The Four Gospel Accounts
About This Study
I have several books in my library presenting the harmony of the gospel accounts. Without exception, each uses the book of Mark to determine the order of events. Have you ever wondered why? It is not because Mark claims to give an ordered account; instead, it is because Mark is the shortest book. People have a tendency to assume that the shortest book is the first book written.
But there is a more disturbing reason. There are many so-called biblical scholars who simply cannot accept the notion that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are actual eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus. The books harmonize too well to be written independently by men, and the notion of inspiration by God is unacceptable to these men. Our society has swallowed the myth that the acceptance of the supernatural is not scientific. Thus few modern scholars would based their work on an acceptance of miracles or inspiration.
Instead, scholars selected the book of Mark, being the shortest, as the first written account of the life of Jesus. They then explain the consistency of Matthew and Luke’s gospels by stating they plagiarized Mark and added more detail. Since those details differ, they assume that Matthew and Luke were written about the same time, but independently. Because of John’s emphasis on spiritual matters, they conclude that his book as written last – after the church was well established and early Christians beliefs stabilized. To put it bluntly, these scholars believe the Bible evolved.
Too often brethren pick up portions of these “scholarly” ideas and incorporate them into their own writings. They accept the miracles and in the inspiration, but they sometimes the more subtle impact of scholarly writings.
When I began teaching classes on the gospels, I noted that only Luke claims to be written in chronological order (Luke 1:3). It would seem sensible then to use Luke as the basis of a gospel chronology and then fit the other three accounts around Luke. Since I was unable to locate such a list, I have composed my own.
The Purpose of Each Gospel
Even when a writer doesn’t directly declare his purpose, much can be determined about his purpose by examining what he has written. Small clues can build up to give us a good grasp on why the account was penned.
Matthew: Matthew’s account opens with a genealogy of Jesus, which starts at Abraham, and emphasizes his relationship to Abraham and David. Such a relationship was extremely important to the Jews. To Abraham was the promise of a great nation, Israel, as well as hints of coming important ruler. David was promised an eternal kingship through his descendants.
As we glance through Matthew, we find frequent references to Old Testament prophecies. A frequent phrase in Matthew is “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” Matthew goes out of his way to point out how various events in Jesus’ life fulfilled those prophesies. Matthew also heavily quotes passages from the Old Testament.
Matthew sometimes inserts Hebrew or Aramaic words in his Greek account, but he doesn’t always translates the words (for example, raca in Matthew 5:22).
Thus we conclude that Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience to convince them that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.
Mark: Mark’s account contains few references to Old Testament. When there are references to Hebrew words or Jewish customs, Mark explains them as if his audience would not necessarily understand them on their own. For examples, see Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:1-4. Thus it is believed that Mark’s account was aimed toward a Roman audience.
Papias, writing around 140 A.D. stated, “This also the Elder [John] used to say. Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately all that he remembered, though he did not [record] in order that which was either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him; but subsequently, as I said, [attached himself to] Peter, who used to frame his teaching to meet the [immediate] wants [of his hearers], and not as making a connected narrative of the Lord’s discourses. So Mark committed no error as he wrote down some particulars just as he recalled them to mind. For he took heed to one thing – to omit none of the facts that he heard and to set nothing falsely in [his narrative of] them.” See I Peter 5:13.
Mark’s account focuses on the deeds of Jesus. Mark’s account is filled with words such as “straightway” or “immediately.” It is Mark’s account that mentions that Jesus is so busy that he and the disciples did not have time to eat. Mark shows Jesus as a man of action, power, and authority. Compared to the other accounts more of Jesus’ miracles are recorded in Mark and less of Jesus’ discourses. A variety of miracles are recorded to show the breath of Jesus’ power.
Luke: Where Mark is associated with Peter, Luke is a companion of Paul (Colossians 4:14). The books of Luke and Acts are an extended historical account of the life of Jesus and the early church. Both are addressed to a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1). Theophilus literally means “friend of God.” The meaning has left some wondering if Luke was addressing a specific individual or a generalized person who is a friend of God.
Luke’s account specifically states his intention to record an orderly account (Luke 1:1-4). The Greek word in verse 3, translated as “order,” is kethexes which means in chronological or sequential order. Luke also states that his account is based the accounts of eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2). There are frequent references to people who remembered the events (Luke 1:66; 2:19, 51).
Much of Luke’s account emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. He is often referred to as the “son of Man.” And, Jesus’ sympathy toward men, especially the downtrodden is pointed out for us.
Like Mark, Luke translates various Hebrew terms, explains Jewish customs, and at times gives Greek names in place of Hebrew names. Because of this and because the account is addressed to Theophilus (a Greek name), it is believed that Luke’s account is aimed toward a Greek audience.
John: John’s account begins with a powerful prologue discussing the deity of Jesus (John 1:1-14). He clearly states that the purpose of the account was to instill faith in the reader (John 20:30-31). Thus John’s account is aimed toward Christians. His account focuses on the deep discourses that Jesus had with his disciples, especially toward the end of his life on earth. Over half of the book of John focuses on the last few days of Christ. John’s account also lays out abundant proof that Jesus was divine.
The Lineage of Jesus
Both Matthew and Luke give a chronology of Jesus’s ancestors. They are different because they were recorded for different audiences and for different purposes. Some point out the differences to claim that there are contradictions, but think about the number of ancestors you have: two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Any listing of ancestors will select a particular path through the broad possibilities in order to emphasize a particular point.
