Gospels reveal Jesus in different ways
This is the second column in a 13-part series.
By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study
If we open our New Testaments expecting to find a definitive biography of Jesus of Nazareth, we will be disappointed. On the other hand, if we open these pages expecting to encounter Jesus in a way that can transform us, then we’ve come with the proper expectation.
A Gospel is a unique literary form. Its purpose is to announce, to introduce, to persuade, to instruct, to call to repentance, and ultimately, to convert the reader and listener. A simple, factual accounting of events cannot have that power. Each writer is an evangelist, one who shares the Good News of Jesus.
Who is this Jesus we encounter in the Gospels? Is he the beloved Son of God? Is he the awaited Messiah? Is he an effective rabbi? Is Jesus the Savior of the world? Is he the true vine, the image of the invisible God, the bread of life?
Yes, Jesus is all of these and more. No title, no image, no simile or metaphor can adequately depict Jesus in his essence, or who he is for each of us.
Many scholars and preachers have written about the various portraits of Jesus that we encounter in the four Gospels of our Bibles. Consider the works of Father Donald Senior, CP, Father Daniel Harrington, SJ, or N.T. Wright, to name but a few. Their works demonstrate that each evangelist drew the image of Jesus looking back at his life and ministry from a slightly different angle.
In the Gospel according to Mark, the question, “Who is Jesus?” is answered in the opening verse where we read about the beginning of the Gospel of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” What that means unfolds as the evangelist also focuses on what it means to follow him: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (9:34).
Jesus, in Mark’s writings, is not a triumphal king who rules from on high. Rather, he is the anointed (Christ, Messiah) Son of God who must suffer. Mark focuses on the full humanity of Jesus and invites us to do the same. The suffering of his followers can be meaningful insofar as it is connected with carrying the cross as Jesus himself did through the streets of Jerusalem.
In what some would say is a stark contrast, the Gospel according to John introduces us to the divine Jesus, the Word of God made flesh (1:14). In this account, Jesus appears fully in charge of the events that surround him, and fully capable of assuming the identity of the great I AM revealed at Sinai. John uses what have become some of the most familiar images to identify Jesus and places them on his own lips. Jesus says, “I am …” the light of the world, the lamb of God, the way and the truth and the life, the bread of life, and the good shepherd.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures, the long-awaited Messiah who stands at the intersection of salvation history. As a respected rabbi, he is shown to teach with authority and creativity. This account from Matthew contains five large teaching discourses: the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5–7), the instructions for mission (ch. 10), the great sermon in parables (ch. 13), the instructions for living as church (ch. 18), and a final discourse on the end times (ch. 24–25).
Perhaps most pointedly, in Matthew, Jesus is Emmanuel (God with us). This title is introduced at the birth of Jesus (1:23), and reinforced at the close of the Gospel where the risen Jesus commissions his followers and promises, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20).
Jesus the forgiving Savior, the one whose mercy and compassion reaches out to all on the margins, is the focus of the Gospel according to Luke. In this account, the emphasis falls on the inclusiveness of Jesus, his appeal both to men and women, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is the faithful companion who exudes and inspires compassion, a man whose touch is as powerful as his words.
Clearly, these portraits overlap and what emerges is an experience of Jesus that is more than the sum of its parts. In our own prayerful reading of the Gospels we may be drawn at some times to particular aspects of Jesus. At other times we may need the challenge of an image that stretches us to a deeper relationship with the Lord and a new direction as disciples.
- Why is it important to understand the purpose of a Gospel as something more than a strict biography?
- How would you explain to someone unfamiliar with the life and ministry of Jesus the differences we see in the Gospel stories about him?
- If you were writing a script for a play about Jesus, which of the four Gospels would you be most inclined to use as your framework? Why?
- At this time in your life, which of the four Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus is the most consoling to you personally? Which is the most challenging?
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic May 8, 2010. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.
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