A Fresh Look at the Gospels

From time to time it is helpful to revisit and reevaluate our most basic theological suppositions. A myriad of books, tapes, sermons, Sunday School classes, Bible studies and retreats, often have the unfortunate effect of encumbering our faith. The sheer volume of information from well meaning, but fallible human sources, inevitably leads to a mixture of truth and error. While this is not intentional, it never the less happens, so we must be constantly vigilant. In Acts 17:11, the Bereans are commended because, “They received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” This paper represents one person’s experience as he “examined the Scriptures every day” to see if what he had been taught was true.

A short personal history might help the reader understand the context of these thoughts. My father pastored several evangelical churches for more than 45 years, so I spent my entire childhood in that environment. At 16 I rejected that way of life and left home to follow my dreams. After achieving success in everything I chose to do, I was still unfulfilled and empty. At age 26 I surrendered my life to Christ and reentered the community of faith. I quickly became an avid student of the Bible and eventually held numerous leadership positions in a large evangelical church. Concurrent with being an Elder and Sunday School teacher, I was active with several para-church organizations which emphasized evangelism and discipleship. My knowledge of Scripture, along with being asked to give leadership to these ministry opportunities, caused me to consider myself spiritually mature. I was as committed, disciplined and dedicated as anyone I knew, but that had produced in me an unrecognized self-sufficiency and spiritual pride. An extended series of God-ordained circumstances and conversations caused me to wonder if I was experiencing all that life in Christ had to offer.

Like most people who will read these thoughts, I had learned more theology than the Apostles knew. They didn’t have the inspired teaching of Paul about salvation by grace, spiritual gifts or the second coming of Christ. They didn’t have the unfolding of future events from the vision given to an elderly John on the Isle of Patmos. While they didn’t have Romans, Corinthians, the Revelation, etc., they had something that was more vital and dynamic than many of us who have received those Scriptures. My salvation wasn’t in doubt, but I began to think about the possibility that while I knew more information than they did, they knew Jesus in a way that I had not yet discovered. So, like Paul the Apostle, I decided that “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” and “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:7-8). In a symbolic and metaphorical sense I held all my knowledge and doctrinal convictions in my cupped hands and said to God, “I will trade all of these for a relationship with Jesus like the Apostles had.” It seems clear to me now that the Lord took me at my word and began a process that continues until the present day. One of the first things that happened was His prompting me to think differently about how I had used the Bible. This needed to happen before I could move beyond right doctrine and commitment to intimacy with Jesus.

Soon an idea began to develop that has changed my life. The idea was simple; I would spend an extended time in only the four Gospels and try to experience Jesus the way the Apostles had. I was prepared to give this experiment three years like they had shared with Him but committed to start with at least one year. The Hebrew culture was built on a tradition of verbal transmission of knowledge, and since Jesus had spoken to the Apostles it seemed important for me to listen to His words instead of reading them. This led me to purchase the Bible on tape and to listen to it daily as I drove my car. The method I adopted was to listen to all twenty-eight chapters of Matthew every day for a month, then all of Mark every day for a month, then Luke every day for a month, then John every day for a month. Repeating this cycle allowed me to hear each of the gospels more than sixty times that first year.

In order to simulate the experience of the Apostles, I decided to avoid commentaries and to simply listen. Even though Jesus was not physically present, the indwelling Holy Spirit would be the one to help me understand and assimilate the Bible. An amazing thing began to happen; I started to hear things I had never read throughout the many years I had studied the Bible by topics, doctrines and word studies.

Listening to large quantities of Scripture was like hearing the melody played for the first time, after having studied the music note by note for years. It’s nice to hear the violin part by itself, but when all the other instruments join in, one hears the symphony. It soon got exciting because a new thought or insight came almost every time I listened…Jesus was talking to me! This has been going on for some time now and I can report that my doctrinal convictions haven’t changed much, but I have developed the intimacy with Jesus that I longed for.

It would take a book or two to explain all I’ve discovered, but this treatise is meant to address only one or two ideas which were generated in that first year of listening to the gospels. One of the startling new insights came when I heard Jesus say to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” I was quite knowledgeable about the Gospels and knew this verse better than most and yet a new thought occurred to me.

