The Design of the Gospels
Why do we have four separate records of the life of Christ instead of just one? Would it not have been better to have one complete record instead of four incomplete ones? The Old Testament sets forth the character of the promised Messiah in a four-fold fashion.
- Matthew – One of the Old Testament titles for the Messiah is “the Branch,” meaning that which sprouts or springs forth. In Jer. 23:5 the Messiah is called, “the Branch of David.” David was the King of Israel with whom God had made a covenant concerning an everlasting King and Kingdom. Matthew introduces Jesus as the Son of David in his opening sentence, and emphasizes the truth concerning the Messianic Kingdom.
- Mark – The Messiah is called “Jehovah’s Servant the Branch,” in Zech. 3:8Mark presents Jesus especially in this character. Unlike Matthew; who traces the genealogy of Jesus in the kingly line back to David and Abraham, Mark says nothing about His line of descent, which is of little importance for a servant. He does introduce Jesus in the first verse as the Son of God, but nothing is said about the origin of His humanity. The activity of Jesus is swift and moving in Mark. Over and over Mark used the word translated, “immediately,” “straightway,” giving the impression that Jesus was constantly serving God. Jesus was the ideal Servant of God, always doing the Father’s will, and is thus an example for all servants of God in all ages, as far as devotion and dedication are concerned. Since He was living under the Mosaic Law dispensation and was introducing the Messianic Kingdom, the type of His ministry varies in many respects from that which God has ordained for today.
- Luke – The Messiah is also set forth as “the Man whose name is the Branch,” (Zech. 6: 12). The emphasis in Luke’s Gospel is on Jesus as the Son of man. Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam, the first man. He gives many details about the birth and childhood of Jesus which are omitted by the other writers. The favorite title of Jesus for Himself was “the Son of man.” It is not recorded that anyone else called Him by this name.
- John – Finally, Isa. 4:2 speaks of the Messiah as “the Branch of Jehovah.” John was written to exalt Jesus especially as the Son of God. He states the purpose of his Gospel to be “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name,” (John 20:31). He establishes the Deity of Jesus Christ in the very first verse of his
John makes it evident that the Gospels contain only a partial record of all that Jesus said and did, for he states: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world could not contain the books that should be written,” (John 21:25). Each of the Gospel writers chose only those words and events which contributed to the design of his Gospel. It is as though four men were stationed on four sides of a building and each asked to write a description of the building. They would all be writing about the same building, but each would see features not apparent to the others, and in places their descriptions might vary to the extent that they were describing entirely different buildings. Thus there are differences between the four Gospels, but the differences are not contradictions or errors on the part of the writers, but rather are evidences of design.
The Synoptic Problem
The word “synoptic” means “seen together.” It is applied to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, because these three Gospels are very similar in content and order. The problem is, that we have three separate records of the life of Jesus which are so similar and yet have distinct differences.
Part of the Synoptic problem stems from defective views of inspiration. All Scripture is God-breathed and therefore inerrant. If this claim of Scripture for itself is denied or compromised, then some questions about the differences are valid. Inspiration does not exclude the use of human sources; in fact, Luke tells us that he received his information from those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses. Inspiration would not rule out the theory commonly held that one writer used an earlier written Gospel as a model. Inspiration demands that the Holy Spirit superintended what these men wrote. They were led to sources and selected such materials which would fulfill God’s purpose in having each of the four Gospels written. Not only so, but there must have been a certain amount of direct revelation of facts to them of things they could not have known otherwise. How could they have known what words were spoken between Christ and Satan in the temptation when no one else was present; or how could they have known what Christ prayed in the garden while they were asleep? Actually, Matthew and John were apostles and were personal witnesses of practically all that Jesus said and did, so that they would have had little need for outside sources of information.
There are differences in wording and in the chronological arrangement of parallel passages in the Synoptics which need to be explained. E.W. Bullinger argues that each of the Synoptics give exactly the same chronological order and that what appears to be parallel passages in the three Gospels are only similar and not identical events. He claims, for example, that instead of there having been three temptations of the Lord as commonly believed, there were six: Matthew mentions three and Luke the other three. Instead of there having been two others crucified with Jesus, there were four: two thieves and two malefactors. While it is evident that there are cases of similar sayings and events which are not identical in the Synoptics, it appears unreasonable to explain every difference on this basis.
None of the Gospel writers made mistakes, and any differences in their accounts could be reconciled if all of the facts were known. A great deal of textual criticism has proceeded on the basis that the differences are due to erroneous information the writers received from their various sources, but this approach is purely naturalistic and is opposed to Divine inspiration. Others hold the inconsistent view that the important spiritual truths are inspired but the less important historical parts are not inspired and therefore open to mistakes.
