The Gospels were written because there was a real need to recall the life of Christ. A life like his must have consequences and it did. From the conversations and action in Galilee and Jerusalem it has through the Holy Spirit moved the hearts and minds of places he never went. Whether they were the regions of Judea or the secular areas of Rome and Syria; through generations and lands the consequences have been felt and are still being felt. The gospels bring the scenes before our eyes, the atmosphere we can feel as we were personally present. The scenes at his baptism and his first preaching of repentance, feeding the five thousand and the distribution in groups on the green grass, the crosses, the centurion saying this is truly the Son of God, the repentant thief, the women at the tomb, each had their own conception. What am I to make of it? The gospel which Jesus preached was a gospel which in its main particulars had yet to be fulfilled, and could not be fully comprehended till it had been fulfilled. While the facts were still incomplete, the doctrine was yet in its commencement.
The first three of these four gospels are given as a plain report of words and deeds, easy and in-artificial, in which the most stupendous events are expressed pragmatically and do not articulate expression of feelings. There is scarcely a comment of reflection, and a word of explanation almost startles us. No literary fact is more remarkable than that men, knowing what these writers knew, and feeling what they felt, should have given us writings so plain and calm. The style, unclouded by any perceptible contribution from the mind of the writers, gives us the scenes, the facts, and the Person, as seen in the clearest light and through the most transparent atmosphere.
The gospels fix in the mind both the objective reality of the facts and the living portrait of Jesus by the fourfold repetition of the history. Four times Jesus walks before us in the glory of grace and truth, and whatever correspondences or variations the Gospels may exhibit in other parts of their narratives, four times are the great facts of the death and resurrection of Christ rehearsed to us in the minuteness of circumstantial detail. We do not go forward to further disclosures until the historical facts have been ensured to us by testimony upon testimony, and the portrait of the Person has grown familiar to us by line upon line.
How different would have been the effect of possessing one ‘Life of Christ,’ however full and systematic. We spend more time and feel more at home in the four successive chambers than we should have done in one long gallery; and the impression of all that is there shown to us sinks deeper into the heart from the repetition of many passages of the story under slightly varying lights in different relative connections. If there had been just one gospel it would have suggested to us the thought ‘This is the impression made upon a single mind. Who can say what part of it is due to the idiosyncrasies of the witness? If we had the impressions of another mind perhaps we should have a different image.’ As it is, we derive the impressions from four different quarters, and the image is still the same. The conception is one and its unity attests its truth.
From time to time some fresh portrait may appear, some adventurous imagination, charmed and yet perplexed by the Gospel story, may attempt to reconcile it in accordance with the spirit of the world or the religion of Islam. Unable to receive as real the person of Jesus Christ they mistake the awful gleams of the indwelling Godhead for the glimmer of a deluded enthusiast. The world may commend such theories but the creations of fancy perish as they rise, and the Jesus of the Gospels remains, not only as a perfect ideal, but as a vivid reality, a representation which appears after every fresh attempt to change it more glorious in majesty and beauty, and more conspicuous also for truthfulness and life.
Jesus Christ created the Gospel by his work; he preached the Gospel by his words; but he is the Gospel in himself. The distinguishing feature of the Christian system is that it places the foundation of salvation in a living relationship with a living person, rather than in the adoption of habits or opinions.
The writings of the Gospels do not present us with a scheme of doctrine as to the nature of Christ or as to the work which he does. They present to us Jesus Christ as he showed himself to men in order to win their confidence and fix their trust. Men learned to know him and trust him before they fully understood who he was and what he did.
The active faith we see in the Gospel stories is a faith which fastens on a living Saviour, though it can yet but little comprehend the method or even the nature of salvation. Therefore the New Testament in giving these narratives for our first lessons in the Christian faith teach us that the essential and original nature of that faith lies not in the acceptance of the truths which are revealed, but in confidence in a person who is manifested. Faith, as seen in the Gospels, results not in the first place from the miracles which justify and sustain it, but from the personal impression which appeals to the conscience and spirit in man. The first disciples believed before a miracle had been shown. As it was with these disciples so also is it with ourselves.
The progressive development of the Gospel itself
The Gospel collection is divided into two parts by a line of demarcation; the first three Gospels forming the one part and the other Gospel the other. The former in its effect prepares us for the latter. The triple Gospels, which educate us among the scenes of earth, prepare us for that which follows. Our minds are led along that very course of thought over which they would have moved if we had been eye witnesses of the manifestation of Christ, in that we are familiarised with its ordinary aspect and most frequent characteristics before our thoughts are riveted on these peculiar passages in which the revelation of glory is most concentrated, and which serve to interpret all that we had before felt to be implied.
If the synoptic Gospels are taken by themselves, we observe, even with the limits of this division, certain orderly steps of advance. Each of these narratives has its own prevailing character whereby it makes its special contribution to the complete portrait of Christ.