Of all the people Jesus talked to, this was the only time He told someone they must be born again. I didn’t make too much of that until later on when I heard Him talking to the rich man who asked, “Good teacher, how can I obtain eternal life?” I immediately thought, Jesus should tell him he must be born again but instead He told him to keep the law. Christ then went on to say, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” I thought, why haven’t we evangelicals picked up this idea and preached it as the way to have eternal life? The rich man was certainly more specific than Nicodemus was; he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer that Jesus gave him was straightforward and unequivocal. In fact, I don’t know of a clearer question and answer on eternal life in all of Scripture. In spite of this, if someone asked me how to have eternal life I would never tell him to keep the law and sell all he has and give it to the poor. But this is exactly what Jesus did, so it made me question my methods. It was beginning to dawn on me that my understanding of how to represent Jesus was being challenged.

As I listened, the evidence mounted daily that Jesus dealt differently with each individual. He was able to look into people’s heart and see what barriers prevented them from responding to Him. Nicodemus more than likely felt proud of being born a Jew and thought it automatically made him acceptable to God. In effect, Jesus told him that being born a Jew was not enough. Christ said, “You need to be born again.” It seemed that Jesus would identify that on which a person had built his or her life and then would custom fit His message to their situation by way of a direct statement or parable. He knew what the primary loyalty of each person was, and then would ask for a greater loyalty. For the rich man, wealth was the issue, and for others it was a relationship with parents or a career, etc. To another, He said, one must hate his own life. The “kingdom of self” is still one of the greatest obstacles in following Christ.

It hit me with real impact that being “born again” was a term that I used often but it was not prominent when Jesus spoke to individuals or groups. Please understand that I am not depreciating being “born again” because I believe wholeheartedly that one must be spiritually reborn or cannot enter the kingdom of God. However, a thorough look at Scripture reveals that it was not the emphasis of Christ, therefore it can’t be our emphasis. We have a lot of books and sermons explaining how to be “born again”, but Jesus told us in one verse (John 3:8). He said it’s a mystery; no one knows how it happens. It’s like the wind that we hear and see the effects of, but we can’t tell where it came from or where it is going. We shouldn’t try to be more definitive than He was. Giving special attention to “When were you born again?” is like emphasizing, “When were you baptized into the body of Christ?” or focusing on “When was your name written in the Lamb’s book of life?” These are all objective realities if we are “In Christ”, but using tennis terms, they are on God’s side of the net and they are something He does. We rejoice that they are true of us, but we don’t preach, “You must be baptized into the body of Christ.” Again, I affirm that one cannot enter the Kingdom without being born again, but Jesus didn’t mention it to everyone, so neither do I.

I believe that if one asked Peter, James or John when they were born again they would probably answer, “I don’t know!” In all likelihood they would have answered by saying, “Jesus came down to the Sea of Galilee and asked us to follow Him. As we did, our hearts were captured, and now we believe He is the Messiah.” Their part was to respond, and His part was to see that they were born from above and given new hearts.

Of course there are conversion experiences like Paul’s, but they are the exception, not the rule. The majority of present day believers feel somewhat self-conscious about how they met Christ because it doesn’t measure up to the dramatic conversion stories we have promoted. When asked to share their story, the vast majority of believers try to defer to someone else because their story doesn’t seem very exciting. We have done them a real disservice by glorifying the dramatic conversion in our churches, para-church meetings and through the mass media. We want people to speak at our gatherings who have had an exciting experience. It is rarely communicated that while these experiences are genuine, they are the exception, not the norm. The more prevalent conversion experience seems to be just a cry of the heart, over a period of time, using almost any set of words. Jesus hears the cry of the heart and responds by giving eternal life. Thank God for the “road to Damascus” conversion that some people experience, but it is my opinion that the experience of Peter, James and John are more the norm for most people today.

