To come to know Jesus in spirit and in truth we must arrive to him instructed by the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We must have a knowledge of him as he really is while the Spirit of God persuades us fully that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. To know Jesus we must see him in the gospels and experience the living Jesus spiritually present with us by the Holy Spirit. Both truth and spiritual experience unite when we meet Jesus in the gospels.1 In Jesus, God became flesh and lived among the peoples of the earth displaying to us his nature and his glory. Jesus is the majestic one and the written and proclaimed Word of God brings his majesty to us.
In the gospels of the New Testament we have compiled eyewitness accounts from people who walked with Jesus, talked with him, were taught by him, lived with him and were commissioned as his ambassadors and apostles to the world.2 The canonical gospels were all first century documents compiled as the mission of God moved out geographically3 and as the apostles neared the end of their lives. They wanted to be certain to pass on the life, teaching and mission of Jesus to the broader Christian community and movement4 who would continue to carry out his work in history. These gospels, inspired by God, would grow in their importance as false teachers began to arise and circulate strange and esoteric opinions about Jesus which were not a part of the apostolic teachings. Many of their writings posed as “gospels” purporting to give secret knowledge and teachings about Jesus. Such writings were rejected by early leaders of the faith such as Iraneus of Lyon who were directly connected to the apostolic tradition.5 These works were never considered part of the Bible and have never been part of the Bible.6 They were false teachings rejected firmly by pastors who loved their people. The four gospels of the New Testament are the agreed upon standards for the life of Jesus accepted by all Christians everywhere. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers all look to these works as the divine and inspired revelation of Jesus Christ. Now let us turn our attention to what makes a gospel writing, a gospel and focus for a moment on the literary genre.
History, Biography, Theology?
When we come to the gospels we arrive at some very unique writings composed of many types of literature. These writings are composed of genealogies, narrative story telling, historical facts, proverbs of wisdom, teaching parables, commands, even some apocalyptic sections. Many questions can rightly be asked about these books. Are these books of history, mere biography or simply theological books aiming to teach us truths about God? For instance, there are certainly historical realities about the gospels in that they are set in real time and real places speaking about real people. They do not speak about another mythical world in a galaxy far far away. So in that way the gospels are historical but they are not mere compilations of historical facts and figures. They desire to teach us more than this. Furthermore, it should be noted that the gospels may well be properly classified in the genre of ancient biography.7 When we hear the word “biography” we may think of a show on A&E or a book telling the whole life story of a certain person. We know the gospels do not do this as they only contain parts of the Jesus story; parts that serve the purpose and theological aims of the particular gospel in question. This may lead us to see the gospels as books of theological facts but this seems far less personal that what we find when actually reading them. Scottish New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham gives a wonderful classification for the gospels in describing them as testimony:
Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning. Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way. It is where history and theology meet.8
Therefore, we shall see the gospels as eyewitness testimony pointing to a real person, in real history, revealing to us real truth about God, ourselves and Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ. As the gospels are where the historical Jesus and his theological teachings meet the following will serve as a brief survey of each of the gospels. In these summaries we will focus on what each contributes to our view of Jesus and a small bit of its unique theological contribution to the church. It is my hope that you might enjoy a of lifetime of studying these writings, meeting Jesus in them and growing spiritually through their nourishment as the Word of God.
The Gospel of Matthew
The first book of the New Testament is a gospel written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus. Matthew was a tax collector which means he was a Jewish man who worked for the imperial power that was Rome. You might say that he was from the block and had sold out to the man. He was a servant of empire whom God called and made a servant of the humble, sacrificial servant King. Matthew, is a distinctively Jewish work demonstrating that Jesus was not simply a new teacher on the scene, but rather the promised one of the Old Testament arriving in the fullness of time. We see this in several ways in Matthew’s gospel.
First, Matthew begins with a long genealogy which seeks to show that Jesus is the Son of David, the son of Abraham. This not simply an exercise in creating someone’s family tree and this statement is not something as simple as: this is Rick’s family tree, the son of Harry, the son Tom…blah, blah blah. These two figures from the Old Testament are massive in their importance. David is the one who in the Old School was promised that an eternal King would sit on his throne in 2 Samuel 7. Abraham is known as the father of faith, who in the book of Genesis God chooses to use to so that through his offspring the whole world would be blessed. His descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. So here is what Matthew’s genealogy says to us. This is the king of God’s covenant with us! This is the promised one who will be the savior of and blessing to the whole world.
