The four gospels have always been precious to believers. Their symbols remind us of vital Christian truths.
Theodore J. Hartwig
America’s flyways today are dominated by business people. It was different on the dirt highways and byways of Europe a thousand years ago. Then, and for several centuries after, the roads were dominated by pilgrims. They were making their way by foot to the holy places where the bones of the saints rested. Devotion at these sites would lessen their stay in purgatory.
At many of the large stone churches which they visited, they might view, above the main western portal, a sculpture of Jesus surrounded by four living creatures. The sculptures begin with a man at the upper left corner and proceed counterclockwise with a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Since the 400s, these living beings had become the symbols for the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All four serve Jesus at the center of the sculpture.
Each gospel serves Jesus in a distinctive manner. It has been suggested that each symbol identifies the opening story of that gospel’s message. Thus Matthew’s symbol is a man because the gospel begins with the human genealogy of Jesus, descended from Abraham. Mark is a lion because the gospel begins with John the Baptist’s powerful preaching of repentance in the desert. Luke is pictured with an ox, the beast of sacrifice, because his gospel begins with Zechariah’s sacrifice of incense in the temple. John is an eagle because his gospel begins with a clear vision, like an eagle’s, of the eternal sonship of Jesus as God.
The gospels are worthy of being called the crown jewels of Scripture.
The jewels of the gospels
Why is “crown jewels” an appropriate description of the four gospels? Because they are mightily persuasive in recording the truth. A Christian professor of history in the 1900s at the British University of Cambridge stated it like this: “The Gospels are so honest in presenting the life of Jesus that they might be said to carry their own self-authentification that they are telling the truth.”
One example of jewel-like luster in the gospels is the often matter-of-fact manner in which they record the astounding miracles of Jesus. Take, for example, the story of the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). It’s told in such a low-key manner that it sounds like an everyday occurrence. No fanfare. No public relations spin. No hype that people should pay attention and recognize that they have just witnessed a mind-boggling miracle. The gospels report just the facts: Jesus took five loaves and two fishes, blessed them, had them distributed to the people, and they all received plenty to eat plus 12 baskets of leftovers. How differently this story would be treated in today’s media!
The gospels are crown jewels because of their passages of comfort. High on this list are Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Comfort, one of the loveliest words in our language, cannot be expressed more beautifully.
THE MEANING OF THE SYMBOLS
So let us now restrict ourselves to the messages pictured in the traditional symbols of the four gospels: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. In its opening story, each symbol enunciates a major truth about the gospel of Jesus Christ. First, the symbol of a man represents Matthew’s gospel. Matthew begins his story with the human genealogy of Jesus, the son of Abraham. For us, separated by centuries from the flesh-and-blood Jesus, the truth that he was fully human often becomes more challenging. How can he, as a child, grow in knowledge? How can he say he does not know everything? How can he from the cross ask why his Father has forsaken him? We may reach theological solutions for these mysteries, but in doing so we begin to tamper with the mystery that he was fully human. Better to leave our solutions unsaid and simply confess that Jesus was a true human being. Leave the mystery alone and recognize that it is beyond our finite understanding.
Next we look to the lion representing the gospel of Mark with John the Baptist’s opening message of repentance. Repentance also is vital to Christian faith. It is one of the identifying benchmarks of Christianity. Faith begins with repentance, acknowledging that we are lost and condemned creatures and surrendering to God’s Word with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind. Many people honor Jesus as a great human being but will not believe that he was God. They claim to be spiritual yet remain servants to the supremacy of their minds. This is no repentance.
Real repentance surrenders the mind to Jesus. The first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel encourage us to “Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15). The lion representing Mark’s gospel stands beside Matthew’s figure of a man. Both represent vital messages of the Christian faith: Jesus is true man, and we are called to repent and believe.
Next in the order of symbols around Jesus is an ox representing the opening story of sacrifice in the gospel of Luke. There we meet John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, serving as priest in the temple and burning incense when Gabriel appeared to him. Zechariah was doing what repentant Christians do. They dedicate their lives to the worship of God their Savior. Worship is the natural and necessary sequel to repentance. In this manner the symbols round out the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One truth needs to be added to complete the message of these four jewels. The symbol of the eagle for the gospel of John adds that truth. John begins his gospel with a testimony that the One who became a human being of flesh and blood existed eternally as the Word who was with God and who was God. With this testimony, the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ is complete. Our Christian life of repentance (Mark) and worship (Luke) is flanked by the person of our Savior Jesus Christ, who is both fully human (Matthew) and eternal God (John).
The pilgrims making their way to the holy places a thousand years ago probably understood none of this. All of them, by and large, were illiterate. Yet, without realizing or understanding the dimensions of the message in the sculpture posted above western entrances of churches, these pilgrims nevertheless had and retained in their memories the figure of Jesus and of the four living creatures that surrounded him. The symbols may not have enhanced their faith, but when interpreted they certainly do so for us. Printed indelibly in our memories, they keep before us four major themes of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in so doing accentuate the truth that the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the crown jewels of Scripture.
Theodore Hartwig, professor emeritus at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: Theodore J. Hartwig
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015
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