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Why Do We Have the Gospels?

2008 March 22
by Mike

“One of the greatest problems of the Western church, ever since the Reformation at least, is that it hasn’t really known what the gospels were there for. Imagining that the point of Christianity was to enable people to go to heaven, most Western Christians supposed that the mechanism by which this happened was the one they found in the writings of Paul . . . and that the four gospels were simply there to give backup information about Jesus, his teaching, his moral example, and his atoning death. This long tradition screened out the possibility that when Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom, he was talking not about a heaven for which he was preparing his followers but about something that was happening in and on this earth, through his work, then through his death and resurrection, and then through the Spirit-led work to which they would be called.” – N. T. Wright

33 Responses leave one →
  1. March 22, 2008

    May God’s richest blessings be yours as you reflect on the extent of His love demonstrated through the death His Son on the cross and the awesomeness of His power exhibited through the resurrection.

    To God be the glory!

    a spiritual oasis

  2. March 22, 2008

    Good point. The idea that life begins later once we get to heaven has short-sheeted the kingdom-now actuality. The point Jesus made in John 3 was if one isn’t born again they can’t see the kingdom of God….I take that as now while on earth.

  3. Carolyn Dycus permalink
    March 22, 2008

    I love N. T. Wright, am back again reading his Simply Christian.

    For several years now, I have been seeing the gospels in a new light… as THE good news and example to live today in the kingdom. I’m no theologian but does it seem we tend to elevate apostolic teaching over the teaching of the Lord of the universe? May we always pray for GOD’s kingdom to come in ourselves, in this world.

  4. clint permalink
    March 22, 2008

    Without the resurrection all we will find are colored eggs.

  5. Leland permalink
    March 22, 2008

    “Without the resurrection all we will find are colored eggs.”

    Not for all. I find inspiration.

  6. March 23, 2008

    While Jim Woodward was our interm minister he told us a new christian told him the gospels are why you live the letters.

  7. March 23, 2008

    JC, would that have been Jim WOODROOF? For many years he has said “the Gospels give you the power to live what’s in the Letters”.

    Thanks for this quote, Mike.


  8. March 23, 2008

    I recently read The Gospel Solution by Tom Weaver (True Light Press, 1999), and now I’m REALLY confused about why we have the gospels. Weaver says that the teachings of Jesus were meant to produce frustration and a sense of need in his Jewish hearers, in readiness for the gospel of grace. Jesus meant to be obscure, says Weaver, and “the primary purpose of his teaching ministry was to establish man’s shortfall from God’s holy standards.” If anyone else has read this book, I would really appreciate your thoughts. For my part, Weaver’s point of view was really confusing. I had not thought of Jesus as a person who would deliberately frustrate people. I know that Jesus taught in a transitional period, under OT law and before the Christian era actually began. Still, the way Weaver words it, Jesus doesn’t really expect us to take his teachings to heart; he only wants us to realize he is setting up an impossible standard so that we will be receptive to grace.

  9. March 23, 2008


    I ment to say Jim Woodroof and I do belive you quated much better than I. Thanks for the keeping me strait.


  10. March 23, 2008

    I once saw a Bible (put out by one of our brethren, BTW) that re-arranges the division to place the gospels in the Old Testament. The implication (actually, it’s a lot more overt than that) is that the gospels don’t really count…only Acts and Paul’s letters. There, we are told, we can get down to the serious issue of how to organize the church.

    Even if we don’t use this Bible, we practice this mentality in the church far too often.

  11. Heather A permalink
    March 23, 2008

    On a completely different note, it was so good to have you back in the pulpit this morning. I can’t tell you how much your sermon ministered to me. I’ve never heard an Easter sermon that spoke so much to what implications the empty tomb has for my life TODAY. You spoke straight to me and the decisions I’m making as I transition from my college life to the next stage of life that God has planned for me.

    I’m glad that you were able to have ten weeks of sabbatical, and I pray that this time was a great blessing to you and your family. But I’m so glad to have you back! Love you!

  12. Kyle permalink
    March 24, 2008


    I’m curious if your sabbatical left feeling the way you thought it would. Was there anything you would’ve done differently or anything you thought was key to it’s effectiveness. Perhaps this question should be left to a later time but I would be interested to here.

