by Henry Vosburgh
– Asking a person to explain the elements of the phrase “Gospel of Jesus Christ” would likely yield a variety of answers, from the “biblically correct” to the “nice effort” to the “not even close.” So let’s assume that the question is posed to someone who is unclear about the content. In providing an answer, a proper reply would explain that there is one correct answer; yet if it is properly given, the answer must have two explanations – one where “Gospel” is narrowed to its essence, and one where “Gospel” is expanded to its fullest expression.
To speak of the Gospel of Jesus Christ narrowed to its essence, one needs only a simple recitation of the verses spoken by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (KJV) …
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” [emphasis added]
The text is very clear about the message that Paul gave to the Corinthian people. Here he is rehearsing events so that they would recall how Paul was consistent in what he declared as the Gospel. He says it is the Gospel:
- That he preached to them
- That they received from him
- That they presently stand in belief thereof
- That which they believed unto salvation
- That which Paul himself was given so that he could in turn give it to others
Then he delineates the specific content of the Gospel message that was central to all those events. He says that the Gospel consists of the message about Christ who died for our sins, about Christ who was buried, and about Christ who rose again on the third day. Thus, what is the Gospel? Clearly according to the Apostle Paul, in its essence, the Gospel consists of the events of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and their significance; i.e., what God accomplished in those three events. In the death of Christ, the necessary payment of the wages of sin was fulfilled. In the burial of Christ, the fact of his death was confirmed, and he carried sin away. Poetically what Christ did with sin via the burial is often described as sin being buried in the depths of the sea, or cast as far as the east is to the west. The significance of the burial is that sin has been taken away through the person of Jesus Christ. Then in the resurrection of Christ is the validation of his victory over death; his authority and ability to provide new life, spiritual life, and eternal life is demonstrated because he arose victoriously from the grave. Thus, if a person – like the Corinthians did with Paul – will personally receive this message through hearing with the mind and heart, and will personally believe on – appropriate – this message for himself, he then is given eternal life; and the truths of this Gospel message is therefore a solid basis for faith upon which he can stand both for this life and for all eternity. This is the explanation of the Gospel in its essence.
However, it is also right to explain the Gospel in its fullest expression. It is not a separate answer from the essential one; it is the full expression. It is obvious that when a person reads Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that there is more to the story of Jesus than just his death, burial, and resurrection. There is the story of his parents, his birth, his childhood, his disciples, his encounters with people of all kinds, his great teachings through sermons, parables and discourses, his mind-blowing supernatural miracles, plus the passion events of his presentation as King, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the trials, crucifixion, burial and resurrection. There is the story of what happened after the resurrection, and then of course, there is his ascension to take his place at the right hand of the Father in glory. To speak of the Gospel in its fullest expression is to speak about Jesus – The Whole Story.
A very natural – maybe even the first logical — question surfaces when considering the matter of Jesus – The Whole Story, and it has to do with the source material provided by the New Testament (NT), meaning the four books referred to as Gospels. Of course those books are the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When normally considering biographical material to learn about someone’s life or history, at the first, a tendency is not to go looking for multiple sources; instead, one tends to discover and study the definitive or authorized biography, or perhaps even better, an autobiography should one be available. Another approach one might take would be to allow for the possibility of four sources, but then for the sake of ease and comprehension, the sources are condensed to avoid repetition and conflict; doing this would certainly facilitate or streamline the effort of learning the subject matter. Yet clearly, in the NT, these approaches are not taken; for included in the canon of scripture are four authorized Gospels, four approved and sanctioned versions of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ included as part of the canon. The question is this: “Why? Why are there four Gospels?”
Of the many major and minor points to be cited, there are two key reasons that four Gospels are found in the NT canon; discussing each of those reasons will allow for a demonstration of the validity for each Gospel’s unique contribution to the whole story of Jesus.
