Why Four Gospels?
By Davy Ellison
A walk around most stately homes often reveals the owner portrayed differently in various portraits: in one he is clad in military medals, in another clothed in hunting gear and in another looking suave in evening attire. The Gospels are verbal portraits—each portraying Jesus differently. It is not that there are four Jesuses, but each Gospel author draws out distinct emphases. Together these verbal portraits highlight the richness of who Jesus is. Perhaps the best way to see this is to note the focus of each Gospel in turn.
Matthew portrays Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. More specifically, Jesus is the all-wise, Davidic king that the Jews have been anticipating. Matthew paints this picture by highlighting Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus, particularly in the nativity narrative. He adds to this Jesus’s ability as a teacher, presenting Jesus’s teaching in five distinct blocks. Finally, Matthew employs the royal title “Son of David” on nine occasions, eight of which are unique to Matthew. The verbal portrait of Jesus in Matthew is: God’s anointed, all-wise, Davidic king.
Mark’s portrait reveals Jesus as the embodiment of good news. Mark’s focus is not the teaching but the action of Jesus and that action is often against evil. The “Son of God” title is important for Mark, and while it carries divine connotations Mark also reveals the humanity of Jesus. One third of Mark is taken up with the passion narrative which shows that Jesus’s identity is tied up in the cross. Mark’s verbal portrait of Jesus is good news as it reveals him as the Son of God victorious over evil by suffering to ransom others.
Luke, the only Gentile author of Scripture, aims to portray Jesus as a Saviour for all people. Supporting this claim is Luke’s distinctive use of the title “Saviour” for Jesus. There is also a clear concern for social outcasts throughout the Gospel. Jesus maintains contact with women, has a keen interest in the poor, speaks positively of Samaritans and tells stories in which Tax Collectors are heroes. Luke’s verbal portrait provides a historically accountable portrayal of Jesus as God’s promised Saviour who brings salvation to all people.
John’s Gospel is unique. It is likely that John wrote his Gospel quite a few years after the others. It therefore appears that John is more Christologically reflective. The emphasis in John’s Gospel is that Jesus is God—it is the note struck at the outset (1:1–14) and it resounds repeatedly throughout. Paradox is present, however, as Jesus is presented as both “I AM” and the sacrificial Lamb. The rich Christology of John is supported by the signs/miracles—the aim of recording which is to foster belief (20:30–31). John’s verbal portrait of Jesus is: God in the flesh bringing eternal life for his own.
There are two significant implications from this brief survey. First, it eases concerns about apparent contradictions between the Gospels, especially in chronology. If every author is aiming for a slightly different emphasis in their ‘Life of Jesus’ they are likely to order their material differently, include or exclude different events and ultimately construct a distinct narrative. Editorial choices do not introduce unreliability but reveal unique perspective in the Gospels. Second, it is important that we learn to read each Gospel in its own right. Resist the temptation when reading Matthew to cross-reference to the same event in another Gospel, rather let the Gospel you are reading present its particular ‘Life of Jesus’. In doing so with each Gospel in turn we will find ourselves with a much richer vision of who Jesus is. In our New Testaments we have four lives, but one Jesus.
Each Gospel is distinct, emphasising different aspects of who Jesus is. But they are not discordant notes randomly struck by a child sitting at a piano. They are a four-part harmony which brings depth to the Bible’s depiction of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all present the same Jesus, only from slightly different angles. Our Lord’s character and person cannot be captured in one snapshot, this is why we have four Gospels.
Further Reading: T. Desmond Alexander, Discovering Jesus: Four Gospels, One Person (2010, IVP).