Matthew’s gospel proclaims that Jesus is the Anointed (Christ in Greek or Messiah in Hebrew). He then proceeds to prove that Jesus was the long awaited king. In Genesis 22:17-18 God told Abraham, “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (English Standard Version - selected for its accurate reflection of the Hebrew pronouns in this passage.) God also made a promise to David. “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (II Samuel 7:12-13). Thus, it was important to prove that Jesus descended from Abraham and David, which is what Matthew’s account does. Without this proof all other evidence that Jesus was the Messiah would be worthless to the Jews.
The chronology in Matthew is divided into three sections of fourteen names each. The first section shows that David descended from Abraham. The second traces the kingship from David to the last of his descendants to rule in Israel, Jeconiah or Coniah. Three kings are left out between Joram and Uzziah. Jewish chronologies sometimes left out insignificant individuals, especially when an overall point needed to be made. Matthew appears to be keeping the three segments even at fourteen names each to make memorization easier. Leaving the names out does not alter Matthew’s point.
Of the last king, Jeconiah, Jeremiah prophesied, “As I live," says the LORD, "though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, were the signet on My right hand, yet I would pluck you off; and I will give you into the hand of those who seek your life, and into the hand of those whose face you fear-the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and the hand of the Chaldeans. So I will cast you out, and your mother who bore you, into another country where you were not born; and there you shall die. But to the land to which they desire to return, there they shall not return. Is this man Coniah a despised, broken idol-A vessel in which is no pleasure? Why are they cast out, he and his descendants, And cast into a land which they do not know? O earth, earth, earth, Hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the LORD: 'Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not prosper in his days; for none of his descendants shall prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling anymore in Judah” (Jeremiah 22:24-30). This prophecy caused problems for those who knew the Law. The kingship passed through Jeconiah, but God stated that none of his descendants would rule.
Matthew explains this apparent discrepancy in the third segment by showing that the lineage of the kingship was passed down to Joseph, the husband of Mary. Though Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son, he was Joseph’s son by his marriage to Mary. Being the eldest, the kingship would pass on to him. Thus by Matthew’s account, Jesus is the legal heir to the throne of David without incurring the curse placed on Jeconiah’s descendants.
Luke’s account traces Jesus’ lineage backwards from Mary all the way to Adam. Thus, Luke establishes Jesus’s connection to humanity. It also connects Jesus to the prophesy made to Eve, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15). This lineage also includes Abraham and David, but through a different son of David – Nathan instead of Solomon. Thus, God’s promises to Abraham and David that their seed would lead to the Messiah literally came true. In fact, it would be near impossible for any other individual to be both a physical descendant of Abraham and David and the legal heir to David’s throne.
What else can we learn from these prophesies? First, God always keeps His promises, no matter how long it might appear to man. It was about two thousand years from the promise to Abraham to the fulfillment in Christ; roughly four thousand years since the promise made to Eve. Even though it appeared that God contradicted His promises, He still caused it happen.
Second, we learn that sin is not inherited. Jesus’s ancestry is filled with men and women who sinned, yet he was born without sin (II Corinthians 5:21). Nor is godliness inherited. Jeconiah came from the lineage of David. In that same lineage we find the wise king Solomon raising the foolish king Rehoboam. Hezekiah had Manasseh for a son and Jeconiah’s father was Josiah. Having godly parents doesn’t guarantee godly offspring.
The Significance of Jesus
John’s account begins in the distant past, to the very beginning: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1-3). Thus, John makes it clear that Jesus is not just a great man, a moral leader, or a respected rabbi. Jesus, as the Word existed at the beginning. He was with God, he was God, and he was completely a part of the creation of the world. In creation account, when we are told “God said” John tells us that this was Jesus working in the creation of the world.
Calling Jesus the Word also tells us a bit about the nature of Jesus. His purpose is in communicating the will of God. Therefore, we find Jesus involved in revealing God to mankind (John 14:9; 17:26).
John then tells us that Jesus is also the Light. Light is also reveals. “But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light” (Ephesians 5:13). John introduces us to the conflict: Jesus came into the world to reveal God to mankind but the dark world rejected the revelation and the messenger. Most translations use the word “comprehend” or “understand” in verse 5, but this is not an accurate translation. “The word comprehend, with us, means to understand. This is not the meaning of the original. The darkness did not receive or admit the rays of light; the shades were so thick that the light could not penetrate them; or, to drop the figure, men were so ignorant, so guilty, so debased, that they did not appreciate the value of his instructions; they despised and rejected him.” [Albert Barnes, New Testament Commentary]. A. T. Robertson states that “overcame” would be a better translation. In other words, the Light continued to shine despite the efforts of Darkness to overcome it.
John, the Baptizer, came to prepare the way for the Light’s entrance into the world. The writer John makes sure that we do not confuse John with the actual Light. John’s function was to be a witness to the Light, but he was not the Light himself.
Therefore, we reach the sad irony of the situation. Jesus was the creator of the world. He entered his own creation to bring understanding of God to the world. But, his own creation rejected him.
The good news, though, is that it was not a complete rejection. Those that did accept Jesus and his message were made God’s children on the basis of belief – not by physical birth as was found under the Old Testament. Yet, a birth was involved; a birth as the result of the will of God. This is discussed at length by Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3. “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” ( I Peter 1:22-23). “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
Therefore, despite the conflict, Jesus accomplished his mission to reveal God to mankind. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The combining of the grace and truth is important. Grace without truth would give license man to do as they please, but truth without grace would lead to such strictness that no one could be saved. Jesus brings salvation without compromising the will of God.