Jesus and the Gospels
Among the countless books written about people’s lives, there are none like the four Gospels, for there is no man like Jesus, whose story they tell. The Gospels are fascinating records of His life, filled with the names of people and places and crowded with descriptions of dramatic and significant events. They command the attention of all who read them.
The Four Gospel Accounts
In God’s wisdom, He gave us not just one account of Jesus’ life but four. We may ask this question: What is the value of having more than one record of the life of Christ?
The Value of Having Four Accounts
There are two benefits that arise. First, the variety of accounts serves to draw the attention of many different kinds of people. When the Gospels were first written, each had some special features that appealed to certain groups. Matthew, for example, emphasized the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the life of Christ. This emphasis gave his account increased meaning for the Jews. Mark focused on the dynamic, active ministry of Jesus. He added details to his record that were of interest to Roman readers. Luke wrote his account from the point of view of a Gentile who had a deep understanding of Christ’s mission of salvation. Gentile readers could identify with his perspective as he told the story of the onward progress of that mission. John, with his presentation of Christ as the eternal Word, gained a hearing among thoughtful people who were looking for answers to the great questions about the meaning of life, history, and eternity. Ever since they were written, the Gospels have appealed to people of every circumstance, station in life, and national origin. The same continues today.
Second, the variety of accounts serves to emphasize even more the main events of Jesus’ life. Each Gospel writer includes some details and information not found in the others. All of the accounts, however, show the overall character of Jesus’ life of ministry, His death for sinners, and His resurrection from the grave. In this way, the central message of Christ is made unmistakably plain. Like four master painters, the Gospel writers have each given a portrait of the Son of God. Though each masterpiece presents its great Subject in a different way, in all of them we recognize the same compelling, matchless face.
The Main Characteristic of the Four Accounts
The Gospel accounts are selective. They are not exhaustive lists of everything Jesus said and did. As John remarked, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). From the multitude of events that occurred during Christ’s earthly life, each author, guided by the Holy Spirit, chose only certain ones to include in his account. Jesus’ childhood and youth, for example, are passed over in silence except for thirteen verses that Luke devotes to them (Luke 2:40–52). The Passion Week, on the other hand, is described in great detail by all four writers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have much material in common; John, however, includes many things that none of the others do. These facts demonstrate the selectivity of the Gospel accounts.
The Gospel accounts are also harmonious. Though each writer was selective in his choice of material, all of them followed the same basic pattern in unfolding the main events of the story. There is the introduction of Jesus to His public ministry by John the Baptist. Next, there are the miracles, teachings, and encounters of Jesus with His disciples, the people, and the Jewish leaders. Most of the events described occur in Galilee or Jerusalem. The division between those who accepted Jesus and those who rejected Him is portrayed. Finally, there is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, His arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. In all the accounts are references to various Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus’ life. In a very real sense, there are not four “Gospels” but one Gospel—one story of good news about the Son of God who came to save sinners.
Where Jesus Lived and Ministered
We have studied some of the main features of the Gospel accounts. They give the names of many places that are associated with Jesus’ life, such as Judea, Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Jerusalem. In this section, we will study the districts of Palestine in which these places are located, and we will study the overall geography of the land of Palestine.
The Land of Palestine
Palestine is the name given to the whole area shown on the following map. Jesus lived most of His earthly life in this land. Look at the map and notice the main kinds of land that are indicated; these form four parallel strips from north to south: 1) the coastal plain, which extends from the north at Sidon down to Gaza in the south; 2) the central mountains, which extend from Dan and Kadesh in the north to Beersheba in the south; 3) the valley of the Jordan, which begins north of the sea of Galilee and extends south to the Dead Sea; and 4) the eastern table land or plateau on the east side of the Jordan.
Jesus lived and ministered in the districts of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea on the west side of the Jordan and in the districts of Decapolis and Perea on the east side of the Jordan. He also went to the cities of Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia. As you read the descriptions of these areas, find on the map each city or district named.
The Districts of Palestine
During New Testament times, there were several districts in the land of Palestine. These districts were under the overall authority of the Roman government.
Jesus grew to manhood in the town of Nazareth in the district of Galilee (Matthew 2:23, Luke 2:51). He performed His first miracle at Cana (John 2:11). Later, He went to the town of Capernaum and stayed there (Matthew 4:13). The more strict Jews of the other districts of Palestine looked down on the Galileans because Galilee was located close to the Gentile areas of Phoenicia and Decapolis. The Galileans, however, were deeply committed to their faith and loyal to the Jewish nation. Eleven of Jesus’ twelve disciples were from Galilee. He spent a good part of His ministry in the towns, villages, and hillsides of this district.
