It’s often been said that even if we only focused on reading and doing the “red letter” parts of the bible (Jesus’s words), we’d all be much better people…and certainly better Christians.
But I have a confession: I’ve always struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Of course I read them, I think about them, I hone in on specific verses that feel really meaningful. But even though it’s full of direct words from my Savior, I haven’t always gravitated toward them holistically.
And I could be wrong, but I suspect I may not be alone in that…
For some people, the seeming-inconsistencies across the three narratives are frustrating. For others (myself included), the sparse writing style feels a bit clinical and I know that I’m missing cultural nuances that would make the words come to life better. It kind of makes me feel like a failure at times.
While the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are not quite as convoluted as some of Paul’s writings (which even Peter called hard to understand, II Pet. 3:16), they still can be somewhat challenging to really grasp onto and internalize. And there are a number of reasons for that.
Why are the gospels confusing at times?
Some of the difficulty in reading the gospels is unavoidable, and common to any historical text. The actual way it was written down—from the words used, to the dialogue style—feels stilted and foreign to a modern reader’s brain.
The things Jesus (and other biblical writers) said often included a massive amount of cultural context, using phrases and examples that contemporary listeners would have immediately connected the dots on, but seem super random to us today.
Then some of the confusion was, I believe, purposeful on Jesus’s part. His words can be interpreted in different ways because He wasn’t always crystal-clear, and His sayings often had double meanings. He even stated outright that He was intentionally making the parables hard to understand because those people weren’t being called at that time (Matt. 13:11-17).
Another reason is that many of His teachings showcased how we follow God in a situational context rather than black-and-white “rules”, so we run into paradoxes with how the same principle was applied differently at different times—creating what feels like contradictions.
And honestly, some of it is SO specific, that to our modern ears we hear something like “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” and we’re like, ”Neat…sooo what do we do with this??” As a result, we tend to cherry-pick very specific verses, often pulled out of context, and ignore other ones that might contradict.
A different approach for how to read the gospels
After years of reading through the gospels but struggling to truly feel connected to and inspired by the entirety of the writings, I recently decided to try a different approach. Rather than getting bogged down in the verse-by-verse details, my goal was to pull back to more of a 30,000-foot view to see what we can and should glean in broader strokes.
This way of reading the gospels still is focusing on specific and actionable takeaways for my life, but it helped me be able to filter through some of the super granular and seemingly-contradictory statements to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words or His actions.
Rather than parsing every word (including things that feel contradictory), my goal is to glean some of the key things we should take away as Jesus’s focus, His actions, His commands—and thereby what things we need to be concentrating on in our own lives.
A few notes to orient you before we dive in:
- The topics below are focused more on the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), solely because Jesus’s teachings in John’s gospel are more directed toward Himself and His relationship with the Father. I’ve also included a couple references to the red-letter parts of Revelation where relevant.
- As I studied through the books, I found that the various topics grouped themselves into a handful of very broad buckets, but acknowledge that there’s definitely some overlap between them.
- I’ll give some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got repetitive, especially across the three books). I encourage you to look up and read each passage in the bible yourself as well and have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.
And lastly, this study is a LOT. There is so much content here, that I’ve split it into multiple posts. This is part one of what will likely be between three and five posts.
While you *could* read through it all in one sitting, you could also take a topic or two each day as your daily bible study and spend time meditating and studying, to really get the most out of it. Think of this as more of a reference book or study companion.
Principles, truths, and key commands in the Gospels
Theme #1: God’s calling in this life isn’t easy, and isn’t for everyone. But if we answer the call, it DOES come with expectations.
Anyone who subscribes to the “just as I am” belief, thinking that God doesn’t set standards by which we must live, should go back and read Jesus’s words throughout the gospels.
One of the biggest themes that Jesus emphasizes is what it looks like to follow Him. He focuses on action, not simply “believing” as an abstract emotional idea…and He’s also clear that following God’s way is not the easy path.
Now don’t get me wrong…God calls us just as we are. He just expects that we won’t stay that way. Let’s look at some examples.