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How to Interpret The Four Gospels

Related articles

Interpreting OT Narratives Interpreting the OT Law
Interpreting Hebrew Poetry Interpreting Wisdom Literature
Interpreting the OT Prophets Interpreting the Four Gospels
Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Interpreting the Book of Acts
Interpreting NT Letters Understanding End Times (Eschatology)
Interpreting the Book of Revelation

Interpreting 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.

Related articles

Interpreting OT Narratives Interpreting the OT Law
Interpreting Hebrew Poetry Interpreting Wisdom Literature
Interpreting the OT Prophets Interpreting the Four Gospels
Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Interpreting the Book of Acts
Interpreting NT Letters Understanding End Times (Eschatology)
Interpreting the Book of Revelation

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John
Jude

Revelation

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Tithing
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah


Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS