John Mark Hicks has recently written an excellent blog post on the way we read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John). You can read the post here. The post explains why we need to read the Gospels as an invitation to participation with Jesus in this kingdom life he calls us to follow him in. That, according to Hicks, is different from reading the Gospels for the singular functional evidentiary purpose so that they serve no other purpose than to present the essential facts of Jesus life as a defense of the Christian faith.
The difference between the two ways of reading the Gospels are enormous. When we read the gospels solely for the “functional evidentiary purpose” it allows us to see Jesus as a Savior we believe in but not one we necessary follow. Thus, even though Jesus loved his enemies even to the point of death on the cross, this is not a necessary virtue we must learn to emulate. On the other hand, when we read the Gospels as an “invitation to participation”, Jesus becomes a Savior we not only learn to believe in but also one we learn to follow in the way we live our life. Therefore, since Jesus did love his enemies even to the point of death on the cross, as hard as it might be, this is a virtue that we must learn to live our lives by.
As an example, the Gospel of Mark helps clarify the reason for reading as an invitation to participation. In Mark, Jesus’ public ministry begins with his pronouncement of the inbreaking kingdom of God with a call to “Repent and believe the good news” followed shortly with Jesus’ invitation “follow me” (Mk 1.15, 17). And as Hicks points out in a comment, this way of reading the Gospel is missional hermeneutics…reading the Gospels to become participants with Jesus in the life he is living.
This is also the reason why contemporary Christianity must recover the submissive practice of baptism whereby those being baptized understand that first and foremost, they are dying with Jesus Christ in baptism and being raised into the resurrected life of Jesus Christ (Rom 6.3-4). That means that those being baptized are having their old life crucified with Christ (cf. Gal 2.20). This view of death to the old self and resurrection to the new self in Christ is the reason why Paul insists upon the Christian also living as a participant in this new life…offering ourselves as “an instrument of righteousness” (Rom 6.13). This is why baptism cannot and must not be viewed simply as a symbol of or as means of accepting the gift of salvation so that we can be assured of having our ticket to heaven.
The Gospels call us to become participants in the new story with Jesus in the life he is living. This is not a self-working of salvation for we only become participants in this salvation story by the work of God in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Yet it is a call to become participants in salvation…participants in a new life, a new mission. In the larger Evangelical world, a common phrase is to speak of “receiving Jesus into our hearts.” Maybe instead of trying to primarily receive Jesus in our lives, we should first try to give ourselves to Jesus’ life.