The Gospels and the four Evangelists

The Gospel – Evangelion – is a central part of the Orthodox Christian theology, worship, and tradition. At the entrance of an Orthodox church, right next to the holy icons, we find an elaborately decorated Gospel book, which we venerate by making the sign of the cross and kissing it. A similarly decorated Gospel book is also kept permanently on the Altar table, to emphasize that Jesus Christ is the center of Church life, extended to the ages of ages. The Gospel reading is a fundamental part of the Divine Liturgy and of most Orthodox Mysteries. Inside the church building, the images of the four Evangelists are painted on the pendatives, the points where the dome intersects with its supporting arches, symbolizing that the Gospels are the pillars of our Faith.

MAIN POINTS

The word Evangelion means “good news ” – the happy news of our salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.

The word Evangelion also means a collection of four holy books, the Gospels.

The Gospels were written by the four Evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The Gospels are central to our Faith: They describe the earthly life and teachings of our Lord, and show us what we should do to follow His Word.

At church, we show reverence to the Gospels: When we hear the Gospel reading, we always stand up and listen attentively; we also venerate the Gospel by making the sign of the cross and kissing it, just like we venerate holy icons.

In the Church tradition, each Evangelist is symbolized by a winged creature:
Matthew: angel
Mark: lion
Luke: ox
John: eagle.

OBJECTIVES

At the end of the lesson, the students should be able to do the following:

Younger children

  • Explain that “Evangelion” means “good news”.
  • Describe the Gospel as a holy book that we venerate and listen to at church.
  • Explain that the Gospel tells us about our Lord Jesus Christ, His life on Earth, and His teachings.
  • Demonstrate ways in which we show respect to the Gospel: make the sign of the cross and kiss it, stand up and listen carefully and quietly when it is read aloud.

Older children

In addition to the above, older children should also be able to do the following:

  • Explain that the “good news” associated with the term “Evangelion” refers to the happy news of our salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Mention the four Evangelists by name, as the authors of the four Gospels.
  • Recognize each Evangelist in icons.
  • Match each Evangelist with his symbol.
  • Repeat one or two basic facts from each Evangelist’s life.

BACKGROUND

The word Evangelion means “good news” and it comes from the Greek eu (ευ) = good + angel- (αγγελ-) = messαge. It refers to the glad tidings of the salvation of humankind by the One True God, the Holy Trinity. The word also has a secondary meaning; it denotes the four holy books – the Gospels – which describe the earthly life and teachings of our Lord. This information was faithfully kept in the oral Holy Tradition of the early Church for decades, before it was recorded in written form in the Gospels. 

The four Gospels were written by the four Evangelists: Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospel books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called ‘synoptic’, because their content is similar; they focus on our Lord’s earthly life, His work and His teachings. John’s Gospel is more profound: he records in long discourses the Lord’s own words about His mission, the Divine Kingdom, the Holy Trinity, and the Church. This is why the Church has bestowed to St. John the title of ‘Theologian’.

The Gospel, its message and importance

The Evangelion, both as salvific message and as collection of holy books, affirms the following: 

  • Jesus is the Son of the Father and God Himself, the long-awaited Messiah from the scriptures.
  • He took on our human nature by the will of the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit. 
  • He was born from the Most Holy Virgin Mary the Theotokos and lived as one of us.
  • He taught us the way to become children of God.
  • He suffered and died as a man, and was resurrected as both God and man. 
  • Like Him, we are all going to be resurrected, and we will receive either eternal life or eternal judgement, according to our heart and deeds. 

A few words about each Gospel

The Gospel according to Matthew

It was mainly written for the Christians of Jewish origin, so it stresses the fact that our Lord was the long-awaited Messiah prophesied in the scriptures. Matthew’s Gospel book was written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek – as opposed to the other three Gospel books that were directly written in Greek.

The Gospel according to Mark

It is the first Gospel that was written, at around 62-63 A.D.. Among the synoptic Gospels it is the shortest but the one with the longest narratives, mostly focusing on the facts as they occurred. 

The Gospel according to Luke

It was mainly addressed to the Christians who were previously pagan (‘gentiles’), and it mostly emphasizes our Lord as Savior, Who, during His earthly life, took care of the poor and needy. Luke wrote in beautiful Greek. He dedicated his Gospel – and the book of Acts, which he also wrote – to a certain Theophilus, who must have been a former gentile, in order to strengthen him and his family to the Faith.

