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Studying the Bible

Reading the Bible Better: Why Do We Need Four Gospels?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

When a person asks, “Why do we need four gospels?” The playful part of my soul queries, Need? What’s need got to do with it? Do I need 75 million songs on Amazon Music? No! But it sure warms my heart to know they’re there. The serious part asks, “Should so great a figure as Jesus the Christ be left with a single witness to his life and work?” No!

The fourfold witness to Jesus, if handled well, proves to be a powerful theological anchor on no less a topic than the very center of God’s earthly work from creation to consummation—Jesus Christ & the Kingdom of God… Christ’s Kingdom.  

If handled poorly, however, there are some real dangers for us in a four-fold witness. 

 

The Grab Bag Threat

Right off, let’s address the elephant in the room. 

The biggest threat to hearing what the Holy Spirit intended for you to hear by inspiring four Gospels is to treat the Gospels as a grab bag of facts about Jesus that you can use to Frankenstein together your own gospel in your imagination. 

The average preacher reads about a given gospel story wherever it appears, gathering facts as they go. Often, they work out odd rationalities for seeming disparities. Then they weave it all together, trying to avoid having extra parts like when they put together an Ikea bunk bed. 

This process completely misconstrues the nature of these books as books. It corrupts their function as Gospels. It robs both preacher and hearer of the greatest benefits of a four-fold witness.

The grab bag approach is like wantonly dismantling four brilliantly constructed, Holy Spirit inspired gospels in order to cut and paste together a poorly conceived one of your own.

 

Gospels Preach

To use the title Gospel for these four books says something specific about how they are to be read. They are not written like modern biographies giving all the “whats” and “whens” of a person’s life. Gospels are written to preach. They are theological discourse in story form. Though Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention many of the same events, each selects and organizes material differently to preach uniquely about Jesus. According to Church tradition, John actually wrote his gospel with full awareness of the others and sought to cover much that stood outside of their purposes. 

Each gospel is a uniquely inspired interpretation of the life and work of Jesus, written to instruct in matters of faith and practice. Four gospels, therefore, are not redundant but, rather, advantageous, four-fold theological instruction. 

 

How to Read a Gospel Well

This means that each gospel needs to be read as a self-contained creation, respecting that author’s storytelling choices. This requires careful observation of terms, grammar, literary devices, and structure. It demands a careful scheme of questioning about the meaning of those choices and investigating proper resources for answering those questions. This takes time and energy and an openness to the possibilities that your presuppositions about Jesus could be wrong. For today, let me just give you a few thematic and structural cues to look for as you begin to unpack the power of the four-fold witness.    

 

Story Sermons

  • Matthew, Mark, and Luke use a form of narrative sermon in which multiple events are woven together to preach a single message while developing themes as each succeeding story sermon unfolds. Watch for natural openings and closings.

 

The Gospel of Matthew

  • Matthew organizes his book around five major Disciple teaching events, ending each with the statement, “When Jesus finished…”
  • Matthew has independent story sermons. His introduction presents Jesus as the rightful heir of Abraham and David who came to bring Israel out of exile. Abraham and David are recurring images throughout Matthew. We also find his birth narrative and Passion week story sermons. 
  • But Matthew also has large story collections bound to Jesus’ five Discipleship speeches that unpack His messages and explore Matthew’s chosen themes.  
  • Matthew is interested in Gentile inclusion and Jewish exclusion.  
  • Matthew is interested in the nature of True Righteousness.
  • Matthew is interested in Jesus’ compassion. 
  • Matthew returns to the subject of “bearing fruit” in six different contexts. 
  • Matthew has his own broad presentation of Jesus’ “fulfillment” of Scripture. 

 

The Gospel of Mark

  • Mark writes his book with 21 story sermons, constructed from 3-7 carefully woven events.
  • Mark’s sermons develop two major ideas: 1. The Identity of Jesus. 2. The Nature of the Kingdom of God. 
  • The first half of Mark reveals that Jesus is the Christ. It climaxes in Peter’s grand profession, “Thou art the Christ!” This identity is developed through the testimony of Jesus’ works, His declarations, and various spiritual manifestations. 
  • The second half unpacks what it means for Jesus to be the Christ and the surprising nature of the Kingdom. Jesus is a suffering Christ bringing a mustard seed Kingdom to the hearts of humanity.

