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Bible Commentaries

Bridgeway Bible CommentaryBridgeway Bible Commentary

- Matthew

by Donald C. Fleming

The New Testament World


In the time of Jesus the social, religious and political conditions of Israel were vastly different from those of Old Testament times. Many of the changes came about during the period between the close of the Old Testament era and the beginning of the New. The origins of the changes, however, go back into the national life of Israel during the time of the Old Testament monarchy. A brief survey of events and developments in Israel will help towards a better understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus.

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Hebrews, Israelites or Jews

About a thousand years before the time of Christ, David established in Jerusalem a dynasty through which God promised to bring the universal king, the Messiah (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalms 2:6-9; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-9). David was followed by Solomon, but after Solomon the kingdom divided into two. The northern section broke away from the dynasty of David, but it still called itself Israel. The city that eventually became its capital was Samaria. The southern kingdom became known as Judah, after its leading tribe. It remained loyal to the dynasty of David, whose kings continued to reign in Jerusalem, but now over only the southern kingdom.

When the people of the northern kingdom were conquered by Assyria and taken into foreign captivity (722 BC), they became absorbed into the countries of their exile and largely lost their national identity. But when the people of the southern kingdom were conquered and taken captive to Babylon (605-587 BC), they largely remained in one region and retained their national identity. The people of Judah were called Judeans, and this was later shortened to ‘Jew’ (Jeremiah 34:9).

After Persia’s conquest of Babylon (539 BC), captives from Babylon returned to their Israelite homeland. This meant that those who rebuilt Israel were largely Judeans, or Jews. But they were also Israelites according to the name’s original meaning (for they were descended from the man whose name was Israel, Jacob). There was no longer a division in the nation between north and south, and the names ‘Israelite’ and ‘Jew’, along with the ancient name ‘Hebrew’, were used interchangeably (John 1:19,John 1:47; 2 Corinthians 11:22; Galatians 2:14).

Jews and Samaritans

The Samaritans were a race of people that emerged after the Assyrians’ conquest of the northern kingdom in 722 BC. The Assyrians’ policy was to move conquered peoples into other countries. Therefore, after they had taken the Israelites into foreign captivity, they resettled people from other parts of their empire into the cities of the former northern kingdom, mainly in the region around Samaria (2 Kings 17:6,2 Kings 17:24).

These settlers tried to avoid punishment from Israel’s God, Yahweh, by combining the worship of Yahweh with their own religious practices (2 Kings 17:25-33). They also intermarried with the Israelite people left in the land, resulting in the emergence of a new racial group, the Samaritans. By the time the Jews had returned to Jerusalem (after Persia’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC), the Samaritans were well established in the land.

When the Jews began to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, the Samaritans offered to help, but the Jewish leaders rejected them. They saw the Samaritans as a people of mixed blood and mixed religion, and feared they would introduce corrupt ideas into Israel’s religion. The Samaritans reacted bitterly and opposed the Jews throughout their building program (Ezra 4:1-5; Nehemiah 4:1-9). Although the Jews eventually completed the building program, some of the leading Samaritans, through cunning and deceit, gained influence in Jerusalem. They introduced corrupt religious and social practices, but within a few years were driven from the city in disgrace (Nehemiah 13:1-9,Nehemiah 13:23-28).

Sacred places and sacred writings

As a result of the Jews’ constant rejection of them, the Samaritans turned their attention to organizing their own religion, to make it more distinct from the religion of the Jews. One development was the building of a temple of their own on Mt Gerizim, a place of religious significance located not far from Samaria (cf. Deuteronomy 11:29; Deuteronomy 27:12; Joshua 8:33). This only increased the hatred between Jews and Samaritans, and this hatred continued into New Testament times (Luke 9:52-54; John 4:9).

In defending their actions, the Samaritans used selected parts of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), but they became so extreme that they almost treated the remaining Old Testament books as being of no importance. Their chief beliefs were that there was only one God, Moses was his only prophet, the law of Moses was the only authoritative teaching, and Mt Gerizim was the only true place of worship (cf. Deuteronomy 27:12; John 4:20).

The Jews, by contrast, had so many sacred writings that they were forced, by the arguments of the Samaritans, to consider which were the Word of God and which were not. This led, in time, to the acceptance of the thirty-nine books that form our Old Testament. This might be called the Jewish Bible, though the arrangement of books differs from that of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible.

The Jewish synagogue

With the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple, sacrificial rituals again became part of the Jewish religion. These had not been possible when the people were in exile in Babylon, with the result that greater emphasis was placed on teaching and obeying the moral teachings of the law. Although sacrificial rituals were now restored, the emphasis on teaching the law was maintained. This is clearly seen in the work of Ezra and Nehemiah, who gathered the people together in Jerusalem to read them the law and explain its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-4,Nehemiah 8:7-8; Nehemiah 9:1-3). In the years that followed, such teaching activity was partly the reason for erecting local meeting places known as synagogues (from a Greek word meaning ‘to gather or bring together’).

Wherever the Jews settled they built themselves synagogues (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16; John 6:59; Acts 13:5,Acts 13:14). These were centres for prayer, worship, teaching, fellowship and administration of local Jewish affairs. The synagogue leaders became the acknowledged leaders of the Jewish community and were called elders (Matthew 21:23; Luke 7:3-5). The chief elder was known as the ruler (Mark 5:22; Acts 22:19). Elders had power to punish wrongdoers, even to the extent of flogging them or expelling them from the synagogue community (Matthew 10:17; Matthew 23:34; John 9:22).

A synagogue was a simple building, consisting of a main meeting room entered through a porch, with an open court outside. It had no altar and no sacrifices were offered there. Women and men sat on opposite sides of the room, and the leaders sat in the chief seats, facing the audience (Matthew 23:6).

Synagogue services were conducted at least every Sabbath and were under the control of leaders (Mark 1:21; Acts 13:14-15). The service opened with prayers, followed by readings from Old Testament scrolls that were kept in a special box and handed to the reader by an attendant (Luke 4:16-17,Luke 4:20; Acts 15:21). Either a local leader or an invited person then delivered an address based on one of the readings (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 13:15; Acts 17:10-11), after which the service was closed with prayers.

In the everyday functions of the Jewish religion, synagogues became more important than the temple in Jerusalem. But later teachers were far removed in spirit from Ezra and Nehemiah, and by the time of Jesus the synagogues were more a hindrance than a help to God’s purposes. The Jewish religion had changed so much that it is commonly referred to as Judaism, to distinguish it from the religion set out in the law of Moses.

Teachers of the law (scribes)

Chiefly to blame for the development of Judaism were the scribes, or teachers of the law. In the days before mechanical printing, scribes were those who made written copies of the sacred writings. Theirs was a specialized job, and because of their skill in copying details of the law exactly, people regarded them as experts on matters of the law (Ezra 7:6,Ezra 7:10).

Although the priests were supposed to be the teachers in Israel (Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:7), people now went rather to the scribes to have problems of the law explained. During the four to five hundred years between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus, the scribes grew in power and prestige. They became known as teachers of the law, lawyers and rabbis (Matthew 22:35; Matthew 23:2-7).

There was a great difference between the explanations of the law given by Ezra and those given by the scribes of Jesus’ time. Over the years the scribes had developed their own system, which consisted of countless laws to surround the central law of Moses. Some of these new laws grew out of legal cases that the scribes had judged; others grew out of traditions that had been handed down. The scribes forced their laws upon the Jewish people, till the whole lawkeeping system became a heavy burden (Matthew 15:1-9; Matthew 23:2-4).

