The Four Gospels
Luke 1:1-4, John 1:14
The New Testament is launched by four books which are both fundamental to our understanding of the New Testament and which are central to the message contained in the entire Bible. Without the life of Christ, the Messiah spoken of and prefigured throughout the Old Testament, the Scriptures would have no credibility.
“These Gospels which, as to size, are mere pamphlets, are the most precious writings in all the world. But for what we are told in them there would have been no preceding Old Testament and no following Acts, Epistles, and Revelation. They are the heart of Divine revelation, because they are the record of the manifestation of God on earth, in the Person of His Son, for the purpose of redemption” (Graham Scroggie, “A Guide to the Gospels”).
The Term ‘Gospel’
While the word “Gospel” was introduced to the English Language by William Tyndale, it stems from the Greek euaggelizon (meaning to preach the good news) and euaggelion (meaning good message). The word Gospel or Good Tidings appears in this sense in Matthew (4:23, 9:35 24|:14, 26:13), Mark (1:1,14,15, 8:35) and Luke (1:19, 2:10, 3:18, 4:18, 4:43, 7:22, 8:1, 9:6, 16:16). In the case of Luke’s Gospel there are several instances when the verb translated “preach” essentially means to preach the Gospel. There can be no true preaching without the proclamation of this message of good news, the best news the world ever could receive.
Geography and Political Administration
In the days of our Lord the land which we today call Israel was divided into a number of administrative districts. It is a mistake to think of all the places where Christ travelled as being one nation:
1: Galilee – This belonged to a region, which together with Perea, was governed by Herod Antipas. Our Lord was raised in Nazareth and he spent considerable time in Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is often referred to as being his home city. A significant number of the disciples hailed from this district. Perea is a district not mentioned in the bible but is alluded to. It was a relatively infertile region that lay to the west of the Jordan and the Dead Sea. It is sometimes referred to as the land beyond the Jordan (Matthew 4:25, 19:1, Mark 10:1-33, John 1:28, John 10:40, 11:54).
2: Samaria – Samaria was a region situated to the east of the Jordan and was sandwiched between Galilee, to the north, and Judea to the south. During the captivity this region was settled by Gentiles who brought their own pagan religions with them. The Jews who were left behind by the Assyrians assimilated the pagan beliefs of their neighbours into their own faith. Hence the Samaritan religion was formed which eventually led to them erecting their own temple on Mount Gerizim. The Jews had an intense hatred for those who practised this rival and apostate religion. This was so intense that they refused to journey through Samaria when travelling from Judea to Galilee even though this was the direct route. This makes the Lord’s association with the Samaritans in John 4 all the more remarkable and beautiful.
3: Judea – Judea was initially a province within the Persian Empire but eventually it was annexed by the Romans who for administration purposes considered it part of the Province of Syria. This region was under the direct control of a Roman Governor.
Jewish Religious and Political Life
1: The Sanhedrin –This was a main ruling body among the Jews, based in Judea. It consisted of 70 members with the High Priest acting as President. The Romans granted this body considerable autonomy.
2: The Synagogue – Synagogue worship owed its origin to the captivity when Jews assembled in small groups as they were robbed of temple worship. During these gatherings the scriptures were read and expounded (Luke 4:16-21).
3: The Pharisees – The name Pharisee means separated. They were a sect who considered themselves to be the orthodox Jews of their time. They were the guardians of the written law. They were steeped in formalism and hypocrisy, however, which Christ often exposed.
4: The Sadducees – They were liberals in theology denying the existence of spirits and the resurrection. They were very much the ruling party with priests mostly belonging to this group. While they objected the traditions imposed by the Pharisees, they had had less influence or support among the common people.
Identity and Purpose of the Authors
It has been recognised from time immemorial that each author of the four gospels had a different purpose in mind as he related the holy narrative. From the end of the second century, for example, they were likened to the four faces of the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision. Matthew was represented by the lion as he presented Christ as the King of the Jews. Mark’s account was illustrated by the ox, the beast of service, because he viewed Christ as the busy worker. Luke’s narrative is illustrated by the face of a man because he was especially interested in the humanity of the Lord, the Son of Man. John, however, is represented by the eagle, the soaring King of the Heavens, because he was at pains to show that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
The purposes of the authors is also borne out through a consideration of the people they wrote for, every author has a target readership mind. Matthew aimed his story at the Jews. It is apparent that his concern was for encouraging Jewish Christians and for winning Jewish converts. All authorities are agreed that Mark’s Gospel was directed at the Roman Christians. Luke as the only Gentile author had the Greek people very much in mind as he penned his holy account. John, however, had the whole world in mind, both Jews and Gentiles as he wrote his account of the Son of God.
The Synoptic Gospels
The Gospels, however, are arranged in two groups. Matthew , Mark and Luke belong together. They are known as the Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic means “viewed together”. They largely follow the same line of thought in their presentation of Christ’s life. John’s material is arranged differently and he introduces a number of details that are omitted by the other three. For example Mark’s Gospel contains 661 verses. Matthew contains 500 of Mark’s verses and Luke has 320 verses which are common to Mark. Only 50-55 verses in Mark are not found in Matthew or Luke. This has led some scholars to claim that Mark was written first and was used by the other two evangelists as source material. This, however, does not account for the material found in Matthew and Luke which are not found in Mark. There are actually 250 verses which common to Matthew and Luke which are not found in Mark. While God may well have used one of the Gospels as a help for the other authors, we must be careful not to undermine the miracle of inspiration. The Gospels are not histories written and devised by man. God brought the details to the memory of the authors but at the same time he used their individual talents as writers in their preparation of the material.
There is no doubt that the Synoptics follow a similar line of thought. They present Christ in his humanity, born of a woman. They focus upon his Galilean ministry, which receives little mention in John’s account. They present Christ as the public figure in his miracles and teaching. John considers more of Christ’s private discourses with individuals and he limits the miracles to seven (eight if Christ’s own resurrection is included.
Reading the Narrative
Graham Scroggie in “A Guide to the Gospels” compiled an extensive harmony in order to relay the narrative of Christ’s life, drawn from all 4 Gospels. The following are the major points.
1: Annunciations and Incarnation followed by 30 years of preparation
2: Introduction by John, first disciples, first miracle.
3: Early Judean ministry, first cleansing of the temple.
4: Samaritan ministry, woman of Sychar.
5: The Galilean ministry (22 months approx.).
6: Later Judean ministry, Feast of Tabernacles.
7: The Perean ministry, period of teaching and preparation.
8: The Week of Christ’s Passion:
Sunday – Triumphant Entry,
Monday – Second Cleansing of the Temple,
Tuesday – Conflict with his enemies, Wednesday – Silence,
Thursday – The Upper Room, Friday – The Cross,
9: The Forty Days, from the Resurrection to the Ascension.