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How to Interpret The Four Gospels

The Gospels are narratives proclaiming the good news of Jesus by describing his life and teaching, as recorded by his followers.

Why are there four gospels?

Each of the four gospels give a description of the life of Jesus and his teaching, with a strong emphasis on his last week. However, none of them is complete biography, nor do we have a complete picture if we weave all four together. Each writer selected, from a great quantity of resources (Jn 21:25), the material which will bear witness to the aspect of Jesus that he wanted his original readers to understand. The purpose of each writer was not to give a full biography of Jesus, nor to give an exact chronology of events and sayings or exact dates, but to give witness to who Jesus was and to explain the nature of the kingdom he brought. They have been described as portraits of Jesus. Each of the gospel writers paints a picture showing a unique aspect of the nature and character of Jesus by emphasising particular themes.

How do we read the Gospels?

As we read, it is important for us to note who Jesus is speaking to in the different accounts. He addresses his words to his particular audience at the time. Often he is speaking to the crowds of followers, teaching them about the kingdom and demonstrating the coming of the kingdom through healings, casting out of demons and other miracles. Other times he is speaking to his disciples, either all twelve, the inner group of three (Peter, James and John), or a wider group of seventy or more. He gives his disciples more thorough teaching, training them to take his word to the nations. The gospel-writers also give many accounts of conflicts Jesus had with the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the Pharisees, who accuse him of breaking the Sabbath. His words to them are particularly strong.

All four of the gospels will make more impact if we take note of various cultural and historical issues. We need to consider two levels:

The first is the cultural and historical setting that Jesus lived in. Obviously, this was the same for all four gospels. The more we can know about the life-setting of Jesus, the more impact the gospels will make on us. Without being aware of this, some things Jesus said can easily be misunderstood. Jesus was born in the land of Israel and lived nearly all his life there, where almost all the events of the gospels took place. Therefore it is helpful to know about the geography of the land, where the cites were located, the different regions, and the topography of the land. We need to know about Judaism in the first century, including the different Jewish religious groups such as Pharisees and Sadducees, the synagogue, the temple, the law, and Jewish culture. In the first century, Israel was ruled by the Romans, so it is helpful to know about the political situation. This would include the various Roman emperors, who Pontius Pilate was, and the different members of the Herod family.

The second is the setting of the author's original readers. Each of the gospel-writers had a particular group of people they were writing to. These people were facing different threats to their Christian faith, or particular challenges, so each writer took the life of Jesus and retold it to his readers as a help and encouragement to them.

The four gospels

We should note that all four gospels are anonymous, so their titles come from long-standing tradition of the church from the earliest times.

Matthew’s Gospel was traditionally written by Matthew, or Levi, the apostle. He wrote his gospel for Jewish believers, showing that Jesus was the fulfilment of prophecy. Jesus was the predicted Messiah and King of the Jews, the son of David. He was qualified to be this through his obedience to the law. It is likely that Matthew’s gospel was used to train and disciple new converts in the early church.

Mark’s Gospel was traditionally by John Mark, who became a close follower of Peter. It is most likely that Mark wrote his gospel for Gentile believers in Rome, perhaps to encourage them during the persecution under Nero after AD 64. Mark describes Jesus as the suffering servant, who came to give his life (Mk 10:45), and uses the term 'Son of Man' to reveal true nature of the Messiah.

Luke’s Gospel was by Luke the doctor, a Gentile follower of Paul, written for Gentiles. He wrote what he called an orderly account, dedicated to Theophilus (1:1-3). Luke describes Jesus as the Saviour of sinners (19:10), particularly the outcasts from society, including the poor, women and children. He also emphasises prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, showing that those in Israel who were open to the Spirit recognised the one God had sent as the saviour of Israel.

John’s Gospel was traditionally by John the apostle, who described himself as, “the disciple who Jesus loved”. He wrote to a more general audience of both Jews and Gentiles. He stated his own purpose, that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Jn 20:31). This means that he had an evangelistic purpose, as well as strengthening believers in their faith. He describes seven signs that Jesus performed, and the seven 'I am' statements, which are declarations of the deity of Jesus. He also wrote to counter an early form of Gnosticism, known as Docetism, which claimed that Jesus didn't really have a physical body, but was like a ghost. In response, John emphasises the humanity of Jesus, as well as his deity.

The message of the Gospels - the coming of the Kingdom of God

The gospels proclaim that Jesus brought the long expected Kingdom of God. The Jews, including the disciples, expected a political kingdom with a military leader who would rule a powerful nation of Israel. They expected the Messiah to be an all-conquering king who would expel the Romans and establish his kingdom in Jerusalem (Jn 6:15). Each of the gospel writers shows that Jesus brought in a spiritual kingdom, which is entered by faith. The Son of God as the servant King, who was not interested in a physical kingdom.

Through his ministry, death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God and defeated the powers of darkness. Jesus demonstrated the coming of the kingdom through his miracles, particularly the casting out of demons. Mark summarised Jesus's message: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mk 1:15). However we are still waiting for the consummation of the kingdom at the second coming of Jesus. This is why the New Testament sometimes describes the kingdom as already here, and sometimes as not yet here.