Y 4 Gospels?
A brief look at the reason for the first four books of the New Testament
The first four books of our New Testament are called “Gospels.” Formally, “The Gospel According
To... (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).” What are they for? Why do we have them? Why are there four
of them? Who are these men who wrote them? How are their writings similar / dissimilar? That’s
what we intend to answer in this short paper.
Why for (as in, the reason for)?
That is, why do we even have “Gospels” in our Bible? Together these four books comprise almost
50% of our New Testament. They must be important. Why for?
May I cut right to the point and tell you what I think of Jesus? I think He’s “Wonderful!” That is, He’s
full of wonder and He inspires wonder in me. He’s a “wonder” to me. I wonder at Him, and
sometimes I even wonder about Him. I don’t have Him all figured out. The better I get to know Him
the more I know I don’t know Him hardly at all. He doesn’t fit into definitions or theological boxes.
He's a “wonder.” I don’t mean that He’s confusing or that nothing in particular is true of Him. I do
mean that He just isn’t small enough to fit in my brain. I’m in awe of Him!
Though we may be tempted to think of these books as “Biographies” of Jesus, technically, they
aren't “Bios” at all. By definition a “Biography” is more of an extensive and chronological treatment
of someone’s life story. These writers make no real attempt to chronicle Jesus’ life completely or
chronologically. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are really thematic portraits of Jesus
and His life here on earth. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is not a reporter, but an editor. A
reporter’s job is to report events as they happen. The editor arranges the material in a way to suit
himself and emphasizes points as he thinks best. For instance, these Gospels almost entirely
overlook the first 30 years of Jesus’ 33-year life. Even from those three years of ministry did the
writers pick and choose what they would include. They all put most of their focus on the last week of
His life, about 1/3 of their narratives cover that final week. Someone calculated that if His entire life
had been covered with such care, our Four Gospels would be 8400 pages long!
So, why did these men write their “Jesus stories?” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were men who
loved Him with all their heart because of what He’d done in their lives, and they wanted the world to
know Him and wonder at Him as they did. To them it was news too good to keep. That’s why we call
them, “Gospels” - Good News! As you read the books, keep in mind that it’s all good news about a
Wonderful Person named Jesus.
Also as you read these good news vignettes, whether for the first time or the hundredth, read with
your heart as much as with your mind. Think outside the box when it comes to assessing His
“wonderful” life. The Jesus story is not always neat and tidy. He says and does some shocking
things. Don’t just pass these off as fodder for the experts. Take time to ask Him directly what He
meant by this action or intended by that word.
In the first book of the Chronicles of Nearing series, C.S. Lewis has one of his characters say about
“Aslan” (the ferocious yet tender lion, who is the Christ figure in the books), “He’ll be coming and
going. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down - and of
course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t
press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Lewis was so right! Jesus is way too big, too wonderful, too much to “tie down,” to put in a box and
make Him behave. Expect Him to surprise you - even shock you - as you read His story.
He’s a “wonder” to me. I wonder at Him,
and sometimes I even wonder about Him.
I don’t have Him all figured out.
In another of series by Lewis (Prince Caspian), a main character (a little girl named Lucy) who
hadn't seen Aslan for a long time, says to him, “Aslan, you’re bigger.”
He replies, “That is because you are older, little one.”
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
Why four (as in these 4)?
Few people ever have a biography written about them. Few people deserve one. If anyone’s life
warrants a biography it would be Jesus, the One Whose life made (and continues to make) more
difference than anyone else in history (which is really, “His-story”). But even if someone did write
one about you, would your life warrant the writing of two or three or more? I mean, some people’s
lives just aren’t that interesting! You’ve got to have led quite a life for multiple accounts to be written
about you. If ever there was a life which needed more than one treatment it was the matchless life of
Why four Gospels? Because one or two, or even three would just not cut it as an adequate
representation of the glorious and wonderful personality, life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. He’s
too awesome to be adequately described in one way by one person in one book! Just as no one of
the Old Testament typical personages (Isaac or Joseph or Moses or David...) could give an
adequate foreshadowing of the Lord, so no one of the four Gospels presents a complete portrayal
of His multifaceted glory. Even all four of them put together is by no means an exhaustive Jesus life-
story, nor do they claim to be. Together they tell us everything we need to know about His life on
earth, but certainly not everything there is to know. “Jesus did many other ... (things) which are not
recorded in this book... If every one of them were written down... even the whole world would not
have room for the books that would be written.” (John 20:30; 21:25) As Moses declared, there are
still “secret things which belong to the Lord.” The things He wants us to know he reveals in His
Word. For other things we’ll just have to wait (Deuteronomy 29:29).
