New Testament: Reading the Gospels
This page should remain short enough to read in about fifteen minutes.
The four gospels as a harmony
The gospels share in common their testimony of Christ’s divine birth, his ministry, and his atonement and resurrection.
Reading the gospels as a "harmony" means reading them all together at the same time in roughly the order that events occurred. This is the approach taken in James Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. his approach will emphasize learning about the events of Christ's life.
It is useful to sometimes read the gospels as a harmony. The LDS edition of the Bible has an excellent reference chart in the Bible Dictionary under the heading Gospels, Harmony of.
The four gospels as individual books
It is also useful to sometimes read the four gospels separately as individual books. Each of the gospel authors had points they were trying to make, and those points can become hidden when all four gospels are read at once together. This is easily seen in the opening chapters of each book.
Mark was written to the Roman public, people who were used to being entertained with spectacles and heroes. Today’s equivalent could be fans at a boxing match.
Mark never describes Jesus as a helpless infant. He instead spends the first chapter moving very quickly through several events that together depict Jesus as the greatest of all heroes. By verse 5 all Judea is going out to John the Baptist, and two verses later John announces that “one mightier than I” will follow. In verse 9 Christ strides onto the world stage in his fully matured strength. In verse 11 God himself announces that Jesus is his son. In verse 13 Jesus deals unharmed with Satan and wild beasts, and angels minister unto him as subordinates. When he calls Peter, Andrew, James and John, they immediately drop their nets and follow. All are astonished that he teaches not as other men, but as one having authority. He silences and casts out unclean spirits who fear destruction at his word. He heals the sick. His fame so spreads throughout the region that he cannot escape the crowds, for all seek after him from every quarter. And that is all in just the first chapter.
Luke was written to the Greek-educated cultural elites. Today’s equivalent could be doctors and engineers who look for ways to do good but do not have faith in Christ.
What Mark rushed through in a single chapter, Luke takes a leisurely four chapters to cover. Luke’s account of Christ’s birth is very human and reasonable. People keep religious observances and receive answers to their prayers. People have feelings. They are thoughtful and intelligent. Women are important. People are described in terms that make them important as individuals, not merely as foils to Jesus’ greatness. Jesus is born as a baby and grows up as a child. He is born to save mankind in mercy. Jewish customs are explained for those who are unfamiliar with them.
Matthew was written to the Jews and/or Jewish converts, people who already believed in God and his scriptures but needed to be taught additional truth. From an LDS perspective, today’s equivalent could be non-Mormon Christians who already believe in Christ and the Bible but do not believe that God has recently restored additional truths or recent converts from other Christian denominations who do not yet understand how additional truths relate with what they already know.
Matthew opens with a genealogy that establishes Jesus as the heir of King David. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and childhood is peppered with references to Isaiah and Psalms proving that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. But there is very little of the personal feeling so evident in Luke.
John was written to the early Christians who already believed in Christ. He does not so much prove that Jesus is the Christ as explain what that means.
For John, Christ’s ministry did not begin merely at his mortal birth. He instead reaches back to pre-earth life and explains that the Jesus who comes to earth is already God and is the creator of the earth. John’s pattern in chapters 4-12 is to begin with an event also recorded in the other gospels, but to then move into a lengthy discussion of deeper principles.
Reading the gospels as separate books will emphasize and make it easier to recognize the lessons that each author sought to draw from the events of Christ's life.
The differences between the various gospels are also apparent in the temptations episode that occurs between Christ’s baptism and the beginning of his ministry. Matthew and Luke provide similar accounts that each spend about a dozen verses exploring the nature of temptation and how one should respond. Mark’s account, in contrast, lasts only two verses and says nothing about those issues. As explained above, Mark related the temptations episode only to support his point that Jesus is a great hero. But Mark’s point is entirely lost when his first chapter is cut up and inserted in little pieces between the longer and more detailed accounts by Luke and Matthew so they can all be read together as a single harmonized account. It is important to sometimes read the gospels as individual books.
