Hermeneutics - Gospels

Overview of the Gospel Genre

The Gospels—the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are theological narratives emphasizing the actions and teachings of Jesus. Important distinctions about the Gospels that will aid your understanding of them:

  • The gospel accounts are selective, purposeful accounts of the life of Jesus. Each Gospel has a thesis the author is defending to a particular audience. For Luke and John, the theses are explicitly spelled out (see John 20:30-31 and Luke 1:1-4). While Matthew and Mark have no such clear statement, their core purposes can be inferred from the events and teachings they select, and from the editorial and structural perspective the author provides.
  • The gospel accounts are meant to persuade and equip the reader. They are not disinterested, neutral presentations of the facts, but instead are evangelical treatises. Through their course they develop arguments, based on evidence supporting their claims. For example, Matthew extensively uses the Old Testament as proof of the validity of Jesus’ teachings while Luke emphasizes historical accuracy and Jesus’ innocence by Roman legal standards.
  • The Gospels provided the early church with authoritative teaching against the backdrop of emerging heresy and other challenges faced by the early Christian church. Note the teachings on the dangers and rewards of discipleship in Mark and the emphasis on Christology in John.

Understanding How Jesus is Portrayed in the Gospels

Jesus as Rabbi: Clearly the Gospel authors and many who heard Jesus speak regarded him as a teacher—a rabbi—a term that in used 40 times in the Gospels (see Mt. 23:8 & 10:24-25). With that in mind, it’s helpful to be aware of common rabbinical figures of speech and how they were used to convey meaning to an audience at the time. When using one of these forms, typically a single general point is made, and the context is crucial for seeing the point.

Figure of Speech



Overstatement/hyperboleExaggeration to make a pointLuke 14:26 &Mt. 5:29-30
PunPlay on wordsMt. 23:23-24 (salma vs. samla) or Jn. 3:8 (spirit and wind)
SimileComparison using like or asMt. 10:16 & 12:40
MetaphorComparison not using like, asMark 8:15
ProverbWise saying, aphorismMt. 6:21 & 26:52
RiddlePuzzling story with a deeper meaningMark 14:58 & Mt. 11:12
ParadoxStatement that seems contradictory, but isn’tMt. 5:1ff & 16:25
A fortiori“how much more… “Mt. 7:9-11 & 10:25
Irony/sarcasmUnexpected resultMt. 16:2-3 & Luke 16:20
Question“Who do you say that I am?” or “Can a man have two masters?”Mark 8:27-32; 3:1-4; 9:50
Poetic parallelismRepetition used to advance, contrast thought of first lineMt. 7:7-8; Mark 9:37; Luke 16:10
ParableExtended metaphor with single meaning, or allegoryMt. 13 & Luke 15:4-10

Jesus as a Prophet: In addition to being regarded as a teacher, Jesus also is recognized throughout Gospel accounts as a prophet. See Mark 5:15; 8:28; 14:65; Luke 7:16; Mt. 21:11, 46. Notice how he is shown as one who shared the characteristics of the Old Testament prophets:

  • He performed prophetic signs and miracles. See Luke 17:16 & John 3:2
  • His message was inspired by the Holy Spirit. See Mt. 12:18 & Luke 4:16-30
  • He claimed a divine calling and message. See Luke 4:18, 10:21, & Mt. 5:21
  • As with Old Testament prophets, he was rejected. See Luke 13:33-34

Jesus as a Unique Authority: The Gospels attest to Jesus’ unique authority as a teacher and prophet:

  • His authority above the teachings of others, through his use of the phrase, “You have heard...but I say...” See Mt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, and 43-44. See also Mt. 7:28-29.
  • The testimony of John the Baptist—see John 3:31-36
  • Jesus’ use of “I AM” statements, indicating his claim to deity. See John 8 & 10.

Jesus’ use of “Parabolic Acts” as Teaching Devices: Many times the Gospels show Jesus making a point—teaching, in a sense—through an action instead of through a spoken teaching. Many times Jesus performed a miraculous sign not only as a simple act of mercy, but also to make a theological point about the nature of God, man, and God’s plan of salvation. He often employed actions that were symbolic of these theological points.

As you work to understand these deeper points, remember that Jesus’ actions were taken against the backdrop of Judaism of that time. He was a controversialist and his teachings were designed to inflame opposition to God and dramatically demonstrate God’s mercy. With that in mind, notice where, when, and for whom the action in a particular passage is performed. Ask yourself, “What is the significance of this demonstration, in this particular context, to Jesus’ original audience?”

