The Context of Jesus' Story: History and the Gospels

During the season of Advent we talked about the Birth of Jesus. Since we finished the Old Testament last semester, this semester we will be continuing into the New Testament and studying our most important “Person of the Bible” which is Jesus himself!

But before we dive too deep into starting Jesus’ story, I want to talk about a few things. Particularly the world in which Jesus was born into and how Jesus’ story is recorded.

Who remembers which Empire was in charge during Jesus’s time?

[Let them answer]

The Roman Empire! [Turn to a map that shows the New Testament Roman Empire, there should be one, probably showing Paul’s journeys, I think]. The Romans had actually been around for a while by this time. The Romans dated their founding as 753 BC. For a long while Rome was a Republic—where land owning men voted on their leaders. They basically had two presidents—called Consuls—and a Senate.

When Rome first came on the scene they weren’t the most powerful player in the area. That would have been Greece and Egypt. However, over the centuries and several wars, things changed. And Rome slowly overtook everything that touched the Mediterranean. No other army could stand up to them. And well, to be honest Rome’s navy was awful, they had no idea how to fight Naval battles, but they circumvented this by basically just ramming into every ship they wanted to fight and boarding the other ship, thus turning every Naval battle into basically an army battle. Their sheer ruthlessness, efficiency, and determination led to them conquering everything

In the first century BC, there were a couple of wars and three guys rose up to lead Rome: Gnaues Pompey,  Marcus Crassus, and a guy named Julius Caesar. This is called the first triumvirate. For a while these three guys worked together, conquered new lands, and dealt with external threats. But then through some political machinations, in the 40s BC Julius Caesar outmaneuvered the other two guys and became dictator of Rome. You guys will have to forgive me, this is a very high level history. Rome occasionally declared someone dictator when they needed to consolidate their executive functions into one person—instead of two consuls and a Senate—during war time.  The idea was that at the end of the major crisis or war, the dictator was supposed to step back down. And that did occasionally work. But Julius Caesar didn’t want to let the power go. He didn’t want to step down. So he declared himself dictator forever.

He was then assassinated.

Julius Caesar’s heir, a kid named Octavian, was not too happy about this. Octavian was actually Julius’ great nephew but adopted as his son and heir. So Octavian created his own group and defeated the assassins. Then in 27 BC Octavian was declared the “First Citizen” of Rome, and he was renamed Augustus. That name should be familiar to you from the Christmas story. Someone please read Luke 2:1.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

Emperor Augustus was emperor when Jesus was born. Because Augustus becoming Emperor ended the Civil Wars of the past twenty or so years, people just went along with it. They were thankful for the peace.  So the Republic was over, the Roman Empire began, but so did the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, which is generally said to have begun with Augustus and gone on for 200 years after him.

But that peace? It was just the peace of Rome. It was not peace for the people around Rome or the provinces that made trouble during that time. Augustus and the emperors after him were constantly expanding the empire, and they would show no mercy to anyone who tried to disrupt the peace of Rome.

Where does Israel fit into this? Well during that time of the First Triumvirate, when Julius Caesar and his friends were expanding the empire, Rome conquered the land we know of as Israel. Jerusalem was sacked and Rome installed their own governors and their own king. They called the area Judea.

So Jesus was born into the Roman Empire, during the time of Caesar Augustus, but he was not a Roman citizen. The Romans had important distinctions about who was and who wasn’t a citizen. Jesus lived under Roman authority, and the people of Judah were considered Roman subjects, but Roman citizens had special rights that ordinary subjects didn’t have. This will be important later, when we talk about the apostle Paul, because he was a Roman citizen which enabled him to do things other disciples couldn’t do.

So at this time Judah is Judea. For political reasons its actually been divided into about four areas that are ruled by different local people. But the people of Israel could pretty much move freely about those four areas. Which is good and important, because Jewish people needed to travel annually to the Temple. Rome knew they would have a riot on their hands or a war if they didn’t allow them their religion.

And Rome had no intention of taking the people of Israel’s religion away from them—not at this point. Because the Romans didn’t care who you worshipped. As long as you paid your taxes and didn’t rebel, they pretty much left you to your own devices.

But the people of Israel—they were not happy under Roman rule. They remembered their scripture and stories of a time when they were independent, a kingdom of wisdom and power under David and Solomon. And they knew they were God’s chosen people. So they were looking forward to the day when God would restore the Davidic line, when a son of David would once again be on the throne of Israel. People were itching for this. And some people were ready to start fighting for this.

This will be a common theme when we study Jesus. People are expecting Jesus not just to be a teacher, but for him to be a leader, for him to overthrow Rome. If he’s the Messiah, surely that’s what God intends, for him to come in like an avenging angel and restore Israel to its former glory.

But we’re going to see that’s not the case when we study Jesus’s story. He didn’t come to overthrow Rome. He came to do something different. To do something else.

Who knows which books of the Bible hold the story of Jesus’s birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection?

