There are many options when it comes to building a sermon calendar but spending a focused amount of time preaching through the gospels will not only draw your congregation closer to Jesus, it will draw you, the pastor, closer to Jesus as well.
You may elect to spend six weeks or 60 weeks preaching through a gospel. However long you choose to camp out in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, there are key factors that you will need to keep in mind to create an impactful journey for your church through the life and teachings of Jesus.
The Gospels Help Us See Jesus as a Person
Many non-Christians tend to like the idea of Jesus as a person. It’s a concept they understand and is a comfort to them. But they struggle with the divinity of Jesus. The idea that this human is also God is a foreign concept they struggle to understand.
However, Christians are usually very comfortable with the divinity of Jesus, but we struggle to view Jesus as a human. We imagine Jesus with a Superman outfit under His robe and forget how human He was.
Many early church controversies that shaped traditional creeds came from wrestling and processing the concept of Jesus as a human.
But we know from scripture that both are true. Jesus was fully human and fully God.
If you want to know who God is, the fullest revelation of God is Jesus.
Seeing Jesus as both God and human is why preaching through the gospels is so important. By helping people see who Jesus is, they are seeing who God is. We don’t have to wonder who God is. We can see it clearly through the person of Jesus.
Staying Focused on Jesus Every Week
If you are shying away from preaching through the gospels because you aren’t sure you can keep the excitement focused on Jesus for an extended period, consider this:
The people you love most, do you get tired of them? Do you feel you know them as well as you can right now? Probably. Do you know them as well as you could after spending more time with them? No.
As you spend time with someone, you get to know them at a deeper level. Even after being married for 15, 20, or 50 years, married couples still find themselves surprised at what they learn about their spouses.
No matter how much time we spend with Jesus and studying scripture, He always has something new to reveal.
We can easily get stuck seeing Jesus as a 2D caricature and that comes from not really viewing Him as a person.
In Paul Miller’s book, Love Walked Among Us, he zooms in on the human dynamics of Jesus and how He related to people. When we see Jesus as a person, the lens through which we view the gospel stories begins to shift, and we can relate to Him on a personal level.
It gets fun when we develop the skill of slowing down, noticing the details, and inhabiting the story!
The gospels are different from the rest of the Bible, especially the New Testament. There can be a tendency to use the gospels only as a launching pad for systematic theology, and there might be a place for that, but it may be stronger just to keep looking at and learning more about Jesus.
People don’t get bored with Jesus. They might be amazed or annoyed, but generally, they are not ambivalent about Him.
As pastors, it is our job to teach in a way that people aren’t apathetic about scripture, especially about the life and teachings of Christ.
We must preach Christ so that Jesus feels as alive and electric as He is. Is your preaching bringing Jesus off the 2D flannel graph and into the 3D WOW?
Choosing Your Approach to Teach the Gospels
There are several ways you can preach through the gospels, depending on how long you want to commit to a series.
You can preach through all four books, picking out themes, then comparing and contrasting.
Or choose a book and camp out for a year or longer, going verse by verse. Matthew and John are great options for this.
You also might elect to preach through a specific section of a gospel, such as the Sermon on the Mount, John 17, or the Parables of Jesus.
Choosing a Gospel to Preach Through
When selecting a gospel to preach through, consider what specific objectives you are trying to accomplish and look at the unique traits of each gospel.
Matthew was primarily written to the Jews. Mark was written to the Romans. Luke is based on interviews and has a more human dynamic.
John was written quite a bit later than the first three. It’s likely John knew we had these three synoptic gospels, and he intended to write an additional contribution. While some carry-over in John’s gospel can be found in the others, John writes about a lot that isn’t present in the other three.
Let the Spirit guide you in choosing what is right for you as the pastor as well as your church in this season.
The people who watched Jesus 2,000 years ago said with awe, “There is nobody like this!” When you choose a gospel to preach through, you should feel that awe and lead your church to an encounter with Jesus that feels as fresh as the time of Jesus and bring that to the pulpit.
Incorporating Parallel Passages
If you preach through a single book and encounter a story found in more than one gospel, deciding whether to reference the others is a judgment call. Ask yourself, “Am I preaching a harmony of the gospels or John?” “Or Luke?”
If you are preaching through John, you can preach with an awareness that John knew what was in Matthew and Luke. He had likely read them before writing his story.
Stories found in all four gospels, such as Feeding the 5,000, may be worth highlighting, but there is no requirement to do so.
If you are teaching about Joseph of Arimathea, putting all four gospel stories together helps to provide a more complete description of him. In those situations, referencing the other gospels may be a wise decision.
We can get bogged down trying to bring in everything and every detail that every gospel writer says.
If you choose to preach through a book, let the point of the sermon be the point of that text. If you are preaching through John, preach what John wanted to say. If other accounts help inform or color it or bring interesting detail, you may choose to use that, but let your focus remain on what the gospel writer wanted to say.
Don’t assume that everyone listening to you preach is familiar with a story. A person who is new to church may never have heard of Pilate. If you preach like knowing Pilate is a foregone conclusion, you will alienate anyone new to scripture. You also don’t want to go into so much backstory that those who know the story will disengage. Finding that balance is key.
Teaching the Human Character of Jesus
When preaching through the gospels, it is important to consider how Jesus felt when He said something. In scripture, you can’t hear the tone of voice. In a passage such as “You brood of vipers!” it is a little easier to discern but in His conversation with Nicodemus? In those passages, it is difficult to know His tone.
It takes great effort and intentionality to try and inhabit the story and not try to put a tone in Jesus’ voice that wasn’t there.
However, providing your audience with different tones in which a person could read this passage may further help them see Jesus as human, or it may help them visualize a story in a way they had never considered before.
In the story of Nicodemus, when he asks Jesus how a person can be born again, Jesus responds by saying, “You are Israel’s teacher, and you do not understand these things?” It may be easy to read this by interpreting Jesus’ words as scolding or shaming. But what if Jesus said those words with a teasing tone? Jesus could be laughing a bit at the Pharisee’s realization that He is not God and can’t possibly understand all of God’s thoughts or ways.
Challenges When Preaching Through a Gospel
Cultural gaps between biblical times and present-day often present an extra challenge in teaching scripture, especially in the gospels and the parables of Jesus. So many things that were true of the culture at that time are not true now. We naturally tend to interpret the context of culture 2,000 years ago as the same as the present-day.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the son keeps saying outlandish things like, “I wish you were dead.” At the time of Jesus, the crowd would be gasping and shocked. Today, that story doesn’t have the same shock factor. When teaching the story, highlight the shock value and translate those words to today’s equivalent.
In addition, Jesus was silent on many things we would consider important discussions for today. It is easy for us to begin doing theological gymnastics and assume because Jesus didn’t say anything about it, He was indifferent. Jesus didn’t speak on many things, yet Old Testament passages and the writings of the Apostles will provide clarity in areas where there are no accounts documenting what Jesus might have said.
Pay Attention to the Details
The details of the scene are significant. If the writer chose to record them, there is a reason. Pay attention to where Jesus looks, what or who He touches, and where He turns. Attention to these details can bring further depth to the story and provide a fuller picture of what was happening.
Notice how the cadence changes in the writing. Sometimes there will be a very wide lens used in the description, and other times it’s almost slo-mo with super fine detail. The writer’s choice is deliberate, so make sure you take notice.
Slowing down, noticing, and inhabiting the story is essential.
What did this scene look like, smell like, and feel like?
Chris Brown, Pastor at North Coast Church in San Diego, CA, encourages pastors to look at someone else in the story and see it from their vantage point.
Reading the story of the woman caught in adultery, what is the experience from the perspective of the Pharisees who trapped her? Jesus? The crowd? The woman herself? You can’t preach as though it is authoritative but stopping and noticing them can bring the story to life in a whole other dimension.
Be sure to give a disclaimer when teaching, “This is not reported or written down, but I am imagining what this could have looked like.”
Choosing What to Cut
One of the hardest things in preaching is you must “kill your darlings,” or the message gets too long. You have to recognize pieces that you may love but ultimately are not required for communicating the main point of the text. Save those notes and ideas for a future sermon.
It’s no coincidence that most years the Oscar-winning Best Picture is also nominated for best editing.
We tend to want to put words in Jesus’ mouth. Evaluate your sermon and make sure that what you are saying is what Jesus said. Cut anything that is you trying to put words into the mouth of Jesus.
An Added Benefit
Even the most committed among us will sometimes feel far from Jesus. But as you preach through a gospel, you are immersed in Jesus, making it harder to feel distant from Him. It is difficult not to engage with Him when you spend so much time together.
When you spend intentional time looking at the incredible details of Jesus’ life and how He interacted with those around Him, it provides a special closeness.
It’s the same as our relationships today. We work with someone and build a closeness, but jobs change or someone moves, and in most cases, that relationship will tend to drift, if not forever, at least for seasons.
When you preach through a gospel, you spend committed, focused time with Jesus, rich in learning more about Him, which keeps that connection and relationship close.
Whether it comes through preaching or not, we must get to know Jesus as a person. When we do, there is more texture to the relationship when we are depressed, experiencing anxiety, or are just mad at Him because we don’t understand where He is in the midst of trials.
How do you preach about the goodness of Jesus when you feel like He is letting you down?
The Bible doesn’t run from it. It is all through the Psalms.
As you get to know this 3D real person Jesus, He likes it when you wrestle with Him. It shows you care and trust in your relationship. Even when it feels like He has let you down, if you can go to Him, it shows that the relationship is real.