The cities of Tyre and Sidon were located in Phoenicia, a coastal area northwest of Galilee. After He was rejected at Nazareth, Jesus went to this district. There, He met the woman of Syrian Phoenicia whose great faith He praised and whose daughter He healed (Mark 7:24–30).
East of Galilee were the districts of Decapolis and Bashan. Decapolis was an association of Greek cities (Decapolis means “ten cities”) founded by followers of Alexander the Great. Jesus visited this area (Mark 7:31–35). He ministered in Gadara (also called Gergesa or Gerasa), where He healed a demon-possessed man (Mark 5:1–20, Luke 8:26–39). He also went to the cities of Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13–20).
The people of the coastal part of Samaria were Gentiles. Those in the mountainous regions, however, were a mixed race. They were descendants of the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with Gentiles. They had built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. Though it was no longer standing in Jesus’ day, its site was considered sacred. The Samaritans, as people of this mixed race were called, were greatly despised by the Jews of Palestine. Many Jews would not even travel through Samaria. Jesus, however, ministered many times to the people in this district. In His notable conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar, He did not allow the controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans to become the main topic of discussion. Instead, He drew attention to himself as the Messiah (John 4:1–42).
Most of the inhabitants of Perea were Jews, though Gentiles also lived there. Perea is often referred to in the New Testament as the land “across the Jordan.” On His way to Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus traveled through this area teaching in its villages and towns (Mark 10:1–45, Matthew 19:1–20:28).
In the district of Judea were located the cities of Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace, and Jerusalem, the scene of many crucial events in His life. Near Jerusalem was the town of Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11:1, 32–44). A few miles away was Jericho, where Jesus healed a blind man (Mark 10:46–52). During His ministry, Jesus made several trips to Jerusalem and the towns near it. A number of times, He attended the great annual Jewish feasts that were celebrated in Jerusalem. It was there that He was tried, crucified, and buried (Luke 22, 23). After His resurrection, He appeared to two of His followers on the road to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem (Luke 24:13–27). Later on, He gave His disciples instructions about their future ministry and led them toward Bethany. Then He was taken up into heaven out of their sight, and the disciples returned to Jerusalem to wait for the promised Holy Spirit (Luke 24:36–53).
Events in The Life of Jesus
You have studied the geography of the land of Palestine and learned some facts about the places where Jesus lived and ministered. In this section, you will examine the events in Jesus’ life. As you learned in the first part of this lesson, the Gospel writers all followed the same basic pattern in describing His life.
The events in Jesus’ life can be divided into four major periods: 1) His birth and preparation for ministry; 2) His early ministry and popularity; 3) His later ministry and controversy; and 4) His death, resurrection, and ascension. Each Gospel account gives these major periods in the same order. However, the writers arranged the particular incidents within each period according to their own purposes. We must remember that their aim was not primarily to give a strict chronological account but to portray accurately the person of Jesus.
The Teachings of Jesus
We have examined the characteristics of the Gospels, the land where Jesus lived and ministered, and the major events in Jesus’ life. Now, let us look more closely at His teaching activity as shown in the Gospels. Teaching was a vital aspect of His work, for He came with a mission to announce the good news to the poor and reveal the truth about God to all humankind. Almost every page of the Gospels is marked by the presence of His warnings, proclamations, exhortations, and explanations. We will consider five important features of His teaching.
Jesus’ teaching was based on the Old Testament as God’s Word and upon himself as the only begotten Son of God. He drew from the resources of the Old Testament. He also placed himself in relation to the Old Testament writings as the one who had complete authority to explain their true meaning.
Jesus applied the prophecies and events of the Old Testament to himself. According to Luke 4:18, He read the description of His mission from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He made it clear that He had come to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17–20). When He talked to Nicodemus, He spoke of His death on the Cross by referring to an experience the Israelites had in the wilderness (John 3:14, Numbers 21:8–9). When the Pharisees asked Him for a sign, He told them they would be given “the sign of the prophet Jonah”—meaning that He would rise from the grave three days after His death (Matthew 12:39–40). After His resurrection, Jesus met two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As they walked along, He explained to them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Jesus also demonstrated that He had a unique position of authority in relation to the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, He said that He was “Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). According to Exodus 31:15, no work was to be done on the Sabbath, yet Jesus said that both He and the Father continually worked, even on the Sabbath (John 5:16–17). He healed on the Sabbath and taught that it was lawful for Him to do so (Luke 13:10–17). Jesus also introduced a standard of behavior that was superior to what was revealed in the Old Testament (Matthew 5). These examples show that Jesus placed not only the prophecies of the Old Testament but also its Law in relation to himself as God’s Son.
