This is the fourth and final post in an in-depth study of overarching themes and lessons in the gospel accounts. For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro/first post, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).
If you’re anything like me, you may have sometimes struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or found some of the teachings to be contradictory. There are many reasons for this (cultural context, writing style, etc.), and I talk about this more in the first post in the series…I won’t belabor the point here.
So this series is focused on how we can “see the forest for the trees” and survey the gospel accounts together in order to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words and actions.
As a reminder, I’m giving 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 too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage referenced as well, and to have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.
So far we’ve examined Jesus’s life and teachings on a few major themes (each with several related sub-topics):
- That God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations
- That God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations)
- That the way we treat and engage with our brethren (and other people) matters
- That we must have our priorities right—we can’t allow our relationship with worldly things to take precedence over our relationship with God
- And that God expects both faith AND action—“you will know them by their fruits”
So now let’s move on to our final few themes…
Theme #6: It’s important to take care of ourselves as well as looking out for others
In today’s world we have this idea of “self-care”, which has gotten a bit out of hand and is often used as a justification for selfishness and indulgence.
But the underlying principle is sound—namely that it is easier to have your spiritual “house” in order when you are properly caring for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Figuratively it’s like the airplane rule of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else get theirs on—the point being, you’re of no help to others if you become incapacitated.
Let’s look at a couple areas where Jesus showcased this in His own life.
It is critical to regularly get rest, solitude (for meditation), and one-on-one time with God.
Jesus shows us that we need to take care of ourselves, stay close to God, and not get too worn out while ministering to others. He fed the crowds when they were hungry and tired. He knew when the disciples were too amped up and needed to chill out. One of the biggest ways that He modeled this was to frequently set aside time to get away from the crowds and noise, and to be alone with God.
- After a full day of healing the sick and casting out demons, He went the next morning to a “solitary place” and prayed (Mark 1:32-35)
- Similarly, when the disciples came back from their journeys and were telling Jesus all that they did, He took them to an isolated spot where they could eat and rest (Mark 6:31)
- We’re told the He “often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16)
- After a crazy day feeding the 5,000, He sent the disciples on ahead and went up on a mountain to pray (Mark. 6:46)
These are just a few examples of many. Jesus knew that we must learn to turn down and tune out the noise of the world—the distractions and busyness that our daily lives provide. We have to purposefully set aside time to spend in prayer, study, and meditation with our Father.
You might also like: A Guide to Biblical Meditation
We must make time to nurture close friendships with our brethren.
Jesus also knew that He needed His friends. He didn’t hold people at arm’s length or try to bear everything on His own.
Instead, He loved and mourned His friends (John 11). He asked His closest friends to be with Him, pray for Him, and help comfort Him when He was struggling (Matt. 26:36-41).
He shared more teachings and open conversations privately with His disciples than He did with the crowds (Luke 10:23). He was vulnerable and relational, telling the disciples that he was “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:32-35).
God and Jesus Christ want their brethren to build strong and lasting friendships. These are important for mental and emotional health, certainly (as well as physical, Eccl. 4:9-10), but also important for spiritual well-being.
When we develop these intimate relationships, we can have that “iron sharpening iron” effect (Prov. 27:17), where we encourage and exhort each other, and when needed we tell the hard truths. There has to be a level of love and trust established for any of those things to be effective.
Perspective and balance are important in maintaining our well-being.
We all lose perspective sometimes, or find ourselves off-balance. Spiritually, this can lead us to ending up in a “ditch” (such as self-righteousness or going off on a doctrinal tangent), or to drifting away from God as we’re pulled in by the cares of this world.
These additional quick points help round out this larger theme of the need to take good care of ourselves:
- The story of Martha and Mary shows how we can become so focused on physically serving others that we neglect pursuing our spiritual growth (Luke 10:38-42)
- When it comes to our spiritual development and continued conversion, we shouldn’t be *only* focused on getting the “bad” OUT, but also with putting the good IN (Luke 11:24-26)
- Having an attitude of thankfulness toward God for His many blessings can help us maintain an appropriate perspective (Matt. 11:25, John 6:11, John 11:41 & more)
You might also like: Is Unthankfulness the Root of Most Sins?
Theme #7: God does not intend for us to be shrinking violets or passive doormats
This theme may be a bit unexpected. I certainly was a bit surprised as the threads emerged while reading through the gospel accounts. But there’s no question that it’s there, and is one of those seeming-contradictions that we talked about at the outset of this study.
People tend to focus on Jesus’s teachings to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile when compelled, and forgive your brother as many times as is needed. And those are absolutely commands from our Savior. But they also depend on the situation and context.
