Imagine an English teacher who is teaching a class on classic literature, for example Pride and Prejudice or one of Shakespeare’s plays.
- If she were teaching a classroom of high school students, she would emphasize the historical context, manners and customs of the day, the rules governing how men and women of courted, etc.
- If her classroom was filled with English PhD students, she would assume they are familiar with the background and concentrate on the social commentary behind what the author wrote.
- If she were leading a discussion in her neighborhood book club, she would talk about her favorite scenes or compare the differences between the book and the latest movie version.
In other words, a good teacher tailors her presentation to her audience.
In each case the story remains the same, but the presentation focuses on different aspects depending on the prior knowledge and background of the audience.
The same is true of the four New Testament gospels. Each gospel writer had a different audience in mind and tailored his presentation of the story to his audience.
My first pastor, Ray Stedman, taught me to remember the differences this way:
|Gospel||Emphasis||Primary Audience||Memory Key|
|Matthew||his kingship||Jews||Behold the King|
|Mark||his character as servant||Romans||Behold My Servant|
|Luke||his essential humanity||Greeks||Behold the Son of Man|
|John||his deity||believers||Behold the Son of God|
Since Matthew wrote his gospel primarily for the Jews, it is filled with references to and quotations from the Old Testament. Matthew emphasizes the aspects of Jesus’ ministry that fulfill the promises of the Davidic kingship and the sacrificial feasts — with which the Jews were so familiar.
Mark wrote his gospel for the Roman world. His gospel emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, concentrating primarily on events and action and minimizing the teachings and sermons of Jesus. Mark’s gospel, like Rome, is characterized by haste and action.
Luke wrote for the Greek philosophical mind. Luke emphasizes the wisdom of Jesus as a man, so he records Jesus’ “table talk” discussions with his disciples, his discourses and his philosophy.
John wrote for believers, emphasizing the deity of Christ. In John we find the longest teachings of Christ, the hope of the Church, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Knowing these differences explains why some events are included in some gospels and omitted from others.
For instance, why do Matthew and Mark include the anguish in Gethsemane while John omits it? Struggling with God’s will is a common human issue, and Luke — the author who most fully described Jesus’ humanity — gives us the longest account of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane while John — the author who most fully describes his deity — omits it.
Matthew records the wise men offering gifts to the baby Jesus, while Luke records the shepherds’ gifts. Both the wise men and the shepherds came. But Matthew, who gives us the most complete picture of Jesus’ kingship, records the wise men who brought gifts fit for a king. On the other hand, common shepherds came to see the perfect man, and the humanity of Jesus was Luke’s emphasis.
Matthew does not record the ascension of Christ, because as King, Jesus came to rule on the kingdom on earth. Neither does John record the ascension, because as the Son of God, it’s assumed that he moves between heaven and earth.
Why do Mark and John omit the genealogy of Jesus while both Matthew and Luke give his genealogy? Again, Matthew emphasizes kingship and kings require genealogies; we need to know their descent to verify they are part of the royal line.
Similarly, “breeding” and upbringing are important for people, so Luke includes it. But no one cares about the ancestry of a servant and God needs no ancestry, so neither Mark nor John include a genealogy.
The Gospels are not merely copies of each other (as the critics claim), rather they are designed to present different aspects of Jesus Christ. Together they give us a complete picture.
Common Verses in the Synoptics
- Total verses: Matthew: 1069; Mark: 662; Luke: 1150
- 97% of Mark’s words have a parallel in Matthew.
- 88% of Mark’s words have a parallel in Luke.
- 24% of Matthew is found in Luke but not Mark.
- 21% of Luke is found in Matthew but not Mark.
- 4.5% of Mark is unique to Mark.
- 26% of Matthew is unique to Matthew.
- 43% of Luke is unique to Luke.
How they close
There is order in the closing portions of the respective Gospels.
- Matthew closes with the resurrection of Christ (Matthew 28:1-8).
- Mark closes with the ascension of Christ (Mark 16:19).
- Luke closes with reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49).
- John closes with reference to the return of Christ (John 21:21-23).
“May that Day soon dawn when He shall come again to receive us unto Himself, and in the little interval that yet awaits, may we study His Word more diligently and obey its precepts more carefully.” – Arthur Pink, Why Four Gospels?
More: Why Four Gospels? – Pink
Part of the Series: Bible Study 101
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