As we journey through the Bible, we finally come to the Gospels. These are the books of the Bible that deal directly with the life of Jesus. Stepping back to look at the entire Bible, the Gospels fall into the generic category of “History.” In this respect, these four books are similar to Genesis, Judges, and 2 Chronicles. However, because of the criticality of the subject matter (Jesus), we group the Gospels into a special category of their own.
From a timeline perspective, the Gospels follow the Prophetic and Historical books of the Old Testament. Ezra and Nehemiah concern events of the fifth century BC. Malachi, the last prophet, received his messages from God in the fourth century BC. This means that there was a four-hundred-year span where God appeared to go silent.
This was the longest silent gap since the nation had been founded by God’s covenant with Abraham. Undoubtedly, there was some angst among the Jewish leaders, trying to understand why God had gone quiet. Had He forgotten them? Was He discarding them for someone else?
Into this silence came Jesus of Nazareth. God chose not to speak through a prophet, priest, or king as He had in the past. This time He sent His Son
We have four different gospel accounts in our Bible. They contain a lot of overlap. But each one was written to a different audience and communicated different aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Three of the Gospels are called the “synoptic gospels.” These are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means “same viewpoint” or “same view”. And as we read in our Bible we can see that these books all follow a similar historical narrative style of telling the story of Jesus. The gospel of John follows a different literary strategy and stands apart from the others.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these books:
Written by Matthew Levi, the former tax collecting disciple of Jesus, this book is aimed at a Jewish audience. Matthew gives a lot of attention to matters that would have been of interest to his people. Much of the material in the book is intended to focus on Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy and His claim to be the Chosen One, the Messiah.
John Mark was a friend of Peter, and possibly a part of the larger crowd of people who followed Jesus. During his account of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, he makes mention of a young man fleeing naked from the scene. Some Scholars believe that was an autobiographical reference to him.
Mark’s book was targeted at a Roman audience. To this end, he focuses on the main action. His account is the shortest of the four gospels and follows a literary style that is much more oriented around the action. The word “immediately” is used more than forty times in his book – emphasizing events happening one after the other.
Luke was a Greek physician and companion of Paul the Apostle. His gospel account was commissioned by a Greek named Theophilus (which roughly translates into Lover of God). Luke did not witness any of the events first hand but says that he very carefully researched everything he wrote and interviewed the people who were there. Correspondingly, his account is targeted at a Greek audience.
John, the beloved disciple of Jesus wrote a very different account of Jesus’ life. While his composition is unique, it agrees with and supports the other accounts. At the end of his book in Chapter 21, John describes his purpose in writing his account.
but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
John’s gospel was written to convince people to believe in Jesus. He organized his work around seven major miracles, seven major discourses or talks, and seven major “I AM” statements made by Jesus.
A Harmony of the Four Gospels
A common way of studying the gospels is to lay them together to line up similar events and understand what might have happened between them. Where Mark might jump from one event to another in successive verses, Matthew or Luke might include details Mark omitted. They might even include events that Mark completely omitted.
As we build this composite picture of Jesus’ ministry, it helps us see His actions and His message more clearly. Of course, we have to remember the initial audience for the biblical authors and use that to understand what each said in the context of their purpose.
This process of lining up the gospels is called “harmonizing the gospels”. This is not forcing a harmony that isn’t naturally present, it’s just working with that harmony to organize the texts in a way to make the harmony more obvious.
What is a Gospel?
The word “gospel” simply means “Good News”. It could be good news of any kind. “The ice cream truck is in the neighborhood and is giving out free samples” could be considered good news if you like ice cream and the day is warm. But in this case, the Good News centers on God sending Jesus to pay the price for our sin and redeem us back to God.
When it comes to scripture, the term Gospel is reserved for the four books who tell the story of Jesus. Jesus Himself is God’s good news come down to us. He is the fulfillment of the promise God made back in Genesis 3 telling us that Satan’s power would eventually be broken. He is the ultimate Passover Lamb, completing the picture that was started in Exodus. He represents the perfect Prophet who can speak on behalf of God. He is the perfect Priest, offering the sacrifice that would forgive sins once and for all, not just cover them. He is the ultimate King, of the line of David, who will one day sit on the throne and rule forever. He is the author of the New Covenant, replacing the covenant of Law with a covenant of Grace.
All of the Old Testament was looking forward to the coming of Jesus. Whether the writers or the people they wrote about knew it or not, Jesus was the one who would make everything right with God. Their faith was a confidence that God would do something someday that would address the issue of sin and make permanent all the temporary cover-ups that they had to do.
For this reason, we call these four books the “Good News.” For they tell us of the greatest news of all.
A Summary of the Four Gospels
There are many ways that we could summarize the four gospels. We could attempt to do it culturally or thematically, or based on the subjects of Jesus teaching. Here I will offer a roughly chronological listing of major events that happened building to the climax of all four of the accounts.
