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The Four Gospels

Clearly, the four Gospels are the most important books in the Bible, the culmination of biblical prophecy dating from the days of Moses.


All the Gospels were written in the first century of the modern era; and while they all share the story of Jesus' life, there are remarkable differences among the four.  Three of the four draw on the writings of a mysterious chronicler, known simply as "Q".  The "Q" document, as it was known, no longer exists. The Fourth Gospel is the Book of John. John's more spiritual account has been determined to be written by someone close to Jesus; most scholars believe this person to have been John, "the beloved disciple."  All four books share the life and ministry of Jesus' remarkable time on earth, but are told from a different point of view, and each with a distinct audience in mind.


The four Gospels detail a story of the Messiah (a term the Greeks interpreted as the Christ); of a man who broke all the material laws of this world, by walking on water, feeding the multitude, healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, restoring sight, hearing and speech, causing the lame to walk, and raising the dead.


While the four Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus spoke in the language of the Jews--Aramaic.


"MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD"


At the time of Jesus' ministry, Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire.  Many Jews wanted to know if Jesus was the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament, who would come and restore Israel to its former glory, as an independent and powerful nation.  Jesus replied, "My Kingdom is not of this world."  One of the most consistent story-lines of the four Gospels is Jesus' intolerance of hypocrisy, whenever he encountered it, which was nearly everywhere he traveled.  Clearly illustrated is his love of little children, and his shepherd-like caring for the the poor and common people.  Also recounted is his ongoing opposition from the Jewish hierarchy, the Scribes and Pharisees. Who were these two groups?


THE SCRIBES were educated Jewish religious leaders who studied the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, that include the Ten Commandments) and copied them onto scrolls from scrolls.  They also studied oral and written laws and taught what these laws meant and how people should obey them.  Jesus was familiar with their teachings and doctrine.  However, Jesus' teachings conflicted with that of the Scribes' teaching, thus creating the tension that followed Jesus everywhere he traveled.  It's worth noting that the area where Jesus taught, traveled, and ultimately changed the world, was not much larger than the state of Rhode Island.



THE PHARISEES were yet another group of educated Jewish religious leaders.  They adhered strictly to the Ten Commandments, and the laws God had given to Moses as he guided the Israelites through their forty-year sojourn in the Gaza desert.  The Pharisees also obeyed hundreds of other oral and written laws.  This body of strict religious doctrine was known collectively as "The Law".  Both the Scribes and Pharisee feared that Jesus had come to destroy The Law.  Compounding their problem, was the fact that many Jews, having heard Jesus' teachings and witnessed his healings, stopped listening to the Scribes and Pharisees, and turned their full attention to what Jesus was teaching them.  As a result, the Scribes and Pharisees began watching Jesus closely to see if he violated in the slightest way any of The Law, thus fueling the mounting tension that pervades the Gospels and leads to Jesus' arrest and crucifixion.


JESUS' WIDESPEAD POPULARITY


  Such was Jesus' popularity that large crowds would gather the moment he arrived in their town or city, thus allowing him little time to be alone and pray.


Playing an equally significant role in this unfolding drama was the Roman authority that ruled Israel.  In effect, the role they served was not unlike that of a modern-day urban hitman, whom the jewish authorities called upon to put Jesus to death.  Such a task, the Jews said, went counter to their religious beliefs.  It took a lot of convincing, as Pontious Pilot, the Roman governor, proved very reluctant to carry out their gruesome request.


REVERENCE FOR WOMEN


Among the revelations recounted in the four Gospels, is Jesus' special relationship with women (whom he treated as equals), which is shown in a number of his actions. In particular with Mary of Magdala, with the sisters Mary and Martha, with Joanna, and with Mary, the mother of James.  Among the people Jesus raised from the dead, was Tabitha. In fact, Tabitha was the only woman in the New Testament specifically called a disciple of Jesus. Of special note is the fact that it was a woman--Mary of Magdala--who was the very first person to discover that Jesus had risen from the tomb.



