THE MISSION OF JESUS CHRIST
Isaiah 61:1-3 is such a beautiful scripture, it begs to be read aloud over and over! These verses, understood, can change one's understanding of the Atonement, and are a great passage to read and ponder during the sacrament. Elder Bruce C. Hafen wrote a wonderful treatise on it entitled "Beauty for Ashes" which you can read here.
"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our god; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty [to replace] ashes, the oil of joy [to replace] mourning, the garment of praise [to replace] the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified."
Christ read this scripture in the synagogue to proclaim himself the Messiah, "but stopped short so that he could say, 'Today as you heard it read, this passage of [Scripture] (up to but not including the day of vengeance) was fulfilled,' for at his first coming he healed and brought Good News of the Kingdom and salvation; it was not his time to take vengeance or judge" (Stern). "And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." (Luke 4:20-21)
Notice each of the things Christ has been anointed to do, each marked by the word "to." Which of these things do you need in your life?
- to preach good tidings unto the meek
- to bind up the broken-hearted
- to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound
- to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
- and [to proclaim] the day of vengeance of our God
- to comfort all they that mourn
- to give [or exchange] to [those that mourn in Zion] beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
- to take away the sins of the world
- to bring salvation unto the heathen nations
- to gather together those who are lost, who are of the sheepfold of Israel
- to prepare the way, and make possible the preaching of the gospel unto the Gentiles
- to be a light unto all who sit in darkness, unto the uttermost parts of the earth
- to bring to pass the resurrection from the dead
- to ascend up on high, to dwell on the right hand of the Father
- to administer justice unto all
- to come down in judgment upon all
- to convince all the ungodly of their ungodly deeds.
The third scripture in the reading assignment is John 1:1-14. I always had trouble understanding why Christ was called "The Word" here. The JST makes the meaning of that term clear:
"In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God" (v. 1). In him was the gospel, and the gospel was the life, and the life was the light of men" (v. 4).
(When reading the JST in the LDS Bible Appendix, it is helpful to notice that the changes from the King James Version have been italicized.)
OVERVIEW OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
As we look at the Table of Contents of the New Testament we can see that the book can be easily divided up into four sections:
- The Gospels (testimonies of Christ)
- Acts (work of the apostles, especially Peter's work among the Jews and Paul's work among the Gentiles)
- Epistles (letters from Church leaders to the saints)
- Revelation (revelation received by John on the isle of Patmos)
Well, the gospels are not just biographies, but testimonies of Christ (Bible Dictionary, p. 683). Each author came from a different walk of life, and was writing to a specific audience. The study of the authorship, audience, and angle of each of the gospels is fascinating and instructive.
OVERVIEW OF THE FOUR GOSPELS
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are quite similar in phraseology and content, and for that reason they are called "The Synoptic Gospels" (Bible Dictionary, p. 683). The Gospel of John is quite different, and we will discover the reason for that later.
The Gospel of Mark
Scholars agree that Mark was probably written first, and that the other writers had access to it when writing their gospels. Mark was not one of the apostles. He was younger. He likely was alive when Christ was alive, but he would have been a child. After his conversion, he became the younger missionary companion of Paul, and later of Peter, serving mainly among the Gentiles. Therefore, he wrote his gospel from his missionary perspective: a Jew writing to Gentiles. One can see that hee assumed that the reader would be unfamiliar with Jewish customs and terms and with Palestinian geography, because he explained and described those things. One can also see that he assumed that the reader was familiar with Latin terms and customs.
"[Mark's] object is to describe our Lord as the incarnate Son of God, living and acting among men. The gospel contains a living picture of a living Man. Energy and humility are the characteristics of his portrait. It is full of descriptive touches that help us to realize the impression made upon the bystanders" (BD, p. 728). It is "fast moving, emphasizing the doings more than the sayings of the Lord" (BD, p. 683). Note how many times Mark uses the words "immediately, "straightway," "anon"--all translations of the same word. (Fronk) This one word is used eight times in chapter one alone, in verses 10, 12, 18, 20, 21, and 28. Reading Mark leaves one breathless. The intensity of the ministry is emphasized: No time to rest, no time to eat. Mark is full of miracles. An interesting experiment: Camille Fronk recommends reading it all in one sitting, to catch the energy in the telling.
The Gospel of Matthew
Matthew was a Jew. He was a publican, and so he was not popular by profession. He was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, and he was alive when these things were happening, although he certainly wasn't eyewitness to all of them. "Matthew was probably a thorough Jew with a wide knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures, and able to see in every detail of the Lord's life the fulfillment of prophecy" (BD, p. 729). His book was written to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. For this reason, he highlighted the number 14 in Christ's genealogy and he noted 14 prophecies from the Jewish scriptures that were fulfilled by Christ. (See "The Importance of the Number 14" in a previous lesson.) He knew that the number 14 was significant to his readers, who were Hebrew. He knew that they knew that 14 meant "salvation."
