1) To give a more complete picture of Christ. While the entire Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), He used human authors with different backgrounds and personalities to accomplish His purposes through their writing. Each of the gospel authors had a distinct purpose behind his gospel and in carrying out those purposes, each emphasized different aspects of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Matthew was writing to a Hebrew audience, and one of his purposes was to show from Jesus’ genealogy and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies that He was the long-expected Messiah, and thus should be believed in. Matthew’s emphasis is that Jesus is the promised King, the “Son of David,” who would forever sit upon the throne of Israel (Matthew 9:27; 21:9).
Mark, a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), was an eyewitness to the events in the life of Christ as well as being a friend of the apostle Peter. Mark wrote for a Gentile audience, as is brought out by his not including things important to Jewish readers (genealogies, Christ’s controversies with Jewish leaders of His day, frequent references to the Old Testament, etc.). Mark emphasizes Christ as the suffering Servant, the One who came not to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Luke, the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14 KJV), evangelist, and companion of the apostle Paul, wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the apostles. Luke is the only Gentile author of the New Testament. He has long been accepted as a diligent master historian by those who have used his writings in genealogical and historical studies. As a historian, he states that it is his intent to write down an orderly account of the life of Christ based on the reports of those who were eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). Because he specifically wrote for the benefit of Theophilus, apparently a Gentile of some stature, his gospel was composed with a Gentile audience in mind, and his intent is to show that a Christian’s faith is based upon historically reliable and verifiable events. Luke often refers to Christ as the “Son of Man,” emphasizing His humanity, and he shares many details that are not found in the other gospel accounts.
The gospel of John, written by John the apostle, is distinct from the other three Gospels and contains much theological content in regard to the person of Christ and the meaning of faith. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the “Synoptic Gospels” because of their similar styles and content and because they give a synopsis of the life of Christ. The gospel of John begins not with Jesus’ birth or earthly ministry but with the activity and characteristics of the Son of God before He became man (John 1:14). The gospel of John emphasizes the deity of Christ, as is seen in his use of such phrases as “the Word was God” (John 1:1), “the Savior of the World” (John 4:42), the “Son of God” (used repeatedly), and “Lord and...God” (John 20:28). In John’s gospel, Jesus also affirms His deity with several “I Am” statements; most notable among them is John 8:58, in which He states that “...before Abraham was, I Am” (compare to Exodus 3:13-14). But John also emphasizes the fact of Jesus’ humanity, desiring to show the error of a religious sect of his day, the Gnostics, who did not believe in Christ’s humanity. John’s gospel spells out his overall purpose for writing: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
Thus, in having four distinct and yet equally accurate accounts of Christ, different aspects of His person and ministry are revealed. Each account becomes like a different-colored thread in a tapestry woven together to form a more complete picture of this One who is beyond description. And while we will never fully understand everything about Jesus Christ (John 20:30), through the four Gospels we can know enough of Him to appreciate who He is and what He has done for us so that we may have life through faith in Him.
2) To enable us to objectively verify the truthfulness of their accounts. The Bible, from earliest times, states that judgment in a court of law was not to be made against a person based on the testimony of a single eyewitness but that two or three as a minimum number were required (Deuteronomy 19:15). Even so, having different accounts of the person and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ enables us to assess the accuracy of the information we have concerning Him.
Simon Greenleaf, a well-known and accepted authority on what constitutes reliable evidence in a court of law, examined the four Gospels from a legal perspective. He noted that the type of eyewitness accounts given in the four Gospels—accounts which agree, but with each writer choosing to omit or add details different from the others—is typical of reliable, independent sources that would be accepted in a court of law as strong evidence. Had the Gospels contained exactly the same information with the same details written from the same perspective, it would indicate collusion, i.e., of there having been a time when the writers got together beforehand to “get their stories straight” in order to make their writings seem credible. The differences between the Gospels, even the apparent contradictions of details upon first examination, speak to the independent nature of the writings. Thus, the independent nature of the four Gospel accounts, agreeing in their information but differing in perspective, amount of detail, and which events were recorded, indicate that the record that we have of Christ’s life and ministry as presented in the Gospels is factual and reliable.
