The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
God has been pleased to give us four Gospels, not one. Yet man is never satisfied with God’s provision and so there have always been those who think that they know better than God and try to ‘harmonise’ the four into one. But God is wiser than man and says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Is. 55: 8). While the four Gospels present the same blessed Person, they do so in four different lights. Matthew presents Him in relation to Israel as their Messiah, the King; Mark as Jehovah’s Servant, the Branch (see Zech. 3: 8); Luke in universal character as Son of Man, ever prayerfully dependant; while John gives us God manifest in flesh. Hence while some incidents occur in all four Gospels, others are unique to just one.
God’s wisdom is also seen in His choice of human pen. Naturally, Matthew was a very unsuited choice to address his nation, for the Jewish tax–gatherers employed by Rome were the most despised and hated in the nation—yet he was God’s choice. Mark was not an apostle, had not witnessed the events of which he wrote and had failed in service—yet again he was God’s choice to present the perfect Servant. Luke was not an apostle, had never accompanied the Lord on earth, some think that he was not even a Jew—yet God took up this physician to present the Lord as the ever–dependant Man. And John? The very converse of the educated Saul of Tarsus, a fisherman of Galilee chosen to give us the unfathomable depth and wonder of the One who was here as God in manhood’s form. Thus in the four Gospels we have two pairs of extremes: in Matthew and Mark it is His official positions as king and servant (for who can be higher than a king or more lowly than a servant?); in Luke and John it is He who is Man and God, extremes that need no comment.
Solomon wrote “Wisdom hath built her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars” (Prov. 9: 1). Seven is the number of completeness and speaks of spiritual perfection. Now in the four Gospels there are seven distinct and unique events—seven pillars on which everything else rests and is supported. Each of these events is given or omitted according to the writer’s presentation of the Lord. Luke alone gives us all seven, John but two. It is these seven pillars of wisdom that I want to briefly sketch for you.
Matthew records this since a royal birth is of great importance as claiming the throne. Associated with that birth we have the Lord’s genealogy traced through Joseph, His legal father, to Abraham and David, establishing the Lord on both the line of promise and royalty. His birth was of a virgin, a vital fact in regard to His sacrificial death, and the fulfilment of Scripture (Matthew, more than any other evangelist, records the fulfilment of OT Scriptures). While Jerusalem and its king are troubled at His birth, Gentile dignitaries from the East give the Lord His rightful royal place. In sharp contrast, those in Luke’s record who are gathered to the lowly manger are humble shepherds. There the Lord’s genealogy is given on His mother’s side right back to Adam because Luke’s purpose is to show Him as the Man amongst men. Mark is silent regarding the birth of the Lord for, as another has said, ‘Who enquires into the pedigree of a servant?’ John like Mark is also silent—but for a different reason. The incarnation is embraced in the words “And the Word became flesh” (John 1: 14). How that occurred is passed over. It was the One who is the expression of the mind of God entering the condition of manhood. In John He is God manifest in flesh (see 1 Tim. 3: 16) and the thought of the weakness and frailty associated with birth would be out of place.
A careful reading of John 1: 29–34 establishes the fact that the Lord’s baptism is absent from John’s record. Associated matters are recorded but the actual event is not there and there is no voice from heaven. It is John the Baptist himself who bears witness “that this is the Son of God” (John 1: 34). The submission to authority, inherent in baptism, would be out of keeping with the glory of Him who is, and ever was God. However, it is this evangelist who gives the reason for that baptism: “but that he might be manifested to Israel, therefore have I come baptising with water” (John 1: 31). Fittingly, Matthew’s description is the most detailed, for he presents the Lord in relation to the nation of Israel. Against a background of the sons of Israel coming to John’s baptism, God’s voice is heard from heaven declaring “This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight” (Matt. 3: 17)—a declaration that goes beyond the truth of the Christ of God. Mark, like most of his Gospel, is brief and to the point (for the place of a servant is to say no more than is essential)—but with one important difference. The voice from heaven is presented, not as addressing the sons of Israel, but the Lord himself: “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I have found my delight” (Mark 1: 11). These words are identically recorded by Luke in his description of the event (see Luke 3: 22). Their prime purpose is thus not one of testimony to Israel but confirming to the perfect Servant and Man that the lowly place He had taken in no way affected His position in the divine affections.
