If you read Matthew, Mark, and Luke in a row, you get a “haven’t I read this before” feeling, because they are so similar to each other. In many places, they even have identical wording! For this reason, Bible scholars lump them together with the term “synoptic gospels.” The word “synoptic” means “together see,” because together, they see Jesus’ ministry pretty much the same way.
We call Matthew, Mark, and Luke the synoptics so we don’t have to say “Matthew, Mark, and Luke” over and over again.
The synoptics show Jesus’ ministry from the outside, while John gives us the inside story. The synoptics evangelize lay people; John equips the clergy to shepherd them.
The synoptic gospels follow Jesus’ deeds as He moves briskly from one activity to the next, speaking mainly to the public in aphorisms and parables that are hard to grasp. He moves so quickly that His disciples can scarcely keep the pace, let alone grasp the implications of what He is teaching. In John, the pace is more relaxed. Jesus speaks mainly to His disciples, expounding his teachings in longer discourses, without parables.
The synoptics relate Jesus’ teachings and the events of His ministry, while John explains what it all means. The synoptics describe Jesus’ exorcisms so that we may ponder what authority Jesus must have, if He can exorcise without invoking God. They show Jesus forgiving sins against God, which only God can forgive, leading us right up to the brink of Jesus’ deity, but not going much beyond. John, instead, omits the exorcisms and dives right into the discussions about Jesus’ preexistence, deity, and authority that would have necessarily taken place among the disciples after these events occurred.
The synoptics’ primary concern seems to be the effect of Jesus’ ministry on the public, with the ramifications that had for the disciples, while John’s primary concern is to reveal what went on within the group when Jesus and the disciples were alone. The synoptics show Jesus’ ministry from the outside, while John gives us the inside story.
The synoptics presume a theological background more than they teach it; they identify Jesus within the theology of the synagogue as the Messiah, while honing, sharpening, and correcting that concept only a little. John goes into much more explanatory detail, teaching the preexistence of Jesus Christ with God before creation and showing Him conscious of it. In the synoptics, Jesus presents the basic outline of His teachings to the public, so that His disciples can fill out the details later. In John, Jesus gives them those details in private. The synoptics speak in the external language of synagogue worship, but John speaks the internal language of Palestinian Jewish sages. The synoptics show Jesus’ ministry from the outside, while John gives us the inside story.
The public consists of lay people, while the disciples are clergy-in-training. Therefore we can say that the synoptics are concerned with the discipleship and spirituality of the laity, stressing fundamental things they must believe and do, while John plunges into the deeper discipleship and spirituality of the clergy, who must not only believe and obey, but also understand why, so they can guide the laity.
In the synoptics, we find Jesus requiring that the leaders be servants of the rank and file; in John, He equips them explicitly for this task. In John, faith involves a greater intellectual investment and obedience is not possible without careful reflection. For in the synoptics, it is sufficient to trust Jesus and obey His commandments, but in John we must contemplate the implications of the incarnate God. Again, the synoptics show Jesus’ ministry from the outside, while John gives us the inside story.
The primary value of the synoptics is in its emphasis on the laity, presenting Jesus’ words and deeds in terms the readers can understand, while perhaps spoofing the clergy from time to time to keep them humble and to remind the laity that they must take initiative. The primary value of John is to equip the clergy by developing the philosophical, ethical, and theological themes that the synoptics only mention.
Both the synoptics and John have historical value. Since the synoptics focus on external events, their primary historical value is in locating Jesus within the context of historical events. At first blush, John does not seem to have any historical value at all, since he deals with teachings rather than events. Since we find that John is intimately acquainted with Palestinian geography, so we cannot dismiss its historical authenticity out of hand. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that John’ theology fits very well within first-century Judaism, which was more diverse than we used to think. John’s historical value is not in fixing dates and events, but in locating Jesus and the early Christian kerygma within the theological and philosophical context of first-century Judaism.
The early church was very wise to include both the synoptics and John in the canon of the New Testament. Without John, the clergy would be at a loss to deal with many pastoral situations that result from lay people testing and trying the discipleship that Jesus requires in the synoptics. Without the synoptics, lay people would find their discipleship stymied by theological riddles. Without John, the Christian community would be well equipped to evangelize, but would be hampered in its ability to manage itself after the converts came in the door. Without the synoptics, the Christian community would be well maintained, but it would find growth difficult. So the synoptics are the gospel of the outside, the gospel of evangelism, the gospel of the external public face, and the gospel that equips the laity, while John is the gospel of the inside, the gospel of reflection and discernment, the gospel of the internal private face, and the gospel that equips the clergy.
As an individual Christian, I find that the synoptics help me live in obedience in the world, while John helps me live in faith within my soul. The synoptics tell me what to do, and John tells me why.