by Henry Vosburgh

– Matthew – The Gospel to the Jews

 

  1. The author. Matthew himself was one of the twelve disciples who walked with the Lord throughout most of his earthly ministry; this then makes Matthew an eyewitness to the Lord Jesus. Also called Levi, Matthew was a man who had a unique perspective about the Jewish people, more than many others might have had. He was on the one hand very familiar with the lives of Jewish people, being someone who by career intersected with them on a daily basis in the city of Capernaum. However, that career was not one well-favored by the Jewish people; and thus neither was Matthew someone held with much regard. Matthew was a publican – a tax collector who, if the stereotype of the career held true for him, was viewed by the culture as a traitor, a thief on the take and depriving his own people of their resources. Thus, even though he was himself a Jewish man, the people who resented any form of Roman subjugation and authority viewed him with a decidedly negative eye. It is in his own Gospel that Matthew’s call to follow Christ is given. In chapter nine he included himself as an illustration or profile of one of many kinds of people who were spiritually needy and subsequently reached by the Lord Jesus. Mark also records Matthew being called, and from those gospels we learn it was Matthew who had invited Jesus to dine at his home when the Lord was criticized by the Jewish leadership for eating with publicans and sinners. When Jesus said the famous words, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” Matthew was the primary reference of someone who was in need. Being that he was one of the twelve and thus an eyewitness, and likely also capable of using both Greek and Aramaic in his role of running the tax office at Capernaum for the Roman government, it uniquely prepared him for the writing of the first Gospel.
  2. The audience. Matthew’s target group was the Jewish people. These were not only his own nationality and countrymen, but they were also the people to whom Jesus first came. John 1 reports that Jesus “came unto his own, but his own received him not.” This is a reference to the fact that Jesus came to save his people Israel from their sins, but that they would also be the ones to reject him. Matthew himself could relate to that experience; he too was a Hebrew man rejected by his people. However, Matthew could relate how he deserved that rejection for his conduct as a publican; he could testify in contrast how Jesus had done nothing to deserve their rejection and loved the Jews in spite of it. And though the words would come later on from the Apostle Paul, there is clearly a Jewish priority in Gospel communication according to Romans 1:16 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” The Jewish people are not to receive the Gospel exclusively, but they are to have it in priority, due to their chosen status under the Lord God of heaven. This reality certainly demanded that an authorized Gospel be prepared with them specifically in view as a target audience.
  3. The features. Because the Jewish people were his target audience, Matthew’s gospel is uniquely crafted with features that would be compelling to a sincerely listening Jewish person considering the truth of the Gospel. Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s has the most uses and quotations of OT scripture; scholars cite close to forty quotations, and over 100 uses. Matthew’s descriptions of the Jewish leadership and its practices and tendencies are the most descriptive within the Gospels, indicating his unique insight and familiarity with them. The inclusion of a Jewish genealogy running through David and back to Abraham would certainly be compelling to a Jewish reader for reasons to be mentioned shortly.

 

Mark – The Gospel to the Romans

 

  1. The author. Mark, or John Mark more formally, was someone who was intimately related to the apostolic company as early on as at the arrest of Jesus at Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52). We know for certain that he was known by Peter, who calls him a son (1 Peter 5:13). It was Mark that was selected to accompany Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey, Mark being a cousin to Barnabas. However, it was also Mark that left the team for some unexplained reason; and this would later become a point of great contention between Paul and Barnabas. Working with John Mark a second time divided Paul and Barnabas, so Paul selected Silas to join him for future missionary ministry, while Barnabas took Mark with him to do ministry in Cyprus. Paul and John Mark eventually resolved any difference between them (Col.4:10; 2 Tim.4:11). The early church fathers report that later, Peter and Mark traveled together, and Mark was commissioned to record everything that Peter spoke to him. Thus, the Gospel of Mark is very likely recorded by the man whose name it bears, but the source for the content was none other than Peter himself. Mark would not have likely been an eyewitness to everything in the Gospel account, but he did witness quite a bit, especially at the time of the Passion; regardless, his recording Peter’s eyewitness account of the events certainly lends this Gospel a considerable amount of authority.
  2. The audience. It is well-supported that the audience for whom Mark recorded this Gospel was the people of Roman culture, being Gentile in target versus the primary Jewish target of Matthew. The name “Mark” itself is an Anglicized version of the Roman name Marcus. It is known that Mark spent time in Rome, and when Paul imprisoned at Rome mentions him in the epistle to the Colossians, it is clear they were both in Rome together. Mark would be later noted as abiding at Babylon with Peter; and again with Timothy at Ephesus. In concert with the understanding that Mark was Peter’s close associate, he was cited as being with Peter when the apostle preached the Gospel in Rome itself. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) cites a whole list of early church fathers that put Peter and Mark together in writing this Gospel, and many of them locate them both at Rome.[1]

