A Reason for Misreading the Gospels

I agree with N. T. Wright that modern Christians tend to misread the Gospels.  I think there are many reasons for this and many ways in which it happens.

One instance of it is how we miss that the story of Israel and the reality of the Kingdom of God are central for the Gospel writers.

Personal conversion, or individual response, to the proclamation of “the gospel of the Kingdom” is indeed necessary.  But this expectation of obedient response is a call to repent and enter the Kingdom of God, the new reality that creates new individuals, new communities, new patterns of life, new relationships, new uses of personal property, new social patterns, and new relational dynamics—all under the gracious reign of a radically different sort of King.

That corporate reality was to be the realization of all that God called Israel to be in the Scriptures—a corporate people that embodied in its national social patterns, economic behaviors, housing policies, and agricultural practices the very life of the Creator God on earth.

The Gospels have everything to do with God’s vision for Israel and its fulfillment in the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and therefore, the Gospels have everything to do with renewed holistic human behaviors.

In my opinion, Christians miss the story of Israel and the reality of the Kingdom of God when we read the Gospels because it’s far easier to cultivate private piety than to participate in and play a role in bringing about community transformation.

I think Christians have learned to misread the Gospels in order to avoid Jesus’ demands for ongoing repentance and change of life on individual and corporate church levels.

Resistance to hearing and reading the Gospels faithfully is pervasive in evangelical Christianity.  This is partly due to well-worn practices—we’re just not used to seeing these dominant realities there. 

I would suggest, however, that another major factor is that seeing these realities threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become very predictable and comfortable.  Very simply, contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.

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15 responses to “A Reason for Misreading the Gospels

  • Jaime Hancock

    “I think Christians have learned to misread the Gospels in order to avoid Jesus’ demands for ongoing repentance and change of life on individual and corporate church levels.”

    Lord Jesus,
    Forgive us of our personal and corporate idolatry. Forgive us for professing to follow you, but refusing to truly take up our cross, die to all of our unfaithful and loveless practices, and through that death live out your resurrection in this world that you created.
    Help us to soberly examine ourselves, consider the cost, and radicly offer ourselves as living sacrifices in the service of Your Kingdom.

    Amen.

    P.S. – Thanks for this blog, TIm. I know that it is personally challenging me in many ways. I can’t wait to get my hands on the N.T. wright book. I’m planning to read it over the summer.

  • joey

    I think that one if the contributing factors in our missing the completion of Israel’s Story in Jesus has to do with the way we have come to read Paul. What I mean is this: taking the view that Romans is primarily about “Law” versus “Grace,” evangelicals have come to think of the Law as bad. By association, Israel and her story are despised. This is a centuries-long problem. We read passages like John 1:17 and say, “See, there was no grace in the Law.” but that’s not what John is saying. Every Jew knows that the Law was all about grace. Once we start to realize what Paul was actually dealing with (think: the New Perspective), it’s easier for us to stop pitting “Law” against “Grace.” And we’re freed to better appreciate Israel’s role in the ongoing Story.

    • timgombis

      I totally agree, Joey. That problem infects so much of historic evangelicalism, too, for a variety of reasons.

    • S Wu

      Joey, the problem is that there are people out there who totally reject the New Perspective on Paul (sometimes even without knowing exactly what NPP is). Of course NPP is not always right, but one should not reject it entirely.

      What we are trying to do here, I think, is to hear the biblical text aright, and do so without aligning to a particular “camp”.

      But great point, Joey. It’s about the ongoing story of God.

      • joey

        Yes, I agree with what you say, Wu. Most people in my circle of fellowship have never even heard of the NPP. I am no expert on the NPP, but I do think it heads in the right direction.

        On another note, I also think that premillennialism, with its view that the Kingdom is not yet established, is another contributor to our misunderstanding of the Gospels. Jesus is King now. His Kingdom is now. And his Kingdom is the Kingdom of David.

      • timgombis

        That is indeed another factor, Joey. I’m making a list and intend to lay some of these out in a post.

    • Jerry Costolo

      “Every Jew knows that the Law was all about grace. ”

      I think the pharisee with outstretch arms, eyes raised to heaven, thanking God that he “was not like other men” may have agreed with that statement. But what of the tax collector, beating his breast, pleading for mercy? In hindsight we can say this is grace working through the law, but what were those men saying on that day? What of Peter’s description of the Law as an ‘unbearable yoke’ in Acts 15? (please don’t attempt to relegate that to circumcision and diet)
      I’m afraid that what I see in NPP writers is an attempt to make the pharisee’s view of the Law in his day THE view of the Law. Jesus’ pronouncement on the Mount that “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom” was not good news to anyone that day.

