Summary: Written and published June, 2015, edited January, 2020. This article explains the simple but real differences which exist between the writing of the four gospels. Although there are four different human authors, because the writings are valued as God’s infallible word, we must admit that the Holy Spirit is the real author of each. The question needed to be asked is, What was the Spirit’s purpose in writing each? Human wisdom reasons that if the four accounts are about the same person and many of the same teachings and events are repeated in each, they should be done without any variation. But God’s wisdom is far above human wisdom – He has made foolish the wisdom of this world (1 Cor. 1:20).
The gospels we have in our Christian bibles all tell of the life and death of Jesus Christ. In a general way they have this in common. However, this commonality does not mean the four are completely the same and copies of each other. Although it is the same Holy Spirit as the divine Author of all four, God inspires different men as His writers. Certainly, we must begin to suspect that perhaps God has different purposes for each gospel. If, as Christians, we use our spiritual discernment, we will discover that each gospel has a different character as intended by God.
Now how might we discover these differing purposes of the Spirit? We see that each gospel is about the Lord’s life and death, and the majority of the story in each is told by using many of the same exact events, often using the same words and phrases. Not much here that would distinguish them from each other. But below are some of the ways we can observe used by the Spirit of God to make these differences.
- You will find in each gospel certain passages or phrases which are unique to it. This speaks to the differing character of that gospel.
- Also, we should notice in the relating of certain events how the passage may be altered by the Spirit through additions or changes to it. This makes the telling of the event unique to that gospel, even though the same event is repeated in a slightly different narrative by the others. This speaks to the different purpose God intends for that gospel.
- Another way the character of a gospel may be perceived is by viewing the placement of events and teachings in the chronological order of that gospel. You may have assumed that the timeline associated with the events and teachings common in more than one gospel would be the same. The reality is that the four gospels are not written as chronologically the same; each gospel has its own unique order. The events and teachings in one gospel do not necessarily follow the same timeline found in another. Why? This wasn’t the Holy Spirit’s purpose in writing any of the gospels. The Spirit, as their author, wasn’t interested in you being able to reconcile the four gospels onto one big chronological chart. Mark’s gospel is likely the most accurate in its ordering of events; in the others the Spirit moves things around to suit His overall purpose.
- There is one more noticeable difference which often points to the individual character of a gospel under consideration. If there is an event or teaching which is unique to that particular gospel, it often speaks of the Holy Spirit’s purpose for writing it. This is easily seen in John. There are numerous portions of his gospel which record events and teachings completely unique to it (i.e. the conversation with Nicodemus, the woman at the well in Samaria, the healing at the pool of Bethesda, the raising of Lazarus, etc., etc.)
The four gospels tell of the life of Jesus Christ, His sufferings and death, and then go on to accounts of His resurrection. John ends his testimony by saying, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
The four gospels are not the same and we should not expect the exact same things to be repeated. What purpose would the Spirit have in the same story repeated four times? Sure, it is the same Jesus Christ and the same history of His life, but we should give God some credit for having a bit more depth than to be a simple copyist. In the different gospels the Spirit emphasizes and portrays different things through the gospel writers. For example the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – present the coming of Jesus Christ to Israel for the purpose of being received, while the gospel of John shows Jesus as rejected by His own and the world from the very first chapter (John 1:10-11). This sets up a definite emphasis and character for John’s gospel which the others don’t have.
There are various glories of Jesus Christ revealed and developed by the Holy Spirit in the different gospels, and we do well to understand these differences. They are the differing character and viewpoint presented to us by the Holy Spirit through the writer. When we come to acknowledge the differences, then we will better understand the Spirit’s reasoning for their existence.
In Matthew, Jesus is presented from the outset as the accomplishment of prophecy and promise to Israel – “…that it might be fulfilled what was written by the prophets,” or some similar phrase is repeatedly used, especially in its early chapters. It shows Jehovah/Messiah coming to the people, Emmanuel, Son of David, the rightful King of Israel. So we reason that one of the specific characteristics in Matthew’s gospel is that it, more particularly than the others, is the gospel presenting Jehovah/Messiah to Israel, and is written more distinctly for a Jewish mind and audience.
