How do I read the Gospels? Dr. Greg Lanier offers four suggestions for reading and understanding the Gospels in context and delighting in them as the story of Jesus Christ.

The first thing you find when you open up your New Testament are, of course, the four Gospels. And so it’s a great question to ask, “How do I read these writings?” They’re very different than, say, Romans or Hebrews. And many Christians who have been around the church for a while may not have really learned how to actually approach these writings. So I’d offer four basic tips as to when you’re sitting down with one of them. What are some of the things that you should be doing?

Approaching the Gospels With Delight

And the first thing, and it may seem obvious, is to approach the Gospels with a sense of delight. That you’re reading—and really it’s the only thing you have in the Bible, at least in sort of full color—where you’re coming face to face with the person that we believe in, that we love, that we worship: Jesus Christ. Though of course, the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament talk about him, you’re actually getting close to his character—not only his divinity, but his humanity and his personality and how he taught, how he lived. And so it’s just great to read them and and learn about your Savior afresh and just delight in his witty comebacks or his tender things he says. How he shows compassion, touches people who shouldn’t be touched according to the social norms and that kind of thing.

Understanding Genre

When the characters come in and out of the scene, what are they doing? How do they respond to Jesus? How should I then respond to Jesus?Second, it’s really important to approach the gospels and understand what they are, that they are a specific kind of genre, a specific kind of writing. They aren’t letters. They certainly aren’t something like the book of Revelation, it’s not really poetry, although they have some poetry in them. They’re stories. They’re narratives. They’re a story version of the biography of Jesus. And so we need to read them as stories and follow the plot line. What’s a given writer doing, and what sort of suspense is being built? When the characters come in and out of the scene, what are they doing? How do they respond to Jesus? How should I then respond to Jesus?

There’s a great little scene in the birth narrative of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel where Mary, who has become pregnant, visits her relative Elizabeth. And you can skip over it really easily, but you’ve been building up to who this Jesus is going to be. And then Elizabeth says, “How is it for me”— this aging Jewish woman who thought she wasn’t even going to have a child—she says, “that the mother of my Lord has come into the room?” Of course, John the Baptist leaps in her womb. You could skip past that, but if you’ve read the whole story, you’re like, “Wait a second.” That’s a really important thing she says: that the baby, who’s—who knows?—a couple of weeks old at this point, in Mary’s womb is actually her personal Lord. Slowing down and tracing that out as you read the story, you have all sorts of theological light bulbs that go off. It’s just packaged differently than Ephesians. It just gives you theology in a different way. So you want to pay attention to genre and focus on reading it as a story.

Reading Vertically

Third, it’s really important to read the Gospels what we could call “vertically.” That means reading each one of them essentially end-to-end for their own account. So what is Matthew doing? Why does he start with a genealogy? Why does he give us the birth account? Why does he focus on these speeches of Jesus? Read it straight through and focus on what is Matthew’s specific take on the story of Jesus. Or if you’re reading John, what’s his specific take? How does it fit together? What’s its flow? What’s the climax? And that’s the most normal way we read the Gospels, is just focusing on how this particular writer tells the story of Jesus. But we have four of them. They are the fourfold Gospel. They are a Gospel according to these four different perspectives. They actually relate to one another. They’re canonically a unit.

Reading Horizontally

And so the last thing I would mention is that we can read the Gospels, what we could call horizontally. That means—and again, you would want to focus on vertical reading—but horizontal reading means “Okay, let me read this encounter or this parable in, say, Matthew. And then let me go take a look at it in Luke. What’s different? Why does that matter? How are they telling this story differently?” Or three different accounts? Maybe it’s in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Or sometimes it’s all four. When you read the Gospels horizontally, new things pop out at you that you may not have recognized before just reading them in isolation.You have the story, for instance, of the feeding of the 5000. What different tidbits do each one offer? What can I learn by studying them sort of horizontally and comparing them to one another?

If you do that, for instance, with the Transfiguration, what you’ll notice—which is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Luke’s account mentions this impending exodus that Jesus is going to have when he gets to Jerusalem, and then twice he narrates that they were surrounded by glory. And that just sort of underscores that this is a glimpse forward to his ascension glory. You can pick that up in the others, but Luke really sort of highlights it for you by adding those details. So when you read the Gospels horizontally, new things pop out at you that you may not have recognized before just reading them in isolation. So reading both vertically but also horizontally are really helpful ways to get oriented to all four Gospels and how they work individually, but also as a unit.