Four Calling Birds
On the fourth day of Christmas … four calling birds. This day’s gift in the song can stand for the four Gospels of the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You may wonder, ‘What is a Gospel of the Bible?’ It is the good news and authoritative account about Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, lived a life of ministry and service to all, suffered and died on the cross for all our sins, was raised from the dead to defeat Satan and death, and ascended into Heaven, and He will come again on Judgment Day. The four Gospels are the heart of the Bible. In studying the Gospels, we actually end up studying the rest of the Bible too since Scripture interprets Scripture. The Gospels also tell us the importance of the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. “As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” (Luke 3:15–16). “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My Body.’ And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is My Blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26–28).
Perhaps you have wondered why there are four Gospels in the Bible, instead of just one account of Jesus’ life. Well, in the court of law, a single eye witness account can be powerful, but cannot be fully verified. If multiple eyewitnesses give the exact same testimony, down to the exact same details about things that did and did not happen, then their testimonies are collaborated. If four eyewitnesses each give a testimony that supports each of the other eyewitness’ testimony without contradicting any major points of the others’ account, then the accounts given are validated as truth (much like each of the four Gospels of the Bible). God didn’t want to give us just one perspective of the truth, He wanted to give us a multitude of eyewitness accounts. We can say with certainty that the Gospels are an authoritative truth that substantiates the rest of the Bible as truth, especially because Jesus fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Many eyewitnesses documented details of Jesus’ life, from His birth of a virgin, His life of ministry and service (performing miracles), and His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. After His ascension, many of those eyewitnesses went on to obey His Great Commission, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19–20).
Let’s go a bit deeper, and answer a few more common questions: Who wrote the four Gospels? Who was the main audience of each of the four Gospels? And what was the main theological emphasis of each of the four Gospels? The book of MATTHEW was written by one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, Matthew. Before Jesus called him to discipleship, Matthew was a tax collector. During the Roman occupation of Jewish lands, tax collectors were hated probably more than the Romans. Tax collectors were notorious for charging extra taxes to keep for themselves. If the Romans knew about the fraud, they most likely ignored it, so long as they got their portions or more. Some wonder why Jesus would call such a person to be His disciple, but who better to call than a sinner who needs a Savior? “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32). Matthew’s Gospel was most likely written while he was in Palestine, sometime between the 50s and 70s A.D., and it was written in Greek. His audience was most likely Greek-speaking Jews, due to the Jewish nature of his writing. His main emphasis was to prove to his Jewish readers that Jesus is their Messiah (King of the Jews). He did this by primarily writing about how Jesus’ life and ministry fulfilled the Messianic prophecies in Old Testament Scriptures in their entirety, which many Jews knew well. Matthew also emphasized Jesus’ Davidic lineage, which was also referenced in the Old Testament Scriptures.
The book of MARK was written by John Mark, who was a close associate of Simon Peter (Jesus’ disciple that was called to be a “fisher of men”). Mark accurately preserved Peter’s preaching to early Christian communities by recording Peter’s messages and then arranging them into an organized fashion. Mark wrote his Gospel sometime in the 50s or 60s A.D., most likely in the region of Italy near Rome. His audience was primarily Roman and other Gentile (non-Jewish) readers. The main emphasis of Mark’s Gospel was declaring the works of Jesus throughout the Gospel and portraying Jesus as the “suffering servant” who sacrificed Himself for all sinners. Mark seemed to have a special interest in persecution and martyrdom, which is something that would have aroused Roman interest, allowing his message to be disseminated and accepted more readily. This would put Mark near or in Rome at the time of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D., which Emperor Nero most likely set himself and blamed on Christians. Nero was quite possibly one of the cruelest persecutors of the Christian faith. In times of trial and tribulation we are reminded of the words Jesus spoke: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (John 15:18).
The book of LUKE was written by Luke, who was probably born a Gentile, was well-educated in Greek culture (as evidenced by his excellent use of the Greek language), and was a physician by trade. He accompanied Paul at various times from Paul’s second mission (from Jerusalem into Asia and back) to Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome. Luke was a loyal friend who remained with Paul after others had deserted him. Luke wrote the Gospel in the 70s or 80s A.D., maybe while in Rome. He wrote it specifically to Theophilus, who was probably Luke’s patron, a Roman official or someone with a high position and wealth. Theophilus published Luke’s writings and distributed them. Luke was not a first-hand eyewitness of the life of Jesus Christ. However, he personally investigated and arranged the testimonies of many eyewitnesses in chronological order, making it fluid and easy to understand. The main emphasis of Luke’s Gospel is the nature of Jesus’ Messianic mission: A Savior for all people. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). Luke’s Gospel is the only one with a sequel, the book of Acts. Acts is also written to Theophilus and is written in the same language, style, and structure as the book of Luke, strongly suggesting that Luke also wrote the book of Acts.
The book of JOHN was written by another one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, John (son of Zebedee). John is the disciple that Jesus tasked with taking care of His mother, Mary, just before He died on the cross. John was well-versed in Jewish life and customs, as evidenced by his writings. John wrote his Gospel sometime between the 50s and 80s A.D. It is unique in that it also contains material not in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospels (the “Synoptic Gospels”). The Synoptic Gospels all cover roughly the same material, albeit in a different order and through different perspectives. John’s Gospel reaffirms that Jesus is part of the Triune God and was at the beginning when God the Father spoke the universe into existence (Jesus is eternal). John’s primary goals were to evangelize and build up believers as well as to convert non-believers. John clearly states his main emphasis for his Gospel in his writings. “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31).
”The Twelve Days of Christmas” song image is by Xavier Romero-Frias and used under Creative Commons license BY-SA 3.0.