WHY FOUR GOSPELS?
Why four Gospels? It seems strange that such a
question needs to be asked at this late date. The New Testament has now been in
the hands of the Lord's people for almost two thousand years, and yet,
comparatively few seem to grasp the character and scope of its first four
books. No part of the Scriptures has been studied more widely than have the
four Gospels: innumerable sermons have been preached from them, and every two
or three years sections from one of the Gospels is assigned as the course for
study in our Sunday Schools. Yet, the fact remains, that the peculiar design
and character of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is rarely perceived even by
those most familiar with their contents.
Why four Gospels? It does not seem to have
occurred to the minds of many to ask such a question. That we have four Gospels
which treat of the earthly ministry of Christ is universally accepted, but as
to why we have them, as to what they are severally designed to
teach, as to their peculiar characteristics, as to their distinctive beauties -
these are little discerned and even less appreciated. It is true that each of
the four Gospels has much in common to all: each of them deals with the same
period of history, each sets forth the teaching and miracles of the Saviour,
each describes His death and resurrection. But while the four Evangelists have
much in common, each has much that is peculiar to himself, and it is in noting
their variations that we are brought to see their true meaning and scope
and to appreciate their perfections. Just as a course in architecture enables
the student to discern the subtle distinctions between the Ionic, the Gothic,
and the Corinthian styles - distinctions which are lost upon the
uninstructed; or, just as a musical training fits one to appreciate the
grandeur of a master-production, the loftiness of its theme, the beauty of its
chords, the variety of its parts, or its rendition - all lost upon
un-initiated; so the exquisite perfections of the four Gospels are unnoticed
and unknown by those who see in them nothing more than four biographies of
In carefully reading through the four Gospels it
soon becomes apparent to any reflecting mind that in none of them, nor in the
four together, do we have anything approaching a complete biography of
our Saviour's earthly ministry. There are great gaps in His life which none of
the Evangelists profess to fill in. After the record of His infancy, nothing
whatever is told us about Him till He had reached the age of twelve, and after
the brief record which Luke gives of Christ as a boy in the Temple at
Jerusalem, followed by the statement that His parents went to Nazareth and that
there He was "subject unto them" (Luke 2), nothing further is told us about Him
until He had reached the age of thirty. Even when we come to the accounts of
His public ministry it is clear that the records are but fragmentary; the
Evangelists select only portions of His teachings and describe in detail but a
few of His miracles. Concerning the full scope of all that was crowded into His
wonderful life, John gives us some idea when he says, "And there are
also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be
written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the
books that should be written" (John 21:25).
If then the Gospels are not complete biographies
of Christ, what are they? The first answer must be, Four books inspired, fully
inspired, of God; four books written by men moved by the Holy Spirit; books
that are true, flawless, perfect. The second answer is that, the four Gospels
are so many books, each complete in itself, each of which is written with a
distinctive design, and that which is included in its pages, and all
that is left out, is strictly subordinated to that design, according to
a principle of selection. In other words, nothing whatever is brought into any
one of the Gospels save that which was strictly relevant and pertinent to its
peculiar theme and subject, and all that was irrelevant and failed to
illustrate and exemplify its theme was excluded. The same plan of
selection is noticeable in every section of the Holy Scriptures.