Gospel Overview

  1. Outline the Gospel by each distinct section - Read the entire Gospel book, noting where the overall book breaks into passages suitable for more in-depth study. By reviewing the whole story each passage will make more sense by seeing how it relates to the total picture. Such an overview will also help you get to the Gospel’s primary purpose, argument and intended audience.
    • Look for the interplay between narrative and teaching.  For example, see how the book of Matthew lays out:
      Chapters 1-4 NARRATIVE: setting the stage for Jesus’ ministry
      Chapters 5-7 TEACHING: sermon on the mount
      Chapters 8-10:4 NARRATIVE: healings and calling the disciples
      Chapter 10:4-42 TEACHING: instructions on the disciple’s ministry
      Chapters 11-12 NARRATIVE: dialogues concerning John and the religious
      Chapter 13 TEACHING: Kingdom parables
      Chapters 14-17 NARRATIVE: Height of ministry in Galilee
      Chapter 18 TEACHING: greatness in the kingdom
      Chapter 19 NARRATIVE: dialogue/debate with Pharisees
      Chapters 19:28-20:16 TEACHING: working for the kingdom
      Chapter 20:17-21:27 NARRATIVE: triumphal entry
      Chapters 21:28-22:14 TEACHING: warning parables
      Chapters 22:15-46 NARRATIVE: confrontations with the religious
      Chapters 23-25 TEACHING: woes, laments, judgments, apocalypse
      Chapters 26-28 NARRATIVE: arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, commission
    • Look for section breaks according to theme. While much of the Gospel writings are chronological, authors may shuffle this order to accommodate a theme they are developing. See for example the thread of parables in Luke 15:1-32 and Matthew 13. See also Mark’s theme of Jesus’ messianic signs inciting religious authorities in Mark 2:1-3:6
    • Look for structural clues:
      • Changes in audience (even subtle changes--"Then he turned to his disciples and said..."), location, time, or subject.
      • Summary, transition, conclusion, and introductory statements. For example, Matthew includes summary statements for the preceding events in 4:23-25, 7:28-29, 8:17, and 8:27. These are good points at which to mark the end of a passage.
  2. Identify significant and recurring themes: why might the Gospel have been written?
    • From these significant and recurring themes, what can you conclude about the author’s primary reasons for writing the gospel and concerns he has for his intended audience?
    • The best way to spot the main themes is to look for repeated terms, repeated events, and relative space devoted.
      • Repeated terms:  Look for words that are technical or theological in nature such as “kingdom of God,” “fulfill,” “believe,” “life,” etc. By compiling a list of these words and summarizing them, you’ll see an emphasis emerge. It is also helpful to use a concordance to see how one author emphasizes a particular term more than another author. For example, John’s use of “believe” (71 occurrences, compared to only 32 in the 3 other Gospels combined); and “life” (62 occurrences)
      • Repeated events: For example, the repeated inclusion of controversies or miracles.
      • Relative space devoted: How much of the author’s work is devoted to particular times? Mark and John both spend a considerable part of their gospels on Jesus’ final week.

See Appendix A below for an example of a completed Gospel Overview.

Passage Study - Step 1

Step 1: Examine the structure of each passage you've identified in the overview

  1. Context
    1. What are the preceding & subsequent passages? - Note the events and themes of the passages that come before and after the one you are studying, and think about how they might relate to the passages you are studying. This gives you clues about your passage’s purpose.
      The Gospels often continue Jesus' teaching by showing it in action or, conversely, by following up Jesus' action with clarifying teaching. For example, Matthew concludes the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) with the observation "He was teaching them as one having authority" Then we see in Matthew 8 and 9 that Jesus demonstrates his authority in a series of miracles. An example of Jesus' actions setting up his teaching can be found in John 6, the feeding of the 5000. Jesus performs the miracle, then declares, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35).
    2. Introduction or explanatory statement - Note if the author provides a introductory or explanatory statement within the passage that helps set up or summarize the passage.
      For example the Pharisees' question in Matthew 15:2, "Why do Jesus' disciples violate traditions by eating with ritually unwashed hands?" sets up Matthew 15:1-20.
      These editorial devices of the narrator help readers understand the dramatic moments and, therefore, the significance of Jesus' teaching or actions. For example, John 7:1 shows the great hostility toward Christ in Judea. So when Jesus arrives later in Judea, conflict is inevitable.
  2. Identify
    1. Who: Characters - Describe each person in the scene, noting characteristics that the narrator identifies. Where are they from? Are they friend or foe? Are they portrayed as a positive example or a cautionary example? The more you understand about the characters, the more vivid your understanding of the scene will be.
      Note: God can be a character in the passage as well, so note how He is characterized.
    2. Where: Location - Where is the action happening and is there any significance to that? Why are the characters where they are? Is the narrative taking place where controversy is likely? For example, John 4, where Jesus talks to a woman in Samaria.
    3. When: Time - When does the narrative take place? What in general could be said about these times that helps our understanding about why this particular story matters?
      The day of the week is obviously important. Is the narrative cast on the Sabbath? Why might that matter?
  3. Teaching or narrative
    1. Outline the flow of the narrative or teaching - It is helpful to break the passage down into “scenes.” For example in Matthew 15:21-28 there are 3 “scenes":
      • The woman’s request: vs. 21-22
      • Jesus’ exchange with his disciples: vs. 23-24
      • Jesus' exchange with the woman: vs. 25-28
        Each scene plays a role in forming the main point.
    2. What is the main point? - Tips for identifying the main point of the passage:
      • Look for summary, conclusion, or introductory statements, either given by the author (Luke 18:1; John 1:19, 2:11; 2:22) or as a conclusion placed in the mouth of a character (Mt. 8:27; 12:12).
      • Look for imperative (command) statements (Mt. 6:9; John3:7).
      • Repetition of a key term or concept (Mt. 8-9--emphasis on Jesus' authority to act; Luke 15--the value of lost things).
      • Context (Luke 18--Question of "Who then can be saved?" is answered by Jesus that "the things impossible for men are possible with God." This is followed by salvation coming to Bartimaeus and Zaccheus).
      • Connective words such as "thus," "therefore," "so," and "for this reason" indicate a conclusion (Mt. 10:16; 12:9-12).
      • The use of figures of speech such as irony (Mt. 8:22), parallelism (Mt. 9:12-13), a fortiori (Mt. 12:9-14), and the use of truly as an authoritative declaration of fact.
    3. How is the main point supported, illustrated, explained, or applied? - It is important to make sure each scene is connected to this main point.  The more diligence taken with this step, the more sound your interpretation will be. What is the evidence supporting your conclusion about the main point? How is the main point illustrated? Note Old Testament citations and illustrations, miracles that serve as signs, and connective words such as "because," "for," etc.