Mark’s gospel takes on the different character of Jesus as the Servant-Prophet. In it His service is emphasized, especially His prophetic ministry. Of the four, Mark’s gospel is the most historically accurate in its chronology.
Luke presents Jesus as the Son of Man come in grace – the grace of God shown to man through the second Adam. Because his writing emphasizes mankind’s fallen sinful nature, it has a profound moralistic approach. Luke was unique in that he was a Gentile writing to a Gentile. He seems to be used by the Spirit to write a testimony of the life of Christ geared more to the Gentile mind. Regardless, in Luke’s first three chapters, the Spirit of God presents a beautiful and heartfelt picture of the faithful Jewish remnant waiting for salvation in Israel and animated in testimony by the Spirit.
John’s gospel is quite different. The Spirit has him presenting Jesus as God come in human flesh (John 1:14), the Son of God eternally in the bosom of the Father, yet sent now by the Father to reveal the Father (John 1:18). In John He is seen as God the Son, visiting the world which He Himself created (John 1:10). Because it is this presentation and character, His entrance into the world beyond just Israel is the broader viewpoint developed in this gospel. In John, we see many passages which show who Jesus is intrinsically in His Person – the Son of God.
First we will focus on Matthew, who characteristically presents Jehovah/Messiah coming to Israel as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and promise. However, this one emphasis doesn’t tell the whole story of his gospel. Early on in Matthew we begin to find evidence of the Lord being rejected by the Jews. Although rejection is a common subject matter in all four gospels, it is particularly and strategically emphasized by the Holy Spirit in Matthew. The reason for this? So that the Spirit can then show in this particular gospel the consequences of the Lord’s rejection for both Israel and the Gentiles. – bad news for the Jews; good news for the Gentiles. These results are given dispensationally in Matthew’s gospel – it is shown as a transition between two dispensations, one ending and the other taking its place. What is ending with the rejection of Jehovah/Messiah is the Jewish dispensation. What takes its place as the new dispensation is the kingdom of heaven in mystery (Matt. 13:11- the Christian dispensation).
The Jewish dispensation encompasses the time from Israel being delivered out of Egypt to the presentation of Messiah to the Jews. It would include the giving of the law at Sinai with the priesthood, Israel being brought into the land, the judges, prophets, and kings, and their scattering into the nations or captivity in Babylon. In the time of Solomon with his many wives and idols, the nation was divided by God into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Soon after this, idols filled the land and the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrian. God kept the southern kingdom in tact for a longer period of time, in honor of David. But idolatry soon filled the land of Judah, and God brought in the Babylonian to destroy the city of Jerusalem and its temple, taking a remnant captive to Babylon. This first destruction of the city and temple was caused by Israel’s utter failure under the law and the overwhelming growth of idolatry. After 70 years God brings back a remnant, and they rebuild the walls of the city and the temple. The purpose of this return and rebuilding was for the presentation of Messiah to Israel, according to their promises and prophecies. This second test of Israel’s responsibility was also a grand failure; they crucified Him, refusing to have Him as their King. This second failure brought about the physical end of the Jewish dispensation – the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 AD. (This is just the bare bones of details about the Jewish dispensation, but it will suffice for describing the character of Matthew’s gospel. I will eventually write an article comparing the two dispensations. Note: Jan. 26, 2020: this comparison is made in article #36)
In many different passages in Matthew we can see the transition between dispensations being implied by the Spirit. There are passages in the other gospels as well that do a similar thing, especially John’s. But in Matthew we are given a label or title for the new Christian dispensation – “the kingdom of heaven.” In his writings this term is used exclusively, appearing some thirty-two times. Why is this only found in Matthew? Because the Holy Spirit particularly shows in his gospel a dispensational character and emphasis, and also the importance of dispensational transition in the ways of God.
