4.7 - Four Gospels

4.7 - Four Gospels


Many have wondered why there are four gospels? Especially if three of the four (the synoptic gospels1) have so much in common. There are at least two primary answers which can be given to this question:2

  1. Multiple Witnesses
    Multiple independent eye-witness accounts establishes the reliability of the testimony concerning the life and ministry of Jesus.
  2. Varied Perspectives
    Each author recorded the events of Jesus’ life and ministry from a different perspective with different goals and objectives.

Both of these answers explain why there are four gospels. It is to the second of these reasons that we now direct our attention.Throughout history, students of Scripture have recognized a correlation between the four gospels and four different roles of Christ. This is reflected in works such as the Book of Kells, an ornately illustrated work containing the four gospels written in approximately A.D. 800.3 The artwork of the cover page of the Book of Kells shows that the monks recognized a correspondence between the faces of the cherubim seen by Ezekiel and John and the four gospels (Eze. 1:10; 10:14; Rev. 4:7+; 21:13+).4

The Book of Kells - The Four Gospels

The Book of Kells - The Four Gospels


The Fathers identified them with the four Gospels, Matthew the lion, Mark the ox, Luke the man, John the eagle: these symbols, thus viewed, express not the personal character of the Evangelists, but the manifold aspect of Christ in relation to the world (four being the number significant of world-wide extension, for example, the four quarters of the world) presented by them severally: the lion expressing royalty, as Matthew gives prominence to this feature of Christ; the ox, laborious endurance, Christ’s prominent characteristic in Mark; man, brotherly sympathy with the whole race of man, Christ’s prominent feature in Luke; the eagle, soaring majesty, prominent in John’s description of Christ as the Divine Word.6

These creatures represent four aspects of Christ Jesus as the Lion, the Ox, the Man, and the Eagle. In all four of these aspects Christ Jesus is supreme Lord. As the lion, the Lord Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords. . . . Matthew describes Christ in this aspect. As the ox, Christ is the servant of God, and the servant of men. . . . Mark describes Christ in this respect. As the man, the Lord Jesus is a lover, a friend, a companion, an associate, and a leader. . . . Luke describes Christ in this aspect. As the eagle, the Lord Jesus is God Himself, He is Deity, eternal, all-powerful, . . . His deity is fully described in the Gospel of John. These four aspects of the Savior are revealed again in Ezekiel 10:14; Revelation 4:6+.7

Some have criticized the correlation of the gospel messages with the four faces of the cherubim as if it were merely the contrivance of an overactive imagination. Yet a close study of the Scriptural evidence makes their correspondence difficult to deny. We believe the table below provides compelling evidence of the divine superintendence of the various biblical authors to achieve this intentional result.For example, the gospel recorded by Matthew has as its primary audience the Jews. Jesus is presented primarily as King of the Jews. His genealogy is given in relation to the father of the Jews, Abraham. This role corresponds to the lion face of the cherubim, the camp of Judah around the tabernacle (Jesus is the “lion of the tribe of Judah,” Gen. 49:9; Rev. 5:5+), and the branch” from David who will be “king” (Jer. 23:5-6). Similar correlations occur for the other gospels.

The Gospels Compared
Gospel Focus8 Portrait9 Key Verses10 Lineage Face11 Camp of Israel The Branch12
Matthew Jews King Messiah Mat. 1:1; 16:16; 20:28 From Abraham (Mat. 1:1) Lion (Gen. 49:9; Rev. 5:5+) Judah (East) King (Jer. 23:5-6)
Mark Romans Lowly Servant Mark 1:8; 8:27; 10:45; 15:34 None13 Ox Ephraim (West) Servant (Zec. 3:8)
Luke Hellenists Son of Man Luke 19:10 From Adam (Luke 3:23) Man (Dan. 7:13) Reuben (South) Man (Zec. 6:12)
John Greek World Son of God (Ps. 2:7; Pr. 30:4) John 20:31 From Eternity
(John 1:1)
Eagle (Gen. 49:16) Dan (North) Lord (Isa. 4:2)14

4.7.1 - Which Face, Which Gospel?

