There are a couple of questions that seem like they should be easy for Christians to answer and yet they provide a lot of difficulty and challenge. One of those questions might be, “what is the gospel?” Now, there are some clearly wrong answers to this question, some clearly right answers, but there are potentially a lot of different ways of characterizing the one true gospel. We’ve done an episode on this before. It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Because on the one hand you might want to say, “Well, it’s the good news of Jesus.” Okay, well it is good news, but what is that good news? You didn’t tell me the news yet. Is the gospel the saying that there is good news without telling you what that news is or not?
I would say it’s actually the news itself, it’s not simply the proclamation that there is news. This just illustrates, very briefly, that sometimes there are some simple questions that are difficult to give good answers to. Along with the question, “What is the gospel?” Is the question, “What is a gospel?” By that, I mean, one of the four gospels in our Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are called gospels, but what are they? What makes them a gospel? What makes it different than Romans? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
I want to tell you why this matters, first off. Because, when we come to Scripture and we treat it like it’s one book with one binding, we have this tendency to read everything in the same way. That’s dangerous, because poetry in Psalms is not going to read the same way as the legal code in Exodus. It’s not going to read the same way as Paul writing to the Galatians. It’s not just that they’re going to feel differently, they’re different genres. Just like what makes good heavy metal music isn’t going to necessarily tell you what makes good jazz music because the genres are different, we need to know what makes a gospel a gospel. What is that genre of gospel? How does that compare to, let’s say, law or apocalypse (which is what Revelation is)? The genre of something really affects how we read it.
Now, this is an apologetics oriented podcast, so “why does this matter apologetically,” you might ask? Well, because how we read Scripture often will either create or answer questions, it will either create or answer problems. Some people have a very, let’s say, wooden way of reading certain passages of Scripture. It actually creates something that looks like a contradiction because of the way they read it. As apologists whether you speak on these topics on a weekly basis or whether you just are faithful to have conversations with co-workers (which is probably much more of us than the former group) we still need to know how to rightly divide the word of truth, how to correctly understand different biblical genres so we don’t create problems where there aren’t problems, and so we can answer questions when those questions arise.
I want to talk about gospel today. What is this genre called gospel? Well, the word gospel does mean good news, and the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do contain good news, but they’re more than that. It’s actually difficult to describe what a gospel is, because gospels are somewhat unique. There’s nothing totally like them outside of the Bible. Now, there are other genres in the ancient world that are very close to our gospels, but our gospels are unique, and so they have some unique considerations. The gospels in our Bible are really the culmination of three different things, and this is really important.
They are history, narrative, and theology all brought together. You can’t always separate the historical events that Mark is describing from the theological point that he’s trying to make. It’s the same way with narrative often. The gospels are kind of like layers in multiple places of history, narrative and theology. When we say history, narrative and theology, what do we mean?
When we say “history,” we mean that it’s describing events that actually happened. These are things that took place back in time. As history, a lot of times the gospels are pulling from multiple sources. Luke mentions that he set out to write an orderly account. He talked with multiple people who were eyewitnesses, to get the right information. That’s how you do history, you talk with the people who were closest to the events.
Like history, it has a context. We often come to the gospels and we think of it like 21st century, let’s say Americans or westerners or whatever, and we don’t put ourselves in the historical context of that time. History has a context; events took place at a specific time in a specific culture, and it’s the same way with the gospels. We’re going to spend more time on history today than probably the other two areas. The reason for spending time on history is because the way history was told back then is different than the way history is often expected to be told now.
History back then in the first century was written to make a point. It was written about a person and so the gospels kind of align themselves with this ancient genre of ancient biography, where we’re telling events about a person’s life. But they’re doing this not because they want you to understand “this is the date the person was born,” “this is the next event they did,” “this is the sequence of events as they took place in time,” where we’re giving you that very detailed chronological account. That’s not so much what they were concerned with. They were often concerned more with what the events meant, with the story of it.
For some of us, story is kind of a dirty word. I’ve alluded to this a couple of weeks ago. I often shy away from the word ‘story’, because it invokes images of things parents tell to their children before bed, of things that aren’t true but are said to entertain. Often I will use the world ‘account’ to describe something that happened. But there are true stories. Just because it’s a story doesn’t mean it’s false. I just think we need to be sensitive to how that term is heard by people who are not Christians, who don’t have the context and culture to make sense of that term.
Ancient biography, which is what the gospels are at least, was a way of telling stories about a person that were true, but to tell a point. The gospel writers definitely have points. They are not unbiased observers. They have an end goal in mind for telling you this history, and often in a narrative form. As history, they’re going to take liberties that we would not take today. This is key for us to understand, because this can either create or resolve difficulties that we may find in the gospels.
