The Story of the Gospels

➡ Average Reading Time: 11 minutes

Some Opening Thoughts…
There is a multitude of books which are available to read and there are more coming daily. We read for many different reasons, but one thing is constant. When we read, we interpret. We may interpret well or not so well, but we do interpret. Even as you have read these few lines, you have been interpreting.

Scripture is a library of sixty-six different books, by many different authors, written over many centuries, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Our task is to read and understand these books so that we can apply them to our life and share their message with others. In order to do that with some consistency, we need to understand them appropriately. We will follow a three-tiered approach to interpretation:

  • We will help you discover what the text meant to its first hearer or reader.
  • We will help you discover what the text means now.
  • We will help you discover how to take that meaning and share it with others.

Learning Objectives
When you finish this reading, you should be able to:

  • Understand what New Testament Gospels are.
  • Understand what is meant by the Kingdom of God.
  • Understand how to interpret Gospels as a genre.
  • Understand the difference between what the text meant, what it means, and how to share it with others.

Observing the Gospels
A Brief Overview of Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels: Lopsided Stories
John’s Gospel
The Kingdom of God
The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament
The Davidic Concept
The Danielic Concept
The Kingdom of God in the New Testament
Interpreting the Gospels
The Importance of Context

We have listed some keywords which will help you better read and study the lesson material. These words are listed below and defined in the column where they appear in the text. They can also be found in the Glossary in the back of this study guide. A gifted professor of mine once told me that I would never understand an author’s intended meaning if I was unsure of the definition of the words he or she had chosen to use. Happy reading!

Key Words

Observing the Gospels
When you open your New Testament, the first book you see is the Gospel of Matthew. You would think that reading this Gospel or any of the other three would be simple and straightforward. What could be easier than reading the story of Jesus? Correct! Nothing could be easier if we understand that we are reading a kind of literature that never existed before. A second concept which we need to understand while reading the stories of Jesus is the Kingdom of God, which is at the core of understanding the Gospels.

We will now guide you through three parts which will give you the foundation for understanding the Gospel of Matthew as well as the other Gospels. The three parts are the Gospels, the Kingdom of God, and Interpreting the Gospels.

A Brief Overview of the Gospels

The Synoptic Gospels: Lopsided Stories

The first three gospels listed in the Second Testament are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are called the Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic means to see together. If you have read them as whole books, you would have noticed that these three gospels are very similar to each other in their presentation order, subject material, and language. While each author uses the same materials, it is believed that Mark was the first of the three Synoptics to be written. For instance, it has been observed that there is material in Matthew and Luke that is common to Mark which us directly used by Matthew and Luke. There are three reasons which make this statement clear:

  • First, while the order of the material presented often varies, Luke agrees with Mark at places where Matthew and Mark are different. Matthew, on the other hand, agrees with Mark when Mark and Luke differ.
  • Second, Matthew and Luke never depart from the outline of Mark as he presents his story of Jesus.
  • Third, from 661 verses in Mark, 606 appear in Matthew and 380 appear in Luke verbatim. Only thirty-one verses which appear in Mark do not appear in Matthew or Luke. (Remember, there were no verses in the text when they were originally written.) Another way of thinking about this insight is that there are identical phrases from Mark found in Matthew and Luke.

Other Observations:
Matthew and Luke have a significant amount of material that is common to each of these Gospels which is not found in Mark. Where did this material come from? New Testament specialists believe that the common material in Matthew and Luke was part of a document called “Q” (from the German word Quelle, which means source). This document has not been discovered in a manuscript form. However, it is a favorable way of understanding the common source of the synoptic information.

In addition, in Matthew and Luke, there is a third collection of material that is not found in Mark. The collection of material in Matthew does not appear in Luke and the collection of material in Luke does not appear in Matthew. This material is unique to each author. Matthew and Luke controlled the selection of this material to provide the information needed for the audience to which they were writing.

Jesus is the central figure of the Synoptic Gospels. Their purpose is to demonstrate the redemptive history of God in light of the kingdom of God (see below). When you read them, they appear to be lopsided biographies. Most of each author’s story tells about the last week in the life of Jesus, which is often referred to as the passion week.

Their Purpose:
Each author has a definable purpose for his story; They are:

  • Matthew’s main purpose is to show Jesus as the New Moses for the New Israel and to provide a training manual for Jesus followers gathered in the church at Antioch.
  • Mark, was used as an evangelistic tract, demonstrated for his audience that Jesus is a powerful man who was at war with Satan and had come to defeat him.
  • Luke depicts Jesus as a person who can appeal to all nations, places, and times.

John’s Gospel
John’s Gospel is a very different kind of book from the Synoptics. His story is told with a completely different outline. There are only a few stories found in John that are in the three Synoptics. His material is remarkably distinctive. There are extensive discourses of Jesus found in John that are not in the Synoptics. The ministry of Jesus is seen through different eyes. As an example, in John, Jesus is not warring against Satan. Certain events do not match the chronological structure of the Synoptics, like the cleansing of the Temple which appears in the beginning chapters of John but in the closing chapters of the Synoptics. John closes his book by stating its purpose “…these (stories) are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name. His great desire was to have maturing believers struggle with the meaning of Jesus in their daily lives, while they continued to grow and serve Jesus.