This is not the only term used exclusively in Matthew. The phrase “the Father’s kingdom” is also peculiar to him (Matt. 13:43). Again we have to ask why? Because Matthew’s gospel, more than the other three, shows this dispensational character. The full development of the kingdom of God in general, as it relates to the new dispensation, especially as it is shown to be at the end of this age, is only brought out by the addition and use of this term. It is Matthew alone that specifically and directly shows a distinction between the Father’s kingdom in the heavens and the Son of Man’s kingdom on the earth (Matt. 13:37-43).
Jesus is rejected as Messiah to the Jews in a general way in chapters 11, 12 of Matthew. We see that God waits until Jesus is rejected by the nation in order to set the Jews aside. Matthew’s gospel emphasizes God’s specific dealings with Israel on this matter. It was God who built up the wall of separation during the Jewish dispensation – that which enclosed this nation by their own religion (Judaism), and kept them separated from the heathen Gentiles (Eph. 2:14-15). As long as Israel is acknowledged by God, and here it was on the basis of the last biblical principle that remained associated with the nation, that of calling, He could not do anything that would compromise the integrity of His ways. In His faithfulness God would not set Israel aside to establish anything else that denied their privileges, prophesies, and promises. He would not do this until Israel rejected His Son, and thereby rejected the promises themselves. God had suffered long, with much patience, the disobedience and failure of this people, by the law and sending them prophets to call them back to the law. But the sending of the Son as Israel’s Messiah would be this nation’s last test. This is clearly shown in this parable in Matthew:
“Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a wine-press in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
The parable tells us the general events of the Jewish dispensation, and why it came to an end. Israel is the vineyard planted by God (Isa. 5:1-7). Yet the nation failed in all their responsibilities under the law. Also when God sent His servants (prophets) to them, they mistreated and killed them. Last of all God sends His Son. The coming of Messiah to the Jews was the final testing of Israel in their dispensation. His rejection means that God is now free to reject them, by setting them aside and removing from them any thought of a Messianic kingdom (Matt. 21:40-46). God is free to do a different work. Israel was God’s original planting. With the Jewish dispensation ended, God would have a new planting in the new Christian dispensation. “Behold, a sower went out to sow.” (Matt. 13:3, 24)
In Matt. 12:43-45, Jesus speaks of Israel as being the man that an unclean spirit goes out of, but in the end will return to Israel with seven others more evil than himself. This speaks of Israel’s history, both past and future. The unclean spirit is idolatry. The nation was delivered from this spirit in the time of the Babylonian captivity. When Jesus was speaking, the house of Israel had been swept clean and empty for some time. The ending condition refers to the nation’s future time under the Antichrist. Then Jesus ends all natural connection with Israel after the flesh (Matt. 12:46-50). He ends up quitting the house of Israel in figure (Matt. 13:1). In chapter 13, we are given a complete prophetic picture of the new Christian dispensation. Prophetically the number seven (7) is used to form a complete whole or spiritual perfection. The seven parables in this chapter give us the complete picture of the kingdom of heaven in mystery (things that are unseen and only perceived by faith during the time of the Christian dispensation). This does not involve the nation of Israel, but Christendom as the new corporate body.
With the rejection of Messiah, God sets Israel aside as a nation – they would no longer be considered God’s people, and He would not be their God (Hosea 1:9). God would make their house desolate (Matt. 23:37-39). It would remain that way for a long time. With these events the Jewish dispensation comes to an end. These things are particularly shown in Matthew, especially the transition to the new dispensation that takes its place. So we have near the beginning of Matthew the Baptist heralding the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 3:2); Jesus preaches the same thing (Matt. 4:17); later on the disciples were sent out for the same purpose (Matt. 10:7). This is peculiar to Matthew as well and shows the dispensational character of his gospel – the kingdom of heaven is always “at hand,” and not yet present.
