The Story of the Bible: The Gospels

Today’s post is the sixth installment in a series that breaks the story of the Bible down into ten ‘chapters’. Read Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four and Chapter Five.

The next chapter in the story of the Bible brings us to the New Covenant, better known as the New Testament. This title is derived from God’s promise through the prophet Jeremiah that He would make a “new covenant” with His people to replace the covenant which they had broken. Speaking to His disciples in the Upper Room, Jesus presented the Passover cup saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The writer of Hebrews tells us that this New Covenant was inaugurated through the sacrificial death of Jesus (Hebrews 8:6) and is now in force. The 27 books in the Christian Scriptures are called the New Testament (or “covenant”) because they focus on the life and work of the preeminent New Covenant figure–Jesus.

The Gospels are the ancient record of the life and ministry of Jesus. The Greek word “gospel” means “good news.” Good news is worth sharing. You read a good book and you want to tell others about it. You watch a thrilling movie, and you can’t keep the story to yourself. You’re going to be a parent (or a grandparent!) and just have to share your joy. Mark’s gospel begins with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark is writing to announce to his readers the “good news” about Jesus, the divine Messiah and world Savior.

Each of the gospel writers tells the story of the life and teachings of Jesus. But each tells it from his own vantage point and perspective. Just as two witnesses to an accident may report different details as they recount the same event, so each gospel is similar to the others, yet distinctive and unique.

The first three Gospels are called “Synoptic Gospels.” The Greek word synoptic means “to see together.” The Synoptic Gospels see the life of Jesus in much the same way and report many of Jesus’ travels and teachings in nearly parallel presentations. The fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, is different from the others in that it omits much of the biographical details of Jesus’ life and focuses on His miracles and discourses.

The first of the four gospels was written by Matthew Levi, one of Jesus’ apostles and an eyewitness of the events he records. As a Jewish believer in Yeshua (Messiah), Matthew was anxious to tell his Jewish kinsman about the life and teachings of Jesus. He appeals frequently to Old Testament prophecies to demonstrate that Jesus, the descendant of Abraham and David, has fulfilled the messianic expectations of the people of Israel. Matthew’s style is methodical and massive. He records Jesus’ great discourses including the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse.

The Gospel of Mark wasn’t written by an apostle. Mark was the nephew of Barnabas who was so influential in the early life and ministry of Paul. According to early church tradition, the Gospel of Mark contains the teaching of Peter that Mark was asked to record for the benefit of Roman readers. Mark’s Gospel is more concise than Matthew’s. He is less interested in showing how Jesus fulfilled prophecy and focuses instead on Jesus’ mighty miracles.

The Third Gospel was written by Luke, the Greek physician and traveling companion of Paul. Luke didn’t have firsthand experience with Jesus, but as a careful researcher and historian he presents an accurate record of the life of Jesus based on the reports of others. Like Matthew, Luke’s gospel is more thorough and complete. Luke is fond of Jesus’ parables and includes nineteen of them that do not appear in another other gospel.

The Fourth Gospel and probably the last written was authored by the Apostle John. He states very clearly that his purpose in writing is to record selected miracles performed by Jesus to inspire faith and life in Him (John 20:30-31). John’s gospel is more theological and reflective than the Synoptic gospels. He features several unique discourses and memorable interviews, such as the interview with Nicodemus and His well-side conversation with the Samaritan woman. John wants his readers to come to “believe” or trust in the saving work of Jesus, the divine Son of God.


About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).