3 Reasons We Need to "Put in Perspective" Each of Our Four Gospels
We are in a series on “6 Ways to Transform Your Reading of the Gospels.” In our post last week we looked at the principle, “Read Matthew, Mark, and Luke from ‘the Earth Up’ and John ‘from Heaven Down.’ This week I want to suggest that we“Read Each Gospel for Its Unique Perspective.” I enjoy "perspective pieces" like the picture in the heading of this post. The vantage points offered by looking at the picture from different perspectives, is a treat.
Similarly, our four gospels tell the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from various vantage points or perspectives. Here are 3 reasons why we should grow in our understanding of their unique perspectives.
1. Each of Our Four Gospels Was Embraced by the Early Church as Important
In the second century of the Christian movement, the church leader Irenaeus wrote the following about the origin of the four gospels:
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect . . . Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what was being preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon his breast, himself published a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.
By Irenaeus’s day (and perhaps much earlier) the four gospels were being circulated together as a group. No committee or council had chosen the four out of a host of gospels. Rather, these had been commonly received by the churches throughout the Mediterranean world as “the Church’s books,” seen as faithfully written by early followers of Jesus and bearing witness to his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. These four were kept, copied, circulated, studied, preached from, and believed by the Christians in the Early Church. They knew they needed all four of them. And so do we.
2. Each Addresses Key Themes We Need for a Balanced Understanding of Jesus, His Life, and His Ministry.
Each Gospel was written, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by an uniquely gifted person, who had particular kinds of readers in mind. While each faithfully tells the story of Jesus, each does so in his own ways and focuses on particular themes. Read together, the symphony of truth about Jesus’s identity and his work rings out of the Four from various vantage points but in beautiful harmony. In other words, we need all four of the gospels to tell us the Gospel!
For instance, Matthew underscores the Jewish roots and context of Jesus and his movement. Try reading the first chapters of Matthew and watch for all the Jewish overtones—quotations from Scripture, genealogies anchored in Jewish history, etc. Mark has an emphasis on the call and cost of true discipleship. Luke has more of an emphasis than the other gospels on women, gentiles, prayer, and the role of the Holy Spirit. Among other themes, John’s gospel, which is 92% unique when compared to the other three, presents Jesus as the Revealer of his own identity, and John places a great deal of emphasis on belief (related verbs and nouns are used 88 times!). As you read the gospels, pick up on their unique themes.
3. Each of Our Four Gospels Contributes to a Fuller Portrait of Jesus
In his book Four Gospels, One Jesus, Richard Burridge uses the following analogy to describe the need for the various “portraits” of Jesus we have in our gospels.
Deep in the heart of the Kent countryside, . . . , is a large country house. Chartwell, as it is known, was the country home of Sir Winston Churchill from 1922 until his death. Now belonging to the National Trust, the house reveals much of the man who was Britain’s Prime Minister during the dark days of the Second World War. The walls are hung with many photographs and portraits, some of which are his own work as a painter, and some the work of others who attempted to catch, by camera or by brush, something of the character of this great man.
Here is a picture of the statesman in conference with his allies, including President Roosevelt. His face is grim and determined, for the fate of the world rests upon those shoulders. He is dressed soberly, in a dark suit and tie, but he holds a cigar in his right hand. . . . . Serious and fateful work is afoot.
Around the corner, another picture: a painting, done by Churchill himself of the very room in which we stand, except that the room was then host to a happy family gathering. It is “Tea-time at Chartwell, 29 August 1927’. Churchill is casually dressed, smiling at friends and family around the table. It is an ordinary family at tea—and the cares of the world do not obtrude.
Along a corridor we come upon a picture of the man at war: he rides in a camouflaged car, while uniformed men mill all around him. He too wears uniform, for this is an occasion to be ‘in with the chaps’. His lips clamp the inevitable cigar in a wide beam as he gives the famous, two fingered ‘V for Victory’ salute. . . . The mood of all is confident and lifts the heart of the beholder—for so it was intended.
One final, quiet room is adorned with easels and paint pots, and a photograph of Churchill at rest. He sits in a basket chair in the gardens of the Villa Choisi on the shores of Lac Léman in Switzerland. It is August 1946, and he is on holiday, away form the pressures of leading his party in opposition, having lost the previous year’s Election; now he relaxes with his painting. His palette is to one side, while he brushes in a gentle picture of trees and water. A white painter’s jacket protects his clothes, a trilby is on his head and a cigar in his mouth as he concentrates on his painting, oblivious of the photographer behind him. He is alone and at peace.
Which is the “accurate” portrait of Churchill? Of course all of them are. Burridge follows this “picture in four portraits” by reflecting on the fact that here we have four different pictures of Churchill, all different, each offering a particular perspective on this great statesman, yet all reflecting various dimensions of the man himself.
This is what we have in our four gospels. We have four of them for a reason. Together they give us a full, beautiful collage of Jesus’s life and ministry. We should read them, tuning into their unique offerings, even as we seek to see Jesus more clearly through their multifaceted witness.