The Four Gospels is written by Archbishop Averky of Jordanville, who was a professor at the Holy Trinity Seminary before becoming abbot of the attached monastery. In this book, he gives you a complete exegesis of the Gospels according to scripture and the traditions of the Orthodox Church as taught and passed on by the Russian torchbearers of the faith. This is technically a textbook that is given to seminary students but it’s also highly readable for laymen. I recommend it to all Christians who want to unlock the full meaning of the Gospels.

Why are there four Gospels instead of one?

St John Chrysostom: “Can one Evangelist write everything? Of course, he could have, but consider this: Four Evangelists wrote at different times, in different places, without talking or agreeing with each other about the contents. And yet, they wrote their Gospels in such a way that it seems they uttered their words with one mouth. This is a great proof of their truth.”

[…]

The main difference between the Synoptics and St John is in the manner of relating Christ’s preaching. In the Synoptics, Christ speaks very simply, in a manner easy to understand, in a populist vein. In St John, Christ speaks about profound and mystical things, often difficult to understand, almost as if they were not intended for the crowd, but rather for a limited circle of listeners. But that is, in fact, the case. The Synoptics relate Christ’s preaching to the Galileans, who were simple and ignorant people. St John, in contrast, relates the words of the Lord directed at the Judeans, the scribes, and Pharisees, people who knew the Law of Moses well, and were (by the standards of that time) quite well educated.

Meeting of the Lord by Simeon

…ancient tradition tells us that Simeon was one of those seventy-two elders who, by order of Ptolemy, translated the Old Testament from ancient Hebrew to Greek. He was given the book of Isaiah, and he doubted the prophecy of the birth of Immanuel from a virgin (Isa 7:14). Then an angel appeared to him and told him that he would not die until he saw with his own eyes the fulfillment of this prophecy. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, he came to the temple, to the place where the altar of whole-burnt offerings was located, and recognized the Christ in the Child held by the most holy Virgin Mary. He took Him in his arms, and from his lips came an inspired prayer—gratitude to God for the fact that He allowed him to see in the face of this Child the salvation prepared for all people: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,” he said… Joseph and the Theotokos were amazed because everywhere they went, they found people to whom God had already revealed the secret of this Child.

Enlightening the Persian barbarians

The symbol meaning of [the] wonderful arrival of the Magi from the East is given by St John Chrysostom: “Since the Jews, who constantly heard the Prophets tell of the coming of Christ, never really paid it much attention, the Lord inspired barbarians to come from a faraway land to ask about the King born among the Jews, and they learned from the Persians that which they did not want to learn from the prophets.”

The Pharisees and the Sadducees

The Pharisees skillfully hid their passions through an exact observance of the ritual commandments of the Mosaic Law, while the Sadducees, giving themselves up to physical pleasures, rejected everything that contracted their epicurean manner of life—the spiritual life entirely, as well as the divine judgment after death. John accuses them for their arrogance, their sureness of their own righteousness, and tells them that the fact that they are sons of Abraham will bring them no benefit, if they bring no fruits worthy of repentance because the tree that brings not forth good fruit is useless and is chopped down and thrown into the fire.

[…]

According to the pious rituals of the Pharisees, one must wash the hands before and after eating, and the Talmud even gives the exact amount of water to be used, at what times, and the order in which to wash in case there are more (or less) than five people in attendance at the meal. These rules were given such importance that whoever did not follow them was cast out of Israel by the Sanhedrin. For some reason, the Jews believed that Moses received two laws on Mount Sinai—one that was written down, and another oral law that was passed down from parent to child and was only later written down in the Talmud. This law was called the “traditional of the elders,” the ancient rabbis. This tradition is especially remarkable for its many niggling rules.

Satan’s temptations of Lord Jesus Christ

Having come to earth in order to destroy the work of the devil, the Lord could have, of course, destroyed [the demons] at once merely with a breath from His lips. However, one must remember that the works of the devil were rooted in the delusions of man’s free soul, whom the Lord had come to save without removing from man free will, that greatest gift of God. Man was created not a pawn, not a soulless automaton or an animal guided by irrational instinct, but a rational, free person. If looked at from the reference point of Christ’s divinity, this temptation was a battle of the spirit of evil with the Son of God Who came to save mankind, an attempt to preserve [Satan’s] power over men with the help of various illusions of power and happiness.