Being leaders and teachers in the synagogues, the scribes enjoyed prestige and power in the Jewish community (Matthew 23:6-7). They taught in the temple in Jerusalem, and established schools where they trained disciples (Luke 2:46; Acts 22:3). They then sent these disciples to spread their teaching far and wide (Matthew 23:15). Most of the scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees, one of the two major groups that developed within Judaism (Matthew 5:20; Matthew 23:2; Acts 5:34).

The Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)

As early as the time of Ezra, groups of elders and judges had been appointed to administer the law in Jewish affairs (Ezra 7:25-26; Ezra 10:14). This practice was followed in the local synagogue committees, but as these committees grew in power a more rigid system of Jewish rule developed. Although any local Jewish council could be called a Sanhedrin, the word was most commonly used for the supreme Jewish Council in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Sanhedrin consisted of a maximum of seventy members, not counting the high priest, who occupied the position of president. Its composition changed from time to time, but in New Testament times it consisted of scribes, elders, priests and other respected citizens. It included people from both main Jewish parties, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 26:3,Matthew 26:57-59; Acts 5:17,Acts 5:34; Acts 23:1,Acts 23:6).

Rome gave the Sanhedrin authority to arrest, judge and punish Jewish people in relation to certain religious and civil matters (Acts 5:17-21,Acts 5:40; Acts 9:2). The Sanhedrin could condemn a person to death, though according to its own law it could not pass such a sentence at night (Luke 22:66), and according to Roman law it could not carry out the sentence (John 18:31). The Jewish authorities had to convince the Roman authorities that the person deserved death, after which the Romans themselves carried out the execution (Luke 23:1-4,Luke 23:24). However, the Romans knew the difficulties of governing the Jews, and they sometimes feared to deny the Jews their wishes or even to intervene when there was mob violence (Matthew 27:24-26; cf. Acts 7:57-58).


Although the Jews were ruled by Rome in the time of Jesus, many features of the Jewish way of life were the result of political events in the pre-Roman period. The Persians, who had conquered Babylon in 539 BC and helped the Jews to rebuild their ancient homeland, remained the Jews’ overlord for the next two hundred years. But rapid changes occurred with the dramatic conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Greek Empire.

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Greek rule and influence

Alexander was from Macedonia, the northern part of present-day Greece. In little more than a year he overran Asia Minor and took control of much of the eastern Mediterranean region (333 BC). His conquests spread rapidly through parts of northern Africa and western Asia, then continued over what remained of the Persian Empire till they reached India.

Wherever they went the Greeks planted Greek culture. The Greek language became commonly spoken throughout the region, and remained so into the New Testament era in spite of the rise of Roman power. People in local regions continued to speak their own languages (the Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew), but they usually spoke Greek as well (cf. Mark 5:41; Mark 15:34; John 19:20; Acts 14:11; Acts 22:2). The New Testament was written in Greek.

Greek architecture spread through the building of magnificent new cities, and Greek philosophy changed the thinking of people everywhere (1 Corinthians 1:20-22). The Greeks brought some help to the people they governed, by providing a standard of education, sport, entertainment and social welfare that most people had never known before. Those who absorbed this Greek culture were regarded as civilized; all others were regarded as barbarians (Romans 1:14).

Alexander died while at the height of his power (323 BC) and his vast empire was divided among his generals. In the early days after the break-up there were four dominant leaders, but power struggles among them (and others) continued for many years. By 301 BC there were three main sectors in the divided empire: one in the west centred on Macedonia, and two in the east centred respectively on Egypt to the south and Syria to the north.

At first Palestine was within the Egyptian sector, where each of the Greek rulers took the name Ptolemy. Under the Ptolemies the Jews had a reasonably peaceful existence. During this time, in the recently built city of Alexandria in Egypt, a group of about seventy Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint (meaning ‘seventy’ and usually abbreviated as LXX). In New Testament times both Jews and Christians used the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Old Testament. When the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, they usually used the Septuagint rather than make their own translation from the Hebrew.

Changes in Israel

Some of the later Ptolemies became hostile to the Jews, but conditions worsened when the Syrian sector conquered the Egyptian sector and so brought Palestine under its control (198 BC). The Greek kings who ruled Syria were known as the Seleucids, after the king who founded the dynasty. Most of the kings gave themselves the name Antiochus, after Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid kingdom that the founder of the dynasty built in 300 BC (cf. Acts 11:20; Acts 13:1,Acts 13:4).

Israel had now been under Greek rule for more than a hundred years, and Greek customs and ideas were having an influence on the Jews’ religion and way of life. Divisions began to appear among the Jewish people. Some Jews not only tolerated this Greek influence but actively encouraged it. In doing so they won favours from the Greek rulers and had themselves appointed to important positions in the Jewish system. Others firmly opposed all Greek influence, particularly the influence of Greek rulers in Jewish religious affairs.

When fighting broke out in Jerusalem between rival Jewish factions, the Seleucid king of the time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, mistakenly thought that the people were rebelling against him. He invaded Jerusalem, killed Jews in thousands, made others slaves, burnt the Jewish Scriptures, forced Jews to eat forbidden food and compelled them to work on the Sabbath day. He set up a Greek altar in the Jewish temple, then, using animals that the Jews considered unclean, offered sacrifices to the Greek gods. To the Jews this was ‘the awful horror’ (GNB), ‘the abomination that makes desolate’ (RSV) (Daniel 11:31). But Antiochus failed to realize that the Jews were zealous for their religion and would not stand idly by and allow him to destroy it.

Jewish resistance led by the Maccabees

The Jews’ fight for religious freedom began through a priest named Mattathias. He and his five sons (known as the Maccabees, after Judas Maccabeus, his son and the leader of the group) escaped from Jerusalem, put together a small army and began to carry out surprise attacks against the forces of Antiochus. The attacks were so successful that after about three years the Maccabees had overthrown the pro-Greek party of Jewish priests in Jerusalem and cleansed and rededicated the temple (165 BC). From that time on, the Jewish people celebrated the great event in the annual Feast of Dedication (John 10:22).

Encouraged by their remarkable victory, the Maccabees (also known as the Hasmoneans, after their old family name) decided to keep fighting till they had won political freedom as well. But the religiously strict Jews, who had previously opposed Greek political interference in their religion, also opposed the Maccabees’ drive for political power. They believed that the Maccabees had done their job by restoring the temple and regaining religious freedom for the Jews. They should not have any part in politics.
These opposing viewpoints eventually produced the two main parties that divided the Jewish people, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees wanted political power, whereas the Pharisees were content to have religious freedom. The Maccabees carried on the war in spite of the Jewish opposition, and after twenty years won political independence (143 BC).

Sadducees and Pharisees

After four and a half centuries under Babylon, Persia, and then Greece, the Jews were free again. However, they were now clearly divided, under the domination of two major parties. On the one side were the pro-political priests and leaders (the later Sadducees) who were wealthy, powerful and favoured by the Hasmonean rulers. On the other side were the anti-political traditionalists (the later Pharisees), who were poor, powerless and favoured by the common people. The differences between the two parties increased as each developed its own beliefs and practices.

The Pharisees’ chief aim was to keep the law in all its details; not so much the law of Moses as the countless laws developed and taught by the teachers of the law, the scribes. They were particularly strict in keeping rules relating to religious observances such as fasting (Luke 18:11-12), tithing (Matthew 23:23), Sabbath-keeping (Matthew 12:1-2), the taking of oaths (Matthew 23:16-22) and ritual cleanliness (Mark 7:1-9). The name ‘Pharisees’ meant ‘the separated ones’, and many were so convinced they were God’s only true people that they kept themselves apart from others (Acts 26:5; Galatians 2:12).