THE DISCIPLES


Jesus recruited fishermen as his twelve closest disciples, not  because they were poor honest laborers, but because they were among the first to recognize that he was the Christ.  Seeing them in their boats, he said, "Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men!"  His disciples were: Simon called Peter, with his brother Andrew; James, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas, Mathew, the tax collector; James, the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot, who later turned traitor.  The word "disciple" means "learner" or "student."


IDLE TALK


Jesus frowned on idle talk, believing nothing good would ever come of it.  Jesus said, "Let your conversation be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."(Mathew 5:39)


JOY


Jesus' ministry was mostly about healing, and, equally significant, about sharing the Joy of God's Kingdom.  Indeed, there are 23 instances in the Gospels where the word "JOY" is employed.  One of the best known is found in Mathew 13:44 (quoted below from the King James Version):


". . . the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for JOY thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field."


WHEN WERE THE GOSPELS WRITTEN?


The first Gospel to appear was Mark's, written about 65 A.D.  Second was Luke's, written some time between 65 and 70 A.D.  Third was Mathew's, composed between 85 and 90 A.D.  John's Gospel--the fourth and last to appear--was written between 90 and 110 A.D. What follows is a brief summary of each, as well as one or two significant stories, beginning with Mathew's Gospel:



THE GOSPEL OF MATHEW


According to most Bible scholars, Mathew was a Jew who had been convinced of the divinity of Jesus.  While he relied heavily on the "Q" document, he also drew freely from Mark's Gospel, though he rearranged the order of events.  His style is lucid, calm, and written primarily for fellow Jews, with frequent references to the Old Testament. The opening account of Jesus' birth, recounts the story of The Three Wise Men, who followed the Star in the east and found the infant Jesus in a manger.  Recognizing this as a holy moment, they present baby Jesus with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


Jesus' primary mission was to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel".   Early in the book, the author lists Jesus' genealogy from Abraham down to King David, and on to Jesus' parents, Joseph and Mary.


The importance of Mathew's gospel is that it contains the greatest religious treatise of all time:  "The Sermon on the Mount". It's a message that illustrates the need for mankind to be gentle, loving, kind, and above of all, be forgiving.  When Peter questioned him, "How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? til seven times?" Jesus answered, "I say not unto seven times: but Until seventy times seven." Jesus placed great emphasis on honesty and morality, so it would appear he was telling his followers that one must forgive oneself before forgiving others.  The other message of the Jesus' Sermon is that God is the father of all, and that if you obey and trust God, He will comfort, protect, feed and clothe you.



THE GOSPEL OF MARK


Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels.  Indeed, I once attended a theater performance where the sole act was a man who recited from memory the entire gospel of Mark. His recital lasted about one hour.  Mark's writing has no literary polish but it has a breathless immediacy, that has led scholars to believe that Peter (who could neither read nor write) recounted Jesus's story to another of Jesus' followers, John Mark, who wrote it down.  Short and direct, Mark's Gospel can be thought of a "cliff notes" version of Mathew's Gospel, of which the latter drew upon.   Unlike Mathew, Mark hardly quotes from the Old Testament at all.  Mark's Gospel was intended for a non-Jewish audience, and may have been written in Rome at the time Christians were being made scapegoats for various trumped up charges by Emperor Nero.



THE GOSPEL OF LUKE


Scholars have identified Luke as "the beloved physician",  and fellow worker of Paul.  Luke's Gospel is only the first half of his "new volumes", the second being The Acts of the Apostles.  It is generally agreed that he was not a Jew, and a doctor by profession.  Luke was obviously well-educated and his gospel is considered to be the most lyrical of the four, both for its style and imaginative sympathy with which he paints the portrait of Jesus.


The importance of Luke's Gospel is that a number of stories about Jesus' life and ministry are found no where else in the other Gospels.  Unlike Mathew, Luke weaves the message of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount", throughout his book.


Luke recounts Jesus' ancestry, not from Abraham (the father of the Hebrew people), but from Adam (the father of mankind).


As with Mathew, Luke tells the story of Jesus' birth, with some variations.  For example, in Luke's Gospel, it's a group of shepherds (rather than "three wise men") who, having seen the bright star shining it's light down on Bethlehem, come to find Jesus in a manger (without bearing gifts).