The gospels are all about Jesus. They can have no other subject, no other main character. So as we summarize them, we will focus on how we see Jesus in the gospels.
Jesus Role in Creation from Eternity Past
Lest we have any doubts about Jesus’ identity, John starts at the beginning of the story. Even though we’ll get to Jesus’ birth in a bit, John starts much earlier than that.
He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:2)
Jesus existed before His birth in Bethlehem. John takes us back to Genesis 1:1 and says that Jesus was there with God. John doesn’t beat around the bush. In the first verse of his book, he says that Jesus is God.
John goes on to say that Jesus played a role in creation (John 1:3). Not a minor role or an assisting role, but an essential role. Without Jesus in the beginning, the world we know would not have come into existence.
As we continue to read through the events of His earthly life, John wants us to remember that Jesus’ story didn’t start in Bethlehem.
Jesus Miraculous Birth
Matthew 1-2, Luke 2
Every Christmas we return to these beloved passages about no room at the inn and babe in a manger. We love the shepherds and the wise men and the angelic choir singing “Glory to God in the highest.”
Matthew and Luke want us to know that Jesus was not an ordinary baby conceived the ordinary way. Jesus was born of Mary, but not of Joseph. He was fully human, but also fully God. So his conception happened differently.
Of His childhood, we get very little information. We know that He understood early on that His purpose and mission was from above and that His Heavenly Father had work for Him to accomplish. We don’t know when the reality of the cross came to Him. But He was aware that He had a purpose.
John Baptizes Jesus
Matthew 3, Luke 3
John was Jesus’ second cousin. Jesus’ mother and John’s mother were cousins. John came for a special purpose. Mark identifies John as “one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the paths of the Lord.’” He had a specific role to announce Jesus and introduce Jesus to the people, as foretold in the prophet Isaiah.
John’s ministry was one of preparation. He called the people to repentance and baptized them to signify that repentance. He had no forgiveness to offer, but his job was to make the people aware of their sins and properly sorrowful, so they could receive Jesus as God intended.
When John baptized Jesus, He did not do so to commemorate Jesus’ repentance. Jesus had committed no sins. John baptized Jesus to officially announce Him and initiate Jesus’ public ministry.
Matthew 4, Luke 4
Straightaway after Jesus was baptized, He went into the wilderness where He spent time fasting and preparing for what was about to happen. At the end of this period, Satan came to Him and tempted Him with a variety of short-cuts.
The first temptation was simply to deviate from His purpose of being the ultimate sacrifice and use His powers to indulge His hunger. That would have been a perversion of God’s plan and would have disqualified Him from completing His intention.
Satan’s second attempt was to try to get Jesus to use His divine powers to influence His ministry. By throwing Himself off the top of the temple and being rescued by angels, Jesus would have impressed the crowd at the Temple. They would have gladly installed Him as their new King. But Jesus knew his purpose was to be the suffering sacrifice, not the triumphant King.
The third temptation was couched as a simple trade. If Jesus gave Satan what he wanted, Satan would give Jesus what He wanted. Jesus had only to worship Satan and He could skip the whole cross and death and He would be given all of humanity. But this was not God’s plan and Jesus said no.
In each of these temptations, Jesus used the word of God from the scriptures to rebuke Satan. He did not give in to the apparent ease of a short cut but relied upon God to know the best way to accomplish what needed to be done.
Jesus Public Ministry
Matthew 4, Luke 4, Mark 1
After resisting Satan’s temptations, Jesus began his public ministry. This consisted of calling His disciples, walking around to different cities, and preaching to them and performing miracles of healing and exorcism.
Throughout this phase of His ministry, Jesus had one overarching message. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In this message, He continued John the Baptist’s call to repentance. Ultimately He wanted a change of heart for the people and that began with acknowledging their sin and turning from it.
The Kingdom of God at hand referred to His presence among them. He was near, in their midst. He would be their sacrifice and their ruler. They simply needed to repent and turn to Him.
Jesus’ Discussion with Nicodemus
One of the most famous discussions Jesus had was with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and a member of the Jewish Governing Council. Nicodemus came to Jesus secretly by night. He did not want any of his colleagues to know that he had been talking to Jesus.
Nicodemus wanted to know who Jesus was and how He did all the miracles. He as much as admitted that the Pharisees knew there was something special about Jesus because of the miracles. But he wanted more.
Jesus steered the conversation in a spiritual direction and began to talk to Nicodemus about being “born again” as the way to see and experience the kingdom of God. This confused Nicodemus and he tried to puzzle out how he could physically be reborn.
Jesus clarified that it wasn’t a physical birth He was talking about. It was a spiritual rebirth. Nicodemus was spiritually dead and if he wanted to see the kingdom of God, he would need to be born into spiritual life.
