The First Years of Christianity: Four Gospels

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We have already dwelt a little on the incarnation, baptism, and temptation of Jesus the Son of God. What then is the character and teaching of the four gospels? And what is not the scope of their teaching? Four persons are used by the Holy Spirit to relate the life, words, and miracles of the incarnate Holy One. These four gospels do not present Christianity fully, but the Person and work of Jesus Christ our Lord, the foundation of Christianity. It is important to see this. Take the ministry of John the Baptist. He is the forerunner of the Messiah, and yet points Him out as the Lamb of God; and as the Lamb of God, He is the foundation of all blessing. But mark, John does not say one word about the Church (the assembly of God). He came as a Jewish prophet, preaching only to the Jews, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. But not because the assembly was at hand; that great truth was not revealed to John, but for “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
The kingdom of heaven, the reign of Messiah, was the burden of the Old Testament prophecies; but they never once named the Church. That mystery was hid from them, and hid from John. No doubt repentance was requisite, equally for the foretold kingdom (Ezek. 36), and also, as we shall see, for the forming of the Church (Acts 2). But what was the teaching or preaching of Christ? Most profitable would it be to study the four gospels in their distinctive character. But this would fill a volume. Whether as the righteous Jew in Matthew, or the Servant in Mark, or as the Son of man in Luke, and, still more wondrous, as Son of God in John— perfect in each, perfect in the whole. If you will examine each, you will find in the first three, Jesus preaches the coming kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God. He does twice name the Church, or assembly, but only as a future thing— “I will build My church” (Matt. 16:1818And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)).
In the Word of God everything is found in its place and time. The presence and teaching of Jesus on this earth, is the last trial of man. God who had sent His prophets, had now sent His Son—God manifest in flesh. He came to His own people, the Jews, and His own received Him not. To them there was no beauty in Him that they should desire Him. He was truly God, yet perfect man; absolutely perfect in every relation, whether to man or to God. John says, “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Oh, how wondrous to have in these gospels the invisible God revealed. Surely every word demands our study with profound reverence. We cannot conceive the profit and deep untold joy we should have in becoming more thoroughly acquainted with each gospel in its own peculiar character.
All is pure grace, yet there is truth in every line. Man's true condition is set forth in each gospel. The presence of Jesus among men is like the rising of the sun on a dark world. Take just a little sample of man's need and condition as illustrated in Mark 1 and 2. Jesus enters a meeting room of religious men, the synagogue of the Jews, at Capernaum. What does His presence reveal? Man under the power of an unclean spirit! The demon is in the synagogue. But here is One with power to deliver, and all that were brought to Him were healed. “And He preached in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and cast out devils.”
Then there came a poor leper to Him, the very picture of sin in the flesh. Does He spurn him? No, with tender compassion He heals him. Then a helpless man, sick of the palsy, was let down to His feet. He saw their faith; and they heard strange words from the lips of a man, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” To scribes this was blasphemy. Yes, that which man needs first, above all things, the forgiveness of sins, was blasphemy to them! But He who forgave sins had power to say, “Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk.” Whether man knows it or not, these miracles truthfully set forth man's real condition. He is under the power of demons, and cannot free himself; he is full of leprosy, of sin, and cannot heal himself; he is utterly without power to walk in the holy commandments of God; he needs forgiveness and power to walk, and there is only One who can meet his manifold need; and that One is Jesus. Has He met yours? None other can.
Take one other parable, Luke 15. Man is lost. The blessed shepherd seeks the lost until he finds, and takes the lost sheep safely home. Then the lost piece of silver is sought until it is found. This gives joy. Then the lost son comes to himself, and repents in the confession of sin. But oh! the joy of the father! His great delight to receive, forgive, clothe, bring into his own presence! The work of the Son in redemption, the work of the Holy Spirit in seeking the redeemed, the unspeakable joy of God the Father in receiving the redeemed sinner—what a revelation of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
We might dwell forever on the life, teaching, and miracles of the Lord Jesus as a Jew in the midst of His Jewish disciples. But the time drew near when the passover must be killed. He set His face for the last time to go up to Jerusalem. He must needs suffer and rise again, or Christianity could never begin, or the kingdom be hereafter set up.
