Four Gospels Not One
It has long been the aim of those who take an interest in religion to make a unified record of the life of Christ from the four Gospels recognised as being part of the sacred Canon. One Gospel would, to them, be an infinitely more satisfactory state of affairs than the four existing accounts which seem riddled with contradictions and imperfections. How much better it would be if all were rewritten as one! Thus they labour to highlight where the Gospels agree, and strive to bring the accounts together where they differ. At the root of all this well–meaning effort is the cancer of unbelief for if the Scriptures were written by God in a certain way then that is the way in which they were supposed to be written. It is the difference between viewing the Bible as the word of man and as the Word of God.
Of course the four Gospels are not contradictory, and it may be profitable, on occasion, to demonstrate this. That is a far different thing, however, from seeking to merge all into one! The differences that exist between the accounts are there for a purpose rather than witnesses to the imperfections of Scripture. It is a deliberate act rather than carelessness. Rather than trying to remove what we can see are differences, we ought instead seek to be instructed by them. It is wrong to regard the four Gospels as being merely supplementary to each other. That they serve this end, I have no doubt, but it is only a secondary object, their chief purpose being the revelation of the Lord in certain distinct relationships. There are four distinct and different Gospels and not one, and it is necessary that there are four.
Take an account of even an ordinary man’s life. One biographer might give his public life, another his private and more domestic life. Thus one would select one class of facts, whilst another, omitting these, would record other facts as better suiting his purpose. Indeed, in the same facts the two writers would notice different circumstances, without making either narrative imperfect in the particular view in which it was composed. It is just so in the Gospels. Each has its own object and each therefore has its own peculiar selection and arrangement of facts recorded. Take the life of a great general. If I wished to show his skill as a military commander, I might select some word or act of boldness on the field of battle. Did I wish to show his kind–heartedness, I might simply quote a letter written after the battle, sympathising with the sorrows of one whose son or brother had there fallen. With another view I might point to the despatches as illustrative of the literary ability of the same person. Thus from the selfsame scene I might make selections of the circumstances to record, according to the particular end which I had before me in writing. The same applies with the order of events narrated. If my object is to show the progress of a certain course of action, then chronological order must be adhered to accurately. On the other hand, if I only wish to illustrate the spirit and character of that action, chronological order may be dispensed with. In each case the one question is, ‘What is the writer’s object?’ Unless this is apprehended, the writing will, though perhaps still instructive, fail to accomplish in us its specific end.
A harmony of the Gospels, though it is interesting and has its use, leads us from the special purpose for which the Gospels were written. By arranging everything chronologically many passages lose the force which they possess as portions of a distinct series. The Spirit of God, here in historic, there in moral order, has put this or that fact about the Son before me. The facts are precious however I get them, but doubly precious if I am able to apprehend the purpose of God in presenting them to me in this or that relation. Then each scene, in its omissions, in its form, in its position in the series, is part of a Divine mystery, which, though hid from the wise and prudent of the world, is yet revealed by the Holy Spirit to babes.
The early Church saw this, and with one voice they testify what they saw, namely that the four Gospels contained four different aspects of the Great Manifestation. The emblem which they applied to the Gospels was that of the “four living creatures” (Rev. 4: 6), conceiving that these were apt representations of the manifestations of Christ presented in each Gospel. I believe they were right, and I am content to take the same symbols, finding no others which so well express the character of the Gospels.
The first living creature was “like a lion” (Rev. 4: 7). If Christ is seen as the “lion”, our thoughts are led to “the lion which [is] of the tribe of Juda, the root of David” (Rev. 5: 5). Under this figure, therefore, I expect to find Him as a son of Abraham, (like Judah) and connected with a kingdom, (as was David).
The second living creature was “like a calf” (Rev. 4: 7). This is the figure for service. So we read “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out [the corn].” (Deut. 25: 4)). Under this figure I expect to see the Lord as the patient labourer for others, if need be. offering Himself in His service as a perfect sacrifice.
The third living creature had a “face as of a man”(Rev. 4: 7). This explains itself. The face of a man suggests human sympathy, as it is written “I drew them with bands of a man, with cords of love” (Hos. 11: 4). Here we see the “Son of man”, the one who “Since therefore the children partake of blood and flesh, he also, in like manner, took part in the same … Wherefore it behoved him in all things to be made like to [his] brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2: 14, 17).
The fourth living creature was “like a flying eagle” (Rev. 4: 7). This is very different. Its ways are above the earth: “The way of an eagle in the heavens” and is “too wonderful to me” (Prov. 30: 18, 19). Much on the wing, it often rises where no human eye can follow. Here the Word who “was with God” (John 1: 1) is seen as the One from heaven, and whose home is there.