3) To reward those who are diligent seekers. Much can be gained by an individual study of each of the Gospels. But still more can be gained by comparing and contrasting the different accounts of specific events of Jesus’ ministry. For instance, in Matthew 14 we are given the account of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. In Matthew 14:22 we are told that “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.” One may ask, why did He do this? There is no apparent reason given in Matthew’s account. But when we combine it with the account in Mark 6, we see that the disciples had come back from casting out demons and healing people through the authority He had given them when He sent them out two-by-two. But they returned with “big heads,” forgetting their place and ready now to instruct Him (Matthew 14:15). So, in sending them off in the evening to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals two things to them. As they struggle against the wind and waves in their own self-reliance until the early hours of the morning (Mark 6:48-50), they begin to see that 1) they can achieve nothing for God in their own ability and 2) nothing is impossible if they call upon Him and live in dependence upon His power. There are many passages containing similar “jewels” to be found by the diligent student of the Word of God who takes the time to compare Scripture with Scripture.
The "harmony" of the Gospels is the agreement of the four biblical Gospels. The four New Testament Gospels are like the singers in a four-part choir. They each have their distinct parts to sing, yet the parts combine to make a beautiful composition. Each of the four Gospels gives testimony of Jesus from a slightly different perspective, but they all tell the same story. Thus, they are all in harmony with one another. There are also books that align the Gospel accounts chronologically which are called harmonies of the Gospels, and some Bibles have a reference section doing the same thing that is referred to as a harmony of the Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the "synoptic" gospels, because they give a synopsis of most of the same events from the life of Jesus. John stands on its own, filling in gaps that the others leave out. Each one of these Gospels was written for a different audience and emphasizes different things about Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew was written primarily for the Jews and emphasized how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of a kingly Messiah. Mark was written primarily for Roman or Gentile Christians, so it includes few Old Testament prophecies and explains many Jewish words and customs. Jesus is portrayed in Mark as the Divine Servant. Luke was also written primarily for Gentile believers, as it also explains Jewish customs and uses Greek names. Luke set out to write an orderly narrative of the life of Jesus and presented Jesus as the Son of Man, emphasizing His full humanity. John’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God and includes more of Jesus’ revelations about Himself than any of the other Gospels. It also gives a much more detailed picture of the events during Jesus’ last days.
Some people have attempted to discredit the Bible by pointing out the inconsistencies in the Gospel narratives. They point out differences in the order in which the events are presented or minor details within those events. When the four accounts are placed side by side, we see that they do not all follow the same strict chronology. Much of the narrative in the Gospels is arranged in a topical order, where an event brings to mind a similar thought. This is the way most of us carry on conversations every day. The differences in minor details like the angels at Christ’s tomb (Matthew 28:5; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:12) are also answered by allowing the text to speak. The differences are complementary, not contradictory. New information is added, but it does not take away from the veracity of the old information.
Like the rest of Scripture, the four Gospels are a beautiful testimony of God’s revelation to man. Imagine a tax collector (Matthew), an untrained Jewish lad with a history as a quitter (Mark), a Roman doctor (Luke), and a Jewish fisherman (John) all writing harmonious testimonies about the events in the life of Jesus. There is no way, without the intervention of God, that they could have written these amazingly accurate accounts (2 Timothy 3:16). The historical references, the prophetic references, and the personal details all work together to compose one very detailed, very accurate picture of Jesus—the Messiah, the King, the Servant, and the Son of God.
What are the Gospels? The Gospels refer to the four opening books of the New Testament. The name Gospels comes from the fact that these books record the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, whose message was the gospel of the Kingdom of God. The four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In order for Christians to fully understand how to follow Christ, they must be familiar with how Christ lived and what He taught. That is why it is so important for Christians to study the Gospels.
The first four books of the New Testament are the four Gospels, which give the story of Jesus Christ’s life and His teachings. These books are:
What are the Gospels?
The word Gospels comes from the message that Jesus Christ preached, the gospel of the Kingdom of God(Mark 1:14-15). Gospel is translated from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news” and the apostles would not have used the word in the plural since there was only one true gospel. “The four records which traditionally stand in the forefront of the [New Testament] are, properly speaking, four records of the one gospel” (The New Bible Dictionary, 1982, “Gospels”).