    I’ve never had what we would call a sabbatical, but when I have tried to have a spiritual rest, I’ve come away feeling that I resisted God and not truly “rested”. I’m not sure that I’ve been truly committed to rest though.

    Thanks for the quote about the gospel. I will pray on that this morning.

  13. March 24, 2008

    The pastor at a church I attended several years ago preached only from the epistles. When I asked him why, he astonished me with his reply …. the gospels were not written for us.

    Among other questions, I asked him how he could expect anyone to be faithful to someone they don’t know – and imho, the only place we can KNOW Jesus is through His story as told in the gospels.

    There’s that word again …. Balance! Again gospels vis epistles are like the proverbial cork on water – neither one overwhelming the other, rather each interacting with the other in such a manner that the cork doesn’t sink, allowing it [cork] to bob along on the water.
    – – – – – – – –

    Mike, I add my voice to others in a heartfelt and joyful, Welcome Home!! I pray your sabbatical served its expected purpose for you. We missed you – we bathed you in prayer, and we’re glad you’re back with us!!

  14. David D. permalink
    March 24, 2008


    I have not seen the Bible that you reference–however, I suspect if you have access to it and look at the information in the front about that particular Bible that you will find that it is not intentionally or unintentionally implying that the gospels don’t count. Instead the placement was based on the fact that the events recorded occurred under the Old Law [Old Testament period]
    Of course, one could argue that anything recorded after the cross was New Testament period even though the church had not yet been established. [Based on Christ nailing the old law to the cross as Paul states in Colossians.]
    David D.

  15. March 24, 2008

    Probably it is difficult to narrow down one or two purposes of the Gospels. All of the purposes blend in together to weave the purposes of God. The Gospels continue the story of God as we write our stories with God.

  16. Ian MacLeod permalink
    March 24, 2008

    Mike, have you read a book by David W. Bercot called “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up”? I bought twenty copies and gave all but one away so I’ve ordered 30 more. (They are cheaper in bulk.) Every person who has read it has been challenged by the research he has done on the views of the early Christians.
    Ian (an elder from the Saskatoon c of C)

  17. March 24, 2008

    Without the gospels, we don’t have a clear picture of the Christ, which makes Christianity pretty superfluous. There is no point without him. In the gospels, we see him weep with the hurting, joke with his friends, speak to his passions and live out his love for God the father. Without his image chiseled so clearly over the face of the gospels, the letters are of no use to me. I have no stake in the trappings of church without the person of Christ.

  18. Leland permalink
    March 24, 2008

    “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up”

    Please summarize what you mean by this Ian. I am very interested in my being a heretic or not. I will belay argument awaiting your response.

  19. Leland permalink
    March 24, 2008


    “I once saw a Bible (put out by one of our brethren, BTW) that re-arranges the division to place the gospels in the Old Testament. The implication (actually, it’s a lot more overt than that) is that the gospels don’t really count…only Acts and Paul’s letters.”

    I think the gospels count as well as the book of Amos. I think Isiah counts for me as well.

    That is just me though David. I really don’t see why one differentiates between old and new. They both have their ambiguities and hard questions left unanswered.

    Maybe life asks us what we will do and Amos, Isaiah and Jesus respond in kind with their words and lives. Jesus most important with his life. I do not need a resurrection to give me hope.

  20. March 25, 2008

    Leland, the book refers to church fathers (e. g., Polycarp, Tertullian). Bercot’s thesis, if I recall correctly, is that these men would be considered heretics if their views of Christ, the apostles, and the church were contrasted with the dominant views of the compromised, co-opted, institutional church from Constantine until now. Basically a good-hearted polemic against the church’s tendency to seek cultural and political accommodation, urging the church instead to stand resolutely against the cultural and political winds.

    I can’t recall if Bercot goes after the Sadducees and the Herodians or not, but Eugene Peterson (see his _The Jesus Way_) might suggest that he extend his analysis back to them instead of stopping with Constantine.

    To Bercot, if you question the “church growth” movement and its assumptions, you qualify as a heretic these days. (qb thinks it would be a badge of honor.)