Matthew picked and chose who to represent in the genealogy, as there were actually more than 14 generations between each important individual (and this was acceptable to the Jews, because the symbolic number was the most important thing, not the literal number), but in that picking and choosing, he referenced five women. Besides Mary (1:16), he listed Thamar or Tamar (1:3), Rachab or Rahab, Ruth (1:5), and Bathsheba (1:6). Every one of these women had questionable pasts, particularly in relation to their conception and child-bearing, but produced great results for the House of Israel, making themselves ancestral heroines.
1) Tamar conceived while masquerading as a prostitute! The father of her child was her own father-in-law. The reason she committed this grossly immoral deception was that, in opposition to Jewish law, Judah and his sons had cheated her out of progeny, sent her back to her father's house, and consigned her to life as a childless widow (twice widowed, actually), a state that would undoubtedly lead to devastating poverty in her old age. (See "Opposites" in a previous lesson.)
2) Rahab was an idolatrous prostitute in Jericho. With no gospel training, no missionaries, no "members" living nearby, and in the most wicked environment in the world, she gained a testimony of Jehovah. After her conversion, and after saving the spies of Israel, she raised her son, Boaz, to be a great, kind, wise, and faithful man, the man who married Ruth! (See a previous lesson for more on Rahab.)
3) The next woman mentioned, Ruth, was Rahab's daughter-in-law, a convert from idolatry as well, a Moabitess. She was married to a Hebrew, and then widowed, which dropped her to the bottom of Jewish society. From this low point, she sought her own marriage, contrary to custom, and was most likely not the first wife. (See OT Lesson #20.)
4) Last mentioned was Bathsheba, who conceived as a result of an extra-marital date-rape, or at least an event beyond her control, since the perpetrator happened to be the all-powerful king David. (See a previous lesson for more on this.)
5) By including these particular women, revered by the Jews but with imperfect and even abhorrent family situations, Matthew presented the perfect defense for Mary's unusual circumstance of conception. (Bokovoy)
A little parable recorded in Matthew is especially applicable to the Jews. "Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old" (Matt. 13:52). The "scribe" would be a man knowledgeable in the Jewish religion. "Things old" would be the Law of Moses, and "things new" the Gospel of Christ. Matthew included a lot of anti-Pharisee comments to show that the Law was not an end in itself, as the Pharisees seemed to think. Chapters 5-7 give the higher law. "The Kingdom of Heaven" would be important to the Jews, and many of the parables in Matthew liken something to the Kingdom of Heaven. The parables describe trees growing or bread rising, showing that the Kingdom of Heaven is a process, not an event. (Fronk)
Matthew's is the only gospel that includes the story of the wise men. Jews would have been most impressed by wealthy, learned men who had studied the scriptures in far away lands (they might possibly have been displaced Jews) and recognized the signs of the Messiah's coming.
Matthew included five major discourses given by Jesus Christ. He highlighted these in a way similar to the way he highlighted the 14 prophecies, using a key phrase at the end of each. The phrase is "When Jesus had finished these sayings..." Is there a reason he chose five sermons? Of course! There is a reason for every number used by a Jew in the Bible! In this case, Matthew was adding a sequel to five writings that were very near and dear to every Jew, and were in fact, a foundation of their religion: The five books of Moses, the Torah. By doing this, he was showing the Jews that Christ was the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, and that His counsel superseded or added to that Law. (Bokovoy)
- 5:1-7:27 The Sermon on the Mount, given to the multitude. The tag is found in 7:28.
- 10:5-42 The instruction for the ministry of the 12 apostles. The tag is 11:1.
- 13:1-52 The Sermon from the Ship, given to great multitudes. The tag is 13:53.
- 18:1-35 "Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?" spoken to the apostles. The tag is 19:1.
- 24:3-25:46 The Olivet Discourse, given to the 12 apostles. The tag is 26:1.
Luke's gospel is the one with the beautiful Christmas story, told from a woman's perspective. (Matthew tells it from a man's.) Luke was a Gentile convert, likely converted through the labors of Paul (see BD, p. 726), writing to Gentiles and to minorities, and to those looked down upon by the Jews: women, lepers, Samaritans, sinners (prostitutes). Luke was a physician, and therefore had close contact with and compassion for all types and both genders of people, a unique position. Most male professions in that day involved dealings with other men only, but a physician dealt with all, even the "unclean."
As a missionary, Luke ministered to the Gentiles with Paul. Like Matthew, Luke gives a genealogy of Christ, but it differs from Matthew's. Matthew introduced Christ as "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt. 1:1). This is what was important to the Jews: that Christ was one of the chosen people, and was in the kingly and priestly line. It was the first thing Matthew said in his testimony. Luke, on the other hand, gives a genealogy of Christ that identifies him as "the son of Joseph" (Luke 3:23) (even though Luke testifies of the divinity of Christ) and takes Christ's ancestry all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:38), making everyone, Jew and Gentile, a relative of Christ. (Fronk)
Luke had a special understanding of women as a result of his medical ministry among them. He wa the only one who wrote of the annunciation of Mary, and of her visit to Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother. He knew that "Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). He knew of Simeon's personal prophecy to Mary that "a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also" (Luke 2:35). How did he know of these things? Very likely he was a close personal acquaintance of Mary's in the Church, and he heard these stories from her own mouth. Luke gives what little information we have about the childhood of Christ. He was the one who told of Mary's terror when she realized her 12-year-old was not with the caravan. (See Luke 2:51).
