We continue our series of explorations on "Enjoying your Bible" (see "A steady stream of words" for the previous article). Let's now look at the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Since no gospel has our "address on the envelope," what value do they have for the church today? Great value is the simple answer.
The four gospels are part of the transition from the Jewish history and relationship with God to the new Christian age and a new relationship to God. Much of the gospels are teaching and demonstrating the coming church age, the age of the Holy Spirit. My title for this article is the title of the 1871 classic book by Alexander Bruce which is still in print, and emphasises "how Jesus the Master Trainer prepared his tiny band of followers to win the world with faith and love." (Available on Kindle or in paperback at Amazon.)
The internal evidence in the gospels is strong for this viewpoint. Let's notice first the integrity and veracity of the words of Jesus. "Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me" (John 14:10b ESV, also verse 24). These verse teach us that the Father God was always feeding Jesus the words He wanted him to say. That statement alone shows how much notice we should take of them.
Yet it goes beyond just words, as we see in John 5:19b, "The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise." And also verse 36: "For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me." Not only words, but works also. So everything Jesus said and did came direct from the Father. God was "training the twelve" through the ministry of Jesus. To my mind, that has to be the best training a minister of the gospel could ever receive.
While Jesus was a great orator who could hold a crowd in his hand ("And the common people heard Him gladly," Mark 12:37b NKJV), he used many methods to train his disciples. Take, for example, the record of feeding the 5,000, the only miracle reported in all four gospels apart from the resurrection. When Jesus saw the great crowd following him, "Jesus said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?' He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do" (John 6:5b-6 ESV).
So this was "work experience" for the disciples on a grand scale. Jesus wanted to demonstrate that they needed to trust him to supply all their need at all times. Whether it was just his own small evangelistic team, who were well take care of -- "And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed... and many others, who provided for them out of their means" (see Luke 8:1-3) -- or 5,000 men plus women and children, the disciples had to learn the life of faith, not fund-raising. Today the church has reversed this, to its harm.
Jesus used a similar method when he sent out the twelve and then the seventy to preach and heal the sick. "Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food" (Matthew 10:9-10 ESV). Today we would say he threw them into the deep end! Yet they found that faith in his words worked! "And he said to them, "'When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?' They said, 'Nothing.'" (Luke 22:35).
At other times, Jesus would take his disciples aside after preaching to the masses, and explain the stories he had used and their application to the disciples. Two examples among many: "And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable" (Mark 7:17), and he told them. Also Matthew 20:17, while walking along the road to Jerusalem, "And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them..."
Fifteen times in the Gospels Jesus said, "but I say unto you" (KJV). In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus uses those words six times, on each occasion first quoting an Old Testament truth or a tradition added to the written law by the legalistic Jews, and then he would say "but I say unto you," and refocused their thinking on the God of love and mercy Who revealed Himself in the Old Testament. The structure is that you were taught this by man but God has already taught you the opposite. Tradition versus truth, and truth wins every time!
Jesus also said "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5:17 ESV). And he did fulfill all the requirements of the Law on the cross of Calvary, and the veil of the temple was split in two, demonstrating the old Mosiac law was no longer needed to have a close relationship with God. Jesus also said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10b KJV). "I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of" (MSG).
However, not everything that Jesus said can be taken over into the church age. He spoke some pretty harsh words to the religionists of his day. He called them vipers, serpents (Matthew 12:34) and said they were of their father the devil (John 8:44), so it is wise to take notice of the context and to whom he was speaking. On his last night before he was crucified, John chapters 14 to 17 contain many wonderful truths that were not applicable right then but are now since the Holy Spirit has been given to believers on the Day of Pentecost.
"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:16-17). And the Helper, Comforter, Counsellor, Strengthener is in you and will abide forever (see the list of alternative renderings in the Amplified Bible).
Perhaps you're starting to see why we should not only enjoy the books of the Bible that are addressed to us (the Church epistles in particular) but also those that came before, since while they are transitional in closing out the Old Covenant they give insight into how the Father sees the life of the believers after the Day of Pentecost. -- Peter Wade.