Structure Study Example - Matthew 15

Jim Leffel steps through examples of structural studies from Matthew 15 (20 min. audio).

Matthew 15:21-28 The Syrophoenician woman

Context: Why is this passage here?

  • Preceding narrative: confrontation with Pharisees over “defilement”
  • Following narrative: summary of healings, then 4000 fed
  • Narrative directed both to the pagan woman (in a pagan setting) and to the disciples
  • Mt. 15:21—28 extends the argument of the last interaction—that faith from the heart, not ritual cleansing from defilement, is what God seeks

Outline of narrative structure:

  • First scene: request of woman to Jesus (15:21-22)—sets up the drama
    • Who? Where? When?
    • Note the irony—Jesus leaves Israel after engaging Jerusalem’s religious elite over the nature of ritual cleanness, to pagan land. The Canaanite woman, unlike either the disciples or the religious authorities, recognizes Jesus’ true identity as “Son of David” (see also 9:27; 12:23—two prior uses of “Son of David”, both on lips of the unclean).
  • Second scene: exchange with disciples (15:23-24)—establishes the significance of the deliverance.
  • Jesus’ silence is met by the disciples’ request to send her away.
  • Jesus’ response is significant: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
    • The Son of David is Israel’s messiah in a unique way (see Jn. 4:22—26). But at the same time, Jesus has healed gentiles (8:5—13).
    • These points contribute to the dramatic exchange between the woman and Jesus.
  • To the woman’s repeated plea Jesus says, “It’s not good to throw the children’s bread to the dogs.” I.e.—blessings go to Israel, not gentiles.
  • Woman does not contradict Jesus, but extends the saying to include the needs of her daughter—a true act of reverent faith.
  • Jesus, seeing her faith, grants her the request.
  • Third scene: exchange with the woman (15:25-28)—the sufficiency of faith in God’s mercy.

Structure summary: Context: challenge of internal vs. external cleanliness

  • Supporting Point #1: Ironic identification by “unclean” woman that Jesus is “Son of David”
  • Supporting Point #2: Messiah’s mission centers on the lost of Israel
  • Supporting Point #3: Woman pleas for inclusion in blessings of God to Israel
  • Main Point: God honors the greatness of woman’s faith (both persistence and content)—she is a strong antithesis to the rabbis’ tradition-based religion centering on purity and defilement

Matthew 15:1-20

Context: Why is this passage here?

  • Preceding passage: walking on the water—a challenge to Peter’s faith (compare with 9:27 where the emphasis is on Jesus’ unique authority)
  • Following passage: delivering the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and other healings—here is a woman who is certainly unclean Teaching is directed first to the Pharisees themselves (denunciation); then to the multitude; finally, to the disciples. Note that this is the only passage in this section in which all three audiences are involved.
  • Mt. 15:1-20 reveals the heart of the conflict in Jesus’ ministry: hypocritical elevation of the authority of tradition (preoccupation with ritual cleanliness over revelation in Christ and OT scripture)

Outline of narrative structure:

Introduction statement: Pharisees’ question (15:2): “Why do Jesus’ disciples violate traditions by eating with ritually unwashed hands?”

  • Three scenes:
    • First scene (3-9)—addressing the Pharisees
      • Tradition invalidates the Law—rhetorical question v. 3
        • Example of corban and Law’s command to honor ones’ parents
      • Advocates of tradition are hypocrites
      • Indulging in heartless, vain worship (Isaiah 29:13)
    • Second scene (10-11)—addressing the multitudes
    • Defilement is the result of what comes out of a person, not what goes in
    • Parable of the uprooted plant—directed against Pharisees
    • Parable of the blind guides—directed against Pharisees
    • What goes in does not defile, but what’s in the heart—summary of 11, 17-19, “these things that defile” of v. 20a
    • Third scene (12-20)—addressing the disciples

Conclusion statement: the heart, not unwashed hands, defiles the man (v. 20)

Structure Summary: Passage in context of 14:22-33; 15:21-28

  • Introduction statement (15:2)—“why do Jesus’ disciples violate traditions by eating with ritually unwashed hands?”
    • Supporting Point #1: Pharisees’ question based on tradition that invalidates the Law—heresy
      • Corban case
    • Supporting Point #2: Pharisees’ focus on tradition indicates their hypocrisy
    • Heartless, vain worship described by Isaiah 29:13
    • Parables of denunciation directed to Pharisees with explanation to disciples
    • Supporting Point #3: Defilement is the result of what comes out, not what goes in
  • Conclusion statement (15:20) MAIN POINT—“[things of the heart] defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”