These thoughts caused me to give deliberate attention to how people who followed Jesus got into the Kingdom. It was a mild surprise to discover that it never happened the same way twice. A prostitute washed the feet of Christ with her tears, kissed them and poured perfume on them. He told her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you.” A tax collector beat on his chest and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said, “That man went home justified.” The thief on the cross said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to your house.” One man didn’t say anything; he was a paralytic on a cot, brought by his four friends. Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” As each of these folks received their salvation they must have been “born again” at the same time, but Jesus didn’t mention it. One time He said, “You must hate your father and mother if you want to be my disciple.” I wondered, did he hate Joseph and Mary? On another occasion, a man said he wanted to follow Jesus, but he needed to go home and say goodbye to his family first, and Jesus told him not to do that. These last two examples are in direct opposition to the Ten Commandments, which say, “Honor your father and mother.” Why would Jesus do that and what does this random pattern mean?

I think it teaches us that while we want to systematize the Gospel, Jesus never did. We must not base our theology on a single encounter of Christ’s. That could lead us to tell people that to have eternal life one must “stand on the street, beat on one’s chest and say, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’” We tend to structure and package the Gospel into a simple formula, so it can be used for mass evangelism. For example, some people make Romans l0:9-l0 the formula; “If you believe in your heart that Jesus was raised from the dead and confess with your mouth that he is your Lord, you will be saved.” Special emphasis is frequently placed on public confession, but then what does one do with John l:l2 which says, “To as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God.” There seems to be no confession in that verse, simply the receiving of Jesus. To believe in one’s heart and confess with one’s mouth or beat on one’s chest and cry for mercy are two ways to be reconciled to God, but with Jesus there were many, many ways for this to happen. The rule seems to be that there is no rule or pattern at all. People enter in as many different ways as there are personalities. Most of us struggle with this because we want others to come the way we did or in some other measurable way.

Too often we can be very inflexible in the way we present Jesus. We want everyone to use the same words and say things like, “I receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” or “I have a personal relationship with Christ.” While these statements are not in the Bible, the ideas are, and they beautifully represent an important aspect of our faith. The problem is that we have summed up relationship with Christ into a few phrases of evangelical vocabulary and, without knowing it, we often judge people based on their use or non-use of these phrases. Church history tells us that catch phrases can be used so frequently that they become clichés, obscuring the truth. If a person joined an evangelical church about 170 years ago he or she would not have been asked, “When were you born again?” The prominent phrase at that time was, “Have you been seized by the power of a great affection?” Are we guilty of making phrases and procedures more important than Jesus did?

These new insights caused me to listen with an even greater interest and profound desire to discover the central message of Jesus. Although I am part of the conservative wing of the evangelical church, I became painfully aware that I might have missed that message. I made every effort to listen to Jesus without putting His words through my theological grid of doctrinal understanding.

If “You must be born again” was not the focus of Christ, then what was? Jesus said, “You must be born again” one time but used two other phrases over and over and over again. It is indisputable that the predominant theme of His message was twofold: “Follow Me” and “The Kingdom of God”. In fact, the words “follow” and “kingdom of God” in their various forms each appear more than 80 times in the Gospels alone. That should speak volumes to us but the evangelical world continues to emphasize making a decision.

Over the last 170 years the evangelical church has become more and more decision oriented but Jesus didn’t ask people to make a decision about Him; He asked them to follow Him. Of course He knew a decision was necessary in order to follow, but His call was not for a static decision but rather to an active following. He didn’t say to Peter, “Make a decision about whether or not you will follow me.” He simply said, “Follow me.” By concentrating on the decision approach, we have produced millions worldwide who have decided they need salvation and therefore, Jesus, but most of them are not following Him. I am not disputing their salvation, but the decision alone approach doesn’t seem to produce very many authentic disciples.

A couple of illustrations may show how far we have gone with decision-oriented evangelism. Several years ago a survey was sent to churches, para-church organizations and TV ministries all over the country. It was pretty complete, covering the size of the budget, number of staff, areas covered, etc. One question was, “How many decisions for Christ have been made in the United States through your ministry over the last l0 years?” The surveyors were astounded when they tabulated the results because the number was over 600 million. It would be laughable, if it were not so tragic, because this means that the entire population of the country had each been saved three times. If the question had been, “How many people are following Christ as a result of your ministry,” it would have been a completely different result.