Jesus also taught and modeled that His followers should be zealous for His way, should not compromise with the truth, and should speak out when we see something that is wrong. He did not intend for us to allow others to walk all over us, or be taken advantage of as “easy marks”.
And He expects us to study His word and use His holy spirit to develop discernment and character. Both are required to determine in any given situation what is most loving and appropriate towards the people involved—whether it’s a “telling hard truths in love” sort of moment or a “turn the other cheek”.
So let’s look at some places where we’re showing the bolder side of following Christ.
Jesus was unafraid to challenge the traditions and authority of men when needed—which was a LOT!
He consistently challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the myriad traditions in the “oral law” that He saw as burdens added by men to the commands of God (Mark 2:23, 3:4, 7:6; Luke 6:3).
Rather than hundreds of definitive “rules” about what’s appropriate on the sabbath, or in our everyday lives, Jesus clearly modeled that we have to make judgments. God expects us to study His way and apply it. And we should be VERY careful that our traditions don’t go against what He expects of us (for instance in offending those new to the faith and how we treat our brethren).
Jesus also showed that we must be zealous for God’s way and at times act strongly and in ways that may offend people. He made a whip of cords and drove animals and people out of the temple, flipping tables and angering many…He was definitely not meek or polite about what He saw as the Jews (supposedly God’s chosen people) massively disrespecting the Father (Mark 11, John 2:16).
He did not pull His punches! In fact, He made them so mad—and they felt so threatened by Him—that they arranged to have Him killed. Do WE “pull our punches” when we need to stand up for what is right, out of fear of retribution or being ostracized?
“Yet because of his persistence”…we have to take a strong, active role in our salvation.
Besides this righteous zeal and willingness to challenge tradition when needed, another quality that we must be developing is persistence…even to the point of being annoying. Two parables He gave along these lines were the widow and the reluctant judge in Luke 18 and the persistent friend in Luke 11:5-10.
The takeaway is clear, in our lives overall as well as in our relationship with God—ask, seek, knock.
“So I say to you, ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you…if you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:9, 13).
This idea is along the same lines as the many teachings of Jesus about putting our hand to the plow and not looking back, or counting the cost (Luke 9:62, 14:28). And that persistence is what is needed to endure through trials, family and friends betraying us, persecutions—He tells us that “by standing firm [endurance, constancy], you will save your [eternal] lives” (Luke 21:19, CJB).
I believe that the qualities of persistence and perseverance can help us understand one of the more confusing statements of Jesus. In the middle of talking about John the Baptist and His own ministry, He states, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12).
Now I’ll be honest, I have read a bunch of translations and looked up the Hebrew words, and none of them make it a ton clearer. So here’s my best analysis of this strange teaching.
He’s ultimately saying that people forcefully try to seize the kingdom…and in this case I don’t think it’s in a negative sense. They go after it, seek after it, try to hold on to it. We have to strain toward it (Phil. 3:13), labor (Col. 3:24), wrestle (Eph. 6:12), and “press on” to lay hold of it (Phil 3:12).
Not that we can achieve this on our own—only God’s grace and Jesus’s sacrifice can do that. But I view it similar to how God required the Israelites to actually fight for and conquer the Promised Land—it was only possible with His provision and actions, but they still had to pick up the weapons and engage in the battle.
He demands the same of us: we have to FIGHT for the kingdom. That’s probably not the only interpretation, but was the one that made the most sense to me.
Another of Jesus’s most confusing sayings is where He states: “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division” (Luke 12:51). Context is really important here, because He’s talking again about the costs of discipleship and the character and perseverance needed to continue following Him.
What He’s telling us here is that our devotion to God’s way must be complete—even if it means being rejected by our family and friends. If we water down or compromise on our faith just to “keep the peace,” we are told we’re not worthy.
And lastly, another weird one…I’ll again be completely transparent in that I may not have a full grasp on exactly what Jesus means here. As He instructs the twelve disciples before they go out into the world, He says, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
Persecution and spiritual danger are certain. In our vulnerability, we should seek out the other sheep and the Good Shepherd for protection. We are vulnerable, but don’t need to be stupid (serpents go hide under a rock when they sense danger). And don’t make the persecutors’ jobs easy by giving them something they can accuse you of (innocent as a dove). We are sheep among wolves, but we should act with shrewdness, widsom, and from a place of innocence.
So to sum up this theme (because we were a bit all over the place): We must be steadfast and unafraid to challenge men’s traditions and authority when they’re conflicting with God’s (even if it’s not polite), persistence is required to “seize” our crown in the kingdom, and we should expect persecution and know how to respond.