Passage Study - Step 2

Step 2: Examine the historical and theological content within the passage

  1. Historical/Cultural: Explain cultural practices, people, objects, etc. that may bear on the text’s meaning - Two helpful books on this are Craig Keener’s IVP Bible Background Commentary and Robert Gundry’s Survey of the New Testament.
    Such understanding of the historical and cultural context will help your interpretation for a couple of reasons specific to the Gospel writings:
    • ​​Jesus' actions were often intended to teach truth to his audience. To determine that truth, it’s important to understand the backdrop of Judaism against which Jesus did these actions. Notice where, when, and for whom the action in a particular passage is performed. Ask yourself, “What is the significance of this demonstration, in this particular context, to Jesus’ original audience?
    • Notice the way people around Jesus react to his teachings. How did their cultural context feed an appropriate or inappropriate response to Jesus and his teachings? Since Jesus was likely teaching and acting in a way that would elicit these responses, these reactions give us good insight into the truth Jesus is conveying.
  2. Language: Define key words, including places, people, objects, actions, and theological terms - Note the cultural significance of certain words and how certain words are used in the Gospels and in the New Testament.
  3. Theological Content: What does the passage teach about key theological topics:
    1. Salvation - What does the passage teach about God’s program on earth? How does the passage define or advance our understanding of God's plan to rescue mankind?
      Ask, "in what way has the Kingdom of God come?" Almost every chapter describes the "life" Jesus offers. What does that life involve? And how is salvation tied directly to the Old Testament and to the sacrificial system?
    2. God - What does the passage teach about Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit? What do we learn about their nature and relationship?
      Gospel writers include substantial Christology in what they record of Jesus' teachings and actions. Be sure to identify in the text who Jesus is and what he offers his audience. Also, Jesus calls God his Father and calls upon his disciples to address God as Father too (Matt. 6:9).
    3. A life of discipleship - What does the passage teach about the sacrifices and benefits of a life of discipleship? One of the purposes of the Gospels is to teach the early church about what it means and looks like to follow Christ. Pay close attention to Jesus' instructions about following him, what it means to "believe," and the examples he sets for his disciples.
    4. The kingdom of God - What does the passage teach about the nature of the kingdom of God?
      For an explanation of this theological term and its importance see the section on the Kingdom of God in Appendix B - Identifying Theological Content in the Gospels
      See Appendix B for help on Identifying Theological Content in the Gospels

Examples of a structural and theological study applied to three primary forms of Gospel content:

