Reading the Gospels and Acts

The Gospels and Acts were designed to be read as full accounts, each in their own right, even as they seek to tell about Jesus and his followers. The main obstacle in the Gospels continues into Acts: many in Israel have rejected a message and promise originally intended for them. A key to understanding these accounts is to trace the negative reaction and what it teaches about how people respond to God, and how God still moves to draw people to himself.


The Gospels have a genre parallel in the ancient world that was called the bios. This was ancient biography. Rather than focusing on physical description and tracing psychological thinking and personal development like modern biographies, a bios highlighted the key events that surrounded a person and his teaching. That is very much what the Gospels do. The key characters are Jesus and God, as Jesus carries out the plan of the Father.

Acts belongs to a different kind of genre. It is a legitimization document: its goal is to explain and legitimate the early church and its roots. This was necessary because in the ancient world what counted in religion was its age and time-tested quality. Since Christianity was new, it needed to explain how it could be new and still be of merit. The answer was that, although the form of Christianity was new, thefaith itself was old, rooted in promises and commitments made to Israel. In fact, the new movement did not seek to make itself into a new entity but was moved in a new direction only when official Judaism rejected it and expelled it from the synagogue, with the result that (in accord with God’s plan, as Acts clarifies) the gospel was taken to the Gentiles also. Acts tells this story as it presents how the promise of God expanded as far as Rome.

Though the Gospels are historical writings, they are not always presented in a strict chronology, since some of their scenes are organized topically. For example, Mark 2:1–3:6 reports five controversies in a row that Matthew spreads out over chapters 8–12.


Even though the Gospels each offer varying accounts, they all share the view that Jesus is the promised Messiah, uniquely related to God to bring his promise and salvation. Three of the Gospels (called the Synoptics because they overlap at many places) tell the story of Jesus “from the earth up,” gradually depicting how one can see his unique relationship to the Father. Mark starts with John the Baptist, while Matthew and Luke start with Jesus’ unique birth. John, however, tells the story very much “from heaven down.” He starts with the preincarnate Word becoming flesh. His presentation of Jesus as Son of God is more direct and explicit. The Synoptics allow the reader to gradually see this idea, much in the manner people come to realize gradually who Jesus is. This difference in how the story unfolds does not represent a conflicting account of Jesus, but simply a distinct perspective on how to highlight who he is and what he has done.

Acts chronicles the expansion of Jesus’ newly formed community from Jerusalem to Rome. Here God and Jesus are the key figures, directing the action through the Spirit, with the key human figures being Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul. Acts is not a defense of Paul, as many argue, but is a defense of what Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles represents: the realization of God’s promise to reconcile all people groups to himself and to one another through Jesus.

Distinctives of Matthew

Matthew’s major concerns include Jesus’ relationship to Israel and explaining Israel’s rejection of him. Those who were Christians did not seek a break with Judaism but had separated from Judaism because the nation rejected the completion of the divine and scriptural promise Jesus brought and offered. However, that rejection did not stop the arrival of the promise; it raised the stakes of discipleship and led to the creation of a new entity, the church. The message was not limited to Israel but included the whole world. Five discourse units consisting of six discourses (long sections of teaching by Jesus) are the backbone of the book (chs. 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 24–25 [eschatological discourse followed by a parables section]). As with all the Gospels, there is an interaction and interchange between Jesus’ word and deeds. Jesus’ actions support what he preaches. Jesus’ death was an act of the divine plan that led to his vindication and mission. Disciples are those who come to Jesus in personal relationship and trust, seeking forgiveness and the righteousness that God so graciously offers.

A brief listing of major Matthean themes shows the variety of his interests. (Italics identify the key themes, which in some cases overlap with other Gospels and in other cases are unique.) Matthew’s Christology presents a royal, messianic understanding of Jesus, who as Son of God comes to be seen as the revealer of God’s will and the bearer of divine authority. As the promised King of the Jews, Jesus heals, teaches the real meaning of the OT in all its dimensions, calls for a practical righteousness, inaugurates the kingdom, and teaches about the mystery elements of God’s promise. Matthew associates all of this with a program he calls the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is both present and yet to come (12:28; 13:1–52; 24:1–25:46). Jesus proclaims its hope throughout the nation to the lost sheep of Israel. He calls on them to repentchallenges their current practicesexpresses his authority over sin and the Sabbath, and calls them to read the law with mercy. Most of Israel rejects the message, but the mystery is that the promise comes despite that rejection. One day that kingdom will encompass the entire world (cf. the parables of ch. 13). At the consummation, the authority of Jesus in that kingdom will be evident to all in a judgment rendered on the entire creation (chs. 24–25). Thus, for Matthew the kingdom program, eschatology, and salvation history are all bound together.

