At the heart of Christianity is the person and work of Jesus Christ. So we would expect the Christian Scriptures to include an account of Jesus’ life. But why do we have four – the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Isn’t this redundant? Wouldn’t one be enough?
On the contrary, our knowledge of Jesus Christ would be incomplete if we had only one Gospel. Or even if we had three Gospels but were missing one. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each told the story from a different perspective, because each had a different audience in mind. We tend to blur these four distinctive portraits of Jesus together. But knowing how an act or saying of Jesus fits in with each author’s perspective can greatly enhance our understanding of its meaning.
Here is a brief introduction to the particular message and theme of each of the four Gospels. Because of space limitations, we will usually cite locations rather than quote verses in full. But if you look up some of these verses in the New Testament, you will begin to see how each Gospel has a unique message. You will also see how all four work together to build a complete picture of the life and work of Jesus Christ.
Matthew — the bridge
Matthew’s readers were mainly Jewish Christians, and he emphasized Christianity’s continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) and traditions. Through Matthew we are told the relationship of Jesus to the law and the Old Testament prophets. This Gospel, placed first in the New Testament, is like a bridge from Old to New. Matthew quotes from the Old Testament more frequently than any other New Testament writer.
The most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible was the Torah, the five books containing the law of Moses. Matthew likewise concentrates most of Jesus’ teaching in five long discourses as the new covenant counterpart to Mosaic law.
- (5:1-7:29) In the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus expanded his disciples’ understanding of three central topics: the law, worship and good deeds.
- (10:1-42) Jesus called the apostles and commissioned them to speak for him, just as God had commissioned Moses and the prophets.
- (13:1-52) In seven parables, Jesus added a new dimension to the understanding of the kingdom of God.
- (18:1-35) Jesus outlined a code of conduct that would enable his followers to establish and maintain their new-found spiritual relationships.
- (chapters 23-25) Jesus showed how and why the old order, with its hypocrisy, must give way to a new age of peace and justice, in which righteousness would be rewarded and evil punished.
Matthew encouraged Jewish converts to see their heritage in the context of a greater law, and their history in the light of the spiritual kingdom of God. For Matthew, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Scriptures did not mean that those Scriptures had lost their significance and could therefore be discarded. Rather, for Matthew the Hebrew Scriptures gained significance through Jesus and continue to be part of the “treasure” of the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 13:52) (Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina series, page 22).
Mark — ‘This is what happened’
Mark’s Gospel is fast-moving and dramatic. It reads like a series of eye-witness accounts. Because of this action-packed style, Mark’s Gospel is an ideal starting point for discovering who Jesus Christ is and what he is all about.
Mark is more concerned about telling us what happened, rather than when it happened. He writes more like a journalist than a historian. He cuts to the quick, introducing Jesus to people who have perhaps heard of him but don’t know him very well yet.
Verbs like “run,” “shout” and “amaze” abound in this book. Mark’s favorite adverb is euthys, meaning “immediately” or “at once” (it occurs ten times in chapter 1 alone).
Mark does not delay the action by telling us about Jesus’ genealogy, or even his birth. Rather, Mark begins with the briefest survey of the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus and his testing in the wilderness by Satan (1:1-13). Then the action begins, and continues nonstop for 16 chapters. Event quickly follows event. On occasion, one story is interrupted to begin another, and the first story finished later.
Mark’s account of the events leading up to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion is especially detailed and vivid. Mark’s purpose is to show that Jesus is the Son of God (1:1). When Jesus is baptized, a heavenly voice proclaims, “You are my Son” (1:11).
Jesus has the authority to forgive sin, a prerogative of God alone (2:5-12). Evil spirits recognize Jesus as the Holy One of God (1:24), the Son of God (3:11) and Son of the Most High God (5:7-8).
In Mark’s Gospel, the authority of Jesus is stressed by the manner of his teaching (1:22) and by the numerous miracles. But Mark also warns his audience that miracles could be ambiguous. After all, they lead Pharisees and Herodians to oppose Jesus (3:6); cause scribes to think of Jesus as possessed (3:22); leave people from his home-town unimpressed (6:1-3); cause Herod to imagine that Jesus is John the Baptist redivivus [resurrected] (6:14-16); and do not eliminate the disciples’ misunderstanding (6:52; 8:17-21) (Ben Witherington III, The Christology of Jesus, page 163).
Articles about the four Gospels
For articles about specific chapters within the Bible, see new.gci.org/gospels
The point was, nobody in the human realm fully understands this truth. Even Peter, who rightly professes Jesus as the Christ, fails to realize Jesus’ purpose: to die and after three days rise again (8:31; cf. 9:12, 31; 10:33, 45). The only human acknowledgment that Jesus is the Son of God, comes from a centurion looking at Jesus on the cross.
