Reading Scripture to learn about Jesus

People study the Bible for many reasons.

Reading Scripture to learn about Jesus should be a primary goal for Catholic Christians.

This article will:

  • Teach you some basic principles for knowing the Lord better by reading Scripture.
  • Walk through some important Scripture passages with you to meet Jesus and understand him more personally.

Why develop a "portrait" of Christ?

We should start by saying just why this is so important.

As Christians, we want to follow Christ closely. To follow him closely, to become more like Christ, we must know about him. We have to know what he did, understand his personality, and know how he spoke.

To be accurate, our portrait must be deeply based in Scripture.

But how do we read the Bible in a way that lets us learn about Jesus and form this portrait?

Reading the Bible

My article about how to read the Bible describes a step-by-step method you can use to master the skills needed for reading Scripture. We'll use that method here.

The basic steps are:

  1. Understand the scene
  2. Imagine the scene, in all its detail
  3. Consider a specific aspect of the scene
  4. Draw conclusions (briefly put in words some specific aspect of Christ's personality)
  5. Repeat 3 & 4 until you're done, or you're out of time.

One of the keys to this method is the idea of looking at one specific aspect of a passage at a time. This article focuses on the aspects of:

  • Action
  • Words
  • Attitudes

These categories will help us develop a detailed portrait of Christ.

So let's begin!

Eating with sinners

Our first passage is a scene from Matthew's Gospel:

And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.

And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

But when he [Jesus] heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."

(Mt 9:10-13)

1. Understand the scene

The first step is to understand the scene.

The scene itself is pretty straightforward.

This scene immediately follows the calling of St. Matthew, where Jesus tells Matthew to "follow me" and become an Apostle. Jesus is eating at St. Matthew's house with the other disciples, and "many tax collectors and sinners". Apparently some Pharisees are with them, too.

The Pharisees challenge Jesus for willingly keeping company with "tax collectors and sinners", two despised groups. Essentially, the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of opposing Judaism, and therefore the will of God.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are misinterpreting the will of God. He says that saving sinners is of primary importance. By saying that he "came not to call the righteous, but sinners", Jesus:

  1. Says that he is the Messiah: Jesus equates God's words to Israel in the book of Hosea ("I desire mercy, not sacrifice", Hos 6:6) with his own words ("For I came..."), and identifies his personal mission with the promised saving mission of the Messiah.
  2. Reminds the Pharisees that Israel's history is one of continually going astray (sinning), followed by God's saving action to restore her to righteousness (living in accord with the will & law of God).
  3. Accuses the Pharisees of being self-righteous, since they see themselves as righteous when in fact all are sinners before God.

Jesus claims the words of God as his own: "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). The Pharisees would have seen this as a clear and bold claim to be acting with the authority of God, and even to be God himself. (Indeed, the Pharisees constantly charge Jesus with saying exactly that. That's the main charge for which they crucify him.)

2. Imagine the scene in detail

Imagining this scene will let us see important details about Jesus that we'd otherwise miss.

Remember that it's critical to keep our imagined scene within the bounds of a faithful reading of the scene. We all have a tendency to make the Gospel say something we would like it to say! Keep it real.

So just close your eyes for a minute or two and imagine the scene.

Here are some small examples.

We see Jesus sitting with his disciples. Many of Matthew's friends come in, and many of them are outcasts (tax collectors & sinners). They are drawn by the news that Matthew is leaving; they stay and sit down at the table.

Jesus must have a magnetic, warm personality: they feel welcomed by him. These people are despised publicly wherever they go, but not by Jesus. We can see him giving them a friendly look, welcoming them to join him at the table. He does not condemn them, scold them, or give them a lecture. He just invites.

Jesus must be very confident when he's welcoming these people: he knows that not everyone approves, but he still goes out of his way to welcome everyone who comes to him seeking genuine contact.

Imagine how these outcasts feel about this. Look at their faces; watch how they warm to Jesus, sit with him, and just casually talk. Feel the excitement in the air, and uncertainty: who is this Jesus? Why is our friend, Matthew, leaving us to follow him? And those stories we've heard about Jesus's incredible works — could they be true?

Also imagine the hush that must come over the room when the Pharisees stop by & look in. Feel their reproachful looks, see how important they look — and also how self-important they must feel! They look down at everyone in the room. They look down at Jesus, whom they think is just a trouble-maker.

It's important to imagine things from the Pharisees' point of view, too. After all, they think they're doing the right thing — upholding God's law, admonishing people to live the right way, etc. And Jesus is totally different from what they expected the Messiah to be like. Put yourself in their shoes, too, and feel that tension. (Is he the Messiah? But he can't be! Just look at him! On the other hand, the things we've seen him do.... No, he can't be!)

And also see things through Jesus's eyes. Feel the depth of your love for everyone, and the unquenchable desire to save them all. Know how real the offer of mercy is; extend that offer to everyone you meet.

