The Fascinating Gospels

Over the foreseeable weeks I’ll be writing about my favorite person ever – Jesus Christ.  He’s my Precious Redeemer, my Magnificent Savior.  I’ll spend eternity attempting to pay Him back for what He’s done for me.  Since the day I finally let Him take the wheel He’s been at my side through thick and thin.  When I look back over the decades I recognize I’ve been prone to obsessing over and indulging in various things and activities that always failed to sate my hunger for meaning.  Then, when my fragile world came crashing down on my head, I turned to my Lord for rescue.  He didn’t hesitate to grab my hand and gently pull me out of the rubble.  I felt the least I could do to show my gratitude was to learn all I could about Him and that impetus led me to read the Bible for the first time.  In the Old Testament I discovered everything that happened back then on this fallen planet was a preamble to the coming of the Messiah who’d turn the world upside down.  But it was in the Gospel accounts I encountered the living Christ at last and the joy and contentment He’s instilled in my heart and mind is impossible to put into words so I won’t even try.  I can tell you this, though, His divine influence has seeped into every aspect of my life and He’s planted and nurtured a peace and assuredness in my soul I never thought I’d possess.  I only wish everyone on earth knew what I’m talking about; that they’d have what I know is mine because of Jesus.  If what I write encourages even one person to further investigate the King of Kings then I’m blessed beyond measure.

 

Jesus didn’t compose or dictate an autobiography.  He had bigger fish to multiply.  He let those who were closest to him tackle that important task after He’d ascended to the right hand of the Father.  He knew they’d faithfully convey what needed to be conveyed because their new companion, the indwelling Holy Spirit, would guide them every step of the way.  What the resulting four Gospels accomplished is remarkable in that, relatively short as they are, they’ve proven to be more than sufficient for introducing the immaculate, chain-breaking Christ to every race, creed and color around the globe.  Now, to label the Gospels “biographies” is a misnomer.  For example, we still know next to nothing about the first thirty years of His life.  It’s just as well because we’re told, There are many other things that Jesus did.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).  What we do have is a quartet of interrelated memoirs; four selected historical reminiscences, if you will.  Their fundamental purpose and function can’t be denied.  But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).  As a bonus, because the books are so personal, we’re able to derive four distinct portraits of what our Lord was like.

 

One of the core arguments against the Gospels’ veracity and reliability is that they weren’t written until long after Jesus had “left the building.”  Most scholars agree that Mark’s was the earliest, probably transcribed about 35 to 40 years after the fact.  While skeptics are eager to hang their secular hat on that delay, they make the mistake of ignoring several crucial factors.  For one thing, Jesus had instructed the Apostles to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).  Since the printing press wouldn’t be invented until 1440, immediately taking time out of their busy evangelizing schedules to write books wasn’t a priority.  But it is logical they jotted down notes here and there about what Christ had done and said, knowing they’d come in handy down the line.  It’s also worth mentioning the majority of Christians expected “the end” Jesus had forecast would come at any moment.  Thus writing detailed tomes about the Messiah seemed unnecessary in the short run.  As the decades passed, though, preserving information about the life and teachings of Christ became more expedient.  (The first four verses of Luke 1 explain the reasons better than I ever will.  Check ‘em out.)

 

Don’t forget the Gospels came into existence according to God’s plan and timeline, not ours.  He has His ways.  James S. Stewart wrote, “Inspiration was not God magically transcending human minds and faculties; it was God expressing His will through the dedication of human minds and faculties.  It does not supersede the sacred writer’s own personality and make him God’s machine; it reinforces his personality and makes him God’s living witness.”  In other words, when the time was right the Holy Spirit led the most qualified men to ensure Jesus’ story would be preserved for future generations.  Not only that but thousands of pagan Gentiles were converting to Christianity constantly and it was crucial they become educated about the origination of sacraments like communion and what they signified.  They needed access to eyewitness testimonies concerning what Jesus did and what led to His cruel crucifixion as well as accurate accounts regarding his post-resurrection appearances.  Misconceptions, heresies and wild speculations were a danger to the stability of the early church and those growth-choking weeds needed to be nipped in the bud, as it were.  Thus recording precisely what Jesus had taught was imperative.

 

As I noted, the Gospel according to Mark is generally believed to be the oldest.  Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, was one of the first Christian writers to verify the identity of the authors of the Gospels.  He documented that, “Mark became the interpreter of Peter” and he “wrote down accurately everything that he remembered” from Peter’s galvanizing sermons.  The implication is young John Mark was a close associate of Saint Peter who accompanied the great apostle on his preaching tours and was therefore a witness to the earth-shaking effect his mentor’s orations had on the lost souls who heard him.  He was no doubt carefully schooled by Peter on how to answer the many questions folks would need answered after the sermons were concluded.  Over the years Mark had amassed a figurative storehouse of stories/anecdotes about Jesus that he was able to compile into a cohesive book after Peter’s murder.  Just knowing Peter (one of the Master’s dearest friends) is the source of Mark’s information makes it difficult to dispute its authenticity.  It’s noteworthy that the title of “The Gospel According to Mark” wasn’t added until later so the author obviously wasn’t out to make a name for himself in literary circles.  This book, in every respect, is Peter’s.  Yet even Peter doesn’t try to overstate the part he played in the saga.  On the contrary, he includes self-deprecating events like Jesus’ sharply-pointed rebuke and his denying even knowing his Master on the night of the Lord’s arrest.  The integrity of this Gospel, like the other three, is beyond reproach.

