on the function of the Gospels

I hope to preach a message on this subject later this summer, but I would like to make note here of a little something I observed concerning the Gospels as we worked through them this last eight months.

We are all quite familiar with John’s purpose for writing his gospel, he is quite up front about it (at the end of the book!) He says:

ESV John 20:31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John’s purpose is clearly evangelistic. It is no accident that we publish so many gospels of John (along with Romans) and use them as an evangelistic tool. John intends to inspire belief and many people find the grace of God through his pages. Thus it could be said that John wrote his gospel for the world, for the lost, for unbelievers rather than for believers.

As I considered this purpose, it struck me that there was quite a difference in purpose between John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels. While the Synoptics are less explicit concerning their purpose, I think we can discern purpose from their form and from some of the comments Luke makes in the beginning of his gospel. Consider Luke’s well-known opening to the unknown Theophilus:

ESV Luke 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Clearly, Luke’s purpose is to bolster the certainty of a believer named Theophilus. Theophilus is a Greek name, it’s etymology means ‘lover of God’. We don’t know if this was a given name or a nickname, but it is quite evident that the man Luke addresses has already been taught these things, but needs strengthening in his certainty and knowledge of the gospel record. From this, I think it is safe to say that Luke, at least, was written to believers (or to ‘a believer’) with discipleship as its primary purpose and goal. Luke’s purpose is to systematically inform Theophilus of the certainty concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the foundation of Christian religion.

Can I make a similar assumption for Matthew and Mark? Neither book has a clear purpose statement, but the style of each matches Luke’s, while retaining their own individual characteristics and each one providing some unique information not provided by the others. It seems safe to say that their purposes were also didactic, intended to bolster the faith of existing disciples rather than primarily to be focused on an evangelistic purpose like John.

The order in which these books were written may also have a bearing on this notion, although the order is in much dispute. The fact is that no one really knows when the Gospels were written. Widely varying suggestions have been made. Currently, I believe most writers favour the notion that Mark came first and the others drew on his material. The writers who make these claims by no means have been able to conclusively prove them. And of course, these claims come first from liberal sources who want to denigrate the supernatural aspect of inspiration at every opportunity. I know of no real objective reason for taking Mark as the first Gospel, it is all conjecture and theory.

As a result, I have considered an entirely different order than I read in many of my commentaries. Since the opinions are so diverse, I believe the field is wide open and submit that my suggestion is as good as any, and (to my mind!!) better than some. My conclusions flow from two main fronts – the history of the early church (Acts) and the notion that the Synoptics were written as disciple manuals.

The history of the early church was prophetically outlined for us by the Lord Jesus himself in Acts 1.8:

ESV Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

The church in the beginning was primarily a Jewish church, even in Samaria. The Samaritans subscribed to the Pentateuch and were descendants of Israel (partly). The church in Jerusalem and in Judea was of course Jewish. In the early days of the church, from AD 30 (Pentecost) to approximately AD 49 was primarily Jewish. A few Gentiles began to be mixed in with the conversion of God-fearers, like Cornelius (Acts 10), and proselytes, and by AD 45 a significant Gentile body had been added by Paul’s first missionary journey. But still, by AD 49, the church was still predominantly Jewish.

Some conservatives like to date the book of James about AD 45 as the first writing of the New Testament. I think that is about right. Consider the many Jewish flavours of the book of James, writing to the dispersion, writing in such an ‘Old Testament’ style. [I have said that James is the most ‘Old Testament’ of the New Testament books, just as Malachi seems to be the most ‘New Testament’ of the OT books.] Sometime after the first missionary journey, Paul wrote Galatians to his first converts in Europe. I think that he wrote this before the council of Jerusalem, but others differ. Paul’s message in Galatians is to combat Judaizing, the attempts of some to impose Jewish notions on Christian doctrine and practice. Paul is writing in the forefront of a transition, a period when the church is going to be transformed from primarily Jewish to majority Gentile.

In light of this, when would a discipleship manual directed especially to Jews likely be written? I would suggest that the window of opportunity would be sometime between AD 45-49, whent the church as a ‘sect’ of Judaism would be at its zenith. The need for instruction in the certainty of things believed would be very evident at this point in time. The book of Matthew is such a book. Almost universally it is suggested that Matthew wrote with Jews in mind. I agree. And I think the most likely time for such a book would be fairly early in the life of the church, especially at a time when the church was predominantly Jewish. Such a time as about AD 45, for instance.

The church changed over time. The next ten years saw Paul’s aggressive missions into Gentile, especially Greek, territory. Churches were established all over Asia Minor and in Greece. The whole body of the church expanded and changed. In this milieu, a new need began to become apparent – the need for Greek-oriented discipleship materials. Who better to supervise this work than the apostle Paul? Of course, for such a project, you would have to slow Paul down. He was always on the move, evangelizing everywhere, who had time to supervise a writing project like this? Well, Paul was slowed down at one point in his ministry. He was in jail. He was in jail in Caesarea for two years, close to original sources and in the company of Luke. It seems highly likely to me that Luke, our writer of the Greek-oriented Gospel of Luke wrote his gospel under Paul’s supervision during those two years while Paul was cooling his heels in Caesarea, AD 57-59. (The Acts appear to have followed, written mostly in Rome, in the immediate aftermath of the Caesarean imprisonment.)

The church in the Latin world came last, not planted by the apostles, but later highly influenced by the presence of Paul and possibly Peter, although the presence of Peter is in much dispute. I tend to think that it is highly likely Peter spent time in Rome, overlapping with Paul’s imprisonment perhaps, but certainly following it. At this time, with a growing Latin church, the need for a Latin discipleship manual became apparent. Mark, under Peter’s supervision, took up the task and the result we have is Mark’s Gospel, written perhaps about AD 64.

What is the point of all this? Obviously it is all speculative. Many scholars would array themselves against my notions. But the idea I keep coming back to is the notion of the Gospels as discipleship manuals. If I am right about their original intent, they have not lost any of their disciple making force since. Much of our preaching and teaching seems to focus on the epistles, the highly didactic literature of the New Testament. This is likely an important part of their function, but I wonder if we don’t neglect the Synoptics too much. After all, we are disciples of a Person and we need to be thoroughly familiar with that Person in our daily spiritual lives. We commune with Him in prayer, we identify ourselves with Him in baptism, we ‘feast’ on Him at the Table, doesn’t it stand to reason that we should make much of the Gospels as they were intended and make them our own discipleship manuals? Shouldn’t we be making much of Christ and his life? Shouldn’t we be trying to pattern ourselves after him in thought and action?

I think so. I hope you do too. Blessed Synoptics study! And all the rest of the NT, too, of course.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3