This discussion gives us perhaps the most famous and well-known verse in the Bible.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Jesus Is Rejected by the Jewish Leaders
Matthew 12: 14-37
Throughout His early ministry, Jesus drew the attention of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. When it was clear that something significant was happening, they sent a delegation to observe and see if the stories were true. When Jesus’ authority over demons and disease became obvious, they began to question Him about what He was doing and where His power came from.
The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was tense from the beginning. He saw how they abused their power and used it for their benefit. He publically called them “a brood of vipers,” “white-washed tombs,” and “children of the devil.”
The more Jesus amazed the crowds, the more He put the Pharisees in a tight spot. The uneducated crowd would expect the Pharisees to decide whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. If they said “He is,” then their sin and hypocrisy would have been exposed. If they said “He isn’t,” then the crowd would expect an explanation that accounted for all the miracles.
This tension came to a head in Matthew 12. Jesus had just cast out a demon. The crowd was astonished at this, and asked, “Is He the One?”
The Pharisees, who were there and heard this question, offered their answer.
“This was all a show designed to trick you,” they said. “He is not the One, the Messiah. He uses the power of the devil to cast out demons.”
The Pharisees, as the leaders of Israel, had rendered their verdict. They had decided that He was not the Messiah. Despite ample miraculous evidence, Jesus did not fit their picture of how the Messiah would act. Unable to explain His power in any other way, they described His miracles as satanic.
This must have come as a shock to the people who heard it. Jesus seemed to be from God, not Satan. But with this decision, the matter was put to rest. The Pharisees backed up their shocking announcement with their full authority as the leaders of the people, and no one dared to defy them.
Jesus chastised them and told them that what they had just done was blasphemy against the Spirit of God. For this sin, there would be no forgiveness offered. It could not be taken back or undone.
For this reason, John wrote in the introduction to his Gospel:
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:11)
Jesus Teaches in Parables
Following this encounter with the Pharisees and their rejection of His authority and His power, Jesus changed His ministry approach. After this point, we no longer hear His usual appeal about repenting because the Kingdom of God was near. From this point on, Jesus goes out of His way to hide what He was trying to say.
Starting in Matthew 13, Jesus began teaching in parables. Some might say that parables are folksy tales meant to appeal to a broad audience. Both the disciples and Jesus disagree with this interpretation.
After telling His first parable, the disciples came to Jesus and asked why He was talking to the people that way. They had no idea what He was trying to say.
Jesus answered, “To you, it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the crowds], it has not been given.” (Matthew 13:11)
Jesus was speaking in parables to hide His meaning from the people, who would not leave Him alone. Later, He explained the meaning of the parables privately to His disciples. His people had rejected Him. His message was no longer to them.
The parables Jesus taught His disciples (but not the crowds) explained different aspects of the Kingdom of God. Earlier He had been preaching to the people that the Kingdom was near. Now He was telling His disciples how to understand what the Kingdom was.
For the rest of the Gospel accounts, we watch Jesus as He worked with His disciples to prepare them for what was to come. He knew His time would be short and then He would have to leave them. This was the intensive class in how to believe in Him.
Jesus Introduces the Church
After the change of ministry strategy, Jesus took His disciples out into the countryside to the headwaters of the Jordan River (it flows right out of the side of a mountain). There He asked a really big question.
“Who do people say that I am?”
His disciples repeated back what they had heard in the towns of Galilee. A teacher. A prophet. John the Baptist raised from the dead.
“Who do you say I am?”
In what may have been Peter’s finest moment, he blurted out, “You are the Christ (the Greek word for Messiah), the Son of the living God.”
Jesus affirmed what Peter had said and said that Peter’s confession was a tiny piece (pebble) of a much larger thing (rock). And upon that rock, Jesus said He would build His church. Grounded upon this great confession of faith, all the powers of Hell would not prevail against it.
This was the first time that Jesus spoke about something much bigger than the faithful group that had followed him around the Galilean countryside. Though they probably didn’t understand what He was talking about, that understanding probably came later when the church came into existence.
The Triumphal Entry
Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19
Before the third Passover of His public ministry, Jesus headed into Jerusalem. This decision distressed His disciples tremendously. The tensions with the Jewish authorities had become so bad they expected that they were all going to their deaths. Normally they stayed up in Galilee and out of the political limelight. But Jesus was determined to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, regardless of what the consequences might be.
As He approached Jerusalem, word of His arrival spread ahead of Him. At this time, the capital city was bursting with people who had come to celebrate the Passover. Only at the temple could their Passover lambs be sacrificed. So every Jewish family that could afford it had come up to Jerusalem.
The crowd rushed out to see Jesus. They remembered His miracles and His teachings (and temporarily forgot the decision of their leaders). With a king who could feed multitudes from a few bits of food, they could overthrow off the Romans and establish a new Jewish kingdom.
