If you are jumping into the Gospels for the first time, or even the twentieth, get ready to be surprised all over again. Jesus never fails to challenge our paradigms of thought and dismantle our expectations. However, before you do jump in, let's take some time to understand what you are about to read. The four Gospels offer the earliest accounts of the story of Jesus, namely his life, death, and resurrection. But what kind of story is a “Gospel”?
What is a "Gospel?"
Before we get ahead of ourselves, we should talk about what the word “Gospel” actually means. The word itself comes from a Greek word euangelion, which literally means “good news.” In the New Testament, it refers to the announcement that Jesus has brought the reign of God to our world through his life, death, and resurrection from the dead.
“'The time has come,'” Jesus said. 'The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!'”
"The good news… Regarding God’s Son, who descended from David in his physical lineage, and who was appointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Son of God in power through his resurrection from the dead: Jesus, the Messiah, our Lord."
Interestingly, both Jesus and Paul derived this important word from the prophetic poetry of Isaiah where the future arrival of God’s kingdom through the Messiah is called “good news” (see Isa 52:7-10). The Gospels are not merely historical chronicles but are also narrative announcements that make the significant claim that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and the true Lord of the world. The Gospel stories claim to both recount history and aim to persuade the reader to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and become his disciple.
Four Features of the Gospels
The Gospels share four features that make them unique amongst other biblical stories or contemporary biographical narratives. First, they expertly weave in Old Testament stories into the story of Jesus. Second, the stories are designed to make claims about the identity of Jesus. Third, they all present the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of the entire biblical narrative. Finally, the chronology of events has been rearranged to better reveal unique aspects of Jesus’ character.
Feature 1 – Old Testament References
The Gospels show how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament story through constant reference to the Scriptures. The authors assume a high degree of familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures by the way they refer to them. They do this in multiple ways:
Direct Quotations: For example, Matthew presents Jesus’ healing ministry (Matt 8:14-16) as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant (Isa 53:4).
Subtle Allusions: In Mark 1:9-11, Jesus is baptized, and God announces from heaven, “You are my beloved Son (Gen 22:2), in you I am well-pleased (Isa 42:1 & Ps 2:7).” This sentence blends phrases from three biblical texts to show that Jesus is the messianic servant King who is the seed of Abraham.
Narrative Parallels: Matthew presents Jesus as a greater-than-Moses figure by designing his story to match the basic outline of Moses’ career. Moses and Jesus both come up out of Egypt, pass through the waters, spend forty days in the wilderness, and ascend a mountain to teach the Torah.
Feature 2 – Identity Claims
Gospel authors sometimes make explicit claims about Jesus’ identity, such as in Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.” However, more often they shape the reader’s perception of Jesus through indirect means. The list includes, but is not limited to:
- Miracle stories that show Jesus’ power over creation
- Words: Teachings, parables, dialogues
- Testimonies: People whose lives were touched by Jesus
- God: “This is my Son” (Matt 3:17)
- The disciples: “What kind of man is this?” (Matt 8:27)
- Demons: “What do you want with us Son of God?” (Matt 8:29)
- People of Nazareth: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Matt 13:55)
- Canaanite Woman: “Lord, Son of David!” (Matt 15:22)
- Peter: “You’re the messiah, Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16)
- High Priest: “Are you the Messiah, the son of God?” (Matt 26:63)
- Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt 27:11)
- Roman Soldier: “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Matt 27:54)
Feature 3 – Climax of the Biblical Story
Each of the four Gospel accounts present the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of the story of the Bible.
Mark allots ten chapters to roughly three years of Jesus’ kingdom announcement, and six chapters to the seven days Jesus spent in Jerusalem leading up to his death.
Jesus’ death at the hand of Israel’s leaders is introduced early on in Matthew (Matt 12:14), and anticipated four times by Jesus himself (Matt 16:21, 16:27, 17:22-23, 20:18-19) as the moment where he will become king (Matt 27:37).
Feature 4 – Rearrangement of Events
While the four Gospels do claim to recount real historical events, each author has taken the core stories of Jesus and edited, arranged, and designed them in a careful way to emphasize unique facets of Jesus’ character. Subsequent blogs will focus on the different aspects of each Gospel, but in brief:
- Matthew portrays Jesus as a greater-than-Moses figure who fulfills the promises of the ancient Scriptures and whose resurrection has enthroned him as the King of heaven and earth.