[…]

Christ came to earth to establish His kingdom among men, the kingdom of God. Two paths could lead to this purpose. One was the path desired by most of the Jews at that time—the path of the quick and magnificent enthronement of the Messiah as an earthly king. The other was a slow and difficult path of the moral rebirth of all mankind through their free will, together with much suffering, not only for the followers of the Messiah, but for Him as well. The devil wanted to turn Christ away from the second path, showing Him the illusory ease of the first path, promising Him not suffering, but only glory.

The work of Christ

The Pharisees thought that the work of Christ would be judgment over all the other nations. The Lord explains that He is now sent not to judge, but to save the world. Those who do not believe will condemn themselves because this lack of faith will reveal their love for the darkness and hatred for the light, which come from their love for evil deeds. Those who do the works of the truth, moral and upright souls, go toward the light of their own accord, not fearing to be condemned for their actions.

[…]

…the Lord came to call and save everyone, including self-delusional, so-called righteous people, but until they leave behind their delusions of personal righteousness and admit themselves to be sinners, calling them would be pointless, and salvation for them would be impossible.

[…]

If, instead of bearing His sufferings, He used His divine power to avoid them, then He could not be an example for us.

Why Jesus did miracles

One of the inhabitants of Capernaum, a former courtier of Herod’s, hearing of Christ’s arrival, hurried to Cana to ask Jesus to come with him to heal his son, who was near death. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe.'” Faith that is dependent on seeing miracles is put by the Lord on a lower level than faith based on understanding the purity and greatness of His divine teaching. Faith born of miracles requires increasingly more miracles to be sustained since they become habitual and lose their ability to astonish. At the same time, the person who only accepts the teaching that is confirmed by miracles can easily fall into delusion because there are such things as false and demonic miracles. Thus, the word of God warns us to be careful with miracles (Deut 13:1-5)

Who will the Jews accept as their messiah?

From the time of Christ, there have already been more than sixty such false messiahs, and the last of them will be the Antichrist, whom the Jews will accept also as their Messiah. The reason for the Jews’ lack of faith is that they seek human glory, and they do not respect the one who reveals their sins, even if he is right, while the one who praises them (even if he lies), they accept as their own.

Judging others vs. making a judgment call

“Judge not, that you be not judged.” Judgment in this case does not refer to “making a judgment call” about someone or something, but condemning your neighbor, in the sense of finding fault with him, which is most often a result of self-love, vanity, and pride. Christ here forbids speaking ill of another, angrily rebuking the sins of others, especially when this is done with a sense of anger or hatred for that person… What is forbidden… is the evil feeling of superiority over others, the joy in the misfortune of others, but not the mere assessment of the actions of one’s neighbor, for if we do not call evil what it is, we may become indifferent to good and evil, and we may lose the sense of distinguishing between the two. St John Chrysostom has this to say on the subject: “If anyone performs adultery, shall I not say that adultery is an evil, must I not correct the sinner? Yes, I must correct him, but not as though he were my enemy, not as a physician who punishes, but as a physician who gives medicine. We must not accuse, not decry, but we must enlighten. We must not denounce, but advise. We must not attack with pride, but correct with love.”

A big part of knowing the difference between judgment and judgment calls is the intent behind your judgment. Most people judge with the intent to feel superior and put others down. On the other hand, a Christian will aim to recognize and identify sin and evil behavior without feeding one’s pride, and will prefer to correct a brother or sister in private, without causing undue humiliation or embarrassment, and most essentially, they will only do so in love. Until you develop discernment with spiritual experience, it’s too easy to cloak your pride and even anger in “loving correction.”

