Lessons from John: Synoptic Gospels
In our last lesson, we discussed how the Gospel of John is part of the bigger story of the entire Bible. It’s also a part of the second half of the Bible which we call the New Testament. The New Testament is a preservation of the truth of the words and life of Jesus Christ. Today we will explore the synoptic gospels.
In the early days after Jesus’s life, from about 30 to 60 A.D., the apostles spoke and taught people orally the things they observed as they lived and walked with Jesus of Nazareth. They taught in homes and in the streets and in synagogues. They had been given a very special promise from Jesus in John 14:26. He said,
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
So, as they were teaching, the Holy Spirit was reminding them of the very words Jesus said to them. And in those days people did a lot more memory work than people do today. So they were keyed in to remembering fine details and reciting the same stories over and over again.
Later, between 60 and 80 A.D., what we call the epistles of the New Testament were written. These are the books that explain the teachings of Jesus that are in the gospels. And the gospels themselves–Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the first 3)–were written somewhere before 70 A.D. when the destruction of Jerusalem took place. The city was burned, the temple was leveled, and the sacrifices and formal Jewish religion ceased.
But after that time, false teachers began to arise. They were denying that the man Jesus of Nazareth was actually the Christ, the Promised Messiah. And they were denying that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God as well.
So John wrote his gospel somewhere between late 80 to 100 A.D. and his emphasis was that this Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Son of God. John backs his words and discoveries with key eye witnesses that uphold Jesus’s teachings and give credibility to the accounts.
The Synoptic Gospels
Now when we compare John’s writing with that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we find some interesting differences. We call Matthew, Mark, and Luke the synoptic gospels…Syn meaning “alike” and optic meaning “look.”
They are called the synoptic gospels because in many ways they look alike. Their setting is mostly in Galilee, while John wrote his in Judea, the southern part of Israel.
In the synoptic gospels we see Christ in action, performing miracles, teaching in parables, and addressing the multitudes. John presents Christ more in meditation and in communion, along with some very deep abstract discourses. (For those of you who like intellectual challenges, just chew on the first four verses in the gospel of John and you will find your mind stretched beyond what you ever imagined it could be.)
The synoptic gospels include some things that John omits. For example, the narrative of Jesus’s birth is not included in the gospel of John. It’s interesting that John takes us all the way back to eternity past, but he doesn’t give us the details of Christ’s birth. The baptism of Jesus is also not included in John, but it is in the synoptic gospels. Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and the early days of His ministry are in the synoptic gospels but John does not include them. We won’t read in John about the institution of the Lord’s Supper as we can in the others. And the ascension of Jesus, interesting enough, is not included in the gospel of John either.
So there are some very important parts of Jesus’s life that Matthew, Mark, and Luke record but John omits. But John includes some things that the synoptic gospels do not. All the gospels include the feeding of the 5,000. That must have been a very, very significant thing because all four saw fit to put it in their writings.
But John is the only who explains the spiritual significance of the feeding of the 5,000. I think you will find that fascinating when we get to studying John 6 in detail.
John 17 includes the prayer that Jesus prayed to His Father, which really takes us into what might be called, “the holy of holies.” This is the most holy place of intimacy between the Lord Jesus Christ and the Father.
John presents Jesus as the creator God of the universe, the eternal one, the one who is equal with God the Father and yet distinct from Him. (That’s another one to chew on if you want to stretch your mind.)
John records the miracle of changing water into wine at Cana, the first miracle Jesus did. He also describes the encounter Jesus had with the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, who was very religious but soon found out that was not enough. John records an interview Jesus had with the woman of Samaria. A strange thing for a Jewish man to be talking to a woman, and of all things a woman of Samaria. And I think you’ll find it very interesting what Jesus revealed about Himself to that woman.
John also records the raising of Lazarus, a close personal friend of Jesus, from the dead. And it’s there that we will see something of the humanity of Jesus, because there we will read that Jesus wept when He saw Lazarus in the tomb.
John also records a very humbling experience of Jesus as He washed the feet of His disciples. It was one of the last things that He did with them before His crucifixion.
And John also records in three chapters some very significant truths about the Holy Spirit that will really shape our understanding of that person of God. God the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, gets the focus in John chapters 14 and 16 particularly.
The synoptic gospels link us to earth. Matthew describes Jesus as the King, the Son of David as he writes to a Jewish audience. Mark pictures Jesus as the servant and may have been writing primarily to a Roman audience. And Luke portrays Jesus as the Son of Man and was possibly focusing on the Greeks.