Have you ever wondered about why we have four gospels, and why these are in the particular order as we have it, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? In this article, a modest attempt will be given to show how and why the four gospels are placed in the order in our Bible, the Word of God.
The first Gospel account we have is the Gospel According to Matthew. One might ask, “Why is Matthew first, then Mark, and so on?” There are two reasons to this. The first reason is: the most popular group of people in Israel were the Jews. Now the Jews wanted a king, so Matthew presents to them Jesus Christ the King, the Son of David. The second reason is this: we read in Revelation 4:7 that there are four living creatures, “and the first living creature like a lion, and the second living creature like a calf, and the third living creature having the face as of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.” The lion is a symbol for royalty and power, Matthew’s gospel. The calf is a symbol for service, as the calf is of service to humans, Mark’s gospel. The man is a symbol for wisdom and intelligence, Luke’s gospel, Christ as the Son of Man. Finally, the eagle is the most powerful flying creature, and a symbol for deity, John’s gospel, Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as God manifested in the flesh (John 1:1, 14).
We first take up Matthew. In the four Gospel accounts, we shall examine some key words or phrases that appear in only one Gospel, and not in any other. The time span of events occurring in the Gospel of Matthew reaches from about 4 BC to about AD 33 (the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ). The genealogy of Christ is given in Matthew and Luke only. Why? Because as Christ is presented as a King in Matthew’s Gospel, He had to have a genealogy that is traced back to Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17). However, when we come to Matthew 1:2-3, we read that Judah is mentioned after Jacob, because it is this tribe where the Lord Jesus came from (see Genesis 49:10). We also see Christ’s genealogy in Luke’s Gospel, because He is presented as a Man, the Son of Man (Luke 3:23-38), and this genealogy is traced back to Adam, being a Man.
We must now concentrate on some key words or phrases in the Gospel of Matthew. The first phrase we get is, “that it might be fulfilled.” We see that Matthew quotes more from the Old Testament than any other Gospel, as these quotes from the Old Testament anticipate a King. The second key phrase is, “the kingdom of heaven,” a phrase that does not appear in any other Gospel. The kingdom of heaven is God’s rule in the world – its headquarters is in heaven, but it is events occurring on earth. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven includes everyone who profess the name of Christ, whether believers or unbelievers. They profess to be subject to a rejected Messiah. We have in Matthew 13 seven parables that the Lord mentions (see my previous article on the parables of Matthew 13), and these are in such an order that shows the deteriorating condition of the professing church, and the stages of decline in “the kingdom of heaven.”
Perhaps one other thing in Matthew is in chapter 4, when the Lord was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Matthew 4:1 reads, “Then Jesus was carried up into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted of the devil.” As the King, Christ was “carried up” by the Spirit. I mentioned previously that there are the four major offerings in the book of Leviticus and each offering connects with a Gospel. In Matthew, we see the peace offering aspect of Christ (see Matthew 11:28-30). There is another thought that Matthew presents to us the sin offering in that Christ said that He came to give His life a ransom for many. This saying is also in Mark’s gospel.
We now come to the Gospel According to Mark. I previously mentioned that the Jews were the majority in Israel, and they were anticipating a King. Then the second most popular group of people in Israel were the Romans. Now the Romans were interested in servants, and wanted a servant who could accomplish great deeds. Therefore, Mark presents to them Jesus Christ the Servant, who came to serve (see Mark 10:45). However, before presenting the perfect Servant, Mark records that the gospel is the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God’ (Mark 1:1), so that immediately, the Servant is the Son of God Himself. The demons testified of Him later in the same chapter, and even strangers from Israel testified of Him that He is the Son of God. Then, at the end of the gospel, after His death and resurrection, the work on the cross was complete, the Servant ascended and sat at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19). Mark records events mostly in chronological order, while the other gospels focus on a different order.
It is generally believed that Mark wrote this gospel, as he experienced what it is like to be in the service of the Lord (Acts 12:25; 13:13; 15:36-38). However, he was later useful for Paul in 2 Tim 4, and so he must have witnessed the life, work, ministry, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ. It has been suggested that Mark was that young man who saw what happened in the garden on the night in which Jesus was betrayed and arrested (Mark 14:51-52). He does not even call himself by name, as if he is unworthy to mention himself as the writer of the gospel.
The time span of events occurring in Mark reaches from about AD 29 to about AD 33. Now Mark does not record the genealogy of Christ, because the Romans do not care about the Servant’s birth and where He came from. The most important key word in Mark is, “immediately.” As the Servant, the Lord Jesus immediately did many good deeds and good works. There is a sense of urgency when we read the word immediately. Mark also records the account of the Lord being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. We read in Mark 1:12, “And immediately the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness.” As the Servant, Christ was “driven out” by the Spirit, and we have the word, “immediately.” In Mark, we see the sin offering character of Christ, coming not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Next, we have the Gospel According to Luke. Now Luke was a physician (Colossians4:14) and he was also a Gentile, a Greek. It is remarkable that even though he was not one of the disciples, he was an eyewitness of the things he wrote about (Luke 1:1-4) SinceMark was written for the Romans, the thirdgroup of people in Israel were the Greeks, whowanted a man with wisdom, knowledge andunderstanding. As Luke himself had thesecharacteristics, he presented to the Greeks JesusChrist, the Man, the Wisdom of God incarnate(1 Corinthians 1:30).
