When people discuss “the gospel,” there’s only one thing they’re talking about: Jesus Christ’s life and ministry. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the four biblical books that detail nearly everything we know about Jesus and His life. If we want to learn about the things Jesus did and said, we must turn to these ancient texts, supposedly written by eyewitnesses or people who spoke with them in the first century.
So why are there four different versions of Jesus’ story? Perhaps you’re wondering why there are only four if Jesus was such an influential figure. Both are valid questions, but before we answer them, we have to know what makes a “gospel” and how it differs from other written works.
What does the word “gospel” mean?
While Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, the New Testament was written in Greek. The English word “gospel” comes from the Old English term “godspell,” a translation of the Greek word “euangelion.” “Eugangelion” means good news or good tidings and eventually became an expression of the good news about Jesus. In the world of the New Testament, this term supplemented announcements about the enthronement of a Roman ruler or victory in battle. An inscription for the birthday of Roman emperor Augustus said, “Good news [euangelia] to the world!”
In the Old Testament, “good news” typically referred to God’s deliverance of His people. Soon, euangelion became a technical term for the good news regarding Jesus Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul says that the gospel comes to you not only with words but with power, the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. This is one of the original New Testament letters, and Paul uses “euangelion” for the proclamation of the good news about Jesus. Eventually, “euangelion” was used to depict the written versions of the good news about Jesus.
Mark introduces his work by saying this is the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in Mark 1:1. The church eventually came to call all four of these accounts gospels. The word “gospel” tells us how the early church saw these works. They weren’t dry historical accounts of Jesus’ life but written versions of the most significant news ever shared. The gospels were meant to be believed and proclaimed.
Why did God give us four gospels instead of one?
While the entire Bible is inspired by God, as explained in 2 Timothy 3:16, He used human authors with different personalities and backgrounds to accomplish His purpose through their writing. Each of the gospel authors had an individual purpose behind their gospel, and in carrying out these purposes, each highlighted different parts of the person and ministry of Jesus.
Matthew was writing to Hebrew readers, and one of his purposes was to show from Jesus’ ancestors and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and thus should be believed in. Matthew’s emphasis is that Christ is the promised King who would forever sit upon Israel’s throne. Mark, Barnabas’s cousin, was a witness to the events in Jesus’s life as well as a friend of the apostle Peter. He wrote for the Gentile audience, which is highlighted by his exclusion of things important to Jewish readers, like Christ’s controversies with Jewish leaders and genealogies.
Mark highlights Jesus as the suffering Servant who came to serve, not to be served and give His life as a ransom for many. The beloved physician and evangelist Luke, another friend of Paul, wrote the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the apostles. He’s long been accepted as a hardworking master historian by those who used his writings in historical and genealogical studies. As a historian, Luke says his intent is to write an orderly account of Christ’s life based on eyewitness reports, as detailed in Luke 1:1-4. Because he wrote for the benefit of Theophilus, a Gentile of some stature, his gospel was written for a Gentile audience, and he intended to show that a Christian’s faith is based on verifiable and historically reliable events. Luke typically refers to Jesus as the Son of Man, highlighting His humanity, and he shares details that aren’t found in other gospel accounts.
John’s gospel, written by John the Apostle, is different from the other three gospels and has theological content regarding the person of Christ and the meaning of faith. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels due to their similar content and styles and because they give an outline of Christ’s life. The gospel of John doesn’t start with Jesus’ birth or earthly ministry but with the characteristics and activity of the Son of God before He became a man. John’s gospel emphasizes the deity of Christ, as seen in his use of phrases like “the Word was God” and “the Savior of the World.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus also asserts His deity with numerous “I Am” statements. The most notable among them is John 8:58. Still, John also emphasizes the fact of Jesus’ humanity, wanting to show the fault of a religious sect of his day, the Gnostics, who didn’t believe in Jesus’ humanity. John’s gospel details his purpose for writing in John 20:30-31 when he said that Jesus did other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which aren’t recorded in the book but written so that others may believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Thus, by having four different and equally accurate accounts of Jesus, different parts of His ministry and person are shared. Each account becomes like a different-colored string in a tapestry woven together to create a more complete picture of Christ.
While we’ll never fully comprehend everything about Jesus, through the four gospels, we can know enough of Christ to appreciate who Christ is and what He’s done for us so we can live life through faith in Him. Much can be gained by individually studying each of the Gospels, but more can be known by comparing and contrasting the different stories of specific events of Jesus’ ministry. We’re given four different gospels because Jesus’ life was so full that it couldn’t be told in one gospel.