  • Gospel discourse (Example below is Matthew 10:5-42)
    • Context:
      • Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sends them out on their mission (10:1-5; 11:1)
      • Instructions clearly are addressed to Jesus’ disciples
    • Structure of the text:
      • 5-15 The nature of the disciples' mission
        • vs. 5,6: Audience: the Jews (lost sheep of the house of Israel)
        • vs. 7: Message: “Kingdom of heaven is at hand”
        • vs. 8: Evidence: signs of the kingdom to be performed
        • vs. 9-15: Approach: prophetic, itinerant
      • 16-23 Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves
        • vs. 16: Therefore: Be shrew as serpents and innocent as doves
        • vs. 17, 18: But: Beware of men who will take you to the courts, scourge you in the synagogues, and before Roman officials
          • as a testimony against them and the Gentiles
        • vs. 19, 20: But: Don’t be anxious
          • for God will speak through His Spirit
        • vs. 21, 22: And hatred and betrayal await
          • But: the one who endures will be saved in the end
        • vs. 23: But: flee to the next city when persecuted
          • Truly I say” you will not finish the task until the Son of Man comes
      • 24-33 Fear God, not men
        • vs. 24,25: Disciple is not above his teacher, nor slave, master
          • Enough that the disciple become as his teacher
          • If the head is called “Beelzebub”, how much more the members?
        • vs. 26,27: Thereforedo not fear them
          • Things hidden will be revealed
          • What is told in darkness, say in the light
        • vs. 28: And: do not fear them
          • who kill the body, but not the soul
        • Rather: fear Him
          • who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell
        • vs. 29-31: Thereforedo not fear
          • God cares for the sparrow of little value
          • God knows the very hairs on you head
          • You are of greater value than a sparrow
        • vs. 32,33: Therefore:
          • Confess me before men, I will confess you to Father
            • Deny me before men, I will deny you to the Father
      • 10:34-39 Paradoxical blessing of discipleship
        • vs. 34: I did not come to bring peace, but a sword
        • vs. 35, 36: For: Households in opposition (Micah 7:6)
        • vs. 37: He who loves family more than Me is not worthy of Me
        • vs. 38: And: he who does not take his cross to follow Me is not worthy of Me
        • vs. 39: He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it
      • 10:40-42 He who receives you receives a reward
        • vs. 40:
          • He who:
            • Receives you
              • Receives me
          • ​​He who:
            • Receives Me
              • Receives Him who sent Me
        • vs. 41:
          • He who:
            • Receives a prophet in the prophet’s name
            • Receives a prophet’s reward
          • He who:
            • Receives a righteous man in his name
            • Receives a righteous man’s reward
        • ​​vs. 42:
          • Who ever:
            • Gives cold water in disciple’s name
              • Truly I say: he shall not lose his reward
  • Gospel narrative
    • Scenes:
      • 1-11 Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
      • 12-17 Cleansing the Temple
      • 18-22 Cursing the Fig Tree
    • Context:
      • 20:17-28 Jesus’ disciples do not understand his mission, jockey for position in the kingdom
      • 20:29-34 Again, Jesus opens the eyes of the blind
      • 21:23-27 Religious authorities challenge Jesus
    • Matthew 21:1-11 Triumphal Entry
      • Context:
        • messianic mission again stated, but not understood by disciples
        • sight given to the blind (a sign)
        • unexpected cleansing, rather than dedicating, the temple
      • Setting:
        • approaching Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
        • Jesus sends disciples to get a colt for his entry into Jerusalem
        • Jesus, disciples and multitudes are present
      • Dialogue/Story Development
        • Disciples get a colt for Jesus to sit on
        • Fulfilling Zech. 9:9
        • Multitude spread garments and branches before Jesus and reciting a messianic hymn to the Son of David
        • The city, in a stir, asks, “Who is this?”
        • Answer: “the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee” (Son of David)
      • Character Development
        • Clearly Jesus regards himself to be the Davidic messianic king and that his entry into Jerusalem uniquely fulfills scripture
        • Significance of character development must be seen in context of several scenes which are viewed together
        • Masses for the first (and only?) time recognize Jesus as the messiah
      • Main point: Jesus is the messiah, Son of David—all elements of the scene indicate this
      • Supporting points:
        • Entry into Jerusalem fulfills Zech. 9:9; “Branch of Yahweh”
        • Multitude recognize Jesus as “Son of David”
      • Theology - For the first time in his public ministry, Jesus intentionally sets himself forth as the awaited messiah, the “Son of David”. Yet, this fulfillment has much irony which was almost certainly lost on the original participants in this event. Jesus directly fulfills Zechariah 9:9, anticipating the messiah coming as king, bringing salvation to Jerusalem, and mounted humbly on a colt. Laying branches before the messiah symbolically connects the hope of messiah with the “Branch of David” (Jer. 23:5; Is. 11:1,2,10; Zech. 3:8-10). The crowd cites Psalm 118:25, 26. “Hosanna” means “Lord save us” (Ps. 118:25), followed by “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The whole text of Ps. 118:22-28 seems uniquely relevant and prophetic. It is a hymn sung at one of the key festivals of the Jews, probably Passover—which in context clearly has symbolic significance. So Jesus, the “rejected cornerstone” is to be the sacrifice bound to the altar.
    • ​Matthew 21:12-17 Cleansing the Temple
      • Context:
        • Triumphal entry, fulfilling scripture; Jesus accepts public acknowledgement that he is the messiah
        • Followed by the symbolic cursing of the fig tree
        • His authority will be challenged based, in part, on this event (21:23ff.)
      • Setting:
        • In Jerusalem at the temple
        • Blind and lame; priests and scribes; children
      • Dialogue/Story Development
        • Entering the temple, Jesus throws out moneychangers
        • Prophetic denunciation of the hypocrisy at the temple
        • Blind and lame at the temple healed
        • Crisis: Priests become indignant with Jesus’ healings and the children recognition that Jesus is the Son of David
        • Resolution: Accommodation of scripture to denounce the priests
        • Jesus retreats to Bethany for the night
      • Character Development
        • Note the sharp contrasts between the needy and innocent, and the priests
        • Rather than “anointing the holy place,” Jesus creates a scandal by in essence denouncing it.
      • Main point: Cleansing the temple for its true purpose, as a confrontation with the religious officials that misrepresent its purpose
      • Supporting points:
        • Cleansing the temple is in keeping with the tradition of prophetic denunciation such as in Isaiah’s day (v.13 cf. Jeremiah 7:11)
        • More signs from Jesus in healing the blind and lame (v.14)
        • Child’s faith again affirmed (v.15,16, cf. Psalm 8:2)
      • Theology - When the messiah comes, he is to anoint the temple (Dan. 9:24 and related passages). But in this scene, Jesus does not consecrate the temple, but confronts it for its hypocrisy. This event is another instance of confronting the religious who are far from the kingdom. The discussion in vs. 23-27 clearly draw importance on the issue of authority—an issue that pervades Jesus’ ministry. The children’s faith and the signs performed, again, demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ witness and the emptiness of Jewish formalistic religion.
    • Matthew 21:23-27 Cursing the Fig Tree
    • Context:
      • After cleansing the temple (21:12-17)
      • Jesus’ authority to be challenged (21:23-27)
    • Setting:
      • On the return to Jerusalem the next morning
      • Jesus is with his disciples
    • Dialogue/Story Development
      • Crisis: Jesus finds no fruit on the fig tree
      • Tree is cursed, no longer to bear fruit
      • Disciples marvel, “How did the tree wither at once?”
      • Jesus responds using figures of speech
      • Resolution: What you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive
    • Character Development
      • Jesus’ symbolic act of cursing the fig tree seems a fitting continuation of his cleansing the temple
      • Disciples focus on the miraculous nature of the event rather than its symbolic importance
    • Main point: Jesus’ disciples called to a true, effective faith (v.22)
    • Supporting points:
      • Contrast of Israel’s failed faith—the symbolic imagery of the fig tree
      • Israel (the fig tree) is condemned to fruitlessness
    • Theology - Fig tree as Israel (in context of previous scene; also Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 8:13 use the same imagery in relation to Israel, and the latter, in relation to God’s judgment of the nation). Israel was to bear the fruit of being God’s unique covenant people. They failed to obey God’s law and did not live as a witness of God to the watching world. So Jesus pronounces judgment on Israel and shifts his attention to his disciples, who will carry on the work of the kingdom. Effect of believing prayer rooted in true belief, not ritual.
  • Gospel extended dialogue
    • Extended dialogue is a very common technique in the gospels. Interpreters will want to pay close attention to the flow of conversation, looking for how Jesus develops theology in the context of conversation. Extended dialogue is different than narrative in that it is much longer than a simple narrative and focuses almost entirely on Jesus making a claim, then clarifying its meaning in the context of uncomprehending disciples or hostile religious authorities.
      Here is an example for John 8:12-59:
      Verses   Structure
      12 Claim “I am the light of the world”
      12 Consequence
      • He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life
      13 Objection If you bear witness to yourself, your witness is not true (admissible)
      14-18 Response My witness is true:
      • Based on where I came from and where I am going
      • I am not alone in my judgment (witness),
        • For He who sent Me also bears witness of Me, who sent Me
      • Principle: law states that the testimony of 2 witnesses is sufficient
      • I and the Father bear witness
      19a Objection “Where is your father?”
      19b Response You know neither Me nor My Father
      • If you knew Me, you would know My Father also
      20 Summary statement by John No one seized Him
      • because his hour had not yet come
      Verses   Structure
      21 Claim I go away
      • you will seek Me, but die in your sins
      • where I am going you cannot come (note the thought of “where I am from and go” from vs. 14)
      22 Response “He isn’t going to kill himself is he?”
      23, 24 Claim You are from below, I am from above
      • you are from this world
      • I am not from this world
      • Therefore, you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am He
      25 Question Who are you?
      26 Question What have I been saying all along?
      • I have many things to say and to judge concerning you
      • But he who sent me is true
      • What I have heard from Him I speak to the world
      27 Editorial insertion They did not realize He was speaking about the Father
      28, 29 Claim When you lift up the Son of Man
      • You will know that I am He
      • And do nothing on My own initiative
      • But I speak what the Father taught Me
      He who sent me is with Me
      • He did not leave Me alone
      • For I do what pleases him
      30 Summary Many believed as he spoke these things


