It has been said that the Bible is “like a river; broad and deep. Shallow enough here for a lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.”
Wading. Swimming. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it can be hard enough just staying afloat!
You see, the Bible is undeniably a complex book, and sections of it can be particularly hard to get our heads around. For instance, the gospels are a rich collection of texts, documenting the life, work, death and resurrection of Jesus. But reading, understanding and applying them can pose a number of challenges.
There are four of them. Why do we need four? And why are they different? They all speak about Jesus, but they don’t all tell the same stories, in the same order. Some of them emphasise particular themes and not others. Some are full of stories that Jesus told. Some contain no stories. And some of the stories are pretty confusing!
Jesus made many radical claims that were innovative and deeply challenging, and which offered perspectives on life and faith that were hard enough for his original hearers to grasp, let alone us some two thousand years later.
And yet, there is something beautifully compelling about the gospels. They record many of the sayings and actions of Jesus that form the very heart of the Christian faith, and they are a constant source of guidance, comfort and hope for those who take the time to examine them. As John puts it at the end of his gospel, the wonderful things that Jesus did were so plentiful, they defy documentation:
‘If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.’ (John 21:25)
Over this year I will be running a series of seminars looking in depth at the gospels, examining the major themes and unpacking some of the most difficult sections. Each term we will run a four-week block of interactive sessions, designed to help us get to grips with these books. Whilst we won’t cover every verse, I hope that these seminars will equip us all to approach the gospels with confidence, knowing how to get the most of them.
The first block of sessions will run on Sundays from 25 January to 15 February, from 13.30-14.45 in one of the rooms at the Mermaid Theatre and I will teach along with a selection of guest speakers. Each session will include teaching, exercises, and plenty of time for discussion and Q&A.
You can book your place for the first set of seminars via our online booking system, and here’s a summary of what we will cover in the first training block:
Session 1: Context (25 January)
What was first century Israel like? Who were the main players of the day? And into what kind of world was Jesus born? This first session will help us to understand the historical background of the gospels and give us fresh insights that will help us read the story of Jesus’ birth in a rather different light.
Session 2: Genre (1 February)
What are gospels anyway?! Why do we have four of them? And why are there differences between the accounts? How were they written? And what are the particular challenges involved in reading them? This session will give some guidelines for how we can get the most of our reading the gospels.
Session 3: Purpose – Matthew and Mark (8 February)
Each of the gospels tells the story in a particular way, for a particular purpose. In this session, we will look at Matthew and Mark and try to work out why they emphasise certain themes and what particular points they are trying to make.
Session 4: Purpose – Luke and John (15 February)
Each of the gospels tells the story in a particular way, for a particular purpose. In this session, we will look at Luke and John and try to work out why they emphasise certain themes and what particular points they are trying to make.
Note: The second block of seminars will run from 7-28 June, and the third block will take place in Autumn of 2015 – exact dates TBC. Here’s a sneak preview of what we expect to cover in the future session:
Session 5: The Big Story. How do the gospels fit within the grand story of the Bible, and why did Jesus focus so much of his teaching on ‘the Kingdom’?
Session 6: The Little Stories. What are the parables? How should we interpret them? And what do they tell us about the mission of Jesus?
Session 7: Symbols – Monotheism and Election. What were the central symbols of Judaism and how did Jesus challenge and redefine the ideas of monotheism and election?
Session 8: Symbols – Temple and Torah. What were the central symbols of Judaism and how did Jesus challenge and redefine the ideas about the temple and the law?
Session 9: Signs. What was the purpose of Jesus’ miracles? What do they have to tell us about Jesus’ identity and his plan for the world?
Session 10: The Final Days of Jesus. What do the gospels have to tell us about the final days of Jesus’ life?
Session 11: Why did Jesus Die? What were the events that lead to the death of Jesus, and how should we understand his execution from the perspectives of the Romans, the Jewish leaders and Jesus himself?
Session 12: Why did Jesus Rise Again? What did the Jewish people believe about life after death and how does Jesus’ resurrection challenge their expectations?