Bible & Theology

The Synoptic Gospels: The Life of Christ

Read Matthew through Luke. Memorize Matthew 5:48; Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10.

The Synoptic Gospels

Why do we have more than one account of Jesus’ life?

After Jesus’ ascension, the apostles expected him to return immediately. As they began to realize that his return was not immediate and, especially, as the apostles began to age, they prepared written accounts to teach new believers and to avoid distorted accounts of Jesus’ life. As the church spread across the Roman Empire, pastors and teachers needed authoritative written accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. These were important reasons for writing the gospels.

The first three gospels are called the synoptic gospels because they provide different viewpoints of the same events. The term synoptic gospels means the “seen together” gospels. While the Gospel of John contains unique material not included in any other gospel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke share much material in common.

The gospel writers, often called the Evangelists, were not mere secretaries copying dictation. Instead, the Holy Spirit miraculously worked through the personality of each Evangelist to communicate, without error, God’s message.

One example will show the differences between the gospels. Matthew gives a detailed account of Peter’s testimony to Jesus’ deity, Jesus’ blessing of Peter, and Peter’s rebuke of Jesus (Matt. 16:13-23). Mark and Luke give shorter versions of the story (Mark 8:27-33; Luke 9:18-22). Mark omits Jesus’ blessing of Peter, while Luke omits both the blessing and the story of Peter rebuking Jesus. There is no contradiction between the stories; it is one event presented from three different perspectives.

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No single Gospel tells the entire story of Jesus’ life. In fact, John said that a complete record would fill all the books in the world (John 21:25). The gospels are not comprehensive biographies. Instead, the Holy Spirit inspired each writer to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Together, the gospels give us a multi-faceted picture of Jesus’ life. By studying the background of each gospel, we will better understand the choice of material in each gospel. Each writer addressed a different audience and wrote for a different purpose.

Matthew: The Gospel of the King

Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel

The church fathers were unanimous in identifying the apostle Matthew as the author of the first gospel. The date is probably somewhere between A.D. 50 and A.D. 70. An important theme in Matthew is the fulfillment of prophecy. Because Matthew does not mention the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy regarding the destruction of the Temple, it is likely that Matthew’s gospel was written prior to A.D. 70. [1]

Several characteristics suggest that the Gospel of Matthew was addressed primarily to a Jewish audience.

  • Matthew does not explain Jewish customs to his readers.
  • Matthew uses more Old Testament quotations than the other Evangelists.
  • Matthew gives special attention to Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
  • Where Mark and Luke use the phrase “Kingdom of God,” Matthew uses the equivalent phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” This reflects a Jewish reluctance to use the name of God.

The Content of Matthew’s Gospel

How does Matthew portray Jesus as the King?

Jesus as the King

Matthew is often called the gospel of the King. Throughout Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the King of the Jews and, ultimately, of all nations. Magi travel from the East to recognize the birth of a new king. Herod seeks to destroy this rival king. In Matthew, Jesus is seen as the king.

Matthew uses the phrase “Son of David” more than any other Gospel. This is a kingly title, showing that Jesus is in the line of descent from David. This name is used when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, a royal entrance that fulfills Zechariah 9:9 (Matt. 21:4).

Jesus teaches the law of the kingdom in his Sermon on the Mount. He teaches about the kingdom of heaven through a series of parables. Above his cross is the inscription, “This is Jesus the king of the Jews.” Matthew is the gospel of the King.

Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Old Testament

Matthew refers eleven times to the fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus’ life. Prophecies mentioned in Matthew include:

  •   Jesus’ birth to a virgin (1:22)
  •   The journey to Egypt (2:15)
  •   The slaughter of the infants by Herod (2:17)
  •   Jesus’ ministry of healing (8:17)
  •   The triumphal ride into Jerusalem (21:4)
  •   The price of thirty pieces of silver for his betrayal (27:9)
The Sermons of Jesus

Matthew preserved more of Jesus’ sermons than the other gospel writers. Where Mark focuses on Jesus’ actions, Matthew pays more attention to Jesus’ words. There are five major sermons in Matthew, providing a structure for the entire gospel. Early commentators noticed that just as the five books of Moses established the foundation for Israel, these five sermons establish the foundation for the church. The five major sermons in Matthew are:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount (5-7)
  2. The commissioning of the Twelve (10)
  3. The Kingdom Parables (13)
  4. Teaching on relationships in the Kingdom (18)
  5. The Olivet Discourse on the end of the age (24-25)

The Gospel of Matthew in the Church Today

The sermons in the Gospel of Matthew speak to the church today as powerfully as when Jesus first preached them in Galilee and Judea.

The Sermon on the Mount provides the classic summary of life in the Kingdom of God. By showing the contrast between the traditions of the Pharisees and the “law of love,” Jesus teaches how we are to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. The theme of the sermon is “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). This command comes in a context showing that our Father is a God of love who “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). To be “perfect” in the Kingdom of God means to have the heart of our Father in heaven, a heart of selfless love. Although a heart of perfect love is impossible in our human strength, our Heavenly Father who commands us to have a perfect heart is the God who makes it possible through his grace.

“‘Therefore ye shall be perfect; as your Father who is in heaven is perfect …’ He well knew how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, this is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of him to whom all things are possible.” (John Wesley, Notes on the New Testament)

Jesus’ teaching on relationships in the Kingdom of God provides a model for relationships in the church today (Matt. 18). Matthew 18:15-20 provides a guide for biblical church discipline in which sin is addressed through the church, not through gossip and rumors. This discipline takes place within a context that provides for forgiveness and restoration, a principle that is seen in Jesus’ response to Peter’s question about forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35).

The Great Commission calls us to make disciples in all nations. Like Jesus’ call to perfection, we fulfill this call not in our own power but through the power of the one who gave the commission. The one who gave the call is the one who promised, “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Mark: The Gospel of the Servant

Introduction to Mark’s Gospel

At least eight church fathers identified John Mark as the author of the second gospel. A cousin of Barnabas, Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Col. 4:10; Acts 12:25). Although his failure on that trip led to conflict between Paul and Barnabas, John Mark later regained Paul’s trust and became useful in his ministry (Acts 15:36-40; 2 Tim. 4:11).

The early church fathers identified Simon Peter as Mark’s apostolic source. John Mark worked so closely with Peter as to be called “my son” (1 Peter 5:13). The Gospel of Mark records Peter’s firsthand memories of Jesus’ ministry.

“As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, many requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out.” (Clement of Alexandria quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7)

Because events in Mark do not always follow the order of Matthew and Luke, it is helpful to know that Bishop Papias, an early church father, quoted the Apostle John as saying that Mark “became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not indeed in order of the things said or done by the Lord” [2]. Mark’s account is accurate, but he did not attempt to put the events in a strict chronological order.

The Gospel of Mark was probably written from Rome and is addressed primarily to a Gentile audience. Mark often explains Aramaic expressions used by Jesus [3]. In addition, Mark explains Jewish terminology to his Roman readers. For example, Mark explains that “two mites” (Jewish coins) “make a farthing” (a Roman coin, see Mark 12:42).

Mark is the shortest gospel, with far fewer details than the other gospels. Mark is a gospel of action, a trait that may reflect Simon Peter’s influence. It is a straightforward record of the life and ministry of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

The Content of Mark’s Gospel

How does Mark emphasize Jesus’ role as a servant?

Jesus the Servant

Mark is often called the Gospel of the Servant. Mark gives more attention to Jesus’ actions than to his words. In contrast to Matthew’s five major sermons, Mark includes only one sermon (Mark 13). The Gospel of Mark gives more attention to the miracles; Mark records nineteen miracles in a short book of sixteen chapters.

Reflecting his picture of Jesus as a lowly servant, Mark gives no genealogy and no birth narrative. He begins with Jesus’ adult ministry.

A key verse for the Gospel of Mark shows two aspects of Jesus’ earthly ministry. “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus came to serve and to give his life as a sacrifice.

