When reading the Gospel, do not seek pleasure, do not seek exalted states, and do not seek brilliant thoughts—seek to see the unadulterated, holy truth.
Do not be satisfied with a mere fruitless reading of the Gospel; strive to fulfill its commandments, and read it with your deeds. This is the book of life, and you have to read it with your life.
Do not think that there is no reason why the most sacred of books, the Four Gospels, begins with the Gospel of St. Matthew and ends with the Gospel of St. John. Matthew teaches more about how to fulfill God’s will, and his instructions are particularly appropriate for beginners on the path to God; John expounds upon the image of the union of God with man renewed by the commandments, which is something accessible only to those who are progressing along the divine path.
When opening the book of the Holy Gospel to read it, remember that it decides your fate. We will be judged according to it, and depending upon how we were here on Earth with regard to it, we will receive our lot either in eternal blessedness, or eternal punishment (cf. Jn. 12:48).
God revealed His will to a paltry speck of dust: man! In your hands is the book in which His great and all-holy will has been set forth. You can accept it, or you can reject the will of your Creator and Savior—it all depends upon what you yourself want. Your eternal life and eternal death are in your own hands—just think how careful and wise you must be. Do not trifle with your eternal fate!
Pray with a contrite spirit to the Lord, so that He would open your eyes to see the wonders hidden in His Law (cf. Ps. 118:18), which is the Gospel. Your eyes will be opened, and you will behold the wondrous healing of the soul from sin, which is wrought by God’s word. The very healing of bodily infirmities was merely proof of the healing of the soul—proof for fleshly people, for minds palsied by sensuality (cf. Lk. 5:24).
Read the Gospels with extreme reverence and attention. Do not consider anything in them to be of little importance or unworthy of full contemplation. Every iota of it radiates life. And to be negligible about life is death.
Read about the lepers, the paralyzed, the blind, the lame, and the demonically possessed whom the Lord healed; contemplate the fact that your soul, which bears many different forms of the wounds of sin and is held captive by the demons, is just like these sick people. Learn from the Gospel to have faith that the Lord Who healed them will also heal you, if you will diligently pray to Him for your healing.
Acquire a disposition of soul that enables you to receive healing. Those who are capable of receiving healing are those who recognize their sinfulness and resolve to abandon it (cf. Jn 9:39-41). For the proud righteous man, that is, the sinner, who does not see his sinfulness, the Savior is unnecessary and useless (cf. Matt. 9:13).
Vision of our sins, vision of the fallen state that the entire human race is in, is a special gift of God. Pray down this gift for yourself, and the Heavenly Doctor’s book—the Gospels—will be more comprehensible to you.
Strive to assimilate the Gospel with your mind and heart, so that your mind would, so to speak, swim in it, live in it. Then your activities will more readily become evangelical. This can be achieved through constant, reverent reading and study of the Bible.
St. Pachomius the Great, one of the most well known of the ancient fathers, knew the Holy Gospel by heart and imputed to his disciples, as God revealed to him, the essential need to learn it. In this way the Gospel accompanied them everywhere, and guided them always.
Even now, why shouldn’t Christian educators adorn the memories of innocent children with the Gospel, instead of littering them with Aesop’s fables and various sorts of rubbish?
What happiness, what riches is the acquisition of the Gospels by memory! We can’t foresee the drastic changes and catastrophes that can happen to us throughout our earthly life. When it is possessed by memory the Gospel can be read by the blind; it goes to prison with the prisoner; it speaks to the laborer in the field, bedewing him; it instructs the judge during the trial; it guides the merchant at the market; it gladdens the sick during exhausting sleeplessness and oppressive solitude.
Do not dare to explain the Gospel and other books of Holy Scripture yourself. The Scriptures were pronounced by the holy prophets and apostles, and they were pronounced not at their own will, but by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Pet. 1:21). How could it be anything but madness to explain them according to our own will?
Having pronounced the word of God through the prophets and apostles, the Holy Spirit expounded upon it through the holy fathers. And both the word of God and its explanation are gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is the only explanation the Holy Orthodox Church accepts! This is the only explanation accepted by her true children!
Whoever explains the Gospels and all the Scriptures according to his own will thus rejects the explanation of them by the holy fathers, the Holy Spirit. Whoever rejects the explanation of Scripture by the Holy Spirit, undoubtedly rejects also the Holy Scriptures themselves.
And it can happen that the word of God, the word of salvation, for its presumptuous exegists becomes the savour of death, a double-edged sword, with which they pierce themselves unto eternal perdition (cf. 2 Pet 3:16; 2 Cor 2:15–16). Arius, Nestorius, Eutichius, and other heretics murdered themselves forever with it, for they willfully and presumptuously explained the Scriptures unto blasphemy.
But to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word (Is. 66:2) says the Lord. Be this way with regard to the Gospels and the Lord, Who is present in them.
Leave your sinful life behind, leave your earthly passions and pleasures, renounce them with your soul, and then the Gospel will become accessible and understandable to you.
The Lord says, He that hateth his life in this world—the soul who has rejected fallennness and love of sin as if by nature, as if by his life—shall keep it [his life] unto life eternal (Jn. 12:25). But the Gospel is closed to him who loves his own life, who does not have the resolve for self-denial; he reads the letters, but the word of life as the Spirit remains hidden from him as if behind an impenetrable veil. When the Lord was on earth in His most pure flesh, many saw Him, while many others did not. What good is it when a person looks with his bodily eyes, which he possesses in common with the animals, but sees nothing with the eyes of his soul—the mind and heart? And these days as well, many read the Gospel and yet have never read it, and do not know it at all.
As one venerable desert dweller said, the Gospel must be read with a pure mind, and is understood according to the measure that the reader fulfills its commandments by his deeds. But it is not possible to acquire a precise and perfect revelation of the Gospel through your own efforts—this is a gift of Christ.
When the Holy Spirit has come to abide in the His true and faithful servant, He makes him also a perfect reader, and a true fulfiller of the Gospel.
The Gospel is a depiction of the qualities of the new Man, Who is The Lord from Heaven (1 Cor. 15:47). This new Man is God by nature. The holy tribe of His people, who believe in Him and are transformed in Him, He makes gods according to grace.
You who are wallowing in the stinking, filthy morass of sins and find pleasure in this! Lift up your heads and look at the pure heavens—that is your place! God gives you the dignity of gods, and you, rejecting that dignity, choose another worth for yourself: the worth of animals—and the most impure ones at that. Come to your senses! Leave that foul-smelling morass, cleanse yourselves with the confession of your sins, wash yourselves with tears of repentance, make yourselves beautiful with tears of contrition, rise from the earth and ascend to the heavens—the Gospel summons you there. While ye have light—The Gospel, in which Christ is hidden as a treasure—believe in the light, that ye may be the children of Light—which is Christ (Jn 12:36).
From Ascetical Experience by St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)