We have four portraits of Jesus, written by people who either walked with Jesus or were able to interview and speak with those who did follow him and hear Jesus first hand. They are the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four presentations were clearly valued above all others from the very beginning. We hear from one of these four writers every Sunday as they bring to us the story of Jesus and in doing so we come to know, and prayerfully, love him.
But as with all people, Jesus is complex and I’m thankful we have four different presentations of his person and work. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar, with John being a more unique perspective. Nevertheless, all four work beautifully together and comparing the differences between them actually helps us see the particular concerns of each story teller. To top it all off, we also believe God the Holy Spirit has directed and inspired these writers. Moreover, we must not forget that the other writings of the New Testament bring us a portrait of Jesus. Although not in story form, these writings certainly give descriptions of who Jesus was and what he did for us. One of my favorite descriptions of Jesus is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2.6) where he quotes from what is clearly an existing Christian creed, “…who did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself…” Another is from Colossians 1:15 which reminds me that everything I know about God has come in and through Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God.”
All of this said, I have a concern. Sometimes our view of Jesus is not fully informed by the whole witness of the four Gospels and the NT. Jesus sometimes says some rather harsh things and at other places, very comforting and graceful things. Moreover, sometimes the things he says are difficult to understand because the original culture in which Jesus lived and spoke is very different than our own. My worry is that some, upon encountering a harsh or difficult saying, will let that particular saying cover or color the whole of one’s understand of Jesus.
To help with this problem, I offer the following suggestions. I pray they will help you not only know Jesus but also come to love him more deeply and serve him more joyfully.
- Look at all specific statements of Jesus through the lens of all of his teachings and especially his sacrifice on the cross.
- Remember Jesus was a good teacher and used lots of teaching methods like hyperbole and parables that were not intended to be taken legalistically but were intended to get us to think.
- Welcome when Jesus says something that “rubs the wrong way” because given we are broken and sinful human beings, we want and should expect Jesus to “upset our apple cart.”
- Remember that Jesus often preaches the law but he is the Gospel. By law here I mean God’s standard and will, God’s righteousness. By Gospel I mean the event of Christ Jesus and his death and resurrection–his death being for our sins and his resurrection to make us righteous (Romans 4:25). Jesus often preached God’s righteousness so poignantly (Matthew 5.48) that clearly, his teaching was to drive us to the Gospel. Indeed, he preached to show the necessity of his death and resurrection. In other words, Jesus didn’t come simply as a new Moses to renew or give a new set of rules.
- Be very wary about those who claim they can get behind or before the portraits of the four Gospels or other New Testament writers. These people simply want to manufacture the Jesus they want or one they find palatable.
- Read the excerpt of Martin Luther’s wonderful writing on How to Read the Gospels which we have posted on the education page of SLC’s website. This is a real gem that helps us get at the real Jesus.