Rendering an answer to 'why are the gospels important?' is surprisingly difficult. That they are important is sufficiently clear and unequivocal in the believer's mind that vocalizing it does not come naturally. Perhaps even more difficult to ably explain is why we need four. We are all used to the traditional explanation that the four were needed for four different cultures; but then why do we only need one of everything else? Again the four aspects of the nature of Christ are often cited; but again one has to wonder why the gospels alone suffer from an inability to express their purpose in one narrative.
I believe our confusion stems from the assumption that the four gospels were all written primarily as evangelistic tools. I think one of them was; and another had that as a key factor but I am not convinced that either Matthew or Luke was actually produced for evangelistic purposes. Further I believe that by setting the production of the Gospels into their correct historic setting, part of which is provided by Acts, we will have a much clearer picture of the function of these vital New Testament books.
Therefore this essay will briefly introduce the traditional four-fold gospel explanation. Then each gospel and the Acts will be treated in some detail. I'll look at some of the claims each book makes for itself, the books distinctive characteristics and how well the overall content measures to the books proscribed place within the theory and whether the book in question could exist for some alternate reason.
Warning: The purpose of this essay is to discuss the first five books of the New Testament and consider their original intent and purpose in a specific theological sense. The reality is that the Holy Spirit is working today and is able to do incredible things with all sorts of bits of scripture that no normal person would consider. I know many who have been saved under conviction from Rev 3:20 even though the verse is clearly not a Gospel verse. If people are saved working from books I claim aren't Gospels then: AMEN! Notwithstanding for anyone willing to have their preconceptions challenged then I hope this essay will be of use.
There are many different ways of explaining the four different accounts of the Gospel. The simplest is that each Gospel was written for the benefit of a different set of people. Under this scenario Matthew was written for the Jews, Mark was written for the Romans, Luke was written for the Greeks and John was written for all men. At first glance there are characteristics of these books that support the analysis. Matthew is full of Old Testament quotes which would presumably appeal to those that owned the Old Testament. Mark has a forthright, active and brief style which would appeal to the Roman mind. The Greeks were renowned for culture and science and Luke the physician, has a gospel of detail and with songs and hymns. Finally John comes along with the global or encompassing Gospel.
The alternate explanation which doesn't contradict the first, is that each Gospel provides a one dimensional view of the life of Christ and that only by grouping them together is the four dimensional view fully appreciated. The children's Sunday school explanation normally places children in four corners of a room whilst some trick or act is performed in the middle: each child is then asked what happens and of course gives a different account. Under this theory Matthew is usually seen as the Gospel of the King. Mark is then represented as the Gospel of the perfect Servant. Luke becomes the Gospel of the Son of Man. This leaves John a natural slot as the Gospel of the Son of God.
One of the most interesting biblical analogies I have seen for this four dimensional view of the world comes from the living creatures that are below the throne. It will be noted that the four views of these creatures are the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle. It has been suggested that the lion is a kingly creature. The ox is a faithful and strong servant. The face of the man clearly represents humanity and then perhaps the eagle represents One that truly is at home in the heavens.
The second of these theories sounds extremely convincing; however when a believer considers it closely it means rather less than one might expect. Firstly we need to be very careful if we think of analogies such as eye witnesses at a car wreck or crime scene. A fundamental tenet of our faith is that the Bible is divinely inspired. The words written were the words supposed to be written. The Lord Himself stated that the Holy Spirit would bring everything to the memory of the disciples and would teach them all the things they didn't know. So there was no need to have multiple accounts simply to make up for mistakes or imperfections in the record.
Equally the writers were not restricted by what they personally saw. Accounts such as the temptation and Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane were not experienced by anyone yet are fully recorded. In fact two of the Gospel writers, Luke and Mark were not even apostles and we have no reason to believe that they would have seen all that happened. This brings us to conclude that the Gospel authors would have conversed and interacted with each other and with other apostles. So the four accounts are not there to cover gaps: they are there because that was the correct way to present the information.
The other part of the theory is more reasonable. The Lord Himself is obviously a divine and infinite being; and even in human form it is quite natural to assume that He could be written about endlessly and still have enough interesting information to form another volume. However it is also true that all of scripture speaks of Christ so it is not immediately clear why this particular aspect requires a quadruple repetition.
