I was startled when one of the guys I disciple recently asked some questions about the four Gospels at our Bible study: “Since Jesus is the Son of God, shouldn’t we know more about him than what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us?” he asked. “And don’t each of the Gospel differ from one another a little bit?
My student wasn’t trying to raise an argument or deconstruct anyone else’s faith. He was genuinely curious. And from my time around teenagers, I know that if one of them asks a particular question, others are likely to have the same question— whether it be a significant theological issue or asking me why I believe Lebron is the G.O.A.T. and not Michael Jordan.
So why are there four Gospels—not more or fewer? And why do they seem so different from each other? Here are four key points I shared with my students in effort to point them to the beautiful, true story of Jesus.
The Gospels provide in-depth details of who Jesus was, what he did, and why it matters.
We might assume we don’t know much about such an influential person as Jesus, but the truth is we know more about him than almost anyone else of his day. The fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John took the time to record the events in Jesus’ life is significant.
The word gospel means “good news” in the original Greek. The gospel accounts detailed the life of Jesus and set forth the claim that Jesus is Lord. In the fourth century CE, the early church included these four accounts along with the other New Testament books in a collection called a canon. Christians had been using these books and some others for reading and worship well before then. However, the rest of these writings (some of which are falsely called “gospels”) were deemed to be inaccurate accounts of Jesus’ life, out of step with apostolic, orthodox Christian teaching.
The four Gospels accepted into the canon explain that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, raised in Nazareth as the son of a carpenter, and began his public ministry around 30 AD. Jesus raised the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons, assembled a team of disciples, and taught with authority. Many came to believe in Jesus as God’s Son, and others did not. Ultimately, Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified on a Roman cross only to be raised from the grave. Because the four Gospel writers put their lives on the line to spread the good news of Jesus, we, too, can be confident in the account of his life and why it matters to the world.
The Gospels are not that different from one another in the first place.
Most of us have heard people suggest that Scripture contradicts itself. Critics will argue that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John record different events in Jesus’ life and when they do record the same events, the details often vary from one Gospel account to the next. Since the Gospels share different details and perspectives, can they really be trusted?
It’s important to remember that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell the same story of Jesus. The synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—contain many of the same events of Jesus’ life because they were true, accurately recorded, and verified. Whether it be Jesus feeding the 5,000 (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17) or teaching on the parable of the tenants (Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19), the synoptics follow the same narrative by providing details that are worth sharing. On the other hand, focusing on small differences within the Gospel accounts can even be useful. Each Gospel writer is a historian, theologian, and storyteller in his own, divinely-inspired right.
While the Gospel of John differs from the synoptics, it is not wrong, nor less reliable. John zooms in on key events that happen in Jesus’ life and draws out their significance in ways the synoptic writers do not through the use of signs, longer discourses, and a special attention to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. John also includes accounts the synoptics leave out, like the wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, and raising Lazarus from the dead among others. Between the four Gospels, we as Christians ultimately have the perfect amount of breadth and depth in the account of Jesus’ life to clearly see how Jesus is God’s Son and the Savior of the world.
The Gospels paint a beautiful, true picture of the historical Jesus.
Beeson Divinity School’s Hodges Chapel provides a compelling illustration of how the Gospels work together to give us a fuller sense of Jesus’ life. The chapel’s dome directly above the pulpit features 16 witnesses, both male and female, across different denominational and ethnic lines. During seminary chapel services, I most often sat in a spot where I could see John Calvin and Martin Luther pretty easily, but not William J. Seymour or Lottie Moon. If I were to sit somewhere else in the chapel and look up at the dome, I would be able to see Lottie Moon and William J. Seymour but not Calvin and Luther. Just because my vantage point changed does not mean that any from the cloud of witnesses ceased to exist. It simply meant I could not see them all perfectly from my seat.
In a similar way, the four Gospels are a beautiful picture of the life of Jesus. Together, they form the divinely inspired view of Jesus’ life—the picture we need to believe, know, and trust Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Is there more to Jesus’ life than found in the Gospel accounts? Absolutely! John even admits as much at the end of his Gospel (21:24-25). But let us not mistake what we do not know with God’s sovereignty. God has perfectly given us the four Gospels as the accounts of Jesus’ life.
The Gospels lead to Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Every good book or movie has a climax. All four of the gospels come to the same conclusion that the climactic, defining event in the life of Jesus was his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. No, the disciples did not fully understand how and why Jesus’ life had to end the way that it did. But on that Easter morning, as the women went to the tomb, the world was forever changed.
Thanks be to God—he sent his one and only Son to defeat death once and for all. And in doing so, God also saved the world through him (John 3:17). This was the truth that emboldened his disciples, the early Church, and now us, to proclaim that good news everywhere and to everyone (Matt.28:19-20). Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John leave us with the undeniably good news that Jesus died for us sinners and that through his grace, mercy, and forgiveness, we can have life in his name (John 10:10).