Theme #8: God can produce amazing things with our faith if we don’t allow our own doubts to get in the way…”faith as small as a mustard seed”
People often misunderstand faith. It’s not a religious or gut feeling, wishful thinking, or an optimistic sense of hope (like, “I hope I win the lottery”). Instead it is, as Hebrews tells us, “the confident assurance of things hoped for, the evidence [proof] of things unseen” (Heb. 1:1).
And more importantly, it produces results. That chapter of Hebrews goes on to list many heroes of the faith and what they did. That’s right, DID. Because ultimately faith shows up in action (James 2:18).
So let’s look at what our Messiah tells us about our faith, what it should be producing, and where we can stumble.
Fear and doubt are faith-killers.
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38). A resurrected Jesus chided His disciples with this question as He showed them the holes in His hands and feet. Throughout the gospels, Jesus repeatedly speaks to both fear and doubt as “faith issues” that undermine our relationship with God.
The themes of “do not worry, do not fear” show up frequently in His teachings (Matt. 6, Luke 12, among others). When the disciples were rowing across the Sea of Galilee and a fierce storm arose, they woke Jesus up asking Him to save them. His response: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” (Matt. 8:26).
Peter stepped out onto the water in faith, but then looked around at the storm and began to sink. Again, Jesus asks, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). Even in the book of Revelation, Jesus the Lamb of God tells us not to be afraid (Rev. 1:17).
Doubt has been Satan’s weapon from the very beginning, when in the garden he cast doubt in Eve’s mind about whether God was being honest with them.
This does not mean that human frailty and momentary doubts will never occur. Even Jesus cried out to God in anguish while being crucified, at the moment that God turned His back—we see His vulnerability and hurt as He cried “My God, why have you forsaken Me?”
This shows us that it’s natural to cry out to God and voice our fear, doubts, and worries at those times when our finite human hearts can’t see His hand. Sometimes we have to be like the father who cried in anguish, “Lord I believe…help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23). Only God’s grace and spirit can bridge the gap between our own faith and where He wants us.
This is why it’s so critical that we spend time getting to know our bibles deeply and intimately, so that when Satan is throwing fiery darts of doubt and fear, we can be grounded in God’s words as our ultimate defense (like Jesus parrying all of Satan’s temptations in the wilderness in Matt. 4).
Our faith can make us capable of mind-blowing things, and none of us are probably tapping into it.
The flip side of the previous point is what is possible with faith.
- Jesus tells us that those who believe in Him will do works like His, and even greater (John 14:12)
- “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there.’ And it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20)
- “Assuredly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea’, it will be done. Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:21-22)
I’ll be honest, this topic is hard for me to truly grasp. What these verses SAY feels pretty clear, but what they mean for me…well, that’s tougher.
I think most of us would read these verses and feel discouraged. Like, does the fact that all my prayers aren’t magically answered mean I don’t have faith? Or that I can’t move a mountain into the ocean?
I don’t think so. Jesus often used hyperbole to get His point across. There isn’t really a good reason for me to shift landmass into water.
Instead, I think the point Jesus is making is that what’s physically (or spiritually) impossible for us is entirely possible for God. And that is why we have faith in Him.
Wrapping up our gospels survey
So we’ve been on quite a journey over these four studies, taking a thorough but higher-level survey of all of Jesus’s words and actions through the gospels.
And here are the biggest themes and takeaways that appeared for me, regardless of confusing language, cultural nuances, or apparent contradictions:
- That God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations.
- That God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations)
- That the way we treat and engage with our brethren (and other people) matters
- That we must have our priorities right—we can’t allow our relationship with worldly things to take precedence over our relationship with God.
- That God expects both faith AND action—“you will know them by their fruits”
- That it’s important to take care of ourselves as well as looking out for others
- That God does not intend for us to be shrinking violets or passive doormats
- And that God can produce amazing things with our faith if we don’t allow our own doubts to get in the way…”faith as small as a mustard seed”
Imagine if you and I focused even just on that list in our lives! Peter tells us that we have Jesus’s example so we can “follow His steps” (I Pet. 2:21).
For me, this survey of the gospels has helped bring to life Jesus’s words and actions in ways that are clearer and easier to apply to my daily walk, and hopefully it’s helped you as well.
Make sure you check out the other posts in this series for the full picture:
- This Life Isn’t Easy, & Comes With Expectations (Part 1)
- The State of Our Hearts & Minds, Motivations & Intentions (Part 2)
- Our Priorities, Relationship with the World, & Requirement for “Works” (Actions) (Part 3)