The Gospel of Matthew is usually considered to be the Gospel to the Jews. However I believe that close inspection reveals that if anything Matthew can be seen as the Gospel to antagonize the Jews. Whilst there is no doubt that this Gospel is set against a very strong Judaist background there does not seem to be any attempt to smoothly transfer a Jew to Christianity. On the contrary we will see that Matthew uses this Gospel to sideline Israel and to introduce the church.
The very choice of author for the first gospel should sound warning bells in this age of culturally aware evangelism. Whilst Matthew was a Jew he was also a tax collector. His role was to take money from his own people and hand it to the Roman overlords. He would have been considered as a traitor and a sinful outcast. It is somewhat ironic that Matthew records the Lord's words when he says that if a brother refuses to be reconciled to you then he should be treated as heathen and a tax collector.
If the author was not enough to sour the Jew to Matthew's gospel then the opening chapter would have been. It contains the genealogy of Christ, and the other Hebrew kings for that matter. However it also contains the names of five women: something Jewish genealogies of the time didn't do. Further the five chosen were all associated with some form of scandal. Tamar slept with her father in law. Rahab was a Canaanite harlot. Ruth was a Moabite. Bathsheba was an adulteress. Mary, at least to external view, was an unmarried mum. Add to that two different mentions of the captivity, and Matthew's gospel is clearly showing that the Israeli royal line had features that a Pharisee of the time would find uncomfortable.
Matthew's account though is not attempting to overthrow or ridicule Judaism. It shows clearly that Jesus was and is a Jew. He was born to a Jewess. Of the sixty-six direct or indirect Old Testament quotes in Matthew forty-one come from the Lord himself. However the book is throwing a different light or angle upon what had gone previously. Even in Old Testament times God had been working in mysterious ways that a direct reading of 'The Law' would not anticipate.
The episodes of Jesus' early life that Matthew chooses to select are also strange if you wish to view this as a Jewish gospel. Mathew picks a visit by Babylonian priests, the destruction of Jewish children by an Edomite overlord and the flight to Israel's arch enemy Egypt. Luke records an angelic host, a visit from Jewish shepherds and the reception of the Lord in a Jewish temple whilst performing a Jewish ordinance by two Jewish worthies Simeon and Anna. It would appear that Matthew has gone out of his way to emphasize the place of Jesus on the world stage and not to restrict Him to a more localized role of Jewish king.
Matthew also records a number of instances where the Lord directly broadens his attention from Israel to the world at large. Along with Luke Matthew records the faith of the centurion and notes that he had not found such in Israel. Along with Mark he records the faith of the Canaanite woman who was prepared to take the of 'dog' in order to feed upon the crumbs underneath the masters table. Uniquely among the Gospels Matthew introduces the church. Again uniquely Matthew points out that Isaiah's prophecy states that the Messiah will declare justice to the Gentiles and that the Gentiles will trust in Him. He then closes his Gospel with the commission to make disciples of all nations. Matthew of all the synoptic Gospels has chosen material to show that the Gospel and the Messiah is available to everyone.
Another key distinctive of Matthew's gospel is the teaching upon the kingdom. This is usually divided into the announcement of the kingdom (Mat 4:17), the principles of the kingdom (Mat 5-7), the parables of the kingdom (Mat 13) and then the second coming of the king in Mat 24 and 25. However I believe that a glance at these four passages shows that there is clearly an odd one out. The treatment of the kingdom given in Matthew 4-7 could easily been seen as a purely literal, physical description. Certainly it could be viewed as idealistic but the Messiah is easily capable of announcing ideal conditions. Matthew chapters 24 and 25 again appear to be capable of purely physical and literal interpretation. The only thing that is not immediately obvious is why the king would need to return, given Christ had announced the kingdom was here twenty chapters previously.
Matthew 13 is completely different however. The Lord is now talking in parables. It is the first time parables have been introduced in the New Testament and suddenly the kingdom has gone from being a literal physical entity that people can prepare to be a part of to a mystic thing that people understand by simile and metaphor. Of course some will claim that Matthew just grouped his material a particular way and all the parables happened to land here. However I believe that this presentation is very deliberate and that it actually points to the entire purpose of Matthew.
