We have spent many lessons discussion the background to many of the concepts found in the Old and New Testaments. I thought that we would be able to help broaden our scope and knowledge of the scriptures by getting to know the Bible with an overview of the various books. We spend much time in learning the doctrinal details of the New Testament books but often have no idea how the books of the Bible fit together as the overall message of God. I would like to spend a few of our Sunday nights helps us getting an overview of the various books of the Bible. Tonight’s lesson will kick off with an overview of the gospels. Have you ever wondered why there are four gospels instead of one? How do the four gospels fit together? How are they are unique? An overview of the gospels will help us understand how these four books fit together.
There has been much misunderstanding at to why there are four gospels. But an examination of each of the gospels will reveal at least two important reasons why there are four gospels. The first reason for the different gospels is that each gospel was written to a different audience. Just as much as our presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ depends somewhat upon the nature of our audience (e.g. knowledgeable of the scriptures, believers vs. unbelievers, etc), so also the gospel writers had different audiences which caused a variation in the way the message of Jesus Christ was presented. The second reason for the different gospels is that each gospel has a different purpose in its presentation. As we will notice in our study tonight, the purpose of the four gospels is not the same. There is a specific intent expressly stated and strongly implied by each of the writers. So let us take a moment and examine each of the gospels.
It does not take much work to se that the gospel of Matthew was written to a predominantly Jewish audience. There are many Jewish aspects found in Matthew’s gospel that are not found in the other three gospels. In Matthew 1:1 we see that Jesus’ genealogy is traced to David and Abraham, the father of Israel and the keepers of the promise of the Messiah. Being the son of David and the son of Abraham would only matter to the Jewish people since the Messiah was to come from these men. In fact, Matthew constantly refers to Jesus as the Son of David (1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9,15; 22:42,45).
Further evidence of a Jewish audience is that Matthew records many of the Jewish customs without any explanation about the custom. The other gospel writers explain the Jewish custom. Matthew also contains unique material. For example, much of the sermon on the mount is only found in Matthew’s gospel and not the others. Of course, the sermon on the mount was a correction of Jewish misinterpretations of the law of Moses. Another important unique element is that only the gospel of Matthew speaks about the “kingdom of heaven.” In fact, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is not found anywhere else in the scriptures, yet is found in Matthew’s gospel 32 times. Only four times does the phrase “kingdom of God” appear in Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew has one obvious and straightforward purpose for this gospel: to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, the King of Israel. Matthew has the most quotations from the Old Testament than any of the other gospel writers. The purpose of the numerous quotations is to prove Jesus is the Messiah because Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah. One of many such instances is found in Matthew 1:17, “Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled.” After using these words, a quotation from the Old Testament follows. Of course, only the Jewish people would be concerned that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah. Matthew offers repeated evidence to prove that Jesus is the King of Israel.
Matthew not only uses prophecies to prove that Jesus is the Messiah but also gives the fullest record of Jesus’ discourses. Five discourses end with the phrase, “when Jesus had finished these sayings” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). Therefore, when one is reading the discourses of Jesus, we need to keep this purpose and audience in mind. The audience is the Jewish people so we must think like first century Jews if we are going to proper understand the teachings. We must also consider how the discourses recorded go about proving Jesus to be the king of Israel, the prophesied Messiah.
While Matthew had a Jewish audience as his target, Mark had a Roman audience for his gospel. There are a number of reasons why this gospel appears to have been written for the Roman mind. The gospel is the shortest of all the gospels, fitting to the Roman desire for information quickly and succinctly. Mark translates Aramaic words for his readers, showing the Jewish people were not his audience. Further proof if that Mark explains the Jewish customs (7:3,4; 14:12; 15:42).
Of even greater interest, Mark uses Latin expressions rather than Greek counterpart (5:9; 6:27; 12:14,42; 15:16,39). Latin was the language of the Roman people. Mark records time based upon the Roman system of time keeping (6:48; 13:35). Mark does not include information that would not concern the Roman people. For example, there is no genealogy of Jesus. Mark 1:1 begins the gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Rather than give a genealogy, Mark uses imperial language of the Roman Empire. The gospel to the Romans was the good tidings concerning a ruler or king. The title “Son of God” was used of the emperor. Mark is not interested in speaking about who begot who, but wants to communicate an important point that would grab the Roman reader’s attention: “Listen to the glad tiding about the king, Jesus, the Emperor of the world.”
Another key found in Mark is that he speaks about the events happening rapidly. This can be seen even in the first chapter of Mark, using the NKJV: “And immediately, coming up from the water” (1:10), “And immediately the Spirit” (1:12) “And immediately they left their nets” (1:18), “And immediately he called them” (1:20), “then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered” (1:21), “just then” (1:23), “And immediately his fame spread” (1:28), “Now as soon as they left” (1:29), “immediately the fever left her” (1:31), “As soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him” (1:42), “sent him away at once” (1:43). All of these words that speed up the story and that was only in the first chapter alone.
Mark also has a distinct purpose. Mark has no need to teach the Romans that Jesus is the king of Israel and the prophesied Messiah. The Romans would not care and such information would be meaningless. Many writers suggest that the purpose of this gospel is to show Jesus as the suffering servant. But this is attempt to squeeze the purpose of this gospel into a preconceived notion. The text does not communicate Jesus as the suffering servant. Even further, no one would write a message to the Romans suggesting that the emperor of the world is a suffering servant. That would not fit the Roman mind.