There are numerous factors which may explain the differences between the Gospels. Christ no doubt spoke to His people in Hebrew or Aramaic. We know that Paul spoke to the Jews in Hebrew (Acts 22:2), so it is reasonable to suppose that Christ did likewise. The Gospels were written in Greek. Translating from Hebrew into Greek could explain the difference in words or order of words. Pilate wrote the inscription over the Cross in three languages: Hebrew, the national language, Latin, the official language, and Greek, the common language (John 19:20). It is possible that the differences in the wording of this inscription in the four Gospels is due to translation from the Hebrew or the Latin. It is evident also that Jesus often repeated parables and other sayings, so that what may appear to be a part of the Sermon on the Mount misplaced in Mark or Luke, may in fact have been part of another discourse. An evident example of this may be seen in the parable of the candle. In Lk. 8:16 we read: “No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they that enter in may see the light.” Then in the same Gospel of Luke (11:33), we read: “No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.” Here in the same Gospel we find a parable repeated in slightly different words and on an entirely different occasion, with a different application. Had one of these parables been found in Matthew and the other in Luke we might have been tempted to conclude that one or the other of the writers was mistaken in his chronological arrangement of the parable, and that there was a mix-up on whether the Lord spoke of putting the candle under a vessel or a bushel, or in a secret place or under a bed. No doubt if we knew all of the circumstances surrounding the writing of these Gospel accounts, we would have no need for harmonizing them; rather we would discover that are in perfect harmony in the way God has given them to us.
The author is inclined to agree with the following statement of William Kelly:
“It is to me certain that Matthew and Luke were led to follow an exact order, one dispensational, the other moral; that they are more profoundly instructive than if one or the other, or both, had adhered to the very elementary manner of an annalist; and that it is a mere blunder therefore to characterize any resulting difference of arrangement (such as Matt. 8:28, etc., compared with Mk. 5:1, etc., and Luke 8:26, etc.) as a real discrepancy.”
The Relation of the Gospels to the Church
To set forth the relation of the Gospels to the Church we must first define what is meant by the Church. The Greek word translated church occurs 116 times in the N.T., and some 70 times in the Greek translation of the O.T. Some theologians believe God has had but one church from the beginning of time, which is composed of all of the redeemed of all ages – past, present, and future. Under this view the Gospels would be completely related to the Church. Other theologians do not recognize the existence of a church in the O.T., believing that John the Baptist and Jesus founded the Church, and therefore accordingly this view relates the Gospels completely to the Church. Another group of theologians teach that there was no church until the Day of Pentecost after the close of the Gospel records. This view makes at least part of the Gospels apply to Israel’s Kingdom teaching, and other parts to anticipate the formation of the Church.
There seems to have been some sort of an O.T. Israelitish “Church” (Acts 7:38), the existence of a “church” of believers on the day of Pentecost, and the prediction of a “Church” in the Millennial Kingdom (Heb. 2:12 cf. Ps. 22:22). God suspended His dealings with this Kingdom Church when the nation of Israel rejected the Kingdom Gospel which was preached in the early chapters of the Acts, and God began a new Church with the out calling of the Apostle Paul, which is designated “the Church which is His (Christ’s) Body” (Eph. 1:22,23). This Church and its administration is said to have been a secret never before made known to the sons of men in other ages and generations until it was revealed to Paul (Eph. 3:1-9; Col. 1:24-26).
According to this view the primary interpretation of the Gospels relates entirely to the nation of Israel and its Messianic Kingdom expectations. However, this does not mean that there is nothing in the Gospels for members of the Body of Christ, for there are many moral and spiritual truths which apply equally to Israel and the Body of Christ. Paul states that the Gentiles in this present Church age have been made partakers of Israel’s spiritual things (Rom. 15:27). Therefore, as we study the Gospels, we must carefully distinguish those truths which apply only to the people of Israel and the teaching which may apply equally to us today. It is necessary to recognize the fact that the Lord Jesus was born under and lived under the O.T. (Rom. 15:8; Gal. 4:4), and that the N.T., which was made with the house of Israel (Heb. 8:8), did not actually begin until the death of Christ at the very end of the Gospels (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:15-17).
The historic truth contained in the Gospels is foundational to the whole scheme of redemption as found in the Pauline epistles. Apart from this truth there could be no basis for the existence of the Body of Christ and of the present dispensation of the grace of God.
(Main Source: Understanding The Gospels – A Different Approach – Charles F. Baker)