Distinctives of Mark

Mark is generally regarded today as the first Gospel to have been written, although a minority of scholars regard Matthew as first. Thus, Mark’s outline of Jesus’ ministry has become the basic structure through which his life has been traced, even though sections of it are probably given in topical rather than chronological arrangement (e.g., the conflicts of chs. 2–3). The first major section of this Gospel (1:16–8:26) cycles through a consistent structure in each of its three parts. There is a story about disciples at the start (1:16–20; 3:13–19; 6:7–13) and a note about rejection or a summary at the end (3:7–12; 6:1–6; 8:22–26). The turning point of the Gospel is the confession in 8:27–31 that Jesus is the Christ. Half of the Gospel treats the movement toward the final week of Jesus’ ministry, while a full quarter of it is on the last week alone. For Mark, the events of the final week are central to the story.

The key themes are also evident in how the account proceeds. It begins with a note that what is being told is the gospel. Though to a lesser degree than Matthew or Luke, Mark also traces the kingdom of God as a theme. For Mark, it has elements that indicate its initial presence, while the bulk of the emphasis is that it will come in fullness one day in the future. The mystery of the kingdom is that it starts out small but will accomplish all that God has called it to be. It will grow into a full harvest.

Mark is more a Gospel of action than of teaching. Things happen immediately, one of Mark’s favorite expressions. Mark has only two discourses, the parables of the kingdom (4:1–33) and the eschatological discourse (13:1–37). Miracles abound. Mark has 20 miracle accounts. Combined with healing summaries, these units comprise a third of the Gospel and are nearly one-half of the first 10 chapters. These pictures of Jesus’ authority are important to Mark, as he presents Jesus as one who teaches with authority. The authority underscores that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (1:1; 8:29; 15:39). Mark’s Christology presents Jesus as this promised figure. His claims of authority over sin, human relationships, and practices tied to purity, Sabbath, and temple get him into trouble with the Jewish leaders, who early on determine they must stop him. This conflict raised by Jesus’ claims is also a central feature of the Gospel.

However, Jesus’ authority is not one of raw power. In terms of proportion, Mark highlights Jesus as the suffering Son of Man and suffering servant more than the other Gospels. His mission is to come and give his life as a ransom for many (10:45). The importance of understanding the suffering role probably explains the commands for silence given to those, including demons, who recognize Jesus as Messiah (1:44; 3:11; 5:43; 9:9). Without an appreciation of his suffering, Jesus’ messianic calling is not understood. It is here that the pastoral demands of discipleship appear as well (10:35–45; cf. 8:31–38; 9:33–37). Mark is like Matthew here. After the suffering come glory and vindication. The same Son of Man will return one day to render judgment, as the eschatological discourse reveals (Mark 13). The need for discipleship and really listening to Jesus is clear as Mark notes without hesitation the failures of the disciples. Their instincts will not take them in the right direction. Instead, they must trust in God and his ways. In addition, Mark notes the emotions of Jesus and the disciples more than any of the other Gospels.

Distinctives of Luke

The third Gospel is the longest. It has a mix of teaching, miracles, and parables. Luke gives more parables than any other Gospel. Whereas Matthew presents teaching in discourse blocks, Luke scatters his teaching throughout his Gospel, usually in smaller units. Many key discourses happen in meal scenes (7:36–50; 11:37–52; 14:1–24; 22:1–38; 24:36–49), which recall Greek symposia where “wisdom” is presented.

Key themes center on God’s plan. Things “must be” (Gk. dei) in Luke (2:49; 4:43; 9:22; 24:7, 26, 44–47). God has designed a plan to reach and deliver the poor, the oppressed, and those caught in Satan’s oppressive grip (4:16–18; 11:14–23). The plan reflects a promise and fulfillment structure, where key figures express scriptural realization of the plan (7:28; 16:16). The opening infancy section does this through the use of hymns decorated in scriptural language, underscoring the note of joy that works through the Gospel. Things also happen with an immediacy, as many texts speak of what is happening “today” (2:11; 4:21; 5:26; 19:9; 22:34; 23:43). The gospel marches forward, as is indicated by the geographic progression in the story from Galilee to Jerusalem (9:52–19:44).

Jesus appears as the Messiah-Servant-Lord. The basic category is messianic (1:31–35; 3:21–22; 4:16–30; 9:18–20), but as the story proceeds it is clear that this role is one of great authority that can be summarized by the image of the judging Son of Man or by the concept of Lord (5:24; 20:41–44; 21:27; 22:69). All of these connections reflect what Scripture has said about the plan. Jesus also functions as aprophet like Moses, a leader-deliverer-prophet who is to be heard (4:20–30; 9:35). Jesus’ miracles provide evidence for the inaugurated presence of the kingdom. Ultimately the kingdom brings with its deliverance the defeat of Satan (11:14–23; 17:20–21). Yet there also is a future to that kingdom, which will see Jesus return to reign over both Israel and the nations, visibly expressing the sovereignty he now claims (ch. 21). Thus Jesus’ deliverance looks to the realization of covenantal promises made to Abraham, David, and the nation (1:45–54).

