The Four Gospels: New Testament or Old Testament?

By Paul K. Williams

I just received a letter from a Christian who asked about the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It said, “We are now receiving teaching that gives us the understanding that these books belong to the Old Testament. The church where we worship is confused about this issue. Please forward me some information to help us better understand the gospels.”

It is easy to be confused about these books because they are different from any others in the Bible. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John give the events and teaching of Jesus while he was on earth. When you study them, you should remember these things:

1. They were written during the time of the new testament. The law of Moses was God’s “first testament,” or the “old testament” (Heb. 8:6-13). It ended for all people for all time when Jesus died on the cross (Col. 2:14-17). The new covenant (testament) began after Jesus went back into heaven. He then sent the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the new testament church began (Acts 2). The four gospels were written after the church began for the benefit of people living in the new testament age.

2. The four gospels were written:

  • To produce faith that Jesus is the Son of God (John 20:30-31).
  • To give an accurate account of the teaching and actions of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).
  • To deepen the understanding of Christians concerning their faith. The gospels are not simply biographies. They were written to help us truly understand the teachings of Jesus.
  • To answer Jewish objections to Jesus as the Messiah.
  • To show true religion in contrast to the religion of the Jewish leaders.
  • To combat false teachings concerning the nature of Jesus. (This is especially true of the book of John.)
  • To announce and explain teachings of Jesus that are different from the teachings of Moses.
  • To give a true understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God, which is the church.

3. Jesus lived his life on earth while the law of Moses was still the law for the Jews. He was “born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). He kept the Sabbath, went to Jerusalem for the Jewish feasts, and told the rich young ruler to keep the commandments (Luke 18:20). He never disobeyed the law of Moses. All of the events which took place before the cross of Christ took place during the time when the old testament was in effect for the Jews.

4. Jesus was preparing people for the kingdom. He said that the kingdom was “at hand.” He gave many parables which tell the value and nature of the kingdom. When he was on trial he explained to Pilate, the governor, that “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

5. He announced new testament legislation.

  • He told Nicodemus that one must be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) in order to enter the king- dom of God. This is new testament legislation even though he was speaking before the new testament came into effect.
  • He told the Samaritan woman, “An hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the father” (John 4:21). This is the only verse which says that the place where we worship God is not bound. We apply it today when we understand that we do not have to worship at Jerusalem — or in an upper room! God is pleased with our worship when we worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
  • He gave specific instructions as to what we must do when our brother sins (Matt. 18:15-17), speaking of telling it to the “church” even before there was a church. This is the only place in the New Testament where we are specifically told how to deal with this problem. It is new testament legislation.
  • He said, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). This was different from what Moses said (Deut. 24:1-4). When the dis- ciples asked Jesus about this he replied, “Because of the hardness of your heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives . . . And I say to you . . .” (Matt. 19:8-9). What Jesus said about divorce is different from what Moses said! What he said is for all people now, in the new testament age.
  • Mark says in chapter 7, verse 19, “(Thus He declared all foods clean.)” All foods were not clean until Jesus died on the cross (Col. 2:14-17), but Jesus announced that they were clean before he died. This is all quite natural. Jesus was preparing his disciples for the kingdom which was just a few years or months away when he was speaking. His teaching naturally focused on that kingdom.

6. After he was raised from the dead, Jesus gave the great commission. In Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; and Luke 24:46-47 Jesus gave his last-minute instructions to the apostles. The New Testament was not yet in effect, but it would be in a few days. In these verses are commands telling them what to do after the Holy Spirit came to them, and in them are found the terms of salvation. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved.” “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached.” “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” “Teaching them to observe all things which I have commanded you.”

New Testament Books

It is correct, therefore, to say that the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are new testament books. They were written for people who live under Christ’s new testament. But when we study them, we must always remember that the events recorded took place in the last years of the old testament.