Building a Library: Studying the Gospels (1)

This is the first of a two-part article on books which deal with the four Gospels. 

Four precious volumes have been given first place in our New Testament. They were not the first four volumes written under the direction of the Spirit of God, but it is right that they should be placed at the entrance to that treasury of truth we prize so much. They were given that place because they present Christ in relation to that unique period of thirty-three years during which “He lived for what He loved and died for what He hated.” The truth revealed in the four Gospels lays a good foundation in the soul, absolutely essential to spiritual health.

One of those four evangelists, through whom we have been blessed in receiving the fourth Gospel, described his fellowship with his Lord as having “seen and heard” and his exercise as declaring to us “that ye also may have fellowship with us,” the apostles (1 John 1:3). In that Gospel from John’s pen we share his joy in Christ. But of course even that Gospel, for all its depth, is not exhaustive. Indeed, that same John asserts that “many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of His disciples which are not written” in his Gospel,” and he adds a little later, “… if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 20:31; 21:25).

Given the fullness of the subject, we should not be surprised that the world itself cannot contain even the books that have been written about those four Books. And on most believers’ bookshelves are books they prize about Christ as He is presented in the Gospels.

Perhaps the earliest impressions on the present writer, made by a book drawing richly from the Gospels, was The Moral Glory of the Lord Jesus Christ by J G Bellett. The volume in perfect state was an early edition published by G Morrish of London (now reprinted by Berean Bookshelf). Bellett was not seeking to expound systematically the Gospels but to present Christ as the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, reveal Him. Nevertheless, the writer, in his teens, read The Moral Glory of the Lord Jesus Christ many times. Probably that volume whetted in my soul a love for the Gospels that has never really abated.

Over many years J N Darby’s Synopsis of the Books of the Bible (Believers Bookshelf Inc, Ontario 1992) has been of particular worth to the present writer. In seeking to understand the broad teaching of a section of the Gospels, that five-volume series has offered a succinct overview which certainly required further consideration at a level of detail the Synopsis does not provide. Also helpfully summarizing the salient points of passages in the Gospels is F W Grant’s, Numerical Bible (Loizeaux Brothers, New York 1956).

The diligent student of the Word of the Lord is not without works which expound the Gospels verse by verse. William Kelly’s commentaries on each of the four Gospels are reliable. Unfortunately, not all younger readers enjoy Kelly’s prose style! More readable but not as rigorous is George Campbell Morgan’s The Parables and Metaphors of our Lord (Marshall Morgan and Scott, London 1962). As the title implies, it deals only with sections within the Gospels, as does the classic Notes on the Parables of our Lord by Richard Chenevix Trench (the writer’s edition is published Macmillan and Co., London 1882). Trench’s beautiful prose is rewarding. (It should be added that not all will find his footnotes in Greek and Latin altogether enlightening!)

What the Bible Teaches (ed. Wilson & Stapley; John Ritchie, Kilmarnock 1984, 1989, 1988) provides in three volumes a comprehensive commentary on the four Gospels. The authors, some of whom may be known to readers, expound the text verse-by-verse in a way that will be accessible to all ages. Having been authored within the last few years the authors do address current issues which believers may encounter. Although a not-unprejudiced recommendation, these three volumes are of great value to any reader.

Of value too is Leon Morris’ The Gospel according to Matthew, a scholarly 781-page treatise. Other more academic works are in circulation but they do require some care on the part of the reader, for often collated are a number of views on a passage, some of which are from scholars with questionable credentials in respect to the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Indeed, most books emanating from academic circles need to be read with care for that very reason.

Still of value however are the brief expositions of W E Vine. Unlike the academic treatises mentioned above, Vine is both scholarly and unambiguous in his approach to the sacred text. The present writer has consulted regularly Vine’s John, His Record of Christ (Oliphants Ltd, London; reprinted 1961; now available from Gospel Tract Publications, Glasgow). Its 192 pages are easily assimilated but have depths worthy of plumbing in which the reader will delight re-reading.

Many brief works on some of the Gospels are esteemed. They may not help in every passage being considered in the assembly Bible Reading, but, nevertheless, richly repay the reader. Harold St John’s, Behold My Glory (Gospel Tract Publications, Glasgow 1989) and The Collected Writings of William Hoste, Volume 1 Devotional (compiled and edited W M Banks; John Ritchie Ltd, Kilmarnock 1991), would both fall into that category.

In commending books to any interested Christian, it is always important to stress that the writings of even good men on the Gospels are not inspired but the Gospels on which they write are inspired and so infallible in their teaching. To the inspired Gospels we must always return; in the books godly men have written, we will find help to understand more fully the teaching of Scripture. But in the four Gospels we must ever look for ourselves for “the things concerning Himself.”