The Gospel according to John

It was the last Gospel to be written, at St. John’s old age, around 90 A.D. St. John knew the contents of the other three Gospels, and aimed at mostly recording additional unknown details as well as explaining theological truths.

The four Evangelists

As the Evangelion is the good news of our salvation, the Evangelists are the people who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached this message to the whole world. Although all the Apostles had a life mission of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the title of Evangelist is only reserved for the four Gospel authors.

Matthew and John were among the chosen Twelve Apostles; Mark belonged in the greater circle of disciples, the Seventy, was the companion of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and recorded Peter’s account of Christ.  Luke also belonged to the Seventy, and joined the Apostle Paul in his missionary travels.

The Evangelists and their symbols

From the early years of our Church, the four Evangelists have been symbolized each by an angel-winged creature. 

  • Matthew is symbolized by an angel or a winged man.
  • Mark is represented by a lion.
  • Luke is the winged ox.
  • John is represented by an eagle.

These four creatures are collectively called the Tetramorph, and they are also mentioned in different parts of the Old and New Testament.

The depiction of the Evangelists together with their symbols, or of only the symbols as representations of the Evangelists – which is common in Western Christian art – can be found in Orthodox art mostly in manuscript decorations or in the edifices of churches. It is quite rare for the symbols to be found in Orthodox icons, as our Orthodox forefathers believed it inappropriate to include such creatures in images that are meant to be venerated. 

Apostle and Evangelist Matthew

Feast day: November 16

  • Matthew was the brother of the Apostle James, and both were sons of Alpheus. He lived in Capernaum of Galilee and was initially a publican, a tax-collector. At the time, tax-collectors were very much hated because they often took advantage of the Jewish people. When he met Christ he greatly repented and immediately followed Him. His story of becoming a disciple is recorded in Matthew 9:9-13.
  • Apostle Matthew preached the Gospel first in Palestine, then in Syria, Media, Persia, and Ethiopia. In Ethiopia he worked many miracles by the Grace of God, baptized thousands including the family of the ruler, and in the end received the crown of martyrdom. 

Icon description

The Evangelist Matthew is depicted as an old man with thick white hair and a long, pointy beard. His facial expression is serious and he is concentrated in his writing. He is often seated in an armchair with his body leaning towards a small table on which his writing instruments are placed. The book he is writing reads the first verse of his Gospel account in Greek: “Bible of the genealogy of Jesus Christ…”. Next to or on the table there may be a a scroll with Hebrew characters – this is to signify that Matthew first wrote his Gospel account in Hebrew and later translated it into Greek. 

ICON EXAMPLES
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 11th century in Greek
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 16th century in Church Slavonic

Troparion — Tone 3

With zeal, you followed Christ the Master, / who in His goodness, appeared on earth to mankind. / Summoning you from the custom house, / He revealed you as a chosen apostle: / the proclaimer of the Gospel to the whole world! / Therefore, divinely eloquent Matthew, / we honor your precious memory! / Entreat merciful God that He may grant our souls remission of transgressions.

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Orthodox Church in America
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Apostle and Evangelist Mark

Feast day: April 25

In the occasion that this date falls within Great Lent, then the Saint’s memory is celebrated on Bright Tuesday

  • Saint Mark worked closely with the Apostles Paul and Peter, and with Saint Barnabas, who was his uncle. They preached in Asia Minor, Cyprus, Egypt and other places in North Africa. 
  • He returned to Alexandria in Egypt, where he lived for a long time, establishing a vibrant and very active Church, also becoming its first bishop.
  • Saint Mark’s martyrdom occurred in 68 A.D. in Alexandria. His relics were collected by the Christians and interred. In the early 4th century a Christian church was built upon the Saint’s tomb. Later, in the 9th century, the Saint’s relics were moved to Venice, at the famous cathedral dedicated to him. 

Icon description 

Saint Mark is depicted as a middle-aged man with wavy, dark hair and a short, thick  beard. His facial expression is thoughtful and concentrated in his writing. He is seated on a stool or chair and he holds his open Gospel book in which the first line is written: “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”. On his desk there are the tools of writing and a lectern. He wears classical ancient Greek clothes, with a golden ribbon on his shoulder – the symbol of an Apostle. 

ICON EXAMPLES
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 11th century in Greek
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 16th century in Church Slavonic

Troparion — Tone 4

From your childhood the light of truth enlightened you, O Mark, / and you loved the labor of Christ the Savior. / Therefore, you followed Peter with zeal / and served Paul well as a fellow laborer, / and you enlighten the world with your holy Gospel.