Jesus the Son of God

Mark begins with a statement of Jesus’ deity, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). At the cross, a Roman centurion confesses, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

Mark shows that Jesus was a servant, but he also shows Jesus’ authority as the Son of God. A Roman reader would expect a divine ruler to show power over this world. Mark shows that power in many ways. Throughout the gospel, Mark includes testimonies to Jesus’ deity:

  • At the baptism, the Father testifies, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11, cf. Mark 9:7).
  • Demons recognize Jesus as “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24, 3:11, 5:7).
  • Jesus exercises authority that belongs to God when he forgives sins (Mark 2:5) and claims
  • authority over the Sabbath (Mark 2:28).
  • Jesus’ miracles demonstrate his authority over nature (Mark 4:39; 6:47-48), illness (Mark 5:27-30; 7:32-3) and even death (Mark 5:38-42).
The Messianic Secret

In light of Mark’s emphasis on Jesus’ deity, some readers have been confused by repeated commands to silence throughout the Gospel. Over and again, those who recognize Jesus as Messiah are forbidden to speak of it. This has become known as the “Messianic Secret.” There are three circumstances in which Jesus gave a command to silence.

Demons were prevented from speaking of Jesus’ divine nature (Mark 1:34; 3:11-12). Jesus avoided association with demons, even when their testimony was true.

People who were healed were sometimes commanded to silence (Mark 1:44; 5:43; 7:36). This was probably to avoid the crowds that gathered when Jesus’ healing ministry was publicized. When a leper disobeyed this command and told of Jesus’ power, so many people gathered that “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places” (Mark 1:45, ESV). Jesus’ earthly ministry was not primarily about physical healing. He did not allow spectacular healings to replace the longer-lasting ministry for which he came – training disciples to spread the gospel and build the church.

When the disciples finally realized who Jesus was, he did not allow them to tell it (Mark 8:29-30). The most likely reason is the danger of misunderstanding. Even after Peter testified that Jesus was Messiah, the disciples did not fully understand what Jesus came to do (Mark 9:9-10, 31-32). They were not prepared to preach the coming of his kingdom until after the resurrection and ascension. Until then, any statements by the disciples would have been confused.

The Gospel of Mark in the Church Today

The priority of service in Jesus’ ministry reminds us that as we meet the physical and emotional needs of our world, we gain opportunities to serve their spiritual needs. Christians in the Roman Empire risked their lives to care for the dying in plague-stricken cities. Christians in the Middle Ages established hospitals to serve lepers and the poor. Christian organizations today clothe orphans, visit prisoners, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. Service to the neediest elements of our society must always be part of the church’s mission. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve….” (Mark 10:45, ESV)

Luke: The Gospel of the Son of Man

Introduction to Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s authority as a New Testament author comes from his association with the apostle Paul. Luke was a well-educated Gentile, a doctor who traveled with Paul and was with him near the end of Paul’s life. Parts of Acts show Luke’s presence; Luke switches from “they” to “we” when writing about events when he was with Paul (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16).

The date for the Gospel of Luke is largely based on its relationship with the book of Acts. Luke begins a narrative that continues in the Book of Acts. Based on the conclusion of Acts, it can be assumed that Acts was written sometime before Nero’s persecution began in A.D. 64 [4]. This implies that Luke was probably written in the late 50’s or early 60’s.

Luke’s audience and purpose for writing are identified in the prologue (Luke 1:1-4). Luke is writing to Theophilus, probably a Roman official. Acts 1:4 implies that Theophilus was a new Christian who had “been instructed” regarding Jesus’ life. New converts, particularly Gentiles, were given several months of teaching about the life of Jesus, the new life of a Christian, and the doctrines of the Christian church. Luke writes to provide an orderly account of the things which Theophilus had been taught.

The Content of Luke’s Gospel

Which details does Luke emphasize to show Jesus’ humanity?

