[Note: Please comment with any corrections, clarifications, questions, or additional points you think should be added. Lord willing, this series will eventually become a book–and if you help me out by commenting on it, I will make sure to include your name in the “Special Thanks” section of the book when it is finished!]
[Second Note: There is a handout that goes with this study, the pdf of which can be downloaded here: Life of Christ (Worksheet 001).]
Beginning the Study:
Why Four Gospels?
Before we can do a study of the chronological life of Christ, we have to answer the question, Why are there four different gospel accounts? That question includes other questions, like, Why didn’t God just use one? Why is some information included in one and left out in another? Why don’t some of the accounts of (supposedly) the same event agree with each other?
In order to answer these questions (and they need to be answered before we do a serious study of the life of Christ), we will take a brief look at each gospel and find out what makes it different from the others, and most importantly why.
Some people make accusations against the Bible, accusing it of contradictions because quotes are given differently by different gospel writers, because different people are identified in certain scenes, or even because sometimes the same (so they claim) incident seems to take place in different places in the various accounts. On the other hand, when the accounts agree almost verbatim, the same critics accuse the writers of colluding and copying, and therefore say they aren’t trustworthy. Tell you what, that’s a great job if you can get it—if they agree, you can’t trust them; if they disagree, you can’t trust them… I win!
Let’s say you see a car crash, and the police request you to write down what happened. Are you going to remember every single detail? Of course not. Now imagine they found another witness, and asked them to do the same thing. Are they going to write the same thing you did, word for word? Do you think there might be some details they include that you didn’t? Now let’s assume there is a third witness, who is close friends with one of the drivers—do you think their account will vary slightly in some details from yours? And lastly, let’s assume the police officer takes interviews with the witnesses and writes down an account of what happened—will his account be identical to any of the others? Each witness (and the police officer) write what happened, but it is from a slightly different perspective, bringing their own background in, causing them to notice things that the others might not have noticed—and yet each can still be called reliable witnesses.
Each of the gospels has a different starting point, a different audience, and a different vantage point. But they each tell the same story of our glorious Savior!
Even just a surface reading at the first gospel account lets you know, This guy like the Old Testament. Matthew constantly references the Law of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, usually by saying something akin to, “this happened so that it might be fulfilled what was written by the prophet…” The constant references to the Old Testament as proof for Jesus as the promised King, the Messiah, would have only been important to one group of people—the Jews.
It is commonly accepted by almost every Bible student and scholar that Matthew wrote his gospel account to a Jewish audience. He wanted his fellow countrymen to believe in Jesus as the promised King, and so wrote with that thought in mind. In fact, some of the earliest surviving Christian writings after the time of the apostles make this same point.
The earliest evidence says Matthew wrote this gospel account within a decade of Jesus’ death. Why does this matter? For one, it is quite possible that it was written and circulating amongst Jewish Christians even before Gentiles (starting with Cornelius) were welcomed into the church. Unlike Luke, Matthew doesn’t go out of his way to show Jesus’ compassion and interaction with Gentiles—don’t get me wrong, Matthew does include some interactions, but it isn’t as obvious as it is in Luke, who wrote after Gentiles were welcomed into the church.
Matthew also wrote as an eyewitness. Certainly, some of the things he recorded were things relayed to him by other apostles (or by direct revelation from God), but remember that he saw most of these things, heard Jesus talking, and his gospel account was a testimony to the Jews of the truthfulness of Jesus as the Messiah.
Matthew begins his account with a genealogy—and modern readers scream No!!!!!!!!!!!!! But he starts here because it traces the lineage of Abraham—God promised Abraham that his seed (descendant) would bless the whole world. It goes to Isaac and Jacob—God reiterated this promise to each of them. It goes through Judah—prophecy was made that “the scepter [kingship] will not depart from Judah.” It then traces to David—God promised a descendant of David would rule forever. And it includes Zerubbabel—God promised this man he was the one through whom the promised King would come.
This genealogy shows Jesus was (1) an Israelite, and more specifically (2) a Jew [of the tribe of Judah], (3) a direct royal descendant of David, and (4) a legal heir to the throne. Each one of these items was essential to establish to gain credibility with Jewish readers interested in hearing about Jesus.
Matthew also spends an inordinate amount of space dealing with the corruption of the Jewish religious leaders—specifically the scribes and Pharisees (see chapter 23)—and the impending destruction of Jerusalem (see chapters 23-24). The other writers address these things, but not to the extent that Matthew does, because of his audience.
My oldest daughter read the first three chapters of Mark one day, and said it was very fast-paced. You’ll notice that the word “immediately” (or if you use the KJV, straightway) shows up a lot. Mark didn’t spend an awful lot of time dealing with details and discussions, but showed Jesus as a man of action. This is because his audience expected it.
