The next best thing gives us access to the best thing
On one occasion during my childhood, my mother came back from an interstate trip and presented me and my brother with an autograph of Rodney Marsh - a famous Australian cricketer from the 1970's and 80's. She had come across him at a check-in queue at an airport. My natural question was to ask "What was he like", and so my mother told me a bit about what he was like.
We all like to meet important people first hand and if we can't, we like to speak to people who have had the opportunity to meet them.
It was the same with Christians in the first century AD. During the first few generations of Christians, people used to highly value the opportunity to talk with someone who had actually met Jesus. And then as those eyewitnesses died, people like Papius, valued the opportunity to talk with people who had met some of those eyewitnesses. They wanted to know what Jesus was like, what he did, and what he taught.
I have highly valued the teaching of Dallas Willard (people at church wait for Dallas Willard references in my sermons). He passed away in 2013 and it is no longer possible to meet him. But about five years before that I was blessed to attend a two week live in residential retreat led by Dallas Willard. I slept in a bedroom a few doors away from Dallas's room, as a group we ate meals together, and I had opportunities to talk with him. If you were to ask me "What was Dallas like?", I would say he thoughtful, insightful, humble, generous, witty, and accessible - just as he comes across in his books and audio and video recordings.
It is no longer possible to meet Dallas directly. However, we can still get to know him through his books and recordings and what others have written about him. It is the next best thing.
It is similar but much more profound with Jesus.
While you and I weren't around when Jesus was walking this earth, we have access to Gospels. These precious documents were written in the decades after Jesus life while eyewitnesses and people who had met those eyewitnesses were still alive. That means these Gospels came into existence while there were people around who could confirm their accuracy.
So the Gospels are our next best thing. But more than that, they can lead us to the best thing.
It has been the testimony of Christians down through the centuries that they have experienced the presence of Jesus in their everyday lives - helping them, guiding them, changing them, and empowering them. But when we open ourselves to the spiritual dimension of life and start to seek Jesus we need a way to evaluate whether what we are learning and experiencing is really from Jesus. Fortunately we have the Gospels. With wise use they can help us develop a personal interactive realationship with Jesus, and that is not just the next best thing, it is the best thing.
And so this year I encourage you to deeply value the Gospels. Read, meditate, memorize and discuss them. Pray that they would come alive to you in fresh ways. Look to encounter Jesus through them and expect that those encounters will transform you in your everyday life.
* the image above is from the Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels from Ireland