As we come to the Gospels and the book of Acts, many of the things we said about reading narrative passages will apply. These five books make very compelling reading—fascinating stories, deep theological implications, and some crucial history for the Christian faith.
As we read these books, we’ll notice that they are relaying history. But it’s not like the history books we’re used to reading (or not). The four Gospels illustrate this well. They contain the same basic historical account, but they’re not written in the same chronological order, and each presents events and teachings that the other Gospels don’t. So can we call this history? The short answer is yes, and they were intentional about this (see Luke 1:1–4).
Some have accused the Gospels and Acts of sidelining history for the sake of theology. But actually, these books are showing us the theological significance of the historical events. So each writer shows us Jesus from a certain angle, pointing us to key events that illustrate what they want us to see about Jesus. John, for example, explains that Jesus did far more than John recorded in his gospel, but he chose to include these things “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
It’s history, but it’s persuasive history. It’s history, but with a purpose. In fact, John says (with a touch of hyperbole) that the Gospel writers had so much material to draw on, that if someone tried to write down everything Jesus said and did, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). Acts works in the same way, showing us only a few of the events and teachings from the life of the early church.
So how do we read these theological history books? Here are a few tips:
1. Get caught up in the stories.
Each story is told for a reason. Enjoy it. Step into it. Be a part of the original audience. Strap on their sandals and experience the event, listen to the sermon. Putting yourself in the stories will make them more vivid and help you better understand what is going on.
2. Find the big picture.
What’s the overall point of each of these books? What kinds of things are emphasized? This will likely happen over the years as you read each book multiple times. A short book description in a Study Bible can be helpful here too. But try to identify what the book as a whole is trying to say about Jesus or the early church. This will give you a framework in which to view the individual stories.
3. Assess individual stories, events, and discourses.
Each story can be viewed, at least initially, as a self-contained unit. Every event, sermon, parable, conversation, and sermon is worth taking the time to analyze. Why does Jesus feed 5,000 and what is the significance of this event? What is unique about his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount? Why do the apostles establish deacons in Acts 6? When you have the time, use it to think deeply about these individual elements.
4. Look for relationships between stories, events, and discourses.
Very often, the events and teachings are recorded in their unique order because the author wants you to consider them in light of one another. Look for repeated phrases and concepts. Look for how one event relates to another. For example, Matthew 18 tells us how to address a “brother” caught in sin (a process we refer to as “church discipline,” though it’s really about pursuing restoration). Then Jesus goes on to teach about the importance of forgiving over and over again. These two concepts are both related: they both help us understand what we do with a Christian who sins. Or consider Luke 15. Luke gives us three consecutive parables, all dealing with something that is lost and found. So as you read each part, consider its relation to the whole, and especially to the material surrounding it.
5. Ask what the overall message demands of you.
As we said, these books are written to be persuasive. Ask what you are meant to be persuaded of and choose how you will respond. When you see the big picture of what Jesus did and taught, ask how your life ought to be changed in response (the command to “follow me” is a good place to start, as is the command to “make disciples”). When you work through the book of Acts, ask how the activity of the Spirit of God through the early church should shape your life today.