Below are principles for reading and interpreting the Gospels responsibly.
(1) Have a basic understanding of three major categories related to each Gospel: history, literature and theology. History relates to a Gospel’s background and includes such matters as the author, setting, date and purposes. Literature includes such things as genre (type of literature) and structure (outline). Theology relates to a Gospel’s major themes. A well-written Study Bible will provide information related to each of these categories (e.g., NIV Study Bible). They are important as they provide the context (e.g., setting, structure) and rules (e.g., genre) for reading the Gospels responsibly.
(2) Read the Gospels. Read the Gospels from beginning to end (i.e., start at the beginning). Read the Gospels repeatedly. Read the Gospels taking note of the details (e.g., Mark 5:35-41, esp. vv. 39, 41). Read the Gospels paying attention to what Jesus says and does (e.g., Mark 10:32-34). Read the Gospels paying attention to the editorial comments made by the biblical author (e.g., Mark 7:19; Luke 18:9). Read the Gospels paying attention to what characters say about/to Jesus (e.g., Mark 9:7). Read the Gospels reflecting on your personal response to their message. Unfortunately, many people do not read the Bible very carefully. Do your best to be a careful reader of Scripture.
(3) Pay attention to the introduction (beginning) of each Gospel as it reveals the major theological emphasis of the writing. Matthew’s major theological theme is Jesus is the Messiah and this is revealed in the introduction (Matt 1:1; see also 1:16, 17; 16:16). Mark’s major theological theme, Jesus is the Son of God, is also made known in his introduction (Mark 1:1; see also 15:39). The same is also true with John (i.e., Jesus is the divine Christ, the Son of God, John 1:1). Luke is a little different, however.
(4) Look for repetition of key themes. See, e.g., the theme of “kingdom” in Matthew 13: Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:10-11, 18-19), Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matt 13:24), Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt 13:31), Parable of the Leaven (Matt 13:33), Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matt 13:44), Parable of the Costly Pearl (Matt 13:45) and Parable of the Dragnet (Matt 13:47). The “kingdom” in Matthew refers to the rule or reign of God.
(5) Ask, “What is the author trying to say?” And, “What message does he seek to communicate about key themes/ideas in his Gospel?” You must recognize that each Gospel author is trying to communicate with his readers. Pay attention to what he is trying to say. Don’t read your own, personal meaning into the text.
(6) If you are reading a Gospel and are unsure as to what theme the writer is seeking to communicate, keep in mind that both Christology or discipleship are good choices. Why do I say this? Christology and discipleship are two important themes in each Gospel, though Christology is the more significant theme. Granted, while they are not the main theme of every verse, they are quite prominent in many passages.
(7) Recognize that like other ancient literary works, the Gospels do not always present events in the chronological (historical) order in which they occurred. Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 each contain an account of Satan’s temptation of Jesus. One cannot help but notice that there is an important difference, namely, the order of the temptations. Either Matthew or Luke has rearranged the order of the temptations for the purpose of emphasizing a certain theological theme (e.g., Matthew put the temple in the middle to emphasize the temple to his Jewish audience). Rearranging the chronology of historical events was acceptable literary practice in ancient times, not literary error.
(8) Know how a passage relates to its immediate context as well as to the overall structure of the entire Gospel. Here we refer to literary context. For example, Luke 9:18-22 (passage) is part of a larger context known as the so-called “Travel Narrative” (Luke 9:51-19:27), which comprises about thirty-eight percent of Luke’s Gospel. The Travel Narrative itself is part of the overall structure of Luke’s Gospel and is significant because it shows Jesus traveling to the cross, His final destination.