“Four Portraits, One Jesus”

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark 1:1

Our New Testament begins with the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are sometimes called “the Gospels.” However, it would be more appropriate to call them “The gospel according to Matthew, Mark…” etc. because there is only one gospel message (Gal. 1:6-9). The word “gospel” (= “good news”) is used to describe the message of God’s saving act in his Son (Mk. 1:1, 14-15; Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 15:1). Not until Justin in the second century were these accounts referred to as “the Gospels,” their own literary genre.

Though they lack some key features of traditional histories and biographies (for example, there is not much said about Jesus’ childhood and they do not always adhere to strict chronology), they best fit within these categories and give us a helpful framework to understand them. Though each account is unique, they all start, in some way, with the beginning of Jesus’ work on earth and end with his crucifixion and resurrection. This separates them from second and third century documents like the so-called “gospels” of Thomas or Peter which were written later and ascribed to the apostles.

If there is only one gospel message, why then do we have four similar but unique accounts of the same story? Over the years, Christians have attempted to answer this by “harmonizing” the four books in order to reconstruct the life of Jesus into a more complete picture. While this approach can be very helpful, we should also learn to view and appreciate each book on its own merit. 

In our quest to understand them, we must remember that each book functions on its own as a piece of literature. These four authors were as much theologians as they were historians. They did not merely “cut and paste” other sources together nor did they mechanically transcribe golden tablets that fell from the sky. God’s message is heard through four unique voices that reflect their own individual personality, writing style, experience, purpose and unique audience.

Therefore, we must approach each one as (1) historically reliable, (2) theologically charged, and (3) God-breathed (inspired). Each author put in a great deal of effort to write their account (Lk. 1:1-4). Those efforts, however, were superintended by God’s Spirit so that the final product was exactly what God wanted to communicate to his people (2 Pet. 1:21). God’s involvement and oversight of the writing process is what makes these texts “sacred” and “God-breathed” (1 Cor. 2:6-16; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Scripture, then, is the result of the collaborative efforts of God’s Spirit and human authors.

One helpful way to appreciate each book is given below:

How deep: Matthew — Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews to show the depth of the gospel. He quotes extensively from the Old Testament to demonstrate how Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy.

How wide: Luke — Luke was a Gentile writing to Gentiles to show the width of the gospel. He emphasizes the universal scope of God’s plan in welcoming Gentiles and outcasts into the kingdom.

How high: John — John shows the cosmic height of the gospel. His unique introduction, followed by a series of miraculous signs and accompanying discourses, emphasizes Jesus as the divine Son of God.

How low: Mark — Mark shows the lowliness of the gospel. He challenges Greek misconceptions about the Messiah by emphasizing Jesus’ authority in the first half of the book and then his suffering in the last half leading to his crucifixion.