3. Draw conclusions from specific aspects of the scene

First we'll look at Christ's words in this scene. Here are some things we can learn about Jesus based on what he says:

  • Divine authority: by saying "I came to call sinners" and quoting Hosea to justify his actions and mission, Jesus claims to act with the authority of God.
  • Salvation: By clearly telling us he came to call sinners, Jesus reveals his role as Savior.
  • Compassion: he knows we are "sick" and in need of healing. This healing, like that offered by a physician, is the focus of his saving work.
  • Mercy: Jesus offers us mercy, and wants us to be merciful ourselves.
  • Truth: Jesus clearly and plainly names the truth about things, whether it's about "sinners" or the Pharisees.
  • Proper understanding: Christ stresses the need for us to understand Scripture and his own life properly. (The Pharisees challenge Jesus because they misunderstand both Scripture and the ways of God. Jesus offers them a correct understanding.)

These are important and fundamental points!

Now let's consider another aspect, the actions of Christ and others in this scene. Here's what else we can learn about Jesus:

  • He welcomes sinners into his company. (Be careful to avoid the false conclusion that Jesus is "soft" on sin. That's not consistent with the rest of the Gospels. Jesus combines mercy with a clear call to repentance.)
  • Jesus must have an attractive, magnetic personality: "many... came and sat down" with him.
  • He defends the dignity of everyone, even the outcasts. (The Pharisees just want to shun them; Christ sees them as being in need of salvation and deserving of mercy.)
  • He does not react to the Pharisees' criticism by becoming angry, demonstrating his power, or proving his divinity. He simply tells them the truth and respects their freedom to accept or reject him.
  • He uses ordinary activities (a meal, gatherings with friends) as a means of connecting with us. He also works through us to bring others to him, through our ordinary friendships. (The sinners & tax collectors are in this scene because they're Matthew's friends.)

Finally, we'll note a few points about Jesus from the aspect of his attitude. Christ:

  • Is aware of his mission (to call & save sinners).
  • Speaks with clear authority.
  • Knows that his mission was foretold in the Old Testament (again, he quotes Hosea to justify his actions & describe his mission).
  • Deeply desires to save us and heal our wounds.

That's quite a lot of solid, detailed information! We've made a very good start in our development of a portrait of Jesus.

You should review each of those conclusions.

We're doing this to build up a detailed understanding of Jesus. Make each of those conclusions a part of your own picture of Christ. Each point will help you know him better and follow him more closely.

"If I only touch his garment..."

Let's add to our portrait of Christ. Here's another passage from Matthew:

And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment; for she said to herself, "If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well."

Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And instantly the woman was made well.

(Mt 9:20-22)

1. Understand the scene

This is the story of a miracle: a woman touches Christ's garment and is healed.

Jesus makes a point of encouraging her ("take heart, daughter"). He also says that her faith is what makes her well.

Two other Gospels also contain this story; those other accounts add more detail (see Mk 5:24-34 and Lk 8:42-48). They tell us that a great crowd surrounded Jesus at the time. They also add that Jesus noticed that "power had gone forth from him" (Mk 5:30) when the woman touched him.

One important thing to note is that this woman was ritually "unclean" according to Jewish law. Women were considered impure during their monthly periods. This woman's condition made her impure all of the time. Everyone who touched her would also become unclean (see Leviticus 15:19-31).

This is probably the reason why she acts so discretely: she knows that she cannot ask Jesus to touch her, as that would make him unclean, too.

This scene is like many others that show someone who is unclean, sick, or in sin: their state represents our own. Christ wants each of us to recognize that we, too, are in need of his mercy. Only then can we approach him and be healed.

2. Imagine the scene in detail

Spend a few minutes using your imagination to bring the scene to life. Explore it from the point of view of the woman, Jesus, and someone in the crowd.

By using our imagination in this way, we can experience the attitudes and dispositions of people who seek Jesus in the Gospel scenes. This is a great help in making these dispositions our own.

It also lets us understand the ways in which our Lord interacts with people. We need to know that if we, too, are going to interact with him on a daily basis.

3. Draw conclusions from specific aspects of the scene

This scene confirms much of what we learned in the last scene: Jesus welcomes outcasts (this woman is unclean), desires to heal us, is aware of his divinity (he acknowledges that strong faith leads people to seek contact with him), and knows that part of his mission is to cure the sick (this was prophesied in Isaiah).

Considering Christ's words in this scene shows us two additional things about him:

  • He wants us to know that faith is what saves us, as it healed the woman in this scene. Faith leads us to believe in Christ and to seek him of our own free will.
  • Jesus wants us to "take heart", to have hope: we can be cured of our own sicknesses (a symbol of sin), if only we have faith.