      31, 32 Claim If you abide in My word
      • then you are truly My disciples
      • and you shall know the truth
      • and the truth will make you free
      33 Question How do you say, “You shall become free?”
      • We are Abraham’s offspring
      • And we have never been enslaved by anyone
      34-38 Response Everyone who sins is the slave of sin
      • A slave does not remain in the house forever
      • The son remains in the house forever
      • Therefore, if the Son makes you free
        • You are free indeed
      • Yet, you seek to kill Me
        • Because My word has no place in you
      • Therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father
      I know you are Abraham’s offspring I speak the things I have seen with My Father
      39a Rejoinder Abraham is our father
      39b-41a Response to rejoinder If you are Abraham’s children
      • Do the deeds of Abraham
      • But you are seeking to kill Me
        • A man who told you the truth
          • Which I heard from God
      • Abraham did not do this
      41b Assertion We were not born of fornication (unlike Jesus)We have one Father, God
      42-47 Rejoinder If God were your Father, you would love Me
      • For I proceeded from God,
      • For I have not come on My initiative
      • but His initiative
      • Because you cannot hear My word
      Why do you not understand what I say? You are of your father the devil and you want to do the desires of your father
      • He was a murderer from the beginning
      • He does not stand in the truth
        • Because there is no truth in him
        • Whenever he lies he speaks from his own nature
          • For he is a liar
          • and the father of lies
      • because I speak the truth
      You do not believe me Who convicts me of sin?
      • If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?
      • He who is of God hears God’s word
        • For this reason you do not hear them,
        • Because you are not of God
      48 Claim You are a Samaritan and have a demon
      49-51 Rejoinder  Claim I do not have a demon
      • But I honor My Father
      • And you dishonor Me
      • Only One seeks and judges
      I do not seek my own glory I tell you truly
      • If anyone keeps My word
      • He shall never die
      52, 53 Response to rejoinder   Question Now we know you have a demon
      • Abraham and the prophets died
      • And you say, “If anyone keeps My word, he will never die”
      Surely you are not greater than our father Abraham or the prophets who died?Who do you say you are?
      54-56 Response       Claim If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing
      • The Father glorifies Me
      • Of whom you say, “He is our God”
      And you have not come to know God
      • But I know Him
      • And if I say I don’t I will be a liar like you
      • But I know God
      • and keep his word
      Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day and he saw it and was glad
      57 Question How could you have seen Abraham since you’re not yet 50?
      58 Response I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM
      59 Narrator summary They picked up stones to throw at Jesus, but he hid and went out of the temple

Passage Study - Step 3

Step 3: Apply the content within the passage

Is there a response to Jesus in the passage?

  • What do we learn about what faith in Christ looks like?
  • What do we learn about the decision to follow Christ or what it means to live as his disciple.
  • How is unbelief--rejection of or hostility toward Christ--characterized?

Appendix A - Overview Step Example (John)

