Few things about the New Testament puzzle me more than some of the things you do not read there. With one small exception in Luke, for instance, the vast majority of the incarnate life of God’s only Son is completely bracketed. Matthew and Luke give us glimpses of Jesus’ birth but then fast-forward a few decades to his baptism. Mark and John don’t give us even that much of Jesus’ pre-ministry life but begin the story in media res as Jesus emerges out of nowhere to take up a public ministry. Did nothing of interest or importance happen during the growing-up years of our Lord? That’s a little hard to believe!
Harry Truman lived a fairly quiet life before he was catapulted to the presidency. But even though Truman’s “big” deeds happened only after he moved into the White House, it is still fascinating to read David McCullough’s cracking good biography of Truman, replete with chapter after chapter on Harry’s youth in Independence, Missouri. Because Truman became famous later in life, a lot of that material is interesting, even instructive.
The gospel writers, of course, were not writing a biography of Jesus and so can be excused for deleting Jesus’ early life. If you are writing a gospel, your focus is proclamation. As John the evangelist put it overtly two times near the end of his gospel, you need to include material that helps people believe that Jesus is the Son of God sent to save the world. If that is the calculus you use to determine what to include and what to leave out, the biographical details of Jesus’ years in middle school don’t make the cut.
But the same cannot be said for what I find to be the most striking omission of the gospels: the forty days between Easter and the Ascension. If you take away John 20-21, what’s left is pretty sketchy. Even John 21 is a somewhat underwhelming story that contains no new teachings or parables or revelations from Jesus. A homey little story about breakfast on the beach, it’s a far cry from the kind of drama and fireworks you might expect to find while the resurrected Lord of lords, the King of kings, is strolling around the earth!
Inquiring Minds Want to Know
One passage that recently spun my head around is a tiny little line in Acts 1:4 that begins, “On one occasion while Jesus was eating with them. . . .” Inquiring minds want to know: just how many such “occasions” were there across those forty days!? What did they talk about? Did Jesus offer any new parables, sermons, or teachings about the Father? Did he perform any miracles during those six or so weeks? And what exactly was it like to be in the presence of the One who quite literally embodied the future of the cosmos as a resurrected person who could never die again? Casually mentioning, as Luke does in Acts 1, that one evening they just happened to be having dinner with Jesus is startling when you think about it. Sort of like having a friend of yours say, “So the other day I was talking to the President and I said to him, ‘Barack . . .”
It turns out that preachers have very little to work with from Easter until Ascension Day (really until Pentecost too, as that next set of ten days is not talked about either). You’d think that, unlike Jesus’ early life, whatever happened post-resurrection would rise to the level of gospel material. But it’s just not there. Even with Jesus alive and well, embodying the future of us all, what we are left with is everything contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John right up to the resurrection.
Maybe that tells us something. Even with Jesus walking around the earth post-Easter, apparently the disciples—and soon the world through those disciples—had everything they needed to know regarding the truth about God, salvation, and the nature of grace and hope. There was nothing more to add. It’s as though the four gospels are saying that if you cannot believe everything Jesus said and did leading up to his death and resurrection, you’re unlikely to be moved by some postscripts tacked on after he was raised from the dead. After his resurrection, Jesus essentially told the disciples—and through them, the world—“I think I’ve said it all. I’ve given you enough. Go and preach what you saw and heard. It will be sufficient.”
The Old, Old Story
That’s not a bad reminder for us preachers, and perhaps the period surrounding Ascension Day and Pentecost is a good time to ponder it. After all, throughout history, but especially in our media-driven culture with its incessant hankering for novelty, preachers have been tempted to act as though the basic gospel message is not enough. We feel like we need to add to it. Instead of just repeating the old, old story, some preachers try to morph into entertainers. Or they take on the mantle of Dr. Phil by becoming dispensers of good advice on career decisions, child rearing, marriage enrichment, leadership, and a host of other topics. (Friends of mine and their children recently left a service at a megachurch they were visiting because the pastor said the sermon would be about sexual practices in marriage and so children under a certain age needed to be dismissed.) Based on the sermon titles I peruse when looking through newspapers that advertise church services, preachers are really interested in giving tips to help people be successful and find purpose and balance in their lives.
But when those things take center stage, there’s a danger that the greatest story ever told may start to recede into the background. Yet the fact is that the gospel writers—and apparently also Jesus himself—
believed in the sufficiency of the gospel as it had already been presented. They did not feel the need to add to it with new material, even from the goings-on that took place during those forty days when Jesus was present on this earth as the resurrected Savior and Lord of all.
So what did they talk about on those “occasions” when they had dinner? I have no clue. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they reminisced about that time when Jesus fed five thousand folks from just a wee bit of bread, or that time when Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed, or that time when all those Samaritans in Sychar came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. They probably talked about the gospel.
So should we.