Why do we have four gospels? Wouldn’t it be enough to tell the story once? Evidently Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t think so and the early church agreed that they all merited a place in the Holy Scriptures. Some skeptics have claimed to find discrepancies and disagreements in the accounts, but these all disappear when one understands what each writer was trying to do.
The Gospel of Mark was the first, a bare bones gospel, simply a recording of the memories of an eye witness of Jesus’ life. It is generally understood that the eye witness was Peter and that Mark merely wrote down Peter’s recollections.
Matthew’s gospel was written for the benefit of Jewish believers and seekers. He takes great care to show how Jesus was the true fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies.
Luke wrote as a Greek historian. His gospel provides a coherent and well documented account of Jesus’ life for the Greeks, who put no stock in Jewish prophecies but just wanted to know the facts.
John’s gospel is something else again. It was the last one written and begins by identifying Jesus as the Logos and has a much greater emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit than the other gospels.
Psalm 33:6 tells us ” By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” The Book of Proverbs personifies the wisdom of God and in one place tells us: ” The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19).
In the time of Jesus and the disciples, the Old Testament Scriptures were being read in a Greek translation (the Septuagint) where word in Psalm 33 read logos. The Greek understanding of logos would have included all the meaning of word, wisdom and understanding. To the Stoics, the Logos was the divine force that pervaded and upheld the universe.
John began his gospel by stating “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was nothing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. . . . And the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
These words affirm the Old Testament teachings, then show how they are embodied in Jesus Christ and make the bold statement that the one writing this saw the Logos with his own eyes. These same words tell the Greeks that the Logos, which their philosophers have endeavoured to understand, has a genuine historical existence and has come to earth and walked among men.
From this divinely inspired beginning, John goes on to tell the story of Jesus. As he is the last of the gospel writers, writing some years after the others, he takes great pains to include the fullness of Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit, as the power, grace and leading of the Holy Spirit were essential for the church in continuing the work begun by Jesus.
Each of the gospel writers was reaching out to engage their surrounding culture in a transformative manner. They were not trying to make the gospel less offensive. They were showing how the gospel was the answer to the aspirations of all people for a relationship with their Creator. The gospel was a direct challenge to all other religious and philosophical claims to provide a meaningful life, and thus aroused much opposition. At the same time it was the answer that fit the lock and opened the door that nothing else could open.