- Mark emphasizes the mystery and misunderstanding caused by Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God. He shows Jesus as the unexpected Messiah and highlights the paradox of how the exalted Messiah can only be recognized in the humiliated, crucified Jesus.
- Luke highlights how Jesus brings the Gospel to the nations. He shows him empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring to fulfillment the Old Testament promise that God’s salvation would reach beyond Israel to include all nations.
- John introduces Jesus as God-become-human, presenting signs that demonstrate the truth of his messianic claim and his offer of eternal life for any that will trust in him.
How to Read the Gospels
There are three skills we can offer to better equip you to read the Gospels:
Tip I– Identify key repeated words and themes.
The authors have woven their large-scale stories out of dozens of smaller stories of Jesus’ teachings or miracles. They have linked them all together using key repeated words and ideas to highlight their themes.
Look for the repeated words and ideas in smaller stories about Jesus and ask, “What does the author want us to know about Jesus through these stories individually?”
How has the Gospel author connected these stories together, and what message is he trying to tell me by putting them side by side?
Example I – Stories linked together by repeated words
- Luke 3:21-22: Jesus’ baptism: declared to be God’s “beloved Son.”
- Luke 3:23-38: Jesus’ genealogy links back to Adam “the son of God.”
- Luke 4:1-13: Jesus’ wilderness testing: the Satan questions Jesus’ identity as “Son of God.”
- Luke 4:14-32: Jesus is rejected by his hometown Nazareth, “whose Son is this?”
- Luke 4:33-41: Jesus casts out demons who proclaim “you are the Son of God.”
The point: 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.
Example II – Stories linked together by repeated ideas
- Matthew 11:1-19: John the Baptist doubts whether Jesus is the Messiah.
- Matthew 11:20-30: Jesus reacts to Israelite towns that reject him as the Messiah.
- Matthew 12: Four stories of the Pharisees rejecting Jesus and one story of sick people accepting him as the Messiah (12:15-23).
- Matthew 13: Jesus tells a parable of the four soils.
The point: Many people doubt or reject Jesus, but those who find themselves transformed by his grace accept him. Jesus then uses parables to reflect on why there are such diverse responses to his message and he challenges everyone to pay attention.
Tip II - Pay attention to how characters in the story respond to Jesus.
Instead of simply telling you how to respond to Jesus, the Gospel authors use peoples’ diverse reactions as a way of showing you how to, or how not to, react. Pause after each short story and ask yourself:
- How do the various people in this particular story react to Jesus?
- What are their motivations?
- What are the results?
- Do I see my own responses to Jesus mirrored in these characters?
Tip III - Read, re-read, and re-read some more!
These Gospel accounts were designed to be read many times, and eventually memorized. There will be insights about Jesus that you will only pick up after reading the Gospels multiple times through and paying attention to the repeated words and themes. Read it slowly, then read it fast, then slow again. You cannot immerse yourself in these four Gospels too much!
Remember, the authors of the Gospels have an agenda for writing: to present a persuasive portrait of Jesus so that you too will acknowledge and follow him. While they don’t often hit the audience over the head with overt messages about Jesus’ identity (passages like Mark 1:1 are the exception, not the rule), the authors do want you to experience Jesus for yourself in a very real way. However subtle the messages might be in the Gospels, one thing is not subtle, that they require a response from the reader.
In Read the Bible for a Change:Understanding and Responding to God's Word, author Ray Lubeck says it best, “The Christ-story is used as the vehicle for attempting to change the reader's understanding of God, the world, and self in light of what Jesus has done. Thus the purpose of the Gospels is to proclaim the good news of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ so that people will respond by repentance. A key difference separating it from a mere biography is that it demands a response from the reader."
In one sense this is the most serious literature you will ever read, and in another sense, it's the best news you could ever hear. Through these texts Jesus springs to life, inviting us into a thrilling and challenging adventure of following him. These stories and teaching have the potential to shape and form you to become a new and different kind of person. That is, if you let him.