      • timgombis

        Hey Jerry,

        What NPP writers are you thinking of here, and what are they saying about the Pharisees’ view of the Law (assuming there was one singular view among Pharisees)?

        I wonder if it’s possible to hold together a view of the Mosaic Law as God’s gracious gift, and the fact that sinners still fall short and are in absolute need of God’s grace?

      • Jerry Costolo

        Hey Tim! First let me say that I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog! And let me say also that I am no NPP “hater”. If for no other reason than their allowing/insisting on reading the New Testament as Jewish literature and with that a primary approach to the NT from a corporate perspective, I for one, am forever grateful.

        I’m thinking of NT Wright’s ‘covenantal nomism’, and by ‘the pharisee’s’ above I am not thinking of “The Pharisees”, so much as that one expressing his own law derived righteousness before God on that day in Jesus’ story. I get the sense that what Dr. Wright is proposing is that all of the Jews of Jesus day (preceding and following) thought of the Law in those favorable terms. It doesn’t seem to me that tax collectors and fishermen and prostitutes (and former Pharisees) necessarily prescribed to those feelings. I agree that there were many views (many Judaisms) in the world Jesus ( and Paul ) lived in.

        I emphatically DO think it is “possible to hold together a view of the Mosaic Law as God’s gracious gift, and the fact that sinners still fall short and are in absolute need of God’s grace” on this side of the Cross, knowing what we know from our vantage point. But I am not convinced that that was possible before the Cross. A crucified Messiah was no where to be found in the Jewish imagination even though the prophets hinted at it (could the prophets have even understood?). I think it was the scandal of the Cross that sent Paul to Damascus, and it was his encounter with the crucified and risen Messiah that allowed him to begin to understand all that Moses and the Prophets had foretold (the implications of which, blew his mind!). I think that that is why Paul sees the condemning/killing aspect of the Law (ministry of death written on tablets of stone (i.e. The Ten Words) as an ultimately gracious work/word — but I do not think that the ‘Judaisms’ of his day agreed.

        I wonder if you’ve come across Tom Holland’s ‘Contours’ or his Romans commentary? I highly recommend both.

      • timgombis

        Hey Jerry – thanks for your kind words. I’m just trying to clarify things a bit, only because I do think that so much of the discussion regarding the NPP is off-track. That is, so many things are presumed to be “new perspective” positions on this or that. But the “new perspective” is really more of a very precisely defined issue involving Paul’s negative statements about “works of Law” in Gal. and Rom.

        At any rate, I think you’re right that many Pharisees (and other Jews, too) were self-satisfied viz. their status before God. That is, they would have presumed that they were “in” with God because of their performance or their righteous conduct. And there would also have been other Jews who may have presumed that they were seriously on the “outs” with God because of their extended track records of sin.

        I do think there were many of both, and we see some of these in various parts of the NT. But I also think that Wright would agree with much of that, and that it’s best to speak of ranges of views on a variety of topics in Judaism, rather than one singular set of assumptions.

        On the point of what was known or realized before the cross, what do you make of godly or righteous people before (or during) the time of Jesus? What about those who really grasped God’s “pre-Easter cruciform” way of working?

        I agree that some Jews just didn’t grasp that at all and were rebellious toward God, thinking that they had a righteous conformity to God’s requirements, but who were actually self-deceived. But there were also godly people who were obedient to the truth and who seriously did honor God (Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna in Luke 1-2).

        So, just to say there was always a remnant of faithful Jews, wasn’t there?

  • S Wu

    Tim, there is something about evangelicalism that I can’t understand fully, and maybe it’s because I came from a different culture. But here is one experience I had a few years ago.

    I was asked to write something about the Christian view on social reform. I then wrote something about Luke’s portrayal of an upside-down kingdom of God, and Jesus’ radical call to discipleship. It didn’t go well. I was asked to tone down the message because it appeared to be too confronting. It was quite a difficult experience for me. It’s because I did feel that there were many places in Luke’s Gospel that the message was immensely demanding, and I was very reluctant to change what I said about it.

    • joey

      Wu, Have you read Rowe’s book World Upside Down on the Book of Acts? You might find it useful.

      • S Wu

        Thanks for the suggestion, Joey. I was about half way through Rowe’s book. But then I got busy. I liked it. There were a number of significant scholarly reviews on the book last year, I think.

      • timgombis

        Rowe’s book is brilliant–love it for its clear exposition of Acts and its compelling resurrection-oriented political vision.

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