Messiah is a title that is confined entirely to the Jewish dispensation. With the rejection of Messiah the Jewish dispensation comes to an end. The Messiah title is set aside along with the dispensation, simply because the title belongs to the dispensation, as do all the Jewish promises associated with Messiah and the land. Matthew shows the presentation of Messiah to Israel, who is the fulfilment of all Jewish promises, shows the rejection of Messiah by the Jews, and then shows the transition to the new dispensation, even giving its specific name. The new dispensation would be a new planting by God. The title of Jesus associated with the new dispensation is shown by Matthew when Jesus says, “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.” (Matt. 13:37)
But all the parables of the kingdom of heaven show the Son of Man going away, or the particular developments that take place during this entire age while He is gone. This is why the kingdom of heaven was always preached as “at hand.” It doesn’t exist or start until He does, in fact, go away. The wheat doesn’t come up in the field until after He is gone. The sovereign work of God in planting the wheat was dependent on the work of redemption being completed and Jesus being raised from the dead and glorified. The wheat relate to Jesus there, hidden from the world at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1-3). And this is all mysterious because the things are all unseen and by faith (Matt.13:11). There is a kingdom developing in the world (Matt. 13:38), but there is no apparent or present King – how mysterious is this? And how foreign to Jewish thought would this be?
What about the sermon on the mount? We find this early in Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 5, 6, 7), and somewhat out of place as to the historical order (as for its placement and timing, Luke’s version seems to be more accurate – Luke 6:20-49. His version is greatly condensed, and the differences between the two versions, especially what Luke adds, is characteristic of the moral character impressed in his gospel). But how does it fit into the character of Matthew’s gospel? The sermon explains the principles of the kingdom of heaven, particularly as it is in mystery. And the Holy Spirit does this by contrasts – the differences are shown between the two dispensations by contrasting the teachings of Judaism with those in Christianity. The sermon in Matthew does this six separate times (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). It is unique to Matthew, again showing transition from one dispensation to another. These phrases are not found in Luke’s version.
You may notice that in the sermon on the mount there never are any instructions on how one is saved. The whole message speaks only of principles to be followed, responsibilities to be carried out, rewards to be gained, by those who profess to already be in the kingdom of heaven. The sermon never deals with the redemption of man and its means. It is a simple dispensational talk concerning the new principles and behavior associated with the new form the kingdom of God takes.
After finishing the sermon, the Spirit of God through Matthew doesn’t take long in showing the failure of Israel concerning the new dispensation and its founding principle of grace through faith. In the very next chapter, when dealing with the Roman centurion, Jesus marvels:
Matt. 8:10-12 (NKJV)
When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The sons of the kingdom that are cast out are the Jews. Israel should have been the place where faith in God was found, but Jesus says otherwise. The many that come from east and west are of the Gentiles. They are found in the kingdom of heaven while those of privilege and natural descent are excluded. The Jews in Judaism walk by sight. It is not by faith (Rom. 9:30-33). But the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant does afford us another opportunity to show the difference in character between Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels (Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10). In Matthew the Spirit of God has the centurion himself coming to Jesus. This is so the centurion and his faith may serve as a type for the Gentiles entering the kingdom of heaven. This is evidence of the transition between dispensations about to take place, one passage of many that can be found in Matthew. However Luke’s emphasis is a simple moralistic lesson of the low estate of man, rather than trying to impress a kingdom characteristic. In Luke the leaders of the Jews and the centurion’s friends are intermediaries for him.
There actually are three things given by the Spirit in Matthew that take the place of the Jewish system;
1. The kingdom of heaven, the Christian dispensation (Ch. 13)
2. The church prophetically announced (Ch. 16),
3. The kingdom of glory (Ch. 17).
The three are distinct from each other, although they all have certain connections. So when Jesus speaks of the revelations of the new dispensation He transitions to the sovereignty of God’s choice of the disciples and not the people (Matt. 11:25-27, 13:10-17). When Jesus substitutes the church, He forbids the disciples from telling anyone He is the Messiah (Matt. 16:20) – this is transition as well. Messiah is the title for the nation of Israel and the Jewish dispensation – all now set aside by God. When He is on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets of the Jewish dispensation, they disappear from the scene (Matt. 17:1-8). The instructions from the Father were “This is My beloved Son…Hear Him!” For the Christian this replaces the law and the prophets; basically it replaces Judaism. Yet He says to them, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” (Matt. 17:9) Until His resurrection, the vision on the mount has no application. Again, this is all transition.