It seems God would have us understand certain facts, be privy to a particular array of traits of the
Person of Jesus. The four books about His life show us Christ from four different vantage points, in
four distinct offices. It’s like the Holy Spirit has photographed the Lord from four different angles,
viewing Him in four different relationships.
Each would select their material based
upon the particular purpose for their writing.
If I ever get to the Statue of Liberty I can almost guarantee you that I will want to go all around it and
take pictures of it from every side. I won’t be content with merely the front or the back, I’ll want all the
available views in my photo album. I don’t want a glance at her majesty. I want to gaze on her
beauty. I’ll want to preserve that gaze in my photo album for future and ready reference. And when it
comes to Jesus I want to see Him from every side. I want a good long (eternal) gaze of Him. That’s
what we have in the four Gospels - a good pensive gaze at Jesus from the north, south, east and
If you go to the library to find biographies of Abe Lincoln, you’ll undoubtedly find several, each with
it's own emphasis. One might write about Lincoln’s spiritual life (as did the one I read recently).
Another might focus on his homespun personality and backwoods heritage. Another could deal
primarily with his political career. And still another hone in on his role in the Civil War and the
slavery issue. They’re all writing about the same man, but view him from four entirely different
relationships. Each would select their material based upon the particular purpose for their writing.
Each would include material based upon what was germane to his specific assignment. Each would
also omit that which was irrelevant to that assignment.
That’s exactly what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did. They included what helped them make the
point they felt inspired by the Holy Spirit to make. And they omitted anything which didn’t fit the
assignment they’d been given.
Why these four (that is, the writers)?
Each of the four men which God called to record the salient points of Christ’s life is uniquely
qualified for the task. Each, with their particular station in life, translates into his special contribution
as a biographer of Jesus.
Matthew was a tax collector (a “publican” in King James English). To his countrymen he was a
sellout Jew . The Romans appointed people like Matthew from among the Jews to collect Jewish
taxes. These characters were used and abused by the Romans, and at the same time hated among
the Jews. It’s interesting that God chose a man such as this to depict Jesus as the Jewish Messiah,
the Fulfiller of the Jewish Scriptures (Matthew 9:9-16). It seems to me that in order to sellout so
thoroughly, Matthew would’ve either given up his messianic hope or calloused himself against
thinking about it. Yet his Gospel is the most Jewish of the four and most Messianic in its approach. It
might be that the Holy Spirit picked a Jew who, after forsaking his hope for the Messiah and then
finding that Savior, would be most passionate to tell his fellow Jews about the identity of this
wonderful One. What a change Jesus makes!
Mark, or “John Mark,” as he is called in the Book of Acts (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37), was a failed
missionary. Remember the story about him abandoning the Apostle Paul and running home
prematurely? Later Paul and Barnabus argued over whether or not to give Mark another chance.
They split up over it, never to work together again as far as we know (Acts 15:36-41). This is that
“Mark” whom God used to write the second Gospel! Ironic, don’t you think, that God would use a
servant who failed as a missionary to write about Jesus a Servant Who succeeded in His mission?!
What a difference Jesus makes!
Luke, as a gospel writer is unique in that he’s the only Gentile which God chose to write a New
Testament book. When you think about it, it does make sense that God would assign someone from
outside Judaism to write the Jesus story. Make no mistake about it, Jesus was Jewish - very
Jewish. And Luke is as emphatic as any (except for Matthew perhaps) about Jesus’ Jewishness. He
is said to have come first for the Jews (John 1:11; Romans 1:16) the “seed of Abraham.” But the
entire Bible is clear that Jesus came for the whole world. “God so loved the world...” “...as many as
received Him to them He gave power to become sons of God...” Luke is also unique in that he’s the
only one of the four who most likely never laid eyes of Jesus during His earthly life. Matthew and
John were part of the twelve, and Mark, though not one of the twelve, interacted with Jesus and His
Apostles. But Luke didn’t come to the Lord until meeting the Apostle Paul in Troas (Acts 16; 2
Timothy 4:11; Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24). What a difference Jesus makes!
