As we begin studying the four Gospels of the New Testament, a discussion of the background of each book will make understanding the material in them easier. In this article, Dr. Patch discusses the meaning of the word gospel, why the term applies to the first four books of the New Testament, and how these four accounts, different though they are, reinforce and supplement a united testimony of Christ.
Gospel is one translation of a Greek word that has also been translated as good news, glad tidings, or happy proclamation. Jesus apparently first used the word at the Nazareth synagogue when he explained that he was anointed to preach the gospel. (Luke 4:18; see also Isa. 61:1.)
But exactly what is the gospel? Modern revelation completes the meaning. In D&C 76:4–44, gospel incorporates the concepts that Jesus came into the world to be crucified, to bear the sins of the world, to sanctify it, and to glorify the Father by saving all but the sons of perdition.
In two other revelations, gospel includes the important doctrines of repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost’s baptism of fire that one may be taught “the peaceable things of the kingdom.” (D&C 39:6.)
The Book of Mormon records that when Jesus’ chosen twelve inquired about the name of the Church, the Savior explained that it would be his church if it were called by his name and built upon his gospel. (3 Ne. 27:1–10.)
His gospel, in addition to the ideas found in Isaiah and the Doctrine and Covenants, included four more ideas: that he had come to do the will of the Father, that men would be lifted up to judgment, that the world would be judged, and that in his work he glorified his Father. (3 Ne. 27:13–14, 16, 19.)
Complemented by modern revelation, then, the meanings of the term gospel include the following:
1. Jesus’ mission is authorized by the Father and glorifies him.
2. His redemptive sacrifice and death on the cross allow the world to become sanctified.
3. By his own resurrection, Jesus opened the prison of death.
4. As men of this world lifted up the Son to judgment, so the Father will lift up men to be judged by the Son.
5. The exhortation to repent is given to the ends of the earth.
6. Only those who are sanctified by faith, by baptism, and by the Holy Ghost may become pure.
Thus, the proclamation of the gospel may rightly be called good news; its common meaning was used by Jesus at Nazareth, in the Book of Mormon, and in the Doctrine and Covenants.
For most Christians, however, the good news of the gospel is recorded in the writings of the four evangelists; hence, the term, the “four Gospels.”
Although Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have much material in common, each one has material not duplicated by the others. It is interesting to notice how many points of agreement there are in the four New Testament Gospels.
Because Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar, they have been called the synoptic Gospels, but even they are not identical in outline or detail. John’s material and viewpoints are quite different from the synoptics.
Nevertheless, all four Gospels record at least 18 of the same short narratives. Strikingly enough, only four events before the last week of Jesus’ life are recorded by all four authors: John the Baptist and his preaching, the baptism of the Savior, Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, and the feeding of the five thousand.
The other 14 episodes recorded in all four Gospels occur after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before Easter. Thus, the last week of Jesus’ life, or the Passion Week, is the best documented narrative in the New Testament.
Two distinctive features of the Gospel of Matthew are the abundance of Old Testament prophetic quotations and the array of major discourses recorded. Matthew cites more than a hundred Old Testament references, as if he saw Christianity as the fulfillment of prophetic Judaism—with one main exception: the message of Christianity is to go to the world, contrary to the narrower views of the scribes. Matthew quotes an Old Testament prophecy indicating an understanding that the gospel will even go to the gentiles. (Matt. 12:19–21.)
The second feature of the Gospel of Matthew, the array of Jesus’ discourses, contains material from six major discourses. The first discourse is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) with an underlying emphasis on righteousness. Yet there is also a universal tone in it, as Jesus says to his listeners, “Ye are the salt of the earth …” (Matt. 5:13) and “Ye are the light of the world. …” (Matt. 5:14.)
The second discourse was given to the Twelve as they were sent out. For this first mission, Jesus instructed: “… Go not into the way of the Gentiles. … But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5–6.) Later the mission opened worldwide when Christ gave the great commission recorded in Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations. …” [Matt. 28:19]
The third discourse, a collection of parables, is recorded in chapter 13 of Matthew. [Matt. 13] Some have wondered why these parables were placed together like beads on a string. The finest explanation can be found in the Documentary History of the Church, where the Prophet Joseph explains that this discourse is an outline of the events of the kingdom, from Jesus’ own day until his second coming. (DHC, vol. 2, pp. 264–72.) The importance of “leavening” the world is apparent in these parables.
The parable of the sower describes the gospel going forth. The parable of the tares describes the apostasy. The parable of the mustard seed describes the rise of the Church in the last days. The parable of the leaven suggests revelation in the Church, which ultimately permeates the whole. The parable of the pearl teaches about an inheritance in Zion, and the parable of the fishnet suggests that the descendants of Joseph are taking the gospel throughout the earth. The meaning of these parables cannot be restricted to one place or one nation.
Matthew’s fourth discourse discusses the problems of offenses and forgiveness. (See Matt. 18.) Jesus taught that the Father did not want little ones to be offended or to perish. Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive his brother may reflect the popular attitude toward forgiving; but Jesus’ answer that one should forgive “seventy times seven” shows the attitude was inadequate.
The fifth discourse, recorded in Matthew 23, denounces the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. [Matt. 23] The final discourse of Matthew’s collection, is Jesus’ prophetic teachings about the end of the world. (Matt. 24.) The Prophet Joseph Smith’s revision of this chapter may be found in the Pearl of Great Price. Christ here gives the signs of the destruction of Jerusalem to follow his death, then specifies parallel events of the last days.