The Gospel of Matthew
This record has always been recognised as the Hebrew Gospel showing how it grows out of the Old Testament. It shows how the manifestation of the Son of God is not a detached phenomenon but as the predestined completion of the long course of historic revelations. It is the Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. It is founded on the ideas of the old covenant. It refers at every step, especially in the early chapters to the former scriptures, noting how that was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets. It is a history of fulfillment presenting Jesus Christ as the fulfiller of all righteousness, and the fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets. It sets him forth as a king and lawgiver in that kingdom of heaven for which a birthplace and a home has been prepared in Israel, and so corresponds to that period in the historical course of events when the word was preached to none but the Jews only.
The Gospel of Mark
This Gospel is traditionally connected with the Apostle Peter who first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles and it has the appearance of being addressed to such a class of converts. It is the Gospel of action which is rapid, vigorous and vivid as it enters at once into Christ’s official and public career. It carries us from one mighty deed to another with an unusual swiftness of movement, and yet with the life of picturesque detail. Power over the visible and invisible worlds, especially as shown in the casting out of demons, is the prominent characteristic of the picture. In relation to the expansion of its message from its first home in Israel to its utter prevalence in the whole earth, this Gospel occupies an intermediate position between those of Matthew and Luke. Its representations of Christ is disengaged from those close connections with Jewish life and thought which the first Gospel is studious to exhibit, while it is wanting in that breadth of human sympathy and special fitness for the Gentile mind at large which we recognise in the treatise of Luke.
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of Luke intimates its character by a genealogy which presents to us not the Son of Abraham, but the Son of Adam; and it carries out the intimation by special notice of Christ’s relationship to human life, his tender sympathies with human feelings, his large compassion for human cares. The preface, addressed to a Gentile convert, indicating the position of the writer in regard to the facts which he will relate, and speaking in the language of classical composition, shows us at the outset that we have passed from Jewish associations to a stage in the history of the world when its purpose of expansion has been proved and its character of universality established. The whole tone of this Gospel constitutes it per-eminently a Gospel for the Gentiles, specially adapted to the Greek mind, then in some sense the mind of the then world.
The synoptic Gospels, as they stand in the canon, correspond to three outward progressive stages. First the Gospel is found within the limits of Judaism, then in the work of Peter it spreads beyond those limits in the Roman direction, and finally in the ministry of Paul, delivered freely and fully to the world. There is an orderly sequence corresponding to that in which the knowledge of Christ was historically opened to the world. The evangelical narratives are the proper monument of a Gospel which first asserts itself as the true form of Judaism and the legitimate consummation of the old covenant, and then unfolded its relations with the whole race of mankind, and passed into the keeping of the church.
The Gospel of John
The Gospel of Christ had no sooner completed the conflicts, through which it established its relations to Judaism and the world, than it entered on those profound, various and protracted controversies which turned on the Person of Christ. One apostle, was chosen as the chief instrument for settling human thought, defeating the wiles of the devil, and certifying the witness of God. There was but one moment in which the conditions for such a production could exist. It must be after a speculative religious philosophy had begun to form its language and manifest its aberrations. Yet it must be while the voice of an eye witness could still be lifted up to tell what eyes had seen, and ears had heard; such a moment was secured by the providence which ordained that John should live till the first heresies had shaped themselves.
The contemplative spirit of John fitted him best to be the exponent of his presentation of the glory of Christ. He begins, not like his predecessors from an earthly starting point, from the birth of the Son of Adam, or the Son of Abraham, or the opening of the human ministry, but in the depths of unmeasured eternity and the recesses of the nature of God; and the bringing of the first-begotten into the world. He completes his record to others in his last delivery by saying “that they may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing they may have life through his name” (John 20:31).
These stages of progress are constituted only by differences of degrees. There is nothing expanded in one book which has not been asserted in another. Take whatever may seem to you the distinguishing idea of any one of them, and you find a strong expression of it in all the others. These Gospels, even when viewed separately, have the appearance of being not a whole scheme ending in itself, but a part of a larger scheme. The general effect of this manifestation which is made in the Gospels necessitates further disclosure.
Christ has come with the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, but clothed in the poverties and infirmities of man and has walked before us in power and weakness, in majesty and woe. He has touched every chord of our heart; has secured our implicit trust, and become the object of adoration and love; then he has hung on the cross, has sunk into a grave, has risen, has ascended and is gone. It was a brief dispensation, and is finished once for all. What did it mean? What has it done? What are our relations with him now? And in what way has this brief appearance affected our position before God and the state and destiny of the soul? What is the nature of the redemption which he has wrought, of the salvation which he has brought, of the kingdom of God which he has opened to all believers?
These were the questions left for the disciples when Jesus was gone; and when the reader of the Gospel story reaches its close, these questions remain for him. This, then, takes us naturally to the next stage as to how the Christian doctrine was added to the Christian facts, the divine interpretation to the divine intervention.