Monday, November 26, 2007

The Sequence of the Gospels

There is a scene in Prince Caspian, the second in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia that helps explain why it is we have four Gospels, that is four accounts of the Good News of Jesus Christ—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is the account of Lucy’s longed-for experience of Aslan, the Lion, remember, who symbolizes Christ in these stories. Finally, Aslan appears to Lucy.
The Great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large, wise face.
“Welcome, child,” he said.
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” he answered.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.

This is a form of the old scholastic maxim adaequatio rei et intellectus—”the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing known.”

Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the one receiving it.”

This “adaequatio” principle can be applied to our understanding of Jesus Christ. But not only is this true of individuals, but it is true of the church as a whole.

The community of Christians grew in their understanding of the person and work of Christ. As the Spirit led them through their experience of suffering and victory after Jesus departure they gradually came to appreciate something of the fullness of the story of Jesus. This growth, this maturing and filling out of the meaning and implications of the story of Jesus can be seen in the progression of the four Gospels. They are all different. But they are not just different; they build on each other.


And without question, not to take anything away from the other three Gospels, John gives us the most profound and sublime perspective on the Person and work of Jesus.

The order & perspective of the four Gospels:

1. Matthew. First Gospel written. Written in the mid-late 30’s. Probably penned just a few years after Pentecost. Priestly Gospel. The first face of the cherubim: the ox. Lot’s of instruction. Priests teach. Jesus is new Moses. Five great discourses correspond to five books of Torah. The Mosiac period. Jesus called out of Egypt. Associated with apostle Peter, the leader of the fledgling church in Jerusalem. The church needs a solid foundation. Matthew provides it. No Gentile/Jew controversy yet. Persecution sporadic from local Jewish authorities. Ends with the Great Commission. But the big question at the end of Matthew is how will the Great Commission be accomplished?

2. Mark is written next. He has a copy of Matthew. Mark’s perspective is that Jesus is the Lion (second face of the cherubim). King. Jesus is new David. Kingship means service. The Kingdom period. The ultimate service of a king is to die for his people. The kingdom comes by means of the faithful self-sacrificial service of Jesus, the Son of God. The title "Son of God" is a Davidic/royal designation. Mark's Gospel answers the question raised at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus said, “Go” at the end of Matthew. Then we read over and over in Mark about the “way” of Jesus. Mark was written during the 40’s, a time of great suffering and persecution for the church (Acts 7 & 8; James and 1 Peter). Jesus keeps his identify secret for a long time. Like David had to hide before Saul and build up his followers. Jesus is finally confessed as the Son of God by the centurion at the end when he sees the way Jesus dies. That's true kingship. Mark ends with questions about the disciples and their fearful response to the resurrection (what about the disciples, the Centurion, the women?) How will the fear be resoved?

3. Luke (has Matt. & Mark before him). Cheribum face: Eagle. Prophetic. Jesus is new Jeremiah & Daniel. Prophet to Jerusalem, but also to the nations/Gentiles. The return from Exile. Luke associated with Paul and his missions. Written in the 50's. Jews and Gentiles are being knit together into one body. Answers the question left unanswered at the end of Mark about the disciples and the women. Emphasis on “joy” and “gladness” and “rejoicing.” Luke ends with a revelation of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples, remember, on the road to Emmaeus. The ending raises questions that long to be answered about Jesus’ identity and about the “what the Father has promised to send” (Luke 24:49). John fulfills our desire to know more.

Matthew (priest)→Mark (king)→Luke (prophet)→John (fulfillment of the entire old world history)

4. John (has Matt., Mark, Luke before him). Man (the image of God) face of the Cherubim. No more animal faces, now the face of a man. We move beyond the Old World of animal symbolism and sacrifice into something new. Now we find out how the work of Jesus fulfills, but breaks through and goes beyond the Mosaic, Davidic, and Prophetic OT stages. In John we find out how Jesus reveals the Father and how he lives and sets the pattern for human life as well. Written in the late 60’s. Written by the “beloved disciple.” The end of John gives us one of the fullest accounts of the commissioning of the disciples, especially Peter, for the continuation of the work of Jesus.

As the church was led by the Spirit to experience in stages what Jesus meant when he called her to "follow him" she was given the Gospel narrative she need for that stage in her development. Each Gospel was written to address the needs of the church at that time. She wasn't read for it all at once. She would not have been able to hear and understand it. Jesus had much more to teach his first disciples, but they had to wait for the appropriate time, when they themselves would be "adequate" to that which needed to be known.

I should say here also that many Patristic and Medieval authors note the connection between the four Gospels and the four faces of the Cherubim, but I believe they don't properly identify each face with the proper Gospel.

Of course, these are just a few bread crumbs thrown out onto the water.

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