Building a Library: Studying the Gospels (2)

In a previous article a number of books were cited which I use or have used in the study of the Scriptures. To that list could be added Bible dictionaries like The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (ed. Merrill C Tenney; published Zondervan, Grand Rapids 1967), which offers interesting comments on places and people who are featured in the Gospels; and word studies like Marvin R Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament Volumes 1 & 2 (William B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1980), providing more detailed examination of the words the Holy Spirit has chosen.

But every earnest reader of the Gospels at some time will find himself comparing and contrasting features in the four Gospels. Such considerations are not in vain. They spring from a deep appreciation of those volumes the Spirit of God has chosen to bequeath to us. That there are four Gospels is no more chance than the number of sweet spices tempered together with the pure frankincense to provide that uniquely fragrant “composition” Jehovah described as “pure and holy” (Exod 30:34-38). The number, as the character of the Gospels, is by divine choice, and so is worthy of reverent consideration.

Among the lessons to be learned is the importance that is attached to those unique presentations of the Lord developed by the Spirit of God through the four evangelists. We should have no reservations about acknowledging that the lessons older men taught stand scrutiny: that Matthew presents the King, Mark the Servant, Luke the Man, and John the Son of God. We should accept, too, that the death of Christ as presented in the Gospels is seen from different standpoints: that Matthew records the trespass offering, Mark the sin offering, Luke the meal offering, while John delights in the burnt offering aspects of Christ’s sacrifice.

Andrew Jukes’ The Differences of the Four Gospels (Pickering & Inglis, London) and Bellett’s The Evangelists (Bible Truth Publishers, Oak Park 1920) provided insights into the Spirit’s purpose in His choice of four evangelists. Those studies helpfully enable the reader to note the omissions and inclusions in a Gospel and thereafter to examine why that Gospel writer excluded or included that point, which under the Spirit’s guidance another evangelist treats differently. They approach the Gospels with the understanding that the Spirit of God has chosen the material for each Gospel. The inclusion or exclusion of detail is to teach us lessons, consistent with the theme of the Gospel. To them it is no accident that the Gospels according to John and Mark both omit the birth of Christ: in one case, it is to emphasize the eternal existence of the Son; in the other it highlights the place of the Servant that Christ voluntarily took (for which servant would have his birth recorded in the annals of the times?).

We should wonder at the unfolding of Christ’s glories in the four Gospels. But we should wonder, too, that the Holy Spirit took up four men whom He had equipped distinctively and used them distinctively to present Christ.

A veritable compendium of comparative data on the Gospels to which the writer had access in his grandfather’s bookshelf was Wm. Graham Scroggie’s A Guide to the Gospels (Pickering & Inglis, London 1948). Its 664 pages were the fruit of a lifetime of diligent study, and so worthy of greater respect than at that time one could expect of a young man of twenty years or so; the detail of unique words employed by particular writers did not appeal greatly to him. However with the passage of time I am much more appreciative of Scroggie’s A Guide to the Gospels, and so his book is in my library. It is not a book I read with regularity but one I consult with confidence from time to time.

Considering Luke’s Gospel, Scroggie writes of its Universalism in contrast to the narrow nationalism of those among whom the Lord moved. That Universalism did not falsely assure every man of salvation but “of whatever nation or clime” men are seen as sinners, a word Luke uses 16 times, more than three times any other Gospel writer. Scroggie also points out Luke’s emphasis on words like grace, forgiveness, salvation, evangelize, and Savior. He also observes Luke’s emphatic witness to Christ’s sympathy and to His continual resorting to prayer.

Many Christians are intrigued greatly by the order of events that occurred in our Lord’s earthly sojourn. Most have observed that the evangelists arrange the sections they present under the guidance of a higher hand. One should tend to ask why a particular order is before the reader, rather than the question human reasoning would pose: which was the original account of the two or three or four? However a number of harmonies of the Gospels have been compiled by godly men and from them, others have profited in measure. Where the present writer would seek to establish the order of events relating to some incident in our Lord’s ministry he might resort to Scroggie’s A Guide to the Gospels, a section of which deals with the chronology of the remarkable days when Christ was among men.

Perhaps the two points on which I have consulted various authors relate to the birth and resurrection of Christ. Roman Catholicism has beclouded the clear-sightedness of most in respect of our Lord’s first advent, so that mythology has displaced the testimony of Scripture to His entrance into this scene. The beautiful accounts of Christ’s resurrection reward every effort to establish the sequence of events that occurred in those forty days of remarkable testimony. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul appears to commend any measure of diligence we might show in seeking to order the events of that period. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary and other Bible Dictionaries give some help in that regard.

It is a worthy, Christ-exalting exercise to study the Gospels. John the apostle who wrote the fourth Gospel wrote of the apostles: “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us” (1 John 4:6). We confess this every time we read the Gospels (or elsewhere in the New Testament). We wholeheartedly receive the testimony those godly men gave unerringly about Christ.