When one opens the New Testament, he is introduced to four narratives which are concerned with the activity and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.
These records are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Why are there four accounts that cover so much of the same material? Are the records harmonious or do they conflict?
When Jesus was crucified, a superscription was placed above his head proclaiming, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
It was written in three tongues – Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. These languages represented the three dominant cultures of the Mediterranean world when the New Testament was produced.
It is not without significance that there is a gospel record designed for each of these societal elements.
Matthew was directed to the Hebrews, Mark was written for the Romans, and Luke was designed to address the Greeks. John’s narrative, however, was cosmopolitan in its thrust. Each of these works deserves careful reflection.
The Gospel of Matthew
Early Christian tradition is unanimous in affirming that Matthew was the inspired author of the first gospel account.
Matthew Levi was a Jew who had been called from his position as a tax collector to become an apostle of Jesus Christ (Matthew 9:9).
There are indications within the book that the author was very familiar with finances.
There are more references to money in this account than in the other three gospel records. The selection of Matthew was a courageous move on the Lord’s part, for tax collectors were a despised class.
The purpose of the Gospel of Matthew is twofold: First, it is an apologetic, i.e., a defence of the proposition that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Old Testament prophecy. It was penned especially to convince the Jews of this fact.
It is no surprise, therefore, that this divine writer relied so heavily on Old Testament Scripture to establish his case.
Matthew has about 50 direct quotations from the Old Testament; in addition there are some 75 allusions to Old Testament events.
This would constitute powerful evidence to the Hebrew people, who viewed the Old Testament as a revelation from God.
Second, the book was doubtless intended as a message of encouragement to Jewish Christians.
While it is true that the Jews had crucified their own Messiah, there was still hope for the seed of Abraham. Whereas the physical nation would have to pay a horrible price for its rebellion, ie, the destruction of Jerusalem, nevertheless a new Israel was in the making – the church (cf. 21:43; Romans 2:28, 29) – and every Hebrew who obeyed Christ could be a part of that fresh system (Galatians 3:26-29).
While Matthew carefully discusses the miraculous works of Christ (he lists 20 miracles – three of which are peculiar to his book), he gives a predominate interest to the Master’s words. He records a number of the Saviour’s major speeches (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount in chapters five through seven and the Olivet Discourse in chapter 24).
The Gospel of Mark
Mark was the son of a woman named Mary (Acts 12:12) and the cousin of the evangelist Barnabas (Colossians 4:10). Apparently, Mark had a close relationship with Peter (1 Peter 5:13), and there is considerable evidence that he wrote his gospel account under the influence of that apostle.
The Gospel of Mark is remarkably different from that of Matthew. A survey of the information in this book reveals that it is for a non-Jewish audience. The writer has to explain Hebrew traditions (7:2-4) and Palestinian conditions (11:13).
The Latinisms within the book indicate that he was writing for Roman readers (see 12:42, where Mark converts the Greek “two mites” lepta into the Roman “a farthing” kodrantes (cf. 5:9; 15:16). This, of course, explains why Mark does not appeal to the Old Testament as profusely (only 19 times) as did Matthew.
His narrative was likely written to encourage Christians in Rome who were feeling the effects of tribulation for the cause of Christ.
He mentions persecution as the cost of discipleship at a point where both Matthew and Luke, in parallel contexts, refrained from using that term (10:30).
Whereas Matthew emphasised the words of the Lord, Mark, while recording only one major sermon (13:3-37), underscores Christ’s deeds. He characterises Jesus as a servant who came to do the Father’s will – and, servant-like, he did so with great urgency. Mark uses the servant’s word, euthus (“immediately”), 14 times in describing the activities of the Saviour.
Mark is a strong advocate of the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. To that end, he records the testimony of God (1:11; 9:7), the Lord himself (13:32; 14:61, 62), the demons (3:11; 5:7), and the Roman centurion involved in the crucifixion (15:39).
Approximately 40 percent of this shortest gospel account is devoted to the Lord’s final journey to Jerusalem and the events that culminated with his death (10:32ff).
The Gospel of Luke
Luke is the solitary Gentile writer of the Bible, yet his dual books of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts constitute about one-fourth of the New Testament.
By training he was a physician (Colossians 4:14). He joined Paul on the apostle’s second missionary campaign (Acts 16:10) and was with him periodically during the tireless preacher’s ministry (note the “we” sections in Acts).
As with the Gospel of Mark, it is clear that Luke is writing for non-Hebrew recipients.
He explains, for example, that Capernaum is “a city of Galilee” (4:31), that the country of the Gerasenes is “over against Galilee” (8:26), and that the town of Emmaus is seven miles from Jerusalem (24:13) – circumstances quite familiar already to Palestinians.
Though the book is addressed to “most excellent Theophilus,” with the purpose of confirming the faith of this Gentile in the matters wherein he had been taught (1:3, 4), it is apparent that the intended audience was much wider.
This is a treatise designed to reach the Greeks with the message of Jesus Christ.
Luke provides first-rate testimony for the genuineness of Jesus’ miracles.
A scientist by profession, he had thoroughly investigated the claims of Christ’s supernatural works (he mentions 20 of them, six of which are unique to him), and he treats them as historical reality.
The Gospel of John
John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James (Mark 1:19), was the author of the fourth Gospel.
John was a part of that inner circle of disciples (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33). Of all the apostles, he was closest to the Lord (John 13:23; 19:26, 27).
This inspired record is in a class of itself. It is designed to appeal to all ethnic groups. Its basic purpose is to offer the evidence of certain signs which prove that Jesus is the
Christ, the Son of God, which facts lead to eternal life (20:30, 31).
In presenting his case for the divine nature of Jesus, John is very selective in the material he includes.
For example, the entire scope of Christ’s preaching ministry covers approximately three and one half years (as determined by the Passovers listed in the book (2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 13:1), yet John deals with only slightly more than 30 days of that entire time.
Of the 21 chapters, containing 722 verses, about 36 percent of the material (seven chapters of 257 verses) involves only a 24-hour period.
Surely, the abbreviated selectivity of one who was so close to his Lord is evidence of the fact that the Holy Spirit was guiding the production of the fourth gospel.
No New Testament book is stronger in arguing the case for the deity of Christ. Three examples of this theme will suffice:
1. John begins his document: “In the beginning was the Word (an allusion to Christ (see v. 14), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).
2. Near the middle of the book, the apostle has these words of Jesus: “I and the Father are one” (10:30) – the neuter gender numeral suggests an identity of nature.
3. Finally, as the book concludes, the confession of “scientific” Thomas is recorded.
After examining the wounds of the resurrected Lord, the once-doubting apostle confessed: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).
John’s record is characterised by a series of both word signs and work signs. The word signs are the famous “I am” declarations.
Jesus affirmed: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “the light of the world” (8:12), “the door” (10:7), “the good shepherd” (10:14), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (15:1).
In addition, the use of the absolute “I am” in 8:58, affirms his timeless existence prior to the birth of Abraham.