If the Pharisees were the party of the scribes, the Sadducees were the party of the priests (Acts 5:17). (Their name possibly comes from Zadok, a priest of Solomon’s time whose descendants were regarded as the only legitimate priests; 1 Kings 1:38-39; Ezekiel 44:15-16). The Sadducees’ strategy was to use the religious and political structures of Jewish society to gain power for themselves. Since they controlled the priesthood, one of the main channels of power, it suited them to emphasize the temple rituals. However, they had little interest in the traditions of the scribes. The only Jewish law they acknowledged was the written law of Moses (Luke 20:27-28).

Sadducees and Pharisees had several other well known differences, chiefly in matters of their beliefs. The Sadducees did not believe in the continued existence of the soul after death, the resurrection of the body, the directing will of God in life’s events, or the existence of angelic beings, all of which were important beliefs to the Pharisees (Matthew 22:23; Acts 4:1-2; Acts 23:7-8).

End of Jewish independence

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The Hasmoneans ruled for almost one hundred years. Under them political, religious and military power joined together, so that the Hasmonean ruler was at the same time governor, high priest and commander-in-chief of the army.
During the period of Hasmonean rule the Pharisees were often the ones who suffered. They welcomed the chance to reverse the situation when a later queen showed herself favourable to them. But when she died, fighting broke out between her two sons, one of whom favoured the Pharisees, the other the Sadducees. At that time Rome’s power was spreading towards Palestine, and as General Pompey had his army nearby in Syria, both sides asked for his help. Pompey settled the dispute by leading his army into Jerusalem and taking control himself. Thus, in 63 BC, Jewish independence came to an end.

Herod the Great

One of the two brothers who sought Rome’s support was appointed by the Roman administration as political head and high priest of Judea. He proved to be a weak leader. He was very much under the influence of an Idumean friend Antipater, who was cunningly planning to gain control himself. (Idumea was a region in the south of Judea that was inhabited by a mixture of Jews, Arabs and the remains of the nation once known as Edom.) In the end Antipater was appointed governor of Judea, with his two sons in the top two positions under him.
At that time Judea, and in fact the whole of the eastern Mediterranean region, was troubled by a succession of power struggles, divisions and wars. Antipater was eventually murdered and his sons overthrown. But one of the sons, who had developed even greater cunning than his father, escaped to Rome, from where he had himself appointed the new governor of Judea and given the title of king. This person we know as Herod the Great.
Through treachery and murder, Herod removed all possible rivals. Then, having made his position safe, he began to develop and expand his kingdom. He ruled Judea for thirty-three years (37-4 BC). He carried out impressive building programs, two of his most notable achievements being the rebuilding of Samaria and the construction of Caesarea as a Mediterranean port. In Jerusalem he built a military fortress, government buildings, a palace for himself and a magnificent temple for the Jews (Matthew 27:27; Mark 13:1; John 2:20; Acts 23:10,Acts 23:35).

In spite of the benefits Herod brought them, the Jews hated him. This was partly because of his mixed blood (though he was Jewish by religion) and partly because of his ruthlessness in murdering any he thought a threat to his position. His butchery was well demonstrated in his massacre of the Bethlehem babies at the time of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:13,Matthew 2:16).

Family of Herod

Before he died, Herod divided his kingdom between three of his sons, though they, like their father, could rule only within the authority Rome gave them. The southern and central parts of Palestine (Judea and Samaria) went to Archelaus, a man as cruel as his father but without his father’s ability (Matthew 2:22). The northern part of Palestine (Galilee) and the area east of Jordan (Decapolis and Perea) went to Herod Antipas, the man who later killed John the Baptist and who agreed to the killing of Jesus (Mark 6:14-29; Luke 3:1; Luke 23:6-12). The areas north-east of the Sea of Galilee (Iturea and Trachonitis) went to Herod Philip, a man of milder nature than the rest of his family (Luke 3:1).

Direct Roman rule

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Archelaus was so cruel and unjust that in AD 6 the people of Judea and Samaria asked Rome to remove him and govern them directly. From that time on, Judea and Samaria were ruled by Roman governors, or procurators, with headquarters at Caesarea. The procurators of Judea and Samaria mentioned in the Bible are Pilate, Felix and Festus (Matthew 27:2; Acts 23:24,Acts 23:33; Acts 25:1).

The only exception to this rule by procurators was the brief ‘reign’ of Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great (Acts 12:1-4,Acts 12:20-23). Through winning favour with Rome, he gained the former territories of Herod Philip (in AD 37) and Herod Antipas (in AD 39). In AD 41 he gained Judea and Samaria, and for three years he ruled almost the entire ‘kingdom’ of Herod the Great. Upon his death in AD 44, Judea and Samaria returned to the rule of Roman governors.

Earlier, when a governor from Rome replaced Archelaus (AD 6), the Jews for the first time had to pay taxes to the Romans direct instead of through the Herodian ruler. When Rome conducted a census to assess this tax, a group of Jews led by a man called Judas the Galilean rebelled, claiming that it was wrong for the people of God to pay tax to a pagan emperor (Acts 5:37). Because of their zeal in trying to free Israel from pagan influence, they became known as Zealots, or Patriots, and formed a minor political-religious party in Israel (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).

The zealots were so opposed to Roman rule that they were prepared to fight against it. Rome’s mismanagement of Jewish affairs increased their determination, and in AD 66 they revolted openly by taking control of Jerusalem. There was much turmoil and bloodshed during the next four years, but the Romans gradually reasserted their control, first in Galilee then throughout Judea. Finally, in a series of brutal and devastating attacks, they conquered Jerusalem, massacred the people, burnt the temple and left the city in ruins (AD 70). So far as Rome was concerned, the Jewish nation was finished.

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Introduction to the Four Gospels


According to long-established practice, the first four books of the New Testament are known as Gospels. This is probably because they record the gospel, or good news, of the coming of Jesus Christ, the world’s Saviour.

Each of the four Gospel writers had a special purpose in writing his book, and he selected and used his material accordingly. Each gave his own emphasis to teachings and events taken from the life of Jesus, according to the plan and purpose of his book. The writers wrote for different people, who lived in various countries and came from different racial and religious backgrounds. Yet there is no disagreement in the picture of Jesus Christ that the four writers present: he is divine and human, Lord of all and the Saviour of people everywhere (Matthew 11:27-30; Mark 2:10,Mark 2:28; Luke 2:11,Luke 2:29-32; John 5:20-25).

The Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, and make no attempt to give a detailed or chronological account of Jesus’ life. Nevertheless, they give all the facts that people need to know in order to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and so have life through him (John 20:31).

Record of Jesus’ life

Taken together the four Gospels present a picture of three main periods in Jesus’ life. These three periods are his early childhood, his public ministry (i.e. his teachings, healings, miracles, etc.) and his death, burial and resurrection.

The stories of events leading to, including, and immediately following Jesus’ birth are given at some length. Nothing more is written about his childhood until he was twelve years old, and even then only one incident is recorded. But that incident is enough to show that even at such an early age Jesus knew he had a special relation with God, for he was God’s Son (Luke 2:49; cf. 1:35).

Nothing more is recorded in the Bible of the next eighteen years (approximately) of Jesus’ life. Then, when about thirty years old, he began his public ministry (Luke 3:23), and this lasted about three and a half years. Much of his work was done in Galilee, the northern part of Palestine, though he met his fiercest opposition in Judea in the south, particularly in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish religious power. The religious leaders considered that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy in claiming to be the Son of God, and they were constantly looking for an opportunity to kill him. Jesus, however, continued to carry out his ministry openly, knowing that he would be arrested and killed only when he had finished his ministry and the time appointed by his Father had come (Luke 13:31-33; John 8:20; John 13:1; John 17:1,John 17:4).

Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem was full of tension and activity, and is recorded in greater detail than any other part of his life. He entered Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah-king, cleansed the temple, debated with hostile Jewish opponents, gave teaching to his disciples on many subjects, then allowed himself to be arrested, cruelly treated, falsely condemned and crucified. Then follows an account of his burial, resurrection, and activity after his resurrection. Finally, he returned to his Father with the promise that one day he would come again (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-11).

Extent of Jesus’ ministry

If we had only the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we might think that the public ministry of Jesus lasted barely a year and that he spent almost the whole of that time in the north. John’s Gospel records more of his work in the south, particularly in and around Jerusalem. It also provides information that shows clearly that the ministry of Jesus lasted several years.

John mentions three specific Passover Feasts (John 2:13; John 6:1,John 6:4; John 13:1) and possibly a fourth (John 5:1. It is widely assumed that the unnamed feast mentioned here was the Passover). Because the Passover Feast was held only once a year, the record of four Passovers would indicate that the public ministry of Jesus must have covered at least three years.

The broad divisions of Jesus’ ministry are set out in the following table. We should bear in mind, however, that we cannot with certainty assign every portion of the Gospel accounts to a particular time or place in Jesus’ life.

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Re-telling the story of Jesus

Soon after Jesus’ ascension, his disciples began the task of spreading the good news of the salvation he had brought. They started in Jerusalem and several thousand were converted (Acts 1:8; Acts 2:41,Acts 2:47; Acts 4:5; Acts 5:14; Acts 6:7). From Jerusalem the gospel spread to neighbouring provinces, then to countries beyond, till Christianity was firmly established in western Asia and eastern Europe (Acts 8:5,Acts 8:40, 11:Acts 8:19-20; Acts 13:4,Acts 13:14; Acts 16:11-12; Acts 18:1; Acts 28:13-15). This growth took place over a period of about thirty years (the AD 30s to the 60s).

Those who became Christians were taught the stories that recounted the activity and teaching of Jesus. This emphasis on the life of Jesus was one reason why apostles had to be personal associates who had been with Jesus from his baptism to his ascension. They could give first-hand accounts of what he said and did, and in particular could give eye-witness testimony to his resurrection (Acts 1:21-22; Acts 3:15; Acts 5:32; Acts 10:36-41). The apostles carefully instructed new believers, who memorized the stories and sayings of Jesus and went out to spread the good news to others. New converts were taught similarly, and they too went out to teach and make disciples of others (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; Acts 8:4; 2 Timothy 2:2).

As the years passed and the church grew, those who had seen and heard Jesus became fewer in number and more widely scattered. In order to preserve what these witnesses taught about Jesus, people began to prepare written accounts of things Jesus said and did (Luke 1:1). In this sort of activity we can see the origins of the four Gospels, the first of which was probably written about AD 60, and the last about AD 90. Although we do not know all the details concerning how or when each book was written, we can find enough evidence in the books themselves and in other first century writings to make the following explanation a possibility.

Two related accounts

It seems that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written. Mark had assisted the apostle Peter in missionary work that took them through the north of Asia Minor and brought them eventually to Rome (cf. 1 Peter 1:1; 1 Peter 5:13). When Peter left to go on further journeys, Mark remained for a while in Rome. The Roman Christians asked Mark to write down the story of Jesus as they had heard it from Peter, with the result that he wrote the book that we know as Mark’s Gospel.

Mark was still in Rome when Paul arrived as a prisoner, accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus (Acts 27:2; Acts 28:16). In letters Paul wrote from Rome at this time, he mentions that Mark, Luke and Aristarchus were all with him, and they surely would have got to know each other well (Colossians 4:10,Colossians 4:14; Philemon 1:24).

Over the years Luke also had been preparing an account of the life of Jesus. No doubt he did much research during the two years he had recently spent with Paul in Palestine (Acts 24:27). Others had already written accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry (Luke 1:1), and Luke gathered material from these as well as from people still living in Palestine who had seen and heard Jesus. When he arrived in Rome and met Mark, he took some of Mark’s material to add to his own and so bring his book to completion.

Whereas Mark wrote for a group of Christians, Luke wrote for someone who was probably not a Christian. This person, Theophilus, appears to have been a government official of some importance, and Luke’s purpose was to give him a trustworthy account of the origins of Christianity (Luke 1:1-4). Luke’s account was so long that it was divided into two books. The first, which covers events from the birth of Jesus to his ascension, we know as Luke’s Gospel. The second, which covers events from Jesus’ ascension to Paul’s arrival in Rome, we know as the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 1:1-2).

A third related account

The Gospel of Matthew appears to have been written about ten years after the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew’s concern was to produce an account of Jesus’ ministry that was especially suited to the needs of Christians of Jewish background. His book shows a particular interest in the fulfilment of God’s purposes concerning Israel’s Messiah, and the responsibility of the Messiah’s people to spread his message to the Gentiles. According to early records, the Jewish Christians for whom Matthew wrote were those of Syria and Palestine.

By this time Mark’s Gospel had become more widely known, and because it represented Peter’s account of Jesus’ ministry, it was well respected. Matthew therefore saved himself a lot of work by using much of Mark’s material in his own book. (About 90% of Mark is found in Matthew.) There is also a lot of material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. This material, commonly referred to as Q, probably came from one or more of the many writings in use at the time (cf. Luke 1:1). This common material Q consists mainly of sayings and teachings of Jesus, in contrast to stories about him.

Because of the parallels between Matthew, Mark and Luke, the three books are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels (meaning Gospels that ‘see from the same viewpoint’, in contrast to the Gospel of John). Each of the Synoptic Gospels, however, has material of its own that has no parallel in the other Gospels. In Mark this amount is less than 5%, in Matthew about 28%, and in Luke about 45%.

A different kind of book

John’s Gospel is different in form and style from the other three Gospels. The book was written probably within the last decade or so of the first century, by which time the other three Gospels were widely known. Although John follows the same general development of the story from Jesus’ baptism to his resurrection, his purpose was not to produce another narrative account of Jesus’ ministry. He selected only a few stories of Jesus, but recorded at length the teaching that arose out of them. He wanted to instruct people in basic Christian truth concerning who Jesus was and what this meant for the people of the world.

The reason John wrote his Gospel was that in the region where he lived (probably Ephesus, in western Asia Minor), people were confused because of the activity of false teachers. Some of these denied that Jesus was fully divine, others that he was fully human. John opposed these teachers (cf. 1 John 2:18-23,1 John 2:26; 1 John 4:1-3), but his chief reason for writing was not negative. He had a positive purpose, and that was to lead people to see Jesus as the Son of God and so to find true life through him (John 20:30-31).

Much of John’s Gospel therefore consists of teaching, but most of this teaching comes from the recorded words of Jesus himself. In comparison with the Synoptic Gospels, action stories are few. More than 90% of the material in John’s Gospel is not found in the other Gospels.


The writer and his readers

Matthew’s Gospel does not record the name of its author or the purpose for which he wrote the book. The title ‘Matthew’, given to it in the second century, reflects the early church’s belief that the author was the apostle Matthew. There was, however, some uncertainty concerning the stages of development that the book went through before the final version appeared. Whether or not Matthew himself actually produced the finished product, it seems clear that his writings (referred to in second century documents) must have at least provided a major source of material for the book.

