The Four Gospels' Record Of Christ's Life And Work

The basic interest, or goal, of the four gospels is not to satisfy man’s interest in history and thus to provide a complete biography of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather the gospels’ interest is religious teaching. They aim to confront people with the Christ, the Messiah promised by God in the Old Testament. They confront people with the Christ to awaken, preserve, and strengthen people’s faith in the Christ who is the Lord of all and the Savior of mankind. The gospels aim to bring people into a disciple relationship with Jesus which is one of total trust in him and obedience to him.

The four gospels are history. They are true historical facts and accounts of the work and the acts of Christ the Son of God. They do present a historical sequence that proceeds from his birth or beginning of his public ministry to his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven.

The gospels compel us: 1) to look backward to the teachings of Christ so that we teach his disciples to obey everything he has commanded (Matthew 28:20); 2) to see confidently in this present time that he is with us always (Matthew 28:20); 3) to look ahead to the day he will come in glory to take us to be with him that we may be where he is now (John 14:2,3).

The four gospels were each written with a different purpose and theme: Matthew--Jesus Is The Messianic King; Mark--Jesus Is The Messianic Servant; Luke--Jesus Is The Universal Savior; John--Jesus Is The Word of God, God Himself In The Flesh. The four gospels were not written as historical biographies of the life and work of Christ. They do not include every last detail of Christ’s life and work either. As the apostle John stated in John 20:30 and 21:25: “Many other signs Jesus also did in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. . . Now there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if every one were written down, I suppose not even the world itself would have room for the books that would be written.”

What we have, then, are four historical sketches of the life and work of Christ. Each was written for a specific audience, purpose, and with its own theme. To arrive at a record of Christ’s life and work, one can only piece it together from the material in the four gospels. For example, except for the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus and his being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, the three synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke present nothing of the first year of Jesus’ public ministry. We know very little about that first year, and what we do know about it comes only from the Gospel of John. John’s gospel, on the other hand, presents nothing of the second year of Jesus’ public ministry. What we know of Jesus’ second year of ministry comes from the three synoptic gospels. More information is recorded about the second year of Jesus’ ministry than the first year, while the bulk of the material in the four gospels is about Jesus’ third year of ministry. Of that third year a substantial amount of the material is about the last week of Jesus’ life and ministry--Holy Week. More than one-third of the gospels’ content is devoted to this last week.

A detailed outline of the three years of Jesus’ ministry can be, and has been, pieced together from the four gospels. To study such a detailed outline requires many hours of searching through the four gospels and comparing what is written in each. Such a study also requires some knowledge of the geography of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ ministry. For example, Jesus’ later Perean ministry in the third year of his public ministry is not necessarily introduced by a verse stating he went to Perea but that he traveled “beyond the Jordan,” which means he crossed to the east side of the Jordan River which brought him into the province of Perea. And, Jesus’ later Judean ministry in that same third year is not always indicated by the gospel verse stating Jesus entered Judea but that he went to Samaria or the village of Bethany which were both located in the province of Judea.

A detailed outline of where Jesus performed this or that miracle or taught this or that truth is somewhat arbitrary. It is somewhat arbitrary in that one biblical scholar may place one event of Jesus’ ministry in one place of his chronological sequence, while another biblical scholar may place that same event elsewhere in his chronological sequence. For example, one writer correctly places Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth where he was rejected by his townspeople early in the second year of Jesus’ ministry. But that writer states that Jesus never returned to Nazareth. Another credible biblical scholar considers Mark 6:1-6a to be a second visit of Jesus to Nazareth near the end of Jesus’ second year of ministry. There is a good possibility that Jesus did visit Nazareth twice, first early in his second year of ministry, a second time near the end of that second year. Yet one cannot be dogmatic about this and insist that there was only one visit or that there must have been two visits.

A detailed outline of what occurred in each of the three years of Jesus’ ministry is pages long. Following it can be difficult and confusing as one looks up the respective verses, tries to discover why that incident is fitted into Jesus’ third year and later Judean or Perean ministry for example, and compares one gospel account of that incident to the account of another of the gospels.

In spite of the difficulties researching the verses to piece together a detailed chronology of Jesus’ three year ministry, a broad outline of those three years is clearly distinguishable. For the purpose of your study of the four gospels a brief and broad outline that is readily clear to you, rather than a lengthy detailed outline, would probably be more beneficial to you. To aid your study, a very brief outline which gives you a broad picture of the key events in the three years of Jesus’ ministry follows below.

The First Year Of Jesus’ Ministry:

The Event in Christ’s Life and Ministry: The Appropriate Gospel References:
Baptism of Jesus Mt.3:13-17; Mk.1:9-11; Lk.3:21-22
Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness Mt.4:1-11; Mk.1:12-13; Lk.4:1-13
Jesus begins gathering his first disciples Jn.1:29-51
Jesus’ brief visit to Galilee where he performed his first miracle in Cana and stopped in Capernaum Jn.2:1-12
Jesus’ early Judean ministry which included his first cleansing of the temple and his talk with Nicodemus Jn.2:13-4:3
Jesus’ return to Galilee. Enroute he speaks with the woman of Samaria at the well. He returns to Cana where he performed his second miracle Jn.4:3-54
Jesus’ return to Judea to attend an unnamed feast in Jerusalem where he heals the man at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath and provokes the anger of the Jewish leaders Jn.5:1-47

The Second Year Of Jesus’ Ministry:

The Event in Christ’s Life and Ministry: The Appropriate Gospel References:
Jesus begins his great Galilean ministry of preaching repentance and that the kingdom of God is at hand Mt.4:17; Lk.4:14-15
Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth of Galilee and makes Capernaum in Galilee the headquarters for his great Galilean ministry Lk.4:16-31
Jesus calls his disciples to begin following him full time Mt.4:17-22; Mk.1:16-20; Lk.5:1-11
Jesus chooses but 12 of his disciples to be his apostles Mt.10:2-4; Mk.3:13-19; Lk.12-16
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount Mt.5-7
Jesus sends out his 12 apostles on their first ministry mission and instructs them Mt.10:5-11:1
The story of John the Baptist’s murder by Herod, which occurred sometime earlier in Jesus’ 2nd year of ministry Mt.14:1-12; Mk.6:14-29

The Third Year Of Jesus’ Ministry:

The Event in Christ’s Life and Ministry: The Appropriate Gospel References:
The four periods of Jesus’ retirements with his 12 disciples begins the third year of his ministry  
Jesus feeds the 5,000 Mt.14:14-21; Mk.6:34-44; Lk.9:11-17; Jn.6:3-13
Jesus refused to have the crowds make him their bread king and preaches he is the bread of life. Many disciples then turn away from him Jn.6:14-71
Jesus’ transfiguration Mt.17:1-8; Mk.9:2-8; Lk.9:28-36a
Jesus closes his Galilean ministry and conducts his later Judean and Perean ministry while enroute to Jerusalem to be crucified Lk.9:51-18:34; Jn.10:40-11:6
Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and the Jewish religious leaders plot Jesus’ murder to save their own positions Jn.11:1-53
Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and his entrance into the city on Palm Sunday, which began Holy Week Mt.21:1-17; Mk.11:1-10; Lk.19:29-44; Jn.12:12-19
Holy Week of Jesus’ passion and resurrection Mt.21:18-28:15; Mk.11:11-16:18; Lk.19:45-24:43; Jn.12:20-20:31
Jesus’ last appearances to his disciples and his ascension into heaven Mt.28:16-20; Mk.16:19-20; Lk.24:44-53; Jn.21:1-25