Even where the Gospels, at least superficially, appear to be more or less the same, careful examination reveals subtle differences. For example, in Matthew 8, the leper says to Christ “Lord, if thou wilt, thou art able to cleanse me” (v2), but in the same incident in Mark the word Lord is omitted: “If thou wilt thou canst cleanse me” (1: 40). Indeed in the second Gospel, apart from one exception (see Mark 7: 28), the Lord is never addressed as Lord. In Matthew, He is the King, and it is proper for Him to be addressed as Lord, but in Mark, where He is presented as the servant, such an address would be inappropriate. Again, only in Luke is the Lord recorded as praying on the occasion of His baptism: “and Jesus having been baptised and praying …” (Luke 3: 21). This, of course, is entirely in keeping with Luke’s presentation of Him as the dependent man. In Matthew, John the Baptist comes saying “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh” (Matt. 3 : 2), a message quite fitting for the herald of the King. When we come to John, however, the Baptist is a “witness concerning the light”(John 1: 7) that light which “coming into the world, lightens every man” (v9). In Matthew we have the Christ of Israel, but in John we have the Light of the World.
This leads me to notice the writers of the Gospels, for the view of each is closely connected with his own character. Each sees from his own ground. Matthew, who though by birth an Israelite, was by his office an employee of the Roman empire (Matt. 10: 3), and so had been accustomed to contemplate a vast kingdom. He thus sees our Lord both as Son of Abraham and of David, connected both with Abraham’s seed and with a kingdom. Mark was the apostle’s servant (Acts 13: 5; 2 Tim. 4: 11). This is the man, living to serve, who sees the Lord as servant, his own service being a means for better enabling him to appreciate the perfections of that blessed ministry. Luke, apparently a Gentile, was the friend and companion of the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 16: 11; Col. 4: 14; 2 Tim. 4: 11; Philemon 24) the one whose ministry respected neither Jew nor Gentile, but was addressed to man in general. Thus Luke is the one who sees Christ as the Son of Adam or Son of Man, not so much connected with a kingdom, or as the servant of God, but as the one whose sympathies as a man linked Him with Adam’s fallen and ruined children. John, who leaned on the bosom of his Lord (John 13: 23), sees Him as the Son in the bosom of the Father, not of the world, though for a season in it, to draw a heavenly people up from it to the Father’s house above. In each case the vessel used by the Spirit was fitted for the special task. He knew, even if they did not, His own purpose in so distinctly tuning His chosen instruments. The result is full harmony to the instructed ear.
I would also add a word as to the order of the Gospels. It needs no special light to see that the character of the revelation increases in depth, or at least changes its form, as we proceed. For the first thousand cubits the waters were to the ankles, the second thousand cubits the waters were to the knees, the third thousand cubits the waters were to the loins, after which, it was waters to swim in, a river which could not be passed through (Ezek. 47: 3–5). The king is the first view we get of the Lord. The Son of David is head of a kingdom of which we all are, or should be, subjects. In this relation He gives His commands, repealing old laws with His “I say unto you”, (Matt. 5: 22) while also inviting the burdened to come to Him where He will give them rest (11: 28). At the same time, like a righteous judge, He utters the woes which must attend contempt or rejection of His rightful claim (11: 21; 23: 13). All this we get in Matthew’s Gospel, and it is really the view each of us gets of the Lord Jesus when first awakened. Soon I get a further view. I see that in His love this mighty Lord has actually become for us a true servant. He has not only given commands, but He has laboured for me. How He toiled comes out with wonderful beauty in the second Gospel. Soon we see even further: not only that He has served, but that He came into our conditions, sin apart––He became a man for us. There in Luke He is a child, bound with swaddling clothes, under human restraints, obeying parents, and growing (Luke 2: 7, 51–52). Then we come to John and oh what a sight! The heavenly man, the Son of the Father’s love (see John 3: 35), the One who was with God and the One who “was God” (John 1: 1). Who can deny that the glory deepens as we progress through the Gospels?
So what is gained by seeing these distinctions in the Gospels? Such a question only shows us where we are, and how little God’s secrets are prized and treasured by us. Is it no shame that we so little apprehend the wonders of this blessed revelation, and yet are so taken up by the transient attractions of this earth? If it be true that in a coming day “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3: 2) is it to no profit to grow in the knowledge of Him now? He that has seen the great sight will not ask , What is the use of different Gospels? He has seen and believed, and all questioning ends in worship and adoring praise.