The Gospel Records - Some Features
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
Christianity is an historic faith. We have not followed cunningly devised fables. However, we must remember that the facts of the faith were preached long before they were penned. The chief concern of the early church was to witness publicly, in Spirit-empowered preaching and teaching, to the life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, present ministry, and future coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The preaching of the apostles, so much of which is recorded in the book of Acts, highlights the important facts of the faith, and leads us through the basic thread of events forming the Gospel story. A classical address in this connection is Peter's to the household of Cornelius, Acts 10. Here, in a few words, the sweep of the earthly ministry of Christ is comprehended.
The Story in Writing. As time went on, this oral preaching was incorporated into written records. This became a more urgent necessity as the lives of the original eyewitnesses drew to a close, and as the message spread further afield. There were, in fact, many accounts written, but not all of them were authoritative, Luke 1.1-4. Four Gospel records were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and were preserved in the providence of God. These are often termed "the four Gospels", but it would be more correct to say that they present the Gospel story from four different standpoints. There are not four Gospels; there is only one Gospel. However, some facets of the fulness of the Gospel story are recorded in the "Gospel according to Matthew". Other facets of the same Gospel find a place in the records according to Mark, Luke and John.
The Different Emphases. Each of the four Gospel accounts has its own divinely intended emphasis. The Person they present is incomprehensible, and the scope of the work He finished is universal. Hence the need for the four aspects of His Person and work which God has revealed to us. The title board on the cross reminds all of the guilt of the whole world. The words were written in "letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew", Luke 23. 38. Yet in the mercy of God, a Gospel record peculiarly fitted to each of these guilty groups is contained in the Word of God. Matthew presents Christ as the Messiah, the One who embodied all true Jewish hopes. So many features of the earthly course of our Lord's life are shown by Matthew to have been anticipated in the Old Testament prophecies. This and that happened in order that the Scripture "might be fulfilled", urges Matthew. The kingly aspect of the Person addressed as "die Branch*' is found here, see Jer. 23. 5-6; to Matthew, Christ emphatically is the King. Mark's account is the simplest. His activity-packed narrative has a message for the bustling Romans, cf. Acts 10. 36-43. He presents the Person who "doeth all things well", the One who went about doing good, the perfect Servant of God. We find ourselves gripped by the graphic, quick moving eyewitness account. Here is the One prophesied as "my servant the Branch", Zech. 3. 8. To Luke it was given to meet the aspirations of the Greeks, and the deepest, inward yearnings of men. He writes at length on the nativity scenes and tells of the One born "a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord". He tells us of the Lord's increase "in wisdom, and stature, and in favour with God and man". Gracious words and acts dominate the ministry of the perfect Man; outcasts feel at home in His presence, sinners are assured that it is in order to seek and to save them He has come. Here is "the man whose name is The Branch", Zech. 6. 12. Supplementing all of these presentations of His fulness, it is John's task to present Christ from the believer's viewpoint. The mature reflection of one who had leaned on Jesus' breast is designed to bring readers to "believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" that they might have life through His name, John 20. 31. Here the One revealed as the Word, the One who was in the beginning with God, and was God, became flesh and dwelt among us, 1.1,14. The deity of Christ, the Son, is the leading theme throughout. We marvel at the fact that God was manifest in flesh, the One referred to by Isaiah as "the branch of the Lord", 4. 2.
The four Gospel records, then, have their own particular emphases in connection with the Person of Christ. In Matthew and Mark His official glories are more to the forefront. Here He is the all powerful Sovereign and the perfect Servant. In Luke and John it is rather His personal glories that are emphasized. Here He is perfect Man, the Son of Man, and yet very God, the eternal Son.
Hast thou seen Him, heard Him, known Him, Is not thine a captured heart?
Three of the Gospel records, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are referred to as "The Synoptics". The word "synoptic" is derived from two Greek words, sun meaning "with" and opsis meaning "seeing". The three records are designated in this way because they approach the life and ministry of Christ from a broadly common viewpoint. John's record, however, is quite different from the first three accounts. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are many miracles recorded, and numerous parables addressed to the multitudes of people that thronged the Saviour. In John's Gospel the miracles are few in number, and those that are recorded are carefully chosen because their spiritual significance furthered the writer's particular aim, John 20. 30-31. Notice, too, that to John the "miracles" are "signs". Yet another contrast to be observed in John's method, and in the matter which he introduces, is the generally more profound, and often more individual character of our Lord's teaching. Again, in the first three Gospels the ministry of the Lord outside of Judea is emphasized, most space being given to His Galilean itineraries. In John's account great space is given to those things said and done by our Lord in Judea. The four Gospel records, then, when viewed as a whole, are seen naturally to group themselves in a three plus one arrangement.
Importance and Harmony. The four records spread over almost half the pages contained in the New Testament. Check this in your own Bible. This serves to emphasize their importance. As is to be expected, there is a great deal of overlapping evident in the things which are recorded, and it is by careful comparison of the parallel passages dealing with a specific incident, that the peculiar emphasis of the particular record being studied becomes more apparent. There is no disharmony. They form a beautiful and complementary whole. Any difficulties which we may have in studying these records are largely because of our detachment from the actual incidents, and our tendency to "see men as trees walking", which in turn drives us back to the divine Author for more light. We should prayerfully approach these records with a view to learning of Him whom not having seen we love.
Such is His fulness, however, that even the four Gospel accounts give only a few vital selections from the Lord's experience during "the days of his flesh". He did many other things, John 21. 25. Further proof of this may be found in the other New Testament writings, where the sparing references to features of the Lord's earthly life are found sometimes to contain information which is not preserved in the four Gospels; e.g. Acts 20. 35.
The things that are revealed are for us. Through these pages we are with Him of whom John wrote, "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of life; (for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us)", 1 John 1. 1-2. Out of their fulness, may He cause our hearts to burn within us as He talks with us by the way. Through this means we shall enjoy fellowship with the apostles, and as John reminds us "truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ", 1 John 1. 3.