One of the earliest of these was done by the early church father Tatian in the second century AD. His work was called the Diatessaron, meaning “through the four,” and it sought to weave the four accounts into a single narrative. Tatian’s work gained great popularity and was used for centuries as the main lectionary on the Gospels in some Christian communities.
So should we have just one Gospel? For those who believe the Bible is God’s Word, the answer should be a resounding “No!” After all, it was the Holy Spirit who gave us four Gospels, each divinely-inspired by God himself. If we cut and paste them into the single gospel, we take four Spirit-inspired masterpieces and turn them into one un-inspired human work. Ironically, it is often the more conservative Christian churches, schools, and colleges that teach the Gospels as a harmonized “life of Christ,” rather than listening to each Gospel on its own terms. Their goals are noble: to tell the whole story of Jesus—but the result is flawed. This is because each Gospel represents a unique portrait of Jesus. Each Gospel writer has a particular story to tell and certain theological themes to emphasize. Merging them together into a single story risks missing each Gospel’s unique perspective. Worse, we risk hearing the Holy Spirit’s message to us through the text. In this series of four short articles, we will look at the distinctive themes and theology of each of the four Gospels.
The Gospel of the Messiah
Though probably not the first gospel to be written (Mark likely has that distinction), the Gospel according to Matthew comes first in our New Testament. This is appropriate since Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels and also the one most closely linked to the Old Testament and to the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. Matthew’s central theme is promise and fulfillment: God’s promises in the Hebrew Scriptures to bring salvation to his people Israel and to the whole world are being fulfilled with the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The Church’s response to this joyful news should be to go into all the world and make disciples (followers) of Jesus the Messiah (Matt 28:18–20).
Every page of Matthew’s Gospel is steeped in this theme of promise and fulfillment. The Gospel begins with the announcement that, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” followed by a detailed genealogy of 41 generations! While Western cultures tend to have little interest in genealogies, viewing them as tedious curiosities, Matthew and his readers would have considered this announcement to be the most exciting news of all time. The genealogy introduces Jesus as the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David,” meaning he is in the lineage of two of the most significant figures in biblical history.
God called Abraham to leave his homeland in Ur of Mesopotamia and to go to a place he would show him. God made a covenant with Abraham, promising to create from him a great nation (Israel), to give him the Promised Land (Canaan) and through his descendant to bless all nations of the earth (Gen 12:1–3). It is through the salvation available through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that all nations would be blessed.
Jesus is also introduced as the “son of David” (Matt 1:1). Twelve hundred years after Abraham, when Israel was established in the Land, God made a covenant with King David, promising him that his dynasty would be established forever and that one of his descendants would reign on his throne forever (2 Sam 7:11-16). This prophecy for the “Messiah"—the anointed king and Savior—was picked up and expanded by the later prophets (Isa 9:1–7, 11:1–16; Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34:23–24, 37:24–25; Amos 9:11–12; Mic 5:2; Ps 2, 89, 110). The portrait they presented was not just a return to the glory days of Israel’s monarchy under David and Solomon. It was a promise for the restoration and renewal of all of creation, when “the wolf will live with the lamb… They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:6, 11:9). So when Matthew presents a genealogy tracing Jesus’ lineage through David and Abraham, he is affirming that Jesus is the Messiah and Savior of the world, the focal point, and destination of human history.
You can read our blog Jesus & Genealogies to learn even more on this topic.
The Fulfillment Formulas
In addition to providing a genealogy confirming Jesus’ legitimate credentials as the Messiah, Matthew develops his promise-fulfillment theme through a series of “fulfillment formulas,” quotations from the Old Testament demonstrating Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy. The formula, which Matthew uses ten times, reads something like, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet…” For example, Jesus’ birth to a virgin fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), his family’s escape to Egypt fulfills Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:15), his ministry in Galilee fulfills Isaiah 9:2 (Matt 4:14–16), and so on.
In addition to these ten fulfillment formulas, a dozen or more times Matthew cites or alludes to Scripture without a formula, but in a way that indicates Jesus’ fulfillment of it. For example, when King Herod asks the chief priests and teachers of the law where the Messiah was to be born, they quote Micah 5:2, 5:4 to confirm his Bethlehem birth. Similarly, Matthew identifies John the Baptist as “the one about whom it is written,” and then cites Malachi 3:1, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
Some have claimed that Matthew’s quotations of the Old Testament are often taken out of context, misrepresenting the original meaning of the text. For example, in its original context, Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” was not a prophecy about the Messiah escaping to Egypt and then returning to Israel. In fact, it wasn’t a prophecy at all, but rather a statement by God concerning his deliverance of Israel in the exodus from Egypt. The full sentence in Hosea 11:1 reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Israel, created as a nation by God, is described metaphorically as his “son.” So how can Matthew apply the passage to Jesus? Does he distort the meaning of the text to fit his agenda? Is he ignoring the most fundamental principles of biblical interpretation: context, context, context?