For instance, Mark is going to take events that happened in multiple different times and places and stick them all right next to each other. He’s going to use ‘and’, and ‘immediately’, and ‘then’, to describe what seems like a flow of events in time —one after the other—when really he’s using ‘and’ and ‘immediately’ to tell you these things have a sense of urgency, there’s a fast pace to Jesus’ ministry. He’s not saying, on a chronological timeline these events happened one after the other. He’s arranging events topically.
He’s going to put the exorcisms next to each other. He’s going to put the parables about the kingdom next to each other. He’s going to put the run-ins with the religious leaders next to each other. He’s arranging things topically, but they’re still events that actually happened, they’re still history, but it’s ancient history, it’s ancient biography, where the order isn’t so much important and where words like ‘and’ and ‘immediately’ don’t have to convey the quick passage of time, they can simply convey urgency and a liveliness to Jesus’ ministry.
The gospels do contain history and they do contain narrative. There are plots, there are characters. We need to actually understand them as literature. If this sounds a little like English class, well, it kind of is, because God in his sovereignty has not just given us a list of propositional truth statements, he has given us his word, his Holy Spirit inspired word, in literature, in different genres. The truth of what is in Scripture is often expressed in poetry. You have to read poetry as poetry to understand the truth as it was intended by its original author and God.
The truth in the gospels is given to us in this unique genre that we need to be in tune with its unique reading considerations. In the same way that the epistles are a different genre than the gospels and we need to read them with that consideration in mind, because the Spirit inspired and has given us God’s word in different genres, so too we need to be able to understand those genres. This requires work, which shouldn’t feel laborious because it’s done in order to understand what God has said.
The gospels are history, and they are narrative, with plots and characters and points and irony, and they’re also theology. That’s our third point, the gospels are theology. I’ve been using the term ‘gospel writer’ to refer to people like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But you could call them evangelists; these are people who are writing gospels, they’re writing the good news. They are evangelists. And as such, they’re telling us truths about the kingdom of God. They’re telling us truths about the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus. All three of those parts are incredibly important for the gospel: the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. We often only focus on the resurrection or only on the death, but his life and the characteristics of it are important. They go to great pains to show that.
For instance, Mark will spend two thirds of his whole gospel on the Galilean ministry of Jesus, and he will spend one third of his gospel on the week up to and including Jesus’ resurrection and crucifixion. Obviously, a third of it spent on a week, two thirds of it spent on maybe three years, that last week’s really important. We can’t disregard the fact that the life of Jesus in those two thirds of the gospel is really important too, because it sets the stage for what we should actually expect Jesus to be able to accomplish at the end of the gospel.
The gospels are narrative, they are history, they are theology, all intermingled and inextricably linked to each other. They give us different portraits of Jesus.
You may have wondered, why do we have four of these things? Why are they different? In the same way that there can be multiple different ways to describe a person that are all accurate, the gospels give us different facets. They’re kind of like a gem that’s been cut to reflect the light from many different angles, they give us different pictures of Jesus. The same Jesus, multiple portraits. I think that’s important for us to understand. Each author—each evangelist—has a point. They’re writing to different groups of people and they’re going to write in different ways. They are not unbiased observers, as I mentioned. They are going to put the details together in a certain order to fit with their storyline that they are writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to convey a specific point.
This gets to what I was saying earlier Matthew may list thing more chronologically, Mark is going to put them more topically. If we’re not in tune with the fact that that was a totally acceptable practice in the first century, we might think, “Well, Mark’s being dishonest. Mark’s not telling us history.” Yes, Mark is telling us history, but it’s a different type of history telling than we would tell today. Wouldn’t it just be kind of snobbish to look back and be like, “Well, they didn’t do it as we do it today, they did it wrong.” Yes, It would.
In fact, there’s a term for that, as C.S. Lewis has said, “That’s chronological snobbery.” To look back and think that, “Well, because we are so advanced today; previous cultures were just inferior.” We need to be careful that we don’t import our western, 21st century expectations of history, culture, and truth telling onto the gospels. We need to understand them in their context as they would have been understood then, and that will resolve a lot of the tensions that sometimes people actually create that aren’t there, based on how they read the gospels.
There’s so much more that could be said about this and we’ll probably talk more about it in the future, but I hope this has been helpful. I hope it encourages you to want to read your Bible more, to come to it and say, “Okay, this is a unique genre. Can I find and trace the plot in this section of Scripture? What’s the theological point here? What actually happened in history? How was the narrative flow occurring?” When you start becoming more in tune to those things, not as an end to themselves, but I will guarantee you, you will start to better understand what the Holy Spirit intends to communicate through the word that’s been given to us in multiple genres and put under one binding called the Bible.