[Let them answer]

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first four books of the New Testament. These four books are commonly called the “Gospels.” The word Gospel came from a Greek word meaning “Good news.” It has a roundabout way how that went from the Greek to our now English way of saying and spelling it, but ultimately that’s what “Gospel” means. The Good News.

And what’s the Good News? Well the story of Jesus! And so all four Gospels tell that story.

But they all tell that story from different perspectives. We’ve talked about this before—when we talked about advent and why the book of Matthew contains some things and the book of Luke others, but I want to touch on it again because this is important. We have four perspectives of Jesus’ life and ministry, written by different men who had different sources.

Though Matthew is listed first, its generally accepted that Mark was the first Gospel written. A guy named Mark wrote the book of Mark. In the Bible he’s often referred to as “John Mark.” But we won’t meet him until we study the book of Acts.

Someone please turn to Acts 12:12.

12 As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying.

This is the first mention in the Bible of John Mark directly though there are some people who think he is mentioned in the book of Mark, but subtly. Someone read Mark 14:51-52.

51 A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

People think this was Mark because he’s referred to as a *certain* young man and really there is no reason to mention a random youth who was so scared of getting caught up in Jesus’s arrest that he ran off naked. However, we don’t know for sure that that is John Mark. We can only suppose.

John Mark, however, is said to have transcribed the teachings of Peter, so its likely that the book of Mark is the disciple Peter’s perspective of the story of Jesus. Why didn’t Peter write his own Gospel instead of relating it to Mark? We can’t say for sure, but we’ll see later that Peter was not an educated or scholarly man. He was a fisherman. Which isn’t to say he couldn’t read and write, but it would probably be easier for him to dictate stories to Mark and then for Mark to write them down and make sense of them.

Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. When Mark was writing this, no one had written down the story of Jesus. People knew it because people talked about it, they told each other the story, but no one had written it down. So Mark was the first. I think its probably why it’s the shortest. Mark was trying to get to the point, trying to get a clear concise version of the story out there so people knew what was true and what was just stories being circulated.

The book of Mark is generally thought to have been written around 40 AD. After that Matthew and Luke were written. I don’t think it’s particularly clear which of those two was written first. We’re going to talk about Matthew first because its listed before Luke in the Bible.

Matthew was a disciple of Jesus. So in writing the book of Matthew he would mostly be writing about events he himself was physically present for, from his perspective. That’s not true of all the events—Matthew wasn’t there for Jesus’s birth, so he would have had to talk to other people about that part. But once we get to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which Matthew was around for, he would have been a first-hand witness. Matthew was a tax-collector originally, so he would have had some education. Someone read Matthew 9:9.

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

That is how Jesus called a tax collector named Matthew, who later wrote the book, to follow him. He called to him and he just went! We’ll see this a lot when we study how the disciples are called.

We talked about during advent how the book of Matthew was written for a particular audience in mind. Matthew wrote his Gospel particularly for Jewish people, so its filled with allusions to the Old Testament and connections back to the Old Testament. The Old Testament stories would be meaningless to a Greek or Roman person, but to a Jewish person those connections meant a lot. They needed that context to fit Jesus into the greater story of God and God’s work in this world and with Israel.

Now Luke on the other hand was writing for the Greek or Roman reader—someone who would have no context in the Old Testament. So he doesn’t emphasize any connections to the Old Testament. Luke was Greek. So that was his own context. He was also a doctor, which was about as close to a scientist as people could be back then. So he went to great pains to do his research and write everything down as he knew it. He even says this at the beginning of Luke. Someone read Luke 1:1-4.

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,[a] to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Luke wrote his version of events because he wanted the people he was instructing to have things straight and have the truth. Like John Mark, we’ll learn more about Luke later in the New Testament, after the gospels.

Now the interesting thing about both Matthew and Luke’s account of the gospels is that it’s likely they would have read Mark. Why is this important? Well having read Mark, they would both be like “Hey, wait, Mark forgot to mention this” or “I think Mark put too much of an emphasis on this.” So they wrote their books in a sense as a response to Mark. The easiest way to see this is that Mark makes zero mention of Jesus’s birth. Both Matthew and Luke are like “Wait a minute, that’s a kind of important thing we should mention.” And when you look at Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’s birth—like we did in December—they are completely different from each other!! Matthew is from Joseph’s perspective and mentions nothing about shepherds or mangers or room in the inn. Luke is from Mary’s perspective and doesn’t mention the wise men or Herod or fleeing to Egypt. Why are the gospels like this? Wouldn’t it just be easier if all four of them delineated the exact same sequence of events?

Well that would be boring and they would probably have only included one gospel in the Bible then, if they were all exactly the same. So why are they different? And why is it important that they are different?

Well the gospels are basically four different accounts of the same sequence of events. Two are direct eye-witness for the most part—Matthew and John. Mark and Luke are writing the perspective of other eye-witnesses. Mark’s may just be the account of Peter’s and Luke’s was a little more investigation, interviewing lots of people.

