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The Blue Letter Bible
Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy?

Don Stewart :: Why Are There Four Gospels?

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Why Are There Four Gospels?

Which Written Records about Jesus Are Trustworthy? – Question 5

Is there something special about the number four when it comes to the gospels? Could there have been more or less gospels written? Why do we have four authoritative gospels? There are a number of key points which we need to make.

Each Gospel Was Written for a Distinct Purpose

It is important that we understand these sources and what they are trying to accomplish. The Gospels are neither biographies of the life of Jesus Christ nor are they a disinterested record of certain events in His life. Each writer wants the reader to know the truth about Jesus and become a disciple. To accomplish this purpose, each Gospel is aimed at a certain audience and each writer is selective of the events he includes. The evidence is as follows.

Matthew

The Gospel according to Matthew is aimed primarily at the Jew, the person familiar with the Old Testament. Jesus is portrayed as Israel’s Messiah, the King of the Jews. Matthew records how the promises God made in the Old Testament, with regard to the Messiah, are fulfilled in Jesus.

Matthew begins his book by stating the family tree of Jesus:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1 NRSV)

This genealogy demonstrates that Jesus is the rightful heir to the kingdom that was promised to King David and his descendants and sets the tone for the book. The remainder of the book emphasizes that Jesus has the credentials to be Israel’s Messiah.

The First Believers Were Jews

There is something else that must be considered. In the first few years of the church, all the believers were Jews. According to the Book of Acts, thousands of people converted to belief in Jesus in the few weeks after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven. These people needed to be taught. The Bible says that this occurred immediately:

They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42 NET)

From the beginning, they were taught about Jesus. We should not assume this only included oral instruction. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem during the first few years but believers came and went through the city of Jerusalem. They would have wanted, as well as needed, some permanent form of instruction. The Gospel of Matthew, directed at the Jews, would have met this need. Thus, there is every reason to believe that Matthew wrote his gospel at a very early date.

Mark

Mark, on the other hand, is not writing to the Jew, or to those who are familiar with the Old Testament. His audience is basically those people in the Roman Empire who are unfamiliar with the religion of the Jews. Consequently, Mark’s Gospel does not start with the birth of Jesus or any family tree that demonstrates Jesus as a fulfillment of prophecy. It starts, rather, with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It says,

This is the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1 CEV)

Mark’s is a Gospel of action. Jesus is portrayed as the servant of the Lord doing that job that God has sent Him to do. Thus, the emphasis is on doing, and Mark shows that Jesus got the job done. Consequently Mark’s gospel records more miracles of Jesus than Matthew, Luke, or John.

Luke

Luke was written to those more intellectually minded. He states his purpose in the book’s prologue when he wrote the following:

Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus... (Luke 1:1-3 HCSB)

Luke is not writing as an eyewitness, but as one who is recording eyewitness testimonies. His portrayal of Jesus is as the perfect man. Hence, he focuses on those events in Jesus’ life that stress His humanity. The Greeks in their art and literature were always looking for the perfect man. The Gospel of Luke reveals that man, Jesus of Nazareth.

John

John, the writer of the fourth gospel, was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. The things he recorded were for the purpose of establishing the fact that Jesus was the eternal God who became a human being. John wanted his readers to exercise faith toward Jesus. In fact, he explained the purpose of his gospel in this manner:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31 NIV)

When John states his purpose he also states that he is selective in what he has recorded. Indeed, Jesus did many more things than are recorded in the gospels. We have only a fraction of the words Jesus spoke or the deeds that He did. At the end of his gospel, John again stresses that he only chose to record certain events in the life of Jesus:

This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (John 21:24-25 NET)

Consequently while John is telling us everything we need to know about the life and ministry of Jesus he also indicates that there is so much more which could be said.

Therefore, from the four gospels, we have four different authors, from four different perspectives, writing to four different audiences. Each of them looks at the life and ministry of Jesus from their own unique vantage point.

Summary – Question 5
Why Are There Four Gospels?

The four authoritative gospels which have come down to us were written to cover four aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus. We find that each gospel writer wrote from a different point of view to a different audience. Thus, they each looked at the character of Jesus from different angles. Therefore, the number of four arises from the four different perspectives we have been given about Christ’s life and ministry.

Matthew was written primarily to the Jews. In this gospel, Jesus is pictured as the king of the Jews, the promised Messiah. The emphasis is on His fulfilling the promises found in the Old Testament. Since the first believers were Jews Matthew was the first gospel which was composed. All ancient sources are unanimous in saying this.

On the other hand, Mark had the Roman world in mind. He pictures Jesus as the One who can do the work God sent Him to do. Though it is the shortest of the gospels it records more miracles of Jesus than do any of the other writers. While Matthew met the needs of the Jews, Mark showed the Romans that Jesus was a Man of action. In other words, He accomplished those things which He was set out to do.

Luke emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. In their art and literature the Greeks were looking for a perfect man. However, everyone fell short of perfection. Now the perfect human being has arrived on the scene, Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, the human aspect of Jesus receives special emphasis in this gospel.

Finally, we have the gospel of John. We find that the King which Matthew portrayed, the Servant of the Lord which Mark wrote about, and the perfect Man whom Luke spoke of was actually Almighty God who became this human being. While the first three gospels do record a number of things which shows that Jesus was more than a mere Man, the gospel of John makes His identity clear. He is the Creator, the One who had been God for all eternity. As God, He came to our earth to show humanity what God is like as well as to die for the sins of the world.

In sum, the gospels are not intended to be a history or biography of the life of Christ in the modern sense of the term. Each author is selective in what he portrays. Jesus did many more things than the Gospels record as John himself testified.

Consequently, when the Gospels are compared with each other we get an overall portrait of Jesus. He was God from all eternity that came down to earth as the perfect man. He was the Messiah of Israel, the King of the Jews, the one who did the job that God sent Him to do. This is the testimony of the four Gospels.

When Were the Four Gospels Written? ← Prior Section
Why Should We Trust the New Testament Account of Jesus' Life? Weren't They Biased? Next Section →
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