All of Christianity centers around the events recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: the birth of God the Son as a human baby, his ministry of teaching and healing, his atoning death, and his glorious resurrection. It is crucial to have a reliable account of all this since our faith would be futile if Jesus would not have paid for our sins and would not have conquered death. Moreover, Jesus’ teaching is of vital importance for all of his followers, including those who were born centuries later, like you and me, who have not been able to hear Jesus’ words for ourselves. But why does the Bible not provide one single account of Jesus’ life, words, and miracles? Why are there four gospels?
God guided the human authors to write the gospels
Including four gospels was not the idea of a church council or a group of experts, but this was how God’s Spirit guided the process of writing and canonization of the Scriptures. The early church recognized all four gospels as inspired and authoritative work of the Holy Spirit, and thus included them in the New Testament. So ultimately, we have four gospels because God wanted us to have four gospels. But there are some reasons why this is profitable for us.
Each gospel provides a unique perspective on Jesus
Although the gospels have many similarities, each of them was written to provide a unique perspective on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Each of the writers had a different theme he wanted to emphasize as their readers were not necessarily the same group of people.
- Matthew wrote mainly for Jews and wanted to emphasize that Jesus, the Son of David, was the Messiah whom the Jews were waiting for. Therefore the Gospel of Matthew starts with a genealogy and contains many references to Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
- Mark emphasizes that Jesus is the suffering servant of God. He completely submitted to God’s will. This message was especially important for Christians suffering under persecution, which might have been the primary audience Mark had in mind.
- The gospel of Luke was written primarily for a gentile, Theophilus (the book of Acts was the second book written for the same man). Luke presents Jesus as the Son of Man and Savior for all people, not just Jews. He stresses the historical reliability of his account.
- John presents Jesus as the Son of God, who is completely divine. In chapter 1 of John, he begins by pointing out that Jesus was the creator of the world, and became a man to provide eternal life to all who believe in him. John focuses on how Jesus reveals the Father, describing seven “signs” of Jesus’ true identity, several interviews and debates, and metaphors with deep theological significance.
God gave us four unique accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry so that we have a multifaceted source of information. They are like spotlights, each highlighting one aspect of the same truth.
Having multiple gospels increases their credibility
Since the facts concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection are of key importance for the Christian faith, the account thereof should be of the highest credibility. Having multiple independent, historically reliable accounts of the same events increases their reliability. This is a well-known principle in court cases. When God gave his laws to the people of Israel, He made clear that people could never be judged on the basis of one single witness. Such a judgment required at least two witnesses (see Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15, Numbers 35:50). In a similar way, the four gospels are like four witnesses for the “case” of Jesus.
The differences and apparent contradictions of details between the gospels make clear that the authors did not get together before writing to make their accounts smooth and credible. They wrote independent books, even when they may have partly used the same sources.
Having four gospels instead of one gives us a more complete picture of Jesus and increases the credibility of the historical facts concerning his earthly life. This is of key importance to Christians since their faith is based on Jesus’ ministry of salvation.