Chronology and theology often go hand-in-hand in the Bible. The “when” can sometimes mean just as much to us as the “what.” Whether it be a matter of which twin was born first, why the law came after God made promises to Abraham, or the fact that Jesus died on Passover, it’s clear that time and order matter to God, and therefore should matter to us as readers. Such is the case for understanding when the New Testament actually begins and how we should read the pre-cross portions of the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
It’s easy to assume everything in the Bible has an equal bearing on our life, but the Bible itself doesn’t operate that way. Even though it’s all God’s word, it says that parts of it are greater and other parts are lesser, not unlike how God created the sun and moon as “greater and lesser lights” (Gen 1:16). There are sources of light and there are reflectors of light. There are shadows and there are realities. Promises and fulfillments. They don’t all have the same luster.
When we let the Bible speak to what’s going on between Jesus’s birth and arrest, we find that those printed words right before Matthew 1 (“The New Testament”) might be a little misleading. The New Testament begins at the cross, not the manger. It might start to break in when the angels announce his birth, and when he starts healing and delivering the demonized, but the dawn of the New Testament doesn’t fully break until Jesus dies on the cross.
We see it best at the last supper. Luke 22:20 explicitly connects Jesus’s death with the New Testament by saying, “He took the cup, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” Hebrews 9 relatedly says the New Testament is like a will that doesn’t go into effect until the one who wrote it dies. We are the beneficiaries of the will, but until Jesus dies, it remains a promise. Promises are good, but they are by definition forward-looking.
Reading the pre-cross Gospel genre, then, is almost like reading the Old Testament, as though it’s preparatory rather than absolute. More moon than sun. But this helps us make more sense of Jesus’s healing ministry—how the healings serve as pictures of spiritual healing that will be granted to us through the cross. It gives us a more balanced perspective on the sermon on the mount—how parts of it serve a law-like function in bringing us low so that we’ll see our need for Jesus all the more. It answers for us why there are no parables after the cross, why Jesus often seeks to hide his identity as the Messiah, why he was baptized, why he says his disciples will do greater things than he, etc., etc., etc. The list goes on.
It also protects us from reducing Jesus’s teachings to simple moralisms. Take Mark 12 for example, the so-called “greatest commandment passage” that often gets treated as if it were an ethical bullseye for a Christian’s day-to-day spirituality. But does Mark 12 teach that followers of Jesus wake up each day underneath the demands of the greatest commandment? What if we read this passage as forward-looking rather than absolute? Let’s read from verses 28-34:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
It’s pretty simple on one level. A scribe asks Jesus a question about the greatest commandment. Jesus answers: “Love God and love your neighbor.” The scribe agrees, and almost acts like he’s the one teaching Jesus (which should send up a huge red flag — hold that thought), and then he distinguishes the laws by placing love over sacrifice. Jesus responds with an apparent affirmation: “You are not far from the kingdom.”
The first thing to note is that the scribe gets at least one thing right. He sees how love is greater than sacrifice (or, more broadly, the law). It’s a nod to Hosea 6:6 — “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” which looks ahead to a time when mercy would come to replace the old system altogether. Now, we know the scribe wasn’t connecting all the dots here, but this is partly why Jesus says he answered wisely. He was on to something.
More importantly, though, Jesus says the scribe (wise answer notwithstanding) is only near to the kingdom — not “in.” Don’t miss that. The scribe is close (by seeing that love is greater than law), but he is not in yet. In other words, it isn’t enough to know the greatest commandment. He needs something more, and that something is staring him right in the face. To look at it from another angle: consider how “Love God, love people” is never repeated later in the New Testament post-cross. Instead, in places like 1 John 4:10, we see a different emphasis: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Then in verse 19: “We love because he first loved us.” See the difference? The law says, “Love God perfectly, or die.” The gospel says, “You don’t love God (you can’t! you haven’t!), but he loved you by sending his Son to die in your place.” Our love, then, is borrowed, it’s shared; it reflects the greater “sunlight” of how Christ laid down his life for us.
So in the church-vision-statement world, “Love God, love people” is a hollow vision statement. There’s no gospel in it. No good news. Just a summation of the law, a notable absence of Jesus, and poor biblical theology. The gospel is not a command to love but news that Jesus has loved us to hell and back. We are no longer under the law—the covenant of scorecards—labeled and identified by how well we are loving God and others. We are under the New Covenant of grace, God’s loudest demonstration of love for us in Christ.
When we start to believe this, that’s where true change comes from. Desiring to love God more and put others’ needs before our own is a good thing. But the first (and really, only) step is to think less about the “greatest commandment,” less about ourselves altogether, and more about the gospel. Whereas the rules poke at us from the outside, the gospel woos us from within, beckons us to drink deeply of this new wine, and frees us up to love others in the way we’ve first been loved.