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Chapter 14: The Gospels and Acts

Chapter 14: THE GOSPELS AND ACTS.

These are not the first books of the New Testament that were written; for, as we shall see later, some of Paul's epistles preceded them; but they are first in the order of the events of which they speak, and for this reason they very properly occupy the first part of the book when all are printed in one volume. Having stated in the preceding section their general design, we shall now consider them separately.


1. Matthew. This writer introduces Jesus, in the first verse of the book, as "The son of David, the son of Abraham" {Matthew 1:1}. By this title he designates him as the promised seed of David who was to sit upon David's throne and reign forever, and he also keeps in mind the ancient promise to Abraham of a seed in whom all the nations of the earth were to be blessed. In other words, this introduces him as the Messiah, or the Christ; and it shows that Matthew's main purpose was to set forth the Messiahship of Jesus, rather than his divinity. With this agree the contents of the book; for while the Sonship of Jesus is by no means overlooked in the narrative, but is clearly and emphatically set forth, his Messiahship is the logical point chiefly aimed at; hence the many quotations from the Old Testament of predictions and types which were fulfilled in his person and in his work. Matthew has more of these than have all three of the other Gospels. In harmony with the same purpose Matthew devotes more of his space than any of the others to the teachings of Jesus, considerably more than half his book being made up of his formal speeches, besides many remarks made in the course of conversations with friends and foes. To such an extent is this true, that a Christian writer of the second century called his book "The Oracles," meaning thereby, divine utterances. This was an attempt to give a name to the book derived from the chief part of its contents. In consequence of this peculiarity of the book, as well as its location at the beginning of the volume, Matthew is more read by the people, and more familiar to them, than any of the other Gospels, or any other book, perhaps, in the Bible.

The book naturally divided itself into three distinct parts: the first (Matthew 1:1-4:12) giving the genealogy of Jesus; his birth; some of the events of his infancy; his baptism and his temptation; the second, his ministry in Galilee (Matthew 4:13-19:1); and the third, the events from his departure out of Galilee till his resurrection from the dead (Matthew 19:1-28:20). The last division, though it occupies only six months of the three years and more of his ministry, fills nearly as much space as the account of the whole period preceding this, showing the importance attached by the author to the scenes connected with the last sufferings, the death, and the resurrection of the Lord. {15}

{15} The Gospel of Matthew was addressed primarily to the Jewish people, and therefore uses the Old Testament material bearing upon the life of Christ. It is the national Gospel, and its themes are Jesus the Messiah, the Teacher and the Rejected King.--W.


2. Mark. This writer was not an apostle, but he was the son of a certain woman in Jerusalem whose name was Mary, and whose house was a place of resort for the disciples (Acts 12:12). She was an aunt of Barnabas, seeing that Mark was his cousin (Colossians 4:10). Having grown up in Jerusalem, where his mother was prominent among the disciples, he must himself have been acquainted with the apostles, and probably with Jesus. It is said by early Christian writers that in writing his Gospel he gave the account of Jesus which Peter was in the habit of giving in his discourses; and there is much in his narrative to confirm this tradition, especially the fact that he tells plainly everything that Peter did or said which was not creditable to him, and omits nearly all that was. This is the way that Peter would do if he was as modest as we suppose him to have been.

Mark introduces Jesus at once as the Son of God, saying in the first line of his book, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" {Mark 1:1}. This shows that his main purpose, logically, was to prove the divinity rather than the Messiahship of Jesus. In this he differs from Matthew; and in carrying out this plan he devotes a much larger percent of his space to miracles than does any other of the four, seeing that it is this, rather than prophecies fulfilled, that proves his divinity. He makes a different "beginning" from that of Matthew, in that he begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, and Matthew begins with the genealogy and birth of Jesus.

No one who is familiar with Matthew can read Mark without noticing a striking similarity between them in the facts that they relate, and sometimes in the words that they employ; but on close comparison of the two it will be seen that in almost, if not quite all these instances, Mark has some additional items which distinguish his account from Matthew's. The student should constantly keep his eye open for these; for they not only show the difference between the two writers, making each stand out before the mind by himself, but they are necessary to a full knowledge of the incidents with which they are connected. The same may be said in reference to events mentioned by three, or by all of the Gospel writers. Study all, and combine the particulars given by all.

Mark's book is divided into two parts, in the first of which he confines himself to the ministry in Galilee, as Matthew does in his second part; and in the second, after reporting a few conversations beyond the Jordan, he confines himself to the closing scenes in Jerusalem. To this second part, although the time included in it is only six months, he devotes seven out of his sixteen chapters, thus showing as Matthew does, that he regarded this as the part of the life of Jesus that was most important for his readers to be acquainted with. Luke and John follow the same plan. {16}

{16} Mark's Gospel has been called the Gospel of Power. Jesus is the worker of miracles, the incarnation of power. As such the book would commend itself to the Roman type of mind, in which power held the chief place.--W.


3. Luke. The third Gospel differs from the first and second more than the latter do from each other. It records some events in common with the other two, but the plan of the author, as well as his subject matter, is quite different. In comparing his accounts with those of the other two, the differences sometimes appear much like contradictions, and so they have been pronounced by unfriendly writers. But it is never just to charge two or more writers with contradicting one another, which is the same as charging one or more of them with error, when there is any reasonable supposition that will permit all their statements to be true. Sometimes we have to study very carefully before we can find such a supposition, but as we are bound in justice to do it when we can, we must be slow to charge contradictions. This is a right rule in respect to all writers and speakers, and more especially should we observe it in respect to the inspired writers of the New Testament.

Luke's first part, like Matthew's, is devoted to the infancy and the early life of Jesus, concluding with his temptation; and the amount of space which he gives to it about the same as Matthew's, but he fills it with incidents nearly all of which are different from those given by Matthew. In order to learn all we can about this part of our Lord's life, we have to study the first part of Luke and that of Matthew together; and it would be well for the student to do this before he reads farther in this Gospel.

