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Gospels

The first books of the New Tes­ta­ment scrip­tures are the four gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The word gospel lit­er­al­ly means good news or glad tid­ings. The gospels tell of the life and teach­ing of Jesus, but none of them is a biog­ra­phy in the clas­si­cal sense of the word. The gospels were not writ­ten mere­ly to tell the sto­ry of Jesus. They were writ­ten by the dis­ci­ples of Christ, who were filled with the Holy Spir­it after the Lord’s res­ur­rec­tion, to bear wit­ness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Mes­si­ah-Christ of Israel and the Sav­ior of the world.

In the Ortho­dox Church, it is not the entire Bible, but only the book of the four gospels which is per­pet­u­al­ly enthroned upon the altar table in the church build­ing. This is a tes­ti­mo­ny to the fact that the life of the Church is cen­tered in Christ, the liv­ing ful­fill­ment of the law and the prophets, who abides per­pet­u­al­ly in the midst of His Peo­ple, the Church, through the pres­ence of the Holy Spirit.

The gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the syn­op­tic gospels, which means that they “look the same”. These three gospels are very sim­i­lar in con­tent and form and are most prob­a­bly inter­re­lat­ed tex­tu­al­ly in some way, exact­ly how being an ongo­ing debate among scrip­tur­al schol­ars. They each were writ­ten some­time in the begin­ning of the sec­ond half of the first cen­tu­ry, and the texts of each of them, as that of St John, have come down to us in Greek, the lan­guage in which they were writ­ten, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Matthew which may have been writ­ten orig­i­nal­ly in Ara­ma­ic, the lan­guage of Jesus. Each of the syn­op­tic gospels fol­lows basi­cal­ly the same nar­ra­tive. Each begins with Jesus’ bap­tism by John and His preach­ing in Galilee. Each cen­ters on the apos­tles’ con­fes­sion of Jesus as the promised Mes­si­ah of God, with the cor­re­spond­ing event of the trans­fig­u­ra­tion, and the announce­ment by Christ of His need to suf­fer and die and be raised again on the third day. And each con­cludes with the account of the pas­sion, death, res­ur­rec­tion and ascen­sion of the Lord.

The gospel of St Mark is the short­est, and per­haps the first writ­ten, of the gospels, although this is a mat­ter of debate. Its author was not one of the twelve apos­tles and it is the com­mon view that this gospel presents the “tra­di­tion” of St Peter. The gospel begins imme­di­ate­ly with Jesus’ bap­tism, the call of the apos­tles, and the preach­ing of Jesus accom­pa­nied by his works of for­give­ness and heal­ing. In this gospel, as in all of them, Jesus is revealed from the very begin­ning by His author­i­ta­tive words and His mirac­u­lous works as the Holy One of God, the divine Son of Man, Who was cru­ci­fied and is risen from the dead, thus bring­ing to the world the King­dom of God.

The gospel of St Matthew, who was one of the twelve apos­tles, is con­sid­ered by some to be the ear­li­est writ­ten gospel. There is also the opin­ion that it was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Ara­ma­ic and not in the Greek text which has remained in the Church. It is a com­mon­ly-held view that the gospel of St Matthew was writ­ten for the Jew­ish Chris­tians to show from the scrip­tures of the Old Tes­ta­ment, that Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abra­ham, is tru­ly the Christ, the bear­er of God’s King­dom to men.

The gospel of St Matthew abounds with ref­er­ences to the Old Tes­ta­ment. It begins with the geneal­o­gy of Jesus from Abra­ham and the sto­ry of Christ’s birth from the Vir­gin in Beth­le­hem. Then recount­ing the bap­tism of Jesus and the temp­ta­tions in the wilder­ness, it pro­ceeds to the call of the dis­ci­ples and the preach­ing and works of Christ.

The gospel of St Matthew con­tains the longest and most detailed record of Christ’s teach­ings in the so-called Ser­mon on the Mount (5–7). Gen­er­al­ly, in the Ortho­dox Church, it is the text of the gospel of St Matthew which is used most con­sis­tent­ly in litur­gi­cal wor­ship, e.g., the ver­sion of the beat­i­tudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Only this gospel con­tains the com­mis­sion of the Lord to His apos­tles after the res­ur­rec­tion, “to make dis­ci­ples of all nations, bap­tiz­ing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spir­it” (28:19).

The gospel of St Luke, who was not one of the twelve apos­tles but one of the orig­i­nal dis­ci­ples, a physi­cian known for his asso­ci­a­tion with the apos­tle Paul, claims to be an “order­ly account… deliv­ered by those who from the begin­ning were eye­wit­ness­es and min­is­ters of the Word” (1:1–4). Togeth­er with the book of Acts, also writ­ten by St Luke for a cer­tain Theophilus, this gospel forms the most com­plete “his­to­ry” of Christ and the ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church that we have.

The gospel of St Luke, alone among the four canon­i­cal gospels, has a com­plete account of the birth of both Jesus and John the Bap­tist. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, the source for these events record­ed by St Luke is con­sid­ered to be Mary, the moth­er of Christ. We must men­tion at this point that in addi­tion to the four gospels called “canon­i­cal” in that they alone have been accept­ed by the Church as gen­uine wit­ness­es to the true life and teach­ings of Christ, there exist many oth­er writ­ings from the ear­ly Chris­t­ian era which tell about Jesus, and espe­cial­ly His child­hood, which have not been accept­ed by the Church as authen­tic and true. These writ­ings are often called apoc­ryphal (not to be con­fused with the so-called apoc­rypha of the Old Tes­ta­ment), or the pseu­doepigrapha which lit­er­al­ly means “false writings.”