Faith alone is not enough to save

These false teachers have the appearance of meek lambs, but inside they are ravening wolves who feast on the true sheep. These false teachers can be known “by their fruits,” by their life and works. As if the Lord were speaking directly to Protestants who deny the need for good works preaching justification by faith alone, He says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” Here it is clear that faith in Jesus Christ on its own is not enough; a life that reveals this faith is also necessary, and one must fulfill the commandments of Christ and do good works. In the early days of Christianity, many did perform miracles with the name of Christ, even Judas, who received this authority together with the rest of the Twelve, but this by itself does not save, unless such people constantly work on fulfilling the commandments of God.

What is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

The mercy of God is endless, and there is no sin that could be greater than God’s mercy. But whoever stubbornly rejects this mercy, whoever acts against the saving grace of God, puts himself outside God’s mercy, and his sin remains unforgiven, and this person perishes. This intentional antagonism against the saving grace of God, which is the grace of the Holy Spirit, Christ calls blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees’ antagonism is vividly expressed in the fact that they dare to call the almighty works of God the works of the devil. Why will this sin not be forgiven in this age or the next? Because if a person rejects the obvious activity of the grace of the Holy Spirit, then he is incapable of repentance, without which there can be no salvation. He cannot repent!

What is the difference between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God?

It is important to note that in His preaching and parables, the Lord Jesus Christ makes a very clear distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven is that blessed state of the righteous which will be revealed to them in the future life, after the Final Judgment. The kingdom of God is the kingdom, on earth, of those who believe in Him and strive to do the will of His Father in heaven. This kingdom of God, which began with the coming of Christ the Saviour to earth, invisibly enters the souls of men and prepares them on earth to inherit the kingdom of heaven, which will be revealed after the end of time.

Lord Jesus Christ transforms our dark souls from the inside out

Just as a gardener grafts a fruit-bearing branch onto a barren tree to help it bear fruit, Christ Himself, desiring to make us participants of divine life, enters into our body darkened by sin and lays the foundation for inner transformation and sanctification, making us a new creation. It is not enough for our salvation merely to believe in Christ; one must become one with Him, to abide in Him, so that He may abide in us, and this is only possible through the great mystery of the communion of His Body and Blood.

[…]

…the teaching of the Holy Eucharist was and always will be a stumbling block for true faith in Christ. There are many people who are amazed by the moral laws that Christ gives, but who do not understand the necessity of uniting with Him in this great mystery. But the truth is that without this mystical union with Christ, following His moral law in one’s life is impossible, for it is beyond mankind’s power to fulfill.

Peter is not the rock on which the Church is built

“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”… Can one understand these words to mean that Christ founded the Church on the person of Peter, as do the Catholics, in order to justify their false teaching of the primacy of the pope of Rome over the whole Church, as the successor of St Peter? Of course not! If, in these words of the Lord, Peter himself is meant for the Church’s foundation, then Christ would have said something like: “You are Peter, and on you I shall establish my Church,” or at the very least, “You are Peter, and upon this Peter I shall establish my Church.” But Christ speaks quite differently, which is especially evident in the Greek text, which should always be consulted in such controversial passages. The word “Petros” is not repeated, even though the word itself does mean both “rock” and “Peter,” but another word, petra is used, which means “cliff.” Here it is obvious that in these words directed at Peter, the Lord promises to establish His church not on Peter, but on the confession of faith that Peter uttered, on the great truth that “Christ is the Son of the living God.” This is how St John Chrysostom and the other great Fathers of the Church understood this passage, understanding the “Rock” to be the confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the messiah, the Son of God, or even Jesus Christ Himself, Who is often called the Rock in Scriptures (see, for example, Isa 28:16; Acts 4:11; Rom 9:33; I Cor 10:4). It is interesting to note that the Apostle Peter himself, in his First General Epistle, calls not himself the Rock, but Jesus Christ, instructing the faithful to approach the Lord as the “Living Rock, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and previous” (I Pet 2:4) and to become themselves living stones that would build the spiritual house. Here, Peter obviously teaches all Christians to walk the same way the he did himself, when he became “Petros” after confessing the name of the Rock, Christ.

