Why Four Gospels?
Good News Magazine
September 1974
Volume: Vol XXIII, No. 9
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Why Four Gospels?
James B Rector  

   JESUS CHRIST was God Incarnate — the perfect representation of His Father's character and love. So unique was His character and personality, and so profound the concepts in His teaching, that it was not left to just a single biographer to record His life. No one human being could fully comprehend and describe in words the totality of Christ's righteousness, wisdom and love.
   And so we have four God-inspired records of Christ's life — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Rather than give just a general narrative of His life, each writer emphasized different aspects of His life and teaching. The result is four different, and yet complementary, portraits of the complete, perfect man. Let's take a look at some of the facets of Christ and His message as revealed in each Gospel.

Matthew — The King and His Kingdom

   "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." So opens Matthew's account. Both Eusebius and Jerome state that Matthew was writing primarily to the Jewish people in Palestine. Thus he begins with Christ's legal genealogy through His stepfather Joseph (whereas Luke gives His actual human genealogy through His mother Mary).
   Notice that it is traced through King Solomon, son of David and most renowned of all the kings of Israel and Judah. It therefore represents not just a genealogy — not even just descent from David — but the royal or kingly line, which was of considerable interest and significance to the Jewish people of that day.
   The Jews had long been anticipating the prophesied, royal, Davidic king and deliverer; but when He appeared on the scene, they didn't recognize Him. Matthew's Gospel reveals Christ as that promised King — and emphasizes that His dominion will transcend the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. He will rule in the Kingdom of God. Matthew accents Jesus as heir to the promises given to Abraham and David. (For a detailed explanation of these promises, read our free copy of The United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy.)
   Matthew alone records the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem. What prompted these prominent sages to traverse hundreds of miles of desert? And why search so hard for a mere infant?
   "Now when Jesus was born... in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born KING OF THE JEWS?" (Matt. 2:1-2.)
   Matthew records that Herod so feared that Christ might be the prophesied King (Micah 5:2) that he had every child two years of age or under put to death (Matt. 2:16). It is only in Matthew that we find this information, because he was accentuating the kingship of Christ.

Accent on the Kingdom

   In many other ways, Matthew's Gospel has a decidedly "Jewish" flavor. For instance, he records more of the "Sermon on the Mount" than the other Gospels, because in it Christ demonstrated the spirit of the law in contrast to the letter-of-the-law observance prevalent in the Judaism of that time.
   Now consider the parables of Christ recorded in Matthew. Many of these special analogies expound the concept of the Kingdom of God. Time and again a parable begins with "The kingdom of heaven is like unto...."
   Here is a partial list of key parables in Matthew. Notice the one theme of them all:
   Kingdom like hidden treasure (13:44)
   Kingdom like priceless pearl (13:45, 46)
   Kingdom like net of fish (13:47, 48)
   Kingdom like a king dealing with an unmerciful servant (18:23-35)
   Kingdom like householder and laborers (20:1-16)
   Kingdom like royal marriage (22:2-14)
   Kingdom like ten virgins (25:1-13)
   Kingdom and use of talents (25:14-30)
   Kingdom and day of judgment (25:31).
   The theme of Matthew's parables is unmistakable. The kingdom of heaven is found in almost everyone of them.
   Matthew often uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven" for a specific reason. Usually the other writers speak of the "kingdom of God." But many Jews regarded themselves as already, since Sinai, the Kingdom of God (see Matt. 21:43). But the Kingdom of the Messiah was to be something transcending any physical kingdom. It was to be no less than the direct rule of the power of heaven — hence the term "kingdom of heaven." To be sure, the Jews understood the difference.
   It is also interesting to note that only Matthew uses the word "church," which is closely related to the Kingdom. In chapter 16 Christ told the apostles that He would build His Church: "I will give unto thee [the Church] the keys of the kingdom of heaven..." (Matt. 16:19). Matthew refers to the Church again in chapter 18 (verse 17).
   A book on the Kingdom is the logical first stage in the foundation of the New Testament. The Kingdom is mankind's human goal, the very meaning and purpose of life itself (Matt. 6:33). Therefore, Matthew, the writer of the first Gospel account, deals with this important aspect of the life and message of Christ. From his account we first read of precisely what God has ill mind for His people.

Mark's Gospel — Christ the Servant

   Mark's Gospel is quite different from Matthew's. For one thing, it is very abbreviated and concise. Mark starts abruptly at the beginning of Christ's public ministry with no details of Christ's birth or early life: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1).
   The book of Mark has few long discourses or parables. The second Gospel's purpose is not to discuss doctrine. Rather it is simply to show Christ doing the Work of God.
   Mark depicts Jesus teaching and healing. His objective is to portray Christ as the servant of God, the beginner of the Work, the preacher of the gospel.
   It is Mark who emphasizes the sacrifice needed for the sake of the Work of God: "There is no man that has left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold..." (Mark 10:29-30).
   Both Matthew and Luke quote this statement of Jesus almost word for word, yet neither includes the reference to the Work of God which Mark stresses.
   Jesus' final instructions to the disciples are recorded in the last chapter. Both Matthew and Mark note the command to go and preach the gospel, baptizing all who believed. But at this point the two accounts differ. Mark supplies what Matthew left out.
   Mark states that the disciples would be empowered to cast out demons, speak in new languages, be miraculously delivered from danger, and heal the sick. In other words, Mark shows the actual day-to-day activities of the work these men were called to do. He demonstrates the service or ministry they were to perform.
   Mark concludes his Gospel account with these words: "They [the disciples] went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following" (Mark 16:20).
   In Mark, Christ is portrayed as the servant of both God and man, the One who laid the foundation of the Church, and who began the great work of reaching the world with the gospel.

