Tip #2: Look for Repeated Words and Themes
But what about the rest of the book? The authors have woven their large-scale stories out of dozens of smaller stories about Jesus, linked together with repeated words to highlight key themes. For this reason, it is helpful to look for repeated words and ideas throughout each gospel account. Let’s explore one example from Luke:
- Jesus’ baptism: declared to be God’s “beloved Son” (Luke 3:21-22)
- Jesus’ genealogy: linked back to Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:23-28)
- Jesus’ wilderness testing: Jesus’ identity as “Son of God” questioned (Luke 4:1-13)
- Jesus is rejected by his hometown Nazareth: “Whose son is this?” (Luke 4:14-32)
- Jesus casts out demons who proclaim, “You are the Son of God” (Luke 4:33-41)
Can you spot the connections between these passages? Luke has woven these stories together to emphasize how Jesus is the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah, and humanity’s representative. However, his identity is contested as some question, doubt, or even reject him. The observation of a repeated phrase reveals Luke’s challenging theme—Jesus is the Son of God, so how will you respond?
Every gospel, not just Luke, has significant themes that can be identified through the observation of repeated words or phrases. Next time you read a Gospel, give this tip a try!
Tip #3: Seeing the Difference in the Details
The gospel authors include many of the same stories, but they may differ in details. At first this may not sit well with us. How can these authors change a parable even slightly? Which one is the "word for word” account Jesus spoke? Does this mean they are untruthful? Let’s compare the differences between one popular parable told in both Matthew and Luke to get a sense of what’s going on here.
The parable of the lost sheep is a beautiful picture of God’s pursuit of the lost. Jesus’ actual words in both accounts aren’t all that different (Matthew 18:10-14, Luke 15:1-7). However, Matthew has Jesus speaking just to his disciples, and Luke claims that tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees were also present. Why such a glaring difference in setting and characters?
The authors have been selective with their material in order to communicate a specific message. In Matthew’s account, the parable is showing the heart which God has for his children and the lengths to which his followers should go to recover those who stray from the faith. But in Luke’s portrayal, it is part of a three-part parable that shows the hard hearts of Israel, not wanting the lost nations to receive God’s redemption. Each telling lands on equally true yet different challenges for their audiences.
When we begin to pay attention to the difference in the details, we become more comfortable with them. In fact, we gain a clearer picture of the authors unique conclusions about Jesus.
Tip #4: One Teacher at a Time
We’ve arrived at our last tip! It’s the most important because it encompasses all previous tips: listen to one teacher at a time. Always keep in mind that each gospel author was a real person with purposes behind their words. They carefully designed their accounts to persuade readers of the worthiness of Christ. Therefore, we should allow each text to transport us to one perspective at a time. Like a student to a teacher, we should listen intently for what they have for us to learn.
Hopefully you’re thinking what we’re thinking. It's great news that we have four gospels and not just one “super” gospel. We get four teachings of God instead of one—four unique instructions through Jesus’ life with their own set of themes, word plays, character studies, and Old Testament allusions and fulfillments for us to explore and meditate on. If we apply all four tips, we will begin to clearly see the uniqueness of the four portrayals of the good news of Jesus.