Focus on the Faith: What Do We Know About The Gospels?
The New Testament Scriptures contain four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The word “Gospel” comes from two Old English words: “god” meaning “good” and “spell” meaning to “pour out.” The latter still exists in English in the form of “spill,” like “spill it!” or “spill the beans.” It is a direct translation of the Greek word “Evangelion,” “Ev” meaning “good” and “angelion” meaning “message.” (Like angels – messengers.)
The order of the Gospels appear in your Bible according to the time that the Church’s tradition says they were written, from earliest to latest. Matthew was written by St. Matthew the disciple, whose other name was Levi, sometime before the year 60. It is the earliest one, written originally in Aramaic, but subsequently re-written and amended in the Greek language.
The Gospel of Mark is the second Gospel of the New Testament; but chronologically the first Gospel originally written in Greek, sometime in the mid-sixties AD. Mark (known as John Mark) was one of the 70 apostles. He used St. Peter as the primary source of his gospel as well as his own personal interviews and experiences. St. Mark is the founder of the Church of Alexandria, in Egypt. He died as a martyr.
The Gospel of Luke was written by the Apostle Luke, again, one of the 70 apostles. He was a physician who accompanied the Apostle Paul on some of his missionary travels. His Gospel is the longest of the four canonical Gospels. The text narrates the life of Jesus, with particular emphasis on his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. It ends with an account of the ascension. More emphasis is placed on women than in the other Gospels. His account of the birth and infancy narratives of Christ were given to him directly by the Virgin Mary herself (Luke 2:19).
The Gospel of John was written last of the Gospels, somewhere after 90 AD. It is written by John the Apostle, called “the Theologian” by the Church. He was one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus and the youngest among them. His Gospel begins with the witness of and affirmation by John the Baptist, and concludes with the death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is written by the same author, according to church tradition, who wrote the three Epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse.
The Gospels tell of the life and teaching of Jesus, but none of them is a biography in the classic sense of the word. The Gospels were not written merely to tell a textbook history of Jesus. They were written by the disciples of Christ, each from their own point of view, who were filled with the Holy Spirit, after the Lord’s resurrection, in order to testify to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah-Christ of Israel and the Saviour of the world.
In the Orthodox Church, it’s not the whole Bible which sits permanently on top of the Altar Table, but it is a bound book containing only the four Gospels. The holy altar represents the Throne of God, and the Book of Revelation tells us what rests upon the Throne in the Kingdom: (Read Revelation 4 ). ( Symbols: Matthew “man,” Mark “lion,” Luke “calf,” John “eagle.”
Matthew’s Gospel starts with Jesus’ genealogy from Abraham; it emphasizes Jesus’ Incarnation, and so Christ’s human nature. Hence, “man.”
Mark has John the Baptist preaching “like a lion roaring” at the beginning of his Gospel. It also represents Jesus’ Resurrection because lions were believed to sleep with open eyes, a comparison with Christ in the tomb. Also the lion represents the King of Beasts, hence, Christ as king.
Luke is symbolized by a winged calf or young ox – a figure of sacrifice, service, obedience and strength. Luke’s account begins with the duties of Zacharias in the temple; it represents Jesus’ sacrifice in His Passion and Crucifixion, as well as Christ being High priest. Since the Theotokos supplied much material to Luke, this symbol also represents Mary’s obedient submission to God’s will.
John is represented by an eagle – a figure soaring upward to heaven, and believed to be able to look straight into the sun. John starts with a mystical and eternal overview of Christ the Logos and goes on to describe many things on a “higher,” more transcendent level than the other three gospels; pointing especially to Christ’s divine nature.
The Gospels on the altar are a testimony to the fact that the life of the Church is centered in Christ, the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets, who abides perpetually in the midst of His People, the Church, through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Orthopraxis: A Few Practical Tips for Orthodox Living – from the Lesna Monastery
- Say your Prayers morning and evening, either together as a family or individually.
- A blessing (“grace”) should always be said before a meal, and a prayer of thanksgiving afterwards.
- On entering a room where there is an icon, cross yourself before it and say a brief prayer.
- When leaving one’s dwelling, make the sign of the cross over the door and pray for its protection.
- On seeing a Bishop, priest, abbot or abbess, or even when phoning them or writing to them, always ask their blessing.
- Before going to bed, make the sign of the cross over it and pray for protection during sleep.
- When you hear of anyone’s death, immediately say a prayer for their blessed repose, and if they are Orthodox, memory eternal.
- If discussing or planning the future say: “As God wills.”
