The ordinary Christian adult would struggle to articulate why we have four Gospel accounts rather than one. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we only had one account? Do differences among the four accounts invite unnecessary doubt? Do similarities among the four accounts create unhelpful redundancy?
Many people read the Bible a verse or two at a time, simply looking for a quick dose of inspiration. They might think they’re faithful Bible readers, but they’re barely scratching the surface. They’ve been trained to read small sections—not entire books—of the Bible, and this practice negatively affects their reading experience.
As a father, I see how most resources for young children don’t teach them to read entire books of the Bible, especially when it comes to the Gospels. Children’s books about Jesus tell stories without saying which Gospel account they come from. Books that helpfully summarize the whole Bible, such as The Jesus Storybook Bible or The Biggest Story, collapse the four Gospel accounts into one as well. They don’t explain how Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John differ from and complement one another.
So what do we lose when we collapse the four Gospels into one? I believe we lose at least three things: the author’s unique perspective, the artistry of the story, and the apologetic of the life of Jesus.
Author’s Unique Perspective
Each Gospel author had a different experience of Jesus, and those experiences shape how they tell the gospel story. Matthew was a tax collector. When Jesus called him to become his disciple, the Pharisees disdained and disrespected Jesus for his choice (Matt. 9:9–13). Have you ever brought shame to someone by your association with them? If that person loved you anyway, do you think it would affect how you told others about him?
Mark’s family hosted a prayer meeting in their home (Acts 12:12). James had been killed; Peter was in prison. What would become of the community who followed Jesus? Then Rhoda, the servant girl, announced that Peter was at the gate. Peter!? What a miracle! If you witnessed this interrupted prayer meeting, do you think it would affect how you tell others about Jesus?
John was in the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples. He was one of the few invited up the mountain. When the appearance of Jesus changed to blazing glory, he saw it all. Can you see something like that and not be forever marked by it? Can you tell the story of Jesus without reference to his divine, cosmic, supreme glory?
Artistry of the Story
Each Gospel also has its own style and pace that communicate truths about Jesus and his work. The genealogy of Matthew is beautiful. There are repeated names for emphasis—Abraham and David. They both received promises that their descendants would bless others. There are also unusual names for a first-century Jewish genealogy—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah. Each of them was marginalized in some way, yet was eventually brought into the family of God.
Matthew introduces the story of Jesus with a reminder of the promise-keeping nature of God and the grace-extending heart of God. Mark has an urgency to his storytelling. There is a strange man announcing the coming of the Lord and calling people to repent. Then, the Lord appears and immediately Satan attacks. Afterward, Jesus says to repent and believe the gospel, and an unclean spirit recognizes him as the “Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). At this point we’re little more than halfway through the first chapter. If your habit is to read only a verse or two at a time, you’ll miss being drawn into the drama of the story as Mark intends.
Luke writes as a thoughtful friend and guide. He personally addresses Theophilus. This opening address, a brilliant single sentence (Luke 1:1–4), is longer than Mark’s account of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12–13). The expectation is set to sit back and listen to a story that will unfold at a more leisurely pace. Luke’s pace will allow him to develop subthemes throughout, such as the Holy Spirit, prayer, wealth, and outcasts.
Apologetic of the Life of Jesus
It’s one thing to believe Jesus died on a cross as a historical fact. It’s quite another to be persuaded that Jesus would willingly die on the cross for the eternal good of others. Only a close examination of his life—what he taught, how he treated others, and why he died—could persuade anyone that Jesus really is this type of person. Each Gospel writer understood there’s no way to separate the work of Christ from the person of Christ.
John writes about an encounter that Jesus had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus (John 3:1–15). He follows that story with an encounter that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42). Reading these encounters in close succession, as John intends, shows that the good news is for men and women, for well-connected leaders and socially invisible minorities.
Matthew gives us a unique window into Jesus as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Herod ordered the execution of all the male Bethlehemites younger than 2 after Jesus’s birth. Years later, when news came to Jesus that John the Baptist had been killed, Jesus withdrew to a desolate place. He knew pain and suffering before the cross, and he willingly endured the pain and suffering of the cross to bring eternal hope and justice to the senseless evils of this world.
When you see the unique perspective and style of the Gospel writers, and the apologetic of the life of Christ, you will no longer think four accounts are unnecessary or unhelpful. Instead, to borrow and adjust a phrase from Charles Wesley, you’ll long for for a thousand Gospels to sing our great Redeemer’s praise (John 21:25).