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The four faces of Jesus

Why are there four Gospels in the New Testament? Surely one would have been enough. Such, at least, was the opinion of the second-century church father Tatian, who produced the Diatessaron, a translation of the Gospels into Syriac. Rather than translate all four Gospels, he produced a “harmony”—taking one of the versions of each of the important stories, and linking them together into a harmony of the Gospels. John Calvin wrote a commentary on each of the Bible books except the Gospels, for which he worked out a harmony and then wrote a commentary on it.

Yet, Tatian and Calvin are exceptions. Four Gospels have been in the New Testament from the very first time anybody thought to ask which writings should be included in it. The reasons why the earliest Christians choose to keep all four Gospels in the New Testament are not known. But because they did so, we now have four slightly different witnesses to Jesus. Just as several witnesses called in a court case give their individual perspectives so that truth might emerge with greater clarity, so too, the four evangelists provide four different perspectives of Jesus. Between them, we see Jesus in four dimensions, as it were. In fact, at one stage I had called my book on the four Gospels, “Jesus in Four Dimensions.” The editors decided that The Four Faces of Jesus would be a better title, and indeed, this title expresses the same idea—that each of the Gospel writers has a unique witness to Jesus and His message. What do they all think is important?

While most of this article will be devoted to looking at each of the four Gospels separately to discover what is distinctive about it, it must not be forgotten that there is a basic harmony between the Gospel accounts of Jesus. For example, they agree on many of the details of His ministry. Matthew and Luke record that He was born in Bethlehem, and all four agree that He grew up in Nazareth, and that His ministry was located in the small towns and villages around the northern end of the sea of Galilee. Most significantly, all four Gospels share in the conviction that the most important thing to know about Jesus is the events surrounding His crucifixion, death, and resurrection. They all agree that the significance of the cross lay in who Jesus is, and that what happened there was the result of God’s will and not blind fate. All the Gospels note the link between the cross and the Passover, and that Jesus was crucified as king of the Jews, which is rather ironic, because the cross did in fact inaugurate the kingdom of God. Further, they all stress that Jesus was raised with a real body, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus provide the impetus for the missionary activity of the earliest (and latest) Christians. These concepts, and more, are shared by all four Gospels. Yet each has a distinctive view of Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew

John 21:25 expresses a frustration that must have been true of all four evangelists: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (NIV). All of the evangelists knew a lot more about Jesus than they were able to include in their Gospels. So they needed to be selective in their material. Consequently, it is interesting to look at what each Gospel writer includes that is not in the other Gospels. In Matthew and Luke in particular, this methodology gives a good insight into their special interests and emphases. For example, Matthew’s interest in the community of believers is revealed by the fact that several sayings of Jesus that are unique to Matthew deal with the community of believers. In Matthew 18:15-18, which is unique to Matthew, Jesus outlines what should be done if there is a dispute between two members of the community. The need for forgiveness is stressed by the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:21-35) that immediately follows the statement about community discipline. This parable is found only in Matthew. Furthermore, Matthew 23: 1-3, 5, 8-10, 15, 16-21, 27, 28, 32, and 33, which are all unique to Matthew, highlight how the Christian community should conduct itself differently than the community of Pharisees.

Matthew also has a great interest in matters that relate to the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, presumably because this was an issue that was of concern to his community at the time he was composing the Gospel. It is Matthew that traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham (Matthew 1:1; see Luke 3:23-38, which traces Jesus’ genealogy to Adam. It is Matthew that gathers the teachings of Jesus about the law into what we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48). Likewise it is Matthew that shows that the mission of Jesus was first directed only to the Jews (Matthew 10:5, 6), although it is made clear in chapter 28:19, 20 that the mission of the disciples was to go into all the world and tell all the nations about the good news of salvation.

Matthew is also very interested about how Christians should react to the fact that Jesus would return soon. In Matthew 24 and 25 he attaches to Jesus’ sayings about the signs of the end of the age (which are also found in Mark 13 and Luke 21) four parables that deal with how Christians should behave between now and the Second Coming: the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant (24:45-51), the parable of the 10 maidens (25:1-13), the parable of the talents (25:14-30), and the parable of the judgment of the nations (25:31-46). Three of these parables are unique to Matthew.

Matthew also emphasizes that Christians should act righteously. They will even keep the law better than the Pharisees (5:20). Matthew illustrates how this is so. Jesus says that as well as not committing murder, His disciples will not get angry (5:21-26); as well as not committing adultery, they will not even lust (5:27-30). Indeed, they will love their enemies and be perfect just as God is perfect (5:43-48). Along with this strong emphasis on the need for Christians to live righteous lives, the truth that we are saved by faith apart from what we do is found in several places in the material unique to Matthew. It is perhaps clearest in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (20:1-16). In the kingdom of God, as in the parable, the reward given at the end of the day is not related to the amount of work performed, but to the graciousness of the Lord.

The Gospel of Mark

Only 30 of the 609 verses in the Gospel of Mark are unique to that Gospel. So, in contrast to Matthew, Luke, and John, the character of Mark is not revealed by the material that is unique to it, but rather by a comparison that is more subjective. Mark, the shortest of the Gospels, records fewer events than the other Gospels, and less of the teachings of Jesus. Yet those events that are recorded are usually done so more vividly than in the other Gospels, using more words to include details lacking elsewhere. There is also more action happening in Mark, which is why it is often suggested as the best Gospel of the four to recommend to anyone who is planning to read one of the Gospels from beginning to end for the first time. Among other things, Mark emphasizes the really human Jesus together with the fact that He was the unique Son of God. He portrays Jesus as teacher. Above all, Mark stresses that Jesus cannot be understood apart from His suffering, death, and resurrection, and the fact that He will return soon. Each reader of his Gospel experiences what the first disciples experienced—a call to ministry.

The Gospel of Luke

The stories at the beginning of Luke reveal many of the differences between this Gospel and that of Matthew. When Matthew deals with the infancy of Jesus, he recounts that kings and wise men from the East were involved. The characters that we meet in Luke, on the other hand, are the poor and outcasts of society—a poor country priest and his wife, shepherds, an elderly prophet in the temple, and, of course, women. The status of women in any first-century society, including that of Judaism, would not be envied by most modern women. Yet, unlike just about all other ancient literature, Luke not only records the sayings and deeds of women (Luke 1:39-56 are devoted to the deeds and words of Mary and Elizabeth), but throughout the Gospel, he recounts several places where Jesus has special dealings with women (e.g., Luke 7:36-50; 10:38-42; 13:10-19).

Luke also has an eye for some of the best parables. Without Luke we would not have the parables of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and the prodigal son (15:11-32). He also includes three parables that deal with prayer that are not found in the other Gospels (11:5-13; 18:1-8; 18:9-14). Luke is also unique in that he lets the reader know what happened after the Resurrection. The Book of Acts is the companion volume to the Gospel. Without Luke we would not have known about the way the message of Christianity moved outside the boundaries of Judaism. We also have to thank Luke for letting us know of the conversion of Paul, and the details of his missionary activities. Without Luke we would know very little indeed about the earliest days of the Christian Church.

The Gospel of John

When we move to the Gospel of John, we move into a conceptual world that is quite different from that of the other three Gospels. While John is like the other Gospels in the emphasis he gives to the events surrounding the betrayal, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the rest of his Gospel is almost entirely made up of material that is only found in John. After introducing in his first chapter many of the key themes that will reoccur later in the Gospel, the evangelist structures chapters 2 through 12 around several of the important miracles of Jesus (which he calls signs), and discourses between Jesus and different listeners. His disciples, Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the crowds are all partners in these dialogues. There are many recurring themes in these discourses, and it is as the reader moves through each of them that a fuller understanding of Jesus emerges.

John is able to show some of the depths of the teachings of Jesus, yet he uses very simple language and imagery. One of the simple, still profound, images is that of “above versus below.” Several clusters of ideas are associated with these spatial orientations. Jesus is associated with the realm of heaven and God the Father. He has come down from heaven (above), the place of life, light, truth, and spirit, into the Earth (below) which is characterized by death, darkness, lying, and the flesh. This is the key reason that those bound to the Earth cannot understand Jesus: They are thinking only in terms of the flesh (e.g., John 3:11, 12; 6:50-52). Many of the discourses of Jesus in John 2-12 are tied up with these concepts of above/below. Simple concepts, but used in a very profound way.

Another concept found throughout these discourses is the tendency for the future to have come into the present. The last judgment and eternal life are things that properly belong in the future. But the judgment has already come in Jesus. Our attitude toward Jesus is our judgment. If we believe in Jesus, we have passed through the judgment into life; if we do not believe, we are condemned already (3:16-18). Indeed, if we believe in Jesus we have eternal life already.

Several themes emerge from John 13-17, the next major section in this Gospel. In contrast to the style of leadership adopted by the gentiles, the Christian leader is a servant leader. If you would be leader, then you will be the one who serves most. Several sayings of Jesus in this section stress that Jesus is the only way to the Father. This section records the giving of the promise of the Spirit, and shows Jesus preparing His disciples for His and their coming suffering. Love will be the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

John’s portrayal of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus has several unique aspects. In particular, in John, the cross is the time of Jesus’ glorification. It is the moment when the Son of Man is lifted up. It is Jesus’ enthronement as king.

Summing up

The four Gospels preserve four different perspectives of Jesus. They bring us face-to-face with a Jesus who does not comfortably fit in the textbooks of Christian theologians or in the sermons preached each week. This is a Jesus who assumed full humanity, but who was fully divine. A Jesus, who by His life, death, and resurrection changed humanity, and made salvation open to all who believe in Him. A Jesus who is soon to return to destroy evil, and restore the world to God. A Jesus who comes to us, often at an inconvenient time, and says, “Come, follow me.” A Jesus who calls us to a life of discipleship and service. In short, a Jesus who challenges us with the deepest and most important question we will have to answer on this earth: “What about you... who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29).

Robert K. McIver (Ph. D., Andrews University) is a senior lecturer in biblical studies at Avondale College, Cooranbong, Australia. His publications include The Four Faces of Jesus (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 2000), which forms the basis of this article.