 

The Gospel of Luke

  • Luke uses similar story sermons to Mark’s, but has over 30 of them, with more miracles and more parables. Almost half of Luke is unique material.
  • Luke is particularly interested in the Holy Spirit. Luke overtly references the Holy Spirit more times than Matthew, Mark, and John put together. 
  • Luke is particularly interested in the prophetic. Just so, Jesus is not just the Christ, but also the long-awaited prophet like unto Moses (Deuteronomy 18).
  • Luke develops his interests around Jesus’ declaration of gospel mission in Luke 4:18-19 from Isaiah 61:1-2 (i.e. good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, etc). Thus, Luke includes many more references to demonic deliverance, miracles, and the disenfranchised.  

 

The Gospel of John

  • John’s story sermons focus on fewer events but unpack them more deeply. One does well to ask in each story sermon: Who is Jesus? What does faith look like? What is true life?
  • Jesus talks more often, with more people and more openly in John about His true nature as incarnate God, and His connection to the Father. 
  • John is famous for his sevens. Seven signs. Seven “I Am,” statements. Jesus is revealed in association with seven feasts. Seven references to His hour. And, believe it or not, many others. Have fun counting stuff in John’s Gospel. 

Each Gospel needs to be read in its own context, revealing, in turn, the Jesus of Matthew, the Jesus of Mark, the Jesus of Luke, and the Jesus of John. 

Another benefit of having four gospels is that comparison and contrast heighten awareness of specific choices made by each gospel writer. This is not a grab bag approach used to build a new gospel in the mind, but aid for careful observation by the reader who is seeking to understand each writer as a uniquely inspired interpreter of Jesus. 

 

Conclusion

So, the four Gospels give us four times as much theological instruction about the life and work of Jesus, as each writer brings his own uniquely inspired interpretation to the table. Four Gospels also provide the comparison and contrast needed to maximize the reader’s ability to discern the details exploited by each writer as they preach through their uniquely structured books. 

Long may you linger over these masterful works as they preach about our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.

 

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Studying the Bible

Well Stories: Behind the Scenes Footage from John 4

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Behind the Scenes Footage from John 4

Doing Old Testament studies, sometimes you discover something wonderful about the New Testament. Not too long ago I discovered something magical about John 4 where Jesus meets the woman at the well. 

It turns out that John wrote the story of the woman at the well using, if you’ll pardon the pun, a well-known romantic story pattern called, “Foreigner at the Well.” As a well story, the ancient reader expects to find a blossoming marriage, leading to famous children, and a changing world. In John 4, they get more than they bargained for.   

 

Backstage

Right, so a little background. 

Back in Bible times, it was the woman’s job to draw water for her family, much as it was the man’s job in my growing years to mow the lawn and take out the garbage. The time of young women back then tended to be carefully administered by those who loved her and looked out for her best interests, so it is easy to imagine that the one place for single young men and single young women to meet-n-greet in a somewhat freer environment would be at the popular hangout spot… the well. One dude I know called wells the “singles bars” of the ancient near east, and he wasn’t too far off. 

 

The Story Pattern

So, the foreigner at the well story pattern goes like this. 

  • First, an unmarried male foreigner travels to another country, usually driven there by troubles at home. 
  • Second, as one would expect, he goes to a local well. 
  • Third, while there he meets the woman who will be his wife. 

In Scripture, what makes this story pattern special is the very notion of divine appointment. Two strangers from different regions have a “chance” encounter at that magical place of chance encounters. Yes, but in truth, they are two strangers destined by Yahweh to meet and change the world together. It’s romantic; it’s theological; it’s epic. As one of Israel’s favorite stories to tell around the communal campfire, it’s part of Israel’s origin story… the tellers of the tale. It tells how Israel came about by divine design working in chance encounters.

 

Macho, Macho, Men

Each instance of this story pattern in Scripture gives us elements to compare and contrast with John 4. As you read John 4, take special notice of how John plays off them.      

