Introduction to Matthew, Mark and Luke

The four gospel books of the Bible - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - tell the dramatic story of Jesus, the Son of God and our Savior. His birth, His parables and other teachings, His love for all God's people, His miracles, triumphs, disappointments, conflicts, prayers, arrest, trial, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to heaven are all narrated in the gospels.

Palestine at the time of Jesus (left) and today

Synopsis of the Gospels

Almost everything we know about Jesus' life, ministry, teachings, death and resurrection comes from the four gospels. Both Matthew and Luke recount Jesus' birth in the city of Bethlehem, in what is now southern Israel. He spent his youth and early adulthood in the city of Nazareth, in the land of Galilee. Almost nothing is known of this period of His life, except for the incident at the Temple told in Luke 2:41-51. At about age 30, Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist and began His public ministry. He selected 12 disciples who would carry on his ministry after Him. He traveled through the regions of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea in Palestine teaching in the synagogues and speaking to the crowds of people who followed wherever He went. He preached about the kingdom of God, repentance, and love for all people. The gospels tell how He healed the sick wherever He went and performed many other miracles.

Jesus was very critical of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of His time. He said they observed the letter of the Jewish law, but defiled its spirit by living lives of greed and sin. These religious leaders plotted to kill Jesus, and eventually forced the Roman governor, Pilate, to order His crucifixion on Friday, the eve of Passover. The gospels tell that Jesus arose from the dead on the following Sunday, and He remained on Earth another 40 days before ascending into heaven. Jesus, Himself, said He was the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah awaited by the Jews. He said His death and resurrection were all part of God's mysterious plan for our salvation.

History of the Gospels

In the year 532 A.D., a monk named Denys le Petit calculated that Jesus was born in the Roman year 753, and that year was gradually adopted as year 1 A.D. by Christian countries. However, it is now believed that Denys miscalculated and Jesus was actually born between 6 and 4 B.C. From the accounts in the gospels Jesus was probably crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven in the year 29 or 30 A.D.

Saul, a fierce persecutor of Christians, had a dramatic conversion experience around the year 35 A.D. (Acts 9:1-19). He changed his name to Paul and became the first and most influential interpreter of the Christian message.

The gospel message was preserved in oral form for many years before being written down. Bible scholars believe the letters of Paul are the oldest books in the New Testament, written between 50 and 60 A.D. Mark was written around 70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus was crucified. Matthew and Luke were written between 80 and 90 A.D. Finally, The Gospel of John appeared in its final form around 95 A.D. Bible Scholars believe Matthew and Luke incorporated much of the material from Mark into their gospels. They also included unique material of their own plus common material from a presumed source called "Q" (from the German, quelle, meaning "source"), which has not been preserved.

Because of their similarity, Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels (from the Greek synopsis, meaning "a seeing together"). Most of the Bible Studies will be on a single book, but we are grouping the three synoptic gospels together because they have so much in common.

All four Gospels are anonymous in the sense that none mentions the author's name. The traditional names - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - did not become associated with these writings until the second century. Whether or not these men were the actual authors is very controversial. For convenience, however, we will refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as if they are the true authors.

The synoptic gospels read like a biography of Jesus, but that was not their original purpose. Neither were they written as history books or as books of a Christian Bible. Instead, they were first used in the early Christian churches as devotional materials, much like sermons. The human authors of these books selectively picked materials to include, rearranged it, and presented it in a way to suit their devotional purposes. Therefore we have to be content with gaps in our knowledge of Jesus' life and with some inconsistencies in names, places, times and other details of the events narrated in the gospels. However, we get a very similar "big picture" of Jesus' life and work from all four gospels, and we are fortunate to have these four "windows" to see four views of the central events of Christianity.

The Bible Study Lessons

Each lesson in this series of Bible studies has a reading assignment and a number of thought-provoking questions to be answered by the reader. The questions are intended to help us think about what the Bible passages really mean and how they apply to our lives, and to lead us to a deeper, more mature faith. We cannot truly say we know and trust Jesus until we have studied His words to us spoken through the four gospels.

We also supply answers for some of the questions. However, for maximum personal benefit, you should answer all the questions yourself before looking at our answers. Our answers are given from a mainstream Christian and historical viewpoint. We use the best reference materials available to present the Bible as it was understood by the original audience in Biblical times. But God calls different people in different ways, and there is no single "right" answer for many of the questions; your answers may well be different from ours.

The Bible Studies are nonsectarian, and are suitable for use by all Christians. The vast majority of the gospel passages are interpreted the same way by all mainstream Christian denominations. A few passages are controversial, and we will sometimes point out and explain the denominational differences.

Most of the Bible studies in this series will proceed from beginning to end of the Bible book in an orderly manner. In contrast, the study of Matthew, Mark and Luke will seem very fragmented. We have used the arrangement of verses suggested by Dr. Burton Throckmorton in his book, Gospel Parallels, A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels. Every verse is included, but, as much as possible, corresponding sections of the three gospels are grouped together and arranged in chronological order. This will somewhat disturb the flow of the individual gospels, but it will hopefully provide the clearest overall picture of Jesus' life, works, death, resurrection and His messages to us.

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