Time Periods in the Bible: How Should We Read the Gospels?

As I mentioned in the last article on time periods, there are many things from the gospels that are directly applicable to the modern-day Christian. Much of Jesus’ teaching ministry focused on how the disciples should act and walk with God after he was gone. However, there were many things that Jesus did because he was under the Law—he was born under the Law (Galatians 4:4) and his duty, in part, was to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17). Put another way, the gospels was really a time of transition between the way that God had dealt with humanity before Christ (through the nation of Israel) to how He wanted to deal with humanity in the future (as sons and daughters in the Church). Because the gospels represent a time of transition, there are many things that are directly applicable to modern Christians, but there are also some things recorded in the gospels that modern Christians can understand but not apply.

Let’s start with the clear examples of things that modern Christians can understand historically but would not consider applying in their daily lives.

Luke 17:11-14 (ESV)
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee.
And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.

 

Matthew 8:1-4 (ESV)
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.
And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

Jesus instructed these lepers (ten in one instance and one in the other) to present themselves to the priests. This was part of the Law concerning leprosy (see Leviticus 14 for more information). Modern day Christians recognize that, if one of us were to heal a leper, there is no reason to find a priest or to perform the sacrifice mentioned in Leviticus 14:4ff. There are no Hebrew priests to find and no Temple to offer sacrifices!

Matthew 5:21-24 (ESV)
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

This is part of the Sermon on the Mount, which I would say is generally applicable to Christians (see below). But here in the middle of it, Jesus discussed a situation that would not really happen in modern times. We don’t have to concern ourselves with remembering a slight against us while we are at the altar presenting an offering to God in the Temple. However, the principle still applies here. If we are praying and are having a hard time getting past something in our thinking that involves another person, reach out to that person and make sure that it gets resolved so you can focus on praying or taking care of the things of God.

Matthew 3:11 (ESV)
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

 

Mark 1:8 (ESV)
I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

Luke 3:16 (ESV)
John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

 

John 1:33 (ESV)
I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

 

Acts 1:4-5 (ESV)
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Many churches teach that people should be baptized in water, although many teach accurately that it is unnecessary for salvation. Water baptism was something that John did, but Jesus told his disciples that they would be baptized in holy spirit. Water baptism is another aspect of the gospels that does not directly apply to modern-day Christians.

Another interesting facet of Jesus’ behavior is that he often did what the religious leaders did not expect him to do according to their traditions of men. Jesus put the needs of the people first, and though he was violating the strict interpretation of the Law that was common among the Pharisees, he exposed it for what it was—the tradition of men.

Mark 3:1-5 (ESV)
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand.
And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.
And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.”
And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.
And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

 

Mark 7:1-9 (ESV)
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem,
they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.
(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)
And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!

There are also many examples of where Jesus did and taught things to prepare people for the coming of a new age—the time after Pentecost.

Luke 11:9-13 (ESV)
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Here Jesus taught his disciples about asking, seeking, and knocking. He showed them that God would give the holy spirit to those who ask Him. And what a great gift that is!

Matthew 5:1-6, 13-16 (ESV)
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

This is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and much of that Sermon is applicable directly for Christians today. The Christian believer is a light on the hill, the salt of the earth. As Christians walk out on God’s promises, they can do good works that glorify God.

Matthew 5:27-32 (ESV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

During this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred to aspects of the Law and asked his followers (now called Christians) to go beyond the Law! In this case, he replaced “do not commit adultery” with “do not even look at a woman lustfully.” He replaced “you can get a divorce” with “if you divorce your wife for something other than sexual immorality (on her part), makes her commit adultery.” This is a common theme throughout the gospels—Jesus referred to the Law and asked those who followed him to rise above the standard of the Law to observe the principles that underwrite the commandments.

Matthew 5:38-48 (ESV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus continued replacing aspects of the Law with a higher calling. For whom was this higher calling? It had to be followers of Christ, who would eventually be called Christians.

So much of the Gospels contain records of healing, casting out spirits, and other acts of God’s power. Here are a few of many examples:

Matthew 9:18-36 (ESV)
While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”
And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples.
And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.”
Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him.
But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.
And the report of this went through all that district.
And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.”
When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.”
Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.”
And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.”
But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.
As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him.
And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.”
But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Look at these displays of God’s power! Jesus was truly fulfilling his calling on earth (Luke 4:18-19). He gave the disciples the power and authority to perform the same works.

