The Four Gospels – 2. Distinguishing Characteristics

2. Distinguishing Characteristics

Early Christian writers compared the four Gospels to the river which flowed out of Eden’s garden and which parted into four heads, Gen. 2. 10-14. In Eden the river was one but ‘from thence it was parted … into four heads’. In heaven Christ was seen in one character, the Lord of glory, but as the river which left Eden was parted into four heads watering the earth, so the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus has been, by the Holy Spirit, parted into four heads in the four Gospels.

Significance of Four

Four is the number of earth. It speaks of universality. There are four points to the compass, north, south, east and west; four seasons in the year, spring, summer, autumn and winter. In the book of Daniel we find that there is reference to only four great world empires, the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Grecian and Roman. Scripture divides earth’s inhabitants into four classes of people, kindred, tongue, people and nation, Rev. 5. 9. In the parable of the sower our Lord divided the field into four classes of soil and later said, ‘the field is the world’. The fourth commandment has to do with rest from all earth’s labours. The fourth clause in what is called ‘the Lord’s prayer’ is ‘Thy will be done in earth’. These facts and many more establish the significance of four as used in Scripture. How appropriate, therefore, that the Holy Spirit should have given us four Gospels in which is set forth the earthly ministry of the heavenly One.

From the time of Irenaeus (end of second century A.D.) the four Gospels have been likened to the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision. In Ezekiel 1 we read, ‘out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings … As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle’, vv. 5, 6, 10. Note again the face of a lion, the face of an ox, the face of a man and the face of an eagle. The tribes which pitched their tents around the tabernacle in the wilderness are said to have had these four figures on their respective standards, Num. 2. Jewish tradition declares that the standard of the camp of Judah was the lion; that of Ephraim was the ox; whilst Reuben used the figure of the man and Dan the eagle.

The Face of the Lion – Matthew

The lion as the king of the beasts symbolises supreme strength and kingship. This brings before us Matthew’s portrait of Christ. The first question here is ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’, 2. 2. He was bom in the outside place, in that lowly cattle shed. He dwelt in the outside place, in Galilee of the Gentiles. He stationed His messenger in the outside place, in the wilderness of Judea. He died in the outside place, outside the city wall. He was buried in the outside place, in the garden sepulchre. We too are exhorted to associate ourselves with Him in the outside place, ‘Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach’, Heb. 13- 13.

The opening verse of Matthew’s Gospel is ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’. As the son of David, Christ is the One who is fully qualified to sit upon the throne. Son of David links Him with Israel’s throne but son of Abraham links Him with Israel’s land. Seven times our Lord is addressed as son of David in this Gospel, 1. 1; 9. 27; 12. 23; 15. 22; 20. 30, 31; 21. 9, 15. But nowhere after the opening verse is the title ‘son of Abraham’ applied to Him, for the restoration of the land to Israel is consequent upon their acceptance of Him as their Messiah King. ‘Son of David’ brings before us His royal dignity; ‘son of Abraham’ His covenant dignity. In His humanity Christ was the seed of the woman; in His nationality the seed of Abraham; in His royalty the son of David, the Lion of Judah’s royal tribe. Here the Jew is exhorted to ‘behold thy king’, Zech. 9. 9.

The Face of an Ox – Mark

In that vision of the living creatures Ezekiel also beheld ‘the face of an ox’. The ox is always ready for service or sacrifice, the plough or the altar. This brings before us the servant character of Christ, the perfect workman of God as portrayed in Mark’s Gospel. Here we have no record of His genealogy, His miraculous conception or birth, for with a servant these are scarcely points of importance. We find also that whilst there are only four parables recorded in this Gospel there are some thirty four miracles. This again is in keeping with the symbol of the ox presenting as it does the servant character of Christ, for true service consists more in doing than speaking. It is the Worker and not the Teacher we have here. Twelve out of the sixteen chapters commence with the word ‘and’, a word rarely if ever used to open chapters in secular writings. ‘And’ is a conjunction, joining together two other parts of speech, making one whole. The service of Christ was characterized by that which ‘and’ signifies. It was one complete, perfect whole with no breaks in it. How unlike ours! Our service is so disjointed. We serve God fervently for a time; then comes a cooling-off, a slackening of pace, after which our zeal is manifested again. But the perfect Servant never grew weary of welldoing. God here encourages us to ‘Behold, my servant’, Isa. 52. 13.