It is readily assumed that none of the reporting entities intentionally misreported, but since they obviously did, we must look for an answer. The emphasis on making a decision is a relatively new phenomenon. It started in the last century during the revival and missionary movements and may have developed in order to justify the validity of the mission. It is possible that even today churches and organizations still count decisions for Christ in order to justify their existence to themselves and their donor base.

A June 1990 Gallup poll reported that 74% (3 out of 4 people) say they have made a decision for Jesus Christ. That is an increase from 60% in 1978 and 66% in 1988. If the survey is correct, our current evangelistic methods are working quite well. However, something must be drastically wrong with our approach when the majority of the U.S. says they have made decisions for Christ, and we continue to see the problems of our society. Decisions for Christ aren’t making much difference in the lifestyles of Americans, and it seems to be an indictment on our presentation of Jesus. Those who truly follow Christ are dramatically changed and do make a difference in their world.

After recognizing the primacy Jesus gave to “follow me”, it dawned on me that it was also the primary metaphor throughout Scripture. Romans 8:14 says, “Those that are LED by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” Gal 5:l6 states, “WALK in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Hebrews 12:1 tells us, “Let us RUN with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Philippians 3:12 urges that, “I PRESS ON to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” In Acts 24:14 the early believers were called “FOLLOWERS of the Way.” “Led,” “Walk,” “Run,” “Press On” and “Followers” are all metaphors for a relationship with movement in it. We are encourages to stay on the go, so to speak, in our relationship with Christ. That is fundamentally different from a static decision.

In discussions with people about following Jesus, I usually explain it in one of three ways:
1. For those who have a limited interest in spiritual things, I encourage them to follow the Jesus they already believe in. Rather than attempt to convince them of His deity through debate, I challenge them to begin to follow the historical Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can open a person’s eyes, and I’m convinced that if they genuinely follow the historical Jesus they will encounter the same Jesus I know. There were no preconditions to following Jesus in His day. Some followed closely, some at a distance, some fearfully, some secretly and “Many non-believers followed Jesus” (Mk 2:15). Some people understood his message quickly; others took several years. Actually, the only Jesus any of us can follow is the one we currently believe in. Even the most mature believer is following the Jesus in whom he or she currently believes. As we grow spiritually, our concept of Christ will grow. I know that I presently have a larger and more definitive picture of Jesus than I had thirty years ago. My understanding is so much greater today than when I began.

An example of what I mean by “following the Jesus you already believe in” might help. If I were one of the disciples following Jesus around the Sea of Galilee and remembered a friend of mine who lived up the hill at Cana, I would probably approach him in the following manner. “John, you just have to close your shop and come down to the lake to hear a wonderful teacher. Even the Pharisees say He speaks with authority.” I might tell him what I thought but I wouldn’t require him to believe Jesus was the Messiah before he could come and follow Him. Like Philip’s statement to Nathaniel, my invitation would be, “Come and see for yourself.” If my friend did decide to come down to hear Jesus, it would be because he had believed some of what I had told him about this teacher. The Jesus he believed in at that point would be a person who was drawing a crowd and was confounding the Pharisees. But after personally seeing Him open the eyes of a blind man or give the Sermon on the Mount, it would be a very different Jesus he would be following.

The Jesus in whom Peter, James and John believed when they left their nets was much more than they understood at the time, but it was not necessary for them to understand completely before they began to follow Him. It is the same for people today, so it is important to encourage them to begin to follow the Jesus in whom they already believe. He will reveal Himself more completely to them at just the right time and give them the faith to believe.

Another example: While having breakfast in Jerusalem with a high-ranking member of the Israeli Parliament, we talked about the violence and tension in Israel. I asked him if there were anything he could conceive of that would create a breakthrough in the relationship between the Palestinian and Jew. When he said he couldn’t think of anything, I told him I felt that the reconciling love of Jesus Christ was the only answer. He said quickly, “I don’t have anything against Christ, just Christians.” My reply was, “Jesus wasn’t a Christian.” Of course he knew intellectually that Jesus was a Jew, but he had subconsciously put Him in the Christian camp. Since he would never think of becoming a Christian, he was unable to consider the claims of Jesus. The statement “Jesus wasn’t a Christian” sounds strange and even heretical to some, but on reflection, it is indisputable.