Matthew 10:1 (ESV)
And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.

Jesus taught his disciples that they would have the ability to perform the same works and greater works than he did (John 14:12). As a result, all of the records of Jesus manifesting power are directly applicable to Christians today!

In addition to this, there are records where Paul referred back to the teachings of Jesus as the standard for how to live in the post-Pentecost church. Here are a few examples:

I Corinthians 7:6, 10-12, 25, 40 (ESV)
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.
But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband
(but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

In I Corinthians 7, Paul shared his advice on how to handle various situations involving marriage and sexuality. In several locations, he mentioned that he had specific guidance from the Lord. Specifically, in verses 10-12, Paul referred to Jesus’ teaching mentioned in Matthew 5:31-32 (see above), Mark 10:2-12, and Matthew 19:3-9. While it is possible that these gospel accounts were written down by the time Paul wrote I Corinthians, it is also possible that Paul is referring to oral teachings passed down by the apostles to others in the time before the gospels were written down. Either way, the point in clear: Paul took Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount (and other places) as authoritative for the post-Pentecost church. When he didn’t have a specific precedent set by Jesus, Paul gave his own advice by revelation. Just like Jesus, Paul had the spirit of God (I Corinthians 7:40) and as such, he was trustworthy (I Corinthians 7:25).

Acts 20:35 (ESV)
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”

In Acts 20:35, we have almost the opposite phenomenon. In this case, instead of Paul potentially quoting something in I Corinthians before it was recorded in the gospel accounts, we have Paul quoting something that is never recorded in the gospels! This shows that there was a reliable oral tradition of the words and deeds of Jesus in the time immediately after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Again, it is important to recognize that Paul viewed the words of Christ as authoritative for the doctrine and practice of the post-Pentecost church.

Finally, one of Jesus’ last commandments to his disciples shows the need for Christians to obey his words as recorded in the gospels.

Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The disciples were commanded to baptize people and to teach those new Christians to observe everything that Jesus had commanded them to do. This helps us see clearly that the gospel accounts are relevant for the modern Christian.

As we have seen, much of what Jesus taught and did as recorded in the gospels is directly applicable to the modern Christian despite the fact that Jesus lived under the Law. Why is this the case? First, we have to remember when the gospels were written and who the intended audience was. Unlike the Old Testament books, the original audience of the gospels was first century Judeans and Gentiles (both those born again and those not yet born again). Historians suggest that Mark was the first gospel completed, but even then, it wasn’t completed until around 45 AD (according to the earliest estimates). This places the gospels, at the earliest, at least ten to fifteen years after Pentecost. Also consider the narrative reason for the compilation of the history of the ministry of Jesus. First and foremost, the reason for these accounts was to prove that Jesus is the Messiah (John 20:31). But they were also designed to promote proper Christian doctrine and practice. Considering the audience of the gospels, why would the focus of the gospels be on elements of Jesus’ life that were according to the Law when Christian life is beyond the Law? I’m sure that there are many things that Jesus did in accordance with the Law that are not mentioned in the gospels, because such behavior is irrelevant to the modern Christian. God, as a wise Author, chose the material needed to prove that Jesus is His Son and to illustrate the lifestyle that He wants us to demonstrate.

To return to the question that defines this article: how then should we read the gospels? Here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • Is what Jesus is doing or teaching directly tied to legal observance or the Law?
  • Are there any aspects of this record that are more applicable in the culture of Israel from Christ’s time that the culture now (i.e.-leaving the gift at the altar is not something relevant to our culture directly)?
  • If the answer to the previous two questions is, “No,” is there any aspect of this record where practices have fundamentally changed since Pentecost (i.e.-water baptism)?
  • How did the original audience apply Jesus’ teaching? How can I apply this teaching in the post-Pentecost church?

As we delve into the gospels, I believe that we will find much that is specifically designed for the post-Pentecost church as well as much that is directly applicable. Jesus Christ is our greatest example of how to live God’s way. The gospels are an invaluable resource that God has given us about the life of Christ. Let’s take full advantage of what God has given us! Let’s enjoy reading and applying the gospels!

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