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Learn to study New Testament Gospels and history

Stories communicate truth as no other literary genre can. In this section we will look at the Gospels and Acts--the stories of Jesus and his first followers. We will meet the human authors of these remarkable books, and learn principles which help in discovering and applying their truth to our lives today.

Meet Matthew

None of the Gospels name their author, so we must look to internal and external evidence. Internal evidence is that which we find within the book; external is evidence from early Christianity.

Internal evidence for Matthew the tax-collector is the author's remarkable skill in recording Jesus' teaching narratives, and the book's passion for reaching Matthew's people, the Jews. External evidence is conclusive as well. The Patristics (AD 100-500) quoted this Gospel more than any other, and were unanimous in attributing it to Matthew.

Matthew before Christ (Mt 9:9):

The Jews despised tax-collectors even more than the rest of their ancient society. Tax-collectors could not testify in court as a witness, for they were assumed to be liars. They could not even attend worship in the Temple or synagogue, for they were classed as unclean. The reason for their disgust with tax-collectors was simple: these men were cheating traitors. Rome employed them to tax their own neighbors for the hated Empire, making them turncoats and traitors. Even worse, the government allowed them to exact as much taxation as they wished with the full support of the military, making them thieves.

Barclay (The Master's Men 60-2) gives us some examples of the taxes Matthew would have collected from his neighbors and fellow citizens.

  • There was the ground tax, one tenth of a man's crop of grain and one fifth of his produce of wine, fruit, and oil.

  • The income tax was one percent of his entire income.

  • The poll tax was required of every living person, consisting of a denarius (a day's wages).

  • Then there were the customs collected on all commerce in the country: import and export taxes (up to twelve and a half percent of the value of the goods traded), purchase taxes on all that was bought and sold; bridge money when a bridge was crossed; road money when roads were used; harbor dues when a harbor was entered; market taxes when the market was used; town dues upon entering a walled town. A man traveling a road might have to pay taxes on the road, his cart, its wheels, its axle, and the beast which drew it.

  • Matthew could have stopped any man, any where, examined his goods, and assessed whatever taxes he wished. If the man could not pay what Matthew required, the tax-collector could loan him the money at an impossible rate of interest. It is no wonder that the New Testament ranks tax-collectors with gentiles (Matthew 18.17), harlots (Mt 21.31-33), and sinners (Mt 9.10-11; 11.19; Mk 2.15-16; Lk 5.30; 7.34; 15.1).

Matthew did his work in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Here he exacted taxes from travelers along the great road to Damascus which came through their town, and from those who worked on the Sea of Galilee as well. Capernaum was Jesus' headquarters when in Galilee, so Matthew must have heard him preach and teach often, and the Holy Spirit was obviously at work in his heart and soul. And so when the great call came, he was ready.

Matthew after Jesus:

Of all the disciples, I think Matthew gave up the most initially to follow Jesus. Luke's account says that he "got up, left everything and followed him" (Lk 5.28). What did he leave and lose?

He lost his career. Positions such as Matthew held were actually hard to acquire, and guarded zealously by those who held them. Once Matthew abandoned his post, he could have no hope of ever regaining it. Unlike Peter, James, and John, who easily returned to their fishing trade (John 21.3), Matthew had to leave his profession forever.

With his career he lost his wealth. Being the tax-collector in Capernaum was a position of great financial significance. He may well have been the richest person in his city, as Zacchaeus the tax-collector probably was in his (Luke 19.8). But what money he took with him was put into the disciples' common treasury (John 13.29), with no hope of making more. Matthew abandoned both his position and the wealth it brought him.

And he risked his security and even his life as well. Tax-collectors were despised by their fellow citizens, as we have seen. They were protected by the Roman militia so long as they served the Empire at their post, but were fair game for taunts and ridicule when they ventured into society (remember Zacchaeus's treatment at the hands of the people of Jericho, Luke 19.3, 7). And if they abandoned their position entirely, they forsook any protection Rome might give to them.

Matthew serving Jesus:

First, as soon as he followed Jesus, he began to engage in personal evangelism. In fact, Matthew was the first apostle in the gospel records to do this. Luke's Gospel tells us that the first thing Matthew did as a disciple of Jesus was hold a party at his house for the only friends he had, fellow tax-collectors and outcasts, and invite Jesus to come. And so through him Jesus gained entrance to that part of society he most wanted to reach: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5.32). None of the other disciples could have made this possible, but Matthew did.

