Why are there four gospels?
The Bible contains four accounts of the life of Jesus which are very different from each other and each one contains some information that isn’t in the others. Some of the differences are so great that the gospels almost seem to contradict each other. Why would God inspire men to write four different accounts rather than just one?
One thing to keep in mind when comparing the gospels is that they are called gospels, not biographies.None of them is intended to give a complete account of Jesus’ life as a modern biography does. The gospel is that Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the dead. All of the gospels give more detail about these events and the circumstances immediately leading up to them than they do to any other part of Jesus’ life. Each author has selected from the previous life of Jesus only those events which he considered necessary to provide the necessary background for the actual gospel. Each of the writers apparently had a specific audience in mind when he wrote his gospel and this influenced his choice of what to include.
Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience and often quoted from the Old Testament to show that Jesus fulfilled its prophecies. Luke was written in Rome to a believer named Theophilus who was probably a gentile. Both told of the birth of Jesus but they emphasized different aspects of it.
Matthew began by showing that Joseph was a descendant of Abraham and David. He wasn’t the biological father of Jesus but his marriage to Mary made him the legal father so his genealogy became that of Jesus. As a descendant of Abraham Jesus was the recipient of the many promises God had made to him. He was also in the line of the kings who succeeded David. Apparently Joseph would have been king if the monarchy had continued and so he passed on the Jesus the right to the throne of Israel.
Because of his emphasis on the kingship of Jesus Matthew is the only one who records the visit of the Wise Men who were looking for the king of the Jews. (They are often depicted visiting Jesus while he lay in the manger after his birth but this isn’t Biblically accurate. Matthew 2:16 shows that two years could have elapsed between the time they saw the star and their arrival in Bethlehem.)
Since Luke was writing for a gentile audience his readers probably wouldn’t have been interested in Jesus’ kingship over Israel. His emphasis is more on the humanity of Jesus. He tells the story of the birth from Mary’s point of view and the genealogy he includes is hers. When it says that Joseph was the son of Heli it obviously means that he was considered a son because he was married to Heli’s daughter because according to Matthew his father’s name was Jacob. This genealogy shows that Mary was a descendant of David through Nathan rather that Solomon. It also traces his ancestry all the way back to Adam. He does record some information not found in the other gospels, such as the visit to the temple when Jesus was forty days old and the fact that John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus.
(Since I wrote this post I have realized that Luke had another reason for not mentioning the visit by the wise men.
Mark’s gospel doesn’t say anything about the birth or background of Jesus but begins with his baptism by John. This gospel emphasizes what Jesus did more that what he said. It records more miracles in proportion to its length than any other gospel and has less of his teaching that the others. The fact that he explains the meaning of Jewish customs shows that he was writing for gentiles who were unfamiliar with them.
John’s gospel is different from the other three. There are some events and a great deal of teaching that are found only here and he leaves out much that the other gospels include. There are three reasons for these differences.
1. John’s gospel was the last one to be written. By the time John wrote it the other gospels were in wide circulation and most Christians were familiar with them. He probably didn’t think there was any need to repeat what was already widely known so he selected events and teaching that the other writers had omitted.
2. Jesus had both a human and a divine nature. The first three gospels focussed mainly on his human nature although they also mentioned his deity. John’s emphasis was on the fact that Jesus was God, although he also wrote about his humanity.
3. John stated the purpose of his book in John 20:31, “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” His purpose was evangelistic, to bring others to faith in Christ. Luke’s purpose for writing given in Luke 1:4, “That you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” He was writing to instruct someone who was already a believer.
God sent Jesus to die for the whole world and he wants everyone to hear and believe the gospel. Because people are different there is no single way to present the gospel which will be effective for all of them. Paul said,
To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:20-22
When he said this he was reflecting the same attitude that God showed when he gave us four gospels so that each of us can find in them what he needs to bring him closer to God.