7. Four Gospels

Many have wondered why there are four gospels? Especially if three of the four (the synoptic gospels1 ) have so much in common. There are at least two primary answers which can be given to this question:2
  1. Multiple Witnesses
    Multiple independent eye-witness accounts establishes the reliability of the testimony concerning the life and ministry of Jesus.
  2. Varied Perspectives
    Each author recorded the events of Jesus’ life and ministry from a different perspective with different goals and objectives.
Both of these answers explain why there are four gospels. It is to the second of these reasons that we now direct our attention. Throughout history, students of Scripture have recognized a correlation between the four gospels and four different roles of Christ. This is reflected in works such as the Book of Kells, an ornately illustrated work containing the four gospels written in approximately A.D. 800.3 The artwork of the cover page of the Book of Kells shows that the monks recognized a correspondence between the faces of the cherubim seen by Ezekiel and John and the four gospels (Eze. Eze. 1:10; Eze. 10:14; Rev. Rev. 4:7+; Rev. 21:13+). 4

The Book of Kells - The Four Gospels

The Book of Kells - The Four Gospels5

The Fathers identified them with the four Gospels, Matthew the lion, Mark the ox, Luke the man, John the eagle: these symbols, thus viewed, express not the personal character of the Evangelists, but the manifold aspect of Christ in relation to the world (four being the number significant of world-wide extension, for example, the four quarters of the world) presented by them severally: the lion expressing royalty, as Matthew gives prominence to this feature of Christ; the ox, laborious endurance, Christ’s prominent characteristic in Mark; man, brotherly sympathy with the whole race of man, Christ’s prominent feature in Luke; the eagle, soaring majesty, prominent in John’s description of Christ as the Divine Word.6

These creatures represent four aspects of Christ Jesus as the Lion, the Ox, the Man, and the Eagle. In all four of these aspects Christ Jesus is supreme Lord. As the lion, the Lord Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. . . . Matthew describes Christ in this aspect. As the ox, Christ is the servant of God, and the servant of men. . . . Mark describes Christ in this respect. As the man, the Lord Jesus is a lover, a friend, a companion, an associate, and a leader. . . . Luke describes Christ in this aspect. As the eagle, the Lord Jesus is God Himself, He is Deity, eternal, all-powerful, . . . His deity is fully described in the Gospel of John. These four aspects of the Savior are revealed again in Ezekiel Eze. 10:14; Revelation Rev. 4:6+.7

Some have criticized the correlation of the gospel messages with the four faces of the cherubim as if it were merely the contrivance of an overactive imagination. Yet a close study of the Scriptural evidence makes their correspondence difficult to deny. We believe the table below provides compelling evidence of the divine superintendence of the various biblical authors to achieve this intentional result. For example, the gospel recorded by Matthew has as its primary audience the Jews. Jesus is presented primarily as King of the Jews. His genealogy is given in relation to the father of the Jews, Abraham. This role corresponds to the lion face of the cherubim, the camp of Judah around the tabernacle (Jesus is the “lion of the tribe of Judah,” Gen. Gen. 49:9; Rev. Rev. 5:5+), and the “branch” from David who will be “king” (Jer. Jer. 23:5-6). Similar correlations occur for the other gospels.

The Gospels Compared
Gospel Focus8 Portrait9 Key Verses10 LineageFace11 Camp of IsraelThe Branch12
MatthewJewsKing Messiah Mtt. Mat. 1:1; Mat. 16:16; Mat. 20:28From Abraham (Mtt. Mat. 1:1) Lion (Gen. Gen. 49:9; Rev. Rev. 5:5+)Judah (East) King (Jer. Jer. 23:5-6)
MarkRomansLowly Servant Mark Mark 1:8; Mark 8:27; Mark 10:45; Mark 15:34None13 OxEphraim (West)Servant (Zec. Zec. 3:8)
LukeHellenistsSon of Man Luke Luke 19:10From Adam (Luke Luke 3:23) Man (Dan. Dan. 7:13)Reuben (South) Man (Zec. Zec. 6:12)
JohnGreek World Son of God (Ps. Ps. 2:7; Pr. Pr. 30:4) John John 20:31From Eternity
(John John 1:1)
Eagle (Gen. Gen. 49:16)Dan (North) Lord (Isa. Isa. 4:2)14


1 “1. Of or constituting a synopsis; presenting a summary of the principal parts or a general view of the whole. 2.a. Taking the same point of view.”—American Heritage Online Dictionary, Ver. 3.0A, 3rd ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), s.v. “synoptic.”

2 Another reason for four gospels can be found in the symbolic meaning of the number four. In our discussion concerning Interpreting Symbols, we mentioned that the number four conveys a symbolic of global completeness denoting the entire world, the earth. The message of the gospels is intended for worldwide dissemination.

3 “As best we can determine, the Book of Kells was copied by hand and illuminated by monks around the year 800 A.D. Although it was probably begun on the island of Iona, between Scotland and Ireland, its name is derived from the Abbey of Kells, in the Irish Midlands, where it was kept from at least the 9th century to 1541. One theory has it that portions of the book were made at Kells, after Viking raids on Iona forced the monastery to retreat to the more isolated location, is uncertain. The book consists of a Latin text of the four Gospels, calligraphed in ornate script and lavishly illustrated in as many as ten colors. Only two of its 680 pages are without color. Not intended for daily use or study, it was a sacred work of art to appear on the altar for very special occasions. Since 1661 the Book of Kells has been kept in the Library of Trinity College in Dublin.”—Jerry B. Lincecum, Fort Worth Star Telegram, 3/29/90 http://artemis.austincollege.edu/acad/english/jlincecum/jbl.bk.kells.page.html.

4 “The church Fathers connected the living creatures with the Gospels: the lion, Matthew; the ox, Mark; the main, Luke; the eagle, John.”—Charles Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel: The Glory of the Lord (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1969), 19. “The gospels give a fourfold manifestation of Christ: He is seen in His sovereignty (Matthew), ministry (Mark), humanity (Luke), and deity (John).”—Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1986), 28.

5 Source: Brian Keller, www.snake.net/people/paul/kells.

6 A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 4:8.

7 Walter L. Wilson, A Dictionary of Bible Types (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 180.

8 W. A. Criswell and Paige Patterson, eds., The Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 1328.

9 [Ibid.] [Graham W. Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1995, 1948), 95].

10 Criswell, The Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition, 1328.

11 Eze. Eze. 1:10; Eze. 10:14; Rev. Rev. 4:7+; Rev. 21:13+.

12 “The identification of the ‘Branch’ (Hebrew, zemach) with the Messiah is as least as old as the Targum Jonathan (50 B.C.), which at both Zec. Zec. 3:8 and Zec. 6:12 translated zemach ‘Branch’ as mashiach ‘Messiah.’ ”—Randall Price, The Coming Last Days Temple (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999), 230. “The epithet ‘Branch’ (צֶמַח [ṣemaḥ] derives from the verb used here (יִצמאח [yiṣmʾḥ] , ‘will sprout up’) to describe the rise of the Messiah. . . . In the immediate context this refers to Zerubbabel, but the ultimate referent is Jesus.”—New Electronic Translation : NET Bible, electronic edition (Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 1998), Zec. 6:12.

13 The genealogy of a servant is unimportant.

14 LORD here is יהוה [yhwh] , God.