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John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

January 16, 2011

Four Gospels, One Jesus

Anyone beginning to read through the gospels will quickly notice that three of them (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are very similar to each other, while the fourth (John) is completely different. Why is this, and should you be concerned about it?

People who study the New Testament have known about this from very early times, and through the centuries have come up with many different explanations for it. In fact, trying to understand this puzzle of the four different portraits of Jesus is one of the most actively discussed areas of scholarship among Bible scholars today. We won’t go very far into the different theories in this short article, but if you are interested in this sort of thing, talk to one of your church leaders and we will point you in the direction of some helpful resources.

First, let’s take a look at Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three gospels that share a lot in common. In fact, they are so similar to each other that together they are called the “synoptic” gospels. “Synoptic” is a Greek word that means “seen together.” [Do you see the word “optic” (see) in there? And the word “syn,” as in “synthesis” (together).] For our purposes here, we will note that most scholars today believe Matthew, Mark and Luke all drew on a common source of stories about Jesus (either oral or written or both), and perhaps the first gospel to be written was part of the source for the other two.

As you read these gospels, you will see many of the same events, teachings, and parables of Jesus are repeated in all three, or often two of the three. And you will also notice while the basic facts are very similar among the different gospels, each gospel writer has put their own mark on the passage. The best way to describe this is similar to how a major event is covered by reporters today. There is only one event, but you will read different angles on what happened and what it means based on who the reporters talked to, whether they were there themselves, what was the vantage point of the observers, and what was the mindset of those who witnessed it.

Let’s look at Matthew 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, and Luke 18:15-17. These are three accounts of people bringing little children to Jesus for a blessing, and his disciples not understanding and trying to turn them away.

First, do you see how similar the three passages are? The same thing happens in each:

  • People bring their children to Jesus
  • The disciples try to turn them away
  • Jesus rebukes his disciples and tells them that the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are childlike in their faith

But there are also differences. Matthew says nothing about people not getting into the Kingdom unless they have childlike faith. Only Mark reports that Jesus was “indignant” at the attitudes of his disciples. Luke does not say that Jesus actually blessed the children, but he notes that even babies were being brought to Jesus, and that Jesus actually overrode what his disciples were up to by actively calling for the children to be brought to him.

Some people would read the three accounts of this event, focus on the differences in reporting and conclude there is something wrong with the gospels because the stories are not identical. A better way of looking at it is that the three stories complement each other and together give us a more complete picture of what happened. It’s also valuable to read each one on its own for the emphasis each gospel writer places on what it means.

Each of the three synoptic gospels has a particular emphasis. Matthew concentrates on Jesus’ role as the Jewish Messiah and includes many references to scripture being fulfilled through him. He also is very up front about the demands of following Jesus. Mark is fast-paced and filled with a sense of urgency. Notice how often you see the word “immediately” in Mark. Mark also emphasizes the need for repentance and Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Luke is often called “the social gospel.” It shows Jesus’ concern for those who are poor, outcast, sinners, and women. Luke also emphasizes the need for those who have much in this life to share what they have with those who are less fortunate.

As you read the Gospel of John you will be struck by how different it is. John is an independent voice; most scholars believe it was the last gospel to be written and did not use the same sources as the synoptics. The only stories John shares in common with the other three gospels is the feeding of the 5,000 and accounts of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. While the synoptic gospels are filled with short accounts of many parables, teachings, miracles and other events in Jesus’ life, John carefully selects only a few stories of Jesus’ life to emphasize, most of which are unique to his gospel, and writes about what happened and what it means at length. Most of the action in the synoptics takes place in Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; almost all of John occurs in and around Jerusalem and the Temple

Just like the other three gospels have particular viewpoints, so does John. John emphasizes Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, and is the gospel most used in evangelism. The theme of fullness of life and life eternal is emphasized throughout. John specifically tells us why this gospel was written (John 20:31): so that the reader might receive and be established in the life of the Kingdom of God.

Keep these things in mind as you read through the four gospels and you will find your time in scripture blessed and enriched.

Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall eds. InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Jesus in the Gospels Study Manual, Leander Keck, Abingdon Press, 2003.
Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps and Reconstructions, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993.

©2011 Rebecca Copeland

Each gospel paints a unique portrait of Jesus.