The meaning of the Greek word, euangelion (Gospel) is well known. In Scripture it denotes, by way of eminence, (kat ' exochen,) the glad and delightful message of the grace exhibited to us in Christ, in order to instruct us, by despising the world and its fading riches and pleasures, to desire with our whole heart, and to embrace when offered to us, this invaluable blessing. The conduct which we perceive in irreligious men, who take an extravagant delight in the empty enjoyments of the world, while they are little if at all, affected by a relish for spiritual blessings, is natural to us all. For the purpose of correcting this fault, God expressly bestows the name Gospel on the message which he orders to be proclaimed concerning Christ; for thus he reminds us that nowhere else can true and solid happiness be obtained, and that in him we have all that is necessary for the perfection of a happy life.
Some consider the word Gospel as extending to all the gracious promises of God which are found scattered even in the Law and the Prophets. Nor can it be denied that, whenever God declares that he will be reconciled to men, and forgives their sins, he at the same time exhibits Christ, whose peculiar office it is, wherever he shines, to spread abroad the rays of joy. I acknowledge, therefore, that the Fathers were partakers of the same Gospel with ourselves, so far as relates to the faith of a gratuitous salvation. But as it is the ordinary declaration made by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, that the Gospel was first proclaimed when Christ came, let us also adhere to this mode of expression; and let us keep by that definition of the Gospel which I have given, that it is a solemn publication of the grace revealed in Christ. On this account the Gospel is called
the power of God to salvation to every one who believeth, (Romans 1:16)
because in it God displays his righteousness. It is called also an
embassy, by which he reconciles men to himself,
(2 Corinthians 5:20)
and as Christ is the pledge of the mercy of God, and of his fatherly love towards us, so he is, in a peculiar manner, the subject of the Gospel.
Hence it came that the histories which relate that Christ appeared in the flesh and died, and was raised from the dead, and at length was taken up into heaven, have peculiarly obtained the name Gospel. For although, for the reason already stated:, this word means the New Testament, yet the name which denote, the whole has come, by general practice, to stand for that part of it which declares that Christ was manifested to us in the flesh, and died, and rose from the dead. But as the bare history would not be enough, and, indeed, would be of no advantage for salvation, the Evangelists do not merely relate that Christ was born, and that he died and vanquished death, but also explain for what purpose he was born, and died, and rose again, and what benefit we derive from those events.
Yet there is also this difference between them, that the other three are more copious in their narrative of the life and death of Christ, but John dwells more largely on the doctrine by which the office of Christ, together with the power of his death and resurrection, is unfolded. They do not, indeed, omit to mention that Christ came to bring salvation to the world, to atone for the sins of the world by the sacrifice of his death, and, in short, to perform every thing that was required from the Mediator, (as John also devotes a portion of his work to historical details;) but the doctrine, which points out to us the power and benefit of the coming of Christ, is far more clearly exhibited by him than by the rest. And as all of them had the same object in view, to point out Christ, the three former exhibit his body, if we may be permitted to use the expression, but John exhibits his soul. On this account, I am accustomed to say that this Gospel is a key to open the door for understanding the rest; for whoever shall understand the power of Christ, as it is here strikingly portrayed, will afterwards read with advantage what the others relate about the Redeemer who was manifested.
John is believed to have written chiefly with the intention of maintaining the Divinity of Christ, in opposition to the wicked blasphemies of Ebion and Cerinthus; and this is asserted by Eusebius and Jerome, in accordance with the general opinion of the ancients. But whatever might be his motive for writing at that time, there can be no doubt whatever that God intended a far higher benefit for his Church. He therefore dictated to the Four Evangelists what they should write, in such a manner that, while each had his own part assigned him, the whole might be collected into one body; and it is our duty now to blend the Four by a mutual relation, so that we may permit ourselves to be taught by all of them, as by one mouth. As to John being placed the fourth in order, it was done on account of the time when he wrote, but in reading them, a different order would be more advantageous, which is, that when we wish to read in Matthew and the others, that Christ was given to us by the Father, we should first learn from John the purpose for which he was manifested.