God doesn’t do anything arbitrarily. We may not be able to grasp His intentions in full or even in part, but we can be sure that everything that He does is full of eternal purpose and Divine wisdom. The secret things may belong to God, but those that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever (Deut. 29:29). Those revealed things have to do with all that God has made known to us in the Scriptures. The heart of biblical revelation is the revelation of Jesus. The chief reason why God breathed out the Scriptures is that we might come to know Him in and through His Son–and that we might have life in Christ. While every book of the Bible is about Jesus and our relationship to Him, the four Gospels give us the close-up shots of the Savior in the days of His flesh. As a young Christian, I remember wondering why it was that God chose to give us four Gospels rather than one. This is no illegitimately curious or superfluous question. It is one that we do well to consider. I have actually come to believe that there are many reasons why our God has given us four–rather than one–Gospel records. Here are three:
1. It takes more than one man’s record to capture the glory of the infinite Savior. Interestingly, the great B.B. Warfield set out to answer this question in a short article titled,”Why Four Gospels?”–which he wrote for the 1887 edition of The Westminster Teacher. Using the imagery of painters observing a beautiful scene in nature and composers writing different parts of one magnificent composition, Warfield concluded the following:
No one man could stand above this mountain of grace and write out for us a description of what it is and of all the streams that flow from it to make glad the country spread at its base; neither were we to be confined to the view of it that one man, from his lower standpoint, could obtain. This would indeed have been an inestimable blessing. What one man, illuminated in his spirit by the Spirit of God, could understand of the signs and deeds that Jesus did, and, directed in his hand by the same Spirit’s inspiration, could record of what he saw, would be enough to make us believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and to bring us life in his name. But this was not all that the Spirit could give; and it is not all that He has given. He has, as it were stationed Spirit-led men around the foot of the mountain and bidden them look and write. And one tells us what it is on this side, and on, what it is on that side, until through their eyes we may catch, piecemeal indeed, but with truth and perspective some shadowy glimpse of the perfect whole…In this Divine song each evangelist has his part to sing, and each part is complete in itself; while the Holy Spirit is the composer of all, the author at once of their diversity, suiting the part to the voice that is to sing it, and of their concordant harmony by which we may get a foretaste of that vaster music which it shall be ours to hear “when we shall see Him as He is.”1
It is for this reason that the first three Gospel records are often called “the Synoptics.” The word “synoptic” simply means, “to see through.” We are meant to put the lens of Matthew over the lens of Luke and Mark and to focus in on what is before us. As we do so, we find that each writer is giving us a different angle shot. As we simultaneously look through the lens of John’s Gospel, we see Jesus in 3D. Warfield concluded: “That a full and proper use may be made of them, we must begin by knowing each separately in its individuality and point of view, that we may end by knowing the Jesus of all alike to be the one divine Savior of the world.”
2. The Gospels are suited to different audiences. It has often been noted that each one of the four Gospels have a unique flavor that are suited to different recipients of the letters–both historically and spiritually. For instance, it is well agreed upon that Matthew’s Gospel was written to convince Jews of Jesus’ Messiaship and Luke’s, to convince the Gentiles. Matthew’s Gospel is focusing on Jesus as true Israel, who came to fulfill all the promises made to Abraham; Luke’s Gospel was written to focus on Jesus as second Adam–the Divine Healer who came to undo everything Adam did and to do everything Adam failed to do. It is for these reasons that Matthew takes us back to Abraham when he gives us Jesus’ genealogy by way of adoption unto kingship through Joseph (Matt. 1). Luke, by way of addition, takes us back to Adam when he gives us Jesus’ genealogy through his human lineage from Mary (Luke 3).
Many have suggested that Mark gives us the picture of Jesus as the Son of God and Servant of the Lord. While much of the material in Mark is common to Matthew and Luke (many believing that Mark wrote Peter’s testimony of Christ, from which Matthew and Luke then drew), there are things in Mark that are unique to Mark. Since Matthew and Luke give us more detailed treatments of the same material that we find in Mark, we can be tempted to think that Mark is less important or less necessary. However, when you think you can live without Mark because you have Matthew and Luke; remember that Mark has supremely important truths about Jesus in it that you can’t live without (e.g. Mk 10:45).
John, by way of contrast with the synoptic Gospels, shows us the inner life of Jesus as the eternal Son of God in a way that spoke more potently to those who adhered to Gnostic heresies (akin to modern day new-age and eastern mysticism). In the well-known words of John Calvin:
[The synoptic Gospels] are more copious in their narrative of the life and death of Christ, but John dwells more largely on the doctrine by which the office of Christ, together with the power of his death and resurrection, is unfolded. They do not, indeed, omit to mention that Christ came to bring salvation to the world, to atone for the sins of the world by the sacrifice of his death, and, in short, to perform every thing that was required from the Mediator, (as John also devotes a portion of his work to historical details;) but the doctrine, which points out to us the power and benefit of the coming of Christ, is far more clearly exhibited by him than by the rest. And as all of them had the same object in view, to point out Christ, the three former exhibit his body, if we may be permitted to use the expression, but John exhibits his soul.2
In the same way as the Gospels were uniquely suited to historical audiences, they are uniquely suited to those of differing spiritual bents and inclinations. Those who want signs and wonders–like the Jews of old–will most likely reap the most benefit from Matthew. Those who long to know compassion and healing will most certainly be drawn to Luke. Those who want quick cameos that capture the essence of true religion–those who move hastily from one thing to the next–will benefit most from Mark’s “immediate” movement from one account to another in the life of Christ. For those who consider themselves to be “spiritual,” who like to dabble in eastern and mystical religions, John’s Gospel is best suited to speak into their lives.
3. The Gospels form a trustworthy witness. If only one man had written a record of the earthly ministry of Jesus, it might have been called into question as being suspect. Just as the Scriptures everywhere stress the importance of every word being established on the mouth of two or three witnesses (Duet. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16, 20; 1 Cor. 14:29; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19 and Heb. 10:28), so our God has supplied us with ample witness to the details about the life and ministry of Christ through the fourfold witness of the evangelists. This is no insignificant observation. When Jesus was questioned by the Jews of His day–concerning the veracity of his Messiaship–He pointed to a fourfold witness:
If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true. You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. He was the burning and shining lamp, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light. But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me. And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life (John 5:31-40).
The fourfold witness was Jesus’ own Person, the witness of John the Baptist, the witness of the Father’s works in Christ and the witness of the Scriptures. In the same way, the Holy Spirit has given us the witness of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
While there is, no doubt, more rationale for why our God has given us four Gospel records of Christ, the three that we have considered to suffice to show the Divine purpose and wisdom in giving us the fullest picture that He wishes us to have for our faith in the Person and saving work of Jesus. As we gather the lens of the synoptic Gospel together and bring them into focus with the telescope of John’s Gospel, we see Jesus in His glory, Son of God and Son of Man, son of Abraham, true Israel, second Adam, Servant of the Lord and the eternal Word coming to redeem His own and to bring them to glory. Praise be to the triune God for the fourfold witness of the Gospels to Christ!
1. Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburgh, NJ: P&R, 2001) pp. 640-641.
2. John Calvin Commentary on the Gospel of John http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.vi.html