Like the rest of the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek. It seems to have been written for Greek-speaking Jewish Christians of Syria and Palestine, to reassure them that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, and he fulfilled the purposes for which God chose Israel. The Jewish Christians, as the people of the Messiah, were not to fail in evangelizing the Gentiles as Israel of Old Testament times had failed, but were to be energetic in spreading the gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20; cf. 8:11-12; 11:20-24; 24:14).

A likely place for the writing of such a book is Antioch in Syria, which was closely connected with the Jewish churches of the region and the mission to the Gentile nations (Acts 11:19-22,Acts 11:27-29; Acts 13:1-4; Acts 15:1-3,Acts 15:22). (For further details on the writing of Matthew’s Gospel see previous section, ‘The Writing of the Gospels’.)

Matthew the tax collector

Evidence within the Gospel supports the view that the writer was Matthew the tax collector, who later became one of the twelve apostles. When Mark and Luke list the twelve apostles, they name Matthew but do not record his occupation (Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15). When they mention the tax collector who became a follower of Jesus, they call him not Matthew but Levi, which was his other name (Mark 2:14-17; Luke 5:27-32). They seem, out of kindness to Matthew, to avoid mentioning that he was once a tax collector, for the Jews despised those of their own people who collected taxes on behalf of the oppressor Rome.

Matthew, far from hiding the fact that he was once a tax collector, states it clearly. He uses the name Matthew, not Levi, in speaking of his response to Jesus’ call (Matthew 9:9-13), and when listing the twelve apostles he states his previous occupation (Matthew 10:3). The book reflects the gratitude that a tax collector would feel in being chosen by Jesus to be an apostle. Stories about the dangers of money reflect the lessons learnt by one whose life was once dominated by greed (Matthew 18:23-35; Matthew 20:1-16; Matthew 27:3-10; Matthew 28:12-13).

The place where Matthew worked as a tax collector was Capernaum, on the shore of Lake Galilee (Mark 2:1,Mark 2:13-14). He had a good income and owned a house large enough to entertain a large number of people (Luke 5:29). He seems to have enjoyed a secure and stable lifestyle, but he left all this for the risky business of following Jesus and spreading the good news of his kingdom (Matthew 10:5-23). He was involved in the establishment of the early church (Acts 1:13), but the Bible gives no details of his later ministry.

Arrangement of Matthew’s material

Matthew’s Gospel may contain much that is in Mark and Luke, but the treatment of the material is different. Luke, for example, has usually grouped together stories that are exclusive to him, and kept them separate from stories that he has taken from Mark. But Matthew has adjusted and rearranged all his material, regardless of its source. He has made each part fit into the plan of his book in a way that makes it inseparable from the rest. He records more teaching and less action in comparison with Mark and Luke, and his material is not always in chronological order.

In Matthew the material is arranged according to subject matter rather than chronology. It is built around five main teaching sections where Jesus instructs his followers in what he requires of those who enter his kingdom. Each of the five sections concludes with a statement such as ‘When Jesus had finished these sayings . . .’ (Matthew 7:28; Matthew 11:1; Matthew 13:53; Matthew 19:1; Matthew 26:1). The five sections concern the personal behaviour of those in Christ’s kingdom (Chapters 5-7), proclamation of the message of the kingdom (Chapter 10), parables of the kingdom (Chapter 13), attitudes to others within the kingdom (Chapters 18) and the climax of the kingdom at the return of Christ (Chapters 24-25).

A teaching purpose

The characteristic flavour of the Gospel of Matthew comes mainly from the material that is found only in Matthew. Included in this are many quotations from the Old Testament. Matthew often introduces these quotations by a statement showing how the Old Testament was fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 1:22; Matthew 4:14; Matthew 8:17; Matthew 13:35; Matthew 21:4; Matthew 27:9).

In particular Matthew shows that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the son of David, the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Israel (Matthew 1:1,Matthew 1:17; Matthew 2:6; Matthew 9:27; Matthew 11:2-6; Matthew 16:16; Matthew 21:9; Matthew 26:63-64). The kingdom of God was the rule of God, and in Jesus that kingdom had entered the world (Matthew 4:17,Matthew 4:23; Matthew 5:3; Matthew 12:28; Matthew 18:1-4; Matthew 24:14). Jesus was the king, though he was not the sort of king that most people had expected (Matthew 4:8-10; Matthew 21:5,Matthew 21:9-11; Matthew 25:31,Matthew 25:34; Matthew 26:52-53; Matthew 27:11). (For further discussion on the kingdom of God and the Messiah see the section ‘Jesus and the Kingdom’ that follows.)

Jewish Christians were often persecuted by unbelieving Jews for forsaking the religion of their ancestors. Matthew reassured these Christians by pointing out that they were not the ones who had wandered away from the Old Testament religion. Rather they had found the true fulfilment of it. Jesus did not contradict the law, but brought out its full meaning (Matthew 5:17).

Matthew not only taught the Jewish Christians the high standards of behaviour required of them, but urged them to be energetic in spreading the good news of the kingdom to others (Matthew 5:13-16; Matthew 10:5-8; Matthew 24:14; Matthew 28:19-20). The unbelieving Jews, who zealously kept the traditions, were consistently condemned (Matthew 15:1-9; Matthew 23:1-36). They missed out on the promised kingdom, with the result that the gospel was sent to the Gentiles, and many believed (Matthew 3:7-9; Matthew 8:11-12; Matthew 12:21,Matthew 12:38-42; Matthew 21:43). Jesus had laid the foundation of his church, and no opposition, whether from the Jews or the Romans, could overpower it (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus and the Kingdom


A major theme of the Bible is the kingdom of God. It runs through the Old Testament, but is more fully developed in the Gospels. Jesus showed that through him the kingdom found its fullest meaning.

Rule of God

In its broadest sense, the kingdom of God is the rule of God. It is not a territory over which God reigns but the rule that he exercises. It is not defined by physical boundaries, time or nationality, but by the sovereign rule and authority of God (Exodus 15:18; Psalms 103:19; Psalms 145:10-13).

Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom in this sense. Those who seek God’s kingdom seek his rule in their lives (Matthew 6:33), and those who receive God’s kingdom receive his rule in their lives (Mark 10:15). When they enter the kingdom, they enter the realm where they accept God’s rule (Matthew 21:31), and they pray that others also will accept it (Matthew 6:10).

The world is under the power of Satan and in a state of rebellion against God (2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19). Therefore, when Jesus brought the kingdom into the world, he demonstrated God’s rule in the defeat of Satan. As Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom, he gave evidence of his power by healing those whom Satan had afflicted by disease and evil spirits (Matthew 4:23-24). As he delivered people from Satan’s bondage he gave evidence that God’s kingdom (his authority, power and rule) had come among humankind (Matthew 12:28; Mark 1:27; Luke 10:9,Luke 10:17-18).

Note: The Bible uses the expressions ‘kingdom of God’ and ‘kingdom of heaven’ interchangeably. They are different names for the same thing (Matthew 19:23-24). Jews had a traditional fear of misusing the name of God, and therefore they often used words such as ‘heaven’ instead (Daniel 4:25-26; Luke 15:18; John 3:27). Matthew, who wrote his Gospel for Jews, usually (but not always) speaks of the kingdom of heaven, whereas the other writers call it the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16).

Present and future

Jesus’ teaching on God’s kingdom was in contrast to the popular Jewish belief of the time. The Jews believed that the kingdom was a future national and political kingdom centred on Israel. Jesus pointed out that God’s kingdom was already among them. It was present in him (Luke 10:9; Luke 17:20-21). Those who submitted to Christ’s rule entered Christ’s kingdom, and thereby received forgiveness of sins and eternal life (Matthew 21:31; Mark 10:14-15; John 3:3). The same is true of people of any era. Those who believe in Christ enter his kingdom and receive its blessings (Romans 14:17; Colossians 1:13).

