The 66 books of the Bible include various kinds of literature, but the Gospel may be the most unique literary genre included in God’s Word. So how should we handle these four books? Keep reading to discover a few tips for understanding the Gospels. (You may also be interested in “5 Tips for Understanding Biblical Narrative,” “8 Tips to Help You Understand the Epistles,” and “3 Tips to Help You Understand Proverbs.”)
What is a “Gospel?”
The book of Mark begins like this: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The Greek noun translated “gospel” is euangelion. The word refers to an announcement of good news or “glad tidings.” It was in common use in the Roman world when Mark connected it to his account of Jesus. However, Mark claimed it and redefined it, declaring the ultimate good news to be Jesus Christ and His message of salvation. (Note: Most scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel written.)
Sometime around the end of the 1st century, the church formally began to use the word “gospel” to identify the written accounts of Jesus’ life. The Gospels became a new and unique literary genre.
The Gospels share some similarities with biographies since they focus on the life of one person. However, the Gospels don’t cover all of Jesus’ life, but instead focus primarily on His ministry, death, and resurrection. They also feature the teachings of Jesus. As a literary genre, the Gospels uniquely blend history and theology. They combine a narrative of Jesus’ life with large blocks of His teachings. And each is presented from a different eye-witness account.
4 Tips for Gospel Interpretation
The following tips will equip us for more properly understanding the Gospels!
1. Read Horizontally
Since many of the actions and teachings of Jesus appear in more than one Gospel, we can expand our understanding by reading the different accounts. Scholars refer to this as “reading horizontally” or reading across the Gospels. For instance, the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew 4:13-12, Mark 6:32-44, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15.) Keep in mind, that each Gospel writer brings their own distinctiveness to the account. Each chose to highlight different aspects of an event of teaching for a specific purpose. Differences between the Gospels don’t equal contradictions. For a good resource to help you read horizontally, look for a synopsis or parallel of the four Gospels.
2. Think Vertically
Each passage must be kept in the larger context of that individual Gospel. Ancient Jewish writers were more concerned about overall structure and theme than they were strict chronological order. The Gospel writer strategically placed each event and teaching in a particular order within the book for a reason. Pull back from your primary passage and look for themes and similarities in the larger surrounding context.
3. Keep the Purpose & Audience in Mind
The apostle John ended his Gospel like this: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). None of the Gospel writers recorded the whole story. Each selected the specific events and teachings to include, arranged them in a particular order, and presented them in such a way to fulfill a writing goal and connect to his audience and their needs. For instance, John’s purpose was theological. (See John 20:30-31). That’s why John’s Gospel contains more of Jesus’ teachings than any other Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel is very “Jewish” and Luke’s is more oriented to the Gentile reader. This kind of background helps us better appreciate the author’s intent.
4. Recognize the Genres within the Genre
As mentioned above, the Gospels uniquely combine historical narrative and Jesus’ teaching. Even Jesus’ teaching includes a variety of styles and literary devices like parables, metaphors, hyperbole, and more. To properly understand a passage, we need to correctly identify and deal with each style. (See also “Quick Tips for Understanding 8 Different Biblical Genres.“)
An Invitation to Practice Understanding the Gospels
You are invited to join me to read through and discuss the Gospel of Luke. It all happens in a private Facebook group. The introduction to the book posted Saturday, September 3rd. Readings and discussion begin Monday, September 5th. If you struggle to get in and stay in God’s Word, the structure and encouragement this group provides can help.
The day’s reading and questions post Monday-Friday at 5am central. But it’s always “come and go.” Pop in on whatever time schedule works for you. If you’re interested, follow this link – “Reading the Bible Together” – request to join, and answer the 3 easy questions! (This group is for women only.)
Let’s talk! What’s your favorite Gospel? Why?