Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
When a person asks, “Why do we need four gospels?” The playful part of my soul queries, Need? What’s need got to do with it? Do I need 75 million songs on Amazon Music? No! But it sure warms my heart to know they’re there. The serious part asks, “Should so great a figure as Jesus the Christ be left with a single witness to his life and work?” No!
The fourfold witness to Jesus, if handled well, proves to be a powerful theological anchor on no less a topic than the very center of God’s earthly work from creation to consummation—Jesus Christ & the Kingdom of God… Christ’s Kingdom.
If handled poorly, however, there are some real dangers for us in a four-fold witness.
The Grab Bag Threat
Right off, let’s address the elephant in the room.
The biggest threat to hearing what the Holy Spirit intended for you to hear by inspiring four Gospels is to treat the Gospels as a grab bag of facts about Jesus that you can use to Frankenstein together your own gospel in your imagination.
The average preacher reads about a given gospel story wherever it appears, gathering facts as they go. Often, they work out odd rationalities for seeming disparities. Then they weave it all together, trying to avoid having extra parts like when they put together an Ikea bunk bed.
This process completely misconstrues the nature of these books as books. It corrupts their function as Gospels. It robs both preacher and hearer of the greatest benefits of a four-fold witness.
The grab bag approach is like wantonly dismantling four brilliantly constructed, Holy Spirit inspired gospels in order to cut and paste together a poorly conceived one of your own.
To use the title Gospel for these four books says something specific about how they are to be read. They are not written like modern biographies giving all the “whats” and “whens” of a person’s life. Gospels are written to preach. They are theological discourse in story form. Though Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention many of the same events, each selects and organizes material differently to preach uniquely about Jesus. According to Church tradition, John actually wrote his gospel with full awareness of the others and sought to cover much that stood outside of their purposes.
Each gospel is a uniquely inspired interpretation of the life and work of Jesus, written to instruct in matters of faith and practice. Four gospels, therefore, are not redundant but, rather, advantageous, four-fold theological instruction.
How to Read a Gospel Well
This means that each gospel needs to be read as a self-contained creation, respecting that author’s storytelling choices. This requires careful observation of terms, grammar, literary devices, and structure. It demands a careful scheme of questioning about the meaning of those choices and investigating proper resources for answering those questions. This takes time and energy and an openness to the possibilities that your presuppositions about Jesus could be wrong. For today, let me just give you a few thematic and structural cues to look for as you begin to unpack the power of the four-fold witness.
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke use a form of narrative sermon in which multiple events are woven together to preach a single message while developing themes as each succeeding story sermon unfolds. Watch for natural openings and closings.
The Gospel of Matthew
- Matthew organizes his book around five major Disciple teaching events, ending each with the statement, “When Jesus finished…”
- Matthew has independent story sermons. His introduction presents Jesus as the rightful heir of Abraham and David who came to bring Israel out of exile. Abraham and David are recurring images throughout Matthew. We also find his birth narrative and Passion week story sermons.
- But Matthew also has large story collections bound to Jesus’ five Discipleship speeches that unpack His messages and explore Matthew’s chosen themes.
- Matthew is interested in Gentile inclusion and Jewish exclusion.
- Matthew is interested in the nature of True Righteousness.
- Matthew is interested in Jesus’ compassion.
- Matthew returns to the subject of “bearing fruit” in six different contexts.
- Matthew has his own broad presentation of Jesus’ “fulfillment” of Scripture.
The Gospel of Mark
- Mark writes his book with 21 story sermons, constructed from 3-7 carefully woven events.
- Mark’s sermons develop two major ideas: 1. The Identity of Jesus. 2. The Nature of the Kingdom of God.
- The first half of Mark reveals that Jesus is the Christ. It climaxes in Peter’s grand profession, “Thou art the Christ!” This identity is developed through the testimony of Jesus’ works, His declarations, and various spiritual manifestations.
- The second half unpacks what it means for Jesus to be the Christ and the surprising nature of the Kingdom. Jesus is a suffering Christ bringing a mustard seed Kingdom to the hearts of humanity.
The Gospel of Luke
- Luke uses similar story sermons to Mark’s, but has over 30 of them, with more miracles and more parables. Almost half of Luke is unique material.
- Luke is particularly interested in the Holy Spirit. Luke overtly references the Holy Spirit more times than Matthew, Mark, and John put together.
- Luke is particularly interested in the prophetic. Just so, Jesus is not just the Christ, but also the long-awaited prophet like unto Moses (Deuteronomy 18).
- Luke develops his interests around Jesus’ declaration of gospel mission in Luke 4:18-19 from Isaiah 61:1-2 (i.e. good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, etc). Thus, Luke includes many more references to demonic deliverance, miracles, and the disenfranchised.
The Gospel of John
- John’s story sermons focus on fewer events but unpack them more deeply. One does well to ask in each story sermon: Who is Jesus? What does faith look like? What is true life?
- Jesus talks more often, with more people and more openly in John about His true nature as incarnate God, and His connection to the Father.
- John is famous for his sevens. Seven signs. Seven “I Am,” statements. Jesus is revealed in association with seven feasts. Seven references to His hour. And, believe it or not, many others. Have fun counting stuff in John’s Gospel.
Each Gospel needs to be read in its own context, revealing, in turn, the Jesus of Matthew, the Jesus of Mark, the Jesus of Luke, and the Jesus of John.
Another benefit of having four gospels is that comparison and contrast heighten awareness of specific choices made by each gospel writer. This is not a grab bag approach used to build a new gospel in the mind, but aid for careful observation by the reader who is seeking to understand each writer as a uniquely inspired interpreter of Jesus.
So, the four Gospels give us four times as much theological instruction about the life and work of Jesus, as each writer brings his own uniquely inspired interpretation to the table. Four Gospels also provide the comparison and contrast needed to maximize the reader’s ability to discern the details exploited by each writer as they preach through their uniquely structured books.
Long may you linger over these masterful works as they preach about our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
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