Have you guys ever experienced something with your family—it could be anything, a holiday trip, an accident, a concert, anything—and then heard someone in your family tell the story from that event and the way they describe it is not quite what you remember?

We see this all the time too in the news when people are interviewed after seeing an accident. One person saw it from one perspective so they remember that the green car hit the blue car. Another person says “but wait, the blue car gunned through the red light and the green car had the green light.” Another person says “but the green car slowed for a pedestrian and therefore was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” In the end they all know that the green car hit the blue car, but they have different perspectives and view points of how that happened.

This is what the gospels are like. They are a bunch of witnesses who remember different things as important, or remember one event a certain way and not another way. So Mark and John don’t feel the need to mention Jesus’s birth, but Matthew and Luke do! And what Matthew thinks is important about the birth is the wise men and the trip to Egypt! What Luke thinks is important is the shepherds and angels and that Jesus was born in a manger! Those two both have the same message “Jesus was born and it was miraculous” they just have different ways of telling the story and different parts of it that they think was important.

So the gospels don’t 100% align with each other. Sometimes they tell the exact same story three different ways. Sometimes they have unique aspects that aren’t mentioned in any of the other Gospels. There is a beautiful tension between the four books in what they have that differs and what they have that is the same. And that’s okay.

Because if every account of Jesus was 100% exactly the same, that would probably mean that the 12 disciples got together in a room somewhere and made the whole thing up. That they all agreed on one account, memorized it, and said “this is what we’re going to tell people.” The fact that they’re different says that these guys didn’t collude to create up a story. They are telling the story as they, or their witnesses remember it.

And multiple eye witness accounts—even when they are different—is how we know these things really happened.

So Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three gospels are called the “Synoptic” gospels. “Synoptic” comes from the same word as “Synopsis” and basically means “seeing all together.” That means that Matthew, Mark, and Luke—for all their differences which there are plenty—actually tell a very similar and coherent story of Jesus. They emphasize different things—like the birth—but for the most part they go over the same set of events.

Then there is John. John is the weird one.

Someone read John 1:1-5.

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

If you read that and thought “huh? What even is this?” You’re not alone. The Word was with God? What does that mean?

Well in this context the word is Jesus. And this is actually a beautiful and important passage of scripture, but it’s also very poetical. So one extreme we have Mark, which is a very straight forward sequence of events, written first so that everyone can remember exactly what happened to Jesus. On the other end, written last, was John.

So John is a disciple. Someone read Matthew 4:18-22.

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

John, like Peter, was a fisherman. He had a brother named James, and he was one of the first four disciples called by Jesus. He is also described as the disciple that Jesus loved and when Jesus was dying on the cross he asked John to take care of Jesus’s mother, Mary. So John was a disciples Jesus liked a lot, and trusted a lot.

The gospel of John was the last Gospel written, and more importantly, it was likely written after the destruction of the Second Temple. John had seen what Rome’s wrath had done to Israel. He also likely knew about the books Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So when John sat down to write his gospel, I’m sure he asked himself, “What am I adding to this conversation by writing this book? What am I bringing to the table that’s different? Why does the world need *my* account of what happened?”

And John answered that by writing the most poetic gospel. The gospel of John is also not super concerned about events, or making sure the order of events is in the correct chronological order. Instead John looked at Jesus’s life and ministry, and chose a way to tell the story that presents his thesis and message which is that Jesus is God, and he came to save us.

Some of the most famous verses and stories are in John which are not in any of the other Gospels. Like that opening about Jesus being the Word and having been with God since the beginning. Or the famous exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus which has in it John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

So John brought different, unique events to the table. He re-orders events and conversations based on theme rather than on timeline. When he does have a story that is in the Synoptic gospels, he tells it in a new and unique way, illuminating something new about the nature of Jesus that maybe the synoptic gospels didn’t. John’s gospel is unique and poetic and different.

I wanted to talk about this first before we dive into Jesus story, because its important. We’re going to be jumping between all four gospels. You’re going to notice differences—like how Matthew talks about Herod and wise men but Luke talks about shepherds and angels—and that’s okay. These are four different accounts for Jesus and they have differences. All four tell the story of Jesus’s ministry, arrest, trial, death, and resurrection. But more importantly all four paint us a picture of who Jesus is.

We have four different men telling us about this amazing savior they met, how he changed their lives, and the amazing thing is not that they have small differences, but how they are the same. How they all tell this story of a man they were amazed by and respected but ultimately didn’t understand until one day he died and then miraculously came back. And their eyes were opened. And it’s through these four men’s unique perspectives on Jesus that we will come to know the nature of Jesus, and by corollary the nature of God.

Next week we’ll dive straight into Jesus’s life with probably one of the stories that’s the most fun at your age. The story of when Jesus was your age. Thirteen-year-old Jesus. The only story from his childhood we have. So come back next week for that!