The most basic versions of the story are found with Jacob & Rachel and Moses & Zipporah. 

Jacob flees his father’s house in the face of his brother’s murderous intentions. He travels to his mother’s country. He goes to the well where shepherds are gathered for watering and asks about his family. The shepherds say, “Well, what do you know, here comes that guy’s daughter right now!” Rachel draws near with her father’s sheep and Jacob uncaps the well and waters her flocks. She takes him home to Daddy and the two live happily ever after… sort of. 

This is the catalyst for the birth of the twelve tribal fathers of Israel.

Similarly, Moses flees Egypt to escape Pharaoh and travels into another country. He goes to a well where shepherds are mistreating some woman trying to water their father’s sheep. Moses fights off the bad guys, then draws water for the ladies’ flocks. They take him home to Daddy and he lives happily ever after with one of them… sort of. 

Together Moses and Zipporah lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and fashion them into a nation. 

 

I’ll Take Foreigner at the Well with a Twist

In Genesis 24, with the story of Isaac & Rebekah, we get the ‘foreigner at the well’ love story with a proxy. Abraham commissions his servant to solve a serious problem for him by going to a foreign land to find a wife for Isaac. The scene plays out much the same as with Jacob and Moses, save for two things. The providence of God is made overt and the servant, testing the will of God, watches in awe as Rebekah, a woman of obvious substance, draws more than a little water to quench both his own thirst and that of some ten camels. She brings him home to Daddy, and she and his master live happily ever after… sort of. 

Rebekah bears Jacob, father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

 

What’s Good for the Gander is Good for the Goose

We find another well story in the Book of Ruth. Trouble sends Ruth the Moabitess into the foreign lands of Israel with her Hebrew mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth goes out to do a pauper’s gleaning and happens upon the fields of Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer, Boaz. He too leaves his home to check on his laborers and they cross paths during her short break by the well. He gives her water from that which was drawn by his men and the rest is history. 

Ruth gives birth to King David’s grandfather.  

 

A Spiritual Foreigner at a Spiritual Well Finds a Spiritual Bride

The first thing we notice when we turn this lens upon John 4, is that Jesus, like the others, departs amid trouble into foreign territory when the Pharisees first take notice of Him. He avoids them on this return to Galilee by taking the more arduous route through Samaria. (John 4:1-4)

Jesus, having grown weary, swings by a famous well reputed to have belonged to Jacob. You may recall Jacob’s own well story. Being fed by underground springs, Jacob’s well is called “Living Waters”—Cool and clean and refreshing.

Jesus, the consummate bachelor, meets an unmarried woman there, creating our story pattern and building anticipations of love, divine appointment, and a transformed world….oooo la la

Jesus asks her for water, like the servant in Genesis 24:13-17. She does not, however, demonstrate the character of Rebekah. 

He tells her that if she knew who He was she’d ask him for a drink of “Living Water,” and He would give it. Recall that Jacob, Moses, and Boaz provide water for their loves. 

She is confused. He has nothing to draw these living waters with. Here, Jesus overtly raises the discussion to the spiritual level for her. He intends not physical water but a spiritual spring leading to eternal life. 

The elevation of the story pattern to the spiritual is established in several other places as well. In John 4:24, Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In 4:32, Jesus declares, “I have food to eat that you do not know about,” and in 4:34 says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Not done yet, Jesus says in 4:35-36, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life.”

Jesus does not find here a physical bride. What he finds is a sinner who comes under conviction before his disclosure of her sin, who crumples before his prophetic power as he preaches of Himself. She says, “I know that Messiah is coming.” Jesus says, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25-26)

Indeed Jesus finds a spiritual bride. She is a spiritual bride because she plays that role in the type-scene, but is also a spiritual bride because she becomes a functioning and replicating part of  THE spiritual Bride—the Church. She goes out and bears witness to Him, saying, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:34) Her witness bears spiritual children, for, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” (John 4:39)

So, as we read John 4, we find that John both subverts the romantic connections in the Well Story by spiritualizing love and devotion and accentuating the elements of divine appointment and world transformation through the same. Beginning with the woman at the well, Jesus is winning a spiritual bride to produce spiritual children transforming the world spiritually. Through John’s telling of the tale, Jesus continues to bear spiritual children… children like you and me, called to transform the world around us through our witness to Jesus our Lord.