He fully exposed the wickedness and hypocrisy of the priests and Pharisees, who were pretending to righteousness by the law. God had provided a great supper, but men made light of it and rejected it (Matt. 22; 23). He then spoke of the immense change close at hand. Their house was left desolate, and would be destroyed; and Jerusalem, the future metropolis of the earth, would be destroyed and long trampled under foot (Luke 21). Very strange was all this to Jewish ears. All this implied a total change, and an entire setting aside of the ancient religion of the Jew, with all his privileges, and all of which came to pass. He was presented to the Jewish nation for the last time in the flesh as Messiah, and utterly rejected. His last passover came. See Him sitting with His disciples—”With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.” After the supper He took the place of the paschal lamb. “This is My body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of Me....This cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you.” Yes, a far greater redemption was about to be accomplished than the redemption from Egypt, which they had just commemorated. But as yet they understood not. He was about to be “reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning Me have an end” (Luke 22:3737For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. (Luke 22:37)).
What a night was that! What words did Jesus speak to His beloved disciples. “Jesus knew that His hour was come, that He should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end.” John 13:11Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. (John 13:1). We must, however, remember, that as yet they were only disciples, just as John had had disciples. They had been drawn to Him as a center, and yet He was alone; they could not be members of His body, neither was that wondrous path as yet revealed. Wondrous was the truth He had revealed to them, for He had shown them, under the figure of the corn of wheat, that He must die or remain alone. “Verily, verily, I say unto you. Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:2424Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:24)). No words can express the importance of this great truth, that until He should have died, been buried, and had risen from the dead, Christianity could not begin. He, until then, must remain alone. Nothing then could be more false than the error that the incarnation of Christ is salvation, or the improvement of man. His holy life and heavenly teachings could not have imparted full help to man, lost man. He must needs suffer the atoning death of the cross; and even that death is not the improvement of man, but the end of man in death.
But all this was evidently utterly unknown to His disciples, and how little known now. What God had made known by all the holy prophets was, that one like the Son of man should come in the clouds of heaven, deliver His people, and reign over the whole world. This the disciples expected just as they were. There were also other prophecies which spoke of the sufferings of Messiah; of His bearing the sins of His people; of His awful death, forsaken of God (Isa. 53; Psalm 22; and many others). And had not every sacrifice, with all the blood of beasts, shed from the days of Abel, pointed on to Him, the Lamb of God? But as yet they knew not, and felt not the need of this. Never had it dawned on their minds that He must bear the wrath, and be forsaken of God, for their sins. And how few really know this now. Do you?
Well, the time had come that instead of receiving the long foretold kingdom, He must suffer such treatment from man, and bear the whole weight of God's wrath against sin, as never was and never can be borne again. And thus He must be turned out of, and depart from, the world He had made.
We must then read this wondrous discourse (John 12-17) as anticipating the very period of His rejection on earth, and His presence in glory above the heavens. He knew it all, all we should need. “Clean every whit,” as born of God, and as a new creation in Him; yet we have still to contend with an evil world, and the flesh in us, though reckoned dead. It is His blessed service to wash our feet, to restore our souls to communion by the Word during His absence, exalted as He is above all heavens (John 13).
He knows all the sore difficulties of the path during His absence. We shall not see Him now; but we may believe in Him, as we believe in God. Could He have said this if He had been only a man? He is as truly the Object of faith, as God the Father. And now, being so near His departure, He tells them that of which no man had ever heard before. He lifts up their thoughts far above the earthly kingdom of Israel, and He says, “In My Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” They do not seem to have understood this in the least. Do we? What would a place in this world be to us if we really grasped the wondrous grace revealed to us in these words—that He who loved us, and gave Himself for us, is gone to prepare a place for us in the glory, and will come Himself for the one special purpose, to take us and have us with Himself? Is this the love of that Man in the glory at the right hand of God? Oh, child of God, canst thou say, He loved me and is coming for me, to have me with Himself? Does He not thus say to us, “Let not your heart be troubled”? Remember, there had not been a word of all this in the Old Testament, or in His teaching, until the night of His betrayal. The nearer He approached the terrible hour of darkness and wrath, the sweeter the savor of Jesus as the meat offering. In all things, and in every way, He was only proved to be a sweet savor to God— without spot, blameless. How well did He know the need of His Church during the long period of His absence. Let us inquire, Whom did He appoint and promise to take care of her until His return?