Introduction to the Gospels

Exploring the central story in the Bible

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These days, people are using the word gospel in lots of different ways -- usually in the form of some hyphenated adjective. I've seen churches who claimed to offer a "gospel-centered" kids ministry or "gospel-focused" discipleship. There's a Gospel Coalition and a Gospel Music Association. And pastors and authors all over the world love to toss the word gospel left and right when they are really referring to Christianity or the Christian life.

You can probably tell I feel a bit uncomfortable with the recent proliferation of "gospel" as an adjective and marketing super-category. That's because words that are overused often lose their meaning and poignancy. (If you don't miss seeing the word missional all over the place, you know what I mean.)

No, in my book the gospel has a single, powerful, life-changing definition. The gospel is the story of Jesus' incarnation in this world -- a story that includes His birth, His life, His teachings, His death on the cross, and His resurrection from the grace. We find that story in the Bible, and we find it in four volumes: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We refer to these books as "the Gospels" because they tell the gospel story.

Why Four?

One of the questions people often ask regarding the Gospels is: "Why are there four of them?" And that's a pretty good question. Each of the Gospels -- Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John -- essentially tells the same story as the others. There are a few variations, of course, but there's a lot of overlap because many of the major stories are the same.

So why four Gospels? Why not just one book that tells the full, unabridged story of Jesus Christ?

One of the answers to this question is that Jesus' story is too important for a single record. When journalists cover a news story today, for example, they seek input from several sources in order to paint a full picture of the events being described. Having more direct witnesses creates greater credibility and more reliable coverage.

Like it says in the Book of Deuteronomy:

One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Deuteronomy 19:15

So, the presence of four Gospels written by four distinct individuals is a benefit to anyone desiring to know Jesus' story. Having multiple perspectives provides clarity and credibility.

Now, it's important to remember that each of those authors -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- was inspired by the Holy Spirit while writing his Gospel. The doctrine of inspiration states that the Spirit actively breathed the words of Scripture through the biblical authors. The Spirit is the ultimate author of the Bible, but He worked through the unique experiences, personalities, and writing styles of the human authors connected with each book.

Therefore, not only do the four Gospel writers provide clarity and credibility to the story of Jesus, they also give us the benefit of four distinct narrators and four unique points of emphasis -- all of which work together to paint a powerful and detailed picture of who Jesus is and what He has done.

The Gospels

Without further ado, here's a brief look at each of the four Gospels in the Bible's New Testament.

The Gospel of Matthew: One of the interesting aspects of the Gospels is that they were each written with a different audience in mind. For example, Mathew wrote his record of Jesus' life primarily for Jewish readers. Therefore, Matthew's Gospel highlights Jesus as the longed-for Messiah and King of the Jewish people. Originally known as Levi, Matthew received a new name from Jesus after accepting His invitation to become a disciple (see Matthew 9:9-13). Levi was a corrupt and hated tax-collector -- an enemy to his own people. But Matthew became a respected source of truth and hope for Jews in search of the Messiah and salvation.

The Gospel of Mark: Mark's Gospel was written first among the four, which means it served as a source for the other three records. While Mark was not one of Jesus' original 12 disciples (or apostles), scholars believe he used the apostle Peter as the primary source for his work. While Matthew's Gospel was written primarily for a Jewish audience, Mark wrote primarily to the Gentiles in Rome. Thus, he took pains to emphasize Jesus' role as a suffering Servant who gave Himself for us.

The Gospel of Luke: Like Mark, Luke was not an original disciple of Jesus during His life and ministry on Earth. However, Luke was probably the most "journalistic" of the four Gospel writers in that he provides a thoroughly historical, thoroughly researched description of Jesus' life in the context of the ancient world. Luke includes specific rulers, specific historical events, specific names and places -- all of which connect Jesus' status as the perfect Savior with the surrounding landscape of history and culture.

The Gospel of John: Matthew, Mark, and Luke are sometimes referred to as the "synoptic gospels" because they paint a generally similar picture of Jesus' life. The Gospel of John is a bit different, however. Written decades after the other three, John's Gospel takes a different approach and covers different ground than the author writers -- which makes sense, since their Gospels had been on record for decades. As an eyewitness to the events of Jesus' life, John's Gospel is distinctively personal in its focus on Jesus as Savior.

In addition, John wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) and during a time when people were arguing back and forth about the nature of Jesus. Was He God? Was He just a man? Was He both, as the other Gospels seemed to claim? Therefore, John's Gospel specifically highlights Jesus' status as fully God and fully man -- the Divine Savior come to earth on our behalf.