The purpose of Mark’s gospel is to show Jesus is the powerful emperor. With the claim made in the first verse of the gospel that Jesus is the Son of God, the only way to prove him to be the Son of God is to show his accomplishments. The Roman emperors proved their worth to the people by recording and declaring through monuments their many achievements and conquests throughout the world. Mark goes about proving that it is appropriate to see Jesus as the Son of God through his achievements. Thus, Mark’s gospel devotes more time to miracles than any other gospel. Over half of the miracles performed by Jesus are found in the gospel of Mark. Therefore, when we study Mark, we are looking for the action of Jesus’ life which is going to prove to the Roman mind that Jesus is the Son of God. His miracles prove he is ruler of the world.
It has long been held that Luke’s gospel was written to the Greeks. This assumption is derived from some of the details Luke gives that are not given in the other gospel accounts. Luke usually would use Greek terminology instead of Hebrew words. One example of this is in Luke 23:33 where Luke calls the place of the crucifixion “Calvary.” The other gospel accounts call the location “Golgotha” (Mark 15:22; Matthew 27:33; John 19:17). The other gospel accounts also use Hebrew words like “Abba,” “rabbi,” and hosanna.” However, Luke does not use these words, either omitting these Jewish words or using Greek equivalents.
Of further interest, Luke does not often quote the Old Testament, which is in sharp contrast to Matthew’s gospel. When Luke does quote from the Old Testament, he uses the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Furthermore, there are many details given by Luke’s account not found in the other gospels. With a high respect for philosophy, such detail would be important to the Greek mind. It is for these reasons that it seems reasonable to declare that Luke’s gospel had the Greek mind in view.
The purpose of Luke’s gospel is twofold. One purpose is explicitly stated and the other purpose can be inferred from the reading of the text. First, the purpose that Luke explicitly states is found in the first four verses of Luke 1.
“Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4, HCSB). Luke declares to Theophilus that his intent is to write a narrative in an orderly sequence. Luke is not trying to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the King of Israel, or the Son of God. Luke is giving us a simple picture of the life of Jesus.
We are able to see the implicit purpose of Luke’s gospel in that Luke goes to great lengths to reveal the humanity of Jesus. The first couple chapters of Luke’s gospel is about the birth of John the Baptist, the birth of Jesus, and the childhood of Jesus. The genealogy of Jesus is traced back to Adam. Luke spends much of his time recording the parables of Jesus. Luke repeatedly speaks about the Gentiles, Samaritans, and other outcasts who found grace in the eyes of Jesus. By reading Luke’s gospel, our purpose is to find the narrative of Christ’s life and gain information about his humanity.
The gospel of John is considered to have been written approximately 90 A.D. This would have been decades after the other three gospels had been penned. Because of the content of John’s gospel, his writing has been considered to be universal in its audience. That is, John was not specifying any particular group of people like the other gospels.
John’s gospel supplies information that the synoptic gospels lack. Much more detail is given to the final week of Jesus. In fact nearly half of John’s gospel is spend discussing the last days of Jesus’ life. This universal appeal allows John to write a much more theological gospel rather than narrative gospel. This theological emphasis can be seen in the first verses of John 1. Rather than give a genealogy or begin a narrative at the birth of Jesus, John opens, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is a theologically-heavy sentence describing the nature and beginning of Jesus. Because of its theological nature, John’s gospel is one of the most difficult books to read and is certainly more difficult than the other gospel accounts.
John’s purpose for the writing of this gospel is clearly stated in John 20:30-31: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name.”
John says that the purpose of this gospel is to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Therefore we cannot expect to read John’s gospel to find out about the narrative life of Jesus. John is not telling about all the things Jesus did. John admits this very point in John 20:30. John only records seven miracles while Mark records nearly three times as many miracles. The reason is that each author had a different purpose. When studying John, one will want to find how John is arguing that Jesus is the Son of God.
Four gospels, not one
It is important for to realize that we have been given four gospels, not one. We all too easily misuse the gospels when we forget the audience and intended purpose of each gospel. We also hurt our work in evangelism by starting people reading gospel that were not intended for them. It would not make sense to initiate someone to the life of Jesus by reading the gospel of Matthew, unless that person were Jewish. The average American is not going to care about the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus is the king of Israel. It would also not be wise to start in John, unless the person needed arguments to prove Jesus is the Son of God.
Mark and Luke are the gospels that are better for unbelievers to read. I lean toward Mark’s gospel because the Roman mind has some similarities to our mindset today. We want things short and quick. We do not want long drawn out stories. We want immediate action or else we will quickly become bored.
It is also important to remember that God gave us four gospels, not one. There is no reason to perform a harmony of the gospels when God did not intend for us to have only one. I believe the only reason we have tried to harmonize the gospels is in answer to the skeptic who declares contradictions. J. Sidlow Baxter in his book Explore the Book said it well: “It may sound strange, but the “harmony” of the four gospels is best appreciated not by destroying but by preserving their diversities. It is their unity of subject plus their diversity of treatment which makes them so interesting to the mind, and so satisfying to the heart, in their portraiture of the historical “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Read with purpose
When we read a gospel, we must read the gospel with the mindset of the intended audience, seeking the fulfillment of the author’s intended purpose. I cannot be looking for proof for Jesus being the Son of God in Luke’s account. I cannot look for proof that Jesus is the Messiah in Mark’s account.
When we miss the intended audience and purpose, we misinterpret the gospel, as has been frequently done in Matthew’s gospel. Gentiles are trying to interpret the gospel without thinking like a first century Jew. We need to be careful that our exegesis is always built on a sound understanding of these purposes.