The four Gospels present the ‘Good News’ of Jesus Christ, his life and teachings, suffering, death and resurrection. Each is written in Greek decades after Jesus died (around 30 CE) for particular communities. The Gospels are not biographies in the sense we understand this term. They are theological documents, written by people of faith to inspire and nurture faith. They are written with confidence that the Risen Christ remains with his disciples in new situations, times and cultures.
Mark, Matthew and Luke
The Gospel according to Mark probably emerged in Rome around the year 70 CE. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew appeared between 75 – 85 CE, perhaps for communities in Antioch and Palestine (Israel) respectively. The authors of Matthew and Luke drew heavily upon Mark’s account. They also added and developed material from other resources handed down to them, including stories and sayings of Jesus. Each author shaped Jesus’ story and message to meet the needs of faith communities for whom they wrote. Mark, Matthew and Luke are called synoptic (meaning ‘with one eye’) Gospels, because of their close links with each other.
The Gospel of John
Years after the Synoptic Gospels were completed, around the years 95 -100CE, the Gospel of John was written in several stages, possibly for the Christian community of Ephesus, founded originally by Priscilla, Aquila and Paul. For decades, this community had meditated, reflected deeply and discussed the meaning of Jesus and his message. John’s Gospel offers a portrait of Jesus which includes special emphasis on divinity revealed in the humanity of Jesus.
Jesus in Mark A Suffering ‘Son of Man’
The passion and death of Jesus dominates the Gospel of Mark. In many ways the first part of the gospel answers the question, “Who is Jesus?” In all that follows, the Gospel answers, “he is the suffering and vindicated Son of Man, the Christ and Son of God.” 1
Jesus heals many and rises in the early morning to pray. He is deeply moved with compassion for those who suffer and sometimes angry. When some people want to shout out he is the promised messiah, Jesus wants to keep it secret. He takes pity on crowds and teaches and feeds them. Jesus faces increasing opposition, as his followers in increase in number. It becomes clear that the cost of Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Reign (or Kingdom) on earth is high, and to be his disciple is not easy. Jesus gradually helps his followers understand that suffering is part of his journey and theirs. Disciples often make mistakes in this story, but they stay with Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is afraid of death. He dies with a cry of pain. Resurrection stories are quite short.
There is an urgency in the way the Gospel of Mark is written. Sentences seem to run into each other and the pace is swift. Many scholars are convinced this Gospel was written for a community experiencing persecution because they followed Jesus.
Jesus in Matthew A New Moses, New ’Law’ and Mission to the World
This gospel seems to have been written for a community that included Jewish Christians, suffering a forced break with Judaism, and gentile (non Jewish) Christians. These gentiles may have been attracted to Judaism, before they discovered Jesus’ teachings. The gospel reassures all who felt the loss of the old Jewish ways that these were not really ‘lost’. The old ways of the Jewish Covenant and Law are fulfilled and transcended in Jesus. He is a new Moses bringing a new ’law’. Jesus’ new law is summarized in a part of the gospel often called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Mt 5:1 - 7:28) beginning with the ‘Beatitudes’ (Mt 5:1-13).
The Gospel of Matthew begins with infancy narratives, told mainly from the perspective of Joseph. Then Jesus announces the Reign of God (Kingdom of Heaven) which is like; “a treasure hidden in a field”...a merchant searching for pearls who “finding one peal of great value...sold all he had and bought it”…(Mt 13:44-46). When earthly life and time are ended, we will be judged by the way we have treated the poorest and most vulnerable of God’s people; “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…..” (Mt 25:34-36).
At Jesus’ death, the temple veil tears in two, a symbol of the end of the old Covenant and the beginning of something radically new. (Mt 27:51)
The Gospel ends as the Risen Jesus sends his followers on mission to the world: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20).
Jesus in Luke All Are Welcome. Everyone Belongs.
The Gospel of Luke was probably written for gentile (non Jewish), Greek speaking Christians. Luke includes an infancy narrative, hinting from the start; Jesus is for everyone. Shepherds are welcome at his birth. The message is for all people of good will (Lk 1:8-18). Mary’s presence is very important in this narrative. She is a woman of faith, who sings of God’s justice and mercy and ponders what God is doing (Lk 1:46-56 and 2:19).
After the stories of birth and childhood, the entire narrative is structured as a journey to Jerusalem, the place Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. This geographical journey represents the journey of Jesus’ life (and every life!) There are stories of hospitality and meals on the way. Everyone is invited and everyone belongs. Women feature strongly among Jesus’ disciples. His healing ministry is vividly presented. He is often with the poor and outcast, especially those considered to be sinners.
Jesus’ last supper words are well known; “This is my body which is given for you….This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:19-20). Jesus dies with words of forgiveness.
The Risen Jesus is recognized walking beside disciples as they journey on the Emmaus Road. Jesus’ disciples are sent out, continuing his mission, to the ends of the earth. The Acts of the Apostles, a second volume by the same author, continues the story.
Jesus in John No Greater Love
The Gospel of John may have been written for Christians at Ephesus, a coastal town of Turkey, where Priscilla, Aquila, Paul and others had ministered years before. The community had experienced persecution, loss of connections with traditional Judaism. For decades, they had prayed and reflected upon the person and meaning of Jesus Christ.
Unlike the other Gospels, John begins before time began! Jesus is the Logos (Word) of God. He is the sent One of the Father who comes into the world because God loves it (Jn 1:14 and 3:16). Jesus’ preferred title is Son of Man. Jesus reveals God present in ‘signs’ not called ‘miracles’. He gives extended teachings, or discourses, on the meaning of what he says and does.
Those who see and hear Jesus in the story, and readers or hearers of the Gospel, are challenged to make a decision. Do you believe (have faith) in the Son of Man? (Jn 9:35). There are consequences in accepting or rejecting the revelation Jesus brings. Jesus wants fullness of life for all; “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).
Faith is lived in relationships. Jesus reveals the God of Love and teaches that his disciples will be recognised by their love for one another (Jn 13:35 and 15:12-14). The greatest love is to lay down one’s own life for others. To help the disciples understand something of what this means, Jesus washes their feet. The laying down of his life is the final act in a life of loving ‘to the end’ (Jn 13:1). At the moment of death Jesus breathes his Spirit upon the tiny community, embodied in Mary and a Beloved Disciple, who remain with him as he dies.
The Risen Jesus gives peace and the power to forgive sin. He asks faith and love of those who are to be ‘shepherds’ in his place, “Feed my sheep”. (Jn 21:15-17).