Matthew understood quite clearly that the Church had a worldwide destiny, as evidenced by his phrasing of the great commission: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, … and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” (Matt. 28:19–20.)
The Gospel of Mark is the shortest in the New Testament, and biblical scholars have observed that Mark seems to be reflecting the attitude of Peter in this gospel.
But as an independent narrative, it has drama, detail, and insight. The first phrase of Mark’s gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ …” seems to be an attempt to declare something most fundamental in gospel thought. What constitutes the “beginning” of the gospel for Mark?
Almost certainly it is Christ’s divine mission, for Mark arrays evidence to persuade the reader that Jesus had power over death, that he was Lord of the Sabbath, that he ordained the Twelve Apostles, that he raised the dead, that he gave a correct perspective of Mosaic cleanliness, and that he publicly proclaimed his Messiahship. After the crucifixion, Mark culminates his narrative with an angel announcing, “He is risen.”
What theme does Mark employ that ties the narrative of Christ’s divinity with that of Christ’s ministry? In the first part, dealing with the Galilean ministry, we can almost see the shadow of Isaiah 61:1–2, a prophecy fulfilled by John the Baptist as forerunner. [Isa. 61:1–2]
In the narrative dealing with Christ’s divinity, Mark then records all the evidence that Jesus really was the Messiah: he preached that the kingdom was at hand; he forgave sin; he was lord of the Sabbath; he exercised power over illness, spirits, and death; he predicted his own death; and he stated that the blood of the New Testament was shed for many. (See Mark 14:24.)
The human pen of Mark demonstrates the things that the Lord of heaven and earth did, showing his divine power and mission. Mark’s gospel is a testimony of the atonement.
Luke’s Gospel has been called “the most beautiful book in the world.” Its Christmas stories and the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan have captured the hearts of the Christian world. Luke emphasizes the historical, the humanitarian, and the spiritual, showing special concern about the part women played in the early years. John the Baptist’s mother Elisabeth, the Christmas story involving Mary, wives of authorities, and some unnamed women are all given interesting prominence in this Gospel. Luke also has special concern for the poor and the humble.
The spiritual perspective in Luke’s Gospel is exceeded only by the same emphasis in Acts. As missionary companion to Paul, he obtained a deep appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and an interest in the wider mission of the Messiah. Indeed, Luke shows Jesus’ mission to all men, brokenhearted, bound, or blind.
His narrative records that an angel described John the Baptist’s mission to his father Zacharias, who later prophesied of the Messiah. Mary knew by angelic messenger that her son was to be called “Son of the Highest.” The testimony of John the Baptist described one “mightier” who would baptize with fire and the Holy Ghost. Thus, Luke shows from the very beginning of his Gospel that Zacharias, Mary, Simeon, and John the Baptist all knew that the Son of the Highest would come.
Luke’s Gospel also tells how the divine Jesus was recognized by the devils at Capernaum as the “Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34); how he called the apostles, healed and forgave sins, fed multitudes, and was transfigured. The final chapter records how Jesus taught two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
A prominent theme of Luke’s Gospel is the doctrine of repentance and forgiveness as demonstrated in the incidents of a sinful woman and a man afflicted with palsy. Jesus instructed his disciples to forgive one another, and he set a beautiful example when, from the cross, he prayed, “Father forgive them. …” (Luke 23:34.) Peter was forgiven after he denied Christ three times. The final verses observe that repentance and remission of sins should be preached throughout the whole world. (See Luke 24:47.)
John’s Gospel is a testimony that is emphasized in a particular way: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:
“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:30–31.) This theme of testimony is emphasized in a peculiar way.
The fifth chapter of John tells of Jesus giving instructions to the Jews about testimony, noting that the following sources of testimony were open to anyone: Jesus himself, John the Baptist, the works that Jesus accomplished, Moses (in whom Christ’s listeners supposedly trusted), and the Father, even though they had not heard his voice. Since the Savior explains in 3 Nephi 11:31–36 that the Father testified by the power of the Holy Ghost, Jesus must have been telling the Jews that they were deaf to the voice of the Holy Spirit. [3 Ne. 11:31–36]
To John, Jesus was the true passover lamb. He records the testimony of the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God!” This phrase was derived from Isaiah 53:7 and described all four passovers of Jesus’ ministry. [Isa. 53:7]
John takes special care to record that when soldiers found Jesus dead on the cross, they did not break his legs as they had those of the two robbers, explaining, “For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.” (John 19:36.) John was quoting from instructions given concerning the sacrificial lamb for the Passover. (Ex. 12:46.)
For three centuries after the last book was written, the New Testament writings circulated throughout the Christian world. In the second century, the four heresies of Docetism, Montanism, Gnosticism, and Monarchianism forced the historical Christian church to use the first century apostolic writings to protect and strengthen its fractured authority.
During this period, the list of disputed books included Revelation, James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. The epistle to the Hebrews was accepted in Alexandria 200 years before it was accepted at Rome. On the other hand, the Didache, the Revelation of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, the epistles of Barnabas and 1 Clement were accepted early and rejected later. During this period of heresy, apostasy, and fragmentation, the religious power of the New Testament Gospels was not seriously disputed.
The religious power of the New Testament Gospels rests upon witnesses. Matthew testified that the “happy proclamation” should go to the world; Mark testified that Jesus was the Redeemer; Luke wrote a testimony of the remission of sins; John’s Gospel is a testimony that the Passover symbolism was fulfilled. Third Nephi testified of sanctification. The Doctrine and Covenants testified of judgments. All of these writings testify of the resurrection. Still, John wrote, “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater. …” (1 Jn. 5:9.)