In the second part, Luke gives his attention, like Matthew and Mark, to the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, saying nothing about some visits to Jerusalem which we know from John's Gospel were made during this period. This part extends from Luke 4:14 to Luke 9:62, less space than is given it by either Matthew or Mark. Then follows the part of Luke in which he gives the most new information, and the whole of it is both instructive and charming. It includes chapters ten to eighteen, more than either of the other parts. His last, or fourth part, like that of the other two Gospels, is devoted to the closing scenes of the last six months, and it includes his last six chapters.

Luke was a physician, as we learn from Paul (Colossians 4:14); and as Paul in the same passage seems to distinguish him from "those of the circumcision" (Colossians 4:10,14), it is inferred that he was a Gentile. If so he was the only Gentile who wrote any part of the New Testament. Like Mark, he was not an apostle; and consequently he did not write as an eye-witness; but he informs us, in the opening paragraph of his book, that he had obtained his information from eye-witnesses and ministers of the word, and that he had traced everything accurately from the beginning. As his book is addressed to one Theophilus, whose name is a Greek word, it appears that he intended it primarily for Greek readers. He addresses Theophilus by the title "most excellent" {Luke 1:3}, the usual Greek form of address to a man of high rank in the political world, from which it appears that at least a few such men had been brought into the church when Luke's Gospel was written. {17}

All three of the Gospels which we have now noticed are supposed, to have been written not earlier than the year 60 A.D.

{17} Luke's Gospel is his introduction to the story of the Apostolic Church and the ministry of Paul which is given in Acts. It emphasizes the compassionate love of Jesus for humanity. It is the Gospel of Society.--W.


4. John. This fourth Gospel differs very greatly in its subject matter from the other three. The latter are so much alike, that they are styled by scholars, "Synoptic," that is, taking the same view. But John carefully avoided repeating what the others had written, so that he has very few events in common with them; and when he had he gives details which they had omitted. This difference is accounted for by the fact, that writing much later, he had seen what they wrote, and cared not to repeat it; while their similarity to one another is accounted for by their having written without seeing one another's productions. They doubtless wrote those incidents in the life of the Savior which had been commonly related by the apostles in their preaching.

John's is the only Gospel which is chronological throughout. By counting the feasts of the Jews which Christ attended, all of which are mentioned in this Gospel, we ascertain that there were three years from the visit to Jerusalem mentioned in the second chapter, to the one at which he was crucified. If we could only ascertain how long it was from his baptism till that first visit, we would know the exact duration of his ministry; but at this point the chronology is not given.

John begins with a very profound statement of the eternal and divine existence of Jesus before his advent into the world; and in harmony with this beginning he makes the divinity of the Lord throughout his book much more prominent than his Messiahship. In this he is like Mark; but unlike Mark he mentions comparatively few of the miracles; and he depends for his argument mainly on what Jesus said about himself. Consequently, we find Jesus in this Gospel saying much more about himself as the Son of God than in any or all of the others.

One very remarkable fact about John's Gospel is that all of the events which he records occurred on only about thirty days, although the time between the first and the last was more than three years. In Mark we find the incidents of only seven or eight days more, if we leave out the forty of the Temptation, and in Luke and Matthew, less than a hundred. Any one of the four, if printed separately, would make only a small tract. This is a very striking proof that these men were under the controlling power of the Holy Spirit; for we may safely say that no four men ever lived, who, with such a life to write about, would have written so little if they had been left to themselves. {18}

{18} John's Gospel is the universal Gospel, the Gospel of the Incarnation, the Gospel of Spiritual Insight. It is the Gospel of the heart of Christ as contrasted with the more objective writing of the Synoptists.--W.


5. Acts of Apostles. This book most properly follows the four Gospels in our printed New Testament, not because it was written later; for it was written about the same time with the first three Gospels, and much earlier than the fourth; but because the facts recorded in it occurred next, and because this is its place from a logical point of view. It was after the resurrection of Jesus with an account of which each of the Gospels closes, that Jesus gave to the apostles their commission to go and preach, having forbidden them to do so while he was yet in the flesh. This book gives an account of their going in obedience to this command, and preaching to the world. Moreover, it shows how men under apostolic preaching, were brought to Christ and became members of his church; and as the Gospels are intended to convince men that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, which is the first step toward becoming a Christian, this book shows what other steps the apostles required them to take. For these reasons, this book which is occupied chiefly with accounts of cases of conversions, is the next book to read after reading the Gospels.

This book also shows how churches were planted and organized by the apostles, and how some very important questions which arose among the disciples were settled; and in these particulars it is our inspiring guide for all time to come. Incidentally it records some of the noblest deeds of the early disciples for our encouragement, and some of the worst for our warning.

Like the Gospels, the book of Acts omits much more than it records; for after a brief account of the activity of all the apostles in Jerusalem, it is occupied for a time with the labors of Peter chiefly, and then, at the thirteenth chapter it assumes the character of a biography by following the labors of the apostle Paul almost exclusively. This last feature was due, from a human point of view, to the fact that the author was more familiar with the labors of Paul than with those of any other apostle; and from the divine point of view, to the fact that Paul's labors, after he became an apostle, were more abundant and more important than those of any other. From the nature of its contents, therefore, we find that the book is not the Acts of the Apostles; but, as the proper form of its title, Acts of Apostles indicates, some of the acts of some of them. How few even of these acts it records, may be inferred from the consideration that though the period which it covers reaches from the resurrection of Christ to the year 63 A.D., about thirty years, all is compressed within the limits of a small pamphlet--another instance of the restraining power of the Holy Spirit.