by Ed Gallagher
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.John 20:30–31
This lesson covers all four Gospels. Though, of course, we want to learn about Jesus, we will here focus less on Jesus himself and more on the way that the four Gospels narrate his story, the similarities and differences among them. There is another entire series of lessons on the Christ (coming soon); for now, we are interested in the books of the New Testament.
Which Gospel do you like best? Why? Are you glad we have four Gospels? What are the positive aspects of having these four accounts of Jesus rather than just one account? What are some potential negative aspects of having four Gospels? Why do you think God gave the church these four accounts of Jesus’s life?
(I think each of these questions is interesting, and could provoke some helpful discussion.)
The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus with slightly different aims and emphases. Of course, they all follow essentially the same plot. What aspects do all four Gospels share? Jesus is baptized by John, begins his teaching and healing ministry, gains a group of followers, confounds and angers the religious leaders, suffers crucifixion, rises from the dead.
The word ‘gospel’ originally referred to the message about Jesus. In the second century it came to refer to a written account of Jesus’s life.
Which Gospel is the most different from the other three? Most people would say John. What is different about this Gospel? Jesus does not speak in parables in the Gospel of John, he hardly ever mentions the Kingdom of God (only 5x), he is much more explicit about his own divinity (e.g., 8:58; 10:30; see also the narrator’s comments at 1:1; and Thomas’s confession at 20:28).
The first three Gospels are very similar, and they have a special name (used by scholars), the Synoptic Gospels. (I have written more about the Synoptic Problem in my Introduction to Luke’s Gospel.) Most of the material in Mark (about 90%) is found also in Matthew and Luke, but Matthew and Luke also share material that is not found in Mark (the so-called Q material, but see also here), as well as having their own special material. For instance, all three Synoptic Gospels have the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:1–23; Mk 4:1–20; Lk 8:4–15). Matthew (8:5–13) and Luke (7:1–10)—but not Mark—share the story about the centurion’s servant. Only Matthew has the Parable of the Ten Virgins (25:1–13) and the judgment scene with the sheep and goats (25:31–46), and only Luke has the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37) and the Prodigal Son (15:11–32) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19–31). (Many such examples could be cited.)
The Synoptic Gospels use much of the same material, but they arrange that material differently and often (at least in the case of Matthew and Luke) add more material in order to tell their own accounts about Jesus. Each of them had the same overall aim, shared with John—to create faith in Jesus (John 20:30–31). But they accomplish this goal differently.
The four Gospels each have their own distinctive characteristics.
- Matthew. Begins with a genealogy and birth announcement, ends with the Great Commission. (Compare 1:23 and 28:20.) Has 5 major blocks of teaching (chs. 5–7; ch. 10; ch. 13; ch. 18; chs. 23–25), each ending with the words “When Jesus had finished these words…” Matthew quotes the OT 62x—far more than the other Gospels (Mark: 31x; Luke: 26x; John: 16x)—frequently saying that Jesus “fulfills” some Old Testament verse (10x; e.g., 1:23; 2:15). Jesus speaks frequently of the “kingdom of heaven” (32x), a phrase found nowhere else in Scripture (other Gospels have “kingdom of God”). Jesus is the “Messiah, son of David” (1:1), which Peter finally recognizes (16:16), though he misunderstands what this means (16:22). By the end of the Gospel, Jesus has become king (28:18) and he sends out his emissaries to announce the inauguration of the heavenly kingdom.
- Mark. Begins with the ministry of John, ends with the Resurrection (and possibly the Great Commission; on the problems with Mark’s ending, see here, here, and here). Probably the first Gospel ever written. Shortest of the Gospels (compare 1:12–13 with Mt 4:1–11; Lk 4:1–13). Gospel of action (contains relatively little of Jesus’s teaching). Things happen “immediately” (see 1:10, 12, 18, 20, etc.). Emphasizes the secretive nature of Jesus’s ministry (see 1:25, 34, 44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; 9:9).
- Luke. Begins with birth announcement of John, ends with the Ascension. Begins in the temple (1:5–23), ends at the temple (24:53). Written apparently for a Gentile audience (Theophilus, 1:3). Emphasizes Jesus’s welcome of “sinners” (7:37, 39; 15:7, 10; 18:13; 19:7), but he also eats with Pharisees (7:36; 11:37; 14:1). He seems to care for Samaritans (9:51–56; 10:30–37; 17:18). He accepts the criminal on the cross (23:39–43). Jesus emphasizes the dangers of money (ch. 16, esp. v. 25). Prayer (5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28–29; 11:1–4; 18:1–14).
- John. Begins with the pre-existent divine Word, ends with a post-Resurrection breakfast. Contains the testimony of the “Beloved Disciple” (19:35; 21:23–24; first mentioned at 13:23). Seven miracles are recorded in the first half of the Gospel. Seven “I am” statements (Bread, Light, etc.). Emphasis on life (3:14–17; 5:39–40; 20:31, etc.), truth (1:17; 8:32; 14:6, etc.), love (13:34–35), the Spirit (14:16–31; 16:5–15).
The Gospels do have much in common, especially in the basic message about Jesus that they want to convey. They all want to present Jesus (1) as the Jewish Messiah, (2) as one who fulfills Israel’s Scripture, (3) as one who died in order to achieve atonement for sin, and (4) as one who rose from the dead. (For more on these common emphases, see here.)
The Gospels are concerned foremost with generating faith in Jesus for their readers. God blessed the church with four accounts of the life of Jesus, providing endless insights into his character and mission.
Additional Questions for Discussion
Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy (1:1–17). What is he trying to communicate to his readers by beginning this way?
The first verse of Mark’s Gospel says that this narrative is “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” What is the significance or implication of this description of Mark’s Gospel? If the story told in Mark’s Gospel is the ‘beginning’, what is the rest of the story?
What does Luke’s preface (1:1–4) tell us about the purpose behind his Gospel?
How does John’s opening meditation on the Word (1:1–18) distinguish this Gospel from others?
The Gospels (primarily Mark) have been described as accounts of Jesus’ death with extended introductions. Do you think this description is helpful or misleading (or both)?
There are several Bible Project videos on the Gospels: Matthew 1–13; Matthew 14–28; Mark; another one on Mark; Luke 1–9; Luke 10–24; John 1–12; John 13–21. There were, of course, many other, later Gospels written. And here’s a video of Richard Burridge reflecting on the four Gospels.