*THE FOUR GOSPELS
The four Gospels record the eternal being, human ancestry, birth, life, and ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Taken together they present not a biography but a Person.
The fact that the four Gospels present a Person rather than a complete biography indicates the spirit in which they should be approached. It is more important to see and know Him who these narratives reveal than to try to piece together a full account of His life from these inspired records (John 21:25, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”). For some reason God did not lead men to write a full biography of His Son. The years preceeding His ministry are passed over in a silence that is broken only once, as recorded in a few verses in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:40-52, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man”). It is wise to respect the divine reticence.
Incomplete Story, Complete Revelation
But the four Gospels, though designedly incomplete as a story, are complete as revelation. We may not know everything that Jesus did, but we may know Him. In four great narratives, each of which in some respects supplements the other three, we have Jesus Christ Himself.
This is the essential respect in which these narratives differ from biography or portraiture. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The believing student finds here the living Christ.
The Old Testament is the inspired introduction to the New Testament, and whoever comes to the study of the four Gospels with a mind saturated with the Old Testament foreview of Christ–His Person, work, and kingdom–will be greatly helped in understanding them. Old Testament quotation, allusion, and type are woven into the Gospels. The very first verse of the New Testament drives the reader back to the Old Testament; and the risen Christ took His disciples back to the Hebrew Scriptures for an explanation of His suffering and glory (Luke 24:27, 44, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”).
Therefore, in approaching the study of the Gospels the mind should be freed, as far as possible from presuppositions such as the Church is to be equated with the true Israel, and that the Old Testament promises to Israel and the foreview of the kingdom relate only to the Church. Interpretations are not true simply because they are familiar. It should not, therefore, be assumed that “the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32) is synonymous with the Father’s throne (Revelation 3:21, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne,” or that “the house of Jacob” (Luke 1:33) is the Church composed of both Jew and Gentile.
The mission of Jesus was initially to the Jews (Matthew 10:5-6; 15:23-25; John 1:11, “These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” …He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him”). He was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), and was “a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (Romans 15:8) and to fulfill the law that grace might abound. Therefore, a strong legal and Jewish coloring is to be expected up to the cross (Matthew 5:17-19; 10:5-6; 15:22-28; 23:2 & Mark 1:44, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven…These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly…“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,…and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” The Sermon on the Mount is closely related to law in the highest spiritual sense, for it demands as the condition of blessing, that perfect character which only grace through power creates (Matthew 5:3-9 and Galatians 5:22-23, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
The doctrines of grace are developed in the Letters, not in the Gospels; but they are implicit in the Gospels, because they rest upon the death and resurrection of Christ and upon the great germinal truths he taught, truths of which the Letters are the unfolding. The Christ of the Gospels is the perfect manifestation of grace.
The Gospels do not develop the doctrine of the Church. The word “church” occurs in Matthew only. After His rejection as King and Savior by the Jews, our Lord, announcing a mystery until the moment “hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:3-10), said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It was therefore, yet future; but His personal ministry had gathered out the believers who were, on the Day of Pentecost, made by the baptism of the Spirit the first members of “the church, which is his body” (Ephesians 1:23 compare with 1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
The Gospels present a group of Jewish disciples, associated on earth with a Messiah in humiliation. The Letters present a Church which is the body of Christ, made up of the regenerate who are associated with Him “in heavenly places,” co-heirs with Him of the Father, co-rulers with Him of the coming kingdom; and, as to the earth, although strangers and pilgrims, yet acting as His witnesses and the instruments for doing His will among men (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Ephesians 1:3-14, 20-23; 2:4-6; 1 Peter 2:11).
The Gospels present Christ in His three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King.
As Prophet His ministry resembles that of the Old Testament prophets. But it is the nature and dignity of His Person that makes Him the unique Prophet. In former times God spoke through the prophets; now He speaks in the Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Old Testament prophet was a voice from God; the Son is God Himself (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).
The prophet in any dispensation is God’s messenger to His people, first, to establish truth; and second, when His people are in declension and apostasy, to call them back to truth. The prophet’s message, therefore, is usually one of rebuke and appeal. At times, however, as when his message of rebuke and appeal is not heeded, he becomes a foreteller of things to come. In this too, Christ is like the other prophets; most of His predictive ministry occurs after His rejection as King.