The Kingdom of God
The concept of the kingdom of God is central to the Synoptic Gospels and less so in John. The pages of the Synoptics are full of the teaching of Jesus about this concept. You only have to read a few verses in Mark before you see,

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying ‘the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1.14-15 NIV).

Mark opens his Gospel with this summary of the ministry of Jesus. This gospel which was proclaimed by Jesus and his disciples was the gospel of the kingdom. (Matt.10.1ff.). The message of the kingdom was always on the lips of Jesus as he taught and by the hands of Jesus as he healed.

The roots of the concept of the kingdom are found in the Old Testament. The prophets proclaimed a day when there would be peace, social problems would be solved, and evil that was in the sphere of the physical would pass (Isa. 2; 11).

In the New Testament, the kingdom was proclaimed through the words and works of Jesus. (Matt. 5; 7). He taught his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come (Matt. 6). The parables were pregnant with kingdom theology (Matt. 13). The second coming promised that the kingdom would be consummated (Matt. 25).

Over the centuries the kingdom has been understood in various ways. Here is a summary of a few of those ways:

  • The first concept suggests that the Kingdom was fully realized in the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 12; Rom. 14; Col. 1). The Kingdom is an earthly place where the benefits of God such as joy, righteousness, and peace are given to those who give their lives to be ruled by God.
  • A second concept is that the Kingdom is a future blessing which is received by God’s children at the second coming (Matt. 8; 25; 1 Cor. 15; 2 Pet. 1) and into which they enter. The kingdom would end human history and bring a new heavenly order into existence. The kingdom is fully future and supernatural.
  • A third view reduces the kingdom to a subjective realm. It is an inner blessing which is expressed by the new birth. Still found today in the idea of spiritual disciplines.
  • A fourth theory suggests that the kingdom is equal to the church. This view originated with St. Augustine and is still very popular in the church today. As the church grows, so does the kingdom. When one becomes a believer, the kingdom expands.

There are two basic ways the word kingdom can be defined. It can be a realm over which there is a king who exercises authority. Or, it can be the reign or rule of a king over his subjects. The primary definition of the Hebrew word (malkuth: mal-coot) and the Greek word (basileia: ba-see-lay-a) is the latter. The kingdom of God is the reign or rule of God over his people.

The Kingdom Of God in the Old Testament
Dr. James Kallas suggests in his book Jesus and the Power of Satan that Jesus never explained the kingdom because the people to whom he was speaking knew what it meant or thought they knew what it meant (Kallas, 1968, 119). The Old Testament presents the kingdom in the context of Jewish messianic expectation and eschatology. They believed that God would deliver them, which was their hope for the future.

Israel reached its apex during the rule of King David and Solomon. From that point forward Israel began to decline. At the death of Solomon, the kingdom divided into two kingdoms with their own kings and governments. This division set in place a longing among the Jews for God to restore their past blessings to them.

The Davidic and Apocalyptic Concept of the Kingdom
There were two ways, which the kingdom began to be understood during the Second Temple period according to Kallas: the Davidic and the Danielic/ Apocalyptic Concept. The books of Second Temple Judaism provide us with a window to view the beliefs of folks living in that timeframe. In my book God’s EPIC Adventure, I write the following:

The Davidic Concept of the Kingdom
Israel’s hope was that God would send them a king like David. Israel’s focus was militaristic and geographic. Israel wanted a nationalistic kingdom to return. The prophets of the Old Testament began using a phrase “the day of the Lord,” which was a two-sided belief system including restoration and judgment. Israel believed that the “day of the Lord” was a time when Israel would be fully restored (Amos 9; Isa. 11; Zech. 8.1-8). The nations would be judged (Amos 1). The message of Amos came to pass when the northern kingdom virtually ceased to exist after the Assyrian invasion. When the southern kingdom went into exile, the hope remained and glittered again during the Restoration Period when Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, became king. This hope is reflected in Psalm 126. The Davidic hope for a military and political power emerged again during the time of Zerubbabel. Judah hoped that the descendant of David was the one to return them to the glory of David’s rule. Haggai and Zechariah mirrored the expectation, which surrounded Zerubbabel. But when his kingship failed, hope began to wane. Once again during the Maccabean revolt, these old nationalistic aspirations had a revival. However, the rise of a Davidic king, an anointed one to bring them to political power with military might, did not occur. When you turn to the pages of the New Testament, there is a remnant of those who still believed that God would restore a nationalistic kingdom to Israel (John 6; Acts 1). The kingdom of God was thought to be a kingdom of this world, which would be peopled by the Jews. There was nothing spiritual or future about it. The kingdom was a dream of Jewish nationalism for the present.

