Why are there FOUR Gospels?
This is a question I hear frequently.
If the Bible is the Word of God – then why don’t we have just ONE Gospel, one full and precisely accurate version of what Jesus did and said?
A more interesting question, however, might be to ask why there are ONLY four Gospels. Why are there not more? Why isn’t there a different Gospel for every person who has ever encountered the living Christ?
The thing is that no two human beings are exactly the same and so our relationships with Christ and our experiences of Him are all different.
Yes, they are similar. We all know the same person; we all experience the same love and compassion. But we all experience the healing and wholeness Christ brings in different ways.
The four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – all want people to read their Gospels and come to know Jesus and have faith in Him. But they tell us about Him in different ways – highlighting the things that have been most important to them and downplaying the things they have not found helpful or perhaps not registered.
Essentially the four Gospels all agree that Jesus lived, that he taught and performed extraordinary miracles, that he died on the cross and rose again. That he was God made flesh and living among us.
But, otherwise, they differ in many ways.
For example, in the first three (the ‘Synoptic’) Gospels, Jesus says that ‘no miraculous sign will be given to people…except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’ And in Mark Jesus often tells people not to say a word about the miracles He has performed. But in John we are told that Jesus performed many great and public signs of His divinity so that people followed Him ‘because they saw the miraculous signs He had performed.’ Furthermore, in John, Jesus goes about claiming to be the ‘light of the world’ and the ‘bread of life’ – making His identity clear.
So did Jesus use special signs to prove He was divine or not? Did He want people to know He was the Messiah or not?
Scholars have argued about these questions and others for many years. But probably all we can say is that Mark did not think He did, whereas John believed He did.
And this is not a problem - unless we insist that every literal detail of each Gospel needs to be the same. Rather than seeing the Gospels as four distinct portraits.
Portraits of the Queen
Think for a moment of the Queen.
The Queen has sat for over 130 portraits. And all those portraits have been different. And yet they are all true. They are all true representations of how the Queen appeared to each of the different artists. The artists all saw different aspects of the Queen that they wanted to emphasise, that they wanted to communicate to others.
Coming back to our four Gospels.
As we get to know them better, we see that Matthew wants to stress that Jesus was a defender of Jewish orthodoxy. Mark is focussed on Jesus’s healings and his desire to keep His identity as Messiah a secret. Luke prioritises the parables Jesus told. And John uses symbols like Light and Bread and the True Vine to explain who Jesus is.
All four Gospels show us how each of the evangelists knew and responded to Jesus. Rather than giving us a wholly literal account of ‘the historical Jesus.’
The Gospel according to YOU!
The Gospels are reflections on memories held in the early Christian Church of the disclosure of God in Jesus, and especially in his death and resurrection. As we read them, we must set them alongside our own experiences of God and to those of other Christians over the centuries.
The fourfold Gospel of Christ compels us to compare, recognise diversity, learn from it and respond to the living Christ in a personal way. Through our own relationship, our own Gospel.
Then we will see that we are ALL evangelists. We all have a Gospel to proclaim – our own story of our encounters with Christ and what they mean.