this doesn't mean that we still don't need to pay attention to context in understanding and interpreting Scripture.

Turning the Gospels into a "Christian Law"
The gospels teach many ideals: love for enemies, humility, forgiveness, prayer, giving to the poor, and the like. Now what if we made a comprehensive list of all such items in the gospels? This is exactly what is done by those frustrated with the fallenness of the church or eager to prove themselves better than other Christians. They turn these ideals into a "Christian Law" -- requirements for salvation, and it becomes ten times more oppressive than the Law of Moses.

Consider the passage, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). Some have make this into a requirement for salvation or a pre-requisite for baptism-- despite the fact that this is never presented as such in Acts as part of the gospel. (For that matter, it wasn't even a pre-requisite for people following Jesus during his earthly ministry.) Despite these logical difficulties, some still manage to find a law here. Let's look at this more closely.

Does anyone deny themselves 100% of the time? All the time? Every day? No. If not, then they have broken the law. They are no longer "followers of Christ" if this text as taken as a law.

Nevertheless, to those who present this passage as a law, they profess that they are "true disciples" who are denying themselves. But such a profession does not mean that they actually are denying themselves. If I say I am an orange, that doesn't make me an orange. The Scriptures testify to the universality of sin, both among the unsaved but also among the saved, rendering untrue any claim of sinlessness:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

We can claim we do xyz, and may actually do xyz for a time, but have we done xyz enough? Sooner or later, and it's usually sooner, failure comes into the equation for the Christian. And the same is true for any and every example of "law" that might be mined from the gospels. Salvation does not come from following the law-- any law:

I know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:16).

 Personally, I think this "deny yourself" text is a figure of speech that says more about Jesus than any potential follower. If I plan to go to the mountains and go camping, I can say, "I am going to the mountains and going camping." Or I can say, "If anyone wants to follow me, he must go to the mountains and go camping." Is going to the mountains and going camping a "requirement" of following me? Or is it a description of what I intend to do? Similarly, in this text Jesus expresses what he intends to do, not what we must do to be saved. This self-denial and cross-bearing is one of the proofs that he is the Christ-- consider the prophecies about the Messiah, for example in Isaiah 53:3ff. Thus, the text isn't a "requirement" for us but a testimony about the legitimacy of Christ.

Self-denial and cross-bearing (the willing embrace of suffering) are Christian virtues, but they are not prerequisites or conditions for salvation. Further, no one can actually do them perfectly all of the time. If we could, we wouldn't need a Savior.

Even beyond the figure of speech aspect in this particular text, there remains a possibility of some apparent "condition" for salvation in the gospels-- take "loving God with all of your heart." Now who can do this? Who actually did it? The context shows us that Jesus said this was the greatest commandment, not that this is a requirement for salvation or some demand to make upon Christians today lest their salvation be put into question.

We have a clue that something is amiss from this perspective on teachings from the gospels when we observe Jesus' hearers in the gospels. Did these people who heard Christ's teachings in the gospels walk around considering themselves failures for not having "been perfect" (Matthew 5:48) or failing in any of the numerous ways possible from Christ's teachings? Or were they refreshed from having heard the truth, grown in their faith and been inspired to act virtuously? Yet how different this is from much preaching from the gospels today!

Getting the Gospels in the Right Context Today
If all of this is a wrong use of the gospels, what is the right use of them today? How do we untangle all of the factors behind their misuse?

Fallacious Reasoning and Biased Ideals
Most Christians share an idealistic picture of the early church-- a time when (so this idealistic picture goes) there were no divisions, no doctrinal controversies, no competing leaders, no moral corruptions or spiritual "lukewarmness"  within the church. Of course, there were all of these problems and more in the early church, though citing examples of each is beyond the scope of this article. The point here is that idealistic pictures of the early church are usually fallacious. People who present the early church in some idealized manner are generally blinded to Scriptural evidence that contradicts their perspective, and they usually advocate church systems that (surprise, surprise!) match their idealized view of the early church and ignore everything else.

Though seemingly well-intentioned, attempts to get at the "root" of Christianity are somewhat fallacious. We come to this exercise with biases as a result of our experiences, and these corrupt both our definition of the problem as well as our perspective on the evidence. As a result, we are quite likely to see what we want to see and miss what we don't want to see or don't know that we should see. We must be aware of our prejudices as we move forward.