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Orthodox Church in America
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Apostle and Evangelist Luke

Feast day: October 18

  • Luke was born in Antioch, Syria and was of Greek origin. He received an excellent education: he studied philosophy and medical arts, eventually becoming a physician. 
  • He was working in mainland Greece when he met the Apostle Paul; he immediately became Paul’s faithful disciple and companion. 
  • After the martyrdom of Saints Paul and Peter in Rome, Luke left to preach the Gospel in Greece, Libya, Egypt, and the Thebaid. 
  • The Saint had reached an old age when he received the crown of martyrdom in the city of Thiva, Viotia (mainland Greece).
  • According to Church Tradition, Luke was the first-ever iconographer, and this is why he is sometimes shown painting an icon of the Theotokos.

Icon description

Saint Luke is depicted as a mature man, with dark curly hair and a thin beard. Sometimes the top of his head is shaved as if he is newly ordained. He wears ancient Greek clothes with a golden ribbon on his shoulder, a symbol of his apostleship. He is holding his Gospel book, onto which the first verse is written: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order”. On the table there are several writing instruments and a lectern with a scroll or a book. 

ICON EXAMPLES
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 11th century in Greek
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 16th century in Church Slavonic

Troparion — Tone 5

Let us praise with sacred songs the holy Apostle Luke, / the recorder of the joyous Gospel of Christ / and the scribe of the Acts of the Apostles, / for his writings are a testimony of the Church of Christ: / He is the physician of human weaknesses and infirmities. / He heals the wounds of our souls, / and constantly intercedes for our salvation!

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Orthodox Church in America 
Greek Orthodox Archdioces of America 

Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian

Feast day: September 26

On May 8 the Church also commemorates the pilgrimage to St John’s tomb.

  • One of the 12 Disciples and Apostles of our Lord, along with his older brother, James the son of Zebedee. Born in Bethsaida in Galilee, James and John were children of Christ’s step-sister, Salome. The two brothers were first disciples of St John the Forerunner and followed the Lord afterwards. 
  • The two brothers and Peter were the three disciples closest to the Lord, and only they witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the Transfiguration.
  • John was the youngest of the Twelve, and the only one among them to follow the Lord through His Passion and Death on the Cross. After the glorious news of the Resurrection brought to the disciples by the Myrrh-bearers, it was John and Peter who ran to see Christ’s tomb – yet only John went inside. 
  • At the Lord’s direction (John 19:26-27), John took the Most Holy Theotokos with him and stayed with her until Her Dormition. Then he began his own apostolic mission preaching the Gospel at Ephesus and continuing to other cities in Asia Minor. 
  • John traveled with his own disciple, Prochorus, who recorded John’s four books: the Gospel account, the Apocalypse (Revelation), and three Catholic Epistles. All writings took place during Saint John’s exile at the Greek island of Patmos, specifically in a cave, now known as “the cave of the Revelation”. 
  • John outlived all his fellow Apostles and eyewitnesses of the Lord. He was over a hundred years old when he reposed peacefully at Ephesus, where he returned after his exile ended.

Icon description

In iconography, Saint John is usually depicted seated in front of the cave in Patmos. He is an old man with white hair around a bald head and a long white beard. His body is tightly enveloped in a large cloak and has a particular posture: while the body is turned to the right, the head is turned to the left, with the eyes staring sideways, as being in a trance and listening to a mystical voice, coming from a divine ray that has come down to rest upon the Saint’s head. 

St John dictates his Gospel account to his young disciple, Prochorus, who is writing the phrase “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) on a papyrus scroll . When St John is depicted without Prochorus, he is either sitting in front of a book in a state of trance, or holding a pen as if getting ready to write. 

Interesting fact: in the icons of Christ and His disciples, St John is depicted as a young man, even a teenager. In his own icons, the Saint is depicted as an old man. 

ICON EXAMPLES
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 14th century in Greek
Illustrated Gospel manuscript of the 16th century in Church Slavonic

Troparion — Tone 2

Beloved apostle of Christ our God, / hasten to deliver a defenseless people. / He who allowed you to recline on His breast, / receives you as you bow before Him. / Implore Him, John the Theologian, / to disperse the persistent threat from the heathens, / entreating for us peace and great mercy.

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Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Orthodox Church in America:
Repose of St John the Theologian
Commemoration of the annual pilgrimage to the Saint’s grave

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES