Curtis Bell and The Bible Project Team • November 11, 2019
If you have read through the Bible up to the four gospel accounts, the suspense of the unresolved story peaks. The arrival of King Jesus is the long-awaited culmination! But when we prepare to study the gospel, we discover not one story but… four? On top of this, these accounts are not the same! These four narratives that are similar enough to seem redundant, yet they’re just different enough to make us uncomfortable. How should we approach reading these four gospel accounts?
Why Not One “Super” Gospel?
First, let's take a look at a common question: why isn't there one master account of Jesus' life? If we're playing by the rules of modern historical analysis, shouldn't we compare the multiple accounts in order to present one clear picture of the event? This would help clean up some of the differences between the accounts. For example, someone could decide whether Jesus' famous sermon took place on the mountain (Matthew 5:1) or on a level place (Luke 6:17), or maybe on a level place on a mountain. Should we embark on this task to compile a kind of "super gospel”?
If we learn to look closely at how the authors wrote their accounts, we begin to see the beauty of how they’ve intentionally selected particular details to communicate their purposeful message about Jesus. The gospels are not just four different sources for us to piece together into a final “super-gospel.” Rather, they are each a complete story, guiding us to a unique truth God has for us. So how can everyday people read "closely" to discover these unique teachings? Here are four tips we've found helpful.
Tip #1: Observe the Beginning and End
A simple way to grasp the author’s intended message and response is to inspect the beginning and end of each gospel. Let’s take a look at just one example of the book-ends in the Gospel of Matthew.
The book begins with a genealogy that connects the life of Jesus to major figures in Israel's story—Abraham and David. As you continue in the first chapters, you'll see Matthew packs his writing full of direct quotes (e.g., Matthew 1:21-23, Matthew 2:5-6) and subtle allusions (e.g., Jesus and Moses both escaping from infant massacre) to the Old Testament story. Why does he do this?
Matthew wants his readers to see Jesus as the climax of a story we have waited for since humanity's rebellion in Genesis 3. Within the first few chapters, Matthew has set us up to start seeing Jesus as the long-awaited Savior!
And how does Matthew end his book? Continuing with Old Testament allusions, he places Jesus on a mountain (e.g., Moses in Exodus 19) as he speaks his final words. He invites his disciples to continue following him in spreading his salvation, assuring them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Matthew confirms at the end what he began at the beginning of his gospel—Jesus is God with us (Matthew 1:23), forever! And because of that, he is the greatest leader we can ever follow.
Just by looking at a few chapters from the beginning and end of this book, we can see Matthew’s intentionality behind the structure and details of the narrative. This is the same for every gospel, so we encourage you to keep paying attention to the beginning and end as you read.
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.
Curtis Bell is on staff at Kalaheo Missionary Church in Kauai and is the director of the Kauai Leadership Training Institute. He holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Theology with an emphasis in Greek and Hebrew from Multnomah University, and his heart and passion is for all of God's people to know that the Bible was not written only for the educated and scholarly, but for all people.