Four Gospels; One Jesus: Reading Vertically

 \”…the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight\” (Rev 4.7)

Each of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—draw their own, inspired portrait of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Each of these four Gospels provides insight into who the Son of God was, what he did, and why that matters. For those who believe in Inspiration, God provided the Church with four Gospels rather than a single one. For those who don\’t believe in inspiration, the Church chose to select, copy, and propagate four Gospels rather than one, and only four out of the many others that were written. Regardless of one\’s thoughts on inspiration and canon formation, however, the task of the interpreter remains the same: It’s our job to figure out why.


All you have to do to see how different the Gospels are from one another is to look at their opening scenes. 

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham… (Mat 1.1)

Matthew begins to make the case of Jesus as Promised Messiah and Inheritor of God’s promises to Israel by genealogically linking him to David and to Abraham (Mat 1.1–16), and showing that his flight to Egypt from an Israelite Herod-Pharaoh makes him a Moses figure as well (Mat 2.1–23). (The Bible Project talks about that cool thing, here.) It\’s only after this \”set up\” that John the Baptist appears (Mat 3). 

 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… (Mark 1.1)

But Mark is quite different. He states, right up front, that his purpose is to prove these two distinct identifications: Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus as the Son of God. Thus, Mark leaps immediately into Jesus’ ministry with a mature Christ being spoken of by John the Baptist (Mark 1.2–14): the story happens as do so many of Mark’s stories “immediately.” 

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught… (Luke 1.1–4)

Luke parallels the births (Luke 1), lives, and deaths of Jesus and John the Baptist before shifting to a global focus by introducing Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3.1). For Luke, Jesus is not just a son of David and Abraham, thus the king and messiah of Israel, but he is the son of Adam and the king of the world (Luke 3.23–38).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… (John 1.1–5)

John, instead, introduces Jesus as the pre-incarnate Word of God, the God of Genesis, the Creator who would enlighten the world by becoming flesh. He skips over many of the aspects of Jesus that the other gospels present, and aims at something quite different. 

These portrayals of Jesus are different from one another, providing unique perspectives, different viewpoints, and sometimes even different episodes, but they are telling a unified story of the same Jesus. Thus, Matthew’s beginning is closely tied to his focus on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Mark’s beginning fits his interest with Jesus as the suffering Son of God. Luke’s introduction of Caesar will soon show that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, and that the Kingdom will conquer all the kingdoms of other nations. John’s theological introduction of Jesus as Word is inseparable from his desire to show him to be the Eternal Son of God. Dealing with these unified but distinct pictures of Jesus is one of the most important tools that we have in studying the Gospels. Mark Strauss calls this reading the Gospels “vertically”: “If each author has a unique story to tell, and if the Holy Spirit inspired four Gospels instead of one, then we should respect the integrity of each story. It is important to read the Gospels on their own terms, following the progress of each narrative from introduction, to conflict, to climax, to resolution” (Four Portraits: One Jesus, 32–33). 

But this sort of an explanation and approach of looking at the opening lines to the Gospels to help understand what they\’re doing isn\’t just a \”Me\” thing, nor even a modern thing or a scholarship thing. It\’s actually a very old thing, at least as old as the early church in the 2nd century CE.

Irenaeus of Lyon wrote in Against Heresies (ca. AD 180) and explain it this way:

For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For Scripture says, \’The first living creature was like a lion\’ (Rev 4.7) symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second \’was like a calf,\’ signifying his sacrificial and sacerdotal order; \’but the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,\’— an evident description of Jesus\’ advent as a human being; the fourth was \’like a flying eagle,\’ pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with sis wings over the Church. 

Therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates sis original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring, \’In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God\’ (John 1.1). Also, \’all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made\’ (John 1.3). For this reason, too, is that Gospel full of all confidence, for such is his person. But that according to Luke, taking up his priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God. For now was made ready the fatted calf, about to be immolated for the finding again of the younger son. Matthew, again, relates his generation as a man, saying, \’The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham\’ (Mat 1.1); and also, \’The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise\’ (???). This, then, is the Gospel of his humanity; for which reason it is, too, that a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, begins with the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying, \’The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet\’ (Mark 1.2a)— pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character. 

And the Word of God himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with His divinity and glory; but for those under the law he instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service. Afterwards, being made man for us, He sent the gift of the celestial Spirit over all the earth, protecting us with His wings. Such, then, as was the course followed by the Son of God, so was also the form of the living creatures; and such as was the form of the living creatures, so was also the character of the Gospel. For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord (Against Heresies, 3.11.8).

Of course, if you\’re a Star Wars fan like myself, you might just say it this way:

Next time, we\’ll look at how to read horizontally.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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