Jesus the Son of Man

The Chalcedonian Creed was composed in A.D. 451 to clarify the church’s teaching regarding Christ’s nature. The creed states that Christ has two natures (divine and human) unified in one person: “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man.” Luke gives a vivid picture of Jesus’ humanity, “perfect in manhood.”

Luke shows that Jesus was fully human. He gives a detailed story of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2). While the conception was supernatural, Jesus was born as a normal infant. He was fully man.

Matthew’s genealogy, addressed primarily to Jews, traces Jesus’ ancestry to Abraham. Luke’s genealogy, addressed to a Greek recipient and showing Jesus as the Son of Man, traces Jesus’ ancestry to Adam (Luke 3:23-38).

The order of Luke’s early chapters reflects his intent to show Jesus as the “second Adam.” Instead of beginning with a genealogy (like Matthew), Luke puts the genealogy after the baptism account. The genealogy ends “which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.” This is followed immediately by the account of Jesus’ temptation. The first Adam (living in a beautiful garden) fell to temptation; the second Adam (weakened by forty days without food and alone in the wilderness) resisted temptation. As man, Jesus provided a model for every believer facing temptation. Jesus showed that we should face Satan’s attacks with the power of the Holy Spirit (gained through prayer) and Scripture (Luke 4:1-13).

Throughout the gospel, Luke shows the physical aspects of Jesus’ life on earth: hunger, sleep, and his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). Jesus was fully man.

Jesus the Savior of the World

The Gospel of Luke shows that Jesus came as Savior of all mankind. Simeon spoke of Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32, ESV).

Luke’s desire to show Jesus as the Savior of all the world is seen in his focus on those who had no social status. Matthew shows the Magi, respected scholars from the East, honoring Jesus’ birth; Luke points to shepherds (Luke 2:15-20). Shepherds had no credibility as witnesses; their testimony was not accepted in a Jewish court. Luke points to the angelic announcement to the shepherds as testimony that Jesus came to all people.

Women, another group that had little social status in Jesus’ day, play an important role in Luke’s gospel. Anna, a prophetess, stands beside Simeon at the dedication in the temple (Luke 2:36-38). Jesus allows Mary to “sit at his feet” alongside male disciples (Luke 10:39). Surprisingly, women were financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3).

Many other groups of low social status are represented in Luke. Jesus visits the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector, one of the least respected groups in first century Palestine (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus tells a parable in which the hero is a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). On the cross, Jesus shows compassion to a thief who deserves nothing but judgment (Luke 23:39-43).

The Importance of Prayer

Luke shows that prayer was important in Jesus’ life. Of fifteen specific references to Jesus’ prayers in the gospels, eleven are found in Luke. When facing a crucial decision, Jesus devoted the night to prayer (Luke 6:12). Two of Jesus’ important parables on prayer are recorded in Luke 18. These parables teach about persistence and humility in prayer (Luke 18:1-8; Luke 18:9-14). Prayer is an important theme in Luke.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

The Gospel of Luke pays close attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus. This theme will continue in the Book of Acts as Luke shows the role of the Holy Spirit in the early church.

The role of the Holy Spirit is seen throughout Luke:

  • John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Zacharias were filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15, 41, 67).
  • The Holy Spirit came upon Mary at the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35).
  • Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit (Luke 2:25-27).
  • The Holy Spirit came at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22).
  • The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted (Luke 4:1).
  • The Holy Spirit was with Jesus when he returned to Galilee for ministry (Luke 4:14).
  • In a foreshadowing of Pentecost, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13).

The Gospel of Luke in the Church Today

For today’s skeptical world, Luke’s careful attention to detail provides a powerful testimony to the truth of Scripture. Luke places the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in a context that shows the careful detail of his account:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests…. (Luke 3:1-2).

As we present Christ to a doubting world, we can preach with confidence. Our faith is not “blind faith” in a mythical religious figure. Our faith is grounded in a historical figure, the incarnate Son of God who lived among us, died for our sins, was raised on the third day, and ascended to heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father.

