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.

You might also like:  Jesus As The “Author & Finisher” of Our Faith: What Does This Mean?

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.

To whom much is given, much is expected—God expects a “return” on His investment in us (Luke 12:48).  Jesus clearly states that His followers are those who “hear the word of God and DO IT” (Luke 8:18).  Here are some of the MANY places where Jesus lays out what He and the Father expect of us:

  • “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11)
  • We must bear fruit (parable of sower, Luke 8; parable of the fig tree, Mark 11:14)
  • We will be known and judged by our fruits, good or bad (Matt. 7:15-20)
  • “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom, but he who does the will of My Father” (Matt 7:21-23)
  • Not putting our lamp under a basket (Luke 11:33-36)
  • “Go and do likewise” (parable of good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37)
  • Compassion and actions outweigh just doing religious ritual for the wrong reasons (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, Matt. 9:13)
  • We shouldn’t only be doing the bare minimum we think God requires to “just skate by”, or expect to be praised merely for doing what’s commanded (Luke 17:7-10)
  • How we live our lives and follow God’s way matters, we’re in “training” for God’s kingdom; “He who is faithful in least will be faithful in much also” (Luke 16:10)

God is not just looking to “fixer-upper” us.  He wants to demo and re-build us. 

In back-to-back statements, Jesus said that you wouldn’t put new wine in old wineskins, or a patch of new cloth on an old garment.  When we are called to God’s truth, He is not looking just to patch us up, maybe slap a coat of fresh paint on—He is looking to completely transform us into a new being.

In the same way the old wineskins can’t contain new wine (the fermentation would expand and break it), we can’t just try to fit God’s way into our old life.  It cannot contain it.  (Matt 9:16-17, Luke 5:36)  The apostle Paul spends a lot of time expounding on this idea in his letters as well.

Committing to following God and Jesus Christ in this life should not be undertaken lightly.  But the rewards are immense and eternal—“he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22).

  • There is no turning back or half-assing it, we must “count the cost” (Luke 14:25-33; Luke 9:62)
  • We must deny our own desires and make changes to our lives—even be willing to lose them (Matt. 16:24, Luke 9:23-26)

God is not trying to save the whole world right now, but those who answer His calling bear accountability for following through on that commitment.

  • This is illustrated thoroughly in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) and parable of talents/minas (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).
  • “For many are called but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14 & 20:16)
  • Our commitment to following Jesus must outweigh everything else. “No man having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62)

Following God’s way can be difficult, and will not win any popularity contests.  But it is not burdensome.

As crazy as it sound to us, Jesus says we’re to be “blessed [happy!]…when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for your great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12).  Note that He says “when”, not “if”.

  • Jesus cautioned that we must look to enter by the narrow gate, because “narrow [difficult, with obstacles]” is the way and the gate that lead to life, and few find it (Matt. 7:13-14)
  • Read through Matthew 10…as Jesus prepares the apostles to go out, He gives them warnings that have applied to God’s people throughout the millennia. That we will face persecution and hatred, strife with our loved ones, and even physical death.  But our reward, if we persevere, is certain (Matthew 10; Matt. 19:24-30; Luke 21; similarly, John 15:18 & 16:2)

Despite the previous points, Jesus says His yoke is easy and His burden light (Matt. 11:28-30).  Does that contradict the previous points?  Not at all!  This verse reassures us that when are yoked with Him (like two oxen together), and so pulling in the same direction as Him, He helps bear our burdens.  Plus, when sin is removed from our lives, we no longer have to deal with its consequences (which make our life more burdensome).

God’s people are not guaranteed a life free of trials.  We will ALL go through storms—it’s how we respond to them that matters.

Following God’s way does not automatically keep us from experiencing the trials and tribulations of life, but He does promise to be with us in them (John 16:33; I Cor. 10;13).

  • The parable of the two builders…one built his house on the rock, the other on the sand. But the wind and rain and floods (trials) attacked BOTH houses.  What mattered was the strength of the foundations they were built upon—if we build upon God’s word, we can weather trials with His help (Matt. 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49).
  • As the disciples tried to row across the Sea of Galilee, they were hit by a terrible storm. Jesus came to them and He encouraged Peter to step out onto the water on faith…God sometimes uses storms as opportunities to push us out of our comfort zones, challenge us to step out on faith and toward the vision He has for us (Matt. 14:22-33).
  • Bad things happen to people—good people and bad people alike. Just because someone is going through a trial, it doesn’t indicate their state of righteousness or sin (Luke 13 where the tower fell on people; John 9 about the man blind from birth).

Our salvation is not assured, either through knowledge or works alone.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is, simply speaking, NOT basing their statement on the bible—and certainly not on Jesus’s own words.  This is not meant to discourage us, but rather to galvanize us.

  • We don’t want to hear “I never knew you, depart from Me!”.  Simply saying we are a Christian, doing works, prayer, keeping the Sabbath…God expects us to do these things, but they are not a checklist for achieving eternal life.  We must be seeking God’s will and growing in the fruits of His spirit (Matt. 7:21-23, Luke 13:22).
  • We will have to make a choice at some point whether to answer God’s calling and leave behind the world. We cannot hem and haw forever, keeping one foot in each.  In the parable of the great supper (Luke 14), Jesus shows how those invited first made excuses and dithered, so they were rejected and others were called to take their place.

God loves us and always wants us back, even when we have strayed.  This is a companion to the previous point, meant to encourage us and reiterate God’s mercy and love.

God and Jesus are not sitting up there in heaven watching us and waiting to be like “GOTCHA!  No kingdom for you!”  Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was so that no one should perish, but all come to eternal life (John 3:16).  That is the depth of God’s love for us!

When we have lost our way, or even turned from Him knowingly for a while, He deeply longs for our reconciliation to Him as any parent would if their teenager ran away from home.  Jesus told back-to-back parables on this theme in Luke 15.

  • The famous parable of the prodigal son reiterates that He always wants us back, and always loves us (Luke 15:11-32)). The parable tells us that the son “came to himself”…in other words, he recognized that he had lost his way and the consequences of that, and turned from his current life to run back into his father’s arms.
  • The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin show not only how God deeply longs for His lost children to come back, but the rejoicing in the body of Christ when they do (Luke 15:4-10).

You might also like:  What Did Jesus Mean By “My Yoke Is Easy”? Beyond the Surface Meaning

More to come as we survey the gospels…

As I mentioned at the outset, this study covers a LOT of ground.  This was just theme #1.  But hopefully it helps illuminate how we can scan across all of Jesus’s words and actions to see what He wanted us to understand, and what He modeled for us.

So I’ll stop here for now…here are the other posts in this series on how to understand the gospels!

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Why are the gospels confusing? We end up cherrypicking verses but not seeing the big picture. This study (part 1) explores key themes in Jesus's words & actions to become better at how to understand the gospels.

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