The word “Gospel” means good news (godspell in old English). The general origin of the written Gospel is the oral tradition, i.e. delivering what was received (1Cor. 15:3). The oral Gospel was the subject of the apostles’ preaching, and the apostles lived with Jesus and heard him personally. This oral Gospel includes “All that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up”ö(Acts 1:1,2; see also Acts 1:22,23). The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), as we usually call them, are actually a single Gospel in four records. This Gospel is “the Gospel of God …, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:1-3). The Church calls each Gospel “The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John)”. The gospels were all written between the years 60 AD and 100 AD.
The Gospel in Orthodox Church Liturgy:
The Gospel readings in the Orthodox liturgy (mass) have a unique position that is different from any other readings from the Bible. This is due to the clear difference between the four Gospels and the other books of the Bible. Whereas the books of the Old Testament point from a distance and in mystery to the Messiah using prophecies and symbols, and the other books of the New Testament reveal and explain the work of Christ in (and through) the believers, the Gospels declare the person of the Messiah Himself, describing His actions during His ministry on Earth, and telling His life-giving words (John 6:63). Thus, there is a clear presence of Christ the King in the Gospels. The priest, therefore, praises the Lord immediately before the Gospel reading in the Liturgy of St. Basil saying: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord of hosts, our Lord God and Savior, the King of us all, Jesus Christ the Son of the living God …”. And also the deacon, addresses the people saying: “Stand in the fear of God and listen to the holy Gospel”. Also, the Gospel reading is preceded by a special prayer which is publicly prayed by the priest reminding the people with the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in which He declares the blessedness of all who see and hear Him saying: “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; … many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see and did not see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it” (Mt. 13:16,17; Lk. 10:23,24).
Differences and Similarities between the Four Gospels:
It should be made clear that our study of the four Gospels does not revolve around dates or the chronological sequence of events or the language of the words used, but it rather concentrates on the issues of salvation and the heavenly kingdom which constitute the ultimate theme of the four Gospels. Hence, the presence of apparent differences between the Gospels does not mean that there is any contradiction but, on the contrary, it is intended to present the complete spiritual meaning of the Gospel. Every Gospel, therefore, complements rather than contradicts the others.
Anyone who studies the Gospels notes that the Gospel according to Saint John differs from the other three Synoptic Gospels (so called because of their marked similarity to each other). This makes the Gospel according to Saint John totally independent. Saint John, when writing his Gospel, was aware of the synoptic Gospels (his Gospel was the last one written), yet he did not quote from any of them, although he shares the same spiritual theme, “the kingdom of God”, with all of them. In the following, we will attempt to briefly clarify their points of similarity as well as the unique characteristics of each of the Gospels.
1. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) presented Jesus as the incarnate God who lived on Earth as a man (Son of Man) who resembled us in all aspects except sin. In contrast, the Gospel according to Saint John emphasized the eternity of Christ (Son of God), the Word that was in the bosom of the Father before incarnation, and returned to the throne of the Father after resurrection: “I came forth from the Father and have come to the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the Father” (John 16:28). Thus, we find in the four Gospels a complete picture of Jesus Christ*, from which the Church has crafted its theology which was believed as dogma and lived as tradition.
2. The four Gospels have one common framework which starts with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and ends with His suffering, crucifixion and resurrection.
3. The Gospels according to Matthew and Luke talked about the history of Jesus before His birth. Saint Matthew traced the Lord’s genealogy back to Abraham the father of fathers, because he wrote to the Jews. Saint Luke traced it back to God because he wrote to the gentiles, i.e. to all nations. In contrast, Saint John traced Christ to His pre-existence before the beginning of history as the eternal Word of the Father.
4. The four Gospels disclose the ministry of Christ in His journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, but Saint John adds to this the Lord’s early ministry in Judea before His public appearance in Galilee.
5. The Lord’s last discourse about His departure, after the last supper, which is detailed in the Gospel according to Saint John (Ch. 14 – 16), corresponds to the private discourses of the Lord with His disciples about the signs of the end of ages which is detailed in the other three Gospels.
6. In the Synoptic Gospels, the miracles are portrayed as supernatural events in which the hand of God can be discerned, but the Gospel according to Saint John mentions the miracles as signs that point to Christ’s Divinity through the teachings that accompanied them. This should not be considered a difference but a complementary view that ultimately serves the purpose of the Gospel.** ______________________________________________________________________________________
* Traditional Orthodox iconography portrays this idea by the scene of Revelation 4:2-8: “… behold a throne set in heaven … and in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes … The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. … And they do not rest day or night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty…” Thus, it depicts these four living creatures that are in the midst of the throne and around it, full of eyes, as symbols of the four evangelists who see the glory of the One on the throne, and proclaim this glory as they say “Holy, holy, holy” day and night. The lion is depicted in St. Mark’s icon (Mk. 1:3 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness”, and his Gospel emphasizes the power of Christ), the calf in St. Luke’s icon (Lk. 1:5 “a certain priest called Zacharias”, the Levitical priesthood is symbolized by the calf which these priests offer as sacrifice for sin, and St. Luke’s Gospel emphasizes the love of God towards sinners and His forgiveness of their sins), the likeness of man in St. Matthew’s icon (Mt. 1:1 “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham”, and his Gospel portrays Christ as the King, the Son of David), and the eagle in St. John’s icon (Jn. 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word”, the evangelist soars like an eagle to see the eternity of the Word and reveal His Divinity).
