Our world Gospel comes to us through Middle English, from Old English gōdspel: gōd, good + spel, news. The good news being that God cared for us to such an extent that he made a visit to this earthly realm. (The bad news is that even many of those who should have recognized His coming not only missed it but actively sought His demise.)  The books in the Bible called Gospels contain the story of Jesus' earthly ministry but the word is often used more generally to refer to the saving work of God in the lives individually and of mankind generally. Jesus coming into the world as God incarnate is just one part of the story that is related in the Bible.  The God of the Bible is a God of redemption and perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the Gospel story.

The Bible contains four books that are called Gospels. They tell the story of Jesus' earthly ministry albeit from slightly different perspectives. These perspectives are summarized here.

 

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Written to

Jew

Roman

Greek

Church

Presentation

King/Messiah

Suffering Servant

Son of man

Son of God

Message to us Submission to God's Authority Dedication to God's Purposes Cleansed by and Armed with God's Holy Word Anointed by God's Holy Spirit of Truth and Grace
Classification Synoptic Synoptic Synoptic Symbolic
Date Written 27 to 90 37 to 73 50 to 90 65 to 90

Written By

Matthew the Tax Collector, one of the 12 Disciples. (Matthew.9:1; 10.1-4)

John Mark is said to be Peter's son, (perhaps his spiritual son) in I Peter 5.13.

Luke, a companion of Paul and author of the Book of Acts. (Colossians 4.14; Philemon 24).

John the Disciple.  (John 19.35) Also wrote the 3 epistles that bear his name and Revelation.

Genealogy

The royal line of Joseph, His adoptive father.

Begins with Abraham through David and Solomon.

None. (You Don’t care about the genealogy of servant)

Human line of Mary.

Begins with the first man, Adam, through David and Nathan (rather than the royal line of Solomon).

Preexistent one. (In the beginning was the Word, ... and the word was God... (John 1.1)

Structure Five discourses tied together with narrative. His ministry, stories are grouped geographically as Jesus and his followers travel. Historical narrative. Seven "I am" statements.  (When God gives Moses His name in Ex. 3.14 it is a form of the verb I am but with ambiguous tense.)

Talks about

What He said

What He did

What He felt

Who He is

Personality Brave, Bold and Fearless Meek -- Strengthened by God to accomplish God's will and purpose Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom from above through God's Word Anointed by God's Holy Spirit of Truth and Grace

First Miracle

Leper cleansed – to a Jew this deals with the removal of sin.

Demon expelled

Demon expelled

Water turned to wine.

Crucifixion presented as Offering Trespass Offering --because of the sins committed against God and man

Matt 27

Sin Offering -- Christ dies for what we are not only for what we have done

Mark 15

Peace Offering -- Christ making peace between God and man by shedding his blood on the cross.

Luke 23

Burnt Offering -- Christ dying to glorify God.  God will provide Himself a lamb.

John 19

End

Resurrection

The Ascension

Promise of the spirit (the story is continued in Acts.)

Promise of his return yet to come.

Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate.  That being the case, it would be impossible to tell His story in only one way and get a full picture.  (Just as it is impossible to fully grasp God himself.)  Each presentation of the story focuses on one particular facet of His person, but the others are also in view. 

Many have tried to tell the story in a summery fashion and produced stories based on the canonical gospels.  Tatian's Diatessaron is an early example.  Tatian was an Assyrian Christian writer of the late second century.  The Diatessaron was used by the Syaric-speaking church before the canonical gospels were translated into Syriac.   Men like John Calvin and Alexander Campbell produced harmonizations of the Gospels.  (My version is based on Campbell's harmonization and can be found here.) These can be helpful especially to locate and compare parallel accounts of the same story, but they tend to flatten the presentation.  The harmonization does serve to demonstrate that each Gospel is incomplete on its own.

So why are there four Gospels?  Irenaeus (c. 115–202) suggested that there should be only four Gospels because there are four winds and four principal directions yet they are bound together by one spirit.  Irenaeus' point seem a bit strange to to us but he was responding to the plethora of Gnostic Gospels that were circulating in his time.  (Many are extant today.)  For us it seems that people ask why there are as many as four gospels and why are they not the same?  In the above table the Gospels are presented as having different primary points of view.  The harmonization shows that they actually are not that different and one could expect differences if only due to different authorship.

The following may not be helpful for the math-phobic but one of the things about Mathematics is that it allows to work with things that we cannot quite see.  (This is also what makes Mathematics, and Christianity, difficult for many.)  When we are talking about points of view it may help to consider the tetrahedron (which is a three-dimensional object) at right, we see that there is one point in the center and 3 around the base.  We can rotate it into a position where one of these points is hidden but that does not mean that it has gone away.  IF we always keep one of the points central then the others are always visible.  So it is with telling the Gospel story.  Jesus is all things in the above table even if a gospel writer only focuses on one, we can still see the other three, perhaps in the background.  Additionally this picture is a two dimensional rendering of a three dimensional thing.  In the making of this single picture we have projected it from 3-space into 2-space, in other words, we have been forced to flatten it. We cannot know all about this object from this single view.  (One of the faces is hidden.)  To understand it fully it needs to be flipped so that we can see the hidden side.  Still from this one presentation we can know quite a bit.  We can also see the problem that the Gospel writers faced.  Explaining an infinite and transcendent God to finite world.  (It also is a problem in much of the Bible.)  If this does not help do not worry about it: Paul tells us "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known (I Corinthians 13.12 NKJV)."

Matthew, Mark and Luke share much material in common and are called the synoptic gospels.  They tell the story of Jesus as an historical narrative.  Luke specifically states that he is producing a work of history, and that after thorough research (see Luke 1.1-4).   John is making more a theological point than an historical point.  There is much material in John's gospel that in unique to John.  There is also much that is symbolic rather than concrete.  It is important to note, however, that the fact that the underlying story is historical is not unimportant to John, it is just not his main emphasis.  John's gospel ends with John 21.5 the assurance that the things related there were true in an historical sense and that the Gospel was not a complete telling of the story--because that would be impossible.

Early traditions about the authorship of the Gospels can be found in the writings of the Fathers, for example from Papias we learn:

Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord's sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements. Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could. (Papias of Hierapolis)

The dating of the composition of the various Gospel accounts vary widely with modern scholars dating everything later than church tradition would have it.  Dates from 40-90 are common but it is clear that there were four gospels by the time of  Irenaeus and authorship was discussed by Papias.  Both of these witnesses writing in the early to mid 100s.  All of the other so-called gospels are significantly later.

For a summary outline of the Gospels we can consider the following:

  1. Christ's Life Prior to His Ministry

  2. The Ministry of John the Baptist, the Forerunner

  3. Beginning of Our Lord's Ministry

  4. Acceptance by the common people and Building opposition from the religious professionals of his day

  5. Holy Week -- the Last Week of Our Lord's Ministry ending in his Crucifixion.

  6. Resurrection, Appearances and Ascension.

Even in this outline it is possible to see what is the primary problem that the Bible articulates:  The world is in rebellion against God, even many who should know better.  There are some who see and understand.  There are also those who would kill God when they have the chance.  

Because of the resurrection we know that this is not the end of the story; for Jesus and for us.  It is also not the end of the rebellion.  We live in a world where this opposition to God waxes and wanes.   Know also that to know the story is only an introduction to knowing the Lord.