This idea seemed to captivate him, so I asked, “What is your candid opinion about Jesus? Obviously you don’t think He is divine or the Messiah, but do you believe He was a historical figure?” His answer was quick and very matter of fact, “Of course; he was born six miles from my house.” I said, “What is your opinion about that Jesus?” He said, “I think He was a great Rabbi and a man of peace.” Formerly my response would have been that He was much more than a good teacher and then attempted to convince him of the divinity of Jesus. But I found myself saying, “You know I also think He was a great teacher.” (And we really do, don’t we?) I went on to ask, “If you were comparing Him with all the teachers in the world, where would you rate him? High school, college, university or how about with the great teachers of history like Socrates and Plato?” He thought for a moment, and then said, “Jesus was probably the greatest teacher who ever lived.” Since we were in total agreement on this, I told him of my life as a disciple of Jesus. He said he knew very little about what Jesus taught, so I invited him to follow Jesus with me and evaluate His claims for himself. He said he would start reading the Gospels to find out what Jesus’ claims were.

2. For those who have been following Jesus in this external way for a while, I explain that anyone who seriously follows Him discovers that He always leads to a cross. The cross is an instrument of death, so at just the right time Jesus helps us understand that we need to die to ourselves and come alive to Him. This changes the method of following from an external to an internal Jesus. He gives us a new heart and becomes our very life rather than simply our model. He gives us eternal life rather than merely encouraging us to live a good life.

3. For those who are regenerate I ask, “Where is Jesus?” The Bible teaches that He is in us, so we follow an internal rather than external Christ. That means, “To follow is to be continually responsive to Christ who is in you.” That’s all it is. Does it seem too simple? To follow Christ is simpler than one can imagine. One doesn’t need to be a theologian, just responsive. The Bible calls this “Christ in us” a mystery, but the Holy Spirit will let us know it is real. As we respond to the “prompt” or “check” of the Holy Spirit, we are following Jesus. You can trust the Holy Spirit to convict you if your choices are wrong because God tests our hearts (1st Thess. 2:5-7). Some will say people can’t be trusted to live like that; they must have guidelines. This is why much of the church teaches grace and being led by the Spirit, but, more often than not, has unknowingly led people into legalism. Of course, following Jesus in this way means there is the possibility of license or self-delusion, but this is what the Bible teaches (Gal. 5). Let’s trust God to correct the abuses!

Many people will worship Christ on Sunday, but won’t daily take up their cross and follow Him. Worshipping is important and is part of following but to often it is the only part that many people take seriously. The Bible bookstores are full of books on leadership and worship but not many on following Christ. Unfortunately, some churches have leaders who aren’t followers first. Jesus said, “If the blind lead the blind, they will both fall in the ditch.” He alone knows tomorrow so to follow someone else would be the blind leading the blind. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.”

Jesus originally said to Peter along the Sea of Galilee, “Follow me.” This first following was an external thing, but later Jesus gave Peter the Holy Spirit, and it became an internal following. At the trial of Jesus, Peter stopped following for a while and even denied Christ. When Jesus met him on the seashore He asked, “Do you love me?” three times. After Peter gave his answer, Jesus predicted Peter’s death as a martyr. Then He said, “Follow me.” Peter asked, “What about John?” Jesus said, never mind about John; “You follow me.”

My conclusion from the dialogue between Jesus and Peter is that the message of Christ for the non-believer is “Follow Me.” For the believer it is, “Follow Me.” For the believer who has stopped following it is, “Follow Me.” For when we are wondering why is this happening to us and not others, it is still “Follow Me.” “Follow Me” was and continues to be His primary message. May this message of following Him be restored as the essence of our witness about the Good News of Jesus Christ.

“…receiving the message with great eagerness and then checking the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true.” – Acts 17:11