In criticism of this association, some note the variations found among the church fathers in assigning the faces to the gospels:

The church Father Irenaeus said the human face of the third beast represented Matthew, the eagle of the fourth the gospel of Mark, the ox of the second Luke, and the lion of the first being John. Victorinus said the man pictured Matthew, the lion Mark, the ox Luke, and the eagle John. Augustine identified the lion with Matthew, the man with Mark, the ox with Luke, and the eagle with John. Athanasius referred the man to Matthew, the calf (i.e., ox) to Mark, the lion to Luke, and the eagle to John. Seemingly, almost every combination has been suggested.15

From this passage is derived the familiar symbolism of the four Evangelists; Mark seated on a lion, Luke on a steer, Matthew on a man, and John on an eagle.16

But should these variations be taken as evidence of the bankruptcy of any view which correlates the faces with the gospels? We think not. For there is more than subjective guess-work behind our results:

  • Although the Church Fathers differed in the accuracy with which they understood the correlation and therefore reached differing conclusions, it is significant that they all saw some sort of correlation between the faces and the gospels: “The unanimity of the early church regarding acceptance of some combination of such symbolism is remarkable.”17
  • There is objective evidence found within Scripture itself which reliably establishes the intended emphasis of each gospel. This evidence is found in the genealogies of Christ which establish the line of Jesus from Abraham (Matthew), Adam (Luke), and eternity (John). Thus we know with some certainty that Matthew presents Jesus as King of the Jews, Luke as the Son of Man, and John as the Son of God. The only remaining question is that of the presentation of Mark. There being no genealogy in Mark, it seems plain that the emphasis of servant fits his gospel.
  • The fourfold identification of “the BRANCH” in the Old Testament provides additional objective Scriptural support for the fourfold correlation: King (Jer. 23:5-6); Servant (Zec. 3:8); Man (Zec. 6:12); Lord (Isa. 4:2).

4.7.2 - Camp of Israel

Scripture informs us that the earthly patterns given by God are often a shadow of a greater heavenly reality (Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5; 9:8, 23; 10:1; Rev. 15:5+). So it is not a great surprise when we find similarities between Israel’s encampment in the wilderness around the tabernacle of meeting and the heavenly realm surrounding God’s throne. Given the level of detail which attends God’s instructions concerning the encampment (Num. 2), it would be unusual if there were no symbolism to be found in it.The camp was to be set up as follows:

  • The tabernacle of meeting was in the center.
  • The camp of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah (74,600), Issachar (54,400), and Zebulun (57,400), a total of 186,400 men, camped to the east (Num. 2:3-7).
  • The camp of Reuben, consisting of the tribes of Reuben (46,500), Simeon (59,300), and Gad (45,650), a total of 151,450 men, camped to the south (Num. 2:10-16).
  • The camp of Ephraim, consisting of the tribes of Ephraim (40,500), Manasseh (32,200), and Benjamin (35,400), a total of 108,100 men, camped to the west (Num. 2:18-24).
  • The camp of Dan, consisting of the tribes of Dan (62,700), Asher (41,500), and Naphtali (53,400), a total of 157,600 men, camped to the north (Num. 2:25-31).
  • Each group was to “camp by his own standard, beside the emblems of his father’s house” [emphasis added] (Num. 2:2).
  • The tribe of Levi was unnumbered and camped around all sides of the tabernacle (Num. 2:17, 33). “Between these camps and the court surrounding the tabernacle, the three leading mishpachoth of the Levites were to be encamped on three sides, and Moses and Aaron with the sons of Aaron (i.e., the priests) upon the fourth, i.e., the front or eastern side, before the entrance (Num. 3:21-38).”18

The word for his own standard is דִּגְלוֹ [diḡlô], means “to put up the flag” and is used of “a troop with banners.”19 It is derived from the word דָּגַל [dāḡal] meaning look, behold.20 The standards provided a visual rallying symbol for each camp when stationary and on the move (Num. 2:2-3, 10, 17-18, 25, 31, 34; 10:14, 18, 22, 25). Ensign is אוֹת [ʾôṯ] “This is the general word for ‘sign,’ and it covers the entire range of the English term and the Greek word sēmeion. On the pedestrian end of the scale it includes what amounts to a ‘signboard’ or ‘standard’ (Num 2:2). It also includes such important concepts as the rainbow ‘sign’ to Noah (Gen. 9:12-13, 17).”21

דֶּגֶל [deḡel], a standard, banner, or flag, denotes primarily the larger field sign, possessed by every division composed of three tribes, which was also the banner of the tribe at the head of each division; and secondarily, in a derivative signification, it denotes the army united under one standard, like σημεία [sēmeia], or vexillum. It is used thus, for example, in Num. 2:17, 31, 34, and in combination with מַחֲנֶה [maḥăneh] in Num. 2:3, 10, 18, and 25, where “standard of the camp of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan” signifies the hosts of the tribes arranged under these banners. אֹתֹת [ʾōṯōṯ], the signs (ensigns), were the smaller flags or banners which were carried at the head of the different tribes and subdivisions of the tribes (the fathers’ houses).22