  21. March 25, 2008

    BTW, one good example of a modern-day heretic of that kind is Philip Kenneson, who co-wrote _Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing_. What a powerful bit of prophetic writing *that* is in a marketing-saturated, commercialized, big-box church culture.


  22. Chris permalink
    March 25, 2008


    I find it interesting that you have made no comments on returning from sabbatical. My experience with sabbaticals is that:
    1. The person acutally wanted to quit.
    2. He/She was talked out of it and offered a sabbatical.
    3. He/She takes the sabbatical, comes back, but still really wants to quit.

    In fact I think the greek word for sebbatical is I want to do something else.

  23. Beth permalink
    March 25, 2008

    Jim Woodroof’s comment originated with a New Zealand Christian who came to him saying, “I can’t do it.” Later, she read through the gospels and came back bubbling, “I found it!” Claire told him she found the power in the gospels to live the letters.

  24. Jeff permalink
    March 25, 2008

    I’m actually impressed that Mike was offered a sabbatical, took it, and came back…

    I get offered a lot of sabbaticals, and they usually conclude the offer by saying “and don’t come back”… ; – )

  25. Larry Wishard permalink
    March 25, 2008

    What reading Jesus has done for me.
    I see His love of nature and life on this beautiful planet. Birds. Lilies. Farm scenes. Fishing. He is present in the now.

    I see His love for the down and out. He was asked to help the blind and lame and those with blood diseases. He was the great physician.

    I see Him as a friend of sinners. Others couldn’t understand why he would hang out with them. He made it clear that it was the sick who wanted a doctor. So He would explain to the self-righteous that the basis for superior service is an attitude of gratitude.

    I see Him as bold with the thought patrol cops. He was creative and new in His style of teaching as well as the content. The scribes and Pharisees and law experts and elders and such would get in His face. “Who do you think you are?”
    He didn’t back up an inch. We must learn that compared to pleasing God, it doesn’t matter what people think of us.

    I see Him in sorrow over a lost world. He weeps because the religious people want to keep their power and position and don’t seem to care. He weeps because the political power oppress the poor people. He weeps because there are destroying themselves in their sinfulness and will not come to God for life.

    I see Him laughing at the future. God has a great plan for the future and the kingdom of heaven is going to rule in the hearts of men. If ever there was a realistic optimist it was Jesus.

    This is why I think God gave us the gospels.
    Larry Wishard

  26. March 25, 2008

    About the sabbatical –

    Yes, it accomplished (most of) what I had hoped for. I didn’t work on reading and sermons. I worked on me. Through friendship, mentoring, therapy, and prayer. I enjoyed my family. I worked out. I sought restoration, reflection, rest, repentance, and renewal.

    I wish everyone had the opportunity. Others deserve it much more than I did. It was just a gift. I received it as such and cherish it as such.

  27. Keith Cummings permalink
    March 26, 2008

    “[Based on Christ nailing the old law to the cross as Paul states in Colossians.]”

    I feel the artificial separation of the Hebrew Scriptures and even the Gospels from the rest of the New Testament is a big mistake with huge theological implications. While a new covenant was established, God did not change. The part of the “Old Testament” that covers The Law (or the covenant God made with Moses) is a minority of the OT. What about the rest?

    The New Testament never discards the OT. When Paul mentions the usefulness of “scripture” in 2 Tim 3.16 he is referring to the OT (the NT was just beginning to be written). The Gospels and the Epistles are full of OT references. Colossians 2.14 does not say “The Law” was nailed to the cross. In fact, the Greek word for “law” (nomos) doesn’t occur once in Colossians. The NIV translates Col. 2.14 as “written code” and the NRSV simply says “the record.” I believe Col. 2 is talking about Christ taking away our debt and Paul uses this idea of a legal obligation (i.e. a mortgage) that Christ cancels for us with his death and resurrection.

    Just my 2 cents…and I have a lot to learn I’m sure.

    For more discussion on Marcionism & Churches of Christ see Bobby Valentine’s Blog:

  28. March 26, 2008

    can it be as simple as teachings to teach us how to love each other as a church and to those who don’t know Him?

