The Gospels

So far in this series, we have discussed a number of issues in Christianity. Today, I thought it would be good to go back and do a reset and talk, in general, about the Gospels.

The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament. They are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospels are the books of the Bible that tell about Jesus when He was on earth. They tell some of the things Jesus did and said and some of the things that happened to Jesus. They do not claim to contain everything Jesus did and said and everything that happened to Jesus, only some of it. The rest of the books of the New Testament, the ones that come after the Gospels, tell about things that happened after the time of Jesus. The Gospels are the books that tell about when Jesus was here on earth. 

The word “gospel” means “good news,” and from that, we know that this account of Jesus is good news for us.

The four Gospels are called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by tradition. It is not known if people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote them. No one knows who wrote them. It’s just tradition to call them that. Sometimes people think they were written by disciples of Jesus, but there was no disciple named Luke. The bottom line is that no one knows who wrote any of the Gospels.

The Early Life of Jesus

Matthew and Luke both begin with accounts of the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth concentrates on Joseph, and it contains the account of the three wise men, or magi, following the star and coming to visit the baby Jesus. It also contains the account of how, because King Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus, Joseph took Mary and the baby and went to Egypt.

Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus concentrates on Mary. It has the account of there being no room in the inn, of the baby Jesus being laid in a manger, and of the shepherds coming to visit the baby.

Mark and John do not have accounts of Jesus’ birth. They pick up when Jesus was an adult.

Matthew reports one brief episode from Jesus’ childhood, when He was 12 years old. That is the only Gospel that has anything about Jesus’ childhood. So, other than that one episode Matthew reports, when Jesus was 12 years old, nothing is known about Jesus from the time He was born until He appeared on the scene to be baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus was approximately thirty years old at that point.

No one knows what Jesus did during the first 29 years of His life. No one knows what He did as a child, what He did as a teenager, or what He did as an adult before He was 30. Some early Christian writings exist that contain things about Jesus’ early childhood, but for one reason or another, these didn’t make it into the Bible. Since they are not in the Bible, what they say about Jesus’ childhood is not an article of Christian faith. It may be true, or it may not be true. 

We don’t know.

No one knows what Jesus did as a young man, say, when He was 20 or 25 years old. Nothing at all has survived about that time of His life. There has been a lot of speculation about it, and all kinds of opinions have been offered about what Jesus might have been doing during that time. Sometimes people will take one of those speculations and talk about it as if it were fact, as if that’s what Jesus actually did, but no one has any idea what Jesus did as a young man.

I recommend that people not pay any attention to speculations about what Jesus might have done as a young man. Most of those speculations are made to promote some kind of agenda. Don’t let someone convince you Jesus did this, that, or the other when He was 25 years old, or whenever. There’s no way they could have any idea what Jesus did then. 

Don’t build your faith on speculations.

The Public Ministry of Jesus

But whatever Jesus might have done before He was 30 year old, from the time He was 30, all four Gospels present the same basic account of what He did and said and what happened to Him. Each one, though, presents it a little differently, with different emphases.

The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. Some have used that to say Matthew was written by and for Jews, and a lot of times people just accept that as fact, but actually, that’s not necessarily the case. The way Jesus fulfills the Old Testament is not the way Jews expected the Old Testament to be fulfilled, so Matthew could just as easily have written to show non-Jews how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament; that is, to illustrate how the Jews had misinterpreted the Old Testament. So even though “Matthew was written for Jews” gets repeated a lot, it is speculation, and again, we don’t want to build our faith on speculation.

The Gospel of Mark is the shortest Gospel. It presents a succession of short, quick scenes from the life of Jesus, in which everything is done in a hurry. Mark doesn’t contain a lot of extended teachings of Jesus; it’s more of an outline of the basic things He did and said and the basic things that happened to Him.

The Gospel of Luke has extended sections of the teachings of Jesus, and a major theme in many of these teachings is concern for the poor and those on the lower rungs of society. In conjunction with that, Luke contains many things that are critical of wealth and power.

The Gospel of John is the most complicated of all the Gospels. In addition to reporting things Jesus said and did and things that happened to Him, John contains extended sections that concentrate on the deeper meaning of it all. For that reason, many consider John to be the hardest Gospel to understand.

There is a lot of shared material, almost verbatim, found in Matthew and Luke, things that Matthew and Luke report, in practically the same words, but that are not found in either Mark or John. This has led many biblical scholars to conclude that there was a writing, which did not survive, that both Matthew and Luke used as a reference. This is what is referred to as “Q” in biblical scholarship. 

You might have seen reference to that in your own readings about the Bible. Q is the first letter of the German word “Quelle” which means “source.” Some biblical scholars believe Q was an early Christian writing that both Matthew and Luke used to refer to when they wrote their Gospels but which did not survive and has been lost.

