Sunday, June 05, 2011

Discovering Jesus - Review

Discovering Jesus: Why Four Gospels to Portray One Person? by T. D. Alexander
Reviewed by Paul Manata

Discovering Jesus: Why Four Gospels to Portray One Person?, T. D. Alexander, Crossway, 2010, 141 pages.

In this helpful book - which manages to package an ambitious goal with a wide scope in a slim package - T. Desmond Alexander, the regarded biblical theology scholar, presents the one Jesus introduced in four different Gospels. This book would be most helpful for a new or young Christian or someone undertaking their first study of the Gospels. I believe that after reading this book one will be better prepared to approach the Gospels and understand the basic message of each. Discovering Jesus gives the reader a couple of main themes each Gospel employes and that appear to drive or motivate the Jesus presented in that Gospel. These themes are based on history, though, and are not theological "agendas" produced by the early church to gain the upper-hand in an early battle for religious power. However, all of this is done in a very introductory manner, making it ideal for the beginning Christian or Bible student (though no doubt more well-read students of the Bible could stand to profit from some of the insights). Here's a short overview of the book

Chapter one gives a brief overview of the Gospels. Briefly, similarities and differences between the synoptic gospels are presented — often aided by helpful charts and images — and then John's Gospel and its differences with all the synoptics is covered. The conclusion is that the Gospels all share the same goal — to present the good news of Jesus Christ, and while they do so with different perspectives, these perspectives are also complementary, all combining to give as a well-rounded picture of the most unique individual who has ever lived.

Capter two presents common themes in the Gospels, these are: (1) fulfillment on Scripture, (2) the kingdom of God, (3) hostility, (4) centrality of the passions, (5) salvation and the gentiles, and (6) the importance of faith. These themes are seen to greater or lesser extent in each Gospel, but some authors focus more heavily on some than others. Probably the most important or central theme is (4), which is why the Gospels have sometimes been referred to as "passion narratives with extended introductions."

Chapter three and four focus on Mark's gospel. In approaching Mark, Alexander ever-so-briefly covers introductory issues like authorship and dating. He then presents some of the main themes that can be distilled from Mark. He finds that Mark focuses heavily on the theme of "Jesus as the son of God who suffers to ransom others," and secondly the notion of discipleship, which is tied together with the first theme in that disciples follow Jesus in the way of the cross.

Chapter five and six focus on Matthew's gospel. He offers the same kinds of introductory remarks on authorship and dating as he did with Mark and then looks at key Matthean themes. The first theme is the theme of conflict. He notes Matthew is keen to point this out and especially focuses on the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leadership, which is interesting since Matthew's is the most "Jewish" of the Gospels. The second theme, in keeping with the Jewishness of the Gospel, is the idea that Jesus is King, a King who descended from David. Jesus is the son of David, the divinely promised Messiah who inaugurates the kingdom of heaven.

Chapters seven and eight turn to Luke's Gospel. As with the above, similar introductory remarks are made. After these comments, Alexander turns to the first major theme found in Luke, i.e., the Holy Spirit. He points out how Luke is especially interested in the Holy Spirit, more so than the other Gospels. A second theme pointed out in the Holy Spirit chapter is that of prayer. The next chapter looks at Luke's theme of Jesus as the one who comes to seek and save the lost. Alexander points out how Luke addresses this notion of "finding the lost" more than the other evangelists. Salvation is a major factor, especially the salvation of those of a lowly social status as well as gentiles. Luke presents Jesus as the savior of the world to seek the lost. The last chapter briefly ends with the theme of joy and happiness, the appropriate reaction of those who have been saved.

Chapters nine and ten approach the final Gospel, John's. Similar introductory comments on authorship, dating, and structure are made. The first theme is that of believing (though John's Gospel is "too rich" to really find themes to encapsulate his ideas). He notes John clearly encourages and wants his readers to believe, "psiteuo" (to believe) occurs ninety-eight times, over 1/4 of all occurrences in the New Testament. The next theme is that of the new exodus. Alexander describes how John seeks to make comparisons between Jesus and the book of Exodus. There are several similarities here, from the "signs" intended to induce belief, to the "I am" statements, to the passover, and to the leading of the covenant people out of slavery and into new life. So jesus is presented as the Lamb of God who brings eternal life through a new exodus.

Chapter eleven briefly looks at the composition of the Gospels, covering the "synoptic problem," i.e., how do we account for the similarity between them, which Gospel has priority, and Alexander seems to come down on the side of Markan priority. Alexander then turns to different ideas about the Gospels, whether they are biographies, proclamations, distinctive theologies, or stories. While these views have their problems, especially the last three, there is some truth to all of them. However, the main thing to keep in mind is that history underwrites the story. The good news is rooted in history, and unintelligible apart from it.

The last chapter (twelve) is a review and final observations. The final observations are to grasp the full significance and weight of words like "Jesus is Lord and savior," and to recognize that Jesus is more than a mere man, he's the God-man, "the most unique and incredible 'man' who ever lived and continues to live."

Alexander also includes a helpful biography for "further reading" so that you can take the basic foundation he's laid and expand on it.

All-in-all, this is a helpful book. It is introductory, and several issues are not discussed, or if they are, only briefly. Issues such as seeming "contradictions" or "inconsistencies" between the gospels are not even mentioned, though one might get the idea that they would be given the topic of the book and prior knowledge of questions that are asked of the "differing Gospels." Thus this book isn't very helpful for apologetic issues, though there may be some slight relevance to those discussions to be found, but those issues are really too minimally covered. If this is kept in mind and expectations are in-line with the topic of the book — finding key themes of the Gospels — readers, especially beginning students, should profit from this little book. It can inaugurate or give direction to your studies of Jesus. As Darrell Bock says on the back cover, "Discovering Jesus will get you well-oriented and open up a lifetime of reflection about Jesus."

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