The Gospels: The Gospels and the Gospel

After a three-year study (1991-94), George Barna arrived at a sobering conclusion: “Spiritually speaking, many Christians try to run before they have learned to walk. Lacking the fundamentals, they eventually get snarled up in their faith, hindered by the absence of a strong foundation on which to build their faith.”

Barna, founder and president of The Barna Research Group, believes that most Christians do not live with a holistic biblical worldview. “Their decisions,” he says, “are made ‘off-the-cuff,’ based on whatever seems right at the moment — without prayer, without a biblical checkpoint, without a true concern for how Jesus might have dealt with the same situation” (The Barna Report, vol. 2., 1994).

Many Christians do not know God’s word well enough. Is it any wonder that the faith of so many is weak? “Faith comes by hearing and what is heard comes through the word of Christ,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Romans (10:17). So why not read the words of Christ, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew?

You probably know many individual scriptures and parables from this Gospel. But have you ever read it right through, as a story? When you do, it will give you a different impression.

We suggest you use a modern version, such as the New International Version, or the New King James. We’ve given you some notes and background information. We also prepared an outline, which may help as a road map. But now we would like to get out of your way and let you begin to read Matthew’s words for yourself. Matthew’s Gospel has 28 chapters. If you read one a day, you can read through the book in four weeks.

The major purpose of the Gospel writers was to record Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God and to proclaim the good news of salvation that God offers us through Jesus.

It is common for Christians today to speak about “the four Gospels” — referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And that’s fine as far as popular usage goes. But we should always remember that these four books do not reflect four different gospels, or four different messages. One of the great foundational doctrines of the New Testament is that there is only one gospel, “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1).

The early church never spoke of “the Gospel of Matthew,” “the Gospel of Mark” or “of Luke” or “of John.” They distinguished these four accounts of the “one story” by using the Greek preposition kata, meaning “according to.” The church used the terms “the Gospel according to Matthew” or “the Gospel according to Mark.” For them, it was always the one and the same gospel, brought into being by four different authors. King’s College professor Graham Stanton puts it well when he describes the writings of the evangelists as “One Gospel: Four Gospellers” (Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus and the Gospels, p. 96).

In fact, the word gospel was not originally used in a literary sense of a Gospel writing; it always designated the Christian message of salvation through Jesus Christ. It was not until the year A.D. 150 that the word was first used in the sense of a Gospel writing.

The English word gospel comes from the Middle English word godspel, literally “good spell,” with the idea of being a “good tale.” The Greek word behind the concept is euangelion, meaning “good news.” This good news is that we can have eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is nowhere better described than in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth: “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with all the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-5).

This gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). It was preached and received “not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). It is “a message by which you and your entire household will be saved” (Acts 11:14).

Author: Tim Finlay and Jim Herst

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