The Most Wonderful Books on Earth
Gospel Reading for a New Year
As many begin a new year of Bible reading, we would do well to remember one of the chief dangers: searching the Scriptures, and missing the Savior. Recall Jesus’s words to the Jewish leaders of John 5, those most devoted of Bible readers:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39–40)
Amazingly, it is possible to know your Bible and not know your God. It is possible to study the word and neglect the Word. It is possible to search the Scriptures and miss the Savior.
How can we guard ourselves from such a deadly yet subtle danger? Ultimately, we need the Holy Spirit to breathe Christ into the dry bones of our devotions. We need him to come, morning by morning, and turn our living room or desk into a Mount of Transfiguration. And so, we pray.
But alongside prayer, we can also resolve to keep one goal of Bible reading high above the rest: Catch as much of Jesus as you can. Know and enjoy him. See and savor him. Study and love him.
And to that end, let me offer a modest proposal for your consideration: as you read the Bible this year, plant your soul especially in the Gospels.
Keep a Foot in the Four
I am not proposing that you read only the Gospels this year, but that you consider finding some special way to plant (and keep) your soul in them. You could, for example, use the one-year Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan, which includes a Gospel reading for every day. Or you could memorize an extended portion of the Gospels, like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) or the Upper Room Discourse (John 13–17). Or you could read and reread one of the Gospels, perhaps with journal and commentary in hand.
This proposal will not fit every reader. Some, perhaps, have spent most of their Christian life in the Gospels, and this may be the year to wander with Moses in the wilderness, or hear what Ezekiel has to say, or trace the logic of Romans.
But I suspect many, like myself, would benefit from the counsel of J.I. Packer and J.C. Ryle. First, hear Packer:
We could . . . correct woolliness of view as to what Christian commitment involves, by stressing the need for constant meditation on the four Gospels, over and above the rest of our Bible reading; for Gospel study enables us both to keep our Lord in clear view and to hold before our minds the relational frame of discipleship to him.
“We should never let ourselves forget,” Packer continues, “that the four Gospels are, as has often and rightly been said, the most wonderful books on earth” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, 61).
Now listen to Ryle:
It would be well if professing Christians in modern days studied the four Gospels more than they do. No doubt all Scripture is profitable. It is not wise to exalt one part of the Bible at the expense of another. But I think it should be good for some who are very familiar with the Epistles, if they knew a little more about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (Holiness, 247)
Neither Packer nor Ryle sought to create red-letter Christians, who treat the words of Jesus as more inspired than the rest of Scripture. All the Bible is God-breathed, and the Son of God speaks as fully in the black syllables as he does in the red.
Why then would whole-Bible lovers like these two men counsel Christians to give themselves to the Gospels? Consider four reasons.
The Gospels give glory a texture.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could have given us a summary of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in their own words. Instead, the Gospels take us among the twelve, where we see and hear Jesus for ourselves. Why?
John tells us: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). For John and the other disciples, the glory of Christ was not a vague or summarized or paraphrased glory; it was a particular glory, a textured glory, a glory they had “seen and heard” (1 John 1:3) in the specific words, deeds, joys, heartaches, and sufferings of the Word made flesh. And by Gospel’s end, they want us to join them in saying, “We have seen his glory” (John 20:30–31).
“Sinners and strugglers like us need more than general notions of Jesus in our most desperate moments.”
Sinners and strugglers like us need more than general notions of Jesus in our most desperate moments; we need his particular glories. The fearful soul needs more than to remember that Jesus gives peace — it needs to hear him say in the upper room, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). The oppressed mind needs more than a vague idea of Jesus’s power over darkness — it needs to watch him send demons fleeing (Mark 1:25–26). The guilty heart needs more than to say, “Jesus forgives” — it needs to feel Calvary shake under the force of “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Sin is not vague. Sorrow is not vague. Satan is not vague. Therefore, we cannot allow Christ to be.
The Gospels shatter false Christs.
Ever since the real Jesus ascended, we have been in danger of embracing “another Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:4) — or at least a distorted Jesus. Some do so deliberately, in search of a more convenient Messiah. Many, however, just struggle to faithfully uphold what Jonathan Edwards calls the “diverse excellencies” of Jesus Christ, the lamblike Lion and lionlike Lamb (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 29). We understand lions, and we understand lambs, but what do we make of a Lion-Lamb?
Imagine yourself in Peter’s shoes. Just when you think you’ve discovered Jesus’s tenderness, he goes and calls someone a dog (Matthew 15:25–26). Just when you imagine you’ve grasped his toughness, he takes the children in his arms (Mark 10:16). Just when you pride yourself for seeing him clearly, he turns and says, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). And just when you’re sure you’ve failed beyond forgiveness, he meets you with threefold mercy (John 21:15–19).
“We need our vision of Jesus regularly shattered — or at least refined — by the real, unexpected Jesus of the Gospels.”
“My idea of God is not a divine idea,” C.S. Lewis writes. “It has to be shattered time after time” (A Grief Observed, 66). So too with every one of us. We tend to remake the full, surprising, perfect humanity of Jesus in the image of our partial, predictable, distorted humanity. So, like Peter, we need our vision of Jesus regularly shattered — or at least refined — by the real, unexpected Jesus of the Gospels.
The Gospels make Bible reading Personal.
When we talk of “personal Bible study,” we may say more than we mean. The best Bible study is indeed Personal — centered on the Person of Jesus Christ. His presence rustles through every page of Scripture, Old Testament or New. All the prophets foretell him; all the apostles preach him. And the Gospel writers in particular display him.
Yet how easily Bible reading becomes an abstract, impersonal affair — even, at times, when we are reading about Christ. To know Christ doctrinally and theologically is not necessarily to know him personally. To follow old-covenant shadows to their substance is not necessarily to follow him. To grasp the logic of redemption is not necessarily to grasp his love. To be sure, we cannot commune with Christ without knowing something about him. But we can certainly know much about Christ without communing with him.
“It is well to be acquainted with the doctrines and principles of Christianity. It is better to be acquainted with Christ himself,” Ryle writes (Holiness, 247). And nowhere does the Bible acquaint us with Christ the Person better than in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John especially are written for those who, like the visitors in John 12, come to Scripture saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).
The Gospels are bigger than they look.
The four Gospels are relatively small compared to most of the books on our shelves. If we wanted, we could read through each in a single sitting. But like the Narnian stable in The Last Battle, the inside of the Gospels is bigger than the outside. Between their covers lies an infinite glory — a Jesus whose riches are not metaphorically but literally “unsearchable” (Ephesians 3:8).
We will never catch all there is to know and love about Jesus, but we can catch something more next year. So come again and walk with him on the waters. Come and watch a few loaves feed five thousand. Come and sing with Zechariah, rise with Lazarus, and walk with the women to the empty tomb. Come and remember why the Gospels are indeed “the most wonderful books on earth” — because they give us the most wonderful Person.