“In the Beginning…” So begins the very first book of the Bible, as well as the fourth Gospel in the New Testament. I have sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to put the Gospel of John first in the New Testament precisely because it begins with the same words that Genesis does. However, upon sober reflection, that would not be a good idea. It is different from the other Gospels, and was written much later, it fills in gaps that the others leave out, covers different material, and works best as a cap or high point to the Gospel story. But while pondering the idea of beginnings, I realized I should write my first post as a sort of guide to the best Gospel to begin your journey on what I call a Gospel-centric apologetic. My answer, however, will not be a one-size-fits-all type answer.
First, let’s start with Matthew. Matthew was probably initially chosen to be the first of the four Gospels in our modern Bibles because of its strong links to the Old Testament. No other Gospel quotes as much Old Testament Scripture as Matthew. Matthew also writes to the Jewish people. It acts as a bridge, from the Old to the New. From the Mosaic Covenant to the New Covenant, from the sacrificial system, to the Sacrifice of the Son of God. Matthew is also an excellent reference to learn how much the Old Testament specifically points to the Christ. If one has a fair understanding of the Old Testament, wants to understand how the two are linked, and wishes to understand the continuity of the Bible, then Matthew is a good beginning point for reading the Gospels.
Mark is quite different from Matthew. It is also the shortest Gospel. It is dynamic, using terms like “straightway” or “immediately” to quickly move from one action to the next. It doesn’t focus so much on Jesus’ teaching or the frequent disputes He had with the religious leaders, but rather on what Jesus did and the reactions of people to what He did—how they felt—their internal reactions as much as their external. This draws us into the narrative, making Mark a bit of a page-turner. It makes a good, quick summary, and an introduction to the stage that the Gospels set for the New Testament. If one is eager to start exploring, without being interested in critically understanding the theology or more esoteric points, then Mark is your Gospel.
Luke, again, is quite different from the previous two Gospels. Luke, the man, was quite possibly a non-Jew (although we can never know for sure—he was quite familiar with Jewish customs, but his skill with the Greek language shows it was most likely his native tongue, or at least the language in which he was educated). What we do know, however, is that he was a physician and a traveling companion of Paul. He spent a lot of time in the area of Judea while Paul was in prison, waiting to be transported to Rome for his hearing before Caesar. This gave him a lot of free time to find and interview eye-witnesses, and to read previously written accounts of Jesus’ life. The written accounts, probably formed the structure of his Gospel, and the eye-witnesses filled in and confirmed the details. To quote him, “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.” He desired to write a thorough and complete record, carefully investigated and confirmed, so that his friend, Theophilus could know the certainty of what he had believed. When reading Luke’s Gospel account, this attention to detail is evident on every page. He strove for historical accuracy and was very aware of things like dates, important people, places and the passage of time. His Gospel is perfect for the individual who wonders if and how these things he is reading could be true. I call his Gospel the skeptic’s Gospel.
John’s account, is yet even more different from all the ones that came before. In fact, his Gospel is unique. The previous three Gospels tend to describe the same events, and cover much of the same ground, but from three different perspectives, and with three different focuses (They are called the Synoptic Gospels). John, however, writing much later, chooses almost entirely different events to record. On the rare occasion that he does cover familiar territory, he always adds new information that broadens our perspective, or even gives us underlying information that brings the importance of what happened into sharper focus. Instead of wasting words or time covering commonly-known or more general incidents, he turns a laser focus on just a few things. There are, for instance, seven titles of Christ—all but one is in the opening chapter, with the last one located, appropriately enough, in the fourth chapter. (I leave it up to the reader to figure out why it is appropriate there, and not earlier.) Secondly, he covers seven particular miracles that he calls “signs.” Lastly, there are seven discourses, where Jesus claims, “I am… (the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, etc.)” These three groups of seven act as the spine of his Gospel account, serving to underscore his one main point, which is found in chapter 20:30-31: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (bold text for emphasis). John was one of Jesus’ intimates, or closest disciples. He also out-lived all the others, and wrote his Gospel account towards the end of his life. His purpose is to reach directly to our hearts, not to persuade us or to convince us, but to move us—to shake us so that we would believe in the One for whom he had sacrificed everything, and had suffered much—to believe in the One who could change our lives as much as it changed his, if we will but read and believe. His Gospel is for the probing heart, the searching heart, for the hungry, lonely heart that feels a gap between what he sees and knows, and what he feels there must be beyond that, and wonders if there isn’t somehow, more to this life than what he sees around him.
So, before we begin, I heartily encourage you to pick one of these Gospels, start reading it from the beginning and keep reading it to the end. Once you’ve finished read it again! And again! Over 15 years ago, I started my first study through a book of the Bible. I chose John, and before I began teaching, I sat down and read it at least a half-a-dozen times—in English, and then read it a few more times in Polish. Then, as I taught through it, I read through it again more than once. I can honestly say that doing so entirely changed my perspective and approach to Scriptures. Furthermore, it entirely changed my life.
I want to tell you briefly how doing this changed another person’s life. I got the idea to teach through John, because an elderly lady friend of ours, who was an atheist and a skeptic underwent a life-changing transformation by doing this. One day, after arguing with us relentlessly, our coworker challenged her to read the Bible for herself. She decided to take him up on the challenge. I don’t remember how or why, but she started reading John’s Gospel. She read it again and again, over and over. It compelled her. It drew her in. Within the year, she utterly and completely gave her entire being over to Christ. She went from being a cynical and bitter person to being a compassionate and believing soul. What happened? John’s Gospel convinced her that all she had feared and all she had rejected was true. That she was in the wrong. God does exist. God does reward sinners with what they deserve—eternal death, and grants believers what they didn’t expect and don’t deserve—eternal life. She was brave enough and honest enough to take the risk of reading God’s Word, and she started her journey with John’s Gospel.
So, if you are brave enough, and if you are honest enough—even if you don’t believe it, or think it’s a bunch of silly, pathetic old, made-up stories—are you ready to have your worldview shaken?
By the way, this is also true if, like me, you are already a believer in Christ. Are you hungry enough to be taught? Are you humble enough to be changed? Pick a Gospel and Dig in!