NEW TESTAMENT NARRATIVE: THE GOSPELS AND ACTS
Stories of Good News:
The book of Mark opens with the line "The beginning of the gospel
of Jesus Christ." What Mark means by gospel is an "announcement
of good news," a term used regularly in his day to refer to the
good news of a military victory or some other special event.
Thus, in his opening line, Mark is telling his readers, "This is
how the announcement of good news about Jesus all began."
In the first century A.D., other followers of Jesus also wrote
announcements of good news, and in time Christians began to
recognize four of these accounts as having the authority of
Scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. By the middle of the
second century, the word gospel, which had originally referred
only to the good news message, was now also being applied to the
writings themselves. Thus, each of the four corresponding
accounts of Jesus' life was called a Gospel, and a new literary
genre was born.
The gospel genre is essentially the New Testament's version of
narrative. As narrative, this genre shares some similarities with
other ancient literature, but many of its features are uniquely
its own. For the purpose of this lesson, we will use the term to
refer not only to the four Gospels but also to the book of Acts,
which is actually the literary sequel to the Gospel of Luke.
One of the first things we may notice about the four Gospels is
that they are so alike, yet so different. Taken together, they
paint a composite picture of the ministry of Jesus, yet each
account is also a self-contained portrait and approaches its
subject from its own unique point of view.
In terms of similarities, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have the most
in common. The core of their storylines follows the same basic
pattern. In places the resemblance is so great that the accounts
use the exact same words. For this reason, Matthew, Mark, and
Luke are often labelled the Synoptic Gospels, meaning they share
the "same view." In fact, virtually everything that the Gospel of
Mark says can be found in the other two, leading scholars to
believe that Mark's concise account was written first and then
used by Matthew and Luke as the base-text for their expanded
versions. In contrast. John's Gospel follows a different outline.
About 92 percent of what John says is unique material not found
in the Synoptics.
This brings us to a practical point. People often read the
parallel accounts in the Gospels for the purpose of "filling out"
the story in one Gospel with details from the others. The
presupposition is that the four accounts must be harmonized into
a sort of "fifth gospel" if one is to get the complete picture. A
word of caution is advised here: This approach bypasses the
fundamental principle of literary context - namely, that the
distinctive features of a passage's immediate context determine
its interpretation. Harmonization tends to create an artificial
context in which each text's distinctive features are blurred
together. Remember that the four Gospels in their distinct forms
- not our own reconstructions - are the inspired Word.
The real reason for studying the Gospel parallels is, in fact, to
highlight their differences, rather than to harmonize them.
Noting each Gospel's unique features reveals insights much deeper
and richer than any surficial harmonization. For example, the
differences help us see the authors' overall purposes for
writing, the way in which they arrange their material, the themes
they emphasize, the needs and concerns of their audiences, and
how individual passages contribute to the whole.
Consider this brief sketch of each Gospel's unique features.
The Gospel of Matthew:
was written to a Jewish audience. Its purpose was to convince the
Jewish reader that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah as
prophesied in the Old Testament. To accomplish this, Matthew
quotes the Old Testament 41 times. Each quote is usually followed
by Matthew's key expression: "[This happened] that it might be
fulfilled as spoken by the prophets."
Matthew presents Jesus as the Messiah-King, a portrait having
special appeal to his Jewish audience. He carefully selects and
arranges his material to support this theme, even down to the
smallest detail. For example, the Gospel opens with the genealogy
of Jesus, which Matthew traces back to Abraham (the forefather of
all Jews) and to David (Israel's great king).
Matthew also emphasizes what Jesus said. No other Gospel gives as
complete an account of the sayings of Jesus as does Matthew. In
fact. In fact, the structure of the Gospel is built around five
main discourses, or sermons, by Jesus: 1. The Sermon on the Mount
(chapters 5-7) 2. Proclamations of the kingdom (10) 3. Parables
of the kingdom (13) 4. Instructions for subjects of the kingdom
(18) 5. Woes and the Olivet Discourse (23-25)
Each discourse concludes with a similar phrase, such as, "Now it
came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings. . . ." The
concluding phrase is then followed by a narrative that leads the
reader to the next important discourse.
The Gospel of Mark:
is addressed to a non-Jewish, Roman audience that is unfamiliar
with Jewish customs and Aramaic expressions, which the author
explains throughout the book. He also uses a number of Latin
words found nowhere else in the New Testament.
