We all love getting good news. Sometimes good news comes that only makes a good situation better. Sometimes we get good news that is what we have been hanging our hopes on, something that will fix a bad situation, bring hope where there seems to be none. That’s what the gospel is. It’s the good news that brings hope to a world desperate for it. The gospel is the news that God is saving his world.
Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, human beings had been alienated from God, separated from their Creator. Yet God in his grace set in motion a plan to save them. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of this plan and predicted the coming of a Savior—the Messiah—who would bring salvation and restoration to the world. The word they often used to describe this salvation was “good news” or “gospel.” The prophet Isaiah wrote:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (isaiah 52:7, emphasis added)
The good news was that God was coming to save his people and that he would provide a way to restore their broken relationship. When Jesus began to teach, he picked up this language from Isaiah. His message was, “The time has come . . . . The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (mark 1:15, emphasis added).
After dying for our sin and rising again, Jesus sent his disciples to announce to the world the salvation he had accomplished. The word they used to describe this message was, of course, “good news/gospel.” The apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonian church that “our gospel (euangelion) came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 thessalonians 1:5).
The fact that the gospel was originally a spoken message of salvation teaches us something about the nature of these four books. The Gospels are not dusty histories about the beginning of Christianity. They aren’t even just biographies about Jesus. They are written (and in Luke’s gospel, researched) versions of the announcement of salvation. As John says in his gospel:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (john 20:30–31)
John isn’t writing just so that people will know the facts about Jesus. He is calling them to faith—belief and response—in Jesus.
What Is a Gospel? When reading any book or piece of literature, the first question to ask is, “What am I reading?” The kind of literature, or “genre,” determines how you read it. Consider the kinds of things you might read on any particular day. In the morning you pick up a newspaper or go to an internet news site and read about the events of the day. You expect this material to be factual and historically accurate. Later that day you walk through a grocery store checkout line and see a tabloid newspaper with the headlines, “Aliens invade New York City!” You don’t panic since you know this is sensationalistic entertainment meant to get your attention (and lure you to buy). You get home and open your mailbox. One letter inside says in big letters, “You have won a million dollars!” You don’t take this seriously since you recognize it as “junk” mail stretching the truth to try to sell you something. Another letter, however, is your electric bill, which you do take seriously, knowing that ignoring it could get your electricity shut off. Throughout the day we are constantly identifying literary genres and adjusting our reading habits accordingly.
So what type of literature are the Gospels? What should we look for when reading them? Three categories can help us to understand and read the Gospels well. They are History, Narrative, and Theology.
The Gospels are first of all historical documents. This means they are set in a real place and time and are intended to record actual historical events. The gospel writers were not passing down legends, myths, or fables. They considered the events they were recording to have actually happened. Luke, in particular, makes this clear at the beginning of his gospel. He says he has carefully investigated these events and obtained eyewitness testimony so that his readers might know the certainty of the things they’ve been taught (luke 1:1–4). John, too, emphasizes the importance of eyewitness testimony: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things . . . . We know that his testimony is true” (john 21:24).
This issue is important, since the truth of Christianity rises or falls on the historicity of these events. In the Gospels Jesus makes astonishing claims about himself. He says he is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. He identifies his coming death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Most importantly, the Gospels climax with Jesus’s resurrection, which serves as the confirmation of all of his claims. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is a sham. Or, as the apostle Paul puts it, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 corinthians 15:14). It is fundamental to the nature of the Gospels that they are historical, meant to record actual events.
Yet the Gospels are a particular kind of history. They are historical narrative, meaning history told as story. All stories have particular features, such as plot, characters, and settings. A story makes sense because of its plot, which is the progress of the story—how it develops. Plots generally revolve around conflict. A problem arises that must be solved. Stories tend to reach a high point in a climax and then find resolution. This is true of the Gospels. Jesus comes on the scene and makes claims about himself. Conflict arises as he is challenged by Satan, by demons, by the religious leaders, and ultimately by the Roman authorities. The plots of all four gospels have Jesus as the protagonist and Satan and the religious leaders as the antagonists. All four have their narrative climax in the crucifixion and a resolution in the resurrection.
Yet while all four gospels tell the same basic story of Jesus, each author tells it in their own unique way, developing their plot in unique directions, describing characters in certain ways, and emphasizing particular settings and themes. Consider how each gospel begins. Matthew starts with a genealogy, confirming Jesus’s legitimate royal ancestry; Mark hits the ground running with the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus’s ministry; Luke starts with a formal literary introduction describing his credentials as a historian; John has a highly theological prologue describing Jesus as the pre-existent “Word” (Logos) of God who became a human being in order to make us children of God. Each introduction picks up themes important to that gospel writer.
This is a particularly important point. The Holy Spirit gave us four gospels, not just one. Each of the gospel writers has a unique story to tell, similar but also different from the other three. There has been an unfortunate tendency in the history of the church to “harmonize” the Gospels, bringing them together into a single story. These attempts have noble motives—to tell “the whole story.” The danger is that by cutting and pasting the four gospels into one we risk missing and even distorting each gospel’s unique perspective. We take four Spirit-inspired masterpieces and merge them into a new story, which might miss the Spirit’s unique message to the church from each gospel. It is important to respect each gospel’s literary and historical integrity and uniqueness.
This brings us to a third key term to describe the Gospels. They are not just history and narrative; they are also theology. By this we mean that the Gospels are faith-inspired documents, written by those who passionately believed that Jesus was the Savior of the world. As noted above, John brings this out most clearly when he states his purpose in writing: “that you may believe . . . .” (john 20:30–31, emphasis added). And Luke wants his reader to “know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (luke 1:4). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John passionately believe in the truth of their message and want everyone to experience the salvation that Jesus came to bring.
Four Portraits of the One Jesus. What we have said about the uniqueness of each gospel helps to explain why we have four instead of one. The Holy Spirit wanted to give the church a multifaceted perspective of who Jesus was.
One of the most amazing cinematic experiences is the IMAX movie. Multiple cameras create a 360° view for the audience. It can be breathtaking to experience a sweeping panorama while passing over a city, a mountain, or the ocean. Having four gospels gives us a breathtaking 360° view of Jesus, a more complete understanding of who he is and what he came to accomplish. In the next four chapters, we will examine each gospel’s unique portrait of Jesus.