Both standard and ensign speak of flags which uniquely signify each camp or tribe. In order for the camps to be differentiated, such standards would necessarily differ in color, insignia, or both.Since the tabernacle was quite small, it seems impractical for the four cardinal directions to have been restricted in width by the dimensions of the tabernacle itself. It seems likely that the Levites, who were not numbered, camped around the tabernacle equally in all four directions and then the other four camps extended outward from there. Given Levitical attention to detail, whoever camped outside of the clear directions of east, south, west, and north (e.g., northwest) would be violating these directional instructions (e.g., by being both north and west).Using the populations given for the four camps, the ratios of their relative sizes would have been: Judah (1.0); Reuben (0.81); Ephraim (0.58); and Dan (0.85). Assuming the Levites encamped in a square and a uniform width for each camp extending strictly outward in the four cardinal directions, the view from above, as Balaam saw it (Num. 23:9) may have resembled a cross:

Camp of Israel

Camp of Israel


This assumes a uniform width for each camp—which cannot be known with certainty. If the boundary between each camp was taken to be on a diagonal (e.g., northwest, northeast, etc.) then the formation of the camp would have not been that of a cross. Even so, this does not adversely affect our main point—that the camp of Israel is a shadow of the heavenly throne.As to the contents of each camp’s standard, tradition tells us that each camp had a different symbol upon its standard:

Neither the Mosaic law, nor the Old Testament generally, gives us any intimation as to the form or character of the standard (degel). According to rabbinical tradition, the standard of Judah bore the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the likeness of a man or of a man’s head, that of Ephraim the figure of an ox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle; so that the four living creatures united in the cherubic forms described by Ezekiel were represented upon these four standards.24

Jewish tradition says the “four standards” under which Israel encamped in the wilderness, to the east, Judah, to the north, Dan, to the west, Ephraim, to the south, Reuben, were respectively a lion, an eagle, an ox, and a man, while in the midst was the tabernacle containing the Shekinah symbol of the Divine Presence.25

The Talmud saw in these four creatures the four primary forms of life in God’s creation. It also noted that the twelve tribes of Israel camped under these four banners; some with Reuben (symbolized by a man), others with Dan (symbolized by an eagle), others with Ephraim (symbolized by the calf, or ox), and the rest with Judah (symbolized by a lion).26

The Jewish writers tell us, that the standard of each tribe of Israel took the colour of the stone which represented it in the high priest’s breastplate, and that there was wrought upon each a particular figure—a lion for Judah, a young ox for Ephraim, a man for Reuben, and an eagle for Dan.27

No further information is provided about the size, color or representation on these standards. Jewish tradition, however, does provide a clue to the way in which later generations of Jews viewed the standards. The Aramaic paraphrase of the Torah, called Targum Jonathan, and the ancient commentary on Numbers, called Bemidbar Rabbah, suggest that each tribe was assigned a color corresponding to the color of its respective stone in the high priest’s breastplate. Thus, the color of Dan would be blue because a sapphire is blue. The four standards, therefore, were composed of the colors of the three tribes of each triad. The tradition continues that each of the four standards depicted a living being. Judah’s animal was a lion, Reuben’s a man, Ephraim’s an ox and Dan’s an eagle. This tradition may have been influenced by the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision who also had four faces (Ezek. 1:10; see also Rev. 4:7+). It should be emphasized that there is no solid biblical or historical basis for these descriptions of the standards. The Jewish tradition, however, does provide the most logical suggestion for their descriptions, particularly in the case of Judah and Ephraim (see Gen. 49:9 and Deu. 33:17).28

Jewish tradition holds that the standards contained the very symbols Scripture reveals in association with the four living creatures (Eze. 1:10; 10:14; Rev. 4:7+).In opposition to this tradition, some have noted the adverse reaction of the Jews of NT times to the images on the Roman standards:

Every tribe had its particular standard, probably with the name of the tribe embroidered with large letters. It seems highly improbable that the figures of animals should have been painted on them, as the Jewish writers assert; for even in after ages, when Vitellius wished to march through Judea, their great men besought him to march another way, as the law of the land did not permit images (such as were on the Roman standard) to be brought into it. Josephus Ant. 1. xviii. c. 7.29

It is not clear that the Jews would have allowed images on their standards: In the time of Augustus, Roman legionaries would leave their standards in the Judean port city of Caesarea, so that the images drawn upon them would not offend the sensitive Jews.30

In response to this proposed difficulty, it may be observed:

  1. Jewish writers and rabbinical tradition maintain the standards did have images of animals upon them. Of all people least likely to suggest that animal insignias were upon the standards (due to Ex. 20:4), it is the Jews themselves who give us this tradition.
  2. The opposition of the Jews of Josephus’ day to the Roman standards may have been due to the particular images they contained, not the mere fact that they contained images. Concerning Jewish opposition to the Roman standards, Josephus relates, “for that the laws of their country would not permit them to overlook those images which were brought into it, of which there were a great many in their ensigns.” [emphasis added]31
  3. The Israelites were instructed to decorate the tabernacle, and later the temple, with various images, including lions, oxen, and cherubim (Ex. 26:1; 36:8, 35; 1K. 6:32; 1K. 7:29; 2K. 16:17; 2Chr. 4:3-4, 15). If these images were so offensive to the Jews that they dare not have them upon their standards, how is it that cherubim (of which some have four faces) appear in the tabernacle along with lions and oxen in the temple?

If Jewish opposition to unbiblical images upon the Roman standards is seen in light of the biblical symbolism allowed within the tabernacle and temple, the view that their ensigns could not have contained insignia of the four faces is less convincing, especially in the light of Jewish tradition itself. It seems likely that Adam and Eve would have seen cherubim when they were driven out of Eden (Gen. 3:24). Perhaps their knowledge of the faces of these incredible angelic beings, though not recorded in Scripture until Ezekiel’s time, was preserved by tradition.Jerome Prado provides additional background correlating the images with the camps:

Jerome Prado, in his commentary upon Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1 p. 44), gives the following minute description according to rabbinical tradition: “The different leaders of the tribes had their own standards, with the crests of their ancestors depicted upon them. On the east, above the tent of Naasson the first-born of Judah, there shone a standard of a green colour, this colour having been adopted by him because it was in a green stone, viz., an emerald, that the name of his forefather Judah was engraved on the breastplate of the high priest (Ex. 25:15ff.), and on this standard there was depicted a lion, the crest and hieroglyphic of his ancestor Judah, whom Jacob had compared to a lion, saying, ‘Judah is a lion’s whelp.’ Towards the south, above the tent of Elisur the son of Reuben, there floated a red standard, having the colour of the sardus, on which the name of his father, viz., Reuben, was engraved upon the breastplate of the high priest. The symbol depicted upon this standard was a human head, because Reuben was the first-born, and head of the family. On the west, above the tent of Elishamah the son of Ephraim, there was a golden flag, on which the head of a calf was depicted, because it was through the vision of the calves or oxen that his ancestor Joseph had predicted and provided for the famine in Egypt (Gen. 41); and hence Moses, when blessing the tribe of Joseph, i.e., Ephraim (Deu. 33:17), said, ‘his glory is that of the first-born of a bull.’ The golden splendour of the standard of Ephraim resembled that of the chrysolite, in which the name of Ephraim was engraved upon the breastplate. Towards the north, above the tent of Ahiezer the son of Dan, there floated a motley standard of white and red, like the jaspis (or, as some say, a carbuncle), in which the name of Dan was engraved upon the breastplate. The crest upon this was an eagle, the great doe to serpents, which had been chosen by the leader in the place of a serpent, because his forefather Jacob had compared Dan to a serpent, saying, ‘Dan is a serpent in the way, an adder (cerastes, a horned snake) in the path;’ but Ahiezer substituted the eagle, the destroyer of serpents as he shrank from carrying an adder upon his flag.”32

In relation to the eagle being associated with the tribe of Dan, we note that Dan means judge (Gen. 30:6; 49:16) and the symbolism of the eagle is often connected with judgment (Deu. 28:49; Job 9:26; Pr. 30:17; Jer. 4:13; 48:40; 49:22; Lam. 4:19; Eze. 17:3; Hos. 8:1; Hab. 1:8; Mat. 24:28; Luke 17:37).

4.7.3 - A Shadow of the Heavenly

Even if some of the details of the camp of Israel differ from those shown above, it would appear that the camp is intended as a shadow of the heavenly throne room. God’s shekinah glory dwells between the cherubim over the mercy seat above the Ark in the tabernacle. Around the tabernacle the Levites (priests) are camped. Around the Levites are the four camps of Israel, each with a standard bearing one of the faces of the cherubim seen by Ezekiel. These picture aspects of heaven.

