When I was in high school, I noticed an interesting phenomenon in the Bible. At the time I didn't know how to make sense of it. I noticed that some passages claim that salvation is a free gift. At the same time, I noticed loads of verses with stipulations, instructions, and commandments. I remember asking myself, “If salvation is free, why is the Bible full of commandments?"
Even at the time, I understood that Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law. Though, as I read through the New Testament, it was clear that it contained a considerable amount of commandments as well. This is especially true of the first three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I saw all kinds of new commandments were even harder to keep than the old ones. For instance, Jesus said that if I merely look at a woman that I'm not married to and fantasize about having sex with her, I've committed a major sin. The Old law, as strict as it is, is a piece of cake compared to that. The Old Testament says not to murder, which is pretty basic. Jesus said not to hate someone. Now that's tough.
The first three Gospels are packed with commandments and instructions, no doubt about it. This left me confused about what I was supposed to do to be saved. I remained confused until I learned a significant bit of information. I learned the purpose of the first three Gospels. Their purpose might surprise you.
Some avid evangelist might say that the first three Gospels are all about how to get saved. However, that is almost sure to create a deep confusion about what it takes to be saved. The rationale for using Matthew, Mark, and Luke as evangelistic tools is fraught with problems. That's because they were not written to tell unbelievers how to get saved.
So, what is the purpose of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? There are three main purposes for these three books. They are designed to show that (1) the apostles had been given authority by Jesus to build the church, (2) they teach their readers, who were already saved, how to live a life of obedience to Jesus' commandments,1 and (3) they reinforce the faith of people who had already believed. Consider the famous final instruction of Christ found at the end of Matthew:
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you….” (Matthew 28:18-20)
These famous verses show the transfer of authority from God to Christ, and then from Christ to His apostles. The early church needed to believe that the apostles were Christ's chosen leaders, or the building of the church would not work. For this reason the first three Gospels focus much more on the interactions of the apostles with Christ than does John's Gospel. Examples include the calling of the first disciples, the choosing of the twelve, Jesus' sending out the apostles to preach and heal, the witnessing of the Transfiguration, and many more.2
Not only do these Gospels focus on the apostles’ unique role in the building of the church, but there is a second purpose at play. You can see it in the verses above as well. The focus of the first three Gospels is discipleship and obedience to Christ's commandments. Matthew, Mark, and Luke didn't write to tell unbelievers how to become believers, but they wrote to believers to tell them how to obey Christ, which is what discipleship is all about. Thus the writing of Matthew and the second and third Gospel represents the apostles doing precisely what Jesus told them to do: teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. The first three Gospels are discipleship manuals, not evangelistic playbooks.
As I was studying for this chapter, I read through Matthew in an afternoon to double check this purpose statement. A phrase kept jumping out at me as I read through Matthew. “Be perfect.” It shows up multiple times. In fact, the sermon on the mount is a description of how a “perfect” disciple would live. In the midst of the sermon on the mount Jesus gives tremendously difficult instructions then says:
“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
He’s explaining the ideal disciple. This gives Jesus’ followers an ideal to strive for. He’s calling his followers to be perfect. This obliterates the argument that he’s telling people how to get into Heaven in these chapters. If being perfect is what’s required to enter heaven, then only Jesus will be there. In addition, if the people try to achieve this ideal without attaining free eternal life, they are wasting their time. Once again, at a pivotal point in Matthew Jesus says to a particular man:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 14:3)
He is showing what a perfect disciple would do and how perfect disciples will be rewarded for doing it. It’s an encouragement for believers to not stop at belief but to follow Christ with sacrificial abandon. So, perfection is the goal of discipleship. I’ve heard school teachers say things like, “She’s a perfect student.” It doesn’t mean that the student does everything exactly right. A perfect student is not one who knows everything, but one who listens, obeys, and learns by the process. In this way a person can be “a perfect disciple.” It doesn’t mean they do everything right the first time, but they continue to grow in their discipleship as they obey Jesus. This is the overarching goal of the first three gospels.
If the apostles were going to teach their students to observe Jesus' commandments, they needed to have a written collection of those commandments. By and large, the first three Gospels are the database of commandments and teachings that Jesus gave to those whom He's saved. The commandments are directed at believers, not unbelievers. One doesn't become a believer by following Jesus' commandments.3 Instead, once someone believes in Jesus, they are encouraged to live as Jesus instructed. Their ability to obey has nothing to do with whether they are saved. The library of these commandments is Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Luke specifically adds some clarity to this issue when he states his purpose for writing. In the opening of his Gospel he writes:
I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. (Luke 1:3-4)
Luke acknowledges that his Gospel is not for beginners. He’s writing to a believer named Theophilus. Theophilus is not starting from scratch, he’s already been taught at least the basics. Luke is writing an account to help to reinforce the faith of someone who is already a well taught believer. This is a very different purpose from what John’s Gospel offers. Luke’s account is so similar to Matthew’s and Mark’s that this must be a purpose shared by all three. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are written for believers who have already been taught the basics of the Gospel.
John's Gospel is different in that it contains only a minor theme of discipleship and obedience and focuses instead on how to become a believer in the first place. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are not written in this way; they are written to tell saved people how to live once they have become so.
1 Robert N. Wilkin, “The Gospel according to John,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 358.
2 Matthew 4:18-19, 10:1–4, 16:17-19, 17:1-8, Mark 1:6, 3:13–19, 9:2-8, Mark 6:7-14 and Luke 6:12–16, 9:1-10, 28-36 and many more.
3 Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 4:1-4.