The role of prayer in the life of Jesus serves as a model for every Christian. If Jesus, who knew no sin and who had intimate communion with his Father, saw the importance of prayer, how much more should we see prayer as a priority in our lives. The evangelist Leonard Ravenhill wrote, “No man is greater than his prayer life. The pastor who is not praying is playing….”

Finally, just as the Holy Spirit was vital in the ministry of Jesus, the Holy Spirit must be central in the life of the church today. Church history shows two dangers in relation to the Holy Spirit. One danger is to emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit to the exclusion of the other persons of the Trinity.

The opposite danger is to minimize the role of the Holy Spirit in the church. A.W. Tozer warned that the church was capable of allowing “a cheap and synthetic power to substitute for the power of the Holy Ghost” (A.W. Tozer. Of God and Men). More recently, Francis Chan warned: “The church becomes irrelevant when it becomes purely a human creation. We are not all we were made to be when everything in our lives and churches can be explained apart from the work and presence of the Spirit of God” (Francis Chan. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Neglect of the Holy Spirit).

Acts demonstrates the importance of the Holy Spirit in the church; Luke demonstrates the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual. Jesus relied on the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit in his earthly ministry; we must allow no “cheap and synthetic power to substitute for the power of the Holy Ghost” in the church today.

Conclusion

Thomas Linacre was an Oxford professor and personal physician to King Henry VIII. After reading the gospels for the first time, he wrote in his diary, “Either this is not the gospel or we are not Christians.” Linacre recognized that the life of a true Christian is transformed by Jesus Christ. When he compared his life and the life of professed Christians around him to the picture of Jesus that is given in the gospels, Linacre realized, “We profess to be Christians, but we do not show the image of Jesus Christ.”

From Matthew’s sermons on the Kingdom, to Mark’s picture of Jesus’ service to the needy, to Luke’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the gospels give a portrait of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Through this, the gospels show what it means to be a Christian. As we read the gospels, we should ask ourselves, “Am I living a life that reflects the life-changing grace of Jesus Christ?”

Lesson Assignments

Demonstrate your understanding of this lesson. Choose two of the following assignments:

  1. Prepare a sermon or Bible lesson on one of Jesus’ parables. This can be a 5-6 page manuscript or a recorded sermon or lesson.
  2. Prepare a sermon or Bible lesson on the importance of either the crucifixion or the resurrection in the life of the Christian. This can be a 5-6 page manuscript or a recorded sermon or lesson.
  3. Prepare a timeline of Passion Week that can be used for teaching. This can be a paper-based or computer-generated presentation. The timeline should include the major events of Passion Week.
  4. Draw a map of Palestine showing the location of each of the following regions and cities: Judea, Galilee, Samaria, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jericho, and Caesarea Philippi.

Digging Deeper

To learn more about the Synoptic Gospels, see the following resources.

Printed Sources
  1. Bock, Darrell L. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Baker,
  2. 1996.
  3. Garland, David E. The NIV Application Commentary: Mark. Zondervan, 1996.
  4. France, R.T. New International Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. Eerdmans, 2007.
  5. Robertson, A.T. A Harmony of the Gospels. Harper, 1932. Available online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/36264/36264-h/36264-h.htm.
Online Sources
  1. “The Gospel of Mark” at http://www.seedbed.com/seven-minute-seminary/
  2. “Matthew and the Great Commission” at http://www.seedbed.com/seven-minute-seminary/
  3. Smith, Dr. Randall. “Introduction to the Gospels” at http://www.youtube.com
  4. Wesley, John. Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/wesleys-explanatory-notes/

Footnotes

  1. This prophecy (Matt. 24:2) was fulfilled in A.D. 70 when the Roman general Titus conquered Jerusalem. The “Arch of Titus” celebrating the Roman victory over Jerusalem still stands in Rome.
  2. Quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.14-17.
  3. Aramaic was the common language used in Palestine during the first century, replacing Hebrew. Examples of Mark’s explanations of Aramaic terms include Mark 5:41, 7:11, and 14:36.
  4. In Acts 28:30, Paul was under house arrest, but was not yet in danger for his life.

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