Why Four Gospels?

Thought I’d just take a moment before I begin reading Mark to pause and consider this question using Through the Bible Through the Year by John Stott, which I read a while back (so knew it was helpful) but had mostly forgotten before writing this. My hope is that, having now reminded myself of what Stott and others say in answer to this question, I’ll be able to get more out of reading through the gospels. This blog post, then, is the result of having paid Stott another visit and is a formulation of some of what is said there in a way I find helpful.

Each of the gospels is written with a different emphasis – which is as expected because they are written by different people from different backgrounds for different audiences. However, they are all covering the life of Jesus so there is obvious overlap. Something I found helpful was an article at overviewbible.com which spells out the commonality between all four gospels:

  • Statement of Jesus’ deity near the beginning (Matthew 1:23; Mark 1:1; Luke 1:32–35; John 1:1)
  • John the Baptist’s ministry (Matthew 3:1–3; Mark 1:2–4; Luke 3:2–3; John 1:6–7)
  • Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29–34)
  • Jesus’ miracles and teachings (Matthew 4–25; Mark 1–13; Luke 4–19:27; John 2–17)
  • Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and death (Matthew 26–27; Mark 14–15; Luke 19:28–23:56; John 18–19)
  • Discovery of Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:1–15; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10)
  • Encouragement and commission for Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 28:16–20; Mark 16:9–20; Luke 24:13–53; John 20:11–21:23)

Beyond this, there are broad differences of emphasis within the Gospels, which I’ve attempted to overview below- mostly just for my own benefit since I am in the process of reading through them all.


– A theme of fulfillment

“Now this took place that what was written in the prophets might be fulfilled”. This line occurs 11 times in Matthew and is illustrative of the way Matthew is presenting Jesus as the Messiah in whom the promises of God were being fulfilled. This is perhaps why Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus, tracing the royal line back to Abraham and David.

– The kingdom of heaven

Stott says that Matthew has a special emphasis on the way Jesus proclaimed the kingdom. Matthew uses ‘the kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘the kingdom of God’. This is because Matthew writes primarily for a Christian Jewish audience; he chooses this phrase in deference to Jewish reluctance to pronounce the sacred name of God. Matthew grasps that the kingdom is both a present reality and a future expectation. In some ways his gospel is a call to his audience to recognise that whereas the Old Testament prophets were living in a time of anticipation, they were now living in the time of fulfillment.


– The cross of Christ

Mark is the earliest and shortest gospel, written about 60-70AD (thirty years on from Jesus’ death). About one third of the gospel is devoted to the Cross. There is particular focus on Jesus as a suffering servant. He is referred to as the ‘Son of Man’. This is a reference to Daniel 7 in which there is a vision of ‘one like a son of man’ (a human figure) comes on the clouds and approaches the Ancient of Days (God). He is then given authority and sovereign power so that all people serve him and his kingdom is never destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus adopts the title when he says that the Son of Man must suffer. However, the role is changed. Whereas according to Daniel, all nations would serve him, according to Jesus he was to serve and not be served. Jesus therefore fuses two Old Testament images – Isaiah’s servant who suffers and Daniel’s Son of Man who reigns. Jesus first bears our sins and only then enters glory.


– Jesus as a Historical Figure

Luke essential writes two-volumes about the origins of Christianity – the Gospel of Luke and Acts. He is quick to emphasise the reliability of what he writes. Stott writes about how Luke’s case is set out in five logical stages, as in the first few verses of his gospel, chapter 1:1-5.

  1. Certain “things…have been fulfilled among us” (1:1). The events of Jesus’ ministry
  2. These events were seen by eyewitnesses who “handed down” what they had seen to others (1:2)
  3. Luke says he was one of these who “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (1:3)
  4. Luke wrote down the result of his research, giving “an orderly account” of it (1:3)
  5. There would be readers, including Theophilus, who would find in Luke’s Gospel solid grounds for their faith.

Luke pursued these investigations while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, during a two-year residence in Palestine (Acts 24:27). Stott speculates that Luke would have been able to interview many eyewitnesses during this time, including Jesus’ mother Mary who would have been an elderly lady at this point. Luke tells Mary’s story, including the details of his birth which Stott believes could only have come from Mary herself.

These websites are both excellent if you want to find out more, they go much more in depth- bible.org and pbs.org

– Jesus as Saviour for all

Luke, in particular, shows Jesus including all those whom society excludes – women, children, the poor, sick, Samaritans, Gentiles (understandable given that Luke was himself a Gentile) etc.


– Jesus the Light of Human Beings

John uses this metaphor as a way of illustrating the presence of God in the past, present and future of the world. Firstly, Jesus was light in that he was the plan from the beginning, the light and life of human beings. Secondly, he came as light when he was born as a human being. Thirdly, he still comes, waiting for us to receive us and being present with us through the Holy Spirit. Finally, it is promised that he will come back and be light to us on the last day (John 14:3).

– Jesus the Giver of Life

John says that the ultimate purpose in writing his Gospel is so his readers might receive life through Christ. The testimony of events in the Gospel was to lead to faith, and this faith to life. This testimony is given in the first half of John’s Gospel – first through the witness of John the Baptist and then with seven miraculous signs. Stott outlines each sign and the dramatized claim that it makes as follows:

  • 1)  Jesus turns water to wine – a claim to the inauguration of a new order
  • 2)  and 3) Two healing miracles – a claim to give new life
  • 4)  Jesus feeds five thousand people – a claim to be the bread of life
  • 5)  Jesus walks on water – a claim that the powers of nature are under his authority
  • 6)  Jesus gives sight to a man born blind – a claim to be the light of the world
  • 7)  Jesus raises Lazarus from death – a claim to be the resurrection and the life.

In the second half of the Gospel, instead of the power of miracles, there are signs of weakness and humility – Jesus washing his disciple’s feet and then going to the Cross.

That’s all for now!

If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment 🙂


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