Take Genesis as an example. Why is it that the
first two thousand years of history are briefly outlined in its first eleven
chapters, and that the next three hundred years is spread out over thirty-nine
chapters? Why is it that so very little is said about the men who lived
before the Flood, whereas the lives of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and
Joseph are described in such fulness of detail? Why is it that the Holy Spirit
has seen well to depict at greater length the experiences of Joseph in Egypt
than He devoted to the Account of Creation? Take, again, the later historical
books. A great deal is given us concerning the varied experiences of Abraham's
descendants, but little notice is taken of the mighty Nations which were
contemporaneous with them. Why is it that Israel's history is described
at such length, and that of the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Babylonians, the
Persians, and the Greeks, is almost entirely ignored? The answer to all of
these questions is that, the Holy Spirit selected only that which served
the purpose before Him. The purpose of Genesis is to explain to us the
origin of that Nation which occupies so prominent a place in the Old
Testament Scriptures, hence, the Holy Spirit hurries over, as it were, the
centuries before Abraham was born, and then proceeds to describe in
detail the lives of the fathers from which the Chosen Nation sprang. The same
principle obtains in the other books of the Old Testament. Because the Holy
Spirit is there setting forth the dealings of God with Israel, the other
great nations of antiquity are largely ignored, and only come into view at all
as they directly concerned the Twelve-Tribed people. So it is in the
four Gospels: each of the Evangelists was guided by the Spirit to record only
that which served to set forth Christ in the particular character in which He
was there to be viewed, and that which was not in keeping with that
particular character was left out. Our meaning will become clearer as the
Why four Gospels? Because one or two was not
sufficient to give a perfect presentation of the varied glories of our
blessed Lord. Just as no one of the Old Testament typical personages (such as
Isaac or Joseph, Moses or David) give an exhaustive foreshadowment of
our Lord, so, no one of the four Gospels presents a complete portrayal
of Christ's manifold excellencies. Just as no one or two of the five great
offerings appointed by God for Israel (see Lev. 1-6) could, by itself,
represent the many-sided sacrifice of Christ, so no one, or two, of the Gospels
could, by itself, display fully the varied relationships which the Lord Jesus
sustained when He was here upon earth. In a word, the four Gospels set
Christ before us as filling four distinct offices. We might illustrate it
thus. Suppose I was to visit a strange town in which there was an imposing
city-hall, and that I was anxious to convey to my friends at home the best
possible idea of it. What would I do? I would use my camera to take four
different pictures of it, one from each side, and thus my friends would be able
to obtain a complete conception of its structure and beauty. Now that is
exactly what we have in the four Gospels. Speaking reverently, we may say that
the Holy Spirit has photographed the Lord Jesus from four different angles,
viewing Him in four different relationships, displaying Him as perfectly
discharging the responsibilities of four different offices. And it is
impossible to read the Gospels intelligently, to understand their variations,
to appreciate their details, to get out of them what we ought, until the reader
learns exactly from which angle each separate Gospel is viewing Christ,
which particular relationship Matthew or Mark shows Him to be discharging,
which office Luke or John shows Him to be filling.
The four Gospels alike present to us the person
and work of our blessed Saviour, but each one views Him in a distinct
relationship, and only that which served to illustrate the separate design
which each Evangelist had before him found a place in his Gospel; everything
else which was not strictly germane to his immediate purpose was omitted. To
make this still more simple we will use another illustration. Suppose that
today four men should undertake to write a "life" of ex-president Roosevelt,
and that each one designed to present him in a different character.
Suppose that the first should treat of his private and domestic life,
the second deal with him as a sportsman and hunter of big game, the
third depict his military prowess and the fourth traced his political
and presidential career. Now it will be seen at once that these four
biographers while writing of the life of the same man would,
nevertheless, view him in four entirely different relationships.
Moreover, it will be evident that these biographers would be governed in the
selection of their material by the particular purpose each one
had before him: each would include only that which was germane to his own
specific viewpoint, and for the same reason each would omit that which was
irrelevant. For instance: suppose it was known that Mr. Roosevelt, as a boy,
had excelled in gymnastics and athletics which of his biographers would
mention this fact? Clearly, the second one, who was depicting him as a
sportsman. Suppose that as a boy Mr. Roosevelt had frequently engaged in
fistic encounters, which one would make mention of it? Evidently, the one who
was depicting his military career, for it would serve to illustrate his
fighting qualities. Again, suppose that when a college-student Mr. R.
had displayed an aptitude for debating, which biographer would refer to it? The
fourth, who was treating of his political and presidential life.
Finally, suppose that from youth upwards, Mr. R. had manifested a marked
fondness for children, which of his biographers would refer to it? The first,
for he is treating of the ex-president's private and domestic life.