\Whether there actually was a Q is speculation. The shared material between Matthew and Luke could be explained by one of them having been written first, and then the author of the latter one copied from the first one. In other words, Luke could have been written first, and then the author of Matthew copied from Luke, or the other way around. I mention Q because you might come across it in your own reading, and if you do, I want you to know what it refers to.

This is the third thing we’ve talked about that involves speculation. A lot that you read or hear about the Gospels is speculation, and most of the time, it’s not presented as speculation, it’s presented as fact, so you have to be very careful. 

For example, I read something the other day that talked about Matthew being written for Jews, and it said something like, “Matthew was written for Jews on the alleys and back ways of Jerusalem.” How in the world could anyone ever know that? That’s pure speculation; in fact, it’s more than speculation; it’s someone pushing an agenda, and then it gets picked up and repeated. People hear it and believe it. So you’ve got to be careful. Don’t let your faith be built on other peoples’ speculations and assumptions, and especially be cautious about speculations and assumptions that are presented as fact.

At any rate, as we talked about earlier, all four Gospels present the same basic account of Jesus after He was baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus traveled around Galilee doing basically two things—doing miracles and teaching. Most of the miracles the Gospels record Jesus doing are healing people of real physical illness and disease. The key is “real physical illness and disease.”

Recently in Christianity, something called “spiritual healing” has become popular, and that is said to be an extension of what Jesus’ healing ministry in the Gospels. However, there is no place in the Gospels where it is reported that Jesus did “spiritual” or “emotional” healing. The healings of Jesus are always of real physical illness.

Many times, Jesus heals by casting out a demon. The definition of a demon is “an evil, supernatural being.” Jesus often healed sick people by casting an evil, supernatural being out of them. Today, this is an embarrassment to many Christians, because today, most people see illness as being caused by bacteria, viruses, or some other physical cause, certainly not from having an evil, supernatural being inside you. Jesus healing by casting out demons seems out of place in the modern world, but yet the Gospels present numerous instances of Him doing it. 

The Gospels report that Jesus had such a reputation as a healer that everywhere He went, huge crowds of people thronged around Him. People came to Him in droves to be healed. The Gospels emphasize this in different ways. Mark’s Gospel has the account of the friends of a lame man letting their friend down through the roof beside Jesus because there were so many people crowded around Jesus to be healed that there was no other way they could get their friend close to Jesus.

Jesus chose 12 men to accompany Him as He traveled around. The Gospels call these men “disciples.” The word disciple literally means “an adherent to some belief or cause.” So, Jesus invited these 12 men to follow and support His cause. These were apparently the people who were closest to Jesus. I guess today we would call them Jesus’ closest friends. 

The Gospels do not present these men as coming up to Jesus asking if they could go with Him. The Gospels present Jesus as going to them and inviting them to come with Him.

These men assisted Jesus, they also healed people, and they baptized people. The Gospel of John reports that Jesus Himself did not baptize people, but that the disciples did. No one knows anything about this baptism that the disciples of Jesus did, how they did it, or what it meant. It’s not described in the Gospels; it’s only stated that they did baptize people.

One thing that all the Gospels emphasize is that, although the disciples accompanied Jesus for about three years, they never understood Jesus or what He was about. We see that numerous times in the Gospels. The disciples never understand; they are clueless as to what’s going on. The Gospels present several instances of Jesus becoming exasperated with them because they never understand. 

In addition to the disciples, there were a lot of other people who followed Jesus around, both men and women. Exactly who all these people were and exactly what they did is not described, but the point is that Jesus had a lot of regular followers as He traveled around Galilee. Jesus, in other words, was not a loner.

In addition to being a healer, Jesus was also a popular teacher. Matthew and Luke both have extended sections devoted to the teachings of Jesus. The most familiar is the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. That takes up three entire chapters in Matthew. Luke has a shorter section of Jesus’ teachings called the Sermon on the Plain. The things Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are thought to be representative of the things He taught as He traveled around from town to town. 

Other than these teachings, the Gospels report that Jesus also taught using stories called parables. A parable is a fictional story designed to illustrate some moral lesson or moral principle. Jesus often used parables to illustrate a point.

That leads to a problem. A parable, by its very nature, has its meaning hidden inside a story, and you have to try to figure out what the meaning is. That has caused a lot of confusion in Christianity since the beginning. Trying to figure out what Jesus meant in a certain parable is a subjective process, which means that if you get a group of people together and ask them what they think Jesus was trying to say in any certain parable, you’ll get a lot of different answers. Different people will get different meanings from it. So which is right?

