Over the last two weekends we’ve been sharing a series of messages entitled Fit for Life. Spiritual fitness, just like physical fitness, is a result of specific spiritual exercises such as prayer, reading the Word and obedience. As we feed upon God’s Word daily (Mt.4:4) then apply it to our lives we are adding exercise to healthy food, which results in good health and spiritual fitness. Today we want to dig a little deeper and share some things that will help you as you begin your Bible reading by reading through the Gospels over the next four months.Scripture
- What kind of books are the Gospels? The Gospels are primarily ‘narrative’ (or story) with a fair amount of the ‘sayings’ (teachings) of Jesus included within the story. They contain stories about Jesus and teachings of Jesus. They are a bit like a historical biography. However, they are a lot different than modern day biographies in that the authors were highly selective in what they chose to include (see John 21:25).
- Why are there four Gospels? We don’t know for sure why there are four gospels but one simple reason could be because different Christian communities each had a need for a book about Jesus. The gospel written for one community or group of believers did not necessarily meet all the needs in another community. Each Gospel writer creatively structured and wrote the material to meet the needs of their readers.
- What about the other so-called Gospels? The four Gospels we have in our Bible were written within 20-40 years of the events that they speak about while the other Gnostic gospels were not written until the mid to late second century. All four Gospels meet the criteria of being ancient, apostolic, orthodox and accepted.
- “What was God’s Word to them (then and there)?”(1) Before we can answer the question “What is God’s Word to us (here and now)?” we must first answer the question “What was God’s Word to them (then and there)?” This task of finding out what the text originally meant is called ‘exegesis’ – drawing out the original meaning intended by the author (both human and God) for the initial readers. Exegesis is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients would have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible . We must know what the text meant (back then) before we can know what it means (today). This requires us to bridge some of the gaps that exist between the original text and our own life settings.
- What is the historical context? It helps to understand a little about the time of the first century – it’s political, religious and socio-economic background. Seek to understand what everyday life was like in New Testament times. It was a very different world than we live in today. To do this we need some outside help –a Bible dictionary, a Bible commentary or a New Testament introduction of some sort.
- At the time of Jesus, the government was Roman and the culture was highly influenced by the Greeks. Most people lived in rural agricultural areas. Many people were poor and taxes were high. Judaism (with its synagogues, religious leaders and the written and oral laws) was alive with messianic expectations based on many Old Testament prophecies. People were looking for the arrival of a messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire and set up of the kingdom of God on earth.
- What is the literary context? As you read, always consider the context. Think in paragraphs not verses. Words have meaning only in sentences and biblical sentences for the most part only have clear meaning in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences. Learn to recognise units of thought. Keep asking, “What is the point?” Remember that the goal of exegesis is to try to find out what the original author intended.
Jesus used a variety of communication styles - hyperbole (rhetorical exaggeration or overstatement), irony or satire, simile or metaphor, paradox, questions, riddles and parables. Also, consider the audience of Jesus sayings – is it his close disciples, the larger crowds or his components? This is essential in understanding the point of what Jesus is saying at any particular time.
- “What is God’s Word to us (here and now)?” This is called ‘hermeneutics’. After we have considered what God’s Word meant back then and there we can then hear the same Word to us in the here and now . This is where we start to seek contemporary relevance of the text. Our devotional reading needs to be based upon good study and interpretation of the Bible. We want to know what the Bible means for us – but we cannot make it mean anything that pleases us and then give the Holy Spirit ‘credit’ for it. The Spirit’s help will come in our discovering the original intent and in his guiding us as we try faithfully to apply that meaning to our own situations. A text cannot mean what it never meant.
- What is the cultural relevance? What is cultural and therefore belongs to the first century alone and what transcends culture and is therefore a Word for all seasons? Jesus spoke in an entirely different cultural setting and therefore we must think through how this applies to us today. You probably won’t have a Roman soldier forcing you to go a mile (Mt.5:41) but the principle of the ‘going the extra mile’ is applicable to us today in a variety of situations. Whenever we share similar specific life situations with the first-century hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them. Much of what Jesus said and taught is still God’s Word to us! We are still to love our neighbours, be salt and light, pray, forgive and serve one another.
- What are the transferable principles? We can also extend the application of a text to other contexts. We do this through discerning timeless ‘principles’. It is possible to ‘translate’ God’s Word into different settings. Of course, we must also discern between the central core of the Bible (salvation, love and evangelism) and things which are non-essential (foot washing, a holy kiss and women’s head coverings).
Sample Discussion Questions
- Jesus is God in human form. Jesus is the centrepiece of the biblical story. If you want to know what God is like – take a close look at Jesus. He is God in human form. Look at him – watch him, listen to him. See his heart, his feelings, what he loves, what he dislikes, what causes him joy and what makes him angry. Then realise that this is the God we love and serve today. Know him more, love him more and live for his cause on planet earth. Jesus is like a picture, a photo album, a movie – displaying God to the world.
- Jesus and the work of redemption. All four Gospels spend most of their time focused on the events involving Jesus’ death and resurrection. The meaning of these events is not fully unpacked until we get to some of the other books of the New Testament, but watch what Jesus does. See it unfold before your eyes, enter the story and feel the emotion. He did this all for YOU!
- Jesus and the kingdom of God. You cannot understand or interpret the Gospels without a clear understanding of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God to earth and as a result ‘end time fervour’ reached fever pitch. Then suddenly Jesus was crucified. But there was more – Jesus rose from the dead. Surely now he would ‘restore the kingdom to Israel’ (Acts 1:6)? No. Jesus had not come to usher in the ‘final’ end but the ‘beginning’ of the end. In a sense the end had already come but in another sense it had not yet fully come. It was already but not yet . We live in this ‘tension’. We are living in the kingdom under the kingship of Jesus Christ yet we still pray, “Your kingdom come!”
- Jesus came not just to be the Saviour of the world bringing forgiveness to our sins but also as Lord and King, the one we owe our allegiance to. Being a Christian is not just about believing in Jesus but it’s about following him as the leader of our life. We are ‘under new management’ and we take our direction from Jesus. Hear his voice and follow his instructions. Embrace the culture of the King as you live in his kingdom here on earth.
- Check that everyone is fully aware of our plan to read through the New Testament over the next 12 months beginning on December 1st, 2006 Explain the reading plan (have copies of the latest church magazine available), the SOAP devotional concept (maybe demonstrate this), the journals and the web site helps.
- Discuss the importance of correctly interpreting and applying the Bible to our lives (see 2 Tim.2:15). Have people share some examples of misapplication of the Bible.
- Have people share their favourite story from the Gospels.
- Have some prayer together that the Holy Spirit will bring the Bible alive as we read through the NT together and that as a result many lives would be changed and that our church would continue to grow as it pursues its God-given mission and that it would become a healthier community of Christ-followers.
See How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee where the majority of today’s message content is covered in much greater detail.