The above example may serve to illustrate what we
have in the four Gospels. In Matthew, Christ is presented as the Son of David,
the King of the Jews, and everything in his narrative centers around this
truth. This explains why the first Gospel opens with a setting forth of
Christ's royal genealogy, and why in the second chapter mention is made
of the journey of the wise men from the East, who came to Jerusalem inquiring
"Where is He that is born King of the Jews?", and why in chapters five
to seven we have what is known as "The Sermon on the Mount" but which, in
reality, is the Manifesto of the King, containing an enunciation of the Laws of
In Mark, Christ is depicted as the Servant of
Jehovah, as the One who through equal with God made Himself of no reputation
and "took upon Him the form of a servant." Everything in this second Gospel
contributes to this central theme, and everything foreign to it is rigidly
excluded. This explains why there is no genealogy recorded in
Mark, why Christ is introduced at the beginning of His public ministry (nothing
whatever being told us here of His earlier life), and why there are more
miracles (deeds of service) detailed here than in any of the other Gospels.
In Luke, Christ is set forth as the Son of Man,
as connected with but contrasted from the sons of men, and everything in the
narrative serves to bring this out. This explains why the third Gospel traces
His genealogy back to Adam, the first man, (instead of to Abraham only, as in
Matthew), why as the perfect Man He is seen here so frequently in prayer, and
why the angels are seen ministering to Him, instead of commanded by Him as they
are in Matthew.
In John, Christ is revealed as the Son of God,
and everything in this fourth Gospel is made to illustrate and demonstrate this
Divine relationship. This explains why in the opening verse we are carried back
to a point before time began, and we are shown Christ as the Word "in the
beginning," with God, and Himself expressly declared to be God; why we get here
so many of His Divine titles, as "The only begotten of the Father," the "Lamb
of God," the "Light of the world" etc.; why we are told here that prayer should
be made in His Name, and why the Holy Spirit is here said to be sent from the
Son as well as from the Father.
It is a remarkable fact that this fourfold
presentation of Christ in the Gospels was specifically indicated through the
Old Testament seers. Conspicuous among the many prophecies of the Old Testament
are those which spoke of the coming Messiah under the title of "the Branch."
From these we may select four which correspond exactly with the manner in which
the Lord Jesus is looked at, respectively, in each of the four Gospels: -
In Jer. 23:5 we read, "Behold, the days come,
saith the Lord, that I will raise unto DAVID a righteous Branch, and a King
shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the
earth." These words fit the first Gospel as glove fits hand.
In Zech. 3:8 we read, "Behold, I will bring forth
My Servant the Branch." These words might well be taken as a title for
the second Gospel.
In Zech. 6:12 we read, "Behold the Man
whose name is the Branch." How accurately this corresponds with Luke's
delineation of Christ needs not to be pointed out.
In Isaiah 4:2 we read, "In that day shall the
Branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious." Thus, this last quoted of
these Messianic predictions, which spoke of the Coming One under the figure of
"the Branch," tallies exactly with the fourth Gospel, which portrays our
Saviour as the Son of God.
But, not only did Old Testament prophecy
anticipate the four chief relationships which Christ sustained on earth, the
Old Testament types also foreshadowed this fourfold division. In Gen. 2:10 we
read "And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was
parted, and became into four heads." Note carefully the words "from
thence." In Eden itself "the river" was one, but "from thence" it "was
parted" and became into four heads. There must be some deeply hidden
meaning to this, for why tell us how many "heads" this river had? The mere
historical fact is without interest or value for us, and that the Holy Spirit
has condescended to record this detail prepares us to look beneath the surface
and seek for some mystical meaning. And surely that is not far to seek. "Eden"
suggests to us the Paradise above: the "river" which "watered" it, tells of
Christ who is the Light and Joy of Heaven. Interpreting this mystic
figure, then, we learn that in Heaven Christ was seen in one character only -
"The Lord of Glory" - but just as when the "river" left Eden it was parted and
became "four heads" and as such thus watered the earth, so, too, the earthly
ministry of the Lord Jesus has been, by the Holy Spirit, "parted into four
heads" in the Four Gospels.
