Three minutes to go and it was 2-2. As the forward went past the defender, down he went! A moment’s silence then the referee blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. The home side had a penalty to win the game with just seconds remaining! Stood on the terrace behind the goal I was convinced it wasn’t a penalty and went home sure that the three points were undeserved.
Two days later I came across internet footage from the same moment. This time the camera angle was different, taken from the television tower on the side. Now I saw it from a completely different view and the contact was clear. It was a definite penalty! Seeing the incident from a different viewpoint meant spotting things I’d missed first time around.
In one sense it’s a little like that with reading the four Gospels; the written, historical records of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ upon earth. Almost uniquely in terms of the Scriptures we have four accounts which cover much of the same material. That gives us possibilities but also challenges if we are to read them to maximum benefit.
Reading them together
What difference does having four accounts make? The four Gospels have many things in common as well as different features that distinguish them. They are all written collections of accounts of the life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of the Saviour. All four spend a disproportionately large section (between a quarter and a half) on the events following Palm Sunday, the last week of the life of Jesus. That means they are not biographies as such. They all point us to the centrality of Calvary and of the empty tomb. We do well to read every verse of the Gospels with that in view.
All four are written to point us to who Jesus is – not just an ordinary man, not even just a great prophet or leader like those we have already seen throughout the Old Testament. The titles that are given to him by the Gospel writer himself, from the lips of those whose stories each Gospel records, or even within Jesus’s words themselves, are building up a picture for us so that we might see who he is and believe in him ourselves. It is here that we will see how different writers bring different themes to prominence.
In the first few verses of Luke’s Gospel and the last few of John’s we are assured not only of the reliability of the records in front of us, but also of the purpose for which they were written. It seems fairly safe to assume the same reality for Matthew and Mark. They show clear evidence of an awareness of each other’s existence and a willingness to depend on each other. Though evangelicals differ as to whether Matthew or Mark was written first, nearly everyone would recognise that Luke’s Gospel builds on both and that John sets out to write a deliberately different Gospel. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke see things together (which is why they are often called The Synoptics), John seems to write from ‘Heaven down’ beginning with Christ’s deity and choosing an almost completely different selection of stories to prove his point. Add all four Gospel accounts together and we have a fully-rounded view of the Saviour, his ministry and his message.
The repetition of stories in the Gospels can seem on first viewing to be wasteful, but to take such a view would be mistaken. The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. It’s a good exercise to read all four accounts, firstly making a list of what features are recorded by all four reporters. They must be central, undeniable and of great significance. Then it would be wise for us to notice details each writer has included even if no other Gospel writer has chosen to do so. They must be the matters of fact that had a particular significance for the writer, ones you need to know. That’s particularly noticeable in John’s account. Try it as an exercise!
Reading them separately
Though we are right to see all four Gospels as contributing to a whole, we should be careful to see and read each on its own terms. Matthew was clearly written for a Jewish audience and so must be read with that in mind. It links us with the whole of the Old Testament in its first few paragraphs of genealogy, and throughout the Gospel we see how Jesus fulfils not just individual verses but themes and topics as the kingdom of heaven is established with the coming of the Saviour. Despite the Jewish background, Matthew wants us to see that this kingdom is international in nature, a worldwide church is being formed, and Gentile inclusion runs throughout from the four Gentile women in the ancestry of Christ to the Great Commission in the last few verses.
Mark’s Gospel, on the other hand, seems to have been written for a group of Gentile Christians struggling with discipleship in the pressures of the Roman Empire. Its first half seems to be a breathless narrative of one miracle following another, each of which reveals the authority of Christ in every situation. Written perhaps with Peter’s help, Mark also shows us the struggles and failures of the twelve, as the Son of Man heads for Jerusalem.
Luke, in his first four verses, leaves us in little doubt as to the purpose of his Gospel, and to that end we see a mixture of stories. Miracles, parables, more extended sections of teaching, as well as glimpses into the prayer life of Christ. Look out for Luke’s stories about women, especially widows, and children. What a delightful physician he must have been! Remember that his Gospel is only part one of a two volume work that will be completed with Acts.
Then there is John’s Gospel. From verse 1 Jesus is God. Every story, many of which are unique to this Gospel, sets out to underline that the ‘I AM’ has come amongst men. Look out for the longer one-to-ones Jesus has with people like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. See the depths of the relationship Jesus has with the Father and marvel that he is bringing us into such a love too! Respond to the author, remembering that it is written that we might believe and that we might have life in his name.
One story told from four viewpoints into four first century situations they might be, but we wouldn’t be without any one of the four twenty centuries later.