[…]

It is interesting that the Lord, who had just called Simon “Peter,” in only a short period of time calls him “Satan,” which especially vividly refutes all the Roman Catholic ideas of the Church being founded on the person of Peter. Can the establishment of Christ’s Church, which will not be overcome by the gates of hell, be founded on such a fickle, unstable personality as Peter’s? And if one is to understand all the words of the Lord literally, which in the first case the Catholics do without any scruples, then the latter words also should be understood literally, which is absurd and impossible. But that would mean that the Church was founded on Satan!

Are you denying yourself?

“If anyone desires to come after Me,” to be His true follower, “let him deny himself,” let him cut off his natural will and striving, “and take up his cross,” let him be ready for the sake of Christ to suffer any deprivations, even death, “and follow Me,” emulating Christ in His labors of self-denial and self-rejection. “For whoever desires to save his life” in the sense of seeking after all manner of comforts and pleasures, “will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake,” whoever will not pamper himself and instead seek a harder path for the sake of Christ, “will find it.” Only he who preserves his soul for eternal life shall truly live. “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world,” if he finds all the honors and pleasures that the world offers, if he has all its perishable treasures at this own disposal, “and loses his own soul?” The soul of a man is more precious than all the treasures of the world, and a lost soul is impossible to redeem with any earthly wealth. “What will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Why didn’t Jesus announce He was God at every opportunity?

The Lord forbade the apostles from telling anyone of [the Transfiguration], until He would be risen from the dead, again not to agitate the carnal expectations of the Messiah among the Jews.

Archbishop Averky explains that the Lord wanted people to fully believe He was God moreso after the Resurrection so they wouldn’t see Him as a worldly king with a hope that He would establish an earthly kingdom. Lord Jesus Christ also didn’t want to be condemned to death upon a bold proclamation of His divinity before His teachings and salvific work was complete, but He clearly expressed it to those who had ears to hear (“Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM,” “I and my Father are one,” etc.).

Do you forgive others?

The Lord teaches us [through the Parable of the Merciless Creditor (Matt 18:21-35)] that all of us have sinned so much that we, before God, are debtors unable to pay our huge debt. However, our neighbors’ sins against us are insignificant compared to our debt to God, but God still forgives us all our sins in His limitless compassion if we, in our turn, find the compassion to forgive our neighbors their sins against us. If we remain intransigent and merciless to the offenses of others and do not forgive them, then the Lord will not forgive us, but will condemn us to eternal suffering. This parable is a very effective illustration of the petition in the “Lord’s Prayer”: “and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

Who is your neighbor?

…in the Old Testament, in order to protect the chosen nation from evil influence, clear distinctions were set up between them and all others, and a “neighbor” for a Hebrew was only his fellow Jew. The New Testament law removes all such distinctions and teaches universal evangelical love to all people.

The good works you perform are expected of you

The Lord offers the example of the relationship between master and servant: if a servant plows the field, does the master consider it worthy of special praise? When the slave comes home tired after a day of work, does the master show solicitation for his fatigue and invite him to his own table to rest and eat? No! The master still orders the slave to serve him first. Will the master then thank the servant when he has done all that the master commanded? “I think not,” said the Lord and makes the following conclusion: “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'”

This does not mean that the Lord will not praise His servants or give them rest, but rather that we ourselves should look at our good works as our duty, and at ourselves as slaves who can bring our Lord nothing more than the fulfillment of our duty. In other words, a person can have no merits before God.

The Eucharist contains the human flesh of Lord Jesus Christ

It is especially important to note that the Lord said, “This is My body” (emphasis added). He did not say, “This bread is my body,” because in that moment the bread was no longer bread, but had become the true Body of Christ, with only the visible appearance of bread. The Lord did not say, “This is an image of My body,” but “This is My body,” a fact noted by both St John Chrysostom and Blessed Theophylact. As a result of the Lord’s prayer, the bread took on the essence of the Body, keeping only the external appearance of bread. Blessed Theophylact further elucidates, saying, “Since we are weak and would not be able to eat flesh, especially human flesh, the Lord gives us bread, which in actual fact is flesh.”

Why was Jesus in agony during His Passion?