Second, he recorded the life and teachings of Jesus for the world to read. Again, he was apparently the first to do this. Papias (a disciple of John the Apostle): "Matthew put together the oracles of the Lord in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could" (Fragments 6). Irenaeus (died ca. AD 200): "The Gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ should be of the seed of David. Matthew also, who had a still greater desire to establish this point, took particular pains to afford them convincing proof that Christ is of the seed of David; and therefore he commences with His genealogy (Fragment 29).

Third, he engaged in global missions after the resurrection. Early sources record his missionary ministry in various ways. Immediately he began preaching the gospel in Judea among his fellow Jews (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.24.5). Evidence indicates that he later preached in Ethiopia, Persia, Parthia, and Macedonia. The Jewish Talmud records the tradition that he was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and martyred for his faith, perhaps in Ethiopia. We know that Matthew was faithful to Jesus in his life, and by his death.

Matthew wrote his Gospel to convince the Jews that Jesus is their Messiah. Thus the genealogy with which he begins, and the constant citation of Old Testament prophecy throughout. And thus Jesus' teaching ministry for the church, as their Rabbi.

His central theme: the Kingdom of God. Read every passage with this question in mind: what does it tell us about Jesus the King and Messiah?

Meet Mark

John Mark was most likely the author of the Gospel of Mark, probably the first Gospel to be written. He came to Christ before we meet him in the Bible, likely through the influence of Peter (who calls him his "son" in the faith; 1 Peter 5:13). His mother was Mary (Acts 12:12); his father was probably dead by the time we find him in the New Testament.

Mark was a "cousin" or "relative" of Barnabas, Paul's first missionary partner (Col. 4:10; Acts 4:36), and joined them in their first missionary journey. However, he left the team to return to his home in Jerusalem (Acts 13:13), so that Paul refused to take him when he began his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 15:39). So Barnabas partnered with him, and the two left the pages of Acts.

Eleven years later, we find him at Rome with Paul. The Apostle calls him his "fellow worker" and says that he is a great "comfort" to him (Col. 4:10; Philemon 24). At the end of his life he wanted to see Mark before the Apostle died (2 Tim. 4:11).

Early tradition states that Mark based his Gospel on the testimony of Peter, and that he wrote it to convince Romans that Jesus is the true kurios, the Lord. His audience would not have been interested in Jesus as the teaching rabbi, so Mark includes very little of the Master's teaching discourses or parables.

They would not have cared about Jesus' infancy, so Mark says nothing about it. But they would have been intensely interested in Jesus' actions and activities, so Mark includes a great deal of the Lord's miraculous ministry.

Meet Luke

"Luke" is the short version of "Loukanos," meaning "luminous" or "light." Paul names him three times:

  • "Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings" (Colossians 4:14).

  • "Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11).

  • "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings.  And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers" (Philemon 23-24).

He was a Gentile and a doctor (Col. 4:10-14). He joined Paul's ministry during his Second Missionary Journey when the apostle was at Troas, before his Macedonian vision (Acts 16:10-12, where the narrative changes to "we"). He was obviously a great scholar, as the classical nature of his Greek and the formal introduction of his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) make clear.

Given his interest in Antioch of Syria, there is some evidence that Luke was from the city or at least knew people there (cf. Acts 11:19-27; 13:1; 14:26; 15:22-23; 30; 18:22). He may have been from Philippi, or was at least living there when he joined Paul's ministry, as he stayed in that city after Paul and Silas left (cf. Acts 16:40, where "they departed").

Some historians think that Luke joined Paul when the apostle was traveling in Galatia, and that he helped him in the sickness he incurred in the region (Gal. 4:14). He traveled both with Paul and away from him, spreading the gospel as one of the first medical missionaries in Christian history.

Luke wrote his Gospel to show the world that Jesus is our Savior. Thus he includes Gentiles, women, slaves, minorities on a level found nowhere else in Scripture. Look for the inclusive gospel in Luke's Gospel, and find ways it applies to your life today.

Meet John

John was the son of a fisherman named Zebedee, and the brother of James. Their fishing business was so prosperous that they employed servants (Mk 1:20). He and his brother were mending their fishing nets with their father beside the Sea of Galilee when Jesus called them: "Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him" (Mt 4:21-22; cf. Mk 1:19).

He was a close friend of Simon Peter. They were in business together: Peter "and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners" (Lk 5:9-10). He went to Peter's house in Capernaum after the Sabbath service: "As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew" (Mk 1:29).

Before following Jesus, he had been a disciple of John the Baptist. Two men were following John when he pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God; one was Andrew (Peter's brother and John's business partner as well), while the other was presumably John (Jn 1:35-40).