This, then, is the message of the Gospel of Mark – that we can fully understand who Jesus is only through his suffering, death and resurrection.
Luke — for people like us
Luke, like all the evangelists, acknowledges that Jesus was God, but he also stresses his humanity. Luke shows us that, in Jesus, God became a part of his own story, just as some producers will give themselves a small role in their own films. Except that there was nothing small about Jesus’ role when he stepped into history!
Luke shows us that Jesus was a real-life person who lived in Galilee and Judea during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Augustus and Tiberius.
Like Matthew, he gives us Jesus’ genealogy and an account of his birth. But only Luke records Jesus’ circumcision (2:21), his presentation at the temple (2:22-38), his growth as a child (2:40), his meeting at age 12 with the religious teachers in the temple (2:41-51) and his continued development “…in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (2:52). These details establish Jesus as a historical personality.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed what his mission was all about: to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed (4:18).
Luke shows Jesus as extremely concerned about the welfare of all people, but having special empathy for those who were despised or undervalued by society: the tax collectors, Samaritans, the poor, Gentiles. No class or group was excluded; Christ’s message of salvation was for everyone. Luke seems to make a special point of highlighting Jesus’ concern for women.
Luke features the responsiveness of women (7:36-50; 8:1-3; 8:48; 10:38-42; 13:10-17; 24:1-12). Often it is not just a woman but a widow who is cited, since she represented the most vulnerable status within society (2:37; 4:25-26; 7:12; 18:3, 5; 20:47; 21:2-3). Whether in parable or by example, these women show that they are sensitive to the message of Jesus. Though on the fringes of first-century society, they are in the middle of Luke’s story. Often they are paired with men (2:25-28; 4:25-27; 8:40-56; 11:31-32; 13:18-21; 15:4-10; 17:34-35; Acts 21:9-10), a feature suggesting that the Gospel is for both genders (Daniel Bock, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, page 506).
Many of the most poignant parables that show repentance and forgiveness of sin being offered to everyone are found only in Luke. For example, the good Samaritan (10:30-37), the great feast (14:15- 24), the prodigal son (15:11-31) and the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14).
Luke shows us that God’s concern extends to everyone, not just those who are ‘good’ or naturally inclined to religion. In Jesus Christ, God became one of us, so that he could save all of us.
John — ‘And now for something completely different’
John’s was the last Gospel to be written, perhaps 60 or more years after the crucifixion. Rather than tell the whole story, he selects incidents from only about three weeks of Jesus’ life. But these he explores in great detail.
John wants to let us know in profound detail who Jesus Christ was, where he came from and what he came to do (8:14). He summed it up in what is perhaps the most often quoted of all Bible verses: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This Gospel explains God’s love and his gift of eternal life, in simple, everyday language that can be understood by anyone. But don’t be misled by the apparent simplicity. John’s message of Jesus Christ is a deep mine, with many levels of understanding. It will repay a lifetime of study.
For example, John devotes several chapters to Jesus’ last talk with his disciples (John 14-17). He explores the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John dwells at length on what may at first seem to be a minor incident. For example, the healing of a blind man (chapter 9), or the chance meeting of Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well (4:1-26).
But these vignettes were chosen because they illustrated vital lessons for all who would become disciples, not only in his time, but through the ages. John helps the non-believer to believe and the believer to come to a deeper level of understanding.
Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke show us how Jesus taught in parables, there are no parables in John. Instead, he focuses on the symbols that Jesus used to describe and explain his role as our Savior, each beginning with “I am”:
- …the bread of life (6:35);
- …the true light (8:12);
- …the door to life (10:7);
- …the good shepherd (10:11);
- …the resurrection (11:25);
- …the way, the truth and the life (14:6);
- …the true vine (15:1).
Like the other evangelists, John tells us of Jesus’ miracles: he transforms water into wine (2:1-11), heals a nobleman’s son (4:43-54), and a cripple (5:1-16), feeds the five thousand (6:1-14), walks on water (6:15-21), restores a blind man (9:1-41) and raises Lazarus from the dead (11:1-46).
But he doesn’t call them miracles. To John, they are signs, and they have a purpose that goes beyond the wonder of the act itself. Each sign tells us more about the overall reason why Jesus Christ came to earth. He came not so that a few could be healed, but so that all could have life (John 10:10).
So, while the other Gospels present Jesus’ message in terms of “the kingdom of God,” John prefers the term “eternal life.” Eternal life, although having magnificent future implications, also becomes a present reality for the believer: “Whoever hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life” (5:24).
Author: Tim Finlay, 1996