The national leadership is steadfast in its rejection of the message. Nevertheless, the plan proceeds.Israel will experience judgment for her unfaithfulness (19:41–44; 21:20–24). Her city will be destroyed as a picture of what final judgment is like and as an assurance that God’s program is taking place. Efforts to call Israel to faithfulness continue despite her refusal to embrace God’s care and Promised One.

In the meantime, Jesus forms a new community (called “the Way” in the book of Acts). This community is made up of those who turn to embrace Jesus’ message and follow in faith. Acts is really the second half of Luke’s story, telling how God led the gospel into the heart of the Roman Empire, despite stiff opposition, through the boldness of exemplary witnesses drawing on God’s Spirit.

Distinctives of John

The fourth Gospel’s account emphasizes Jesus as the Sent One from God, who acts in unity with the Father. John highlights Jesus’ uniqueness from the declaration of the incarnation, through a narration of seven signs, to the use of multiple discourse-dialogues. This Gospel’s explicit portrayal of Jesus gives it its literary power.

John’s themes focus on Christology. Unlike the Synoptics, he speaks little of the kingdom. Rather, it iseternal life that is the key theme to express what the Synoptics call the kingdom promise. The emphasis in the term “eternal life” is not only the duration of the life (eternal) but also its quality (i.e., real, unending life). Thus, to know the Father and Jesus Christ whom the Father sent is eternal life (17:3). This life is available now (5:24–26). Along with the opportunity is also the prospect of judgment for those who refuse it (3:16–21, 36).

The promise is brought by the Word/Logos sent from God in the form of human flesh. The “I Am” sayings convey various ways in which Jesus represents the way of God. Each image (light of the world, the resurrection and the life, the good shepherd, the bread of life, the vine) specifies some central role that belongs to Jesus. As Son, Jesus only does that which the Father shows him. It is the unity with the Father in mission that John highlights. Jesus is the hoped-for Messiah, as well as the Son of Man who ascends and descends between earth and heaven. In this role, he will judge (5:27), be lifted up (3:14), and serve in mediating salvation (3:13; 6:27). Even when Jesus is seen as a prophet, it is as a leader-prophet like Moses (6:14; 7:40).

Seven signs dominate the first two-thirds of the Gospel. The response to them covers the range from rejection (12:37–39) to openness (9:25). Interestingly, unlike the Synoptics, there is no casting out of demons in John. He focuses on acts of healing, restoration, and provision. What these signs especially highlight is Jesus’ superiority to Jewish institutions (1:17; 2:19–21; 7:37–39; 9:38; 10:1–18). Most of the miracles take place in a setting of Jewish celebrations and underscore how Jesus provides what the feasts celebrate. At the end of the Gospel, blessing comes to those who have faith without the need for such signs (20:29).

Jesus is seen as the revelator of God. He makes the Father and his way known, functioning as light (1:14–18). Jesus’ death shows the love of the Father for his own people and is an example to disciples of how they should love (13:1, 11–17). Jesus’ death also serves to gather God’s people together (10:1–18) and is a means by which the Son and Father are glorified as life is made available though him (3:14–16).

Also of great importance to John is the Spirit, also called the Helper (Gk. paraklētos; see John 14:16–18, 26; 15:26; 16:7–14; 20:22), the one Jesus sends after his death, a point Acts also highlights. This encourager-enabler leads the disciples into the truth, empowers them for ministry and mission, and convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 14:25–31; 16:8–11). He is the one who sustains life (4:8–10; 7:37–39).

Distinctives of Acts

Acts teaches that the new community is rooted in old promises. It does this by telling how God directed the inclusion of Gentiles and took the message from Jerusalem to Rome. The central figures in the book are Peter (chs. 1–5; 10–12); evangelists from the Hellenistic believing community, such as Stephen and Philip (chs. 6–8); and Paul (chs. 9; 13–28). Discourses are important to the book, whether they bemissionary speeches to call people to belief or defense speeches where the Christian mission is explained. In the end, the book makes it clear how an originally Jewish movement came to include Gentiles. The gospel can go to all the world because (1) Jesus is Lord and (2) God directed that the gospel go into all the world. The book ends on a note of triumph as the gospel comes to Rome, even though believers suffered in terms of injustice and physical persecution in an effort to get the gospel there.

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