  29. March 26, 2008

    Great quote and thread, Mike! I haven’t commented on your blog for a while – busy with other things. Following are some thoughts from a book I am currently working on, emphasizing the power of living in the Kingdom of heaven to transform our lives and relationships right here and now. Sorry to take up so much space on your blog comments, but the quote just spoke so much to me, and the following seemed so relevant:

    Over the course of my life as a “faithful Christian,” I have experienced my share of heartache and disappointment. Well, despite the pain and failings I have faced in my life since I was a boy, I still believe in the story of a God who is a loving Father, a life-saving Son, and a guiding Spirit. The powers of hell and the brokenness of this fallen world have not driven from my heart the hope of salvation from the eternal punishment I deserve for my many sins. I simply do not have what it takes to redeem myself from the natural consequences of my unloving, prideful, and fearful choices in life. And I thank my Father with all my being for sending his Son to pay the price for me. But I no longer think this is a story whose primary aim is to give me comfort in facing death. Does my hope in Christ give me hope for eternal life after death? Absolutely! Is that all the hope I have in Christ – a Get Out Of Hell, Free Card? Absolutely not!!!

    You see, Jesus was not blinded by the illusion that this world is separate from the eternal, spiritual world. He came to remove the veil from our eyes, so we might see the Truth – that we are already living and breathing in the eternal, spiritual world. “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18) He came to show us how to Live, beginning right now! In his own words, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) Yes, I am deeply thankful for the boyhood stories I heard from preachers, sang in church hymns, and saw on flannelgraph boards*. But those aren’t the reasons I believe in the Story of Life today.

    I believe in the Biblical stories of the Real World today, not because of their flannelgraph imprint on my young, impressionable mind, but because I have seen enough evidence of Real World stories in the “real world” to convince me of their life changing power. I have seen lives transformed, relationships mended, and bodies healed. I have experienced the unmistakable love of God in the unlikeliest of places. And so I believe. And as my belief grows and blossoms into faith, faith leads to changes in my ways of thinking and acting. And as these changes take hold in my life and relationships, hope draws deeper, fresher breath in me. And living in the Kingdom of heaven is no longer some future promised land waiting for me beyond death’s door. I now delight in moments of heaven in the relationships of today.

  30. March 29, 2008

    I just listened to a podcast recently and Phylis Tickle mentioned something very interesting about the new testament and the Gospels. She said that if we equate the NT with the OT in terms of genre and sequence, and the OT begins with Torah, continues with history, includes letters from the prophets. Then the parallel in the NT would be:

    Gospels = Torah
    Acts = History
    letters = Prophets

    It’s rather interesting to equate Torah, the words of God with Torah, the words of Jesus.

  31. Don permalink
    March 29, 2008

    I think “Why Do We Have Jude” would have been a more betterer obtuse question.

    But the really funny part of this entire post is that “Bill” guy [comment #1] has a stock spam reply and an ad for his blog on just about every “Christian” blog AND most of you took it as some esoteric response to this post.

    That was worth the surfing 🙂 LOL

  32. March 29, 2008

    I keep seeing different versions of this idea – that Jesus preached salvation/heaven as a present reality, and not afterlife – in a number of venues. I think it’s ridiculous.

    Yes, there is a sense in which the Kingdom is here now. But he also preached about rewards. He taught about resurrection. He taught about the time of judgment and about going on to eternal life.

    He said that he came to give us life to the full, but he also said that we should rejoice when we suffer in his name. He said that the world would hate us, and that persecution would come, but that we would receive our reward. And he contrasted lasting heavenly rewards with temporal earthly rewards.

    Heaven (the after-life version) was a part of Jesus’ teaching. Can’t we teach that we have work to do on earth without removing the truth of heaven?

  33. March 31, 2008


    I wholeheartedly agree with your last three paragraphs. I’m not sure what you mean by using “salvation/heaven” together in this way. I certainly believed we are saved here and now, when we obediently accept Christ as Lord. As to heaven in the present vs heaven in the future: Yes, Jesus clearly talks about reward in the “afterlife” we will spend with him forever in paradise. And yes, he promises his followers, “In this world you will have trouble…” This is a fallen world, and will remain so until Christ returns in glory. However, we, as ambassadors of Christ, can live our lives in the Way of the Kingdom of heaven now, bringing life and light and hope into the darkness of this present age. That was my key point, but I can’t speak for others.

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