Gospel is an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Greek word evangelion, which is used in New Testament times to describe the announcement of earth shattering, good news. Just as news bulletins are normally read aloud, so too the Gospels were written with the intention they would be read out to a congregation of people. However, there is much benefit to be had by studying them in silence.
The reason for the Gospels being written is clear. In the early decades following Christ’s ascension, the church grew rapidly and spread across the Roman Empire and beyond, as the apostles took the Gospel message to the world. As they moved on, it became the role of local elders to continue evangelise and teach their local converts. Thus there was a demand from many people to receive the good news from those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry and the way to do that was by providing written accounts.
But why are there four? Surely a single account would suffice, especially if several apostles contributed to its writing and approved the final account. However, God had good reason for inspiring four Gospel writers, just as he had good reason to duplicate other parts of Scripture. For example, there are two creation accounts in Genesis 1 from God’s perspective and Genesis 2 from man’s viewpoint. In the same way, God inspired four accounts of Jesus’ life and death to give a number of different perspectives that together pain a single image. Since Jesus is the most amazing man to have ever lived, God got four men to write down what they found in Jesus. The writers of the four Gospels wrote independently, from their own perspective, forming a remarkable yet fully complementary whole.
Mark is accepted as being the first account written and is compiled from the words of the apostle Peter, who served as Jesus’ key disciple. Mark focused mainly on what Jesus did: his actions, miracles, death and resurrection. He sees Jesus as the Son of Man.
It is difficult to date Matthew and Luke apart. Matthew appears first in the New Testament canon. It uses much of Mark’s framework but adds significant detail on what Jesus taught, including the Sermon on the Mount and a detailed end times discourse. Matthew focuses on Jesus as the King of the Jews and writes extensively on the Kingdom of Heaven.
Luke was a Gentile convert to Christianity and a close companion of the apostle Paul but was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. Instead, he conducted an extensive investigation and collected much of his evidence from eyewitnesses. Like Matthew, he included a lot more detail on what Jesus taught but also included much historical evidence that helps with the timelines of Jesus birth and death. Along with Matthew, Luke provides an insight into the earliest times of Christ through his birth narrative that should be read in conjunction with Matthew’s. Luke views Jesus as the Saviour of the World.
These three Gospels are called the Synoptics, for they provide a cohesive account and should be viewed together.
John was the disciple whom Jesus loved and he wrote his Gospel in his latter years, some thirty years after the other three. John is not so much interested in what Jesus did or said, although he includes some new material not found in the other three as well as confirming some of what they say. John’s supreme concern is with Jesus’ identity, with who he really is. That is, the unique Son of God, God incarnate.
While the Gospels are all distinctive as forms of literature, they do encompass a wide range of reflection on Jesus, providing an all round view and giving the reader a comprehensive understanding of why Jesus came, what he taught, what he represents and how he can so dramatically change the life of anyone who chooses to accept the message of the Kingdom of God that he brought with him.