The first reason there are four Gospels is to provide a witness of Jesus targeted for every people group. A scriptural reality is that there was a clear charge or commission issued to those who follow after Jesus Christ; his followers are all charged to be “witnesses unto” Jesus Christ, that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). The first layer of followers to whom this charge applied was that inner circle of men known as the Apostles. They along with their immediate associates were the first witnesses to begin the ministry of Gospel proclamation that would eventually span the farthest reaches of their known world. The historical record of how those men began the Gospel ministry is chronicled in the Book of Acts by Luke, the author of the third Gospel as well. Fulfilling the commission began with Peter, the leader of the twelve, proclaiming the Gospel on the Day of Pentecost while standing near the Temple at Jerusalem. It extended throughout the city for months, with eventually the suburbs next being impacted by the Gospel. It then progressed with Philip, one of the early deacons, heading into Samaria and bridging the Gospel from the people of the Jews to those who were Jews but also were mixed in ethnicity to the Gentiles. This extension of the Gospel was validated by Peter and the apostles as a genuine moving of God to reach a new people group. Yet another extension took place at Joppa, where Peter again was brought to a devout Roman centurion named Cornelius, fully Gentile in his heritage. Peter gave him the Gospel, and salvation then began to come to those of all backgrounds. Very early in the history of the Church, God made it clear that the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ was indeed to go to all nations.
The pattern continued on as Luke’s history indicates. The Book of Acts speaks of the conversion of Saul, who then became the Apostle Paul. He was appointed to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, and he became the first church planting missionary. He took the Gospel throughout Asia Minor, unto the major cities of the Greece, and it is speculated that he took the Gospel as far west as Spain. Tradition adds that other apostles took the Gospel to places like India (Thomas), Ethiopia (Matthew), Britain (Simon Zelotes), and multiple geographic points in between by people like Bartholomew, Matthias, and Andrew. Before the end of the first century, it would be only one of the apostles that escaped violent death as a martyr – the ultimate act of witness — for Christ; that was John, the son of Zebedee and author of the fourth Gospel. So with the passage of time in that first century after Christ, the years or era of the Apostles, a major challenge in the course of history evidenced itself. With the martyrdom of those who were the physical, real-life eyewitnesses of the events that occurred in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the personal sourcing of firsthand accounts was growing smaller in number. Soon it would be incumbent upon this group of men to provide authorized recordings of the whole story of Jesus; thus to have these accounts written down for posterity, the testimony of these witnesses would then be able to survive long past their own lives here on the earth.
Well, practically speaking, that answers the question of about why have the Gospel written down, but the question is more specific; it is about why there are four authorized Gospels. The answer goes to the issue of the various people groups of the first century world. Given the context of the times, there were essentially four significant demographic classifications – people groupings – with whom the apostolic leaders would have intersected. If an authorized Gospel account were written and prepared with one of those people groups in mind, then with four Gospel accounts, every target of outreach commanded by the Lord Jesus to be touched with a witness about him would have its own record provided to them before the full departure of the apostolic witness. There were first and foremost, both in proximity and in spiritual priority, the Jewish people of the world. Next there was the leading political, military, and cultural influence of the Romans; they spanned the known world with their forces and their impact. All roads led to Rome, and all loyalties were to ultimately bow to Caesar. Next there was the signature influence of the Greeks in language, thought and philosophy, education, liberal arts, and religion. Then as the first century was coming to its conclusion, there was a growing awareness of the people groups beyond Persia and the middle of the Asian continent to China; and thus cultures that were independent of Grecian or Roman influence would also need to be accounted for in the scope of Gospel communication. It stands to reason that these four uniquely identifiable people groups of the first century would rightly justify the preparation and preservation of an authorized Gospel account targeted specifically for them to read, understand, know, and compel faith in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. So as a result there are four Gospels – each one written to account for each of those four identifiable people groups.
This series of articles come from excerpts of a lecture given at Heritage Bible Church in Remington, Indiana by Dr. Henry A. Vosburgh. This lecture is the first of an ongoing series teaching through a harmony of the Gospels entitled Jesus – The Whole Story. For more lectures and information about this series, visit www.heritage-bible.org.