St Luke’s gospel is not­ed for the detail of its nar­ra­tive, and espe­cial­ly for its record of Christ’s great con­cern for the poor and for the sin­ful. Cer­tain para­bles warn­ing against the dan­gers of rich­es and self-right­eous­ness, and reveal­ing the great mer­cy of God to sin­ners, are found only in the gospel of St Luke, for exam­ple, those of the pub­li­can and the phar­isee, the prodi­gal son, and Lazarus and the rich man, There is also a very great empha­sis in this gospel on the King­dom of God which Christ has brought to the world and which He gives to those who con­tin­ue with Him in His sufferings.

The post-res­ur­rec­tion account of the Lord’s pres­ence to the two dis­ci­ples on the road to Ern­maeus in which only one of the dis­ci­ples is named, an account found only in St Luke’s gospel, gives rise to the tra­di­tion that the unnamed dis­ci­ple was Luke himself.

St John

The gospel of St John is very dif­fer­ent from the syn­op­tic gospels. It is undoubt­ed­ly the lat­est writ­ten, being the work of the beloved dis­ci­ple and apos­tle of the Lord at the end of his life near the close of the first cen­tu­ry. In most Ortho­dox ver­sions of the Bible, this gospel is print­ed before the oth­ers as it is the one which is first read in the Church’s lec­tionary begin­ning at the divine Litur­gy on East­er night.

The gospel of St John begins with its famous pro­logue which iden­ti­fies Jesus of Nazareth with the divine Word of God of the Old Tes­ta­ment, the Word of God Who was “in the begin­ning with God,” Who “is God,” the One through Whom “all things were made.”(1:1–3) This Word of God “became flesh,” and as Jesus, the Son of God, He makes God known to men and grants to all who believe in Him the pow­er of par­tak­ing of His own ful­ness of grace and truth and of becom­ing them­selves “chil­dren of God” (1:14ff).

From the first pages of this gospel, fol­low­ing the pro­logue, in the account of Jesus’ bap­tism and His call­ing of the apos­tles, Jesus is pre­sent­ed as God’s only begot­ten Son, the Mes­si­ah and the Lord. Through­out the gospel, He is iden­ti­fied as well, in var­i­ous ways, with the God of the Old Tes­ta­ment, receiv­ing the dd vine name of I AM togeth­er with the Yah­weh of Moses and the prophets and psalms.

The gospel of St John, fol­low­ing the pro­logue, may be divid­ed into two main parts. The first part is the so-called book of “signs,” the record of a num­ber of Jesus’ mir­a­cles with detailed “com­men­tary” about their sig­nif­i­cance in sig­ni­fy­ing Him as Mes­si­ah and Lord (2–11). Because the “signs” all have a deeply spir­i­tu­al and sacra­men­tal sig­nif­i­cance for believ­ers in Christ, with almost all of them deal­ing with water, wine, bread, light, the sal­va­tion of the nations, the sep­a­ra­tion from the syn­a­gogue, the for­give­ness of sins, the heal­ing of infir­mi­ties and the res­ur­rec­tion of the dead, it is some­times thought that the gospel of St John was express­ly writ­ten as a “the­o­log­i­cal gospel” for those who were new­ly ini­ti­at­ed into the life of the Church through the sacra­men­tal mys­ter­ies of bap­tism, the gift of the Holy Spir­it, and the eucharist. In any case, because of the con­tents of the book of “signs,” as well as the long dis­cours­es of Christ about His rela­tion­ship to God the Father, the Holy Spir­it and the mem­bers of His faith­ful flock, in the lat­ter part of the gospel, the apos­tle and evan­ge­list John has tra­di­tion­al­ly been hon­ored in the Church with the title of The The­olo­gian.

The lat­ter half of St John’s gospel con­cerns the pas­sion of Christ and its mean­ing for the world. (11–21) Here most explic­it­ly, in long dis­cours­es com­ing from the mouth of the Lord Him­self, the doc­trines of Christ’s per­son and work are most deeply explained. As we have just men­tioned, here Christ relates Him­self to God the Father, to the Holy Spir­it and to His com­mu­ni­ty of believ­ers in clear and cer­tain terms. He is one with God, Who as Father is greater than He, Whose words He speaks, Whose works He accom­plish­es and Whose will He per­forms. And through the Holy Spir­it, Who pro­ceeds from the Father to bear wit­ness to Him in the world, He remains abid­ing for­ev­er in those who are His through their faith and co-ser­vice of God.

The account of the pas­sion in St John’s gospel dif­fers slight­ly from that of the syn­op­tic gospels and is con­sid­ered by many, in this instance, to be a cer­tain clar­i­fi­ca­tion or cor­rec­tion. There are also accounts of the res­ur­rec­tion giv­en which are record­ed only in this gospel. The final chap­ter of the book is tra­di­tion­al­ly con­sid­ered to be an addi­tion fol­low­ing the first end­ing of the gospel, to affirm the rein­state­ment of the apos­tle Peter to the lead­er­ship of the apos­tolic com­mu­ni­ty after his three denials of the Lord at the time of His pas­sion. It may have been a nec­es­sary inclu­sion to off­set a cer­tain lack of con­fi­dence in St Peter by some mem­bers of the Church.

In the Tra­di­tion of the Ortho­dox Church, a tra­di­tion often expressed in the Church’s iconog­ra­phy, the four gospels are con­sid­ered to be sym­bol­ized in the images of the “four liv­ing crea­tures” of the bib­li­cal apoc­a­lypse, the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle, with the most clas­si­cal inter­pre­ta­tion con­nect­ing Matthew with the man, Luke with the ox, Mark with the lion and John with the eagle (Ezek 1:10, Rev 4:7). The four gospels, tak­en togeth­er, but each with its own unique style and form, remain for­ev­er as the scrip­tur­al cen­ter of the Ortho­dox Church.