Luke's Gospel — The Son of Man

   The subject of Luke's Gospel is about Christ the man — the human being who loved and served his fellowman. He supplies ample details of Christ's birth, and is the only writer to give any information about Jesus' early life (Luke 2:41-52).
   In chapter three we find Christ's genealogy, but a different one than that found in Matthew. Luke traces Christ's lineage not through Solomon, but through Nathan, another son of David. We have here not the kingly line, but the human, physical, actual-descent line. The royal lineage in Matthew is Joseph's, and the one recorded by Luke is Mary's. (The last part of verse 23 is better rendered: "... Joseph, which was the son-in-law of Heli.")
   Just as the core of Matthew's theme (the Kingdom) lies in the parables he recorded, so it is in Luke. Consider the following summary of parables mentioned only by Luke:
   Forgiveness of debtors (7:41-43)
   Compassion of good Samaritan (10:30-37)
   Importunity — friend at midnight (11:5-8)
   The foolishness of trusting in self (12:16-21)
   Repentance and the barren fig tree (13:6-9)
   Repentance — lost money (15:8-10)
   Prodigal son — forgiveness and humility (15:11-32)
   Importunity of persistent widow (18:1-8)
   Humility, forgiveness — Pharisee and publican (18:9-14).
   Here we read the humble words of the publican: "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:l3). Here, too, the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and in the tenth chapter the touching parable of the Good Samaritan.
   There is a strong emphasis on the divine qualities of repentance, compassion and forgiveness of sin.
   Luke vividly demonstrates Christ's own dependence upon God, recording numerous instances when He prayed to the Father for help and strength (Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12-13; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1; etc.).
   Luke shows Christ was willing to spend time with people — common people and sinners, as well as those in high esteem. More instances of Christ in the company of publicans and Pharisees are recorded in Luke than in all the other accounts combined.
   Appropriately enough, Luke alone preserves Christ's classic words of compassion: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
   From beginning to end, Luke shows the humanity and compassion of Christ. It is evident in Jesus' parables and teachings, and the description of His everyday life. Now it is left for John to supply the one missing facet of Christ's life.

John's Gospel — Christ as God

   If you compare John's account with Matthew, Mark or Luke, you will find John uses a quite different approach.
   The fourth Gospel has always presented certain problems for scholars. The first three books are often grouped together as the "synoptic Gospels," while John is in a category all its own.
   What is the reason for the difference? And what is the overlying theme of John's Gospel?
   John apparently wrote his Gospel very late in the first century, when he himself was almost a hundred years old. The other three Gospels most likely were written decades earlier. Their authors, along with all the original apostles, were long dead — with the exception of John.
   Only John could look back over the years to that critical period when the Church was first founded. Only he could carefully review all that had since transpired and what had been written. And he alone could add the necessary details to round out the picture — under the divine guidance, of course, of the living Christ Himself.
   And what was His prominent theme?
   "In the beginning was the Word [Christ], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1).
   Here we have the most emphatic statement about the preexistence of Christ — who He was before His human birth. The emphasis in the book of John is on the fact that Christ was God.
   John was inspired to record the key testimony of Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish governing body and Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God..." (John 3:2). So here we have evidence that at least some of the Pharisees and rulers of the nation realized Jesus was indeed the Messiah.
   Another revelation of the divinity of Christ is found in the discourse of chapters 14-17. No other writer recorded this important instruction. It was then that Jesus said: "I am the vine, ye are the branches" (15:5), and "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father" (16:28).
   This portion of Scripture also contains His prayer: "And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was" (17:5).
   Just before His crucifixion, Christ taught His disciples that He had indeed come from heaven, from God Himself to mankind. And John faithfully recorded this information. So the overall theme and emphasis of John's Gospel is clear — Christ is God! And in his first epistle, John revealed the wonderful truth that even as God became man, so man may become God! (I John 3:1, 2.)
   In a most fitting conclusion to the fourth Gospel, John alone was inspired to record the first words of Christ as a resurrected spirit being — as God (John 20:17). In contrast, Luke had earlier preserved the last words of Jesus as man.

The Sum Total of Christ's Gospel

   The four Gospels begin the New Testament because together they give us a picture of the great Founder of Christianity and His message. Four aspects of Christ — king, servant, man and God — are carefully treated by the Gospel accounts. At the same time, four phases of His gospel are emphasized. The following summation will help you keep in mind the emphasis of the four Gospels:
   Matthew — King — The Kingdom of God
   Mark — servant — the Work of God
   Luke — man — the love of God
   John — God — how to become God.
   These comprise the fullness of the gospel message.

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Good News MagazineSeptember 1974Vol XXIII, No. 9