Nothing Can Ever Replace the Gospel

This article was the report presented by Schema-Archimandrite Abraham (Reidman), the spiritual father of the St. Alexander Nevsky-Novo-Tikhvin Convent in Ekaterinburg, at the regional monastic conference, about a Book that always presents something new to us, about how to acquire the virtue of reading the Gospel—simple only at first glance—and about how to read the Gospel so that it brings forth wonderful fruit.


For us Orthodox Christians, it would seem to be self-evident that we are obliged to live according to the Gospel—otherwise we can’t call ourselves Christians. And, of course, we can live according to the Gospel only if we read the Gospel a lot, as said the Holy Fathers of antiquity—let us study it deeply, with our hearts.

Today there’s a widespread idea that it’s impossible to fulfill the Gospel: These are the wrong times, they say. Therefore, it’s not necessary to read it. But all Orthodox Christians, and especially monastics, must firmly understand that the Gospel is the basis of our lives. If we base everything we do on the commandments, it will put our life on a stable foundation. The Gospel is a universal teaching that can be fulfilled anywhere and everywhere. Wherever we are, however we’re dressed, we must build our entire life—both internal and external—on the Gospel, as on a rock.

No one can ever cancel the Gospel, and nothing will replace it. This is why reading the Gospel, reflecting upon it, taking the Gospel truth into our hearts is an obligatory part of the Christian life. The Gospel is life itself. It naturally combines dogmas and moral truths, confirmed by the living example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Whom we are called to emulate.

How can we consciously undertake this emulation? The meaning of the Gospel is revealed to us precisely when we try to fulfill it. Since it’s mostly just distracted reading for us, it remains hidden for us. If we delve into this reading and force ourselves to fulfill the commandments, we’ll gradually begin to feel the vitality of the Gospel, to understand how we can really take the next step in our moral development. Of course, our prayer is of great importance here. But we can also say that it’s one of the Gospel commandments.

Reading the Gospel, some say it’s incomprehensible; others, conversely, seem to think everything is clear. I must caution the latter. The Gospel text is set out in the simplest of words—after all, the Savior, and the Evangelists after him, articulated the teaching necessary for our salvation, and it should be understandable to everyone—therefore, there can be the illusion that everything in the Gospel is clear. But it isn’t so. I would advise reading the New Testament more often, especially the Gospel, in Church Slavonic, so that any ambiguity of meaning that arises when reading in this language—not colloquial, but purely ecclesiastical, prayerful—would force us to sense that, in fact, we don’t understand the Gospel.1 When reading the Russian text, we think we understand everything, but we understand everything incorrectly, or even simply don’t realize what we’re reading. We have to be delivered of this illusion. If the Gospel is presented simply, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand and fulfill. The comprehension of the Gospel depends neither on mental abilities, nor on philosophical sophistication, nor on any other science, but on spiritual experience. And since real spiritual experience is something very rare and rather elusive, it turns out that the Gospel has only an apparent simplicity for many.

Therefore, it’s better to turn to the commentaries of the Holy Fathers. I would advise first reading the most authoritative source—the interpretation of Blessed Theophylact of Bulgaria. You can read St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on the Gospel, but he only commented on two Gospels—Matthew and John. St. Theophylact took his interpretation mainly from St. John Chrysostom, but supplemented it with the interpretations of other, later Fathers. His book is a compilation of the highest order. Having read the interpretation of Blessed Theophylact, we can read the reflections of other authors on the Gospel and take something useful from them. If we’re interested in the Gospel and want to understand it well, this is, of course, quite commendable.

The interpreter certainly doesn’t make the Gospel wiser—it would be almost blasphemous to say this—rather, he elevates the people listening to him to the heights of the Gospel, which is inaccessible to them themselves because the grace of God hasn’t touched them yet and hasn’t enlightened their minds. Therefore, the Holy Fathers who interpreted the Holy Gospel used it not just as an occasion for discourse, as a kind of canvas for their deep reflections. In the deepest contemplation through reading the words of the Gospel, they truly saw the innermost meaning of the Gospel, which is inaccessible to non-spiritual people.

Now I would like to say a few words about the fruits that reading the Gospel brings us. First, it’s an excellent means of strengthening our faith. When we constantly read about Gospel events and vividly perceive them, then a struggle begins in our mind: Do we accept or not the miracle of turning water into wine, for example? We accept it, obeying our conscience—and our faith is strengthened to a greater or lesser extent. When we read the Gospel, our mind constantly encounters events or teachings that it doesn’t want to accept. But if we are allies of our conscience, if we sincerely desire to believe, then the Gospel constantly wins out over our egotistical, selfish common sense in this struggle, and our faith is strengthened. This happens because with such a reading we can say that we hear the preaching of the Apostles, after which, of course, people turned to faith.

Second, when our faith becomes firmer, then, accordingly, the feeling of eternity is strengthened. Eternity stands before us as a close, inevitable reality, and the fear that we could go there unprepared, not having managed to repent, increases in a man. Thus, reading the Gospel stirs up the memory of death in a man, no matter how strange it may seem at first glance.

Sometimes when reading the Gospel we are suddenly pierced by a sense of eternity, that is, there appears the certainty that everything we believe in and read about in the Gospel is real. This feeling grips us with fear. Then this feeling gradually begins to develop (however, it may also fade away if we behave wrongly), and then any thinking about death begins to affect us: remembering death in general or the death of a relative or friend, or reading Patristic writings about death or revelations about the toll houses. We vividly feel that our soul is immortal and that there is something boundless, incomprehensible, and at the same time, no less real than this life that surrounds us. At other times, when we’re deep in reading the Gospel or in prayer, this “something” may seem even more real to us than our bodily life.

