December 31, 2010

Preface to the Four Gospels by Saint Theophylact

Those divine men who lived before the law were not taught by writings and books, but they had a pure mind and so were enlightened by the radiance of the Holy Spirit. Thus they knew the will of God, and He Himself conversed with them mouth to mouth. Such were Noah, Abraham, Job, and Moses. But when men grew weak and became unworthy to be enlightened and instructed by the Holy Spirit, God Who loves mankind gave the Scriptures, so that at least by these means they might be made mindful of the will of God.

Christ also conversed in person with the apostles, and He sent the grace of the Spirit to be their teacher. But later, heresies would arise and our morals would be corrupted. Therefore it was His good pleasure that the Gospels be written down in order to teach us the truth, so that we would not be drawn away by the falsehood of these heresies, and our morals altogether corrupted. He gave us four Gospels, perhaps because we learn from them the four universal virtues: courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control. We learn courage when the Lord says, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Mt 10:28); we learn prudence when He exhorts, "Be ye wise therefore as serpents" (Mt 10:16); we learn righteousness when He teaches, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Mt 7:12); and we learn self-control when He declares, "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mt 5:28).

For another reason are there four Gospels: they are pillars of the world. As the world is divided into four parts — east, west, north, and south — it was right that there also be four pillars. And for yet another reason are the Gospels four in number: they contain four elements — teachings, commandments, warnings, and promises. To those who believe the teachings and observe the commandments, God promises the good things that are to come. But those who do not believe the teachings and do not keep the commandments, He threatens with the punishments that are to come.

It is called “Gospel” because it announces to us things that are good: namely, remission of sins, being counted as righteous, ascent into the heavens, and adoption as sons by God. It also announces that we can receive these things easily. For we ourselves have not labored to obtain these good things, nor have we received them as a result of our own accomplishments. We have been deemed worthy of such good things by God’s grace and love for man.

Preface to the Gospel of Matthew

There are four Evangelists; two of them, Matthew and John, were of the company of the twelve, and two, Mark and Luke, were of the seventy. Mark was a follower and disciple of Peter; and Luke, of Paul. Matthew, then, first wrote the Gospel, in the Hebrew language for the Jews who believed, eight years after Christ’s Ascension. Some say that John translated it from the Hebrew language into Greek. Mark wrote his Gospel ten years after the Ascension, instructed by Peter. Luke wrote his Gospel fifteen years after the Ascension, and John the most wise Theologian, thirty two years after the Ascension.

It is said that after the death of the first three Evangelists, the three Gospels were brought to John while he yet lived that he might see them and judge if they had been composed according to the truth. When John read them he fully accepted the grace of the truth in them. and whatever the other Evangelists had omitted, he completed in his Gospel, and whatever they had touched on briefly, he elaborated. This was the beginning of theology. Since the other Evangelists had not mentioned the existence of God the Word from before the ages, John himself spoke the word of God—theology—concerning this, so that no one would think that God the Word was a mere man without divinity. For Matthew speaks only of the existence of Christ in the flesh, as he was writing for the Jews for whom it sufficed to learn that Christ was begotten from Abraham and David. A believing Jew is content to know that Christ is from David.

You might ask, “Was not one Evangelist enough?” Listen, then: one was enough, but four were allowed to write so that the truth might be revealed more clearly. When you see these four Evangelists, not sitting down together in one place, but each one by himself at a different time and place writing about the same things as if with one voice, do you not marvel at the truth of the Gospel and conclude that they spoke by the Holy Spirit? Do not tell me that they are not in agreement in all points. Consider where exactly they do not agree. Does one Evangelist say that Christ was born, and another, that He was not? Or one, that He rose, and another, that He did not? Indeed not! In what is essential, they speak with one voice. Therefore, if they do not diverge in the essential points, why do you marvel if they appear to vary in minor details? It is precisely because their accounts do not agree in every detail that we can see that they present the truth. If they had agreed on every point, it would cause one to suspect that they sat down and deliberated together in writing the Gospels. Instead, what one Evangelist has omitted, another has recorded, and for this reason that they seem to be at variance on certain points.

Preface to the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel According to St. Mark was written ten years after the Ascension of Christ. This Mark was a disciple of Peter, whom Peter calls his son, that is, his spiritual son. He was also called John (Acts 12:12), and the nephew of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), and the companion of Paul (Philemon 24). But eventually he accompanied Peter the most, and was with him in Rome. The believers in Rome begged Mark not only to preach orally, but also to give them a written account of Christ’s life. He agreed, and composed it immediately. God revealed to Peter that Mark had written this Gospel, and when he saw it, Peter confirmed its truth, and sent Mark as bishop to Egypt. There Mark preached and established the Church in Alexandria, enlightening all those in that sunny land to the south. The character of this Gospel, therefore, is unclouded and clear, containing nothing that is hidden.

Mark’s Gospel agrees with Matthew’s in every respect, except that Matthew goes into greater detail. And while Matthew begins with the Nativity of the Lord according to the flesh, Mark begins with the prophet and forerunner John. Therefore, though it may appear incomprehensible, some have given this understanding of the four Evangelists: God, Who sits upon the four-faced Cherubim, as Scripture says (see Ezekiel 1:10, 10:14; also Rev. 4:7) gave us the Gospel which likewise appears in four forms, but is held together by one Spirit. Just as one of the Cherubim had the face of a lion, and another the face of a man, and another the face of an eagle, and another the face of a bullock, so it is with the preaching of the Gospel.