Yet Jesus spoke also of the kingdom as something belonging to the future (Mark 14:25). It would be established only after his death and resurrection (Luke 22:15-16,Luke 22:28-30; Luke 24:26; cf. Revelation 5:6-12; Revelation 11:15). Moreover, Jesus said that those who were already believers would enter his kingdom at his return (Matthew 7:21-23; Matthew 13:41-43; Matthew 25:31-34; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:50; 2 Peter 1:11).

Therefore, although the kingdom of God is already present, it also awaits the future. Since the kingdom is the rule of God, believers enter it when they believe, but they will experience its full blessings only when Christ returns to banish evil and reign in righteousness (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). In being both present and future, the kingdom has the same characteristics as salvation and eternal life. To ‘enter the kingdom of God’ is to ‘have eternal life’ or to ‘be saved’. The Bible uses the expressions interchangeably (Matthew 19:16,Matthew 19:23-25).

Just as believers experience the kingdom of God now and will do so more fully in the future, so they have eternal life now but will experience it more fully in the future (John 5:24,John 5:29). Likewise they have salvation now, but they will have it in its fulness at the return of Christ (Ephesians 2:8; Hebrews 9:28). Eternal life is the life of the kingdom of God, the life of the age to come. But because the kingdom of God has come among humankind now, believers have eternal life now (Matthew 25:34,Matthew 25:46; Luke 23:42-43; John 3:3,John 3:5,John 3:36; John 5:24).


The title ‘Messiah’ is a Hebrew word that means ‘the anointed one’. In Old Testament times, the people of Israel appointed kings and priests (and sometimes prophets) to their official positions by the ceremony of anointing. A special anointing oil was poured over the head of the person as a sign that he now had the right, and the responsibility, to perform the duties required by his position (Exodus 28:41; 1 Kings 1:39; 1 Kings 19:16).

By far the most common usage of ‘anointed’ in a title was in relation to the Israelite king. He was known as ‘the Lord’s anointed’ (1 Samuel 24:10; Psalms 18:50; Psalms 20:6). That person whom Israelites looked for as their great deliverer-king was popularly called the Messiah. The New Testament (Greek) equivalent of this word is ‘Christ’. Jesus and his disciples spoke the local language of Palestine, and therefore the word they would have used was ‘Messiah’; but the Gospels were written in Greek, and therefore the word appears in the Bible as ‘Christ’ (Matthew 22:42; John 1:41; John 7:41-42).

Old Testament expectations

In the days of Israel’s beginnings, God indicated that the leadership of the nation would belong to the tribe of Judah. From this tribe would come a leader who would rule all nations in a reign of peace and prosperity (Genesis 49:9-12). In developing this plan, God promised King David (who was from the tribe of Judah) an everlasting dynasty (2 Samuel 7:16). From that time on, Israelites looked expectantly for the ideal king, a descendant of David who would destroy all enemies and reign in a worldwide kingdom of righteousness and peace. They called this coming saviour-king the Messiah (Psalms 89:3-4; Isaiah 11:1-10; Isaiah 32:1; Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23-24; Micah 5:2; cf. Luke 1:32-33; Revelation 5:5).

Because God promised to treat David’s son and successor as his own son, Israelites regarded every king in the royal line of David as, in a sense, God’s son. He was the one through whom God exercised his rule. Above all, the Messiah was God’s son (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:6-7; cf. Mark 10:47; Mark 12:35; Mark 14:61). Israelites saw victories over their enemies as foreshadowings of the victory of the Messiah, and praised their kings in language that vividly expressed the ideals they looked for in the messianic kingdom (e.g. Psalms 2:0; Psalms 45:0; Psalms 72:0; Psalms 110:0).

Besides being a king, the promised Messiah had priestly characteristics as well. He would not be a priest in the Levitical system, but he would exercise the joint rule of king-priest after the manner of Melchizedek (Psalms 110:1-7; cf. Matthew 22:41-45; Hebrews 5:6). He would also have prophetic characteristics, in that he would be God’s messenger to announce God’s will to his people (Deuteronomy 18:15; cf. Luke 24:19; John 6:14; John 7:40; Acts 3:22-23).

Jesus and the Jews

By the time of Jesus, Jewish expectation of the Messiah had little to do with the Messiah’s spiritual ministry. Most Jews were not concerned with being delivered from the power of sin or submitting to the righteous rule of God. They were more concerned with being delivered from the power of Rome and establishing an independent Israelite kingdom of prosperity and peace. For this reason Jesus did not immediately announce his messiahship openly. He did not want to attract the wrong sort of following. When people followed him because they expected political and material benefits, he resisted them (John 6:15,John 6:26; cf. Matthew 4:8-10).

When others, for better reasons, recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he told them not to broadcast the fact (Matthew 9:27-30; Matthew 16:13-20). The title by which Jesus usually referred to himself was not ‘Messiah’, but ‘Son of man’ (Matthew 17:22; Matthew 20:18,Matthew 20:28; for further discussion see below).

Towards the end of his ministry, when Jesus knew that his work was nearing completion and his crucifixion was approaching, he allowed people to speak openly of him as the Messiah (Matthew 21:14-16; Matthew 22:41-45). He entered Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah-king (Matthew 21:1-11) and declared his messiahship before the Sanhedrin, adding that as Son of God he was on equality with God, and as Son of man he had gained an eternal kingdom (Mark 14:60-62; Luke 22:70-71). To Pilate he indicated that he was a king, though neither his kingship nor his kingdom were of the kind that most people expected or wanted (Matthew 27:11; John 18:33-37; cf. Acts 17:7).

The Messiah’s suffering and victory

Many believers of Jesus’ time still thought of the Messiah in relation to a visible worldwide kingdom centred on Israel, and they were puzzled when Jesus did not set up such a kingdom (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 19:11; Luke 24:21; Acts 1:6). Jesus pointed out that God’s kingdom had come through him; the messianic age had begun. He was the Messiah, and his ministry was proof of this (Isaiah 35:5-6; Isaiah 61:1; Matthew 4:23; Matthew 11:4-5; Matthew 12:28; Luke 4:18; Luke 17:20-21; Luke 18:35-43).

What the disciples could not understand was that the Messiah had to die. They knew that the Old Testament spoke of God’s suffering servant (Isaiah 49:7; Isaiah 50:6; Isaiah 52:13-12) just as they knew that it spoke of the Messiah, but they did not connect the two. Jesus showed that he was both the suffering servant and the victorious Messiah. The Messiah had to die before he could enter his glory (Matthew 16:13-23; Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 24:25-27; Acts 4:27).

If the disciples of Jesus understood little of his statements about his coming death, they understood even less of his statements about his resurrection (Mark 8:29-32; Mark 9:31-32). But after he died and rose to new life, everything became clear. They saw the resurrection as God’s great and final confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah. His death was the way to victory for him and deliverance for his people (Acts 2:31-32,Acts 2:36; Acts 10:38-43; Colossians 1:13-14,Colossians 1:20).

The early Christians so identified the victorious Messiah with the risen Jesus that the Greek word for Messiah (Christ) became a personal name for Jesus. Over the years the two names were often joined as Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus, and the name Christ was often used without any direct reference to messiahship (Philippians 1:15-16,Philippians 1:18,Philippians 1:21). In general the Gospels and the early part of Acts use ‘Christ’ mainly as a title (meaning ‘the Messiah’), and other parts of the New Testament use it mainly as a name (John 1:20; John 10:24; 1 Peter 4:14; 1 Peter 5:10,1 Peter 5:14).


