Jesus could have written His own autobiography had He wished. As the Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth was literate, intelligent and a brilliant orator. As the Son of God, Jesus Christ was all-knowing and all-powerful, capable of speaking His story into miraculous form—moment by tiny moment, complete in every detail.
And yet, He chose not to do that. Instead, He left the Holy Spirit to “carry along” (2 Pet 1:21) the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of these biographers tells Jesus’ story in his own way, bringing his own viewpoint, intent and agenda. Each evangelist includes or omits details according to his own purpose. Though the plot remains the same, the subplots differ. If the central question of each Gospel is “What do I need to know about Jesus?” each evangelist answers it differently:
Matthew’s Jesus is Messiah, teacher, and fulfiller of the Law.
He has come like a prophet to tear down the old institutions and bring in the new. He will expose the hypocrites (seeMatt 6:1–18; 23) and re-establish the link between the Holy God and His people through His own self-sacrifice.
Matthew focuses on the legitimacy of Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. He begins his Gospel with a genealogy (1:1–17)—not to reassure us that Jesus comes from a good family, but to establish Him as the reinstatement of the Davidic line of kings and the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. Only Matthew tells of the adoration of the Magi (2:1–12), the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt (2:13–18). To Matthew, these events are explicit fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy. Even where Matthew narrates the same events as Mark and Luke, he is far more likely to explain exactly how the Scriptures are being fulfilled (e.g., Matt 1:22–23; 12:17–21;27:9–10). In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says that to “fulfill” the “Law and the Prophets” is central to His mission.
For Mark, Jesus is an inscrutable stranger.
He walks among us but is not really one of us—selectively disclosing Himself as He sees fit. Jesus has come to do a great work (in secret), knowing that He will be misunderstood, persecuted, and rejected. Mark aims to answer: Who is this Jesus (Mark 1:1)? Who is this who teaches with authority? Who is this, that demons flee before Him (1:21–28)? Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey Him (4:41)?
Luke paints a picture of a kind, gentle Jesus
He is a great physician dispensing both wisdom and acts of kindness, brimming with compassion. He is a prophet who lays down His life for His people, like the suffering servant (Isa 52:13–53:12). Only in Luke does Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (Luke 10:30–35; 15:11–32). Luke’s aim is to write an “orderly account” so that his audience “may have certainty concerning the things [they] have been taught” (1:4).
John’s Jesus is complex
On the one hand, Jesus is very human: He gets tired, hungry, and thirsty (John 4:6); weeps for a dead friend (11:35); and even lets Thomas feel His wounds (20:24–29). On the other hand, He is the Creator God (1:1–3), a full and perfect manifestation of Yahweh (1:14, 16–18), no less than the fundamental element of the universe (1:9; 8:12)—barely contained by the humanity He pours Himself into. While the other three evangelists tell the story of Jesus from the bottom up, John starts at the throne of heaven and works his way down. His hope is that we would read his book and believe (20:30–31).
Jesus was all of these things and more. John ends his Gospel by telling us that if everything Jesus did was written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
In the Gospels, we see Jesus through the eyes of four of His most faithful followers. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, this is like looking at Jesus through an unpolished window: We can see Him, but not in person. Then again, maybe what we see in the four Gospels is like looking through a kaleidoscope—split, reflected, refracted, and all the more beautiful for it.