It is generally agreed that Mark wrote to a Roman audience. They liked action, action, action. If you counted up the words of Jesus in Matthew, and divided that in half, it’d still be more than Mark records. But Mark shows Jesus as a man on the move, someone who is always doing something.
The Romans were used to extremely biased biographies. Once, when a new Caesar ascended the throne, a biography was produced that said “The gospel [good news] of “ that Caesar, “son of ____” [one of the Roman gods]. Of course, this was a lie to build up the mythos around the Caesar. But notice how Mark begins: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of the God.” (though most translations don’t include it, the Greek says “the God.”)
We know Mark isn’t writing to Jews, even though he himself was one, because he actually translates Hebrew/Aramaic phrases for his readers. Additionally, there are a couple places where Mark actually uses Latin words—and doesn’t translate or explain them, which implies his original audience was at least familiar with Latin.
While Matthew begins with a genealogy, then the miraculous birth of Jesus, Mark starts with the ministry of John the Baptizer, leading very quickly to the baptism of Jesus at 30 years old. No extensive background or backstory here.
Mark spends more time, as a percentage of the whole book, dealing with the last week of Jesus’ life than any of the other authors. And all of this is because he knew his audience.
Luke wrote 25% of the New Testament, which is quite impressive, especially since he was (1) not an eyewitness, and (2) a Gentile. Luke’s audience seemed to be more Greek-influenced. Luke focuses more on Jesus’ interaction with the poor, with women, and with Gentiles. Being a physician, Luke also had an eye for detail, giving more specific words for certain medical ailments than other writers, describing more of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, etc.
Luke has also been called a “first rate historian” by a one-time atheist who fully intended to disprove the Bible. Luke shows Jesus as a real person, in a real place, and at a specific time (just read the beginning of Luke 3 to see the amount of historical detail Luke gives).
Luke interviewed several eyewitnesses to the events he records (almost certainly including Mary, the mother of Jesus), as well as checking some of the already-in-circulation gospel accounts, which would certainly include Matthew, and perhaps Mark. And with divine guidance from the Holy Spirit, he organized the information in a predominantly chronological order (with one flashback explaining why John the Baptizer was in prison).
Luke begins with the miraculous conception of John the Baptizer, followed quickly by the miraculous conception of Jesus. Luke is the only author who describes Jesus being taken to the Temple as an infant, and the only one who gives us any words and actions of Jesus between His birth and His arrival to be baptized by John (see chapter 2).
Luke also gives a genealogy of Jesus, but if you compare it with Matthew’s, you’ll notice some differences: (1) Matthew’s goes forward to Jesus, Luke’s goes backwards from Jesus, (2) Matthew skips some generations, Luke doesn’t. But most startlingly, (3) Matthew gives a different genealogy from David to Zerubbabel, and from Zerubbabel to Joseph than Luke does. We will deal with those differences when we get there. Suffice it to say, Luke chose to give a (still-accurate) genealogy that would hit home for his readers—which was different from the one Matthew chose.
As far as the life of Jesus goes, Matthew starts with the birth of Christ, Mark starts with the baptism of Christ, Luke starts with the announcement of the conception of Christ. But John outdoes any of them—he starts with the life of Jesus before creation!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Hearkening back to Genesis 1:1, John shows Jesus as more than just a man, but as the loving God who became flesh (John 1:14).
John’s audience appears to be more general than the others. His whole purpose in writing was not to give all the places Jesus went, the people He met, or the miracles He performed. John wrote to help people believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). So he wrote to support this aim.
After showing the pre-existence of Jesus, he moves to just after Jesus was baptized, with John the Baptizer pointing out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
John’s account contains a lot of information not found in the other three accounts, including Jesus’ first miracle (water into wine), the first time He cleared out the Temple, His own baptizing of others (through His disciples, He didn’t do it personally), the raising of Lazarus, and several others. John seems to focus more on things Jesus did in Judea, while the other writers spend more time on His ministry in Galilee.
- Matthew wrote to show the Jews that Jesus was their long-awaited King.
- Mark wrote to show the Romans that Jesus was the true Son of God (unlike the Caesars).
- Luke wrote to show the Greeks the humanity and compassion of Jesus the man.
- John wrote to show the world that Jesus is the loving God in the Flesh who died to take away sin.
Each of the four purposes show up in all four gospel accounts to a lesser degree, but these are (generalized) the main thrusts of each of the four gospel accounts.
What does this mean for us today?
God thought it was important—perhaps even necessary—to give us four different gospel accounts, each with a different focus, a different audience, and a different writer’s viewpoint. This fact alone shows us different people will respond to different approaches. To reach the Jews, Matthew showed Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy—but that would have meant next to nothing to Mark’s Roman readers (Mark as narrator only refers to the Old Testament twice).