Jesus’ purpose was to reveal God and to teach people truths upon which they could build their lives. He said His teachings came from the Father (John 14:10). They were not simply interesting ideas, hopeful thoughts, or entertaining stories. They were the very words of eternal life (John 6:68), words that would last forever (Mark 13:31). People who put Jesus’ teachings into practice would find that their lives had a secure foundation (Matthew 7:24).
Jesus taught everywhere as the need arose. He taught in the synagogues (Luke 4:16) and in the temple (John 8:2). He taught on the street (Mark 10:17) and in private homes (Luke 14:1). The number of listeners did not matter to Him. Though He spoke to big crowds, He also took time to talk to single, lonely men and women. Many of His most important teachings were addressed to individuals, such as the one to Nicodemus (John 3). He taught in a variety of places and to a variety of people. He also used several methods. We will examine four of these methods.
Jesus taught many truths by means of parables. A parable is an illustration or story usually drawn from everyday life. As a method of teaching, parables had three advantages: 1) they were easily remembered because the hearers could imagine the story’s events even as it was being told, 2) their spiritual messages were clear both to the educated and the illiterate, and 3) they showed the concern Jesus had for His listeners’ needs.
Most parables teach one important truth. The parable of the woman and the coin, for example, illustrates God’s persistence in searching for one lost soul (Luke 15:8–10). Some teach more than one lesson. The parable of the lost son illustrates not only God’s father-love but also the meaning of repentance and the sin of self-righteousness and unforgiveness (Luke 15:11–32). On some occasions, those who heard the parable were left to draw their own conclusions (Mark 12:1–12). Other times, Jesus stated the truth He was illustrating at the end of the parable (Matthew 25:1–13).
However, Jesus’ parables were unlike those told by anyone else, for they could not be separated from His person. Those who did not understand Him did not understand His parables, either. This was a truth Jesus pointed out (Mark 4:11, Matthew 13:13).
Jesus used short sayings to fix certain truths in His hearers’ minds. Often, these sayings put two opposite ideas together: “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). These sayings were thought-provoking and unforgettable.
Jesus also used familiar objects to teach spiritual truths. On one occasion, He had a small child stand in the middle of His disciples and pointed to him as an example of humility (Matthew 18:1–6). On another, He drew attention to some rich people and a poor widow who were putting their offerings in the temple treasury. He used the circumstance to teach a lesson on the meaning of true giving (Luke 21:1–4). To the fishermen, He said, “Come, follow me . . . and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He said the birds of the air and the lilies of the field were illustrations of God’s care for His creation (Matthew 6:26, 28).
Jesus often used thought-provoking questions in His teaching. They went to the heart of people’s deep concerns and needs: “What can a man give in exchange for his soul?” He asked His disciples (Matthew 16:26). “Which is easier: to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up and walk?’” He challenged the teachers of the Law (Matthew 9:5). Perhaps the most important question of all those He asked His disciples was this one: “Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29).
Not only did Jesus ask questions, but He also answered those put to Him by others. When Thomas asked, “How can we know the way?”, Jesus gladly replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:5–6).
Jesus’ teaching included a wide variety of subjects, yet among these can be found some major themes. He taught about the kingdom of God—its true nature and its demands. He taught about people—our responsibility toward God and the way we should treat others. He taught about himself—His mission, His unique relationship with God, His death and resurrection, and His second coming.
In some of the Gospel accounts, the teachings on a similar subject are found grouped in one place. For example, a large share of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God is found in Matthew 13. His teaching concerning future events and the end time is found mostly in Matthew 24–25, Mark 13, and Luke 21:5–38. He may have spoken some of His teachings only once. He may have repeated others several times for the benefit of the different people who came to hear Him. His teachings were not set out in a formal, systematic way, but were organized around His person. Those who would understand His teachings must understand Him.
Jesus’ teaching had a great impact on His hearers. When the chief priests and Pharisees sent some guards to arrest Him, the guards came back empty-handed. “Why didn’t you bring him in?” the religious leaders asked. “No one ever spoke the way this man does” was their reply (John 7:45–46). When He ended the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), His audience was amazed because “he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:29). His teachings silenced His enemies (Matthew 22:46) and caused sinners to change their ways (Luke 19:8).
As in the days when He lived on earth, His teachings reach people’s hearts today. When I consider what has happened in my country, I see the positive effects Christ’s teachings are making. I see people like myself transformed by them. I cannot help but identify with the writer of Hebrews: “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit” (Hebrews 4:12).
Jesus is revealed in the Gospel accounts as the greatest teacher of all. As we teach His Word, we must follow His example and relate it to people’s needs and concerns.