In 1947, there was a radio series, entitled, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It was based on the life of Jesus.
It was so popular that in 1949, Fulton Oursler, a senior editor at Readers’ Digest, transferred it into a novel by the same title. In 1965, it was made into a movie with a notable cast, including Dorothy McGuire, Charlton Heston, Telly Savalas, Charles Rains, Pat Boone, John Wayne, Shelly Winters, Jamie Farr, Angela Lansbury, and Sidney Poitier. This movie was so well received that it was nominated for five Academy Awards.
The life of Jesus is indeed “the greatest story ever told” because it tells how God so loved people that He would come to save us from our perishing condition. It is “the greatest story ever told” because it revealed how God kept His promises through the ages that a Savior, the ultimate “Son of David,” would come to bring hope to our perpetual defeat.
But this story is not told in one volume, but in four accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Our immediate reaction might be why it was necessary to be recorded in four rather than one? A close examination of these accounts shows considerable agreement, but also some variations. Some included certain events which were not included in the others. There are actions and teachings found in one book, but not in the others.
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Why would that be?
The answers to those questions lie in the perspective, purpose and target audience of each of these writers. Two authors, Matthew and John, were eyewitnesses as part of the disciple band that followed Jesus throughout his ministry. It is believed that Mark wrote under the influence of Simon Peter. And Luke, a physician and convert of Paul, claimed to have done extensive research, interviewing many eyewitnesses of the events he chronicled.
Careful students have discovered that each of these men wrote to different people groups to present the life of Jesus in a way they could relate to.
Matthew, a Jew, referred to over 60 references from the sacred writings of the Jewish prophets, to show his fellow Jews how Jesus’ life fulfilled those predictions.
Mark’s audience seemed to have been Roman by using terms and descriptions common to those people. He made little reference to the Old Testament, but wrote an action-packed account of how Jesus ministered among the common people.
Luke addressed his account to “Theophilus,” a Greek sponsor, to show Jesus ministered to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity. As a physician, he was probably very interested in Jesus’ birth, and recorded his interview with Mary, who in her later years told him the story only a mother could relate.
It seems John wrote his account many years after the others to fellow Christians who were being subjected to teachings questioning Jesus’ claims to be “the Son of God.” In John 20:30-31, this faithful disciple stated that he wrote to bolster the faith of his readers.
These differences in perspective, target audience, and purpose created a stereophonic story of the Savior, much like the various instruments of a symphony or the harmony of a choir. It was the story of one life presented to inspire faith in the four major people groups that the early Christians encountered.
God so loves people that He wanted them to hear “the greatest story ever told” in their context and in a way they could relate to ... even today. To the skeptic who needs documentation, there is Matthew’s record. The young, active individual who doesn’t want to get bogged down in too many details would find the gospel of Mark to be attractive. To those who love the beauty of literature, Luke’s account stands as a literary treasure of faith. And to those struggling with their faith, they can take shelter under the trusted eyewitness of John, who would remind them that their faith in Jesus has not been misplaced.
Whatever your need or present interest, God loves you so much that He has preserved “the greatest story ever told” so you may know the value He has placed on your life! Four authors wait for you at the front of the New Testament.
Loren A. Yadon is pastor of New Life Fellowship of Boise.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.