Finally, nothing so arouses zeal in a man like reading the Gospel. However, sometimes our heart becomes so cold that in reading the Gospel, we don’t feel any flame in our heart at all—the Gospel narrative doesn’t affect us or cause any compassion. We just run over the text with our eyes. We have to read the Gospel with the special participation of our mind, our soul. Here the best method is simply hard work. Whether you feel dryness in the Jesus Prayer, reading the Gospel or Psalter, or in church—it’s not important. You have to overcome it with diligence. And in the case of reading the Gospel, you just have to be patient. If we read the Gospel carefully, and often, then the dryness will gradually decrease and eventually retreat. When I told my spiritual father I feel dryness when saying the Jesus Prayer, he told me: “Whether dry or wet, pray all the same.”

What feeling should we have when reading the Gospel? This question probably arises for every Christian sooner or later. It often happens that a man reads the Gospel a time or two and he puts it aside, saying he can’t reread it anymore: He knows it all; it’s boring.

I don’t think the Gospel can be boring. If we read it carefully, with faith and reverence, if we accept it as moral guidance, not as an abstract book, then it can’t become boring. Rather, it should captivate us more and more. The Gospel can be compared to the Jesus Prayer. Can the Jesus Prayer be boring? It is, of course, for those who don’t sense grace. But if you feel grace in the words of the Jesus Prayer, then it becomes more pleasant to you than all other lengthy prayers. And if we compare the Gospel with other books of Sacred Scripture, or with Patristic literature, then we’ll see that we feel more consolation and we receive greater benefit from reading the Gospel than from reading other soul-profiting books.

It seems to me that the Gospel is a book that’s constantly changing. Today you read one thing, and tomorrow the same thing becomes something else. Everything lives its own life there. And we can explain why this happens—because we ourselves are changing. If the Gospel makes a deep impression on us, then we perceive it in a new way every time. It opens up to us in different senses, so to speak. Divine revelation is an inexhaustible depth. Not only what the Savior said, but the entire Gospel is a revelation of the Holy Spirit, given to the Apostles and Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It’s meaning is so diverse that it’s practically infinite.

It seems to me that it’s impossible to fully understand the Gospel, except perhaps in the main points. But to fully penetrate into it is like knowing the will of God, receiving a full revelation. The Prophets didn’t have such knowledge, and the Apostles knew only in part, because man can possess this knowledge only in the future life.

The correct feeling when reading the Gospel is to feel that the words of the Savior are addressed to us, especially if they reprove and reproach us. It’s a bad sign if when reading the Gospel we separate ourselves from the Pharisees, the sinners, and place ourselves among the righteous and Apostles; if we think that only the praises apply to us. This is suspicious and strange. But when we feel that we’re being reproached, being taught, sometimes encouraged, sometimes rebuked, that’s normal—that’s how it should be.

And when we read attentively, there’s the feeling that we’re hearing the Savior speak, following Him, and practically seeing all of it, although we don’t force ourselves to any figurative perception. The Gospel must be read simply, that is, attentively. We don’t need any thoughts, any reasonings, any interpretations of our own—we need to read attentively. You understand the Gospel not when you can talk about it in detail, ornately and subtly, but when one or another Gospel phrase reaches your heart with all its vital power. When you’ve felt with your heart how to fulfill the commandment about love for your neighbor, then you’ve understood this commandment.

Holy Scripture, especially the Gospel, must be understood with the heart. We have to go deeper into reading just as we go deeper into prayer. From such careful repeated reading, those truths that seem simple and even primitive to us gradually reach our hearts.

People often ask how often to read the Gospel. I would say the more the better. We have to satiate ourselves with reading the Gospel, as if saturating ourselves with it. If we could learn to remember the Gospel text in different situations, that would be wonderful. The remembrance of the Gospel commandments affects the soul very strongly. There’s some inexplicable power of grace in them, as St. Ignatius says. For example, from the mere recollection of the Savior’s words that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment (Mt. 5:22), anger is extinguished, as the Holy Hierarch says. I think that if we learned to recall certain sayings from the Gospel, even if not verbatim, in various situations throughout the day, it would be very sobering for us.

And even if we read the Gospel mechanically, there’s benefit from this. Even what seems to us a superficial reading of the Gospel still enlightens the mind. Sometimes you read one or two chapters superficially, the third you read attentively, and with the fourth, some kind of feeling is awoken in you. In this way, from the hustle and bustle we return to inner composure and regain our peace of mind.

Some of the Holy Fathers speak of a sign of a man’s rather high spiritual success, consisting in the fact that reading the Holy Scriptures turns into theology for him. It ceases to be simple reading, when a man reasons and tries to understand the meaning of what he’s read.

The words of the Gospel act on the soul of a man who has prospered in the spiritual life with such force that they arouse the sincerest faith in him; and he no longer simply reads the Gospel, but contemplates the incarnate Son of God within it.

Schema-Archimandrite Avraam (Reidman)
Translation by Jesse Dominick


1 For English speakers, this would mean reading the King James Version of the Gospel, which is closer to original Greek than the more modern versions created in order to supposedly make the Scriptures easier to read.—OC

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