Immediately after God’s declaration of the Lord’s sonship at John’s baptism, Satan put this to the test in the wilderness temptations. However, “God cannot be tempted by evil things” (James 1: 13) and so the temptations are not recorded by the one who presents “God … manifested in flesh” (1 Tim. 3: 16). Presenting the Lord as man, the other three writers give the temptations but Mark, in keeping with his general brevity, omits the detail. Each of them describe the event in line with their presentation of the Lord. Matthew states “Then Jesus was carried up into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted of the devil” (Matt. 4: 1)—a king in the royal dignity of his person is carried. Mark says “And immediately the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1: 12)—“driven” being fitting for a servant. Luke says “But Jesus, full of [the] Holy Spirit … was led by the Spirit in the wilderness forty days, tempted of the devil” (Luke 4: 1, 2)—as man He is led. As to the detail, Matthew gives the historical order, as it is in keeping with his presentation of the Lord, culminating in the Devil displaying “all the kingdoms of the world” (Matt. 4: 8). Unlike Matthew, there are no words that indicate time in Luke’s version. With him we have, as is often the case in his Gospel, the moral order and thus the three temptations correspond to “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2: 16).
This event is described by Peter in 2 Pet. 1: 16–18. Here and in the synoptic Gospel accounts we have the words “This is my beloved Son”, clearly linking the transfiguration with the Lord’s baptism. Just as His baptism prefigures His suffering and death, so the transfiguration speaks of His power and kingdom glory. Strikingly, John, although the only Gospel writer present, does not mention the transfiguration. This is because it does not fit in with his description of the Lord—for He takes up the Kingdom as man (see 1 Cor. 15: 24–28 etc.). All three synoptic writers describe the occasion of the transfiguration but with variations. I will just consider one difference: the way each writer describes the transfigured Lord. Matthew having the Lord as King before him says “his face shone as the sun” (Matt. 17: 2)—that regal body of light that God made “to rule the day” (Gen. 1: 16). Mark’s words are “and his garments became shining, exceeding white [as snow], such as fuller on earth could not whiten [them]” (Mark 9: 3). The link with the Lord’s service is there for flaying garments to make them clean was hard labour. And Luke? His words are “And as he prayed the fashion of his countenance became different and his raiment white [and] effulgent” (Luke 9: 29, my emphasis). Luke, more than the other evangelists, presents the Lord as praying.
All the great sevens of Scripture divide into four and three, or three and four. The first four pillars begin with the Lord’s birth; the last three begin with His death. This stupendous event and the resurrection is recorded by all four writers—for if we are to speak of the most important of the seven pillars, surely His death and resurrection can have no parallel.
While the differences we are noting are still there, they are overshadowed by other distinctions because of the surpassing magnitude of this event. Each of the four writers describes the death in the light of one of the four great sacrificial offerings in Leviticus: the burnt offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the trespass offering. Only in Matthew and Mark is the Lord is forsaken of God in the three hours of darkness (see Matt. 27: 46; Mark 15: 34), and there we have the trespass and sin offerings respectively. As Matthew’s account is directed at Israel, a nation under the law, I link Matthew with the trespass offering, for trespass is impossible without law. Mark writes with a wider audience than Israel in mind, for he alone on several occasions in his Gospel gives the original Aramaic words uttered along with their interpretation (see Mark 3: 17; 5: 41; 7: 11, 34). Mark’s universal aspect suggests the sin offering. Now the trespass and sin offerings were mandatory but the peace and burnt offerings were free–will (voluntary). The burnt offering was entirely for God—man consumed no part of it—but in the peace offering the offerer was able to appreciate something of the excellence of the offering by eating of it. Luke gives this side of fellowship with God (see 1 Cor. 10: 18) for he alone recounts the voluntary testimony of the malefactor and his appreciation of the crucified Christ (see Luke 23: 39–43; the centurion’s testimony in Matt. 27: 54 was forced by events). In John it is the burnt offering—what Christ was for God in His death. Among the ordinary sacrifices the burnt offering had an unequalled place. All others were more or less partaken of by man, but none ate of the burnt offering. It was all for God. Thus in John there are no hours of darkness, no plaintive cry to God, and no testimony from malefactor or centurion. In this Gospel the Lord speaks rather of going to the Father (see John 16: 17 etc.)—it is by way of His death of course, but all is in relation to God.