Second, there are so many promises of the Old Testament which are fulfilled in Jesus on display in Matthew. His virgin birth (Matt 1:22-23, Isaiah 7:14), his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3-6, Micah 5:2), his flight to Egypt from Herod (Matt 2:3-6, Hosea 11:1), Herod’s murder of kids under two (Matt 2:14-15, Jeremiah 31:15), his healing ministry (Matt 8:16-17, Isaiah 53:4), his use of parables in teaching (Matt 13:13, 14, Isaiah 6:9, 10), his riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal (Isaiah 62:11, Zech 9:9) and his betrayal by Judas for pocket change (Matt 27:6-10 and Jeremiah 18:2-6, 19:1-2, 4, 6, 11, 32:6-15 and Zech 11:13).9 These all point to Jesus being the fulfillment of Old Testament promises.
Third, there is this fascinating section in Matthew 12 where Jesus quite literally is identified as “greater than the temple of God” and “Lord of the Sabbath.” The temple was the place of worship where the presence of God dwelled and the Sabbath was a divine command to rest and worship. Jesus is identified as the locus of worship and the one who is in charge of the very commands of God. He was not simply bringing a religious rule keeping to the world, but rather he himself was a fulfillment of all the ways of worship and the laws of God in the Old Testament.
Finally, Matthew’s gospel closes with one of the clearest declarations for God’s people who receive a mission from the great King. We are to go into all the world and make disciples (learners, followers of Jesus) of all nations/peoples (Matthew 28:18-20). The promised Christ of the Old Testament has come and he is our covenant King. All Christians throughout history have this wonderful privilege to teach others to follow him until his eternal Kingdom comes. This is some of what Matthew has to say to us.
The Gospel of Mark
Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four gospels and contains just sixteen chapters. It is a gospel of action with Jesus’ bursting on the scene quickly and then at a high pace moving forward towards what has become known as Passion week. This is the week of Jesus’s life where he will be tried, executed and subsequently rise from the dead. Church tradition has held from the earliest days that Mark recorded the accounts of the apostle Peter writing down his eyewitness testimony. Both Peter and Mark appear to be in Rome together and historically I find no good reason to doubt this tradition. When you come to Mark you get the sense that Jesus is a man with a mission; he has a job to do and he is getting after it. There are action words everywhere with the most prominent being the Greek term “euthus” which means right away or immediately. The writing of the gospel jumps from scene to scene with fast and furious frame changes showing us who Jesus is and what he came to do. Written in the imperial capital of Rome it does not contain as many direct Old Testament quotations as Matthew and Mark seeks to explain things well for readers who may not be as familiar with the Jewish traditions we find more quickly in Matthew. The promise/fulfillment themes does remain however particularly seeing Jesus as the suffering servant from the prophet Isaiah.
The gospel of Mark also focuses on the announcement and demonstration of the Kingdom of God. In chapter 1 we read: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15). The Scriptures speak of the Kingdom of God as his actual rule and reign the comes along with his sovereign king Jesus. In Mark’s gospel we see the statement “the kingdom of God is at hand” being demonstrated in the life of Jesus through his miracles. Sometimes people can look at Jesus as a miracle worker just doing tricks to impress people. The gospels do not put on display a Criss Angel Mind Freak special. Jesus’ miracles are demonstrations that a new paradigm of life has arrived with him. The old era of sin, death and evil oppression in the world has been broken and a new way of life has arrived. This is partially realized today and will be fully brought to pass in the final Kingdom of Heaven at the end of time. However where Jesus is at work today we see the realities and a foretaste of this coming Kingdom.
As mentioned earlier Mark’s gospel, though brief, spends the bulk of its time in the passion week of Jesus where we see him fulfill his role as sacrificial substitute and suffering servant. This is summarized well in the wonderful verse in Mark chapter 10: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
The Gospel of Luke
Luke is an interesting figure in the New Testament and we see him both in the book of Acts and in the letters written by a man named Paul, a primary leader in the early Christian movement. For instance, we read the following of Luke. He is called by Paul “the beloved physician” in Colossians 4:14, “my fellow worker” in the work of spreading the gospel in Philemon 1:24 and he is the only one remaining with Paul as Paul awaits execution in Rome in 2 Timothy 4:11. As a physician he would have been well educated, well read and maybe a bore a parties…just kidding about that last part. Luke was a faithful, sharp, friend of Paul who was intricately involved in gospel mission and concerned to preach and teach the gospel well.
Luke wrote a two part work in the New Testament which scholars often call “Luke/Acts” in that Luke is episode one and Acts is episode two of his work. We might call Luke, Gospel Episode One – The Spirit Empowered Savior and Acts Gospel Episode Two – The Spirit Empowered Church on Mission. There will be no Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith however for evil and its empires will simply be beat down by Jesus, the true and greater Jedi knight. Ok, forgive me, I could not resist.
