The Gospels are probably among the most beloved books of the New Testament, probably because they provide unique insight into the earthly life of Jesus, and they are without a doubt an excellent starting point if you want to get to know Jesus. But what kind of literature is a gospel anyway? Is it a biography? Is it a narrative? Is it a discourse? The answer is, yes, it is all that and more.
A Gospel is primarily an announcement, kind of like a bulletin board. It’s a message about Jesus and his historical context and a message to the readers or hearers of the gospel and their historical context. In the New Testament, we have four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of them presents Jesus in a unique way. And each of them has a very specific message about Jesus and a particular message to the readers. So when we read any of the four Gospels, we do well to keep the following things in mind:
The Selection of the Material: Each Evangelist, that is, the author of a Gospel, selected his material according to his message. That is why you find certain stories or sayings in one gospel, but not in another. When reading a Gospel it is key to pay close attention to what material is being provided. A good way of noticing the uniqueness of the material is to compare it to the other gospels, but not to fill in the details, but to understand why additions or omissions occur.
Example: Matthew has a special interest in Jesus as the Son of David and thus he includes his genealogy in chapter 1. He does this primarily to convince his fellow Jews of Jesus’ Messiahship. John, on the other hand, does not talk about that much. For John, Jesus’ eternal oneness with God is more important for his message (chapter 1:1-14), among other things because he was battling a specific heresy of his day. The selection of the material underlines the message to the readers.
The Arrangement of the Material: The next question one has to ask is how the material is arranged. An Evangelist will choose the order of events and sayings very wisely so as to communicate his particular message about Jesus.
Example: One of the ways this works is, for instance, the way in which the sayings of Jesus and the deeds of Jesus interact and intersect. This is most noticeable in John: Jesus says he is the light of the world and then goes on to heal a blind man. Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life and then goes on to resuscitate Lazarus. But this feature is present in all gospels. Mark, for instance, places the cleansing of the temple in between the story of the fig tree (ch. 11). Again, to notice differences in arrangements, it is helpful to compare the section you’re reading with the other gospels, but also to just pay special attention to the flow of the material withing a gospel.
The Adjustment of the Material: There are differences between the shared content of the gospels. Differences in the choice of words, slight alterations of stories, unique details found in one Gospel, but not the others. The Gospel writers adjust their material in order to best communicate their message.
Example: In the Olivet Discourse, where Jesus teaches about the end times, Matthew and Mark reference the “abomination of desolation” an expression from the book of Daniel (Mat. 24:15-16; Mk. 13:14). Matthew’s and Mark’s readers apparently were somewhat familiar with the expression and the context in Daniel. Luke, however, explains this for his non-Jewish readers by saying that “Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies” (Lk. 21:20-21). Luke adjusts the material in order to better accommodate his message for his readers.
So, selection, arrangement, and adjustment are keys to appreciate and understand each of the Gospels. Thus we have a unique, four-dimensional view of Jesus. We see the Jesus who is the King of David and the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope (Matthew). We see the Jesus who is the ever working suffering servant of God (Mark).We see the Jesus who is the perfect Human and who lives like a bearer of the divine image should live (Luke). And we see the Jesus who is both eternal God and mortal man (John).