For Christians, the heart of the faith is found in the four Gospels in the New Testament. These four books relay Christ’s birth, ministry, death, and resurrection as well as his teachings which come together to make up the Gospel, or “good news”. Each Gospel emphasizes or highlights a different element or aspect of the mission and Jesus' life in order to better help readers to understand the story and its significance. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they provide a synopsis or narrative account of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospel of John is in a category of its own. John has a broader theological focus and is less concerned with providing a straightforward narrative of events.
Who wrote the four Gospels, and what is each account seeking to convey? Let’s take a look at the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and explore the ways each author lays out their telling of the life and ministry of Jesus.
What Do All Four Gospels Have in Common?
Before we break down each Gospel account by its unique characteristics, let’s first examine what all four of the Gospels have in common. Obviously, all four Gospels share a common focus on the person and teachings of Jesus. It has been said by scholars that each Gospel follows a common progression:
- A statement of Jesus’ divinity
- An overview of the miracles and teachings of Jesus
- An account of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and death
- An account of Jesus’ resurrection and final instructions and assurances to his followers
The Gospel of Matthew
While none of the four Gospels explicitly name their authors in the text, early Christian tradition holds that the first Gospel account in the New Testament was originally written by the apostle, Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector (an unsavory profession at this time) who was called by Jesus and became one of the twelve disciples. This gives Matthew’s account a specific level of credibility—he is writing about events that he witnessed and experienced first-hand.
Unlike some of the other Gospels, there is no explicit reason or purpose given in Matthew for why the book was written. However, scholars have agreed that Matthew most likely wrote that this account for a primarily Jewish/ Jewish-Christian audience.
Matthew seeks to present Jesus as the King of the Jews—the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. One of the ways the Gospel of Matthew accomplishes this is by highlighting the ways in which Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and promises. Matthew quotes and references the Old Testament more frequently than any other Gospel account.
The book opens with a genealogy, which traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham. In doing so, Jesus is presented as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, His promise to David, and the fulfillment of the Law given to Moses. Matthew begins with a statement of who Jesus is (the Messiah), offers an outline of what Jesus taught (living into the Kingdom of Heaven here and now), and closes with an assertion of what we should do in response (spread the Good News).
The Gospel of Mark
Scholars believe the author of Mark to be John Mark, though many assert that he was writing with the guidance of the apostle Peter. The shortest Gospel, Mark is also believed to have been the first of the four accounts written. Common consensus is that Mark was used as a source or reference point for Matthew and Luke when writing their Gospels.
Mark’s brevity makes it an excellent snapshot of who Jesus is; while Mark does include some of the teachings of Jesus, he is much more interested in relaying actions Jesus undertook and miracles he performed.
The goal of Mark’s Gospel is to establish the authority of Jesus as the Son of God and to demonstrate the compassion and care he showed to people. The emphasis on the miraculous things Jesus did demonstrates that Jesus was more than just a prophet or an ordinary teacher. The theme of Mark can be summed up by Mark 10:45; “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Mark’s Gospel is brief and constantly moving (take note of how frequently the word “immediately” is used). It is intended to provide a summary of Jesus’ life and ministry for Jews and Gentiles alike that can be read quickly and spread far.
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of Luke is believed to have been written by Luke, the evangelist. While not an eye-witness to any of the events recorded in his Gospel, Luke is considered to be one of the church’s earliest historians. The Book of Luke is actually the first part of a single work by Luke the evangelist which also included the Book of Acts; the two are frequently referred to and considered as a whole by scholars—known as “Luke-Acts”. Luke himself was not Jewish, and this is reflected in who the intended audience of the Gospel of Luke is.
The Gospel of Luke is focused on presenting Jesus as the savior for all people. While Luke acknowledges Jesus as the long awaited Jewish Messiah, he takes things a step further, highlighting that Jesus came to save all the world. Where Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham, the father of the people of Israel, Luke goes all the way back to Adam, the first human.
Luke’s strong educational background and historical approach come together to form a Gospel account that seeks to inform and instruct—unlike Matthew or Mark, Luke presents all the events he covers chronologically, establishing a more precise timeline for Jesus’ life and ministry. This account was written by someone outside of the Jewish faith for those outside the Jewish faith.
The Gospel of John
The Gospel of John was believed to have been written by John, the Beloved Disciple (for more information on who wrote the Gospel of John, check out this article). Written by another of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ, John is also writing about events that he witnessed firsthand. However, John is unique among the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, known together as the Synoptic Gospels, have much in common. There are shared passages in all three of these accounts, and similar stories are retold. The scope and intention of the Gospel of John are far more broad.
On the whole, John’s Gospel has a more cosmic focus than the other three accounts. Mark begins his Gospel with an account of Jesus’ baptism. Matthew begins with a genealogy going back to Abraham, and Luke with genealogy back to Adam. John goes back to the very beginning—to before the universe was created. More than any other Gospel writer, John is crystal clear in asserting the divinity of Jesus. Jesus is the Word, and the Word is God.
Some have called John’s Gospel more poetic or ephemeral due to this emphasis on the being of God and God’s ineffable purposes. John does not set out to provide a full and complete account of Jesus’ works and teachings—in fact, the Gospel of John asserts that such a thing would be impossible. Instead, John aims to demonstrate the majesty of Christ’s love for all the world any why we should believe in him.
All the Gospels set out to share the Good News through accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Distinct in their emphases and styles, all of the Gospels tell the story of God's total love for the world as lived out through the person of Jesus. In Jesus' teachings, we are offered a new way of living, one centered around love--of God, of our neighbors, and of all of creation. This is a message of hope and restoration.
If you want to learn more about the four Gospels and the rest of sacred scriptures, take a look at Alabaster’s beautifully designed collection of Bibles and other supplemental material to help you along your missionary journey.