Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Why Are There Four Gospels?”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

(Mark 1.1)

Thus begins one of the four accounts of Jesus’ earthly life, written by Apostles and their associates.  But why are there four of them?  Which one gets the story right?  In fact, isn’t there just one gospel?  Paul wrote to a group of new and erring Christians,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

(Galatians 1.6-9)

Which of the Gospels had they heard, and which was now leading them astray?  Of course, that’s not what Paul meant.  The word gospel has different senses.  Two of them are distinguished using capitalization—a Gospel is a written work that tells the story of Jesus’ life on earth, culminating in his death, burial, and resurrection.  That is also the core of the gospel—lowercase, this time—which is the good news about the coming of Jesus’ kingdom.  The Galatians had been fooled by a perversion of that message; but the four Evangelists wrote four accounts of Jesus’ life, from different perspectives, highlighting different parts of the story, aimed at different audiences, each with his own purpose.  None of them pretends to include every detail, and in fact John issues an explicit disclaimer at the end of his book:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

(John 21.25)

So what makes each of the Gospels special?


The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

(Matthew 1.1)

Within the title sentence are several details that help us to see Matthew’s purpose.  First is the allusion to Genesis, which introduces several sections using similar language (Ge 2.4, 6.9, 10.1, 11.27, 25.12 et al.).  Even if that allusion hadn’t made it clear, the focus on Jesus’ lineage from David and Abraham emphasizes his Jewish identity.  Matthew knew that Jesus is the Savior of the whole world, not just Jews—in fact, his book makes a stronger case than the other three for this very point (cf. Mt 8.10-12 & 28-34, 11.21-24, 15.21-28, 20.1-16, 22.1-10, 25.31-32, 28.19-20).  But from the beginning it’s clear that he’s writing for a Jewish audience.  Of the four, this Gospel spends the most time tearing down Pharisaism and pointing out Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.


This is the most vivid Gospel.  Mark spends no time on background information or long speeches.  He jumps into the action immediately, and that’s where his focus remains for the whole book, with evocative, yet concise language.  Despite usually providing the most vivid detail to help his readers envision each episode, Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels.  There are numerous other features that won’t fit here, which indicate Mark wrote for a Roman audience.  The central declaration about Jesus comes from a Roman soldier:

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

(Mark 15.39)


Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

(Luke 1.1-4)

Luke is obviously an intellectual.  In fact, he was a physician (Co 4.14), and his discussion of healings and other medical topics reflects this.  His telling of the Gospel story is the most verbose, and he includes many episodes that the other three leave out.  Of the four, Luke is most concerned with background and context, and his Gospel is the most artfully rendered.  It is the scholar’s Gospel.


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

(John 1.1-4)

John discusses spiritual things as easily as others discuss physical things.  His Gospel stands in a class of its own.  It’s as if Matthew is playing the trumpet, Mark is playing the tympani, Luke is playing the violin, and John is playing golf.  The others tell a harmonious story, each instrument leaving a particular impression on the listener.  John, on the other hand, has read the conditions of the ground and the wind, and uses a set of specialized tools and highly refined skills to push the reader closer and closer to a very specific spot.  Where is that spot?

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so 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)

Jeremy Nettles