That the Roman people would need their own authorized Gospel account would be as logical as believers in the United States saying they need the Bible written in our English language so that Americans can hear God’s truth. Since Rome was clearly the leading cultural influence of the day on every level of existence, a Gospel that was tailored to them would be a necessity for Christians determined to fulfill the Great Commission in that day.

  1. The features. What did Mark then include within his Gospel that would speak to or help Roman people receive the story of Jesus? To cite ISBE once again, “Mark employs the common coloquial [sic] Greek of the day, understood everywhere throughout the Greek-Roman world. It was emphatically the language of the Character people, ‘known and read of all men.’ His vocabulary is equally removed from the technicalities of the schools and from the slang of the streets. It is the clean, vigorous, direct speech of the sturdy middle class.”[2] This observation goes to the point of finding the most common ground with the regular people of the day; and since Rome’s influence spanned countries, regions, and even continents, drafting an authoritative Gospel to make the broadest connection with the most people was a spiritual imperative.

Mark also helped his readers with Aramaic phrases by translating their meanings right in the text. And lastly, there is a significant point to be made from the wording of 15:39, which quotes a Roman centurion, while looking upon the body of Jesus who had just died hanging on the cross: “And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.” Of the three times Mark quotes a person pronouncing this confession, twice it is the voices of demons; and this time it is a Roman. The only person who came to this realization on the powers of his own observation was a Roman.

Luke – The Gospel to the Greeks

 

  1. The author. Luke first appears in Scripture in Acts 16, right before the Macedonian vision Paul experienced at Troas. He was a doctor by profession (Col.4:14); and he would become Paul’s most loyal and closest associate in the ministry. Other than perhaps Timothy, there was no one closer to Paul than Luke. To arrive at the conclusion about Luke being the author of the third Gospel starts with the Book of Acts. That book had to be written by someone who was an associate of Paul, because starting in chapter sixteen, he writes in the first person. And though he wasn’t the only associate of Paul, he was certainly the learned person with a medical background which in both writings – the Gospel and the Acts – is detected the language indicative of a physician. Lastly, we know that the same person wrote these books because Acts 1:1 speaks of a former treatise written to the same individual whose name was Theophilus. The books are paired together as by the same author to the same recipient. If Acts is written by Luke, then the third Gospel is as well.

Luke not only had the benefit of the Apostle Paul for authority, but he no doubt had the opportunity to intersect with other eyewitnesses as well. We know he accompanied Paul to Jerusalem where the apostolic company was located. For Luke not to have had the occasion to speak to all of these men who were eyewitnesses is implausible. Luke himself claimed this highest level of sourcing in Luke 1:1-2 – “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word.” Luke’s Gospel was directly tied to the eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; he then organized their reports into an authorized account that would be provided to this man Theophilus.