Not found in Mathew is Joseph's dream, in which he learned that King Herod--fearing he might lose his kingdom to the birth of this rumored "King of Jews"--was plotting the murder the infant Jesus.  Following the angels' message in his dream, Joseph and his family moved to Egypt, and safety.  Later, when he learned of Herod's death, Joseph returned and settled his family in Nazareth.


Only found in Luke, is the story of Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, who  would give birth to John the Baptist.  As John the Baptist began his ministry, many people mistook him for the Christ, whose coming was foretold in the Old Testament.  Living up to his name, John baptized Jesus, and some time later was arrested and put in prison, where he would be executed.


Another exclusive, is Jesus' dinner with the two sisters, Martha and Mary. While Mary seated herself at Jesus feet and was listening to what he was saying, Martha was very worried about her elaborate preparations, and, quoting from the J.B. Phillips translation, "burst in, saying, 'Lord, don't you mind that my sister has left me to do everything by myself? Tell her to come and help me!'


"But the lord answered her,


"'Martha, my dear, you are worried and bothered about providing many things. Only one thing is really needed. Mary has chosen the best part and it must not be taken away from her!'"


THE GOOD SAMARITAN


Luke's Gospel contains the fullest exposition of Jesus' demand to be loving.  Quoting from the King James Bible, the story is set in motion with an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer, as follow:


"When a lawyer asked him, "Which is the great commandment of the law?"


"Jesus answered, "'What is written in the law? how readest thou?'"


"And he answering said, 'Thou shalt love the lord thy God with they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.'


"And Jesus said unto him, 'Thou has answered right; this do, and thou shalt live.'


"But the lawyer, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'"


As he was wont to do, Jesus answered with a short parable, about the Good Samaritan, the message of which is, that anyone in need of help, is your neighbor.


JESUS AS A PRECOCIOUS TWELVE-YEAR-OLD


Yet another story you will find only in Luke's Gospel, is the account of Jesus as but a lad of twelve.  The following is drawn from the J. B. Phillips translation:


"Every year at the Passover Festival, Jesus' parents used to go to Jerusalem.  When he was twelve-years-old they went up to the city as usual for the Festival.  When it was over they started back home.  But the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, without his parent's knowledge. They went a day's journey assuming that he was somewhere in their company, and then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquittances. They failed to find him, however, and turned back to the city, looking for him as they went.  Three days later, they found him--in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  All those who heard him were astonished at his powers of comprehension and at the answers that he gave.  When Joseph and Mary saw him, they could hardly believe their eyes, and his mother said to him,


"'Why have you treated us like this, my son?  Here have your father and I been worried, looking for you everywhere.'"


"And Jesus replied, 'But why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?'"


THE WALK TO EMMAUS


Another story found nowhere else in the Gospels, is Luke's remarkable account of "The Walk to Emmaus".  This journey occurred in the aftermath of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection, when two of his grieving followers made the trek from the village of Emmaus up to Jerusalem.  During their seven-mile walk a stranger approached, who asked: "What is all this discussion that you are having on your walk?'


"They stopped, their faces drawn with misery, and the one called Cleopas replied,


"'You must be the only visitor to Jerusalem who hasn't heard all the things that have happened there yesterday!'


"'What things?' asked the stranger.


"'Oh, all about Jesus, from Nazareth.  There was a man--a prophet strong in what he did and what he said, in God's eyes as well as the people's.  Haven't you heard how our chief priests and rulers handed him over for execution, and had him crucified?  But we were hoping he was the one who was to come and set Israel free. . . .


"'Yes, and as if that were not enough, it's three days since all this happened; and some of our womenfolk have disturbed us profoundly.  For they went to the tomb at dawn, and then when they couldn't find his body they said they had a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  Some of our people went straight to the tomb and found things, just as the women had described them--but they couldn't see him!'


"Then he himself spoke to them,


"'Oh, how foolishly you are, how slow to believe in all that the prophets have said!  Was it not inevitable that Christ should suffer like that and to find his glory?'"


"Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them everything in the scriptures that referred to himself.