The time span of events occurring in Luke is the same as in Matthew, from about 4 BC to about AD 33. Luke also records the genealogy of Christ, but tracing it right back to Adam (Luke 3:23- 38), because Christ is presented as a Man. As the Greeks sought a man with wisdom, Christ’s genealogy and birth had to be recorded in Luke. The key phrase in Luke is, “it happened,” or “it came to pass.” As the Son of Man, this is the appropriate expression used for the Lord Jesus. Luke also presents Christ as the Man of prayer, and this is most frequent in Luke, as he presents Christ as the Son of Man, an example to men to pray. In Luke, we read about Christ praying, more than in any other Gospel.
Luke also records the account of the Lord being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. In Luke 4:1 we read, “But Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” As a Man, Christ was “led by the Spirit,” and this shows us that as human beings, and as believers in Christ, the Spirit too leads us (Romans 8:14), if we allow Him to lead us. Christ was indeed the righteous Man, as the centurion testified at the cross in Luke 23:47, “Now the centurion, seeing what took place, glorified God, saying, In very deed this man was just.”
In Luke, we see the meal offering aspect of Christ, His perfect life when He, as a Man, was here on earth. The centurion testified of His perfection at the cross (Luke 23:47). There is another thought that the gospel of Luke corresponds with the peace offering, which is the general thought of many respected writers. Luke writes and conveys the thought of peace in his gospel.
The last Gospel account before us is the Gospel According to John. Now the other three Gospels were written for three different groups of people. However, the world at large needs a Saviour-God who can save everyone from their sins if they believe in Christ (John 3:16), but whoever does not believe is condemned (John 3:18). This is stressed out more than in any other Gospel, where John presents to the world Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as God manifested in the flesh. Therefore, John does not refer to himself as the writer of the gospel, but as the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, or ‘the other disciple’. He wants readers to focus on Christ, the Son of God and turn to Him for salvation.
The time span of events occurring in John is the same as in Mark, from about AD 29 to about AD 33. Now John emphasises on who Jesus is, rather than what He did. We have many chapters, like John 3, 5, 7-11 and many others, emphasising the equality of Christ with God. In John 8:24 we read, “I said therefore to you, that ye shall die in your sins; for unless ye shall believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.” The word “he” here is Christ as God manifested in the flesh. We read again in John 9:35-38 after Christ healed the blind man, “Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him, he said to him, Thou, dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, And who is he, Lord, that I may believe on him? And Jesus said to him, Thou hast both seen him, and he that speaks with thee is he. And he said, I believe, Lord: and he did him homage.”
Some key words or phrases in John are, “believe,” “life,” and “Son of God.” We have before us in John 20:31 the purpose of this Gospel, “but these are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life in his name.” John does not record the genealogy and birth of Christ, because as the Son of God, as God manifested in the flesh, He does not need a birth or genealogy. John focuses on Christ’s deity (God and Man at the same time). John does not record the account of Christ being tempted in the wilderness by Satan, as God cannot be tempted by anyone or anything.
In John, we have the burn offering character of the Lord Jesus, coming to earth to do His Father’s will and completing it (John 17). There we have the four Gospels before us, each one with a different purpose. Why four? The number four has a significant meaning, and when we come across numbers in Scripture, God wants to tell us something. So, the number four is the number of the earth – the things of the earth. For example, we have four Gospels, presenting four different views of Christ’s ministry on earth. On the fourth day of creation, the material things of the earth were created (Genesis 1:14-19). The fourth commandment concerns rest from all labour on the earth (Exodus 20:8-11). In Daniel 2 we read of four earthly kingdoms and in Daniel 7 we read of four beasts, corresponding with the kingdoms. Then in Matthew 13 four kinds of soil fell on the earth in the parable of the sower. We have seen previously in Revelation 4:7 four living creatures, and then in Revelation 20:8 we read of four corners of the earth. Finally, the fourth book in the Bible is the Hebrew name, “In the wilderness,” the book of Numbers, the journey on earth.
In concluding, the gospel writers do not copy from each other, but present Christ in a different aspect. We may see a lot of events and miracles, and they may be very similar, but each writer has a perspective on each event. Let us take one example. In each of the gospels, in the garden where the Lord was arrested, all the writers record this event. John records the name of the man who Peter cut off his ear as Malchus, and no other writer mentions this name. Luke records the event and mentions that Jesus touched the man’s right ear and healed him – as a physician, Luke is accurately recording this event from that perspective. When we look and examine these differences, we can only marvel at how wonderful our Bible, the Word of God, is, and thank God that He gave us His word that had been written many, many centuries ago and has been preserved until today.