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When the End Begins: An Introduction to the Gospels

Groundwork for the Gospels

The New Testament begins with a section of scripture collectively identified as the Gospels. This portion of the Bible is made up of four distinct books containing a total of eighty-nine chapters with a narrative spanning a little over thirty-three years. Although these books reference truths as far back as eternity past (John 1:1-3), the actual story-line chronologically commences with the conception of John the Baptist—the forerunner and cousin of Jesus called Messias (Luke 1:5-25). The attention in the Gospels quickly shifts to Christ's supernatural conception.

These books then cover the entirety of Christ’s life which includes His earthly ministry, His death, crucifixion, and resurrection. This section chronologically concludes with Christ’s ascension to the Father in Heaven (Luke 24:49-53). This scene (the ascension) aligns with the first major event recorded in the book following the four gospels—the book of Acts (Acts 1:9).

In order to comprehend the various divisions found within scripture, one must recognize how God’s word distinguishes between each of the Bible’s messengers and their particular messages. For instance, the apostle Paul specifically identified and delineated his gospel as the death, burial, and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), yet everything covered in the first four books of the New Testament is collectively known as, or at least classifiable as, “the gospel.” Mark, for example, describes his writings as:

Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

This truth is also clearly expressed in the titles of the first four books (i.e., The Gospel According to Matthew, etc.). Why is this all of this so important? A more thorough examination and study reveals that the Bible defines gospel simply as good tidings (compare Isaiah 61:1 with Luke 4:18, and Isaiah 52:7 and Nahum 1:15 with Romans 10:15).

Isaiah 61:1 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;

Luke 4:18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

Certainly everything about the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ was good tidings for a world void of hope and, according to Luke, sitting “in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Luke described the world's condition as such:

Luke 1:79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

As the story unfolds, in the earliest New Testament books, the reader finds the Jewish nation in complete disarray. This was the scene upon which John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus Christ began each of their respective ministries. God’s people (the Jews) were living under Roman domination and rule (John 11:48). The spiritual condition of the religious leaders—those sitting in Moses’ seat (Matthew 23:2-3), was absolutely deplorable. Jesus made it a point to tell His followers not to follow their hypocritical example.

Matthew 23:2-3 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

In fulfillment of prophecy, the God they claimed to worship appeared in the flesh. Yet, the religious leaders failed to (or refused to) recognize Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of scripture. Their problem was simply a heart condition which demonstrated a complete lack of spiritual discernment. They “worshipped” God by giving Him lip service, yet denied Him with their lives and actions, revealing the wicked condition of their hearts.

Matthew 15:8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.

Because of God's love for His creation, God the Son took upon Himself the form of man and lived a life completely free of sin. While robed in a body of flesh, He never ceased being God. One would think that those most familiar with scripture (the Pharisees) would have humbly yielded to Christ’s obvious authority (Luke 4:36). Yet, these religious leaders repeatedly sought to entrap the Lord in His gracious words. The religious leaders knew that the identity of the Lord Jesus and His presence upon the earth exposed their religious hypocrisy. This is why they desired to cast doubt upon the identity of Jesus’ Father to which Jesus replied that had they known His Father, they would have certainly known and recognized the Son of God also.

John 8:19 Then said they unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.

Although the nation as a whole rejected the Messiah, there were individuals within the nation who believed Christ’s message and accepted Him for who He was. A few of the religious leaders also accepted Christ’s message, but the vast majority of His followers consisted of the common people. From the larger number of those who believed in Him, the Lord chose twelve men to be His key disciples. They are called the twelve apostles.

Why Four Gospels?

Stating that these chosen twelve turned the world completely upside down is a gross understatement. They began as the Lord’s disciples (or students) and became His apostles (sent ones or messengers). Only a few of the twelve apostles penned inspired epistles or gospels. In fact, only two of the apostles (Matthew and John) were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21) to chronicle the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Two other men, outside the ranks of the twelve (Mark and Luke), were chosen to write gospel accounts which make up the four Gospels. Why would God give man four Gospel books? The answer is quite simple. A wise and omniscient God chose to abide by His own rules of establishing a credible witness by selecting multiple witnesses to record His Son’s earthly ministry. Here is the principle found in the Old Testament.

Deuteronomy 19:15 One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.

Regardless of the precise reasoning of the omniscient God, choosing four witnesses validated the witness of Christ’s earthly ministry. We are told that Christ’s earthly ministry “was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26) but chronicled by “eyewitnesses of his majesty.” As such, the Gospels record firsthand accounts and not simply hearsay potentially corrupted by man’s opinion or bias.