"They were by now approaching the village to which they were going.  He gave them the impression that he meant to go on further, but stopped him with the words,


"'Do stay with us.  It is nearly evening and the day will soon be over.'


"So he went indoors to stay with them.  Then it happened!  While he was sitting at a table with them he took the loaf, gave thanks, broke it and passed it to them.  Their eyes opened wide and they knew him!  But he vanished from their sight.  Then they said to each other,


"'Weren't our hearts glowing while he was with us on the road when he made the scriptures plain to us?'


"And they got to their feet without delay and turned back to Jerusalem.  There they found the eleven and their friends all together, full of the news--

"'The Lord is really risen! . . . Then they told the story of their walk, and how they recognized him when he broke the loaf.


"And while they were still talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said,


"'Peace be with you all!'"



THE GOSPEL OF JOHN


The difference between John's and the other Gospels, is that nearly all the action takes place in Jerusalem.  Also, Jesus is recognized as the Messiah in the very first chapter of John.  The discourses of Jesus differ remarkably from those in the other three Gospels, where they consist for the most part as parables or short, meaningful stories of the way in which life is meant to be lived.  In John's Gospel, the discourses are long and different in style; they deal almost entirely with the great themes of life, light, truth, and love, and Christ Jesus' relationship with his Father.  In John's Gospel, there are many metaphors but no parables at all.


The birth of Jesus is summarized with a short, pithy explanation, as follows (from the J.B. Phillips' translation): "At the beginning God expressed himself.  That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. All creation took place through him, and none took place without him.  In him appeared life and this life as the light of mankind.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. . . ."


Whether John's Gospel was written as a conscious supplement (or even as a deliberate corrective) to the other three, Bible scholars continue to speculate.  For all their disagreements, the majority of scholars do not deny the enormous spiritual value of this document. It seems probable that the author knew Jesus personally, and had reflected long and deeply on the nature of the divine Word.  Here John gives the world the results of his thoughts, prayers and meditations about the life which is the light of men.


The enligthening message of John's Gospel is Jesus' demand for his followers to be more loving.   This is illustrated clearly in chapter 13, where Jesus' unique and compassionate leadership skills are illustrated.  This takes place prior to the crucifixion, when Jesus washed his disciples' feet.


  Having finished washing their feet, he asked (quoting from Phillip's translation):  "Do you realize what I have just done to you?  You call me 'teacher' and 'Lord' and your are quite right, for I am your teacher and your Lord. But if I, your teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, you must be ready to wash one another's feet. I have given you this example so that you may do as I have done.  Believe me, the servant is not greater than his master and the messenger is not greater than the man who sent him.  Once you have realized these things, you will find your happiness in doing them."


Further on, Jesus says: "I command you, love one another! . . . There is no greater love than this--that a man should lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I tell you to do.  I shall not call you servants any longer, for a servant does not share his master's confidence. No I call you friends, now, because I have told you everything that have (I) heard from the Father.


JESUS' REUNION WITH HIS DISCIPLES


John's Gospel also recounts the touching story of Jesus' reunion with his disciples beside the sea of Galilee.  This meeting occurred after Jesus' resurrection.  At this point, his disciples believing their master was dead, had returned to their prior profession as fishermen.  After a night of fishing, and catching nothing, they saw a stranger on the shore, who, upon learning they had caught nothing, urged them to cast their net on the other side of their boat. They did so, and miraculously discovered a catch so vast and heavy that they would need help to haul it to shore.


On the shore, they realize the stranger was no stranger at all, but their beloved master, whom they joyfully greeted.  Having prepared them a breakfast of grilled fish and bread, Jesus and his disciple dined together one last time.  In a few days, Jesus would ascend up to heaven


The Gospel ends with John's memorable sign-off, where, speaking about the many healings Jesus had performed throughout his ministry: "I suppose that if each one were written down in detail, there would not be room in the whole world for all the books that would be written."


- END -


Final Note: In composing this piece, I am indebted to the commentary and writings in "The New Testament in Modern English", by J.B. Phillips. I am also indebted to the book, "Stories of Healing: Jesus and his followers", by Mary Jo Beebe, Olene E. Carroll, and Nancy H. Fischer

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