Luke’s gospel is an historically detailed work and he tells us that he went to great lengths to compile the Jesus story in a deliberate fashion. He worked hard to collect data from eyewitnesses and to write an orderly account so that we might have certainty about what we have been taught (see his introduction in Luke 1:1-4).
His gospel also contains a genealogy but his concern is to not simply trace Jesus to David and Abraham…but to go all the way back to Adam. His point is that Jesus was the savior for all people, gentiles included, not only Jewish followers. Perhaps Luke had also heard Paul’s teaching that the first man Adam failed in following God whereas Jesus, the second Adam, would fully bring salvation to the world (see Romans 5). Luke presents Jesus as a person full of the Holy Spirit who would walk with God, fulfill his mission and lead us in practically living it out. The Holy Spirit is fully active in Luke/Acts causing New Testament Scholar Darrell Bock to make the following observation:
Luke is a profoundly practical Gospel. His message is not only to be embraced; it is to be reflected in how we relate to others. Luke is also known as the writer who tells us much about the Holy Spirit but this emphasis is less dominant in Luke than in Acts. Nonetheless, Jesus’ ministry not only fits within God’s plan, it is empowered by God’s enabling Spirit [as we will see in Acts]. The church’s ministry has a similar dynamic.10
The Gospel of John
The final gospel, written by the apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, was most likely put down while John was in the ancient city of Ephesus as an elder of the church there. It is different in nature than that of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and focuses on some important aspects of Jesus identity. John is a highly “theological gospel” demonstrating the full reality of Jesus and his work. John, never the one to hide his purposes, tells us exactly why he wrote down what he did:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.11
These words “Christ” and “Son of God” are the subject of John’s writing. His prologue states in unequivocal terms that Jesus was the preexisting son of God, in union with the Father, who became flesh in space, time and history (John 1:1-5, 14). The signs and miracles of Jesus in John’s gospel show that the locus of divine activity is in his Christ (or Messiah) and this Jesus gives new life, eternal life, to all who believe and trust in him. (John 5:24, John 17:3).
In John the dual natures of Jesus, fully human, fully divine, are clearly seen. His identity and works get displayed through the seven self identifying statements known as the “The I ams.” Jesus claims to be the bread of life (John 6), the light of the world (John 8), the gate we enter and the good shepherd (John 10), the resurrection and the life (John 11), unique way to the Father, the truth and the life (John 14) and triumphantly claims to be the I AM, the very God of the Old Testament (Exodus 3, John 8).
John’s gospel calls us to BELIEVE over and over but not simply a positive feeling or belief in believing. No, John calls us to believe in the incarnate God Jesus Christ. The unique savior of the world who forgives sins, raises us to new life and promises us an eternal Kingdom without sin, death, disease, tears. In that day death will be smashed and done away with.
This is the Jesus of the Bible. This is the Jesus of the gospels. This is Jesus of living, resurrected power and ultimate reality. We echo the ancient call today: BELIEVE! and find LIFE in his name.
1. John Calvin, Insitutes of the Christian Religion, says this well “Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit” (Book I, viii, 13).
2. A compelling case for the gospels being comprised of eyewitness testimony is found in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses-The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)
3. David Alan Black, following the work of William Farmer and Bernard Orchard gives an interesting hypothesis that the gospels were written during the periods of missional unfolding during the apostolic era. Matthew in the Jerusalem period, Luke in the gentile mission of Paul, Mark in Rome and John adding his theological gospel towards the end of the apostolic age. See David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2001) 13-33.
4. See Richard Bauckham, Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 9-48.
5. See Iraneus, Against Heresies—available many places online. Iraeneus is said to have heard the gospel from a man named Polycarp who was a disciple of some guy named John the apostle. The point is Iraneus, in refuting false teachings, was in the position to know.
6. Some scholars today such as Bart Ehrman of UNC Chapel Hill and Elaine Pagels of Princeton present these other books as “Lost Scriptures” from “Lost Christianities” rather than “rejected books” and “rejected” Christianities. This is historical revisionism at its worst. For a treatment of these issues see Darrell L. Bock The Mission Gospels—Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
7. See genre analysis in Richard A. Burridge “About People, by People, for People: Gospel Genre and Audiences” in Bauckham, Gospel for All Christians , 113-145.
8. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 5,6.
10. Portions of this list adapted from Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)
10. Darrell L. Bock, Luke—NIV Life Application Commentary, 24.
11. John 20:30-31