1:1—5PrologueJesus as the “Word”
1:6—8PrologueRole of John the Baptist
1:9—13PrologueJesus is light of the world
1:14—18PrologueMystery of the incarnation
1:19—28NarrativeTestimony of John the Baptist
1:29—34NarrativeJohn’s witness of Jesus
1:35—42NarrativeEarly disciples called
1:43—51NarrativeMore disciples called
2:1—10NarrativeWedding at Cana
2:11SummaryFirst sign in Galilee: Disciples believe
2:12—21NarrativeCleansing the temple
2:22—25SummaryAfter resurrection, disciples believed scripture; many believed based on signs
3:1—21NarrativeChallenge to Nicodemus
3:22—36NarrativeJohn challenges his disciples
4:1—6NarrationJesus must go through Samaria
4:7—38NarrativeWoman at the well
4:39—42SummaryMany believed, having heard themselves
4:43—45SummaryGalileeans receive Jesus
4:46—53NarrativeNobleman’s son healed
4:54SummaryJesus’ second sign in Galilee
5:1—9NarrativeHealing lame man at Bethesda
5:9b—17NarrativeControversy over the Sabbath
5:18SummaryJews seeking to kill Jesus over teaching
5:19—29Short discourseBelieve the Son for eternal life
5:30—47Short discourseFour witnesses to Christ
6:1,2SummaryMultitudes followed because of signs
6:3—14NarrativeFeeding the 5,000
6:15SummaryJesus withdraws
6:16—21NarrativeJesus walks on water
6:22—25NarrationMultitude seeks Jesus
6:26—40Narrative extended dialogue“I am the bread of life”
6:41—51Narrative extended dialogue“I am the bread of life”
6:52—58Narrative extended dialogueEternal life through Jesus’ blood & flesh
6:59SummaryJesus spoke this in the synagogue
6:60—65NarrativeSpirit gives life
6:66—71NarrativePeter’s confession; betrayal foretold
7:1SummaryJesus refuses to go to Jerusalem
7:2—9NarrativeJesus rejects his brothers’ reasoning
7:10—13NarrationJesus goes to Passover secretly
7:14—24NarrativeJesus speaks at the temple
7:25—36NarrativeJesus is from the Father, many believe
7:37—44NarrativeMultitudes divided; a call to believe
7:45—53NarrativeControversy among the Pharisees
8:1—11NarrativeWoman caught in adultery
8:12—20Narrative extended dialogue“I am the light of the world”
8:21—29Narrative extended dialogueYou must believe or die in your sins
8:30SummaryMany believed
8:31—47Narrative extended dialogue“I am from my Father”
8:48—59Narrative extended dialogue“If you keep my word, you will not die”
9:1—12NarrativeHealing blind man; “I am light of the world”
9:13—34NarrativeDivision over healing on the Sabbath
9:35—41Narrative extended dialogueCall to healed man to believe
10:1—5Short discourseBeginning of “shepherd” teaching
10:6SummaryJesus’ teaching not understood
10:7—18Short discourse“I am the good shepherd”
10:19—21SummaryDivision arises over Jesus
10:22—30Narrative extended dialogueJesus gives eternal life
10:31—38Narrative extended dialogueA call to believe
10:39SummaryPharisees seek Jesus, but he escapes
10:40—42SummaryMany believed
11:1—44NarrativeRaising Lazarus, a sign for belief
11:45, 46SummaryMany believed, others fled to Pharisees
11:47—53NarrativePlot to kill Jesus
11:54—57NarrativePharisees waiting to seize Jesus
12:1—8NarrativeMary anoints Jesus
12:9—11SummaryMultitude came to see Jesus and Lazarus, many believed; chief priests seek to kill Lazarus also
12:12—19NarrativeTriumphal entry into Jerusalem
12:20—36Narrative, extended dialoguePrediction of Jesus’ death; call to believe
12:37—43SummaryMany did not believe, fulfilling Is. 53; 6; others including some rulers believed secretly
12:44—50DiscourseBelieve in Jesus for eternal life
13:1—11NarrativeJesus washes his disciples’ feet
13:12—20Short discourseServe one another
13:21—30NarrativeBetrayal foretold
13:31—35Short discourseLove one another
13:36—38NarrativePeter’s denial foretold
14:1—15Narrative, extended dialogue“Show us the Father”; a call to believe
14:16—31DiscourseThe Spirit and His ministry
15:1—11DiscourseVine and branches
15:12—27DiscourseThe command to love
16:1—15DiscoursePromise of the Holy Spirit
16:16—22DiscourseJesus to return to the Father
16:23—28DiscourseAsk with belief in Jesus’ name
16:29—33Narrative“I have overcome the world”
17:1—26Discourse“High Priestly Prayer”
18:1—11NarrativeBetrayal and arrest of Jesus
18:12—14NarrativeJesus sent to Annas
18:15—18NarrativePeter’s denial
18:19—24NarrativeJesus before Annas
18:25—27NarrativePeter’s second denial
18:28—40NarrativeJesus before Pilate
19:1—16NarrativePilate delivers Jesus to crowd, crucifixion
19:17—22NarrativeCross inscription and controversy
19:23—30NarrativeJesus crucified
19:31—34NarrativeJesus’ legs not broken
19:35—37SummaryJohn’s testimony and OT prophetic testimony intended to provide basis for readers to believe
19:38—42NarrativeJesus’ burial
20:1—10NarrativeEmpty tomb
20:11—18NarrativeMary sees Jesus, announces resurrection
20:19—29NarrativeJesus reveals himself to disciples; Thomas
20:30, 31SummarySigns included in this gospel intended to lead to belief and life in Jesus
21:1—11NarrativeGreat catch of fish at Sea of Galilee
21:21—23NarrativePeter restored
21:24, 25SummaryJohn’s witness is true and selective

Appendix B - Identifying Theological Content in the Gospels

The four Gospel books in the Bible offer a rich supply of theological content including truth about God, discipleship, and the nature of salvation and man. In drawing out these theological points, it is helpful to look for content related to three central areas: the use of the Old Testament in the Gospels, the nature of the kingdom of God, and God’s fatherhood.

