Reading the Gospels
So, I've been reading through Matthew and am almost done. But once I've read Matthew, aren't the other Gospels, Mark, Luke and John just like the first one?
Well…yes and no.
(Which, incidentally, was also my answer to the question, “Would y’all like more beans with your fajitas?” – Yes, I would…the others probably would not.)
I want to tell you have proud I am of you for reading and praying through Matthew – you should know that God is proud of you, too. Any time you make the time to read His Word, He pours out His grace upon you. Your question is a good one.
You see, the four canonical Gospels (that’s the four that we have in the Bible) – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are very similar, yes, but also quite different. In each of the gospels we receive a different “portrait” of Jesus. What I mean by that is that each one communicates something different about Jesus – different approaches and messages about the same God, if that makes sense.
The word gospel literally means “good news”. We are given the word in the very beginning of Mark’s work:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God).” - Mark 1:1
Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the synoptic gospels. Syn meaning “alike” (as in “synonym”), optic meaning “view” (as in optical allusion or optometrist). The three synoptic gospels give a similar view of Jesus, a little distinctive from St. John’s fourth (and last) gospel. One recognizable difference is that St. John’s gospel doesn’t have pure parables, as the other three have.
What you will find as you read and pray through the other three gospels, however, is that what each saint is communicating about Jesus is very different. And that’s a good thing. Those differences should make us feel even better about the Gospel – if they were too similar, many would think it was all just “copying” and that, perhaps, only one person really thought these things.
The four Gospel authors come from different backgrounds, wrote to different audiences, transcribed their gospels at different times and focused on different aspects of Jesus’ ministry, life and mission.
Many Biblical scholars spend their entire lives trying to prove that Mark was written after Matthew, or that there is another source (called “Q”) that was used (in addition to Mark) as a sort of “template” (outline) for both Matthew and Luke. And while those are some really interesting debates and conversations to get into someday, if you really want to, it’s probably far more important for you to focus on the here and now, as you read through the rest.
Here’s a little background on each, to help you on your way.
Matthew and John were part of the original twelve apostles (Mt. 9:9, Jn. 21:24).
Mark and Luke were not part of the original twelve. Mark was a young disciple of Jesus’, traveled with St. Paul (Acts 12:25) and was close with St. Peter (1 Pet. 5:13). Luke was a physician who spent a great deal of time with St. Paul. (Col 4:14, Phl. 1:24 and 2 Tim. 4:11). Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles.
Matthew is writing to Jewish Christians of Palestine. Possibly originally written in Hebrew (i.e., the Aramaic dialect), and afterwards translated into Greek, either by Matthew himself or by some person unknown. Though Matthew wrote mainly for the Jews, most were familiar with the Greek language.
Mark is written for a Roman audience. We know this because there are no allusions to Jewish Law, or references to Jewish culture like there are in the other Gospels. This Gospel was written primarily for a group of people who did not know Christ first hand.
Luke is writing to all non-Jewish readers, but especially Greeks who know very little about the Jewish faith. We know this because he translates all the Hebrew and Aramaic terms into Greek as well as explaining the Jewish Laws, customs and geography. It’s also important to remember that the Greeks admired human perfection and so Luke often shows Jesus as the perfect answer to their quest…the IDEAL.
John is writing to the early Church, close to the end of the First Century. This Gospel had a much more universal audience (not necessarily for a particular group of people) than the other Gospels.
Matthew - written before the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt. 24), and some time after the events it records. The probability is that it was written between the years A.D. 60 and 65.
Mark - Just before or just after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., probably about 63 AD.
Luke - It was more than likely written between the years 80-90.
John - Around 90-95 AD, there is great evidence to support this dateline.
Things to look for
Matthew - The central theme is Christ the Messiah and King came to establish a Church.
Mark - The central theme is on action and service, more than teaching.
Luke - The central theme is liberation and healing
John - The central theme is the identity of Jesus, the reality of the Sacramental Church
My hope and prayer is that you would read and pray all four, taking your time as you do. And once you finish with St. John, go back and begin through St. Matthew’s again. You can spend the rest of your life in just the four gospels and they will ever get stale, that’s the beauty (and depth) of God’s work.
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