Why The Gospels May Not Apply in the Church Today
It may sound like sheer heresy for me to suggest that certain passages in the gospels don't apply to us today. But everybody probably agrees with me on this in some ways. I doubt any reader thinks we should go around taking animals (Matthew 21:2) or literally cutting off body parts (Matthew 5:30) even though Jesus issued these as commands in the gospels. But even raising these extreme examples proves the point: there are groups that practice all sorts of things because they are "in the gospels."Just because something is "in the gospels," that doesn't mean that it applies in the church today. We must pay attention to context.

There are some significant differences between the era of the gospels and the church age after the resurrection and ascension of Christ.
It is evident that these considerations are massive in a theological sense 

The point is that because of these and other differences, it is inappropriate to regard the gospels as the "root" of Christianity, as though what is said and done there always has a direct application to the church today. Sometimes this is true, but it isn't always true. We must consider the the context of the gospels-- that the church had already heard the kerygma. We should always be cautious when we place the gospels before the kerygma, because the kerygma came before the gospels.

Let Virtues be Virtues
The gospels teach what is true and good and right. These things are virtues-- things that lead to blessings and point the way to goodness. And they are ideals that point the way to spiritual growth, not requirements that stand against us. Those who want to turn the gospels into a Christian Law often look at spiritual performance as a "half-empty" sort of a thing. No matter what good happens, there is some failure. For those who turn virtues into law or ideals into demands, there is only unrelenting condemnation. Failures against this "law" are beaten against the hearts of those who seek to do right. (In fact, this is a leading control mechanism in abusive and unhealthy churches-- leadership persistently pointing out failures of the followers in order to maintain control over them.)  Thus, the Christian is no longer free to do good, he is only condemned by his limitations. How is any of these "good news?" It just looks and sounds like complete and utter condemnation.

If Jesus was this way, he could and would have in anybody and everybody, for "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)." Instead, Jesus let virtues be virtues without looking for some failure in the performance. I believe that Jesus saw spiritual virtues as a cup "half-full." He recognized and praised the feeble efforts of people to do what was right; he did not stand over them pointing out their failures. God accepts our picnic basket lunches, our simple mustard-seed faith in him, our well-intentioned acts of repentance, and our sorrow for our sins. He doesn't beat us over the head because we haven't done enough.

Christians today need to allow virtues to be virtues. The teachings of Scripture, especially those in the gospels, give commands and ideals that are good things. These are things that people can do from time to time, and they often bring spiritual benefits. We should not consider their absence to be "sin," especially some serious sort of sin that jeopardizes salvation. This "cup half empty" approach isn't seen in the faith of the early Christians in the New Testament and is a warping of passages like James 4:17 that seem to suggest this approach.

For example, loving other Christians is a powerful factor in influencing unbelievers to believe in Jesus. Loving other Christians makes the church wonderful and makes our relationships wonderful. Conversely, a lack of love is hurtful to the faith of some and our relationships with others. The law-mongers see instances where "you could always love more, you're never good enough." On the other hand, the gospel believers know they are saved by God's grace and the cross of Christ. They see how love transforms situations and relationships and people, and they rejoice for love that exists and is demonstrated. One approach is the stench of death, the other the breath of life and hope.

The Priority of the Gospel
The gospel message is the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those who believe in Christ. This was the proclamation of the message of Christ after his resurrection and the seed of the church. It is as desperately needed now as then.

In the face of all of the ideals, all of the commandments, the gospel is the key here:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 1:5- 2:2)

The gospels give us ideals, things to shoot for, things that will bring blessings in heaven and on earth, things that advance God's work. We should not disregard them or be reckless concerning them:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

But we are only deceiving ourselves if we think we actually attain these ideals, or if we think salvation is tied to such a performance. And if we teach this to others, our message can hardly be called "good news." In the end, we need salvation after conversion just as much as we need salvation before conversion.

Conclusion
We've discussed the historical context of the gospels, how they came historically after the proclamation of the gospel of Christ and the establishment of the church. We've also discussed the primary content and themes of the gospels, how they affirm the legitimacy of Jesus' claim as Messiah.

We have also discussed some of the fallacious reasons why people go to the gospels to find the "root" of Christianity but only find a law instead. It is my hope that this article gives the reader cause to find hope in the gospel of Christ, and allows teachings from the gospels to be put in proper perspective. If necessary, I hope that the gospel indeed has been rescued from the gospels.

Copyright © 2005 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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