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Guest Blog: Facing and Fighting Fear

Author: Marlo Swanson, Guest Blogger for Foundations by ICM

 

Fear. Such a small word can have a massive impact on our lives. God has a lot to say about fear, addressing it over 365 times in the Bible. (Is it a coincidence that there are also 365 days in a year?) Out of all those verses, let’s look at a few that give us a greater insight into fear, how we can face it and fight it. 

 

What is fear?

We all have a basic understanding of what fear is. It can be labeled anxiety, worry, dread, horror, panic, a phobia, or a plethora of other things besides fear, but what does the Bible say it is?

In 2 Timothy 1:7, it reads “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, and of love and of a sound mind” (NKJV). This verse declares that the spirit God gives us does not include fear. It also tells us that God did give us a spirit of love, power, and soundness of mind instead, which are in opposition to fear.  It further tells us in our next verse in 1 John 4:18 that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”(NKJV). So, fear is not in love and perfect love can get rid of fear. The verses right before this passage outline that God is love and those who abide in love, will live with and be accepted by Him. So, fear is not part of the spirit that God gives us, and His perfect love can cast it out. 

 

So, how do we face fear?

Many verses tell us not to fear and then tell us that God will help, like these found in Isaiah 41:10 & 41:14 “Fear not for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”(NKJV) and similarly “For I the Lord your God will hold your right hand, Saying to you, ‘Fear Not, I will help you” (NKJV). I love these verses because of the way they are written to us. In both, the God of the universe is instructing us as a good father does to the child he loves. A father may tell his son not to touch the hot burner so he doesn’t get burned, or tell his daughter not to run out in the street so she doesn’t get hit by a car. Good loving parents guide and instruct the children they love to try to teach and help them.  

A parent has the experience and an outside perspective on life that a small child doesn’t have. God has the same kind of, bigger than what we can comprehend, perspective as well. But God doesn’t stop there. He isn’t just commanding us not to fear. He’s also giving us a promise in these verses. He will hold our hand and walk with us. Close your eyes and picture that for a moment. See Jesus holding your right hand and helping you in times of fear and worry. What a promise! We are not facing our fear alone! He is right there helping us.

 

How do we fight fear once we face it?

We don’t. I know that sounds crazy, but let me explain what I mean. We learned that perfect love casts out fear and God is perfect love. We have to remain or abide in Him and therefore in His love. How do we abide in Him? We trust God and seek Him. So eliminating fear in our lives isn’t as much fighting fear as it is trusting in and abiding in God’s love and asking for His help. Psalm 44:4 says “I sought the Lord and he heard me. He delivered me from all of my fears”(NKJV). We see that in this verse, God fought for and delivered him from his fear.  

Now, we have a part to play here as well. If we are putting more of the world into us than God and His love, then that’s what is going to come out of us. Just like no one can survive on junk food and candy all the time, we can not subsist on TV shows, movies, TikToks, and our Facebook feed. The way we abide in God is to meditate on His words, which are His love story to us. When we do this, we allow His words to build up our faith and help us to trust in Him to guide and help us.

We can not read the Bible without seeing how much the Lord loves us. Jeremiah 29:11 is a perfect example of this: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me”(NLT).  So, He has a plan for each of us and His plan is to prosper us and give us a hopeful future. The original Hebrew here for prosper is defined as completeness, soundness, welfare, peace, safety, quiet, and tranquility to name a few. Those all sound like the opposite of fear. When we pray to Him and seek to abide in Him, He is listening to us. His plan is to replace the fear coming against us and to give us His perfect love and peace instead.

 

Conclusion

We have learned that fear is real, and it comes at us through many different names. Regardless of how it manifests in our lives, to deal with it, we have to face it. But, the great news is we aren’t facing it alone. God promises to never leave our side and to help us. As we seek Him and ask for His help, we learn to abide in Him and His love. He delivers us from our fears by filling us with the only thing that can fight our fear for us: God’s perfect love.