2 Peter 1:16 For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Absolute Unity with Distinct Perspectives

As would be the case with any four eyewitnesses, the writers of the Gospels observed the same person, message, and lifetime, but saw and recorded different aspects of these events. Interestingly, the Lord moved them to present Christ’s earthly ministry from four distinct perspectives:

  1. Matthew’s Gospel emphasized Christ as the King of the Jews.
  2. Mark’s Gospel emphasized Christ as the Servant.
  3. Luke’s Gospel emphasized Christ as the Son of man.
  4. John’s Gospel plainly declared Christ as the Son of God.

Yet, with so many distinctive details, the four Gospels NEVER contradict one another. Each distinction serves an important and unique purpose. Yet the most important distinction is the difference between John’s Gospel and the other three Gospels (commonly known as the Synoptic Gospels). John's Gospel is quite unique from the other three. Matthew, Mark, and Luke parallel each other, but offer varying details. In fact, Luke pointed out that he took “in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;” (Luke 1:1-2). He further states, “It seemed good to me also…to write unto thee in order” (Luke 1:3).

As much as possible, Matthew, Mark, and Luke reported events as eyewitnesses. Although their viewpoints and their points of emphases differed, they recorded many of the same events. They did so in an orderly and thorough fashion. In fact, the only way to grasp the complete details of any single recorded event is by considering each of the accounts given in the gospels which cover any particular event.

Although John included many similar statements, he testified that his record was specifically 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).

Jews, Disciples, Apostles, and the Church

Some Bible teachers today debate the intended audience for the various written Gospel records; however, no dispute exists concerning the audience present as the events unfolded in the Gospels. For instance, the apostle John testified that the Lord Jesus “came unto his own” (John 1:11). Much of the Lord’s earthly ministry was specifically (and only) intended for the Jews. In fact, when sending out disciples for the purpose of propagating His teaching, the Lord instructed the men to go specifically “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). Their message and intended audience was national Israel. The exceptions to this (where at times they ministered to the Gentiles) simply testify to the veracity of the rule.

As discussed earlier, the Lord Jesus chose men to be His disciples. The overall number of disciples was a much higher number. At one point, “the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two” (Luke 10:1), but out of that number Lord chose twelve to eventually serve as His most prominent witnesses. A disciple is simply a student of a certain discipline or a scholar (1 Chronicles 25:8; Malachi 2:12). This position can best be understood when contrasted to the master or teacher (Matthew 10:24).

As the twelve took on additional responsibilities of preaching they became known as apostles—the sent ones or messengers. The fact is that all of the recorded events took place prior to what we now know and refer to as the New Testament Church. Those who have chosen to ignore or dismiss this particular truth have fallen into some of the most egregious of errors.

The question as to when the New Testament Church was founded has been debated for nearly as long as its existence. This debate takes upon itself even greater significance when considering the audience of the Gospels. If the New Testament Church merely continues the Old Testament “Church” (Acts 7:38), then the rules of the Old Testament, along with those directions found within the Gospels, equally and completely apply to the New Testament Church today. However, the New Testament Church is not a continuation of any Old Testament group but a distinct entity.

This confusion concerning application explains why some groups have chosen to follow practices matching the Old Testament priesthood, including the propagation of the unscriptural and unsavory marriage between church and state. Furthermore, Bible-believing Christianity resoundingly rejects the doctrinal position that the New Testament Church’s origin was prior to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. The Church was certainly in view or in the mind of God before the cross, but it is wrong to claim that it could have been in existence prior to that time. Granted, many of the truths taught by Christ universally transcend time and dispensations, but the prophecies specifically aimed at Israel cannot and should not be usurped by the Church even by those with the best of intentions.

Many Christians propose that the New Testament Church began during the earthly ministry of Christ. After all, the principle of the church was established (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 18:20); Jesus Christ could have served as its head (Matthew 23:8) and pastor (John 10:11, 14); the group had rules for discipline (Matthew 18:15-17), and practiced baptism (Matthew 28:16-20) and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29). Those who subscribe to this doctrinal position tend to believe that the teachings presented in the Gospels are almost without exception directly applicable to the New Testament Church. This would also apply to the End Times prophetic events mentioned by the Lord during His earthly ministry.