Lastly, John, five times called, “the Disciple whom Jesus loved,” (in each case it was he himself who
wrote those words) the man who knew Him intimately, would be assigned by the Spirit to depict Him
as God. John, the one who leaned on His breast (John 13:25), the one closest with Him, would be
best to speak of Him “which is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). The surprising thing about
the Spirit’s selection of John is what we know of him before he became a Jesus follower. He and his
brother, James were so edgy, so bombastic, so strong in their personalities, that they were known of
the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17)! John went from being a “Son of Thunder” to being known as
the “Apostle of love,” who rests on Jesus breast and writes most passionately about the love of God
and of the saints. What a transformation Jesus makes!
Why these four (that is, the writings)?
We’re told by Peter that “...no prophecy had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as
they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). That is, as is the case with each of the 66
books of the Bible, the four “biographers” of Jesus’ life didn’t simply take a notion to write a book
about Jesus and focus particularly on things they thought would be worthy of Him. They were
“carried along by the Holy Spirit” as they selected what to say, what not say, and how to say it.
Each one conveys a central truth about Jesus. Essentially then, in these books we might distill them
down to “Four things about Jesus you just can’t live without!”
They were “carried along by
the Holy Spirit” as they selected
what to say, what not say, and how to say it.
For instance, Matthew was assigned by the Spirit to present Jesus primarily as the “Son of David”
(9 times mentioned as such), the King of the Jews. Basically everything in his narrative revolves
around Jesus as the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament predictions of Messiah. The phrase, “...so
that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled,” is repeated 9 times in the book. It’s a
book written by a Jew to Jews about a Jew. This explains why he has repeated emphasis on the
term “the Kingdom of Heaven” (32 times), showing over and over Jesus to be the King of that
Mark’s assignment was to focus on Jesus as the “Servant of God” and man. His fast moving and
streamlined look at the life of Christ includes more miracles than all of the rest, in order to prove that
Jesus was the consummate and compassionate Servant. Writing specifically to an unbelieving
Roman audience, Mark emphasizes the works of Jesus over the words of Jesus. Since the most
important “work” of Jesus’ life on earth was His work on the cross, Mark’s Gospel devoted almost
40% of his book to the final 8 days of His life.
Luke, on the other hand, wrote the longest book of the New Testament and gave the most
comprehensive, chronological, and historical of the Jesus stories. He primarily wanted to show the
world that Jesus is the “Son of Man,” the perfect Human Being on earth. And so he included
information about how Jesus felt physically and emotionally, and how He cared about how others
felt. His audience was a Greek one, therefore his language proves to be the most refined in the New
Then there’s John, the most selective, topical and theological of all the writers. He had, as his
divinely appointed goal, to set forth Jesus as the “Son of God,” God the very God. Over and over
John recorded events (Jesus’ seven sign-miracles), statements (Jesus’ seven claims to be the great
“I Am”), and an assortment of other proofs of the deity (the God-ness) of the Lord Jesus. John was
most emphatic in His purpose statement (20:31) that his readers might “believe” and by believing
“might have life in his Name.”
When we study all the narratives alongside each other we find ourselves with a potentially balanced
view of the Lord. If we exclude one of His offices, one aspect of His character, one facet of His
Person in our belief system we may, to that extent be in error about Him. Together these four books
provide us with a composite picture of the Person and work of Jesus, working together to give depth
and clarity to our wonder of history’s most Wonderful Figure.
The four Gospels are like the four legs to a chair - each one necessary to the stability of the whole.
Some have connected the four Gospels and their views of Jesus with the four “living creatures” in
Revelation 4 and Ezekiel 1. Each of which seem to correspond with the same aspects of the Person
of Jesus presented in the Gospels. These creatures which the prophets describe are Cherubim (a
certain class of angelic being in heaven), each having four faces, that of a “lion, an ox, a man, and
an eagle.” The “lion,” which is the king among animals is an apt symbol of Christ as He is presented
in Matthew’s Gospel. The “ox,” a burden bearer, shows Christ as presented in Mark as the Servant.
The “man” seems to correlate to Luke’s focus on the Humanity of the Lord on earth. The “eagle” is
the one which soars the highest and symbolizes Christ as seen in John’s account, as God Himself.
The four Gospels are like
the four legs to a chair -
each one necessary to the
stability of the whole.
Let’s end up where we began - with wonder. As you read these “Gospels” do so with wonder. Don’t
simply view Jesus as someone to be studied, a specimen to be dissected, a topic to be reviewed.
May your composite picture of Him not be mechanical, merely scientific. As you read, expect Him to
appear in living color. As you read, don’t forget to wonder. Absolutely wonder. Wonder at His
beauty, His Being, his doing, His speaking, His living, His dying. When I look at Jesus in these four
books, I wonder - and I hope you will too!