The Gospels focus mostly on the 3½-year ministry of Jesus Christ and, especially, on the last week of His life. They give very little information about His life before age 30, and so they are not really intended as full biographies.
The writers told the stories about Jesus Christ’s ministry, miracles, actions and teachings for a purpose. These books are intended to teach the reader God’s message—the good news of God’s plan to set up the Kingdom of God on this earth and how we can be part of that plan. The Gospels are intended to convict us of our sins so we will repent and believe in Jesus Christ.
Matthew, Mark and Luke contain many of the same stories and teachings. Because they saw things from a similar perspective, their accounts are called the synoptic Gospels. Their accounts can easily be lined up in three columns for study. The Gospel of John has much less overlap with the other three Gospels. This is explained more in our article on the “Synoptic Gospels.”
Why four Gospels? Each of the Gospel writers had a different audience and purpose in mind. Though the writers may not have pictured their readers sitting down to compare and read the four Gospels together, God did have the bigger picture in mind.
Out of all the many narratives written (Luke 1:1) and out of the vast number of things Jesus did and taught (John 21:25), God chose to preserve these four accounts for our benefit.
Throughout the Bible God uses repetition for emphasis, and the story of His Son—our example, our Savior and our soon-coming King—is definitely worthy of the highest emphasis. Reading each Gospel separately will teach us a great deal about what is important to God and how we should live.
Harmonizing the four accounts is challenging and brings out questions about seeming differences. Much can be learned by comparing accounts, and none of the apparent discrepancies are insurmountable.
“Individual Gospels have their own characteristic ideas, images, settings, and emphases, while sharing a common core of material. As for alleged discrepancies among the accounts, we must remember not only that the story is told from four different perspectives, but also that as a traveling teacher and miracle worker Jesus said and did similar things in a series of different places. Even the parables may have been related differently as Jesus spoke to different audiences”
Though each writer recorded different perspectives, the whole process was guided by God’s inspiration through the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus Christ told His disciples, the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).
The Bible tells us that Matthew was a tax collector. His profession was despised by his fellow Jews because publicans supported the Roman occupiers and because they frequently extorted additional money for themselves.
Jesus called Matthew to be one of His disciples and apostles, so Matthew left his previous profession and spent his full time traveling and learning from Jesus Christ. He was an eyewitness of the events he records.
Matthew’s Gospel shows a special emphasis on the fact that “Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Old Testament Prophets” (Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, 1965, p. 413). Matthew quotes extensively from the Old Testament and “seems to have had Jewish readers particularly in mind.”
The Bible does not give Mark’s previous profession but mentions his work in preaching the gospel with Paul, Barnabas and Peter. Tradition says that Mark’s Gospel reflects Peter’s eyewitness testimony of Christ’s life.
Mark’s “emphasis on Jesus’ mighty and miraculous works makes this Gospel action-packed, fresh and vivid. … In general, Mark presents the miracle-working Jesus, not the teaching Jesus” (The Nelson Study Bible, p. 1636).
Luke was “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) and companion of the apostle Paul. He had read many other accounts of Jesus’ life; but using interviews of eyewitnesses and careful research, he determined to write “an orderly account” for Theophilus, “that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:3-4). Dr. Halley describes Luke’s special emphasis on Jesus’ humanity and His kindness to the weak, suffering and outcasts (p. 485).
At the end of his Gospel, Luke recorded Christ’s statement to the disciples explaining how the prophecies about Him in “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” had been and would be accurately completed (Luke 24:44-49).
John was a fisherman when Jesus called him to be a disciple and apostle. John focused his eyewitness account heavily on the last days and hours of Christ’s life.
The apostle John explained his reason for including the material he did in his Gospel: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).
A call to action. The four Gospel writers did not intend their audiences to read their books for entertainment, or even just for information. They wrote to get a message across—a message of warning and of hope. The Gospels are a call to action.
As Jesus Christ summarized it: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Read more about this personal message from our Savior and King in our articles on “Repentance” and “Faith.”