The Use of the Old Testament in the Gospels

The Gospels contain many references to the Old Testament, including direct quotes, references to Old Testament narratives, and connections to Old Testament prophesy. When studying passages containing these references, it’s essential to first determine the meaning of the Old Testament narrative or prophesy to which the Gospel account refers. From there, look at the way the Gospel authors employ the Old Testament writings. This will give you clues as to the meaning and truth being conveyed in the Gospel passage:

  • Use of the Old Testament language and citations as colloquial expressions: Old Testament expressions and imagery were a significant part of simple cultural references used by people at the time. For example the imagery of a tree used in Matthew 13:32 would have easily been recognized by the people of the time as being a reference to God’s provision. Such a reference didn’t hold a deep theological or prophetic meaning, but instead was just a simple cultural expression, rooted in the Old Testament.
  • Allusions: Many times the Gospels indirectly use Old Testament material to bring out the tone or nature of a particular situation. For example, Jesus’ words in Mark 14:34 conjure up the language of Psalm 42 & 43, thus giving us a sense of the emotion and meaning of his words.
  • Application or accommodation of an Old Testament principle: Sometimes an Old Testament principle is applied in the New Testament in a fresh way, in a fresh context that takes it a step beyond its original use but is still in keeping with its original principle. For example when Jesus talks to the unbelieving crowd in Matthew 15:5ff, he is not saying that they are somehow completing a prophesy—instead he is noting how they are like the people Isaiah describes in the Old Testament passage cited.
  • The Old Testament is cited as a way of capturing an opponent’s point of view. See Jesus’ use of the Old Testament in Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; and 43-44.
  • Direct Old Testament prophesy fulfillment: Many times the Old Testament is referenced to show that the New Testament—specifically Jesus—fulfills the explicit intended meaning of an Old Testament author. For example, in Luke 4:18-21, Jesus claims that he is fulfilling the Messianic prophesy given in Isaiah 61:1-2. See also Matthew 8:16-17 and Luke 22:37 (Is. 53), Matthew 1:22-23 (Is. 7:14), and Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32).
  • New Testament fulfillment of Old Testament passages that are not explicitly tied to an Old Testament passage, but which implicitly carry the meaning found in the New Testament. Under this category, Old Testament prophesies, themes, and motifs find their completion—they are brought to fullness—not in an event, but in the person of Jesus. See Matthew 5:17, Luke 18:31-33, and Luke 24:44. See also John 4, where Jesus offers himself as “living water,” water being a theme in the Old Testament of God’s provision.

The Nature of the Kingdom of God

The concept of the kingdom of God is woven throughout the Gospel accounts, frequently referenced by Jesus.

  • His use of the term is rooted in Old Testament teachings and concepts:
    • God is a king over his people: See Exodus 15:18, Numbers 23:21, and Isaiah 43:15. See also passages referencing the “Day of the Lord” (e.g. Joel 2-3), which is seen as God breaking in on history to establish His rule.
    • God is the earth’s king: Portrayed as both a current king (2 Kings 19:15, Isa. 6:5, Jer. 46:18) and a future king (Isa. 24:23, 33:22, 52:7, Zeph. 3:15, Zech. 14:9)
    • God’s rule is David’s rule: 1 Chron. 28:5; 2 Chron. 9:8; 13:8; Ezek. 34:23,24)
  • Jewish people of Jesus’ time had an apocalyptic outlook of the kingdom of God, expecting a radical, overpowering, in-breaking of God on earth. They regarded the “present” age as being evil, and anticipated a future time of blessing for God’s people and judgment for His enemies. There was a sense of being a “wall” between these two times—the present time belonging to Satan and the future time belonging to God. This perspective led to moral and ethical passivity, with a focus on individual efforts to fulfill the law.
  • In contrast, Jesus taught that there was a very real fulfillment of the kingdom of God at the present time, though it had not yet been brought to full consummation. He was ushering in a messianic rule, and while not apparent in a geo-political sense, it was a conquering of the age of evil nonetheless. Jesus offered that there were “kingdom blessings” available to those who put themselves under the authority of the messianic rule:
  • People were invited to enter into the kingdom: Matthew 25: 34, 46
  • The kingdom is a gift (Luke 12:32) of salvation (Mark 10:17-30) to be sought and received (Mt. 7:7, 13:44-46, 6:33), even to outsiders (Mt. 8:11-13).
  • The kingdom included eternal life (Mt. 25:46, Mark 9:43) and the “joy of the Lord” (Mt. 25:21, 23)
  • The kingdom offered resurrection at the end of the age (Luke 20:34-36)
  • Evils are purged in the kingdom (Mt. 25:34,46)
  • By entering into the kingdom, fellowship with God is restored (Mt. 22:1-14; 25:1-12)
  • The kingdom includes unexpected reversals—those who would seem to be in it are not, and those who would seem to be out are in (Matthew 5:1—12)
  • These “reversals” are also seen in Jesus’ teachings on the nature of discipleship (Mark 8:35; 10:43-45)
  • The kingdom of God is portrayed as a mysterythat is seen easily and given freely to those who have a willing heart, but is kept hidden from those who are not humble before God (Matthew 13:10-17)

The Fatherhood of God

In the Gospels, father is the most common way Jesus refers to God. It is used over 100 times in John and 65 times in the other Gospels. Note its use in Matthew 5-7, and the implications for relating to God and being His disciple:

  • Your Father knows you fully (therefore trust in Him)—Matthew 6:26 & 6:32
  • Your Father accepts you unconditionally (therefore give others unconditional love)—Matthew 5:44-45 & 6:14
  • Your Father fully cares for you and delights in you (therefore relate to Him in a way that reflects His great love and care for you)—Matthew 6:8 & 7:11

Return to Top

Other Sections: