The Gospels are pivotal in helping us understand the fullness of the love of God. If you have not read the Gospels lately, you might be missing what life is all about.

Whereas the Old Testament has the Law Books (or Pentateuch), the Historical Writings, the Wisdom Writings and the Prophets, the New Testament includes the Gospels, the Acts (or the History of the Apostles), the Epistles and the Apocalyptic Writings (the Revelation).

The Gospels are unique among biblical writings as they give us the biographical accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But the Gospels are not simple biographies. There are four Gospels that give varying and mostly harmonizing accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.

The first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—are often referred to as the “synoptic Gospels” because the bulk of their material is similar. John is the fourth Gospel, and John tells his story in a different format than the first three writers. The differences in these Gospels remind us of the different ways people have experienced Jesus.

The early second-century church father, Justin Martyr, calls the Gospels “the memoirs of the apostles.” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not busily writing the Gospels during the life of Jesus. Rather, it was probably later in their lives, after these stories of Jesus had been told again and again, that these disciples felt moved by the Spirit to document their experiences with Jesus. They wanted the church and the world to have a record of the life of this person they believed to be the unique Son of God.

As students of the Bible, we should respect and revere all of Holy Scripture. However, we should not fail to see the Gospels as a strategic installment in God’s progressive self-revelation. A rediscovery of the Gospels could help us in our understanding the life of Jesus, our understanding what God expects of us, and our overall understanding of the other books of the Bible.

The Gospels give us important and vivid glimpses into the life of Jesus. The birth narratives preserve both the historical and symbolic events surrounding Jesus’ birth. The historical narratives tell us about Jesus’ character, as well as his death, burial and resurrection. And the parables tell us about both the content and style of Jesus’ preaching and teaching.

The Gospels instruct us about the ethical, moral and spiritual dimensions of our own existence. Jesus calls us to be his followers. We respond to God by committing ourselves to being devoted followers of Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is to emulate the ways of Jesus and to practice the teachings of Jesus. Charles Sheldon’s classic work, In His Steps, describes the Christian experience as a life of asking, “What would Jesus do?” and then doing it.

When the Gospels are in the center of our biblical understanding, then we gain a new appreciation and insight into the remainder of the Scriptures. The Old Testament becomes a living record of God’s early and ongoing invitation for people to live in a faith covenant with God, and a history of their response, which is sometimes rebellion and other times repentance. The New Testament becomes the living example of the new church’s attempt to put its faith into action, and these writings boldly and honestly include both the successes and failures of these attempts at faith living.

In other words, the Gospels are pivotal in helping us understand the fullness of the love of God. If you have not read the Gospels lately, you might be missing what life is all about.

Barry Howard is a religion columnist who resides in Corbin, Ky.

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