There is no way to know for sure what Jesus was trying to say in any certain parable. That bothers a lot of people, especially people who want to believe that they have the only “correct” interpretation, but that’s just the way it is. The bottom line is that you can never know for certain what Jesus meant to say in any parable. They’re open to interpretation.

Did Jesus Follow Judaism?

At any rate, the things Jesus taught were not what was current in Judaism; that is, the things Jesus taught were different from the things the Jewish leaders taught. The Gospels emphasize that what Jesus taught was not the same things the Jewish leaders taught. In fact, many of the things Jesus taught were diametrically opposed to Judaism.

For example, Jesus directly told people not to obey the Jewish law of “an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth” that is found in the Old Testament. He directly told people not to pay any attention to the Jewish law about divorce found in the Old Testament. He and His disciples showed disregard for keeping the Sabbath. Jesus refused to sanction the stoning of a woman caught in adultery, which is prescribed in the Old Testament. The Gospels present instances of Jesus not following the accepted customs of Judaism.

One major thing Jesus taught that was not in Judaism is the concept of God as Father. Jesus taught people to think of God as their Father. Judaism had no concept of thinking of God as Father. 

The point is that all four Gospels show Jesus departing from Judaism in very important ways.

What Happened to Jesus

Because of this, all four Gospels report that Jesus came into conflict with the Jewish leaders. This starts almost immediately after He was baptized, and it escalates as time goes on. The Jewish leaders follow Jesus around, criticize Him, snipe at Him, and try to trap Him and trick Him up. It ends up with the Jewish leaders having Jesus killed. All four Gospels agree that Jesus was killed at the insistence of the Jewish leaders.

One of Jesus’ disciples, a man named Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus to the Jews for money, and the Jews arrested Jesus.

All four Gospels agree that Jesus was killed at the insistence of the Jewish leaders. All four emphasize that He really died and was buried. All four report that by the morning of the third day, He had risen from the dead. All four Gospels go to great lengths to emphasize that it was not Jesus’ spirit that rose from the grave; it was His real body that rose from the grave. All Gospels report that Jesus’ tomb was empty. They all report that Jesus’ body after the resurrection was the same body that had been killed and buried. It was really Jesus, not some apparition and not just His spirit.

All four Gospels report that Jesus appeared to people in that body after He rose from the grave. In some ways His body was exactly like it was before. It looked like His body, it had the wounds from His crucifixion still on it, and Jesus ate after He rose from the grave. 

However, in some ways His body was changed, in that He could suddenly appear inside locked rooms.

The Gospels tell about Jesus, some of the things He did and said and some of the things that happened to Him. They are the accounts we have of Jesus when He was on earth. 

Why Jesus Is Called Christ

The material in the Gospels is what the religion of Christianity is based on. Technically, the entire religion of Christianity is based on Jesus—what Jesus said and did and what happened to Him. 

But there’s a little more to it than that. The religion of Christianity is based on peoples’ interpretations of those things. People said, “Ok, here’s Jesus. Here’s what He did and said. Here’s what happened to Him. Now, what does all this mean?” The religion of Christianity comes from peoples’ interpretations of the meaning of all that. People were sure there was some deeper meaning to it all, that what had happened with Jesus represented not just something happening on the physical level, not just the things Jesus did and said and what happened to Him on earth, but it represented something even bigger happening on the spiritual level. This event of Jesus is seen to have changed something on the spiritual level. And that’s the important thing about what Jesus did—He changed something on the spiritual level.

Now of course, exactly what Jesus changed on the spiritual level is something Christians have never agreed on. Numerous different ideas about exactly what Jesus changed on the spiritual level, and exactly how He changed it, have been offered over the course of Christian history. But although Christians have never agreed on the what and how, they have traditionally agreed that something, in some way, changed on the spiritual level as a result of Jesus.

That is what is seen as “the work of Jesus,” and that is why Jesus is called “Christ.” Sometimes people think “Christ” has to do with Jesus being crucified, but actually, the term Christ literally means “anointed,” which means to serve a certain purpose. The idea behind “Christ” is that Jesus came to earth with a purpose in mind, to do something specific. What He did was not limited to the physical level; what He did also changed something on the spiritual level. There was more to Jesus than just the things He did and said and the things that happened to Him in His physical life; what we see happening in His physical life changed something on the spiritual level.

That is the important thing about Jesus—that something significant changed on the spiritual level. As I said earlier, Christians might not agree on exactly what changed or exactly how it changed, but traditionally within Christianity, there has been agreement that the most important thing about Jesus is that He changed something on the spiritual level.

There was some problem, and Jesus solved that problem. That’s why He came here—to solve that problem. That’s why this religion is called Christianity—it’s about Jesus; it about what Jesus did.