Camp of Israel as a Shadow of Heaven
Earthly Heavenly
Tabernacle in the Wilderness (Ex. 25:9; 26:1) Temple in Heaven (Rev. 7:15+; 11:19+; 14:15-17+; 15:5-6+, 8+; 16:1+, 17+)
Ark of the Testimony (Ex. 25:10) Ark of the Testimony (Rev. 11:19+)
Cherubim upon the Ark (Ex. 25:18) Cherubim in Heaven around the Throne (Eze. 1:10; Rev. 4:6-7+)
Levites (priests) around the Tabernacle (Num. 1:52; 2:17) Elders (priests) around the Throne (Rev. 4:4+)
Standards of the Camps around the Tabernacle (Lion, Ox, Man, Eagle) Faces of the Cherubim around the Throne (Eze. 1:10; Rev. 4:7+)

It is our view that the camp of Israel in the wilderness is an intentional shadow of the four faces of Ezekiel’s cherubs (Eze. 1:10) and the likenesses of John’s living creatures (Rev. 4:7+) which, in turn, reflect the four primary roles of the Messiah which the gospels record. In their proximity to the throne of God, the faces of the cherubim provide an “echo” or “reflection” of these roles.


1“1. Of or constituting a synopsis; presenting a summary of the principal parts or a general view of the whole. 2.a. Taking the same point of view.”—American Heritage Online Dictionary, Ver. 3.0A, 3rd ed (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), s.v. “synoptic.”

2Another reason for four gospels can be found in the symbolic meaning of the number four. In our discussion concerning Interpreting Symbols, we mentioned that the number four conveys a symbolic of global completeness denoting the entire world, the earth. The message of the gospels is intended for worldwide dissemination.

3“As best we can determine, the Book of Kells was copied by hand and illuminated by monks around the year 800 A.D. Although it was probably begun on the island of Iona, between Scotland and Ireland, its name is derived from the Abbey of Kells, in the Irish Midlands, where it was kept from at least the 9th century to 1541. One theory has it that portions of the book were made at Kells, after Viking raids on Iona forced the monastery to retreat to the more isolated location, is uncertain. The book consists of a Latin text of the four Gospels, calligraphed in ornate script and lavishly illustrated in as many as ten colors. Only two of its 680 pages are without color. Not intended for daily use or study, it was a sacred work of art to appear on the altar for very special occasions. Since 1661 the Book of Kells has been kept in the Library of Trinity College in Dublin.”—Jerry B. Lincecum, Fort Worth Star Telegram, 3/29/90 http://artemis.austincollege.edu/acad/english/jlincecum/jbl.bk.kells.page.html.

4 “The church Fathers connected the living creatures with the Gospels: the lion, Matthew; the ox, Mark; the main, Luke; the eagle, John.”—Charles Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel: The Glory of the Lord (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1969), 19. “The gospels give a fourfold manifestation of Christ: He is seen in His sovereignty (Matthew), ministry (Mark), humanity (Luke), and deity (John).”—Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1986), 28.

5Source: Brian Keller, www.snake.net/people/paul/kells.

6A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 4:8.

7Walter L. Wilson, A Dictionary of Bible Types (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 180.

8W. A. Criswell and Paige Patterson, eds., The Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 1328.

9 [Ibid.] [Graham W. Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1995, 1948), 95].

10Criswell, The Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition, 1328.

11Eze. 1:10; 10:14; Rev. 4:7+; 21:13+.

12“The identification of the ‘Branch’ (Hebrew, zemach) with the Messiah is as least as old as the Targum Jonathan (50 B.C.), which at both Zec. 3:8 and 6:12 translated zemach ‘Branch’ as mashiach ‘Messiah.’ ”—Randall Price, The Coming Last Days Temple (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999), 230. “The epithet ‘Branch’ (צֶמַח [ṣemaḥ] derives from the verb used here (יִצמאח [yiṣmḥ], ‘will sprout up’) to describe the rise of the Messiah. . . . In the immediate context this refers to Zerubbabel, but the ultimate referent is Jesus.”—New Electronic Translation : NET Bible, electronic edition (Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 1998), Zec. 6:12.

13The genealogy of a servant is unimportant.

14LORD here is יהוה [Yahweh], God.

15Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 355.

16M. R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies (Escondido, CA: Ephesians Four Group, 2002), Rev. 4:7.

17Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 355.

18Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 1:659.

19Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. Richardson, and Johann Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (New York, NY: E. J. Brill, 1999, c1994-1996).

20Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999, c1980).

21Harris, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.

22Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660.

23See also [John MacArthur, ed., The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1997), 199] and [Criswell, The Holy Bible: Baptist Study Edition, 192].

24Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660.

25Fausset, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Rev. 4:8.

26John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), Rev. 4:8.

27J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 106.

28William Varner, Jacob’s Dozen: A Prophetic Look at the Tribes of Israel (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1987), s.v. “The Tribal Encampment.”

29R. Torrey, The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1995), Num. 2:2.

30Chaim Potok, Wanderings (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1978), 268.

31Flavius Josephus, The Complete Works of Josephus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981), s.v. “Ant. XVIII, v3.”

32Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1:660n11.

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