Where is the parable of the Good Samaritan found? Only in Luke. What about Christ's visit to Mary and Martha? Only in Luke. Many of the most treasured parables are found only in Luke: The woman with the lost coin, the shepherd with the lost sheep, the Prodigal Son, the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. The cleansing of the ten lepers is recorded only in Luke. Luke wrote to the underdog, to tell him (and her!) that Christ was come for them as well as for anyone.
The Gospel of John
John is the gospel that is not like the others. Like Matthew and Mark, John was a Jew converted to Christianity. Like Matthew he was one of the apostles. But unlike Matthew, he was not writing to convince the Jews that Jesus was the Christ, and unlike Mark, he was not writing to convince the Gentiles that Jesus was the Christ. He was not writing to convince anyone that Jesus was the Christ: he was writing to those who already knew. He was writing to the Christians. This makes his gospel very different. Near the conclusion of his book, we read, "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" (John 20:31). The Harper-Collins Study Bible translates the intention of that passage to be slightly different: "But these are written, that ye might continue to believe that Jesus is the Christ..." "The Gospel of John," wrote Bruce R. McConkie, "is the account for the saints" (Mormon Doctrine, p. 336).
John was in the Church from the very beginning. A follower of John the Baptist, he then became one of the first disciples of Christ. John was one of the "inner circle of three who were with the Lord at the raising of Jairus's daughter, at the Transfiguration, and in Gethsemane" (BD, p. 715). So he was like a member of the First Presidency, one of the "three pillars of the Christian Church". John wrote not only his gospel, but also three of the epistles, and the amazing book of Revelation. He identified himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," the one who wanted to continue to minister upon the earth until the Second Coming. His testament was the last one written, and contains unique contributions, and many more of Christ's teachings than do the others. He had a deep understanding of the Savior and his gospel by the time he wrote his book. (Ludlow)
Only John tells how Christ raised Lazarus from the dead. Only John records the cleansing of the temple. In John, Christ explains his death to the apostles. Only in John do we read of Jesus washing his disciples' feet, and his commandment to them to be an example of love for each other. In John, the apostles are warned that the world will hate them and try to kill them. In John the gift of the Comforter is explained. The Intercessory prayer for the disciples is found in John. Only in John is Peter told three times, "Feed my sheep." More of the resurrected Christ's visit back to his disciples is recorded in John than in the other gospels. (Fronk)
John records seven miraculous signs of the divinity of Christ, five of which are only found in his gospel. (To see this list, see Victor Ludow's article, "John: The Once and Future Witness".)
The Gospel of John is a college text, where the other gospels are elementary school primers. The other three gospels are like sacrament meeting, and the Gospel of John is like a temple. In fact, John is better understood in relation to the temple ceremony. It is deep and rich and symbolic, and it builds upon what the other gospels give us and raises our understanding to a higher level. It is for the increased edification of those who are already saints.
Only John records the descriptions Christ gave of himself, many of which hearken back to the term used in the Old Testament to identify Jehovah: "I AM." (Ludlow) Seven of them are especially noted, possibly symbolic of the meaning of the number seven: godly perfection. These are marked with a tag, similar to Matthew's tags; they all begin with some form of the phrase "Jesus said unto them."
- When the multitude asked Christ to show them a sign, like the manna in the wilderness, "And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst" (6:35).
- After saving the adulterous woman from stoning, "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (8:12).
- Later in that same conversation, "Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I Am" (8:58), identical with the term used in Exodus 3:14, and after which they tried to stone him, but he spirited himself away.
- After telling the parable of the sheepfold to the Pharisees, "Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep...by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (10:7, 9).
- To Martha, before raising Lazarus from the dead, "Jesus saith unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (11:25-26).
- When Thomas asked how they would know the way, "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:6).
- When Judas was betraying him, (I'm removing the King James translators' additions, which are in italics in the scriptures) "Jesus saith unto them, I am. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. As soon then as he had said unto them, I am, they went backward and fell to the ground" (18:5-8) and Jesus repeated the statement.
Bible Dictionary entries for Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 114.
Camille Fronk [Olson], "The Four Gospels," Know Your Religion Lecture, January 1998, Logan, Utah
David Bokovoy, "A Literary Analysis of the Four Gospels," BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2002
Victor Ludlow, "John: The Once and Future Witness," Ensign, December 1991, p. 51-52
Thomas Mumford, Horizontal Harmony of the Gospels