So they worshipped Him, crying out “Hosanna!” and paved His path with palm fronds and the cloaks off their backs. Jesus knew their adoration was misplaced. They had already rejected Him and would do so again in a matter of days.
Once in Jerusalem, Jesus continued to teach publically in a cat-and-mouse game with the Pharisees and Jewish authorities. The Pharisees feared If He started doing miracles, the enormous crowds would spontaneously acclaim Him as their King. The Pharisees wanted to arrest Him and prevent Him from teaching, but the people loved Jesus and He was always surrounded by crowds.
Jesus Betrayal and Trial
John 18:12-19:16; Luke 22:63-23:25
When the arrest came, it was at night in a secluded garden outside the walls of Jerusalem. Acting on information received from Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, the Jewish leaders brought a squad of soldiers to take Jesus into custody.
The disciples were no match for the soldiers and were quickly sent running. Jesus submitted to the arrest and resisted no further.
That night, He was moved from the home of Annas to the house of his son in law Caiaphas and back. They were sharing the High Priestly duties that year and led the trial, seeking some means to put Him away. In both locations, Jesus was interrogated and physically assaulted.
The next morning, Jesus was presented to Pilate, the Roman Proconsul of Judea. He alone had the authority to sentence Jesus to death. Once again, Jesus went from location to location as Pilate tried to pass the political hot potato to Herod, the Jewish ruler, who was also in town. Neither leader found cause to sentence Jesus.
At this point, the Pharisees played their trump card. They told Pilate that if he didn’t do as they demanded, they would tell Caesar that Pilate was supporting a rival king. Left no political choice, Pilate issued the death sentence.
Jesus Death and Burial
Matt 27:27-66; John 19:17-42
The Romans liked to make a spectacle out of executing people. So Jesus was marched outside of the city and nailed to the cross. He’d been flogged and beaten so badly, that he couldn’t make the journey and an onlooker had to be conscripted to carry His cross.
At about three pm, Jesus took on the sin of the world and God turned His back on His Son. Jesus cried out “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” At that moment the full weight of sin pressed down on Him. Having taken our sin, He cried out “It is finished.” Then He died.
Normally a crucifixion would be a multi-day affair as the condemned struggled to hang on to life. It was part of the horror of the execution that was meant as a deterrent to anyone who would consider opposing the might of Rome.
Since the next day was a major Jewish holiday and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the dead and dying bodies outside the city while they celebrated the Passover, the Roman soldiers sped up the process so the condemned would die before sundown. When they came to Jesus they were surprised to discover He was dead.
The other prisoners were taken down and thrown into a common grave. But a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea petitioned Pilate for Jesus’ body. He was a Jewish leader but, like Nicodemus, was a quiet believer in Jesus and wanted to see Him buried properly. Quickly preparing the body, he laid it in his tomb in a pleasant garden.
The Pharisees, worried that desperate disciples would steal the body from the grave and claim it was a miracle, persuaded Pilate to seal the tomb with his seal of office. Then he stationed a squad of Roman Legionnaires to stand guard on the tomb to prevent mischief.
But Jesus could not be kept in the grave by a wax seal or any number of soldiers. On the morning of the third day, the God the Father resurrected Him, the stone was blown away from the grave, and the soldiers were scattered.
The first person to notice was Mary Magdalene. She was hoping to get access to the body so she could finish the burial preparations that had been cut short. When she arrived in the garden to talk to the soldiers, she discovered the grave was open and nobody was there.
She ran back to the place where the disciples were hiding out and announced “He is gone!” Of all the disciples, only Peter and John believed her enough to check out what she had said. They ran back to the tomb and looked in. Then they went back to the others and confirmed Mary’s story, but could not explain what had just happened.
Later Jesus appeared to the disciples and told them what had happened. They were able to talk to Him and verify that it was Him. Thomas missed the first visit. He resolutely declared that there was no way he would believe unless he was able to put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet.
The next time Jesus appeared, Thomas could only croak out “My Lord and my God.”
Jesus Final Commands
Matt 28:19-20; Mark 16:19-20
Jesus remained with the disciples for 40 days after the resurrection. During this time he met with them more than once and was seen by a large gathering of five hundred people. These were eyewitnesses who were able to testify to the resurrection that they had seen should anyone wonder if the story was true.
Finally, Jesus announced the time had come for Him to return to the Father. Back in Galilee, where most of His ministry had occurred, Jesus met with them for the last time. There He delivered His final instructions:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
This was the end of Jesus’ time on Earth. His place is in Heaven now, interceding for the saints and building His church. He will come again. Next time, however, it will not be to proclaim “The Kingdom of God is near.” He will come as the conquering ruler.
But that’s a story for another chapter in this great story of the Bible.