“On a spring morning in about the year 30 CE, three men were executed by the Roman authorities in Judea. Two were ‘brigands’… the third was executed as another type of political criminal… Those who looked on doubtless thought that the world would little note what happened that spring morning. But it turned out that this third man, Jesus of Nazareth,
would become the most important figure in human history.” — E.P. Sanders
Imagine a lone figure, standing in the middle of a spacious, square room with a high ceiling and ornate scrollwork. In each corner sits a painter, adjacent to a corner window, each working on a canvas of the lone figure. The artists study the figure, look over their shoulders through the window, then add strokes to their canvas. Through the four windows, each painter views a distinct audience. When the artists present their completed paintings, you recognize that they are of the same person. But each artist has presented the lone figure in unique ways, highlighting and emphasizing various features.
This image of four artists painting a lone figure for their respective audiences has long helped me understand what is going on in the four gospels of the New Testament. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were all written to “paint a picture” of Jesus Christ for Christian communities living in the latter half of the first century. Each gospel is recognizably pointing to the same historical person; yet each gospel is written to address the needs and concerns of differing communities, leading the gospel writers (the “artists”) to include and emphasize various themes, teachings, and activities from Jesus’ ministry.
Over the next several months, we’re going to share in an overview of the four gospels in a sermon series titled, “Four Portraits, One Jesus.” We’ll spend roughly one month with each gospel, starting with Mark in September, followed by Matthew in October and Luke in November. Following a break for the Advent season, Jack Williamson will help us reflect on John’s gospel in January. My prayer for us is that we’ll appreciate the richness of insights which the four gospels offer us as we seek to understand and follow Jesus today.
Jesus of Nazareth is certainly one of the most painted figures in human history, whether on a literal canvas of paint or on a canvas of words as in the four gospels. Ultimately, after all has been written and considered, Jesus’ ancient question to Peter (Mark 8:29) invites our personal reflection and response today: “But who do you say that I am?”