Another Old Testament type which anticipated the
fourfold division of Christ's ministry as recorded in the four Gospels may be
seen in Ex. 26:31, 32, "And thou shalt make a vail of blue, and purple, and
scarlet, and fine twined linen of cunning work: with cherubim shall it be made.
And thou shalt hang it upon four pillars of shittim wood overlaid with
gold: their hooks shall be of gold, upon the four sockets of silver." From Heb.
10:19,20 we learn that the "veil" foreshadowed the Incarnation, God manifest in
flesh - "through the veil, that is to say, His flesh." It is surely
significant that this "veil" was hung upon "four pillars of shittim wood
overlaid with gold:" the wood, again, speaking of His humanity, and the gold of
His Deity. Just as these "four pillars" served to display the beautiful
veil, so in the four Gospels we have made manifest the perfections of the
only-begotten of the Father tabernacling among men.
In connection with the Scripture last quoted, we
may observe one other feature - "with cherubim shall it be made." The veil was
ornamented, apparently, with the "cherubim" embroidered upon it in colors of
blue, purple, and scarlet. In Ezek. 10:15,17, etc. the cherubim are termed "the
living creature:" this enables us to identify the "four beasts" of Rev. 4:6 for
rendered literally the Greek reads "four living creatures." These "living
creatures" or "cherubim" are also four in number, and from the
description which is furnished of them in Rev. 4:7 it will be found that they
correspond, most remarkably with the various characters in which the Lord Jesus
Christ is set forth in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
"And the first living creature was like a lion,
and the second living creature like a calf, and the third living creature had a
face as a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle" (Rev.
4:7). The first cherubim, then, was like "a lion" which reminds us at once of
the titles which are used of Christ in Rev. 5:5 - "The Lion of the Tribe
of Judah, the Root of David." The lion, which is the king among the beasts is
an apt symbol for portraying Christ as He is presented in Matthew's Gospel.
Note also that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is here termed "the Root of
David." Thus the description given in Rev. 4:7 of the first "cherubim"
corresponds exactly with the character in which Christ is set forth in the
first Gospel, viz., as "the Son of David," the "King of the Jews." The second
cherubim was "like a calf" or "young ox." The young ox aptly symbolizes Christ
as He is presented in Mark's Gospel, for just as the ox was the chief animal of
service in Israel, so in the second Gospel we have Christ presented in
lowliness as the perfect "Servant of Jehovah." The third cherubim "had a face
as a man," which corresponds with the third Gospel where our Lord's Humanity is
in view. The fourth cherubim was "like a flying eagle:" how significant! The
first three - the lion, young ox, and man, - all belong to the earth, just as
each of the first three Gospels each set forth Christ in an earthly
relationship; but this fourth cherubim lifts us up above the earth, and brings
the heavens into view! The eagle is the bird that soars the highest and
symbolizes the character in which Christ is seen in John's Gospel, viz., as the
Son of God. Incidentally we may observe how this description of the four
cherubim in Rev. 4:7 authenticates the arrangement of the four Gospels
as we have them in our Bibles, evidencing the fact that their present order is
of Divine arrangement as Rev. 4:7 confirms!
We would call attention to one other feature ere
closing this Introduction and turning to the Gospels themselves. Behold the
wisdom of God displayed in the selection of the four men whom He employed to
write the Gospels. In each one we may discern a peculiar suitability and
fitness for his task.