The simple action in this scene tells us:

  • Jesus wants us to actively seek contact with him. It is not enough to think he's a nice guy, or even to believe that Jesus is God: we must get close to him and touch him.
  • Christ himself makes the woman clean — thus he surpasses the ritual law of the Old Covenant. (Note that Jesus does not react in anger when she, an unclean woman, touches him. Jesus knows that he is greater than the ritual law; he fulfills the law (see Mt 5:17).)
  • Again we see that Jesus works through very ordinary actions and in everyday circumstances.

Finally, it is essential to understand some details of attitude here. These dispositions are at the foundation of this woman's faith. Christ requires these dispositions of us, too, if we are to get close to him:

  • Humility: the woman give us an excellent example of humility. She understands that she is sick, and knows that Christ is the only one who can heal her. She knows she is unworthy to have him touch her (she is unclean), so she approaches him discretely.
  • Desire for healing: Once humility leads us to see our own sickness, hope must drive us to desire healing.
  • Complete confidence in Christ's power to heal & transform: this woman knows Christ can heal her "if I only touch his garment...." Her physical cure is merely a sign of the supernatural transformation Christ wants to cause in each of us.

Vine & branches

We'll consider one more Scripture passage in detail for this article. This time, it's a passage from the Gospel of John:

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples."

(Jn 15:1-8)

1. Understand the scene

This beautiful passage relates Jesus's words to the remaining eleven Apostles at the end of the Last Supper, after Judas has left to betray Jesus. These verses come near the beginning of a long discourse in which Jesus tells the Apostles he is about to be killed.

Although Jesus is speaking to the Apostles, we should read this passage as if he's speaking to us, too. (We should read all of Scripture this way: it is God's word, always current and fresh, meant for us.)

This passage, rich and full of meaning, is pretty easy to understand. Essentially, Jesus tells us that union with him is essential for life. Without that union, we will die.

2. Imagine the scene in detail

This scene just shows Jesus talking — there is no other action in it.

Still, it's important to use your imagination with this scene, too. Make the scene vivid: hang on every word from the lips of Christ, hear what he emphasizes, listen to his tone of voice.

Sit with the Apostles and keep your eyes on the Master. He's telling you something essential here, right before he's betrayed; try understand his words deeply.

Also see the scene through the eyes of Jesus. Your Apostles are growing anxious and uncertain; see how your words affect them and bring them peace in the midst of uncertainty.

3. Draw conclusions from specific aspects of the scene

Although the action here is simple (Jesus speaks to his Apostles), we can still learn important things from it:

  • Words are important to the Christ, the Word of God. The Gospels, and all of Scripture, are a treasury of divine truths that God deeply desires us to know about for our salvation. These are the words of eternal life (see Jn 6:68). Read them, understand them, pray them — and live them!
  • Jesus uses familiar and common things to teach us. Here, he uses a simple metaphor of a vine & branches to teach us profound truths about our relationship to him, and to the Father.

Christ's words in this passage tell us very specific things about him:

  • Jesus and the Father are distinct Persons. (John's Gospel provides some of clearest evidence of the Trinity found in Scripture.)
  • Christ's mission is to provide life to us. The vine is a beautiful image of Christ's complete, self-giving love: he devotes his life to giving us life.
  • Jesus gives us life through our close union with him.
  • He wants our union to be so close that we become a part of Christ himself, as a branch is part of the whole vine.
  • Jesus gives us this life so we can "bear fruit" ourselves.
  • He knows the purpose of his life is to glorify the Father. This will be the "fruit" we bear, too. It becomes the ultimate purpose of our lives.
  • Jesus wants us to know that refusing to "abide" in him means choosing death.

This is much-needed background about Christ's identity, his mission, our relationship to him, and our own mission.

These are fundamental points to understand about Jesus!

A strong start in our portrait of Christ

We've considered only three Scripture passages in this article, and yet we've already built a very strong and accurate portrait of Christ.

This portrait gives us a solid basis for many things:

  • Prayer
  • Contemplating the life of Christ in Scripture
  • Reading the rest of Scripture
  • Spreading the faith with others
  • Helping others to grow in their own understanding of Christ

Our goal in this article was to learn how to read Scripture in a way that lets us learn about Jesus. There isn't anything magic about these three passages; you can use this simple method to learn a great deal from just about any passage in the Gospels.

Here are five other passages that are good "next steps" as you are reading the Bible to learn about Jesus:

  • Mark 1:14-15 (The proclamation of the Kingdom)
  • Matthew 13:1-24 (Parable of the sower)
  • Mark 1:32-39 (Healing & casting out demons)
  • Mark 2:1-13 (Curing the paralytic)
  • Luke 5:1-11 ("Let down your nets for a catch...")

You can read through them at your own pace, practicing what you've learned in this article.

And now that you've started...

Keep going! You're making great strides in your desire to make Scripture a strong part of your Christian faith!

A whole new life awaits you.

"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

(Jn 10:10)

You can visit the main article about Catholic Bible study, or check our home page for more articles about the Catholic faith!