These same teachers typically suggest that Noah and Lot are pictures of the supernatural protection of the New Testament Church and that Matthew chapter 24 provides doctrinal insights into the details of the Church’s Rapture. Regardless of the increasing prevalence of this position, it contains serious irreconcilable flaws.

Here is one simple point to ponder before moving forward. During Christ’s earthly ministry, He spoke of the Church’s protection and the failure of the gates of hell to prevail—both of which He spoke of using a future tense. For example, Christ promised, “I will build [future] my church” (Matthew 16:18). The Lord’s allusion to building something yet unconstructed most definitely provides the context as to the Church’s origin being yet future.

In the Old Testament, Christ was prophesied as a stone refused by the builders (the nation of Israel-see Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 8:14; Isaiah 28:16). These Old Testament references show that the Rock was manifest to Israel in the context of the Davidic kingdom with veiled prophetic references to Daniel’s Seventieth Week (Daniel 2:34-35). These references most assuredly look forward to the rejected stone and are fulfilled in the New Testament and are directly associated with Christ’s rejection and crucifixion (Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:11). The rejected Christ became the precious corner stone (the head of the corner).

Matthew 21:42 Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?

Paul later declared Christ as the foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11) and the chief corner stone of the one body consisting of Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:20). These truths all point to Christ’s crucifixion as the time of initial construction—a crucifixion announced in the context of the initial proclamation of the Church (Matthew 16:21-23). Concerning the Church and its construction, Christ simply prophesied of events that were yet future, not something presently being fulfilled.

The New Testament Church

In the same context, after Christ's crucifixion, the Lord identified the Church as “my church”—a purchase certainly not consummated prior to His crucifixion. In fact, the first reference to the “church of God” (a phrase denoting possession or ownership of the Church) suggests that the Church became His Church through a blood purchase that He made upon the cross of Calvary.

Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.

The concept of this blood purchase matches other New Testament teachings like that found in Ephesians and Colossians. The believers' redemption or purchase resulted from the blood shed upon Calvary—it was through HIS blood.

Ephesians 1:7 In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace;

Colossians 1:14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:

The purchase was made through the shedding of blood, but the transaction was only completed once Christ, the Great High Priest, placed His blood upon the mercy seat in Heaven (Hebrews 9:12-14). Furthermore, the Bible identifies the Holy Ghost, given to believers, as the earnest (a sum given denoting a promise of future completed payment) of this purchase (Ephesians 1:14). This payment in earnest involved an acquisition that will be finalized when the bodies of the saved are fully redeemed (Romans 8:23).

In support of these truths, God’s word emphasizes that the New Testament was not in effect until after the death of the testator, Jesus Christ. After the death of the testator, the testament was in force with the new testament as its instrument.

Hebrews 9:16-17 For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.

Most of those who have recognized the combination of all of these elements believe that the New Testament Church was at least birthed from the womb on the Day of Pentecost but not before. After all, it is at this point that the Bible says that “the Lord added to the church…such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). However, this truth alone does not account for all of the necessary pieces of the puzzle.

Perhaps the most accurate, safe, and scriptural teaching proclaims that there was also a church (called out assembly) present during the earthly ministry of Christ. The following two passages seem to indicate this truth.

Matthew 18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

Hebrews 2:12 Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

Most assuredly there was a called out assembly (a church) present when Jesus walked the earth and before (see Acts 7:38). However, it is important to note that the church to which Jesus referred could not be the New Testament Church as the New Testament was not in effect until the death of Christ upon the cross—the death of the testator of the New Testament.

The Ascensions

The Church could not be rightfully called “my church” by Christ until purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28) at Calvary. Obviously, until Christ hung and died upon the cross, this blood was not shed. However, the completion of the transaction did not take place until Christ sprinkled His blood upon the mercy seat in Heaven. That sprinkling took place between the events recorded in the next two passages (the two ascensions).

Before 1st ascension: John 20:17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

Christ’s statement in John clearly shows that He had not yet initially ascended to the Father. Yet, the latter narrative recorded in Matthew chapter 28 below shows that by this time He had both ascended to the Father and returned back to earth again. This truth is reflected in the fact that He could now be touched.

After 1st ascension but before final ascension: Matthew 28:9 And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

These combined truths reveal some things that we know for sure: the New Testament Church did not begin before Christ placed His blood upon the mercy seat in Heaven. However, it must have begun by the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts chapter 2. Because something cannot be added to that which had not yet commenced. The Bible says that the Lord “added” to the Church (Acts 2:47) so it certainly had to be in existence even if at that time if only consisted of a Jewish membership (Romans 11:17; Ephesians 3:6). Thus, these truths would narrow the beginning of the New Testament Church to sometime between the events of John 20:17 and Acts 2:47.

