Why do we have four different accounts of Jesus' life?
Logic would suggest that a single, accurate, and comprehensive account would be the simplest way to share a complex story, yet the New Testament begins with four such accounts of Jesus' life. To the Bible student this may appear unnecessary and even frustrating: why would God choose to preserve four records instead of just one comprehensive one?!
This is the first of five posts looking in more detail at the four gospel accounts of Christ's resurrection. By the end we hope to see what each writer adds to our understanding of the days after the crucifixion, and answer the question of "why four gospels?"
Our story begins in Matthew.
Matthew 27v57-66 recounts the events immediately following Christ's death on the cross, detail shared with Mark and Luke's account. To summarise:
- Joseph of Arimathaea takes the body, wraps and places it in a new tomb. There was no prior or current occupant who could interfere with the body.
- The tomb was hewn out of a rock. It is solid: there's no way in or out other than the door.
- Witnesses saw the body go in.
- A large stone is placed over the entrance.
We then have some detail which isn't present in any other account:
- The chief priests and Pharisees are concerned about the security of the tomb.
- They seal the tomb. This was likely an official seal of Rome, consisting of a rope across the front of the stone and clay to bear the seal itself.
- A watch of soldiers is left to guard the tomb.
It's worth taking a moment to appreciate the picture that Matthew is painting: Jesus is in a new, rock-cut tomb, with a huge stone, a Roman seal, and a band of soldiers outside. Humanly speaking, this tomb was impregnable.
Which makes the rest of the account in Matthew 28v1-8 all the more hilarious:
- There is an earthquake.
- An angel of God decends, rolls back the stone, and just sits on it.
- The guards become "as dead men"
Not very impregnable now.
What at first seems to be a reasonable security strategy suddenly looks stupidly brittle. For all the plotting and scheming of the chief priests the tomb security was totally inadequate; it was immediately and completely overwhelmed. There was just no contest.
One of my favourite parts of this record is the line from the angel:
"He is not here" - Matt 28v6
Jesus wasn't even in the tomb. They weren't actually guarding anything!
Matthew then gives us a handy "compare and contrast" in the next six verses of the chapter (Matt 28v9-15). There are two groups of people: the women, and the guards.
- Both are leaving the site of the tomb and heading into Jerusalem.
- Both have the same message: "Jesus has risen"
But that's where the similarities end.
- The guards are fearless men prepared for battle, the women are fearful funeral attendants. You could hardly get two more different groups of people.
- The guards have a message of death: it could get them killed (v12-14). The women have a message of joy.
- The guards' message ends in deceit and coverup. The women's message results in the public proclamation of truth.
Matthew's account emphasizes the unstoppable power of God. Man's devices are brought to nought, God's message is vindicated over the lies of man, and Jesus is shown supreme. When Christ commissions the disciples, these are the words that Matthew chooses to record:
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth." - Matt 28v18
Having seen that Matthew is concerned with demonstrating the superiority of God's ways over the ways of man, the next post in this series will (predictably) look into Mark's account.