 

Matthew’s Gospel is different from Mark’s.  Whereas Mark concentrated on what occurred in Jesus’ life, Matthew focused on what He taught.  Papias had this to say about Matthew: “He wrote down the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew, and each interpreted these as best he could.”  What Papias inferred by that comment was that Hebrew had ceased to be a commonly-spoken vernacular, having been displaced by Aramaic centuries earlier.  However, it still served as the official liturgical and literary language of Judaism.  Thus its principal audience was made up of Jewish Christians as evidenced by the frequent references to Old Testament quotations, the prominence of the Mosaic law, the high importance Matthew assigns to the Jewish messianic hopes and, as you’d expect, an extensive explanation of how Jesus was the fulfillment of all the prophecies pertaining to the long-promised deliverer.  Like Mark, Matthew downplays his own importance, only mentioning himself once: As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow me’ he said to him.  And he got up and followed him(Matthew 9:9).  He doesn’t attempt to hide the fact he was a despised, socially-ostracized taxman before Christ gave him a new identity, a new life.  In his own way Matthew was testifying to the amazing truth that no one’s a lost cause; that absolutely nobody is beyond the reach of Jesus’ saving grace!

 

Then there’s Luke’s Gospel.  It, too, is different in that Luke wasn’t a Jew.  While it appears that Luke generously drew upon both Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts, he still managed to introduce a unique and fresh perspective to the story of Jesus.  The fact that by being born a Gentile he wasn’t an “insider” bestows upon his Gospel a missionary aspect.  What I’m saying is he presents Christ as the Savior of the entire human race, not just the Israelites.  In chapter 1 verse 3 he dedicates the book to Theophilus, a high-ranking figure in the Roman government who had yet to convert to Christianity.  That speaks volumes right there.  And the fact he traces Jesus’ family tree back to Adam (Matthew only takes it back to Abraham) connects Christ to worldwide events, not just to the history of the Hebrew race.  This accounts for his inclusion of parables like that of the good Samaritan and poignant statements such as Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their place at the banquet table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).  The famous parable of the prodigal is universal in scope and it’s no stretch to understand that, symbolically, the repentant younger son represented the Gentile world while his snooty older brother represented the Jewish hierarchy.  Luke’s being a physician also explains why Jesus’ miraculous healings are emphasized throughout.

 

Last (but certainly not least) we have John’s Gospel.  While the similarities found in the first three earn them the moniker of “the synoptics”, this one stands alone.  Clement of Alexandria commented, “John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been set forth in the other Gospels, composed a spiritual Gospel.”  Written about 60 years after the resurrection, his book belies decades of contemplation and meditation on what he knew, heard, read and absorbed about Jesus.  Being one of the original dozen disciples (identifying himself as the “one whom Jesus loved”) he had the opportunity to rectify any misinformation or errors that might’ve appeared in the other three Gospels but, evidently, corrections weren’t called for.  This in itself lends additional credence to their genuineness.  Many things separate John’s Gospel from the others.  For one thing, it contains no parables at all and it concentrates much more on the Judean ministry of Christ rather than on His Galilean ministry.  He also lets us eavesdrop on private conversations Jesus had with individuals like Nathaniel, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman He encountered at Jacob’s well.  While the other Gospels have a lot to say about the human side of Christ, John highlights the divine aspects of His person and His actions, exemplified by his opening verse: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God (John 1:1).  It’s probable that John, getting well up in his years by then, had enlisted some help in compiling his Gospel from what he’d maintained all along as a journal of sorts.  This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24).  However, this doesn’t diminish its immense value one iota.  In conjunction with the other three, it grants us a perfect and complete picture of our Lord and Savior.

 

As a born again Christ-follower I have no reservations whatsoever in trusting that the four Gospels contain everything the Heavenly Father has determined I need know about Jesus’ sojourn on this planet.  Nothing has been left out nor gotten lost in the shuffle of advancing civilization.  They give us a firm and reliable history that’s been upheld repeatedly by firm, substantiated facts.  Moreover, they give us revelation in that, as we peruse/study them, we obtain an unflappable sense it’s the literal voice of God we hear.  But what they give us more than anything else is a challenge to answer serious questions like “Who do I really think Jesus was?” and, more importantly, “What place does He have in my life?”  I find it hard to imagine that any intelligent person could read the Gospels and not be remarkably influenced by its compelling argument for Christ being the promised Messiah who showed Himself to be “…the way, the truth and the lifewho boldly claimed No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you have known me, you will know my Father too.  And from now on you do know him and have seen him (John 14:6-7).  I believe with all my heart that if a person gets exposed to the absolute truth they will be affected.

 

In his intriguing book, The Case for Christ, author Lee Strobel interviewed Dr. Craig Blomberg, an unimpeachable expert on the four Gospels.  Blomberg’s summation was revealing.  He said, “The Bible considers it praiseworthy to have a faith that doesn’t require evidence.  Remember how Jesus replied to doubting Thomas: ‘You believe because you see; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’  And I know evidence can never compel or coerce faith.  We can’t supplant the role of the Holy Spirit, which is often a concern of Christians when they hear discussions of this kind.  But I’ll tell you this: there are plenty of stories of scholars in the New Testament field who have not been Christians, yet through their study of these very issues have come to faith in Christ.  And there have been countless more scholars, already believers, whose faith has been made stronger, more solid, more grounded, because of the evidence – and that’s the category I fall into.”  I can identify with the respected professor’s testimony.  While I’ll never be mistaken for a degreed Biblical scholar, by spending time every day in the Holy Word of God my faith and trust has increased by leaps and bounds.  I have yet to come across a single verse of Scripture that’s caused me to think it’s all just an ancient, superstition-fueled fable manufactured to pacify human curiosities regarding “what this life’s all about.”  I believe in it with every molecule of my being.  Because of it I’ve come to know, on an intimate level, precisely who my Savior is.  I agree 100% with Timothy Keller’s opinion.  He wrote, “…An authoritative Bible isn’t the enemy of a personal relationship with God.  It’s the precondition for it.”

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