The instrumental selection by God to write this
first Gospel was singularly fitted for the task before him. Matthew is the only
one of the four Evangelists who presents Christ in an official
relationship, namely, as the Messiah and King of Israel, and Matthew himself
was the only one of the four who filled an official position; for, unlike Luke,
who was by profession a physician, or John who was a fisherman, Matthew was a
tax-gatherer in the employ of the Romans. Again; Matthew presents Christ in
Kingdom connections, as the One who possessed the title to reign over Israel;
how fitting, then, that Matthew, who was an officer of and accustomed to look
out over a vast empire, should be the one selected for this task. Again;
Matthew was a publican. The Romans appointed officials whose duty it was to
collect the Jewish taxes. The tax-gatherers were hated by the Jews more
bitterly than the Romans themselves. Such a man was Matthew. How feelingly,
then, could he write of the One who was "hated without a cause"! and set forth
the Messiah-Saviour, as "despised and rejected" by His own nation. Finally, in
God appointing this man, who by calling was connected with the Romans, we have
a striking anticipation of the grace of God reaching out to the despised
Mark's Gospel sets before us the Servant of
Jehovah, God's perfect Workman. And the instrument chosen to write this second
Gospel seems to have held an unique position which well fitted him for his
task. He was not himself one of the apostles, but was rather a servant of an
apostle. In 2 Tim. 4:11 we have a scripture which brings this out in a striking
manner - "Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for
the ministry." Thus the one who wrote of our Lord as the Servant of God, was
himself one who ministered to others!
Luke's Gospel deals with our Lord's Humanity, and
presents Him as the Son of Man related to but contrasted from the sons of men.
Luke's Gospel is the one which gives us the fullest account of the
virgin-birth. Luke's Gospel also reveals more fully than any of the others the
fallen and depraved state of human nature. Again; Luke's Gospel is far more
international in its scope than the other three, and is more Gentilish than
Jewish - evidences of this will be presented when we come to examine his Gospel
in detail. Now observe the appropriateness of the selection of Luke to write
this Gospel. Who was he? He was neither a fisherman nor a tax-gatherer, but a
"physician" (see Col. 4:14), and as such, a student of human nature and a
diagnostician of the human frame. Moreover, there is good reason to believe
that Luke himself was not a Jew but a Gentile, and hence it was peculiarly
fitting that he should present Christ not as "the Son of David" but as "The Son
John's Gospel presents Christ in the loftiest
character of all, setting Him forth in Divine relationship, showing that He was
the Son of God. This was a task that called for a man of high spirituality, one
who was intimate with our Lord in a special manner, one who was gifted with
unusual spiritual discernment. And surely John, who was nearer to the Saviour
than any of the twelve, surely John "the disciple whom Jesus loved," was well
chosen. How fitting that the one who leaned on the Master's bosom should be the
instrument to portray Christ as "The only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom
of the Father"! Thus may we discern and admire the manifold wisdom of God in
equipping the four "Evangelists" for their honorous work.
Ere closing this Introduction we would return
once more to our opening query - Why four Gospels? This time we shall give the
question a different emphasis. Thus far, we have considered, "Why four Gospels?
And we have seen that the answer is, In order to present the person of Christ
in four different characters. But we would now ask, Why four Gospels? Why not
have reduced them to two or three? Or, why not have added a fifth? Why four?
God has a wise reason for everything, and we may be assured there is a Divine
fitness in the number of the Gospels.
In seeking to answer the question, Why four
Gospels, we are not left to the uncertainties of speculation or imagination.
Scripture is its own interpreter. A study of God's Word reveals the fact (as
pointed out by others before us), that in it the numerals are used with
definite precision and meaning. "Four" is the number of the earth. It is,
therefore, also, the world number. We subjoin a few illustrations of this.
There are four points to earth's compass - nor the, east, south, and west.
There are four seasons to earth's year - spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
There are four elements connected with our world - earth, air, fire, and water.
There have been four, and only four, great world-empires - the Babylonian, the
Medo-Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman. Scripture divides earth's inhabitants
into four classes - "kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation" (Rev. 5:9
etc.). In the Parable of the Sower, our Lord divided the field into four kinds
of soil, and later He said, "the field is the world." The fourth commandment
has to do with rest from all earth's labors. The fourth clause in what is known
as the Lord's prayer is, "Thy will be done on earth." And so we might go on.
Four is thus the earth number. How fitting, then, that the Holy Spirit should
have given us four Gospels in which to set forth the earthly ministry of the