Of all the names, pictures and titles of Jesus in the Gospels, ‘Son of man’ is the one that Jesus used most and others used least. It hardly occurs outside the Gospels, and inside the Gospels is used almost solely by Jesus. In ordinary speech it could be just a poetic word for ‘person’ (Numbers 23:19; Ezekiel 2:1-3), but people realized that Jesus used it with special significance. It was an unusual way for a person to refer to himself, but Jesus wanted people to think about who he was and what his mission involved (John 12:34).

A heavenly figure

The title ‘Son of man’ comes from a vision recorded in Daniel, where a person ‘like a son of man’ came into the heavenly presence of God and received from him a universal and everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). The ‘Son of man’ was connected with the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus made it clear that, through him, the kingdom of God had come into the world (Matthew 4:23-24; Matthew 12:28; see ‘Kingdom of God’ above). That kingdom will find its fullest expression when the Son of man returns at the end of the age to remove all evil and establish righteousness eternally (Daniel 7:13-14; Matthew 13:41-43; Matthew 24:30-31; Mark 8:38).

An additional feature of the vision in Daniel is the connection between the Son of man and the people of God. Though the Son of man receives the kingdom, he shares it with his people (Daniel 7:14,Daniel 7:27). Jesus, the heavenly Son of man, therefore promised his followers that they would share with him in the kingdom’s final triumph (Matthew 19:28; Matthew 25:31-34).

An earthly figure

Since ‘son of man’ could be used in everyday speech to refer to an ordinary human being (Psalms 8:4; Ezekiel 2:8), the expression had an added significance when used of Jesus. Although it pointed to his deity (for he was the heavenly Son of God; John 3:13; John 6:62), it pointed also to his humanity (for he was a man, a member of the human race; Matthew 8:20). The Son of man was a unique person who, being divine and human, brought the authority of God into the world of humankind (Mark 2:10,Mark 2:28; John 5:27).

In relation to the kingdom of God, the heavenly Son of man was in fact an earthly figure, who was born in the royal line of David and had claim to the messianic throne. Because of the Jews’ misguided nationalistic ambitions, Jesus rarely spoke of himself specifically as the Messiah. By using ‘Son of man’ instead, he was claiming to be the Messiah without using the word ‘Messiah’. He knew people found the name ‘Son of man’ puzzling, but he wanted them to consider the evidence of his life and ministry and discover for themselves his true identity (Matthew 16:13-16; John 9:35-36; John 12:34).

When the Jewish leaders finally understood what Jesus meant by calling himself the Son of man, they accused him of blasphemy and had him killed. They saw that he claimed to be not only a messianic figure in the line of David, but also a heavenly figure on equality with God (Mark 14:61-64).

Jesus’ death did not take him by surprise, as he knew that the heavenly Son of man had to become the suffering servant. He had to suffer and die before he could receive his kingdom (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:12; Mark 10:45; John 3:13-14; John 8:28). Also, he had to rise from the dead (Mark 9:31). God therefore raised him up and gave him glory, a glory that will be fully revealed when the Son of man returns in the triumph of his kingdom (Mark 8:38; Mark 13:26; Mark 14:62).


When the Bible speaks of Jesus as God’s Son, the meaning is unique. Elsewhere in the Bible Israel is called God’s son (Exodus 4:22), the Davidic king is called God’s son (2 Samuel 7:14) and in particular the Messiah is called God’s son (Psalms 2:7; Luke 1:32-33). But Jesus was more than God’s Son in any of these senses. He was God’s Son in the sense that he was God. He did not become God’s Son through being the Messiah; rather, he became the Messiah because he already was God’s pre-existent Son (Matthew 22:42-45; John 1:34,John 1:49; John 20:31).

Eternally the Son

God is a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of whom are equally and eternally God. Jesus’ sonship does not mean that he was created by the Father or is inferior to the Father. He has the same Godhead and character as the Father (Matthew 11:27; John 1:1,John 1:14,John 1:18; John 8:19; John 10:30,John 10:38; John 14:9), the same powers, authority and responsibilities as the Father (John 3:35; John 5:21-22,John 5:43; John 13:3) and the same thought and purpose as the Father (John 5:17-20,John 5:30; John 8:16,John 8:28-29; John 14:10,John 14:24).

The relation between Jesus (the Son of God) and his Father is unique, and should not be confused with the relation between believers (sons of God) and their heavenly Father. Jesus’ sonship is eternal. The Father and the Son have always existed in a relation in which both are equally and unchangeably God. Believers, by contrast, become sons of God only through faith in Jesus Christ. God makes them his sons, but he never made Jesus his Son. Jesus always has been the Son (John 1:18; John 5:37; John 8:18-19; John 17:1-5; cf. Galatians 4:5-7).

When Jesus talked with believers about God the Father, he was therefore careful to make a distinction between ‘my Father’ and ‘your Father’ (Matthew 5:16; Luke 2:49; Luke 12:30; John 5:17-18; John 20:17). Nevertheless, through Christ believers come into such a close personal relation with the Father that they can address him as ‘Abba’, as Jesus did (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15).

The Son’s mission

Although the Son existed with his Father from all eternity, he willingly became a human being in order to fulfil his Father’s purposes for the salvation of human beings and the conquest of evil (Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 2:14-15). When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Son added humanity to the deity that he always had. His entrance into human life came about through God’s supernatural work in the body of Mary, so that the baby born was both fully human and uniquely divine (Luke 1:30-31,Luke 1:35; Luke 2:42,Luke 2:49). Jesus grew up in a relation with his Father that was shared by no other (Luke 2:49; John 5:19; John 8:28-29), and this relation was confirmed at certain events during his public ministry (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5; John 12:27-30).

Jesus’ followers usually spoke of Jesus’ sonship in relation to his divine person and total unity with the Father (Matthew 16:16; John 20:31; 1 John 2:23; 1 John 4:15), but Jesus himself usually spoke of it in relation to his earthly ministry and total submission to the Father (Mark 13:32; John 4:34; John 5:19; John 7:16; John 8:28,John 8:42). The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, and the Son’s obedience to this mission meant that he had to suffer and die (John 3:14-16; John 12:27; 1 John 4:9-10,1 John 4:14). The Son finished the work, being obedient even to death (John 17:4; Philippians 2:8), and the Father declared his complete satisfaction with his Son through the victory of the resurrection (Romans 1:4; Philippians 2:9-11).

However, the Son’s mission involved more than the salvation of believers. The Father had entrusted him with the task of overcoming all rebellion and restoring all things to a state of perfect submission to the sovereign God (John 5:20-29; Ephesians 1:10; 1 John 3:8). That mission extends to the whole universe, and will reach its climax when the last enemy, death, is banished for ever (Hebrews 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:25,1 Corinthians 15:26). The Son conquered sin at the cross, and the power of that conquest will eventually remove the last traces of sin. The Son will restore all things to the Father, and the triumph of God will be complete. God will be everything to everyone (1 Corinthians 15:24,1 Corinthians 15:28).


Many people addressed Jesus as Lord (Matthew 20:33; Mark 7:28; Luke 7:6), but when his disciples used the title of him, or when he used the title of himself, ‘Lord’ had much more meaning (Luke 19:34; Luke 24:34; John 11:27; John 13:6,John 13:13-14; John 20:28; John 21:7). The early church developed the more meaningful usage of the word till it became one of the most distinctive expressions of the Christian community.

Hebrew and Greek backgrounds

The Greek word that is translated ‘Lord’ in the New Testament is kurios, the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the Hebrew word yahweh (i.e. Jehovah) (cf. Psalms 32:2 with Romans 4:8; cf. Isaiah 40:13 with Romans 11:34). Yahweh, the name of God, was a mysterious name that Jews of later times considered so sacred that they refused to speak it. Linguistically, the name was connected with the expression ‘I am’ and referred to the eternal, unchangeable, self-sufficient and ever-present God (Exodus 3:13-16).

