This has many distinctive features. His portrayal is like a royal figure. The line of descent in the genealogy is through David, who is named at the head of the second main section in Matthew’s list.
The expression Son of David occurs on various occasions in the gospel, to a greater extent than in the other synoptics. Matthew’s birth narrative concentrates on homage fit for a king, as compared with Luke’s account of the worship of the lowly shepherds.
In the narrative of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, both Matthew and Luke refer to the kingly scene, but only Matthew cites the Old Testament passage, Behold, your King is coming to you. While all the synoptics mention Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, it is Matthew in particular who concentrates upon it. His parables are kingdom parables. The message of Jesus is concerned with the proclamation of the kingdom.
Another characteristic of this gospel is the authoritative nature of Jesus as a teacher. In the great discourses which Matthew has sandwiched between blocks of narrative, he specially emphasizes the teaching ministry of Jesus. Yet, he does not portray Jesus as a Jewish rabbi. In fact, Jesus claims authority to supersede the law, which the rabbis considered their highest duty to uphold.
In view of this fundamental difference, it is no wonder that Jesus so often was at variance with the religious leaders of His day. Matthew comments that he taught as one who had authority and not as the scribes where similar comment is made about Jesus’ visit to the synagogue. Matthew’s gospel is dominated by his five great discourse sections which illustrate various aspects of the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom.
Matthew shares with the other gospels the picture of Jesus as Son of man, a title which Jesus uses both redemptive and eschatological. He also shares with them the belief in the Messianic claims of Jesus. He alone records the words of Jesus about the coming church and gives some indication of its nature.
In this respect this gospel leads into the Early Church period, for it is Matthew who gives the Great Commission of Jesus to His disciples before His ascension and ends with the assurance of Jesus’ continuing presence with them. One cannot put aside this gospel without awareness of the future of the people of God because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Mark’s distinctive contribution is one of emphasis rather than unique material. The first feature is the constant activity of Jesus. The relative absence of teaching material contributes to this impression. Mark often says that the actions of Jesus were performed immediately.
One saying may fittingly be chosen as summing up Mark’s portrait of Jesus, that the Son of man came not to be served but to serve. His is essentially the gospel of Christ the servant, a gospel full of bustling activity which would make a great appeal to men of action. Jesus was no religious recluse, but a man deeply aware of the needs of those around Him.
This gospel is also remarkable for the large proportion of space devoted to the passion and resurrection narratives. There is little specific teaching about the meaning of Christ’s death but the arrangement of the whole gospel gives the impression that for Mark the real focus was upon the concluding events, and that the opening two-thirds of the gospel was only a preparation for this.
Mark obviously did not attempt to write a biography. Indeed, it is he alone of all the evangelists who describes his book as the gospel of Jesus Christ. Undoubtedly for him the major part of that gospel was the redemptive work accomplished by Jesus on the cross.
It should be noted that Mark begins by identifying Jesus as Son of God according to the most probable reading and yet proceeds to include, more than any of the other gospels, a presentation of Jesus as Son of man. Since Mark seems more drawn by actions than by words, it is most natural to see the evidence of both these titles in what Jesus did, rather than what He said. The humanity of Jesus may be seen in His acts of compassion, and His divine power in the fact that so many of these acts of compassion are portrayed as miracles.
Mention has already been made of those who have claimed that Mark has imposed his own theory of a Messianic secret upon his material, but since the theory is not demanded by the evidence, it may be said that Mark’s portrait of Jesus implies the awareness of His own Messianic mission. The earthly life of Jesus was not the appointed time for this to be made known. The Messiah must first be recognized in the risen Christ.
There is a warm human touch in Luke’s account. The birth stories are more intimate. The contacts of Jesus with the people of His day are more varied, with special emphasis upon His concern for women and children. The parables more frequently have a human touch about them, as is specially illustrated in the parables of Luke. Luke records more of the theme of joy in Jesus’ teaching than the other evangelists. The ministry of Jesus was not intended to give a somber impression
Even in his Passion references Luke dwells less on the tragic aspects, although no description of the crucifixion scene can avoid such an aspect. In Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, the conversation concerned the exodus of Jesus rather than His death. When he describes the crucifixion scene, he does not include Jesus’ cry of separation, Why hast thou forsaken me, included by both Matthew and Mark. In Luke the last words of Jesus are a prayer of committal to the Father.
Nevertheless, if the starkness of the cross is somewhat toned down, its centrality is as clear in Luke as in the others. It is in Luke that the risen Christ is recorded as expounding from the Scriptures the necessity for His sufferings. He ends his gospel on a note of great joy, which was now no longer dependent upon the earthly presence of Jesus. In no clearer way could Luke have indicated the continuity of the historical Jesus with the Christ of faith.
The Johannine portrait is different, although there are many common features with the other gospels which enable the portrait to be identified as the same person. He is introduced in a different way, in the concept of a divine intermediary, the divine Word who nevertheless became flesh. There is nothing comparable in the synoptics. Had John proceeded in the same vein throughout his gospel, the difference in approach would have been insuperable. As soon as John has spoken of the Incarnation, his narrative proceeds to illustrate in human terms what it meant for the Word to become flesh.
The most marked characteristic of His portrait is the filial relationship between Jesus and the Father. This is essentially the gospel of Jesus, the Son. Its purpose was that men might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and the author took care that much of the gospel testifies to this fact.
Scattered throughout the gospel are statements which show the consciousness of Jesus and of His dependence on the Father. He is the Sent One. It is the Father’s will that He has done. He calls men to the Father’s purpose for them. The climax of this aspect of Jesus is seen in the prayer in John 17, which has not inappropriately been called the high priestly prayer, but which is really a filial supplication on behalf of His disciples.
Another feature of John’s portrait is the miraculous signs which are included as an attestation of Jesus. These signs are intended to be authenticating and are said to redound to God’s glory. The signs are themselves in agreement with the portrait of the divine Son. They are the deeds which the Son might be expected to perform. They were further intended to be aids to faith, for Jesus Himself appealed to His works if men would not believe Him for His own sake.
Linked with these characteristics is the remarkable fact that John records more evidence of the perfect humanity of Jesus than any of the other evangelists. Jesus is described as thirsty and tired. At Lazarus’ tomb He is moved with indignation.
He does the most menial service in the upper room. There is no doubt about the fact that the Word had become flesh. This Johannine portrait was wholly different from the Docetic representation of Jesus, in which His humanity was more apparent than real.
There is a certain unhurried atmosphere about this gospel, in strong contrast to Mark’s. Jesus has time to discuss and converse. The action is slow moving and sometimes nonexistent. There is more sense of inevitability about this portrait than about the others. The idea of the hour of destiny runs through the whole gospel. At first it is said that it has not yet come, and this prepares the reader to look for its dawning and draws the narrative to a climax, when eventually it does come in the Passion narrative. There is nothing accidental about the cross; it is seen as part of the purpose of God.
When these four portraits are compared, they present four different aspects of Jesus, none of which can be dispensed with without loss. Any attempt at recognizing the historical Jesus cannot proceed without recognizing the many sided character of the person of Jesus as the four evangelists saw Him.