- If you offend or hurt anyone, say as soon as possible, “Forgive me,” always trying to take the blame yourself
- If something turns out well, say “Thanks, God.”
- If something turns out badly, if there is pain, sickness or any kind of trouble, say “Glory to God for all things,” since God is all good and, though we might not understand the purpose of these things, undoubtedly they have been permitted by God.
- If you begin some task, say, “God help me,” or if someone else’ working: “May God help you,”
- Cross yourself, and the road ahead, and say a brief prayer before even the shortest journey by car.
- For a longer and more difficult journey, ask a priest to say the “Prayers Before A Journey” and receive a blessing with Holy Water.
- If there is a possibility of future trouble of any kind, either for yourself or for someone you care for, say an Akathist to the Mother of God.
- When something you have prayed about turns out well, always remember to thank God. If it is a small thing, you may add a prayer of thanksgiving to your daily prayers or make an offering. For matters of greater import, ask the priest to serve the Thanksgiving Moleben. But NEVER neglect to give thanks.
From the Fathers: On Reading the Scriptures
“By reading the Bible you are adding yeast to the dough of your soul and body, which gradually expands and fills the soul until it has thoroughly permeated it and makes it rise with the truth and righteousness of the Gospel.” (St. Justin Popovich, How to Read the Bible and Why)
“In order to fulfill the commandments of Christ, you must know them! Read the Holy Gospel, penetrate its spirit and make it the rule of your life.” (St. Nikon of Optina)
“If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” ( St. Augustine of Hippo)
“It is not possible, I say not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom.” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. XIX On Acts)
Feasts and Saints of the Month: October
The Protection of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
On October 1, 911, during the reign of Emperor Leo the Wise, an all-night vigil was being held at the Blachernae Church of the Mother of God in Constantinople, with many of the faithful crowding the church. St Andrew the Fool for Christ (commemorated tomorrow, October 2) was standing at the back of the church with his disciple Epiphanius. At around four in the morning, the most holy Theotokos appeared above the people, clothed in resplendent garments, surrounded by indescribable radiance, and holding a veil in her outstretched hands, as though to protect all the people. St Andrew said to Epiphanius ‘Do you see how the Queen and Lady of all is praying for the whole world?’ Epiphanius replied ‘Yes, Father, I see it and stand in dread.’ This wonderful event is recorded in Epiphanius’ life of St Andrew. Because of it, the Church keeps an annual feast on this date.
Synaxis of the Holy Startsi (Elders) of Optina Monastery
Commemorated today are our holy fathers Moses, Antony, Leonid(Lev), Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatolius I, Isaac I, Joseph, Barsanuphius, Anatolius the Younger, Nectarius, Nikon the Confessor, and Hieromartyr Isaac the Younger. Hieromartyr Isaac was shot by the Bolsheviks on December 26 1937. This feast commemorates a few of the holy Fathers who made the Optina Hermitage (Pustyn) a focus for the powerful renewal movement that spread through the Church in Russia beginning early in the nineteenth century, and continuing up to (and even into) the atheist persecutions of the twentieth century. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15) was powerfully influential in bringing the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a ‘headquarters’ from which they spread throughout the Russian land. The monastery itself had been in existence since at least the sixteenth century, but had fallen into decay through the anti-monastic policies of Catherine II and other modernizing rulers. Around 1790, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow undertook a mission to restore and revive the monastery in the tradition set forth by St Paisius. By the early 1800s the monastery (located about 80 miles from Moscow) had become a beacon of Orthodox spirituality, partly through their publication of Orthodox spiritual texts, but more importantly through the lineage of divinely-enlightened spiritual fathers (startsi, plural of starets) who served as guides to those, noble and peasant, who flocked to the monastery for their holy counsel. The fathers aroused some controversy in their own day; a few critics (some of them from other monasteries) disapproved of their allowing the Jesus Prayer to become widely-known among the people, fearing that it would give rise to spiritual delusion (prelest). For a wonderful depiction of the deep influence of the Jesus Prayer on Russian life during this period, read the anonymously-written” Way of a Pilgrim”.
With the coming of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the monastery was of course officially shut down, but some of the Fathers were able to keep it running for a time as an ‘agricultural legion’. Over the years, most of the Fathers were dispersed, to die in exile, in prison camps, or by the firing squad. Many of them are known to have continued to function as startsi to their spiritual children, despite great danger and hardship, for the remainder of their time on earth. Commemoration of the Optina startsi was approved by the Synod of the Russian Church Abroad in 1990, and by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1996. The Optina Monastery itself was officially re-established in 1987.
Upcoming events in October (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)