Previously I mentioned that the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” is only found in Matthew’s gospel, and is used in a dispensational way to show the transition from one stewardship to another – the Jewish dispensation ending and the mystery of the kingdom of heaven replacing it. This obviously involves thoughts of the kingdom of God if the word “kingdom” is in the label or title of the new dispensation, and so, a need for explanation and sorting out of different terms. The kingdom of God is a general and generic term. It encompasses all passages and situations where the word “kingdom” is mentioned in Scripture in relation to God’s involvement, in any sense or way, in the government of such kingdom, or the power being particularly displayed (Matt. 12:28). I mention this last point to show its general use. Jesus says in His rebuke of the Jewish leaders, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” God’s will was accomplished by the deliverance of the individual, and this through the manifestation of God’s power in a governmental way.
“The kingdom of God” is the expansive umbrella under which we fit these distinctive terms from Scripture – the Messianic kingdom in Israel (Isa. 9:6-7), the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, 13:11, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, and 47, 25:1, 14), the kingdom, power, and throne of the Son of Man (Dan. 7:13-14, Matt. 13:41, 25:31), the kingdom of the Son of His love (Col. 1:13), and the Father’s kingdom (Matt. 13:43). These all are, more or less, specific terms and different ideas that all fall under the generic label, “the kingdom of God.”
Now this begs the question: When John the Baptist, Jesus, and then His disciples sent out before Him, declared that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, were they speaking of the presentation of the Messianic kingdom to Israel? My question is not whether the Messianic kingdom was actually presented to Israel – it certainly was, for Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, and He came to Israel as their Messiah according to Jewish promises and prophecy. The question is whether the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” refers to the Messianic kingdom for Israel and Jesus as their Messiah. Or does it specifically refer to something entirely different?
What its true reality is, can easily be proved in the Scriptures.
Before leaving Matthew let’s look at another passage that is distinctive to the character of his gospel, the presentation of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and the association of this title with the passing Jewish dispensation.
Matthew 15:21-28 (NKJV)
“Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.”
Here Jesus is seen as the promised Messiah of Israel, and as under this title, even though He is away among the cities of the Gentiles. The Canaanite woman acknowledges Him as the Son of David because the fame of Him and the testimony of the things He did could not be contained to just the regions of the Jews. By His remarks in dealing with the woman we have the defining of the scope and extent of the promise and mission of Messiah – “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And again, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”The children’s bread refers to the privilege of the Jews receiving their earthly needs met under the ministry of Messiah – healings, deliverances, and food for the poor. All the works of power that Jesus did among the Jews. These statements define for us the title of Messiah and it’s dispensational connection. He was not sent except to Israel. There are no other qualifying statements bringing further understanding or clarification. Jesus, as seen as Messiah, has this limited mission. Why? Because Messiah is a title related only to Israel and the Jewish dispensation. And this dispensation would soon be ending, and a different one would be taking its place. The title of Messiah would be set aside in a similar fashion as the nation of Israel was set aside. But we see here, just as the centurion did earlier (Matt. 8:1-12), this Gentile woman crossing over the dispensational wall by her faith to get what she desperately needed.
This example is so characteristic of Matthew’s gospel. We have the presentation of Messiah and the Jewish system dispensationally, His rejection as Messiah and His taking up the broader title of the Son of Man (Matt. 13:37, 16:20, 17:9), and the transition between dispensations in type. When this story is found in Mark, key phrases are left out because the character of Mark is Christ’s service as the Prophet-Servant and not concerning dispensations and transitions (Mark 7:24-30). It is in the stories and teachings that are unique to each gospel we tend to find their intended character, or it is impressed by the telling of the same events with different content or added expressions. All the additions and all the differences in the four gospels have intentional purpose by the Holy Spirit. All the major events in the life of Christ – birth, baptism, rejection, Gethsemane, betrayal, trial, crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension – are told by the Spirit in a different manner in the different gospels in order to accomplish His intended effect.