When he joined Jesus' ministry, he became our Lord's "beloved disciple":

  • He sat at the right hand of Jesus at the Last Supper.

  • He was the only disciple present at the crucifixion.

  • Jesus entrusted his mother to John.

  • He was the first to arrive at the empty tomb, and one of the first to tell the world of the risen Christ.

John eventually became pastor of Ephesus, the largest and most significant church in all of Christendom. Here he gave us the Gospel and three Letters of John. From there he was exiled to Patmos, here he received the Revelation.

After his release from Patmos, the elderly John returned to his Ephesian church. He was known as the Apostle of Love, for this was his consistent message. He was buried there, and remains the most significant of all Jesus' disciples for us today.

To interpret his work, keep in mind his purpose:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written 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 20:30-31).

Interpret the parables

"Parable" is a Greek word ("para," beside, and "bole," thrown) which means something "thrown alongside." In his parables, Jesus threw a temporal, secular story alongside a timeless, spiritual truth. Approximately one-third of Jesus' teachings were in the form of parables.

It has been estimated that we remember only 10% of what we hear, 40% of what we hear and see, but 90% of what we hear, see, and do. When we are engaged actively in a brilliant story told by a master, we hear its words, see its scenes, and interact personally with its teachings. We are captured by it, and participate in its truth.

Interpreting the parables:

First, see the parable as a story set in reality: "The parable may not be actual fact, but it could be so. It is harmony with the nature of the case" (Robertson 1:101). It could always have occurred in reality. Seek to hear the parable as would its first listeners, in their culture and circumstances.

Second, find the parable's main spiritual truth. A.T. Robertson, one of the greatest Greek scholars of the modern era, cautions us: "As a rule the parables of Jesus illustrate one main point and the details are more or less incidental, though sometimes Jesus himself explains these. When he does not do so, we should be slow to interpret the minor details. Much heresy has come from fantastic interpretations of the parables" (Robertson 1:101-2).

"Allegory" is finding unintended spiritual truth in the details of Scripture. It was extremely popular in the patristic and medieval church (ca. AD 300 to 1500). And it was nowhere more employed than with parables.

For example, consider St. Augustine's interpretation of Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan. Augustine is typically considered to be the greatest theologian after Paul in all of Christian history. Nonetheless, he saw the oil and wine poured on the wounded man as his baptism. And the inn of the story, "if ye recognize it, is the Church. In the time present, an inn, because in life we are passing by: it will be a home, whence we shall never remove, when we shall have got in perfect health unto the kingdom of heaven. Meanwhile receive we gladly our treatment in the inn, and weak as we still are, glory we not of sound health: lest through our pride we gain nothing else, but never for all our treatment to be cured." Nowhere did Jesus suggest that the inn is the church, and nothing could be further from the central point of his story. If Augustine could so misinterpret a parable, so can we.

Third, seek the meaning apparent to Jesus' first hearers. The Bible can never mean what it never meant. Understand the language, culture, history, and setting as well as Jesus' first audience did. Determine the subject Jesus intends to illustrate, in its context. Regard the parable as a whole and look for common-sense truth and applications. And interpret the details only to the degree that Jesus teaches them to us.

Last, interpret the parables within Jesus' Kingdom worldview. Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom on earth (cf. Mt 4.17). As we discovered in the last semester's Bible studies, this Kingdom is a worldview, a way of seeing life and ourselves. Jesus' parables are windows into that world and invitations to live therein.

These parables were revolutionary. They challenged the assumptions by which the people of Jesus' day lived and believed. Never forget that Jesus' stories got him killed. They will make us uncomfortable, convict us of our sin, and challenge our cherished beliefs. But they will also lead us into a life filled with the joy and purpose. The parables are stepping stones into a new world. Nothing less.

Interpret Acts

Acts is the story of the church's advance from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As we interpret this historical narrative, it is important to remember that biblical stories illustrate more than they teach specific biblical principles. And it is crucial that we keep in mind the overarching theme of the book: the expansion of the Kingdom of God on earth.

The key to the book is Acts 1:8:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Conclusion

Michaelangelo found an abandoned piece of marble at the city dump. It had been rejected by every sculptor who examined it as ruined and useless. But Michelangelo saw obscured in the marble's flaws the image and statue of King David. And soon, so did the rest of the world.

What the artist did for the marble, Jesus did for his disciples, and through them, for the world. Now the gospel has come to us. What does he want to do with you?

 

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