An excellent and longer discussion of each individual gospel is found in Studies in Scripture: New Testament: the Gospels, chapters 2-5.
Luke-Acts as a single work
If Luke is to be read with anything, it should sometimes be read with Acts. Luke and Acts form two halves of a single whole that is sometimes referred to as Luke-Acts. Most of what Luke writes in his gospel gets repeated in Acts. The point is that even after Christ’s death, his saving ministry continues in the life of his church and its members.
The outlines for Luke and Acts are very similar, and together they follow a geographic pattern centered on Jerusalem:
Luke Acts I. Galilee (1-4a) I. Jerusalem (1-5) II. Samaria (4b-9) II. Judea (6-12) III. Judea (10-18) III. Samaria (12-20a) IV. Jerusalem (20-24L) IV. Ends of the Earth (20b-28L)
The parallel divisions in each book share too many similarities to be the result of anything but intentional planning. Some examples:
Luke 1-4a contains four pairs of parallel episodes regarding first John the Baptist and then Jesus, plus one joint episode where their mothers meet four ungrouped pairs of parallel episodes. Acts 1-5 also contains four pairs of parallel episodes, usually involving first Peter and John, and then a larger number of apostles.
In Luke 10-18 Christ says three times that he must go to Jerusalem to keep the Passover. Acts 13-20a relates Paul’s missionary journeys, during which he says three times that he must return to Jerusalem
At the middle of this third division in Luke, Christ laments from the Mount of Olives over Jerusalem, the true religious center of the world:
- Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. (Luke 13:34-35).
At the parallel point in Acts, again the middle of the third division, Paul speaks at Mars Hill in Athens, the intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world. There he invites the Gentiles to partake in the gospel message that the Jews have rejected:
- And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: (Acts 17:26-27).
Either of these two statements can be understood without reference to the other. But the meaning of each is richer when they are read together as a pair. Not only Acts, but also Luke is then seen as building toward a central message that the Jewish nation is collectively casting itself before the gospel is taken to the Gentiles.
The final division of Luke spans from Christ’s arrest to his resurrection. The gospels record a total of five trials. John records two of them, Matthew and Mark each record three, and Luke records four. It should be no surprise that the account of Paul’s imprisonment also includes four trials. What happened in the life of Christ is again repeated in the life of the church and its members.
The gospel of Luke ends with Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection, after which he is seen by many in his resurrected state. Acts, on the other hand, ends with Paul appealing to Caesar, being shipwrecked along the way, and finally preaching while under house arrest in Rome. If Acts is read in isolation, the book feels unfinished. We know from Luke what happened to Christ, but what happened to Paul in Rome? Was he killed or set free? But when Acts is read in parallel with Luke, it does wrap things up cleanly. Just before the shipwreck, Paul promises the captain that not one hair of any passenger will be lost. In the ancient world open bodies of water often represented evil, chaos or death. While everyone goes into this symbolic death, everyone comes back out again, too. And like Christ, Paul is thereafter seen of many. Yet again, everything that happened in the life of Christ continues in the life of his church and its members, including individual death and resurrection. But this is hard to recognize unless Luke-Acts is read as a single work in two parts.
There are also many scattered similarities between Luke and Acts. For example, Stephen’s last words when stoned in Acts 7:59 are similar to Christ’s last words on the cross as recorded in Luke 24:46.
Matthew is often called the gospel of the Church. It is Matthew who records Christ’s two parallel addresses to the Twelve teaching them how to function both as missionaries and as church administrators (Matthew 10, 18). It is Matthew who records that the keys of the kingdom are first promised to Peter, then given to Peter, James & John, and then given to the other disciples as well (Matthew 16-18). Joseph Smith reinforced this characterization for Mormons when he explained that Matthew 13, the central chapter, foretells the great apostasy and the restoration of the church in the last days (TPJS 94-102).
But Luke is even more a gospel of the Church. According to Luke-Acts, Christ’s mortal ministry lives on in the ministry of his church, and neither ministry can be fully understood without reference to the other.
- Click the edit link above and to the right to add sources and links
Go to the New Testament main page