Genres are categories of literature, each with its own tone and techniques. The Bible uses a handful of genres—narrative and law, prophecy and letters, poetry, and apocalyptic literature. Understanding the genre in which the passage is written can help guide our reading. Follow the Biblical Genre Series to get the most out of your Bible reading.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, killed in an automobile accident in Paris in 1997. A recent web search turned up no less than twenty books published—this year—to mark the anniversary of her passing. Decades after her tragic death, Diana is still very much in our hearts and minds.
What does that have to do with the Gospels? In the Bible we have four accounts written by four different authors that tell the story of Jesus. The accounts were written anytime between twenty and sixty years after the death of Jesus. The four authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, wrote at different times, from different places, and to different audiences. Each Gospel writer focuses on a different perspective of Jesus’s life, teaching, and ministry. The four Gospels are one story with many dimensions.
Centuries after Jesus’s death, we continue to read these accounts in order to know Jesus. We read them to know about this fascinating person, who lived, died, and was raised from the dead. We want to hear the story from every angle; with all the details and insights we can glean. Jesus is still in our hearts and minds; no amount of writings can contain his story.
Genre: The Gospels
The Gospels are considered narrative, meaning that they tell us a story. Within that narrative we have stories about Jesus; we also have the sayings of Jesus, his direct teachings, and parables.
Telling the story of Jesus was very important to the Gospel writers. They weren’t telling the story of just anyone. Mark says, “This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1). Luke offers his own account after, “carefully [studying] all these matters from their beginning” (Luke 1:1-4). John records Jesus’s miracles so that, “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life” (John 20:30-31). Matthew doesn’t state specifically what he has set out to do, but his Gospel is carefully arranged to “tell the good news that Jesus is the promised Savior, the one through whom God fulfilled the promises he made to his people in the Old Testament,” as the editors of the Good News Translation note in their introduction to the book.
Narratives: Telling the Story of Jesus
In a children’s Bible story book you will find the stories about Jesus as a linear presentation. While these are very interesting, the meaning of the stories can be glossed over. Jesus was born; Jesus was baptized, Jesus chose his disciples; Jesus preached; Jesus healed people and performed other miracles; Jesus told stories; Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified; and Jesus rose from the dead. There is much more to the narrative than just a timeline of Jesus’s life.
The narratives that we find in the Gospels are multi-dimensional. A story is told, but it isn’t told only for the sake of a story or for information, but to convey something very important about the main character: Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the kingdom he came to establish. Let’s look at some examples:
- The stories of Jesus’s miracles are more than eyewitness accounts of wonderful deeds that Jesus did to help people. They show us the power of God and that the kingdom is breaking into the world (Matthew 12:28; Matthew 15:29-31; John 2:11; John 20:30-31).
- Some of the stories are illustrations of Jesus’s teaching. An example of this is when the mother of James and John asks Jesus that her two sons be given the seats to his right and left when he comes into his glory (Matthew 20:20-28). Jesus uses the opportunity to teach his disciples that he came to serve and not be served and to give his life to redeem many people.
- As we read the stories about Jesus in the Gospels we get the opportunity to meet the real-life flesh and blood Son of God and Son of man. We learn how he overcame temptation (Matthew 4:1-11). We see him love his friends deeply and mourn with them (John 11:28-37). We see him care and provide for his widowed mother who was about to lose her son to death on a cross (John 19:25-27). We see him forgive and restore a dear friend to a place of responsible ministry (John 21:15-19). So many stories show us how to love and live like Jesus.
Teachings and Parables: The Sayings of Jesus
We find two types of sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. There are his direct statements. We can call them commands. Jesus is clear about his expectations for his followers. Let’s use fasting as an example. I wish Jesus would have said, “If you fast …” However, Jesus says, “When you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do” (Matthew 6:16). In the first case I can choose if I want to fast or not, but in reality Jesus strongly implies that fasting will be part of my experience. Jesus also says that I must love (Matthew 5:43-44), pray (Matthew 6:5-13), forgive (Matthew 6:14-15), lay down my life (John 15:13), and even to abandon all and follow him (Matthew 19:21)!
The other set of sayings of Jesus are his parables. The parables are stories Jesus told to explain how things are in the spiritual reality of God’s kingdom. Jesus told numerous parables to explain what the kingdom of God is like: a mustard seed (Luke 13:18-21), a pearl (Matthew 13:45-46), and a net (Matthew 13:47-50). Jesus says: “I will use parables when I speak to them; I will tell them things unknown since the creation of the world” (Matthew 13:35).
Jesus also told parables about the persistence of prayer (Luke 18:1-8), the heavenly Father’s love and forgiveness (Luke 15:11-32), and how we should love our neighbors (Luke 10:25-37), among many others.
Significance Today: The Ongoing Witness of Jesus
I am part of a church tradition where the Gospels are read every Sunday and serve as the basis of the sermon. The life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus form the basis for what his followers need to know to love, follow, and serve him. They equip us to preach the Good News about the kingdom of God through all the world as a witness to all people (Matthew 24:14).
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