The word "synoptic" means to give an account from the same point of view. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are similar in the miracles, parables, and teaching of Christ included in the books. This does not mean that they are identical. Often that which is found in one is not found in the other. Also, even the same events are told with slightly different viewpoints that help us see the entire story. However, the similarity is more than is usually found in three independently written biographies of the same person.
Some scholars spend great amounts of energy and ink to explain how Matthew and Luke copied from Mark or how all three took much of their information from a source that no longer exists. All of this fails to get to the spiritual meaning of the gospels and wastes a lot of time. God sometimes allowed the Bible writers to refer to extra biblical sources. However, if we believe that the Holy Ghost controlled the writing of the text, it does not matter what tools He used to get it written.
The particulars of how the three gospels differ is too involved to get into here except in the most general terms. Many reference Bibles will have comparisons of the parables and miracles as found in the different gospels. If you want a heavy-duty reference that goes into all the issues, I would recommend "A Guide to the Gospels" by W. Graham Scroggie. But let me give a very general rundown of the four gospels.
Matthew - This book was especially written to the Jews and it presents Christ as the King of the Jews. It gives the royal genealogy of Christ to prove Him to be in the Messianic line of David. He gives the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as a rule of life for the kingdom.
Mark - In Mark, Christ is the servant of man. Mark if the shortest of the gospels and has the least teaching of the four gospels. It is a book of action using words like "straightway." The birth of Christ is not mentioned. It is the ministry of Jesus that this book portrays.
- Luke - Luke shows Jesus Christ to be the Son of man. It is His humanity and His understanding of man that is emphasized. The genealogy of Christ in Luke goes back to Adam. Luke is filled with teaching for the disciples. Subjects like prayer are mentioned more in Luke than in the other gospels.
John - In John, Jesus is presented as the Son of God. The book begins with His identity as God and His work in creation. John clearly states the purpose of his book: "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). John was written to identify Jesus Christ as the Son of God and to lead others to believe in Him in order to have eternal life.
Here are some other comparisons between the four gospels:
- As to number of chapters:
- Matthew 28 chapters; 4 (earthly view) times 7 (heavenly work)
- Mark 16 chapters; 4 (earthly view) times 4 (earthly work)
- Luke 24 chapters; 4 (earthly view) times 6 (humanity)
- John 21 chapters; 3 (divine view) times 7 (heavenly work)
As to where the gospel begins with the life of Christ:
- Matthew begins with Abraham and David (Matthew 1:1)
- Mark begins from His baptism (Mark 1:9)
- Luke begins from Adam (Luke 3:38)
- John begins from the beginning (John 1:1)
As to main audience (this is a general statement only):
- Matthew the Jews
- Mark the Gentiles
- Luke the Saved
- John the Lost
- As to miracles:
- Matthew records 20 of which 4 are exclusive to Matthew
- Mark records 18 of which 2 are exclusive
- Luke records 19 of which 6 are exclusive
- John records 8 of which 6 are exclusive
Notes: Only the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is found in all four gospels. John has the fewest number of miracles but the greatest percentage of exclusive miracles (6 out of 8).
As to parables:
- Matthew records 27 of which 15 are exclusive
- Mark records 10 of which 2 are exclusive
- Luke records 28 of which 19 are exclusive
John records 2; both are exclusive.
Note: John does not commonly use parables as a teaching tool.