Mark portrays Jesus as the obedient Servant of the Lord, a
characteristic that would have had special appeal to a Roman
readership. In keeping with this theme, Mark emphasizes the
things Jesus did, rather than the things He said. Nineteen
miracles of Jesus are recorded in contrast to only four parables
and one discourse. The miracles illustrate Jesus' service to
Mark's key expression is "immediately" ("straightway" or
"forthwith" in the KJV). He uses it 40 times to move from one
activity of Jesus to another. In this way, Mark portrays Jesus as
constantly on the go, serving others throughout the Gospel, until
finally performing the ultimate act of service: death on a cross
for the sake of others.
Unlike Matthew, Mark makes no mention of Jesus' genealogy. It's
not essential to his purpose. Instead, Mark's Gospel opens with
the baptism of Jesus - the moment when Jesus officially begins
His mission as the obedient Servant.
The Gospel of Luke:
was written for a Gentile audience, primarily a Greek speaking
audience. Such an audience would have related to Luke's portray
of Jesus as the perfect Man. To emphasize Jesus' humanity, Luke
traces His genealogy, not just to David or Abraham, as Matthew
does, but all the way back to the very first man, Adam (Luke
3:23-38). Jesus is further identified as "the Son of Man [who]
has come to seek and to save that which was lost" (19:10). As one
of us, He shows compassion on women, children, and the
downtrodden of society. His mission of salvation will bring good
news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, deliver the captives,
give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed (4:18,19).
Luke's own stated purpose is "to write ... an orderly account"
(1:3). In his first two chapters, Luke presents accounts not
found in the other Gospels, such as how the birth of John the
Baptist and Jesus was foretold to Zacharias, Elizabeth, and Mary;
details of the circumcision of John the Baptist; details about
the birth of Jesus, such as, the appearance of the angels to the
shepherds; the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple;
and the episode of the twelve-year-old Jesus with the elders in
the temple. In his final chapter, Luke is also the only Gospel
writer to report certain post-resurrection appearances of Jesus
and His ascension into heaven. Luke's key expressions are "it
came to pass" and "it happened."
The Gospel of John:
is aimed at all people in general. To this universal audience
John presents the transcendent Christ, who as deity existed in
eternity with the Father (John 1:1) and has now entered human
history as God come in the flesh (1:14). Because Jesus is the
eternal Christ, John has no need to begin his Gospel with a
narrative of the birth or human genealogy of Jesus, as Matthew
and Luke do. Those elements of His identity are simply not John's
focus. For John, Christ's story begins in heaven long before He
became the earthly Jesus.
John states his purpose for writing in John 20:31: "These [signs]
are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the
Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name."
"Signs," "believe," and "life" are the key expressions in John's
Gospel. To foster belief in Jesus as the divine Son o God, John
arranges his account around seven specific "signs," or miracles.
that Jesus performed, five of which are found nowhere else. The
1. Changing water to wine (2:1-10)
2. Healing the nobleman's son (4:46-54)
3. Healing the paralytic man (5:1-9)
4. Feeding the 5,000 (6:1-14)
5. Walking on water (6:15-21)
6. Healing the blind man (9:1-41)
7. Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44)
In addition to the seven signs, another unique feature of the
structure of John's Gospel is that it covers the whole of Jesus'
public ministry in just eleven chapters, while devoting a full
ten chapters to the final week of His life.
The above look at the distinct features of each Gospel brings us
to a final observation about what the Gospels are and are not.
They are not detail biographies of the life of Jesus in the sense
that we think of biographies today, because there are lots of
things about the life of Jesus we are never told (John 21:25).
Instead, the Gospels are episodic accounts. Each Gospel writer
has selected only those episodes from Jesus' life and teachings
that best illustrate his purpose for writing. The Gospels could
also be called thematic portraits, as each writer focuses on
certain themes concerning the meaning of Jesus' life and
ministry, especially the events of His last week.
We should, therefore, come to see and appreciate the Gospel
writers as theologians instead of biographical reporters. Rather
than merely reporting about the life of Jesus, they seek to
interpret the meaning and implications of His life and death for
Genres of the Gospels:
is a report of events or actions written in prose. A narrative
follows a plot, usually with a beginning, middle, and end.