Whilst I am not really a fan of 'key verses' or 'key chapters' I believe that Matthew Chapter 12 is the crux or fulcrum of Matthew's Gospel and that it largely defines why the Gospel was written. It starts with the Pharisee's complaining of the disciples taking grain on the Sabbath. They then challenge him to heal a man on the Sabbath which he does. At this point multitudes follow Him and Matthew reminds us of Isaiah's prophecy and states this is a fulfillment of it. Then the Lord completely healed a demon possessed blind and mute. This was sufficiently miraculous that the multitude began to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. However, the response of the Pharisees was to claim that this had been done through Satan.
From this point forward the Lord's language subtly changes. In Mat 12:32 he talks of the unforgivable sin. Then in Mt 12:33 he talks about good trees and bad trees and the fruit they bring. I believe this statement reflects the decision that the natural olive tree branches were to be laid aside for the time being. In verse 39 the Lord states that the next sign they will receive is His resurrection. Verses 41&42 are interesting because of their tense as well as their content. The Lord states that these gentile cities will rise up against that generation of the Jews. It would appear that they die has now been cast. By the end of chapter 12 the Lord is even prepared to lay aside direct blood lineage in favor of the mystical kingdom (the church age) that he is about to introduce.
So if Matthew's Gospel is not the Gospel to the Jews then what is it? I believe it is the bridge or gateway between Judaism and Christianity. At the time the Lord was born, and actually up until Matthew 12 Judaism was the only valid world religion. It was monotheistic to the True God. It had the scriptures and the promises. Judaism had a birth right to the future. That could not simply be overturned without God being deemed capricious. In fact the Lord explicitly states that He hadn't come to overturn what had come before. So Matthew uses many OT references to demonstrate that the Lord came to fulfill the Old Testament; that the kingdom of God truly was at hand and that the Jews rejected it.
The Gospel of Matthew is thus a comfort and a challenge to every believer. It shows that God is a covenant keeping God. It shows that His promises are faithful and true. However it also shows that there comes a point when enough is enough and if the believers do not turn to Him in faith then He will move on. The Jews were laid aside but one day they will be restored. In the interim the wild olive branches get to flourish; it is up to us to ensure we do so.
The Gospel of Mark is the one book that clearly is a true evangelistic Gospel. The first verse clearly states that that is the intent of what follows and the rest of the book rushes past without pausing for breath. In the standard four fold division of the Gospels it is generally taken to be the Gospel to the Romans. I aim to show it is the Gospel to the Romans and everyone else too.
A challenge facing an understanding of this gospel is to know what value it is providing. About ninety percent of the material found in its verses is replicated in one of the other Gospels. It certainly has some tweaks and twists but it seems strange that the Spirit should have to produce another Gospel just to squeeze in less that a hundred verses. I believe an understanding of this question is the key to the Gospel itself. It also underpins my claim that Mark is the Gospel; at least amongst the synoptic gospels.
The primary value of Mark lies not in the content but in the form of the Gospel. In the same way that a study Bible is useful to someone with a full set of commentaries, Mark's gospel contains the 'need to know' information for someone set on the path of being saved. The extra value provided by Mark is that the précis is provided and endorsed by God Himself rather than being some 'how to evangelize' book constructed by the human intellect.
Viewing Mark as the Gospel handbook the distinctive features become all the more interesting. Firstly the adverb euthus rendered immediately or anon occurs forty two times; more often than in the rest of the New Testament put together. This is a stark reminder that now is the day of salvation. Secondly Jesus appears fully formed and mature nine verses in to the Gospel. There are no manger scenes or cute stories about baby Jesus. For the purposes of evangelism Jesus is a man. Incidentally, whilst in the process of counting verses the notion of repentance and remission of sins occurs 5 verses earlier than Jesus in verse 4.
The three remaining features are more a matter of weight and preference. Mark devotes six of his sixteen chapters to the last week of the Lord's life. Matthew devotes seven but from a Gospel that is almost twice as long. Clearly even a rapid representation of the Lord's life must not skimp on the end of it. Our Lord came with the purpose of dying; the whole Gospel hinges upon His sacrificial death and resurrection and therefore it should not be pushed to one side. The teaching section of Mark is relatively thin and covers the need for faith, humility, proper judgment and simplicity. In terms of social issues he really only tackles marriage and wealth. Mark was not presenting a social gospel, or even really a legal one. The bulk of the rest of Mark's material is then miracles. Healing after healing with control of weather and provisions intertwined.