  1. The audience. More often than not, reference to the target group of Luke’s Gospel is said to be the Gentiles. This is most certainly the case; however, one’s making of a distinction of which Gentiles is not completely without warrant. Luke himself was not of Jewish ethnicity but was Greek. He was very clearly trained and well-versed in language, rhetoric, culture, science and medicine – surely a student of the humanities. The part of first century culture that such individuals typically circulated was Grecian in flavor. Whereas Mark might be characterized as the blue-collar Gospel of the times, perhaps Luke could be characterized as the white-collar Gospel. There is truly an elevated style of writing that is true about Luke in contrast to that of Mark. That being said, any perception of class preferences or unsavory bias is undetectable. Luke’s Gospel is the most detailed, compassionate, and humanitarian of the four. His doctor’s concern and spiritual bedside manner flow from the text as he accounts for people from every walk of life in his record of Jesus’s story. Luke’s Gospel goes beyond the Jewish coloring of Matthew or even Mark; one writer summed it this way – Luke “comes to the interpretation of Jesus from a world-standpoint and does not have to overcome the Pharisaic limitations incident to one reared in Palestine.”[3] Serving alongside Paul in so many places, reaching out to both Jews and Gentiles, Luke would naturally have the more cosmopolitan intentions when preserving the words of his Gospel.
  2. The features. Luke’s Gospel contains beautiful poetry, as seen in the early accounts about Elizabeth, Mary, and the birth story. He appears to be very concerned about the outcast and victimized portions of the culture, as seen in referencing the poor and sickly; and Luke is sensitive and attentive to include women and children within his Gospel. Of all the four Gospels, the most unique individuals and the widest samplings of individuals are spoken of by Luke: rich men and beggars, wealthy lawyers and thieves on the cross, aged Elizabeth and young Mary, fathers with sons both loyal and prodigal – these are the people spoken of by Luke. It is a very human Gospel.

 

John – The Gospel to the World

 

  1. The author. John was the youngest of the twelve disciples, and the one who had survived the longest. Writing three epistles and the book of Revelation, John was the most prolific of the Gospel writers. Living into the next century, and writing his materials as the first spiritual generation of believers was giving way to the next spiritual generation, his was the last eyewitness voice to be heard. John met and began to follow Jesus on the day after the Lord’s baptism; so with Andrew, he was the first disciple. John was one of the three inner circle disciples that spent the most intimate times with Jesus. At the healing of Jairus’ daughter, at the Mount of Transfiguration, at Gethsemane, etc., it was only Peter and the brothers James and John who were with the Lord. So though Peter’s Gospel was recorded through Mark, it was still one-step removed in direct accounting. The one who had the most thorough and broadest scope of experience with the Lord Jesus and as well took up his own pen to write an authorized Gospel account was John. Even within his own account, John refers to himself – not by name – but by the phrasing “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Of the four Gospels then, John’s is the most uniquely dramatic in the narratives and profound in text.
  2. The audience. John uses the word “world” seventy-nine different times in his Gospel, and it is hard not to conclude that his audience therefore would be the same. As mentioned earlier, the concourse with people groups in the Far East was beginning to occur through the commerce of the silk trade. For the most part, people of the Roman culture did not directly intersect with the remote orient of the Chinese empires; their exposure to one another was indirect as trade took place through the interchanges of cultures in between. Rome knew of silk from China, but there were middlemen cultures that made the connections. It would not be until the middle of the next century that direct relations would begin to be attempted successfully. Yet, the awareness of a larger world beyond that of the Roman reach was developing. This meant that a Gospel for the world at large would be a vital aspect in the eyewitness telling of the whole story of Jesus.
  3. The features. John’s Gospel would be the closing opportunity to address what remained to be said about Jesus that yet needed to be conveyed. This is a key reason that John’s Gospel stands apart as so different from the other three accounts. It does not make it more or less authoritative; but it does explain it being so atypical to the others. John’s Gospel is uniquely Jewish in that his account progresses largely in accord with the feast appearances Jesus made during his ministry. And yet, with Jewish persecutions against the church in the 30-40s AD, with the growing political and military tensions of 50-60s AD between Rome and Jerusalem, and then culminating with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the war with Rome that concluded in 73 AD with the fall of Masada, Christianity was not locked into a Jerusalem base any longer; it had long since become much more global in perspective. So the features of John’s Gospel are not given to prevail upon the Jewish mind exclusively; they are given in such a way to prevail upon the minds of all men about the whole story of Jesus.

 

To sum up this part of the presentation, we see that God distinctively crafted four different writers from four walks of life, experience, and perspective with unique concerns and interests to bring forth four equally authoritative documents that together would tell the whole story of Jesus to every people group.

Next, we consider a second important reason for four Gospels.


[1] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (from e-Sword study sogtware, Franklin, TN), “Mark, The Gospel According to”.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://lifeandbuilding.com/2012/03/13/characteristics-of-luke/,  Kyle Barton, “Characteristics of Luke”, as retrieved on November 1, 2013.