 

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Jesus and Food

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

Have you ever noticed how much time Jesus spends eating and drinking with his friends in the Gospels? Many of his most famous miracles revolve around food. Even when He’s not doing miracles, He’s often attending feasts, having meals, or feeding people. What can we learn from these encounters, be they mundane or miraculous? Here are three simple truths we learn from this investigation:

  1. Jesus cares about our physical needs and had needs of his own
  2. Jesus used food to teach spiritual truths
  3. Jesus is all about relationships – often through a shared meal

These may not be ground-breaking, mind-blowing revelations, but if you think about them you can see how important they are. 

 

Food and Physical Necessity

There is nothing more basic to life than the need to eat and drink. Even at the simplest level, we can understand why so much of Jesus’ time was spent around food. But what does this say about Jesus? No need to overthink it – this tells us quite simply that He was human. He had needed just like the rest of us. He needed and even enjoyed, food. 

While so much of Jesus’ ministry shows us that Jesus was, indeed, fully God, the fact that He got hungry confirms that His body functioned just the same as any other man. But what we see is not Jesus being served a kingly portion as He clearly deserved. Instead, we often see Jesus serving the food. On several occasions, He even feeds multitudes of people. 

So we also learn that Jesus cares about the physical needs of others. He is lowly and compassionate, not above the common concerns of normal people. You might expect the greatest spiritual leader of all time to spend his life meditating in a tower, detached from the dirt and filth of the world. Instead, we have the God who showed up, who became one of us, and not just in appearance. He cares for us because He loves us and because He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, as we read in Hebrews 4:15.

 

Spiritual Food

While Jesus cares about the physical needs of those He loves, He clearly prioritizes spiritual needs. So, while we see Him feeding multitudes, we also see Him going without food on many occasions. Consider the most obvious example of His fast in the wilderness where He ate nothing at all for 40 days. Or the time in John 4:33-34 where His disciples were concerned that Jesus was hungry and asked themselves “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus responded, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.”

Still, Jesus was a master teacher, and he regularly used food imagery in His sermons. In John 6:35, Jesus called Himself the Bread of Life. Whoever eats this bread, He said, will never hunger, and whoever believes in Him will never thirst. While saying this, Jesus referred back to the time when God miraculously provided bread from heaven to keep the wandering Israelites alive in the wilderness. He is the true bread that comes down from heaven to give life. 

When Jesus established the New Covenant, He gave us the sign of the Covenant, which is the bread and wine. These are His flesh and blood, as he tells us in Luke 22:19-20. Again and again, Jesus used the most basic elements of life, food, and drink, to teach the most profound truths.

 

Food and Relationships

Perhaps one of the best reasons that we see Jesus so involved with food is that He was so involved with people. Relationships were His priority. As He spent time with people He found that their needs frequently centered around food and drink. Consider the first recorded miracle of Jesus, the changing of water into wine. Jesus did not perform this miracle to amaze the crowds. He did it because of His love for His mother, and because of His relationship with the family at the wedding. 

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus dines with people in order to establish a relationship with them. In Mark 2 we find Jesus having dinner with tax collectors and sinners. It’s not that Jesus likes a good party; He wanted to reach those who needed Him most. Similarly, in Luke 7 he eats with Pharisees. And of course in Luke 22, Jesus prepares the Last Supper and shares the meal with the Twelve right before His crucifixion. He does this to spend time with them, converse with them, get to know them, and let them know Him. It is the very heart of relationship, and Jesus finds many opportunities to engage with people He loves while sitting around a dinner table. 

 

Conclusion

Jesus was not simply a man, but he was fully human. We see this clearly in his relationship to food. He was hungry on many occasions, so He sympathizes with our physical needs. But Jesus also knew that such needs are temporary, while that which is spiritual is eternal. So, as a master teacher, He used the physical (the temporal) to teach eternal truths. And of course, He built relationships with His friends, disciples, and even enemies while sharing a meal. Jesus’ relationship with food was not complicated; in fact, it was quite typical. But what we can learn from His interactions with something so common is truly profound.