Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reading Your New Testament - Gospels and History

The first five books of the New Testament (NT) are historical by nature.  This helps in understanding them but it doesn't provide the full picture.  Each of the four authors wrote with a particular purpose and audience in mind and, just as you and I would, tailored the message to that purpose and audience.

Matthew wrote essentially to Jewish folks, which is why you see a lot of Scripture quotations from the Old Testament (OT) in his Gospel.  He formulates those with X happened so that the Scripture "quotation from OT here" might be fulfilled.  Centered around five major discourses, the book is heavy on teaching.  The most famous of those discourses is Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.

Mark is the shortest Gospel account and probably the earliest.  Mark drew most of his material from Peter's recollection.  It's a very fast-paced account of the life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Mark's favorite phrase is "and immediately..."  He doesn't use that as a time-delineator but more as a literary device to keep the story moving along, not unlike an excited teen telling his buddy about the football game on Friday:  "And then...and then...and then...etc."  There's a bit of controversy over the ending of Mark.  I addressed it briefly in this sermon and so will save further discussion for now, but you're  welcome to email me with questions.

Luke writes to Gentiles, meaning non-Jewish folks.  He works hard on historical evidence and accuracy in his representation of God's Son, Jesus the Christ.  He also, notably, includes significant interaction of Jesus with women, raising their status in society.  One famous story from Luke's is the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.  Lastly, his Gospel is filled with Holy Spirit talk and action.  That fits perfectly with his account of the early church in Acts, from the Spirit being poured out on the huddled believers in Jerusalem to the Spirit extending the church throughout the Roman empire.

John's Gospel is probably the last one written and written with Greek readers in mind.  There are lots of specific miracles (signs) done in John's Gospel that point to Jesus' identity.  There are also long conversations with folks like Nicodemus the Pharisee (ch. 3) and a socially rejected woman at a well (ch. 4).  The most famous verse in the Bible is in John (3.16, in case you were wondering).  The shortest verse is also in John (11.35, where Jesus weeps over his friend's death and the accompanying sadness of the family).  A long teaching to Jesus' disciples is found in 13-16, with Jesus' longest prayer recorded in 17.  John writes with the purpose of seeing people come to believe in Jesus for life (20.31).

In reading these, you get the most when you open yourself up to their message:  that Jesus is the unique Son of God and those who come to Him in faith are those who experience real life.  Reading for any other reason can make you scripturally smarter but spiritually smaller.  But they're great for reading with families and friends, because they're amazing stories with incredible characters involved.  Enjoy!

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