Reading the Gospels

Happy Easter!  He is risen!

Since I’m writing something about every other book of the New Testament, it would be odd to skip the Gospels.  On the other hand, one always worries that it is presumptuous at best to try to boil down God’s word, and that is especially so with the Gospels.  What’s more, what I’ve usually written about each of the other books is a summary of its lessons for Christian behavior, and summarizing, say, the Sermon on the Mount daunts me.   And, for a Protestant, there’s no getting around the fact that you want believers, new or old or prospective, to read about the life and teachings of Christ in the Bible.

So instead what I offer here is a brief discussion of how the four Gospels complement each other.  I remember when I was leading an adult Bible study class that I had to wrestle with which one of the four books I would pick for discussion, and that there was something to be said for each.  I can’t remember which I chose, and of course all should be read:  None of them is that long, and they can change your life.

At the outset, and just to set the stage, let me recount Jesus’s basic biography as it is told in the Gospels:  He is born in humble circumstances at about the same time as his relative John the Baptist, who baptizes Him years thirty years later when He begins his ministry; preaches to crowds and teaches His disciples, frequently using parables; performs many miracles; is harassed by the Jewish leaders and ultimately betrayed to them by Judas after the Last Supper; is tried before Herod and Pilate; is crucified; but then is resurrected and reappears to the disciples.

Mark is the shortest Gospel (about 58 percent the length of Luke,the longest) and probably the oldest.  It seems likely that both Matthew and Luke drew from Mark; the three are considered “synoptic” (“same view”); the other Gospels quote all but 31 verses of Mark.  It is very fast moving and does not recount Jesus’ birth, picking up His life as he begins His ministry.  The language is neither flowery nor elegant, and the book reads like an objective and dispassionate report of facts.   As C.S. Lewis noted, the Gospels generally read not at all like myth or romance.  What Jesus says is often hard and uncompromising; the compassion is more apparent in His actions.  The author is John Mark, who is thought to have relied on the apostle Peter’s account to him of the events told.

Matthew is in a sense the most representative of the Gospels, since it is full length, has a Jewish author — who was one of the twelve apostles — and is one of the synoptic Gospels.  And apparently its target audience was Jewish — tellingly, it is often noted, the genealogy of Jesus that Matthew provides starts with Abraham, while Luke’s goes back to Adam — since it repeatedly makes the case that Jesus’ birth, life, and death fulfill much Old Testament prophecy.  (Blaise Pascal emphasized in his Pensees how powerful such fulfilled prophecy is in supporting the veracity of Christianity.)  This Gospel concludes with Jesus giving the Great Commission:  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  And while Mark is famous for being fast-paced, so is Matthew.  It’s almost as if it is being dictated or written quickly so it won’t be forgotten.  It reads as a first draft of history rather than a polished or even edited work of literature.  Jesus is outspoken and rough-edged, there are passages not clear or obvious in their meaning, and the disciples are frequently presented in an unfavorable light.

Luke is the third synoptic Gospel, but was written by the only non-Jewish author of any book in the Bible (he also wrote Acts; together the two books make up a quarter of the New Testament).  It is addressed to one Theophilus, probably another Gentile given his Greek name, and presented as follows as a full and factual biography:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

And, if we consider Mark to have been ghost-written by Peter, Luke is also the only non-apostolic Gospel.  But Luke is quite credible:  We see that he appears to have interviewed eyewitnesses, and was himself a companion of Paul’s on his travels — plus he was a doctor, for Pete’s sake.   It is the longest Gospel, just a bit longer than Matthew (though divided into fewer chapters), and can be labeled the most comprehensive.

John was the Gospel last written, and the only non-synoptic one, so that it contains a point of view and much material that is unique (about 90 percent of John is not found in any other gospel).  Like Mark, it begins not with Christ’s birth but with his ministry and, in particular, his baptism by John (the Baptist); I hasten to add, however, that the overture in John is an important theological discussion, famously starting, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …”  Indeed, this is considered the most theological of the Gospels, and contains most famously of all verse 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  But the content of this Gospel is, like the others, corporeal as well, and the book concludes, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.  Amen.”  All Scripture is Scripture, but John’s credentials should be noted here:  He would have to be ranked, along with his brother James and Peter, among the foremost three apostles; he refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”; and he is credited with writing four other New Testament books, namely his three letters and Revelation.

Again, Happy Easter!  He is risen indeed!


P.S.  There are of course other posts on this blogsite that also discuss Gospel texts.  For example:

Toward a Harmonious Reading of the Gospels

Miracle Notes

The Dozen Things We Pray in the Lord’s Prayer