The genealogies, or the omission of them, are characteristic of each gospel. From the first verse of Matthew (Matt. 1:1) we know the first emphasis of his gospel is the presentation of Messiah. In his genealogy we have both David and Abraham featured, the two great fathers of Israel, to whom all the promises were made. It traces through David to Abraham, and dramatically stops there – this is very Jewish and Messianic in character. However, when we look at Luke’s genealogy, it traces Jesus linage back to Adam (Luke 3:38). The main emphasis of the Spirit in Luke is presenting Jesus in the character and history of the Son of Man, the second Adam, come in grace. The Spirit uses Luke to, more so, deal with the low state of man as fallen. Therefore, it contains additional passages that have the character of moral teachings and lessons. Mark has no genealogy and no account of Jesus’ birth. His gospel presents the Lord’s ministry as the Servant-Prophet. The genealogy or birth of a servant is not viewed in Jewish culture as significant. Therefore, because of the emphasis of Mark’s gospel, these things are left out. John also has no genealogy. He presents the personal glory of Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, the Son of God, who was there in the beginning, yet without any beginning – a genealogy would not be necessary or appropriate.
As I mentioned earlier, John’s gospel is unique. He presents God come in the flesh into the world He had created. The first two verses of the gospel actually precede the account of Genesis one (1), showing us the divinity of Jesus in eternity past. It shows the glory of the Word in His Person, the Son of God in His essential nature. So John doesn’t present to us the birth of a baby into this world and time, who by linage was the Son of David and the promised Messiah. In John there are no tracing genealogies back to David, Abraham, or Adam. Rather the Spirit presents to us this One who existed before the beginning of everything that had a beginning – “In the beginning was the Word…” Then we see a personal existence is ascribed to Him – “The Word was with God…” Then His nature –“…and the Word was God.” In His existence He was eternal. In His nature He was divine. In His person He was distinct (John 1:1-2).
The third verse brings us the creation account (John 1:3). In His divinity He created all things; they had their origin from Him. The verse brings forth the most positive and direct testimony of the distinction between those things made and the One who made them. The chapter is the defence of both the divinity and personality of the Son of God. Creation owes its existence to Him, yet it was always external to Him. It did not exist in Him. But in Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” If we’re wise, here we may see the thoughts and counsels of God from before the foundation of the world, and God’s intention in connection with blessing man (John 1:4). However verse five (5) is the first of many found in this gospel that gives us His rejection – “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” The whole world lies in darkness. When the true light came into it, the darkness did not change. And finally, in the sense of the presentation of the chapter, the Son who created the world was now sent by the Father into it –“The Word became flesh…”
Because His divinity is what John presents, it is here we see so characteristically the sovereign grace of God that leads and draws any individual to faith in Christ – they are born of God, not of the will of men (John 1:12-13). This principle is boldly brought out in John as a consequence of His rejection. From Adam to the cross God tested man in the principle of human responsibility, looking for the fruit of obedience. He never found in Adam’s children any fruit satisfying to Himself. Consequent to the rejection of the Son of God, in this gospel we see the end of the moral history of the world (John 12:31, Heb. 9:26, Gal. 4:4). Man in Adam was proven to be depraved, and the world is condemned as a result. What then? Because of the work of the cross that follows, which work glorified God completely and perfectly concerning man’s sin (John 13:31-32), God now comes in with sovereign grace as the new principle and the solution to man’s depravity. In this principle, which is the means of our redemption freely given to us in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24), He chooses some out of the condemned world (John 15:19, 17:1-6). Despite His rejection by Israel, the Good Shepherd will have His own sheep (John 10:3-5, 10:11-16). Then we see the lasting security of God’s choices in sovereign grace (John 10:28-29, 6:37-39). Because the sovereignity of God is so prominent in John, many call this the Calvinistic gospel.
But from the first chapter John has Jesus rejected, both by the Jews and by the world:
John 1:10-11 (NKJV)
“He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.”
This gives a certain character to the entire gospel. The Jews are set aside by God from the beginning and are treated as reprobate. The friction and tension between Jesus and the nation is noticeable throughout this gospel (i.e. John 5:38-47).