Let us now consider the finer points of distinction regarding the moment of the Lord’s death. From Matthew we have “And Jesus, having again cried with a loud voice, gave up the ghost” (Matt. 27: 50). The word translated “gave up” is the same word that Matthew used when the Lord “dismissed” the crowds (Matt. 13: 36). It carries authority, the authority of Him who is King. Mark says simply “And Jesus, having uttered a loud cry, expired” (Mark 15: 37). There is no mention of the spirit. It is the simple terse fact that He died—appropriate to a servant. Luke also states that the Lord expired but adds more: “And Jesus, having cried with a loud voice, said, Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23: 46). It is, as ever in Luke, the dependant man committing His spirit into the Father’s hands. Finally, with John, the end is different again: “When therefore Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished; and having bowed his head, he delivered up his spirit” (John 19: 30). Solomon said “There is no man who hath control over the spirit to retain the spirit; and no one hath control over the day of death (Eccl. 8: 8). The Lord was more than man so He “delivered up his spirit” and, unique to John, He “bowed his head”. There is no loud cry, just the simple action of One who is in absolute control. As he had said regarding His life “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself” (John 10: 18).
All four evangelists record this event and all, as ever, are different. The little details that cursory readers pass over as insignificant are the very ones distinguishing the writer. Matthew alone gives us the Lord’s meeting with the women as they hasten to tell the disciples He was risen. It says “Jesus met them, saying, Hail! And they coming up took him by the feet, and did him homage” (Matt. 28: 9). This is the obeisance required for a king. The eleven give Him the same homage in v17. As to what many call the Great Commission, and use as the warrant for missionary service, while indeed great, it has nothing to do with Christianity as such. Matthew says not a word about preaching. The commission is one that is yet to be effected. It is the royal command of Him who now has all power invested in Himself, not only as Israel’s King but King of Kings. All must be subject to Him when He takes the throne on earth. Mark tells us that He appeared first to Mary of Magdala but leaves the detail to John. However, Mark adds what no other records: “out of whom he had cast seven demons” (Mark 16: 9)—a clear reference to the Lord’s service to Mary. Likewise the angelic message states “go, tell his disciples” and significantly adds “and Peter” (v7). Why is Peter singled out? Because, like the writer, he had failed in service. As to Mark’s commission, it is unique to his account. The words “to all the creation” (v15) involve the widest service and embrace signs that would be a continuation of the Lord’s own service when here (see vs. 17, 18). Luke is different again. The Lord’s manhood is still before us. Accordingly, he alone records “behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit has not flesh and bones as ye see me having” (Luke 24: 39). The grace and universal character of the Son of Man is seen in the commission that Luke records: “and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem” (v47, my emphasis). In John, the response of Thomas is not just “My Lord” but “My Lord and my God” (John 20: 28). No other gives this record. There is no commission in John but there are incidents that only appear on John’s account. Read John 21: 1–14 carefully. Where did the cooked fishes come from (v9)? Not from the disciples catch of 153! He who created the seas didn’t need to go fishing to secure its fish. He was God manifest in flesh.
This final pillar is given by Mark and Luke, spoken of by the Lord in John, though the event itself is not recorded, and omitted entirely by Matthew. Matthew presents the Lord primarily in relation to God’s earthly people Israel, and their place is on earth and not in heaven—so fittingly the final words are “I am with you all the days, until the completion of the age” (Matt. 28: 20). Given Matthew’s Gospel alone, you would know nothing about the ascension. The Lord’s present place in heaven has a vital bearing in regard to the Church and thus is given by both Mark and Luke. Each records the event in a way suitable to his presentation of the Lord. A couple of details in regard to each: Mark says “The Lord … was taken up into heaven” (Mark 16: 19) but Luke records that moment as the Lord “was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24: 51). The former is more appropriate to a servant, the latter to the dignity of the Man. Again in Mark, His service continues even after His ascension for we read “And they, going forth, preached everywhere, the Lord working with [them] …” (Mark 16: 20, my emphasis). The thought of blessing occurs in Luke more than the other Gospels, and it is hence characteristically “as he was blessing them, he was separated from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24: 51). But why no ascension scene in John? The ascension is acknowledged with the record of the Lord’s words “I ascend to my Father and your Father, and [to] my God and your God” (John 20: 17). These words breathe divine dignity and power—no thought of being taken or carried up—He ascends. It is not exactly to heaven but to God: “he came out from God and was going to God” (John 13: 3). The Lord speaks of His departure from this scene, not as going to heaven, but as going to the Father (see John 14: 28; 16: 10, 16, 17, 28). John’s ministry is not to take man to God—that is Paul—but rather to bring God to man and hence the ascension as an event is absent from his writing.
To the one who loves the Lord, “the things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 27) are there in all the Scriptures. Yet the Gospels contain an intensity of detail with regard to Him that is unique in the inspired record—so much so that we have four accounts and not just one. These seven pillars were suggested to the writer when a boy but it is only now some 60 years later that he has put pen to paper. His only desire is that the reader may be encouraged to search to see “if these things were so” (Acts 17: 11).