The Face of a Man – Luke

In Ezekiel’s vision ‘the face of a man’ was also presented. This bespeaks the highest intelligence, humanity and sympathy and is a fitting emblem for Luke’s Gospel. This is the Gospel of Christ’s manhood, the Gospel of the Son of man upon whom the shadow of the fall never fell. In this Gospel we behold the uniqueness of Christ’s humanity, miraculously begotten, intrinsically holy and seeing no corruption not even in death. The humanity of our Lord needs to be discussed with profound reverence and care. It is here traced back not to David and Abraham as in Matthew, but to Adam, yea and through Adam to God Himself, 3. 38. The Gospel of His perfect manhood is of universal appeal. Here we ‘behold the man’, Zech. 6. 12.

The Face of the Eagle – John

The last face in Ezekiel’s vision was ‘the face of an eagle’. The faces of the lion, ox and man are all associated with the earth. The eagle lifts us above the earth and brings the heavens into our range. The eagle is the bird that soars the highest and symbolizes the character in which Christ is seen in John’s Gospel, namely the Son of God, of the full deity possessed, eternally divine. Well has it been termed the Gospel of the Incarnate God! If such divine care was taken in Luke to guard the perfections of our Lord’s humanity, equally so has the Spirit seen to it that there should be no uncertainty concerning the affirmation of His Deity. In the opening verses we read ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God’, that is, had a distinct Personality, ‘and the Word was God’, demonstrating His absolute Deity. In the closing verses we read that ‘there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written’; here is Infinity, 21. 25. It opens with Deity and closes with Infinity! He came to this earth as God manifest in flesh, 1 Tim. 3. 16; John 1. 14, declared the Father, 1. 18; 14, 9, and then returned to the Father in heaven, 16. 28. Here we behold Him dwelling with the Father before time began, before any creature was formed, before the voice of God was heard breaking the silence of eternity. In this Gospel there is no genealogy, no birth, no boyhood, no growth, no baptism, no temptation and no Gethsemane. Everything here is directed to emphasise that Jesus Christ is God. The prophet’s words are so appropriate here, ‘Behold your God’, Isa. 40. 9.

His Official and Personal Glories

Thus in these records Jesus the Messiah is presented in four aspects. He is King and Servant, Man and God. The first two refer to His offices; the last two to His Person. In each pair the aspects are contrasted. In Matthew and Mark He is seen to be both Sovereign and Servant. In Luke and John He is found to be both Human and Divine. Thus we have in the four Gospels a wonderful fourfold blending of the sovereignty, humility, humanity and deity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

  • As Sovereign He comes to rule and reign.
  • As Servant He comes to serve and suffer.
  • As Son of Man He comes to share and sympathise.
  • As Son of God He comes to reveal and redeem.
  • The mighty King of Matthew’s Gospel is the ‘righteous branch’ raised unto David the king, who shall reign and prosper and execute judgment and justice in the earth, Jer. 23. 5.

    The lowly Servant of Mark’s Gospel was the One of whom God said, ‘behold I will bring forth my servant the Branch’, Zech. 3. 8.

    The ideal Man in Luke’s Gospel is the One prophesied in the words, ‘Behold the man whose name is The Branch; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord’, Zech. 6. 12.

    The Divine Son in John’s Gospel is the One of whom Isaiah says, ‘In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious’, 4. 2.

    Matthew ends with the resurrection of Christ, with Messiah still on earth, for it is on earth and not in heaven that the Son of David shall reign in glory.

    Mark goes further and ends with the Ascension.

    Luke goes still further by introducing the promise of the Holy Spirit.

    John completes the four by a promise of the Second Coming. Thus in the Gospels we have a masterpiece of variety in unity. O what fulness there is in Jesus the Son of God!


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