Regardless of the timing of the actual onset of the New Testament Church, we can be assured that there was NO New Testament Church present when the Lord prophesied to His Jewish disciples in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:3). This discourse covered events that would take place in the last days (Daniel’s Seventieth Week) pertinent to the Jews and their seventieth week' compatriots. Fortunately, every true Bible student agrees that the Olivet Discourse detailed in Matthew chapters 24 and 25 took place prior to Christ’s death and His ascension(s) into Heaven.

John’s Gospel Record

It is time to build upon the foundation now laid. In order to do so, we must consider some details relative to the Gospel of John. John recorded the actual crucifixion in John 19:30 followed by the resurrection account (John 20:1) which took place upon the first day of the week when Mary and the others visited the now empty tomb. John chapter 20 also records three appearances of Jesus: (first to Mary Magdalene at the sepulchre—John 20:14; then the apostles without Thomas—John 20:19; and then eight days later to all the apostles including Thomas—John 20:26).

It is important to note that John plainly declared that the disciples did not yet understand the resurrection prior to Christ’s meeting with them. The next verse eliminates any claim to ambiguity concerning this point.

John 20:9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.

It is inconceivable that any Christian could underestimate the significance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection since they are the most pivotal events in all of human history. Yet, the disciples themselves were not completely aware of the ramifications resulting from the resurrection until sometime after Christ's resurrection. Additionally, the Bible points out that Christ’s first appearance to the disciples took place upon the same day as the resurrection by twice stating it in the same verse-“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week…” (John 20:19). There are no vain words in the Bible and this double witness is not given by accident.

What happened during this meeting is likely the pivotal event concerning the Church. Upon the first day of the week, Jesus came and breathed upon the disciples and they received the Holy Ghost. All of the necessary elements for a New Testament Church were now in place: (1) Jesus died on the cross, (2) Jesus journeyed to the mercy seat in Heaven and placed His blood upon it, and (3) now He breathed upon His disciples for them to RECEIVE the Holy Ghost.

John 20:22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

Following this event, Peter and the apostles were different, yet still imperfect. Jesus likely referred to this event as Peter’s conversion even though Peter already knew and followed the Lord.

Luke 22:32 But I have prayed for thee [Peter], that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.

Those teachers who have failed or refused to recognize the distinctions between Israel and the New Testament Church have caused irreparable harm. Those who continue to espouse the error of the Church replacing Israel (i.e. “spiritually” receiving the promises and blessing given to Israel) will stand accountable for this false teaching. The focus of this work delves into the application of the prophecy of Matthew chapters 24 and 25. Simply put, the New Testament Church was not in existence during the pronouncements of the Olivet Discourse prophecy nor will it be present during the fulfillment of said prophecy.

With this foundational material firmly established, we can now consider what is commonly referred to as the Olivet Discourse. Always keep in mind to whom Jesus directed His remarks and the correct interpretation and application will reveal itself. Prior to the New Testament Church, there was a distinction between the Jew and the Greek (the Gentile), not so during the Church Age where Paul wrote:

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

Within the body of Christ in the Church Age, God spiritually eliminates some of the long-held distinctions. This same truth cannot be said concerning Daniel’s first sixty-nine weeks of years nor the yet unfulfilled Seventieth Week (commonly referred to as the seven-year Tribulation period). After all, the scripture plainly declares that the seventy weeks are upon one certain people identified in one certain locale.

Daniel 9:24 Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.

These three pertinent points need to be emphasized in order to grasp the context of Daniel's prophecy and the future application thereof.

  • “Seventy weeks”—the entire 490 years!
  • “Thy people”—Israel!
  • “Thy holy city”—Jerusalem!

The Olivet Discourse delineates the fulfillment of Daniel’s Seventieth Week. As such, the Olivet Discourse—Matthew chapters 24 and 25—applies to the same group and the same locale as the original prophecy found in Daniel and throughout the Old Testament. No doubt, confusion abounds, yet God does not leave the diligent Bible student groping in the dark. The best way to understand the pronouncements surrounding the Olivet Discourse is by first discovering the context of the verses leading up to the discourse. This context is clearly recorded in Matthew chapter 23.