Narrative is the major literary form in the Gospels, under which
fall a number of individual types. The two most frequent types
are the "miracle story" and the "pronouncement story."
is a short narrative that reports a supernatural event, usually
to extol the miracle worker. The structural pattern is 1) report
of a problem (an illness or bad situation); 2) report of the
solution (the miracle); 3) report of the result (a new
situation); and 4) evidence of the miracle. The miracle stories
of Jesus serve a two-fold purpose: 1) to identify His power and
authority as deity (Matthew 8:27) and 2) to demonstrate that the
kingdom of God was breaking into human history (Matthew 12:28).
is a short narrative that leads to a climatic statement (or
pronouncement) at the end. The pronouncement is usually like a
proverb, expressed in concise and memorable language. Examples:
"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the
things that are God's" (Mark 12:17). "For the Son of Man is Lord
even of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:8). When interpreting a
pronouncement story, remember that the point of the passage lies
in the concluding pronouncement, not in the details of the
is an extended saying or speech. After narrative, it is the other
major literary form in the Gospels, under which fall a variety of
individual types. Perhaps the most familiar discourse in the New
Testament is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Blessing or beatitude:
is a short saying that pronounces well-being upon someone or
something (example, Matthew 5:3).
is a story in the form of an extended metaphor or simile that
draws a comparison between an element in the story and some
moral, lesson, or abstract idea. A true parable has a single
point of comparison, referred to as the "parabolic point."
In contrast, an allegorical parable has many points of
comparison; each element in the story stands for a spiritual
counterpart. Very few of the parables in the Gospels are
allegories, and those that are, are identified as such by Jesus,
who gives the interpretation. Example: the sower (Luke 8:4-15).
Also, a distinction is often made between the true parable and
another variation, the illustrative story. The point of the true
parable is drawn by the story-teller himself. That is, we
wouldn't know the exact parabolic point without the story-teller
clearly stating it at the beginning or at the conclusion of the
story. He makes his own application. However, the moral or lesson
of an illustrative story is implied within the narrative itself.
That is, the story as a whole "illustrates" the parabolic point
without specifically stating it at the end. Example: the rich man
and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
is a short discourse that warns or condemns an individual or
group for certain behaviours or attitudes. It is similar in
function to the woe oracles of the Old Testament prophets.
Examples: Matthew 23:13-39, which contains a series of judgment
speeches, and Luke 3:7-9.
The Gospels also use genres borrowed from elsewhere in Scripture.
For example, hymns of praise and thanksgiving are included in
Luke's nativity narratives (Luke 1:46-55, 67-79; 2:14, 29-32),
and genealogies are used for effect in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.
Guidelines for interpreting the Gospels and Acts
1. Recognize that the distinctive features of each Gospel are an
indication of the writer's purpose and the themes he seeks to
emphasize. It is, therefore, helpful to read each Gospel as a
whole, often in one sitting, to get an overview of its
distinctive features, purpose, and themes.
2. Recognize the episodic and thematic nature of each Gospel's
storyline. How the writer has arranged his material creates the
literary context by which we understand his intent. Note
especially how he connects episodes together by key words,
phrases, or theological themes. Ignore the artificial barriers of
verse and chapter divisions to see all connections. (However, we
do not mean to suggest that there are connections between all
passages in the Gospels. Look for connecting words and themes
where they exist, but also watch for transitional phrases and
thematic changes, which indicate that the writer is moving to a
3. Recognize that the historical setting of the Gospels is on two
levels: a) that of Jesus and the original (primarily Jewish)
audience which heard Him speak and b) that of the writers and the
varied audiences they were addressing. At least 30 to 60 years
separate the two. Any noticeable differences can give us some
insight into how the teachings of Jesus were being interpreted
and applied by the Gospel writers to the needs and concerns of
the earliest Christian communities.
4. When interpreting true parables, look for the parabolic point
drawn by the storyteller himself. Also, distinguish true parables
from allegories and illustrative stories.
5. When reading the Gospels and Acts, distinguish between
descriptive and prescriptive language, especially in regard to
the practices of the early church. Descriptive language simply
describes what happened and is not intended to be a rule,
formula, or precedent that must be followed. Prescriptive
language directly teaches or establishes a rule, law, principle,
practice, or precedent that is to be followed. For example, the
casting of lots to choose a replacement for Judas among the
twelve disciples (Acts 1:26) is a descriptive passage and should
not be interpreted as a rule for choosing members for a church
board. The passage simply describes what took place at that given
time; the emphasis is on the fact that the vacancy was filled,
not on the method used. No other prescriptions are stated or
1. Genre identification:
Miracle stories occur frequently throughout the Gospels, and all
follow the same basic structure. Read the miracle story in
Matthew 8:23-27, and identify its structural components by
matching the text's verses to the corresponding parts of the
outline given below.
