Brief Studies Looking at Important Parts of the Bible
THE GOSPELS FOR CHRISTMAS (INTRODUCTION)
STUDY 1: INTRODUCING THE GOSPELS
If it’s true that we find the Bible confusing in places, it’s particularly true of the New Testament Gospels.
Why are there four of them? Why are they so different? Why are some things repeated in more than one of them? Why do some of the stories or bits of teaching differ slightly from one Gospel to another?
Well, I’m glad you asked that!
Let’s start at the beginning…
MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE AND JOHN
These are the four books in the New Testament that we call Gospels. The word ‘gospel’ translates a Greek word meaning Good News. So these first four books could be called ‘The Good News According to Matthew’, ‘The Good News According to Mark’, ‘The Good News According to Luke’ and ‘The Good News According to John.’ Mark’s Gospel uses this word right at the start…
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
And that’s about the briefest possible summary of the contents of each of the Gospels. They contain the Good News about Jesus.
BUT WHAT ARE THEY?
It’s worth noticing that you couldn’t possibly describe the Gospels as biographies of Jesus. Apart from two chapters at the beginning of Matthew and two at the beginning of Luke, the four Gospels only concern themselves with the last 3 or 4 years of Jesus’ life. In fact, about one third of each Gospel is about the last week of His life!
That in itself says a great deal about what the Gospel writers saw as the heart of the Good News.
Jesus’ death and resurrection take centre stage.
Also, it may have occurred to you that each Gospel must be a fairly small selection of all the things Jesus said and did in His three or four years of ministry. After all, you can read any of the Gospels in little over an hour. So what we’ve got here is very selective indeed. Mind you, Jesus must also have given some important parts of His teaching many times, probably in different but similar words. This might explain why the Gospels differ from one another in similar passages.
IT'S PRETTY CLEAR FROM THIS that each Gospel writer put together all or some of what he knew so he could ‘get the message across.’
They differ in what they choose to include. Matthew and Luke have far more of Jesus’ teaching than Mark, and quite a few more miracles and other incidents. Mark is very ‘lean’ with lots of action and movement. You’ll also notice that some passages are word-for-word identical in one or more of the first three gospels. This has led Bible scholars to believe that Matthew and Luke had Mark’s Gospel in front of them when they wrote theirs, and expanded it with other things they knew about. But we can’t be certain.
The other general thing to notice is that John’s Gospel has a very different ‘feel’ to it. It’s very different from the others. In particular it has a number of long teaching passages not found in the other Gospels. Again, some Bible scholars have suggested that John contains some of the private teaching that Jesus gave to His disciples. But we can’t be certain about that either.
You can probably tell from all this that it’s quite difficult to take the four Gospels to pieces and put them together into one continuous story. But, of course, it was never intended that we should do that.
As they stand they give us four views of the Good News to be found in the life and ministry of Jesus. Four different perspectives on the same central truth. We get a much richer and fuller account by having them separate. The Gospel writers didn't just write down what they knew, they ‘wrote up’ what they knew, very skillfully, to bring out the truths of Jesus’ life and teaching.
So as you read a Gospel don’t just look at one incident at a time and then move on. Look at whole sections and try to see what the writer is showing us by putting things together as he does.
Three fixed points will help you as you read.
THE FIRST FIXED POINT is to be found near the beginning of all four Gospels. Jesus’ ministry started when He was baptised in the River Jordan by His cousin John the Baptist. We're told about this, and about John’s ministry, in Matthew 3.1-17, Mark 1.4-13, Luke 3.1-22 and John 1.19-34. And right here at the start we’re given an insight into what Jesus had come to do, because in all four Gospels we’re told what John said about Jesus:
“He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
We’re left in no doubt, throughout each of these Gospels, that Jesus came to pour God’s Spirit into human lives so we can know God personally and experience the power of His presence. That’s the Good News about Jesus. He baptises with the Holy Spirit, He is Christ, the Son of God, He came to die for us and rise from the dead!
THE TURNING POINT
SECONDLY, THERE'S ANOTHER FIXED POINT that we find in the first three Gospels. In Matthew 16.13-20, Mark 8.27-30 and Luke 9.18-20, we’re told of the time Jesus asked His disciples who people thought He was. In the course of this conversation Peter, for the first time, says he thinks Jesus is the Christ.
This is the moment Jesus has been waiting for. It’s the turning point in His ministry. He has been recognised for who He really is!
All three Gospels then record that Jesus immediately told His disciples, for the first time, that He was going to suffer and die, and then rise from the dead. All three Gospels also immediately record that, soon after this conversation, Jesus took His three closest disciples, Peter, James and John, up a mountain where He gave them a glimpse of His glory as the Son of God. His face and clothes shone and He became so awesome that the three disciples were terrified.
This incident is usually called The Transfiguration.
THE FINAL WEEK
You’ll remember that a large proportion of each Gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life. The incident that started His final week was when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
This is known as The Triumphal Entry.
And it’s the THIRD FIXED POINT. It took place on the Sunday, five days before He was crucified and seven days before He rose from the dead. The Triumphal Entry is in all four Gospels (Matthew 21.1-11, Mark 11.1-11, Luke 19.28-44 and John 12.12-19).
So everything after those passages took place within a few days of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
TOPPING AND TAILING
So, within that framework you’ll be able to read each of the Gospels in fairly manageable chunks and hopefully understand them better. But there’s a little bit more we can say to give an idea of the distinctive flavour of each of them...
They say that the first line of any book is the most important. It either grabs your attention or it doesn’t. If it doesn't the book may never be read! And just as the first words have to hook you, so the last words need to leave the taste of the book in your mind.
Imagine writing a Gospel about Jesus...
TO CHEW OVER...
*Q1. Where would you begin? What's the crucial thought that starts the story off?
*Q.2. What would you want to leave in the reader’s mind at the end?
IN OUR NEXT FOUR STUDIES we'll see how each of the Gospel writers tackle the problem.
Bet you can't wait!
(From 'A Pathway into the Bible - Walking with God Then and Now ' by Stuart Kimber. Available on Amazon)
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