When man fails in his place and is fully shown to do so (in Adam we are all in the flesh and reprobate – Rom. 8:8), God comes out according to what He is in Himself – this is what John’s gospel characteristically shows. In the three synoptic gospels we have the presentation of Christ to man in his responsibility, and there we see the eventual rejection of Him. So in this last gospel, in John, we have the bringing in of God. And John’s character is not simply God limited as a answer for the Jews – certainly He is this. But in John Jesus says, “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world.” And in the opening chapter, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.” As presenting God in the flesh this could not be confined to the Jews and the Jewish promises of their Messiah. John addresses the world, and then condemns the world, even though he shows how God so loves the world in His own nature and being (John 3:16). The love of God gives the Son for this purpose, that God may condemn His Son to death on the cross. So in John we have this distinctive phrase – the Son of Man lifted up (John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32) in the redemptive work. By this all men, not just the Jews, might be drawn to Him. As a consequence He then enters the sheep fold that is Israel and takes out only those sheep that are His (John 10:3-4). But He has other sheep not of Israel, and these also He must have (John 10:16). Its not just Israel, but in John the world is the broader emphasis.
Because of the distinctive character of John’s gospel there are many differences from the others. There is no account of the birth, no genealogy, no baptism by John, and no temptation in the wilderness. These are, more or less, associated with human means and human activity. When we read in the three synoptic gospels the accounts of His temptation by Satan, we should always be thinking of Jesus as the Son of Man, the second Adam. The first Adam failed his temptation. The second Adam did not. But John presents God, and not necessarily the Son of Man, and so these events are omitted from his writings. Look if you will at John’s account of Gethsemane. There is no suffering of Jesus in sweating, as it were, great drops of blood. All we see is how the entire detachment of troops fell back and down when He answered them saying, “I am He.” (John 18:1-6) Also in His crucifixion, John shows no real human suffering, although the other gospels detail this thoroughly. All we have is Jesus saying, “It is finished.” Look at the passages that are unique to John. Some examples:
1.) Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John eleven (11). The reason it is found in John only is because it so fits the character and purpose of his gospel. “When Jesus heard that, He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) It was the Father’s testimony that Jesus was the Son of God, and that He would hear Him (John 11:42).
2.) When He was confronted by the Jews about some of the things He was saying, their unbelief and hatred frustrates Him to the point where He directly says concerning His divinity, “Before Abraham was I am.” (John 8:58)
3.) The passage in John twelve (12) identifies Jesus as Jehovah on the throne over Israel as seen by Isaiah the prophet (Isa. 6, John 12:37-41). Jesus was quoting the prophecies of Isaiah and John remarks by the Spirit, “These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him.”
All these passages, unique to John’s gospel, show the glory of Jesus as the Son of God. This is the distinct character of his gospel.
It would take to long to show details of how Luke and Mark’s gospels differ from Matthew and John’s, or from each other. The important point to remember is that the Spirit of God uses the four in different ways to show forth the different glories of Jesus Christ. We should not expect them to be exactly the same. People look for errors and mistakes in order to prove to themselves and others the lack of inspiration in Scripture – they desperately want to believe that the bible is not the word of God, because if it is, their consciences would have to answer to its testimony. They simply fail to understand, in their carnal minds and reasoning, the ways and purpose of God in giving the different written accounts of the life of Christ, and that the author, the Holy Spirit, never intended these accounts to be the same. It shows that God’s wisdom is not understood by the intellect of natural man (I Cor. 1:17 – 2:16). If one doesn’t have the Spirit of God, how can he know the things of God?
One other point. In order to answer the critics who point out the differences in the gospels as errors and reason to discount their divine inspiration, many Christians undertake the task of harmonizing the four gospels in some type of chronology. This article shows that such an exercise is futile and erroneous. This would be like squeezing into one mold things which are not the same. Harmonizing the four gospels into one was never the Holy Spirit’s purpose. Therefore, it should never be our purpose. In order to answer the skeptics, we cannot rely on human reasoning and explanations — this is all harmonizing the gospels would be.