To me it is interesting that the Gospel starts with the presumption of guilt and then focuses almost exclusively upon the miraculous power and loving character of the Lord followed by his rejection, death and resurrection. Mark has urgency and focus and I believe a purpose in mind. To steep the mind of the reader in those things they need to know to decide for Christ. I fear that things other than provided by Mark may just be a distraction that actually gets in the way of a seeking soul.
The decision that Matthew is not to be viewed as an evangelistic Gospel takes close scrutiny and careful, open minded consideration of the facts. Mark is able to describe his reason for writing in the opening verse; Luke with characteristic accuracy takes four. But as Luke has defined his purpose so methodically it is a little surprising that people should assume the Gospel of Luke to be anything other than what it very precisely claims.
Luke starts by providing a setting. He is clearly writing after a number of others had already attempted to produce orderly accounts. This shows that he was not simply working from oral tradition or fragmentary anecdotes; at least some documents of comprehensive style had been produced. Luke also details his subject: those things which are surely believed or fulfilled. He, and his predecessors, was focused upon those things which were true. Luke then goes on to qualify that those things that had been written were sourced from direct eyewitnesses and those that served the word. These opening two verses at first sight render another Gospel useless; those things which are well sourced and attested have already been written down in an orderly fashion.
In the third verse Luke declares why he was justified in writing his gospel; because he now has perfect understanding of all things from the very first. Unless we wish to lay the charge of conceit to Luke we have to analyze why he thought his knowledge was perfect and others less so. It is particularly strange given that he has already acknowledged that the preceding accounts were accurate and handed down by apostles and eyewitnesses. I believe the clue lies in John 14:26. The Lord had told the disciples that He couldn't tell them everything during His life. That one would come that would teach them all things. A significant amount of that came from the epistles and specifically from Paul. It is not at all inconceivable that Luke was written shortly after the major theological epistles. Luke was probably sitting there next to the author of Romans when he became challenged to write an account of the Lord's life in the light of what had now been revealed.
The Luke declares his target audience; a man named Theophilus. There is some debate as to whether Theophilus really existed or whether it was a code name for believers everywhere. I suspect it was a real person, but that cannot allow us to ignore the name that the person happened to have. The name was "Theophilus" which means friend or lover of God. Just in case the subtlety of the name escapes one the precise Luke proceeds to point out that the things he was going to describe where things in which the target audience had already received instruction. The purpose of this narrative was to give an authoritative version of events so that they could be thoroughly known and understood by the believing reader. I think it is clear that if the book of Luke really is the 'Gospel to the Greeks' then the author of same hadn't been kept in the loop.
As the authoritative fact-book for new believers Luke's gospel shows a number of characteristics. Firstly Luke is extremely precise in his historical, political and geographical details; Luke wanted his readers to know his facts were historical facts that could be traced through secular history. The next obvious content feature is his focus upon the early life of Jesus. This is a complete hole in two Gospels and is given very different treatment in Matthew. Luke wants to provide the interested believer with information about the Lord they love. He also uses the same narratives to introduce five songs of praise which are songs that should resonate within the heart of any true Christian.
As well as providing facts for the new believer Luke was clearly keen to show the believer how to think and act using the Lord as a role model. Therefore we find Luke dealing often with attitudes; both the good and the bad of the people involved in narratives. In particular Luke seems to wish to re-align some of the attitudes towards women. Luke would be aware of Gal 3:28; that there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. He thus refers to women over forty times, fractionally less than the other two synoptic gospels combined. Luke also stresses the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the prayer life of Christ. Knowing Romans 6-8 and possibly even Ephesians 6 Luke would be aware that the Christian life is primarily a spiritual battle and thus he aims to show from the Lord's life and action that prayer is vital and that power comes from the Spirit not self.