** For a detailed comparison between the three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and the Gospel of Saint John in literal and spiritual meaning, please refer to “Introduction to the Gospel of Saint John” by father Matthew the Poor (Arabic, p.347-359, published by the monastery of St. Makarios 1981).
The Gospel according to Saint
Saint Matthew is one of the twelve apostles. A Jew and a tax collector for the Roman government, therefore he was hated by his people. When called by Christ to follow Him, he left everything and followed Him (Matthew 9:9). He wrote his Gospel originally in Aramaic language to the Jews who believed in Christ. Therefore, he was concerned with the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the coming of the Messiah. The phrase “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets” was repeated sixteen times in his Gospel. Saint Matthew starts his Gospel by the birth of Jesus, the Son of David, the King who came to preach a heavenly kingdom that has its own laws (sermon on the mount: Ch. 5-7); and concludes his Gospel by the signs of the second coming of the heavenly King to judge the whole world. This is the same king who was judged as the King of the Jews: “And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mt. 27:37).
Those who study the Gospel of St. Matthew, comparing it with the books of the Old Testament, will see clearly how St. Matthew was able to transfer the Jewish thought from the Law of Moses to the New Law of the New Testament. This was done without destroying the Old Law but by fulfilling it in the New by advancing it further to new spiritual depths. Some examples are shown in the following table:
The Gospel according to St. Matthew
Corresponding events in the Old Testament
Ch. 1-2: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham”
Ch. 3-7: The temptation of the Lord in the wilderness after His baptism and His fasting 40 days; then His sermon on the mount, fulfilling the Law.
Ch. 10: The calling of the disciples (the new Levites).
Ch. 11-18: Mysteries of the Kingdom of God: spreading, heavenly, eternal. Parables of the Kingdom: sufferings and glory (transfiguration on the mount, Moses and Elias), Church mentioned for the first time.
Ch. 21-26: Entering Jerusalem as a King, prophesies on the destruction of the temple, and the second coming.
Ch. 26-28: Sufferings, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
+ “In the beginning God created …”, the book of Genesis of all mankind from Adam by God.
+ Exodus through the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness 40 years and fighting the Amalek (Ex. 17); the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19-31).
+ Choosing the Levites to serve the Tabernacle (Leviticus).
+ The people of Israel travel in the wilderness towards the promised land which is the site of the earthly kingdom for Israel (Numbers and Deuteronomy).
+ Entering the promised land, falling of the walls of Jericho, and judgement of the Canaanites (Joshua).
+ This is the fulfillment of all prophecies of the Old Testament.
Subjects of the book:
1- Introduction (Ch. 1,2):
1- True Israel: Son of Abraham and David 1: 1-172- True God: Immanuel, God with us 1: 18-25
- A- Who Christ is 1:1-25 B- Events surrounding His birth 2:1-23
2- Preaching the Kingdom of Heaven (Ch. 3-10):
1- John the Baptist prepares the way (3:1-4:25) 2- Jesus baptized and tested(3:13-4:11) 3- Jesus’ early ministry (4:12-25)
1- Blessing and responsibility of disciples (5:1-16) 2- The righteousness ofthe Kingdom (5:17-48) 3- The discipline of the Kingdom (6:1-18) 4- The wisdom of the Kingdom (6:19-7:12) 5- Admonitions and warning (7:13-29)
- A- Beginning of the ministry: The Kingdom proclaimed 3:1-4:25 B- Sermon on the Mount: Righteousness of the Kingdom 5:1-7:29
C- The mighty works of Christ: The power of the Kingdom 8:1-9:38
D- Discourse on mission 10:1-42
3- Responses to Christ: Belief and unbelief (Ch. 11-25):
1- Belief and unbelief in the mystery of the Kingdom 11:1-13:52a- Unbelief and hostility (11:1-12:50) b- Parables of the Kingdom (13:1-52)2- Belief and unbelief intensifies as Jesus reveals His deity 13:53-18:35a- Examples of unbelief and hostility (13:53-14:12) b- The Pharisees enmityincreases (14:13-15:20) c- Jesus’ mighty work for the Gentiles (15:21-39)d- Jesus reveals His divinity to His disciples (16:1-20) e- Jesus reveals His coming death to His disciples (16:21-17:27) f- Discourse on the Kingdom (18:1-35)
1- On the way to Jerusalem: Jesus receives the lowly 19:1-20:342- Arrival in Jerusalem: Conflicts with Jewish leaders 21:1-23:393- Discourse on the end of the age and preparedness 24:1-25:46
- A- Responses in Galilee 11:1-18:35 B- Responses in Judea and Jerusalem 19:1-25:46
4- The Passion and Resurrection of Christ (Ch. 26-28):
A- Events prior to the arrest 26:1-28:20B- Jesus’ arrest 26:47-27:26C- Crucifixion, death and burial 27:27-66D- The Resurrection of Christ 28:1-15E- The Great Commission 28:16-20
“And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20)
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