The Gospel of John has the face of a lion, for the lion is royal and princely; and John began his Gospel with the royal and lordly dignity of the divine Word, saying, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God". But the Gospel of Matthew is in the likeness of a man, for it begins with the Nativity according to the flesh and the incarnation of the Word. The Gospel of Mark is likened to an eagle, for it begins with the prophet and forerunner John. And the prophetic gift, by which one can foresee and keenly perceive things that are a great way off, is like an eagle. For it is said that the eagle is the most keen sighted of all the animals, and can even gaze at the sun without shutting its eyes. The Gospel of Luke is like the bullock, because it begins with the priestly service of Zacharias, in the course of which he made sacrifice for the sins of the people, sacrificing a bullock.

Preface to the Gospel of Luke

The divine Luke, an Antiochian and a physician, had a great knowledge of natural philosophy; but he was also much practiced in Hebrew learning. He lived in Jerusalem at the time when our Lord was teaching, so that some say that he himself became one of the seventy apostles, and together with Cleopas, met the Lord after He rose from the dead. After the Lord ascended, and Paul believed, Luke became a close companion and follower of Paul. He wrote his Gospel with great accuracy, as his preface makes clear. He wrote the Gospel fifteen years after the Lord’s Ascension. He writes it to a certain Theophilus, a senator and perhaps a magistrate as well, calling him "most excellent". Magistrates and governors are addressed in this fashion, as when Paul said to the governor Festus, "O most excellent Festus".1 Everyone who loves God and exercises dominion over his passions is a "Theophilus" and "most excellent", and it is he who is truly worthy to hear the Gospel.

Preface to the Gospel of John

The strength of the Holy Spirit "is made perfect in weakness" (II Cor. 12:9): so it is written and so we believe. It is made perfect in weakness of the body, and especially in feebleness of understanding (logos) and of speech. This has been proven time and again, but nowhere so clearly as in the life of John, the great theologian and brother of Christ by grace. John was a fisherman and the son of a fisherman, not just ignorant of higher Greek and Judaic learning, but completely illiterate, as the divine Luke says in the book of Acts (4:3). His native town, Bethsaida, was lowly and obscure: a “place of fishing,” not of learning. Behold how a man like this—unlettered, unknown, and insignificant—acquired such spiritual power that he thundered forth doctrines taught by none of the other Evangelists. Their Gospels dealt with the life of Christ in the flesh and made no clear declaration of His existence before the ages. From this arose the danger that certain contemptible men, with minds fixed on the physical world and unable to comprehend anything exalted, would imagine that Christ first came into existence when He was born of Mary, and that He was not begotten of the Father before all ages. Paul of Samosata fell to exactly that temptation. Realizing this, the great John clearly set forth the spiritual begetting of Christ, without neglecting to record that "the Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14). Some maintain that the Orthodox—the rightly believing Christians—asked John to write about Christ’s eternal generation in order to refute certain heretics who had already begun to teach that the Saviour was merely a man. It is also said that when the saint read the books of the other Evangelists, he marveled at the accuracy of their narratives on every point, and judged them to be sound and unbiased towards any of the apostles. But what the other Evangelists had not stated clearly, or had omitted, John clarified, developed, or added to his own Gospel, which he wrote thirty-two years after the Ascension of Christ, while living in exile on the island of Patmos. The Lord loved John more than any of the disciples, because of his simplicity, meekness and goodness, and especially because he was a virgin and pure of heart. It was on account of his purity in particular that John was entrusted with the gift of theology. "Blessed are the pure in heart," the Lord says, "for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8); and, indeed, John delighted in mysteries which most men do not perceive.

John was related to Jesus, in the following manner. Joseph, the Betrothed of the most pure Theotokos, had seven children by his previous wife—four sons, and three daughters whose names were Martha, Esther, and Salome. John was the son of Salome; therefore, Jesus was John’s uncle. Because Salome was the daughter of Joseph—the “father of the Lord”—she was considered to be the Lord’s sister; and her son, John, the Lord’s nephew. Salome means “peaceful“; John means “the grace of her.” May every soul understand that Christ’s peace, which is offered to all men, calms the passions of the soul, and gives birth to divine grace within us. But a soul in turmoil, always battling with others and with itself, cannot be counted worthy of divine grace. Consider another marvelous thing about John. Only he is said to have three mothers: first, Salome, his natural mother; second, thunder, for he is a "son of thunder" (Mk 3:17), on account of his powerful proclamation of the Gospel ; and third, Mary, the Theotokos, concerning whom the Lord said to John, "Behold thy mother" (Jn 19:27).

1 Acts 26:25. The single Greek word kratiste, translated in Acts 26:25 by the KJV as O most noble, is the same word used in Luke 1:3 to address Theophilus, but rendered in this case by the KJV as O most excellent. It is the superlative form of an adjective derived from the noun kratos, meaning might or dominion. In the next line Blessed Theophylact makes a play on the meaning of this word, and on the meaning of the name Theophilus, he who loves God.