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Get to Know the Gospels

The New Testament opens with four books about Jesus. Here we introduce you to two books: Mark and John. One opens at the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry and the other reveals Jesus' divine nature in its opening verse.

What are the Gospels?

The Gospels are the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Gospels are historic accounts of who Jesus Christ is and what He did, written by common men of their day who heard Jesus preaching.

What does the word gospel mean?

It means “glad tidings” or “good news.” The Old English, word “godspell,” meaning “the story concerning God,” was eventually shortened to Gospel.

About the Book of Mark:

Mark is like a vivid action movie full of energy and quick-cut scenes. This Gospel opens with Jesus as a grown man beginning his ministry. Mark emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God who teaches and performs miracles with amazing authority. Mark pushes his audience along, often using the word “immediately” to give readers a feel for the pace of events.

This Gospel was written to believers who were under threat of persecution and martyrdom from Rome. In Mark, Jesus is presented as the servant who is willing to lay down His life for others and who encourages His followers to fully submitted their lives to God.

About 40 percent of the words, acts and miracles of Jesus that appear in Mark also appear in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

About the Book of John:

John’s purpose for his Gospel is to change our view of Jesus. While Matthew, Mark and Luke are written as biographies reporting the events of Jesus’ life, in John we see God taking human form in the person of Jesus Christ. This view of Jesus is complex, intimate and personal—the Eternal God who invades everyday life with compassion, love and redemption.

The Old Testament opens, “In the beginning, God …” John reaches back to this same point before history to write of Jesus, “He was with God in the beginning” John 1:2 NIV. Ninety percent of the events mentioned in this Gospel are not mentioned in the others. Even stories shared with other Gospels are viewed from John’s singular perspective. Only John leaves out the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

Mark

Who was the writer:

This Gospel is attributed to John Mark, also known as Mark (Acts 12:12, 25). Early nonbiblical tradition suggests that Mark was a close associate of the Apostle Peter and that this Gospel summarizes Peter’s preaching. Mark also traveled with Paul and Barnabas (who may have been Mark’s cousin, Colossians 4:10) on their first missionary trip. Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas, causing contention between the two men (Acts 15:36–39). But years later, Mark regained Paul’s favor (2 Timothy 4:11).

When was it written:

The book of Mark is probably the first of the Gospels completed. It was written after 50 AD but before 70 AD. Some narrow the dates to between 56 and 63 AD. This means Mark may have been a young teen when Jesus was alive, and heard these stories from people who were there.

Who was it written for:

The gospel was written to Gentiles (non-Jews) and probably to the church in Rome. Mark explains Jewish customs and translates Aramaic words that Gentiles would not have known.

Why was it written:

Clement of Alexandria, an early church leader, wrote that Mark was “exhorted” to write out the Apostle Peter’s messages. The plan was to circulate the text among Gentile believers who may have begun to feel the heat of Roman persecution. This view supports the idea that Peter was aware of Mark’s efforts.

Power verses:

• “Just as Jesus was coming out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, Whom I love; with You I am well pleased’” Mark 1:10–12 NIV.

• “Again He said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade’” Mark 4:30–32.

• “‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah’” Mark 8:29.

• “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’” Mark 9:35.

• “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God’” Mark 10:27.

• “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” Mark 12:30.

His later life:

What we know about Mark’s life is based on his connections to Peter and Paul. There is a tradition that he was martyred and buried in Venice, but it’s uncertain.

Cultural insider:

Many passages produce great insight when we understand the hidden cultural differences. Feeding the 5,000, in Mark 6:35–44, is full of cultural meaning.

• Groups of men in the Jewish culture were taught to organize themselves in groups of 50 or 100. Only the men were counted. Mark reflects this in 6:44. Matthew explains this number did not count women and children (Matthew 14:21). So the real number could have been 10,000 to 20,000 people.

• The Jews listening to Jesus knew that they should tithe a portion of their food to the tribe of Levi (priests). A good host would have done this already. The 12 baskets of pieces suggest that the Pharisees (legalistic Jews) probably tore off a piece of their meal as a symbolic tithe.

• Jesus is performing a miracle from God while the Pharisees in attendance are insulting Jesus (and God) with their “holier than thou” attitudes. No wonder Jesus talks about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Mark 7 and 8.

John

Who was the writer:

The youngest disciple, John was about 25 years old when he met Jesus. Bold by nature, John and James were known as the Sons of Thunder.

John experienced events that many of the other disciples did not. He saw the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:21–43) and Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2). John leaned on Jesus’ side during the Last Supper (John 13:23–25). He stood at the foot of the cross where Jesus instructed him to care for Mary (John 19:26, 27). John was one of the first to the empty tomb (John 20:3–9) and saw Jesus after His resurrection (John 21:20, 21). He was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2).

When was it written:

The Gospel of John was the last gospel written. Many scholars estimate it was written around 85 to 90 AD.

Who was it written for:

John’s audience would have been Gentile believers and more specifically those believers in Asia Minor or Syria.

Why was it written:

John states clearly its core purpose: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these 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,” John 20:30–31 NIV. Additionally, many scholars speculate that John included portions in the Gospel to refute emerging heresies.

Power verses:

• “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” John 1:1.

• “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him”
John 3:16–17.

• “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty’” John 6:35.

• “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me’” John 14:6.

• “If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” John 15: 7.

His later life:

Prior to 70 AD, John moved to the city of Ephesus, where he wrote this Gospel. He later wrote three epistles (1 John, 2 John and 3 John). While living on island of Patmos very late in life, John penned the Book of Revelation. He was the last living disciple and the only of the original 12 to die by natural causes. John died about 100 AD when he was in his mid-90s.

Cultural insider:

We often miss how radical Jesus was when it comes to grace. The woman at the well story recorded in John 4:1–42 is revealing.

• Assyria conquered Northern Israel in the 700s BC. Some Israelites continued living there after their defeat. They married the foreigners brought in by Assyria and over time adopted foreign religions. They became a mixed race, known as Samaritans, half-breeds despised by Jews.

• Average Jews would see talking with a Samaritan woman as unseemly and undignified.

• Rabbis would avoid any interaction with Samaritans since it was beneath their dignity.

• The woman came to draw water at the hottest part of the day and far from the city. Apparently, even other women shunned her as immoral.

• Jesus risked being ceremonially unclean by using the woman’s cup or jar.

• The woman at the well must have been amazed that a rabbi, Jesus, was willing to step over these cultural boundaries to offer her living water.

Poster for John 14:6 Bible verse

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