Circa 1973. God had drawn me into youth ministry through Young Life, a non-denominational outreach to teenagers. I was serving teenagers in my hometown, working full-time, and pursuing an engineering degree taking classes a couple nights a week. In the midst of it all, I tried to read scripture with some consistency and with some success. In the 70s, we didn’t have the availability of scripture translations and paraphrases as we do today, but we had a few – King James, Revised Standard, New American Standard, The Living Bible, The Good News Bible, and a favorite of Young Life staff, the J.B. Phillips New Testament.
Early into my Young Life experience, at a volunteer leader training, we were pointed to Colossians 1:15 – Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God (Phillips). The passage, it was explained, was a cornerstone to Young Life talks – we wanted kids to know the real God and the real God made himself visible through Jesus. Jesus revealed God’s character, compassion, and heart for people. In preparing Young Life talks, I diligently worked at helping kids see this Jesus, the visible expression of the God they could not see. A few months into the beginning of my Young Life tenure as a volunteer leader, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t know God or Jesus, save a few stories I learned in Sunday School*…..
In the midst of a fairly busy schedule, I embarked on a year-long quest to know God. It didn’t start as a year-long quest. It started as a one-time reading of the Gospels in my brand new J.B. Phillips New Testament, underlining and highlighting with a red colored pencil as I progressed. After an initial read, I decided to read them again – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – marking the pages with a different color. I was amazed to discover how much I didn’t observe in the first go-around. So I read them again. I soon realized that my eyes were drawn to passages that were already highlighted. So I bought a new bible with a different translation and repeated the process, highlighting new discoveries about Jesus (and thus about God).
Seven translations and a year later I felt I was ready to adequately venture into other parts of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. As I look back 45 years, I have to believe that year was one of the most transformative experiences of my faith journey. It’s what likely saved me from the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It set me up to know Jesus (not just about Jesus). It set me up to give decent Young Life talks. It set me up to be a better husband and father. It set me up to learn to read Scripture exegetically. IT SET ME UP FOR LIFE!
I am amazed how few people have actually read straight through the Gospels even one time, which is why I give everyone I mentor the exact same assignment – read through the Gospels.** When done, I usually have them repeat the process. Invariably, I get the same response – it was a transformative experience (a common ‘practical theology’ theme, you’ll notice). If you happen to be one that has never done a read-through of the Gospels, then you know what I would suggest. I sincerely hope you would heed the suggestion. My heart aches when I realize how few Christians spend time in the Gospels, and thus with Jesus. How else will we ever know Him?
* I had the privilege of joining a group of people to hear George Barna give a researcher’s perspective on what is needed to develop our young people in today’s culture. He said research shows that most church children and youth teachings tend to focus only on about 20 basic Bible stories. (In one of these posts we will need to discuss “kindergarten faith.”)
** ADDENDUM 1/31/2023: Annie F. Downs has created a podcast that will help the listener experience all four Gospels twelve times during the year 2023. It’s called Let’s Read the Gospels. Enjoy!