B. Report of the problem
1) Narrator's report of the problem to the reader
2) Disciples' report of the problem to Jesus
How bad is the situation? What words are used to describe
C. Report of the solution (miracle)
D. Report of the evidence confirming the miracle
What is the new situation? How does the wording describing
the new situation compare with that of the previous
E. Report of reaction or response
What is the intent of this story and what is its genre? Why
does Matthew tell it?
2. Literary context:
When reading the story of the "stilling of the storm" in Matthew
8:23-27, we are often critical of the disciples for their lack of
faith. Yes, they did seem to panic in the boat, but they did do
something for which we rarely give them credit. To find out what
that could be, let's notice Matthew's literary context and see if
he has given us any clues.
A. Read the preceding episode about the cost of discipleship in
1) What is Jesus about to do in verse 18? (In order to
understand the phrase "depart to the other side," you may
need to check the larger context to determine His current
location and what He's been doing all day.)
2) What do two would-be disciples say they want to do? In
essence, what does Jesus say they can expect if they are
serious about their request? Do you suppose these two men
3) What key word is repeated in the text? What theme is
Matthew emphasizing in this short episode? (The meaning of
the Greek word for disciple supplies an extra due; it means
"a follower of a teacher.")
B. What two words does Matthew use in 8:23 to hook (connect) the
stilling-of-the-storm episode with the cost-of-discipleship
Based on the connecting words of these two texts, who prove to be
Jesus' "true" disciples: those who got in the boat (a boat that
is about to be swamped by a storm) or those who stayed on the
(Note: The parallel accounts of the "stilling of the storm" in
Mark 4:35-41 and Luke 8:22-25 draw no connection to discipleship.
The immediate literary contexts in these accounts focus on other
3. Bonus example:
of how the Gospel writers use literary context to draw
connections between texts. (For use if time permits, or for later
study at home.)
A. Read Matthew 11:28-30. What key words are repeated in
this passage? What is the theme of Jesus' invitation?
B. Jesus' invitation is followed in chapter 12 by two
episodes occurring on the Sabbath (the Sabbath, of course,
being the day of rest). The first episode (12:1-8) is a
pronouncement story; the second (12:9-14) is a miracle
1) What does Jesus do for the disciples in the first episode
and for the man with the withered hand in the second?
2) How do Jesus' actions in these two episodes illustrate
His words in 11:28-30?
3) In the pronouncement story (12:1-8), Jesus actually makes
three pronouncements: one in verse 6, one in the form of an
Old Testament quotation in verse 7, and the climatic one in
verse 8. He also makes another pronouncement in verse 12 of
the miracle story. How do these pronouncements reinforce His
teaching about giving rest and easing yokes and burdens in
(Note: The literary contexts of the Sabbath episodes in Mark
2:23-3:6 and Luke 6:1-11 differ from Matthew's. In Matthew
the Sabbath stories are connected to Jesus' giving rest by
means of a lighter yoke than the Pharisees, who advocated
strict observance of both the written and oral law. Mark and
Luke use the Sabbath stories to illustrate a related but
different analogy: that Jesus' teachings and actions are
like new wine that can't be put into the old wineskins of
4. Descriptive or prescriptive:
A. Read Acts 6:1-7. Is this passage descriptive or prescriptive?
In other words, is the intent of the passage to establish a
precedent for church government that must be followed, such as
all local churches must have a board of seven deacons to take
care of non-ministerial matters, or all church organizations must
have seven departments? Or is the intent to show the flexibility
of the early church in Jerusalem to take care of an existing need
and to demonstrate its fair treatment of all believers, whether
Hebrews or Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews)?
B. If time permits or for later study at home, determine whether
the following texts are descriptive or prescriptive, whether they
are precedent-setting or not. (What are your criteria for
deciding which is which?)
1) The words of Jesus to the Twelve in Luke 22:19, 20
2) The conclusion of Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts
3) The communal lifestyle of the Jerusalem church in Acts
4) The decision of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:22-29
TO BE CONTINUED