The Apocalyptic Concept of the Kingdom
The second view arose during a part of Second Temple Judaism sometimes called the Intertestamental Period (404 – 6 BC). During this period, there arose a new kind of writing within Judaism called Apocalyptic Literature and the term kingdom of God came into popular usage. Hope did not diminish; it only assumed a new language with a modified meaning. The prophets hoped for a nationalistic kingdom, while the hope of the apocalyptic writers was for a heavenly kingdom, which would end this present evil age. A new world would break into the present world and bring the rule of God. This view developed a belief that Satan dominated this present evil age; it was under his rule. When Antiochus Epiphanes unleashed his persecution on Israel (175-164 BC), this view began to flourish. This horrific deluge of evil could only be the result of a cosmic conflict. Evil was winning. Good was losing. The demonic and sickness were in control. It was here that the Jews’ consciousness of evil spirits began to develop. The books of the Intertestamental Period give us a window to view the beliefs of the people in a specific period. In First Enoch 54.3-6, Satan is pictured as the ruler of a kingdom of evil with many followers, the demons. The book of Jubilees 23.29 suggests a golden age to come in which God himself would usher in his kingdom reversing the evils of Satan. Good would triumph, healing would occur, the demonic would be defeated. [ref]Winn Griffin. God’s EPIC Adventure. HarmonPress. 2013. 222-223 where I quote in part: James Kallas, Jesus and the Power of Satan (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1968), 119-121.[/ref]

Living into the Text!

It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.

  • How could you use each of the Synoptic Gospels to help others understand the message of Jesus?
  • What difference is there in the meaning of the text of John 20.31 and the NIV footnote of the same verse?
  • Which of the four ways that the Kingdom has been understood did you believe as you were reading the Gospel?
  • How does the concept of the Rule of God give you a foundation for future reading?
  • How does the war that Dr. Kallas refers to play out in your day-to-day life?

The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs. Another option is Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, which is one of the most useful and practical theological reference books online. With bibliographies for most entries, further reading help and study is very practical.

Synoptic Gospels
Mark Strauss “Synoptic Gospel” Zondervan Academic.

Elwell, Walter A. “Parable” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

Elwell, Walter A. “Luke-Acts, Theology of.” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

Pratt, Dwight M. “Letters” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Public Domain.

Beasley-Murray, George. “Apocalyptic/Revelation” Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991

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Read Me First


Throughout these sessions, I have used the word ecclesia (singular) for the usual word church and ecclesiae (plural) to indicate a church in a particular geographic place, i.e., the ecclesiae at Corinth, meaning the whole of the many smaller ecclesia that met in homes in Corinth. This is to distinguish between the Institutional Church model (IC) and ecclesia that meet in cities and towns around the world. The ecclesiae written about by the authors of the Second Testament were not the same as what the “church” has become over the years of its existence. Usually, but not always, folks think of a church as a place where they go to a building and set in rows of pews and listen to music and sometimes sing and listen to sermons by a pastor or senior pastor. The ecclesiae of the Second Testament time did not invoke this model.


I have discovered over the years that if you want to try and change minds about something special, you have to venture out and reword it in order to grasp a foothold for a new refreshed understanding of the idea presented by the word. Such is the case between "church" and "ecclesia."


Happy Reading!

Read Me Second


Referenced verses in the text of this study are not used to prove some point of view. They are merely markers where the subject matter is referenced by other books and authors. To gain a larger view of each quote, a serious student of the Holy Writ would take the time to view the reference and see what the background is. The background provides tracks on which the meaning of a text rides. So knowing the context of a referenced passage would help the reader to gain a more thorough understanding of an author than just the words quoted and marked by a verse number that was not a part of the original author's text, which as you might remember was performed on the text in a random fashion many years later.


Happy Reading!

Read Me Third


The verses that are referenced in these sessions are not meant to prove a point. They are simply pointers to where the idea being written about may have a correlation. In order to see if they accomplish the thesis presented by the original author, a student should read, at a minimum, the chapter in which the verse is found as well as trying to ascertain what the original author may have meant to say to the original audience.


Of course, this is a lot of work but it is beneficial work. If one does not understand what the author meant when it was written and the audience could not have understood by what was written, then the words on the page can mean anything that a present reader may assign as a meaning, thus distorting what God was inspiring for the original writer to write to the original audience to hear.

A great and recent book by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird entitled The New Testament in Its World would be a wonderful addition to your reading helps.


Happy Reading!

Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)

Jesus Followers


There are many synonyms to use for the word believer, which is the most common word for a person who has "converted" to follow Jesus. I have chosen "Jesus follower(s) or follower(s) of Jesus instead of the word believer in these presentations to allow the reader an opportunity to move away from the idea of believer which conjures up the possible thought of "ascent" to a set of doctrines that have been assembled by different groups over the centuries and show up in this day and age as a set of statements posted on web sites and other written material. These sets of beliefs are suggested by many as the ones that one should ascent to so that upon death the one who assents can go to heaven, i.e., just believe and you are good to go. Jesus followers/followers of Jesus suggest an action that one should take. Remember, Jesus told his disciples to follow him. Yes, belief is important, but one must move beyond belief to action.


(See "Discipleship" Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. 182-188.)