To say the Gospels aim at telling a story from beginning to end with a single, primary ‘point’ is also to argue that there things the Gospels are not (primarily, least) about.
I’m reading NT Wright’s new book, How God Became King, in which Wright argues that for most of its history Western Christianity has missed the plot and point the Gospels writers intended to convey in their story. The story the Gospels tell, Wright says, is one in which God in Christ becomes King of Earth as in Heaven. This is why the Gospels give so much space to Jesus’ Kingdom teaching. Ascension then is less denouement than climax.
But if this is what the Gospels are about then the Gospels are not about other, commonly assumed things:
Going to Heaven
The Gospels tell a story not where people go to heaven when they die but where God’s people pray for the Kingdom of Heaven to be brought to Earth.
Jesus’ Ethical Teachings
The Gospels do not tell a story of Jesus the Teacher whose career was upended by those who didn’t like what he had to say. Jesus was not, as we like to think today, a 1st century Jewish analogue to the Buddha or Ben Franklin. Jesus wasn’t offering a teaching as we think of it, as a set of ideals or precepts. Jesus’ teachings were a part of his Kingdom announcement: that through him a whole new world was drawing near.
Jesus, the Moral Exemplar
In the same way the Gospels do not tell teachings, the Gospels do not tell a story primarily about a Jesus whose perfect holiness, faith and love show us how we should live and be. If this were the story the Gospels tell then they’re failures, Wright says, because none of us can possibly hope to live according to his exceedingly perfect example. The Gospels cannot be reduced to Jesus showing us how its done.
Jesus, the Perfect Sacrifice
This is the most difficult assumption to undo because the notion of Jesus dying for our sin is the single most common definition of what Christians mean by ‘gospel.’ But if the Gospels aim to tell the same story that Paul tells then they fail because it’s not at all obvious the Gospels are trying to tell a story of Jesus, the victim without blemish, dying as a sacrifice for our sin.
Proving Jesus’ Divinity
Many assume that the purpose of the Gospels was to prove Jesus’ divinity. The Gospels though don’t try to prove his divinity, they simply presuppose it. Getting back to what Wright sees as the Gospels primary story, the Gospels’ understanding of Jesus’ divinity is wrapped up with the Kingdom Jesus ushers in to our world.