The reason for the Gospel of John is stated in Jn 20:31 "but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name." It would appear clear that John really is an evangelistic Gospel with the purpose of bringing eternal life. Whilst written over a generation later we would expect it to be similar to Mark. But it isn't similar to Mark; or any of the synoptic Gospels. About ninety percent of the material in John is unique to John. It certainly bears the hallmarks of a conservative Gospel; it mentions sin more often that the other Gospels combined. But the astonishing thing is it never once mentions repentance. In fact the Gospel of John places belief as the key to eternal life independent of an act of repentance.
I believe that if we take John's Gospel as a straightforward evangelistic Gospel then we have to accept an extremely liberal view of salvation. Returning to the key verse the direct implication is that if you believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God then you have eternal life. By this logic even demons have eternal life an illogical viewpoint as emphasized by James. I do believe that John is an evangelistic tool; however I don't believe it actually is a gospel at all in the biblical meaning of the word. It may be noted for example the John is the only 'gospel' not to use the word 'gospel'.
The purpose of John's Gospel is to reveal Christ. Of course John would write the full Revelation of Christ a little later but here in John's gospel we see the events of Christ's life packaged up to show the Lord's nature and character. In style I think it is best characterized by the expression "Let's take a step back and look at this". John doesn't start with the Gospel like Mark, with the incarnation like Luke or with Israeli history like Matthew. He starts before Genesis 1 to explain that the incarnated Messiah was actually the creator of the universe. It is interesting too that John was chosen to write this. The simplest of the writers was picked to describe probably the most complex of the Gospels. But I believe this is deliberate: the purpose of the book is to bring the reader as close as possible to understanding the God became man that walked upon the Earth and whose glory was beheld. This book is to be experienced as much as read. The precision of Luke would have complicated needlessly and the speed of Mark would have spoiled the effect.
A key feature of John is the seven specific I AM's and of course the majestic, general I AM where Christ flatly states that He is God. It is possible to see in this something of an apologetic feel. Both the manhood and the deity of Christ have come under attack by this point in the church's history and it is not unlikely that John would want to tackle that. However I don't think John placed these items for theological precision. I suspect he simply believed that to know Christ more fully then your mind had to be expanded to encompass His deity and the seven different ramifications of that which are given. It is true too that the seven I AM's have global reach. Jesus is presented as the light of the world not just of Israel.
Another often noted feature of the fourth gospel is the amount of it that is a recording of the Lord speaking; either to individuals or in the form of a monologue. For people with red letter Bibles John is very much the reddest book to be found. This really serves to purposes. Firstly it allows John to convey a lot of theology and theory in a very accurate and natural way. Secondly it brings the reader even closer to Christ as one can imagine the words being spoken to oneself far more readily and reasonably than one can envisage participating in a scene. For the believers these are verities that can encourage and exalt; for the non-believer they are challenges to be accepted or ignored.
Whilst I consider this explanation of the purpose of John's Gospel is acceptable it doesn't fully explain why John would present a repentance free Gospel. The solution, I believe, is to view John as a wrapper to the Gospel that is really presented in Mark. Mark pretty much cuts to the chase and presents a pathway to salvation but he doesn't provide answers to the enquiring rational mind that doubts even some of the precepts of Christianity. Most importantly Mark presents what Christ did for the people He walked amongst and what He did for us. John presents who Christ was. We should expect that His nature and character will be winsome and attractive and as such can be used to draw people towards a consideration of the Gospel. Once they are at the point of believing in Jesus they can follow the lead of the Philippian Jailer and ask what they can do to be saved.
When considering the importance of the book of Acts it is necessary to separate out the importance that the events occurred from the importance that we should have a record of them. It is significant that Acts was written by Luke. It wasn't Matthew annotating a huge dispensational shift of time. It wasn't Mark defining what we need to be saved. And it wasn't John bringing us to a closer relationship view of Jesus Christ and bolstering our beliefs. It was the enlightened Luke with his desire to ensure the believer is fully and accurately informed.
I believe part of the reason that Acts is informative to the Christian is that it narrates the initiation of many of the features of the church today. Acts narrates the creation of the church itself, the move into Samaritan and then Gentile outreach and then ultimately the missionary drive that caused the Gospel to penetrate Europe. Acts also shows how deacons and elders came about and shows the New Testament pattern of church government. Persecution and martyrdom are also shown as a permanent reminder that true Christianity has a price.