The sphere and character of Christ’s kingly office are defined in the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:16), as interpreted by the prophets and confirmed by the New Testament. Whereas the New Testament in no way abrogates or changes the Davidic Covenant or its interpretation, it adds details which were not in the original covenant. The Sermon on the Mount is an elaboration of the idea of righteousness as the predominant characteristic of the kingdom (Isaiah 11:2-5; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:14-16). The Old Testament prophet saw in one horizon, so to speak, the suffering and glory of the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10-11, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories”). The New Testament shows that His suffering and glory are separated by the present Church Age, and points forward to the Lord’s return as the time when the Davidic Covenant of blessing through power will be fulfilled (Luke 1:30-31; Acts 2:29-36; 15:14-17), just as the Abrahamic Covenant of blessing through suffering was fulfilled at His first coming (Acts 3:24-25; Galatians 3:6-14).
Christ is never called King of the Church. “The King” is indeed one of His divine titles, and the Church joins Israel in exalting “the King of ages, immortal, invisible” (Psalm 10:16; 1 Timothy 1:17). The Church is to reign under Him. The Holy Spirit is now calling out, not the subjects but the co-heirs and co-rulers of the kingdom (Romans 8:15-16; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; 2 Timothy 2:11-12; Revelation 1:6; 3:21; 5:10).
Christ’s priestly office is the complement of His prophetic office. The prophet represents God to the people; the priest represents the people to God. Because the people are sinful he, the priest, must be a sacrificer; because they are needy, he must be a compassionate intercessor (Hebrews 5:1-2; 8:1-3). So Christ on the cross entered upon His high priestly work, offering Himself without blemish to God (Hebrews 9:14), as now He exercises on ever-living intercession for His people (Hebrews 7:25). John 17 provides the pattern of that continuing intercession.
In the Gospels, primary interpretation should be distinguished from moral application. Much in the Gospels that belongs in strict interpretation to the Jews or the kingdom is yet such a revelation of the mind of God and is so based on eternal principles as to have a moral application to the people of God, whatever their dispensational position. it is always true that the “pure in heart” are blessed because they “see God” and that “woe” is the portion of religious formalists whether under law or grace.
Special emphasis should be made to the things the four Gospels have in common.
(1) In all of them there is revealed one unique Person. The pen is a different pen, the incidents in which He is seen are sometimes different incidents, but He is always the same Christ.
(2) All the evangelists record the ministry of John the Baptist.
(3) All record the feeding of the 5,000.
(4) All record Christ’s offer of Himself as King, according to Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
(5) All record the betrayal by Judas; the denial by Peter.
(6) All record the trial and crucifixion of Christ.
(7) All record the bodily resurrection of Christ.
(8) All record events occurring during the forty days of the post-resurrection ministry of Christ–a ministry keyed to a new note of universality and of power.
(9) All point forward to His second coming.
And this record is so presented as to testify that the supreme business that brought Him into the world was His death and resurrection; that all that precedes these was preparation, and that from them flow all the blessings God ever has bestowed or ever will bestow upon humanity.
Since the first three Gospels contain so much material in common that they may be arranged as a synopsis, they are called the Synoptic Gospels. Careful readers of the New Testament will observe the similarities among and also the difference peculiar to these Gospels. That they contain dissimilarities is not surprising in view of the fact that each of these three Gospels is written for a particular purpose–Matthew to present Jesus as King, Mark to present Him as Servant, and Luke to present Him as Son of Man.
Matthew may have been the first Gospel written. It is thought that Mark’s account reflects, in its subject matter, Peter’s view of our Lord. That there were in existence many early accounts of the life and work of Christ is plain from Luke’s prologue to his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4).
As for John, this Gospel is in a class by itself. Probably written later than the Synoptics, it does not outline the life of our Lord but selects its material (including much that is not in the first three Gospels) in keeping with the writer’s declared aim of presenting Jesus as the Son of God (John 20:30-31).
Certain scholars have tried to trace the forms or patterns into which the earliest traditions about Christ were put for oral repetition. These forms are supposed to have provided material for the Gospels and are also thought to have been so thoroughly shaped by the needs of the early Church as to preclude a full historical basis for all the events recorded in the Gospels. In its effort to explain the difference in the Gospels, this critical view raises a question concerning the historical accuracy of the whole record. However, it fails to recognize evidence which supports the historicity of the Gospels. It may also be observed that selectivity of material does not necessarily mean distortion of fact, nor is the use of reliable tradition incompatible with the inspiration the Gospel records.
The important thing to keep in mind is the established fact that these Gospels are inspired historical documents of genuine authenticity and full integrity. Moreover, the believer in Christ knows in his own life the reality of the living Lord, who is so faithfully and yet so variously presented in the Synoptics and in John’s Gospel.