Jesus identified himself with Yahweh by calling himself ‘I am’ (John 8:58; see also John 4:26; John 6:35; John 8:12; John 10:7,John 10:11; John 11:25; John 14:6; John 18:5; Mark 14:62). The New Testament writers also identified Jesus with the God of the Old Testament, and repeatedly quoted Old Testament references to Yahweh as applying to Jesus (cf. Psalms 16:8 with Acts 2:24-25; cf. Isaiah 40:3 with Mark 1:1-3; cf. Jeremiah 9:23-24 with 1 Corinthians 1:30-31; cf. Isaiah 8:13 with 1 Peter 3:15; cf. Psalms 110:1 with Matthew 22:41-45).

Both the words of Jesus and the quotations of the New Testament writers reflect the Hebrew background of the New Testament. According to that background, to call Jesus ‘Lord’ was to call him God. But most of the early Christians did not come from a Hebrew background. They were Gentiles, not Jews, and they had no history of the usage of the name Yahweh to influence their thinking. Yet to them also, to call Jesus ‘Lord’ (kurios) was to call him God. Their understanding of kurios came from its usage in the Greek-speaking Gentile world in which they lived.

In common speech, kurios may sometimes have meant no more than ‘sir’ or ‘master’ (Matthew 21:30; Luke 12:36,Luke 12:45; John 12:21; Acts 25:26), but it was also used in relation to deity, such as when people referred to the Greek and Roman gods (1 Corinthians 8:5). The Greek-speaking Christians’ use of this word for Jesus showed that they considered him to be God - not just one of many gods, but the one true God. This one was the creator and ruler of the universe, and the controller of life and death (Acts 1:24; Acts 13:10-12; Acts 17:24; Romans 14:9,Romans 14:11; 1 Timothy 6:15-16; Revelation 17:14).

Glorified and triumphant

Through the glorious resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ, God declared dramatically the absolute lordship of Christ (Acts 2:36; Romans 1:4; Philippians 2:9-11). Believers in Christ are also Christ’s servants and disciples. They gladly acknowledge him as Lord and willingly submit to him as to one who has complete authority over their lives. At the same time they love him as one who has saved them and given them new joy, peace and hope (John 20:28; Acts 10:36; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 1:2-3; Ephesians 1:22-23; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; Revelation 22:20).

When God’s chosen time comes, the lordship of Jesus Christ, at present unrecognized by the world, will be openly displayed (1 Corinthians 2:6-8; 1 Corinthians 15:24-26; cf. Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 9:28). He will return in power and glory, to enjoy the final fruits of the victory he won through his life, death and resurrection. In that great day there will be universal acknowledgment that he is indeed Lord (Philippians 2:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; Revelation 19:16).

Index to the Four Gospels

The early life of Jesus


Luke’s introduction



Birth of John the Baptist foretold



An angel prepares Mary



Mary visits Elizabeth



Birth of John the Baptist



Genealogies of Jesus




Birth of Jesus



Shepherds visit the stable



Temple ceremonies in Jerusalem



Simeon and Anna



Herod and the Magi



Return to Nazareth




Jesus twelve years old


Jesus begins his ministry


The eternal Word



Preaching of John the Baptist






Baptism of Jesus






Temptation of Jesus





The first disciples



Marriage feast in Cana


Early work in Judea and Samaria


Cleansing the temple



Jesus and Nicodemus



John the Baptist’s work complete



Jesus in Samaria


Early work in Galilee


Changing situations







Son of an official healed



The synagogue at Nazareth



Call of Peter, Andrew, James and John





Man with an evil spirit healed




Many sick people healed






Jesus cleanses a leper





Jesus heals a paralyzed man





Call of Matthew





Why Jesus’ disciples did not fast





Picking corn on the Sabbath





Man with a withered hand





Jesus chooses the twelve apostles




The sermon on the mount


Citizens of the kingdom




Christ’s people in the world



A right attitude to the law



Legal obedience is not enough





Giving, praying and fasting




Concern about material things




Judging others




Prayers of request




The two ways



In Jerusalem again


Healing at Bethesda and its outcome



Witnesses to Jesus


Back in Galilee


Centurion’s servant; widow’s son




Messengers from John the Baptist




The judgment and mercy of God



In the house of Simon the Pharisee



Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit





Jesus and his family







The sower





Wheat and weeds; mustard seed; yeast





Hidden treasure; pearl; fishing net


Around the Lake of Galilee


Jesus calms the storm





Demon power overcome at Gadara





Jairus’ daughter and a woman healed





Jesus heals the blind and the dumb




Jesus rejected at Nazareth




The twelve sent out





Concern about safety and security



Death of John the Baptist





Feeding the five thousand






Jesus walks on the sea





The bread of life



Words of eternal life



Teaching about cleansing



Further work in the north


In Tyre and Sidon




Ministry in the Decapolis




Beware of Pharisees and Sadducees






Peter’s confession of the Messiah





Test of true discipleship





The transfiguration





Healing of an uncontrollable boy





Payment of the temple tax



Lessons in humility






Lessons in forgiveness


Through Samaria to Judea


Rejected in Samaria



The cost of being a disciple




The mission of the seventy



Who is my neighbour?



Jesus in the house of Mary and Martha


In Jerusalem for Jewish festivals


Family opposition



Jesus teaches in the temple



Argument in the Sanhedrin



Woman caught in adultery



The light of the world



Belief and unbelief



True freedom; true sonship



Dispute concerning a blind man



The good shepherd



At the Feast of Dedication


Around the Jordan Valley


Jesus accuses Pharisees and scribes



Be prepared at all times



Warning to the Jewish nation



A woman healed in the synagogue



The first shall be last



In the house of a Pharisee



More about discipleship



Lost sheep; lost coin; lost son



The shrewd manager



The rich man and Lazarus



Duty, faith and gratitude



Coming of the kingdom



Two parables about prayer



Questions about divorce





Jesus blesses the children





The rich young man





Workers in the vineyard



The request of James and John





Blind men near Jericho





Jesus and Zacchaeus



Parable of the pounds


Back to Judea


Resurrection of Lazarus



Jews plot to kill Jesus



Jesus returns to Bethany


Final teaching in Jerusalem


The triumphal entry






Jesus cleanses the temple





Jesus curses the fig tree





Authority of Jesus questioned





The wicked vineyard keepers





The royal wedding feast



A question about paying taxes





Marriage and the resurrection





The greatest commandment




Who is the Messiah?





More about scribes and Pharisees





The widow’s offering




The coming crisis





A warning to be alert always





The ten girls



The three employees



Sheep and goats


Betrayal, trial and crucifixion


The seed must die



Final message to the Jews



The plot to capture Jesus





Jesus prepares the Passover





Washing the disciples’ feet



A traitor among them






The Lord’s Supper instituted





The way to the Father



Promise of the Holy Spirit



Union with Jesus



Work of the Holy Spirit



Difficulties ahead for the disciples



Jesus’ prayer



Disciples’ failure foretold






Jesus prays in Gethsemane






The arrest of Jesus






At the high priest’s house






The Sanhedrin’s judgment





Death of Judas



Before Pilate and Herod






Jesus before the people







Journey to Golgotha






The crucifixion






The death






The burial





Resurrection and ascension


Morning of the resurrection






On the road to Emmaus




Sunday night in Jerusalem





One week later



At the Sea of Tiberias



On a mountain in Galilee




The ascension



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