Within Acts, as within the Gospel of Luke, Luke is keen to draw out those features that will edify and encourage the saint - specifically prayer and the Holy Spirit. Throughout Acts we see Christians at the heights of achievement and in depths of persecution, in conflict and in harmony. Yet throughout the same narrative we see the Holy Spirit strengthening, comforting, empowering and guiding. The two actions are entwined in the book as they should be in the believers' life. The third strand is prayer. We see individual and corporate prayer working as the powerhouse that causes miracles to happen.
However I believe the true value of Acts is best apprehended by reading books other than Acts. Even a book on the development of the New Testament quickly degenerates into 'tradition has it', 'an early tradition states' or 'according to some church fathers' for matters even shortly after the book of Acts. The reality is that without a divinely authoritative account of history we are left guessing and sometimes frustrated about what happened in the relatively early church. Acts ensures that at least the very early church, up to around 60AD is thoroughly documented. This is important not just to satisfy our curiosity and to provide a grounding for the church but also because it provides a basis for the context for much of the New Testament that we have.
As an example of the latter point I would like to briefly consider the dating of the three synoptic gospels with a view to a gentle attempt at solving the synoptic problem. It is easiest to start by dating Acts. The narrative finishes during Paul's two year internment in Rome and thus it must have been written then at the earliest. Given nothing else is detailed and significant events happened in the mid-60s it is reasonable to assume it was finished during that internment which places in around 58-60AD. Luke's gospel was clearly written before Acts, it was would have required a significant amount of research which could have occurred during Paul's two years in Caesarea 56-58AD. By this time he would have had access to Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, 1&2 Thessalonians, Galatians. It is possible the gospel was being written alongside Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon sometime around 60AD.
Mark and Matthew are notoriously difficult to date and my attempt is no more than speculation. However we do know that Mark had left the first missionary journey and was still in disgrace at the start of the second (49AD). We also know that by the writing of 2 Timothy (64-67AD) he was back in Paul's favor. I can see two possibilities for the construct of Mark. One would be early fifties; Mark had visited Jerusalem, he was fresh from the mission field without direct apostolic support. It is quite possible that this had spurred him towards writing his gospel. The other possibility goes to the mid sixties. Mark in Rome with Paul and Peter the two great evangelists of the apostolic era both facing imminent martyrdom. Mark may easily have undertaken to write a gospel under their guidance to carry the baton as it were once the two men were called home. Of the two early church traditions would point to the mid sixties.
Matthew is even harder to date purely from scripture. He appears once in the thirteenth verse of the first chapter of Acts and then disappears from sight. Luke doesn't tell us any more and thus we can be relatively sure we don't need to know. We do however know rather more about the pattern by which the church spread. Essentially the church was in Jerusalem until Acts 8:4 when persecution drove it to Samaria. The third stage is worldwide mission commenced with the first missionary journey in Acts 13, around 47AD. Whilst it is not noted as a stage I believe Acts 18:6 is another turning point; from then on Paul was going to preach to the gentiles primarily. This was towards the tail of the second missionary journey about 52AD. Whether you believe Matthew was the Gospel to the Jews or a book narrating the shift away from a Jewish focus it doesn't make much sense to me to have it written after the shift has taken place. I therefore think it has to be before 52AD and probably after Acts 8. I would therefore go with middle to late forties. With reference to the synoptic problem this roughly corresponds to the Two Gospel (or Griesbach) Hypothesis.
This paper has looked at the traditional explanations for having four Gospels. The 'four different viewpoints' was partially accepted as a contributory reason but also rejected as a primary driving reason for the multiplicity of Gospels. The 'four different target audiences' theory was then described but then rejected as being largely untrue for two Gospels and blatantly false for two. In place of this theory was a suggestion that Matthew was written to document and justify the transfer from Christianity to Judaism. Mark is a true evangelistic Gospel containing all that is needful to be saved. Luke is then a primer for new believers giving an authoritative overview of the facts of the Lord's life. John is then the book designed to give people a close look at Christ. To the believer this is a bolster to faith; to the unsaved it is a motivation to consider the gospel. Finally Acts is the detailed narrative that shows us how the church and its traditions came about and provides the background for the rest of the New Testament. Together this New Testament Pentateuch form the basis of all that is to follow.