Exploring the Scriptures is tremendously important; it is the primary way we have of discovering the heart, character, and nature of our God. Yes, we can see his power and wonder in creation and we can see his grace and mercy in the lives he has transformed, but we mostly learn of him through the inspired words he has given us.
In a particular sense, this is true of the gospels as they record the life of Jesus. In these four inspired witnesses to the person and work of Christ, we come to know him in a more complete way. This makes the study of the gospels vitally important to our walk of faith. So, a few handrails to guide our study of these four New Testament books can prove very useful.
Within the category of the gospels we have three synoptic (“with a single view”) gospels which are very similar—Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s record has been described as 92% unique from the other three, causing some scholars to speculate that, perhaps, because he was the last to write his account he saw no need to repeat the content of the other three. Instead, John filled in some of the gaps in the story that had already been told by the other accounts. This is one of the factors that gives John’s gospel a very different feel from the synoptics.
New Testament scholar Darrell Bock says that the synoptic gospels tell the story of Jesus from the ground up, while John tells it from heaven down. This is even seen in how the gospels begin. Matthew and Luke start on earth with birth narratives and Mark begins on earth with Jesus’ baptism, but John starts in heaven with a declaration of eternity past when the Word (Jesus) was with God and was God (John 1:1). Very different approaches.
When examining the gospel records, each of the four accounts has key structural elements that, once understood, can greatly enhance our study of these important witnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus.
Matthew was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples and, therefore, an eyewitness to many of the events he records. The primary structural device in Matthew’s gospel is that the telling of the story is woven around five major teaching blocks (ch.5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25). Because Matthew was writing primarily to a Jewish audience, he uses about 50 direct Old Testament quotes and some 75 more allusions to OT texts. With such a heavy focus on the Jewish scriptures, some scholars believe that Jesus’ five teaching discourses are intended to parallel the five books of Torah (the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), and may also parallel the five different book divisions found in the book of Psalms. By navigating those teaching blocks, coupled with Matthew’s use of the Old Testament, we can grasp how the first hearers of the gospel according to Matthew would have been expected to hear it.
Mark’s gospel is different in a couple of significant ways. First, it is believed that his gospel account is a rendering of Peter’s memoirs as a follower of Jesus (Mark served with Peter at one point; 1 Peter 5:13), although it may be that Mark himself appears briefly in the narrative as the young man who flees Gethsemane following the arrest of Jesus (Mark 14:51–52). It is believed that Rome was Mark’s primary audience, which may account for the heavy emphasis on action and movement in the book. The main structural feature of Mark’s account may be Mark 8:27–29, which forms a kind of division in the book. Everything leading up to Mark 8:27 portrays Jesus revealing to his followers who he is through miracles and wonders. In Mark 8:27–29 Peter affirms that, in fact, Jesus is the Christ—the Messiah. From that moment on everything Jesus does is to prepare the disciples for why he came—the cross. Following Peter’s affirmation of Jesus’ identity, Jesus immediately tells his men for the first time (Mark 8:31) that he will be killed and then rise from the dead. So, the first half of Mark reveals who Jesus is and the second half, why he came.
Luke, like Mark, was not an eyewitness to the events of the life of Jesus on earth. As a result, his gospel is the result of careful research and eyewitness interviews (Luke 1:1–4). Written perhaps to a Greek audience where learning was prized, Luke incorporates more of Jesus’ parables than any other gospel writer. Additionally, Luke has a significant emphasis on Jesus’ work with and inclusion of women—mentioning over 40 different women in his account. The main feature of Luke’s record is often referred to as “Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem.” In Luke 9:51, Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” and that journey is recorded from Luke 9:51 to Luke 19:28, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem for the triumphal entry. So, Luke packs into those ten chapters events and stories that prepare for what will happen in Jerusalem—the passion of Christ.
John, the gospel written “from heaven down,” does not seem to have a particular target audience but appears rather to be directed to everyone everywhere. Whereas the synoptic gospels have a profound emphasis on Jesus’ miracles, John only records seven of these signs—often pairing them with one of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements. All seven of these miraculous events are found in John 1–11, causing scholars to refer to those chapters as the “book of signs.” John 12–21 is then the “book of glory”, where Jesus is to be glorified (John 12:23) through his coming death and resurrection. The theme of John’s gospel account is the call to believe that brackets the narrative (cp. John 1:12 to John 20:30–31). All of John’s gospel account is presented to encourage people to place their faith in Jesus.
As we consider the earthly life and ministry of our Lord, the gospels offer us four distinct and powerful witnesses of the Christ—helping us to embrace by faith the Son of God who became the Son of man so that sons (and daughters) of men might become the children of God.