Who of us sinful people can dare to say that we truly understand what was going on in the pure and holy soul of the God-Man in this moment, when the hour of His betrayal to death on the cross for the salvation of mankind was at hand? However, in times past and even in our day, people try to explain the reasons for the agonies the Lord felt and suffered in these last hours in the garden of Gethsemane. The most natural suggestion is that the suffering was from the fear of death, felt by His human nature. Blessed Theophylact says, “Death entered human nature unnaturally, and so human nature fears death and flees from death.” Death is a consequent of sin (Rom 5:12, 15), and so the sinless nature of the God-Man should not have been subjected to death. Death for Him is a phenomenon contrary to nature, and for this reason, the sinless nature of Christ rebels against death, grieves and sorrows at its appearance. These emotional sufferings of Christ are a very good proof of the existence of two natures in Him—divine and human, a fact rejected by the Monophysites, as well as two wills, rejected by the Monothelites.

At the same time, this agony occurred without a doubt also because the Lord took upon Himself all the sins of the world, and took them to the cross. That which the whole world should have been feeling on account of its sinfulness now was concentrated on Him alone!

[…]

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?'” The word St Mark uses is “Eloi” instead of “Eli.” This naturally could not have been a cry of despair, but only an expression of the deepest sorrow in the soul of the God-Man. In order that the redemptive sacrifice be accomplished, it was necessary that the God-Man drink the cup of human sufferings all the way to the dregs. For this it was necessary that the crucified Jesus not feel the joy of His oneness with God the Father. The entire anger of God, which, in light of divine justice should have been poured out on sinful mankind, was now, so to speak, concentrated on Christ alone, and it was as though God had left Him. Among all the worst suffering of body and soul that one can possibly imagine, this sense of being forsaken was far more painful, which is why such an exclamation of agony came out of Jesus’s mouth.

Outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles

St John adds that He said a second time, “Peace to you!” and then gave them a visible sign—He breathed on them, giving them, before Pentecost, an initial gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The full outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles would occur on the day of Pentecost; but evidently before that day, the apostles needed some of the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen them in firm and unshakable faith in the resurrection of Christ, to help them correctly understand the Scriptures, to awake in them the faith in their divine mission, faith in the knowledge that they were not merely fellow travelers and listeners of the Lord Jesus Christ, but apostles, His messengers, sent by Him to the great service of spreading the Good News through all the world. “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” This is a “hint” of the Spirit, who is necessary for the strengthening of the apostolic community.

Belief in the Resurrection is so difficult for fallen man, because of our corrupted nature, that we need help from the Holy Spirit to see the truth. Without it, we remain in darkness.

The Theotokos was always a virgin

[The Theotokos] remained with [John] until Her death, as tradition tells us, and John cared for Her as though he were Her own son. This is especially important and worthy of comment for the following reason: Protestants and other sectarians never miss an opportunity to degrade the most holy Mother of God, rejecting Her ever-virginity and saying that after Jesus She had other children born in the natural way from Joseph, and that these were the “brothers of the Lord” mentioned in the Gospel. But here arises the question: if the Theotokos had natural children, who would have had to take care of Her according to all laws of custom and love, then why did Christ give Her care to St John?

The truth of the Resurrection

All the interpreters of the Gospels agree that all the efforts of the Sanhedrin to guard the body as fully as possible in the tomb ended up being the best possible proof for the truth of the resurrection, despite their opposite intentions. After all, grave robbery was a completely unknown phenomenon among the Jews, who were afraid of defiling themselves by touching a dead body (Num 19:11-22). And how could it be that professional soldiers all fell asleep in such an amazingly deep sleep on the third day—the exact day they expected the disciples to come! And their sleep needed to be extraordinarily deep if they did not even hear how a huge stone was being rolled away from the tomb. Even if they all had decided to sleep, which is completely improbable for a Roman soldier, they would of course have fallen asleep in front of the entrance to the tomb, to make it impossible to roll away the stone without crushing their sleeping bodies. But the most improbable part of the story is how the frightened disciples, who all fled when Christ was taken, could suddenly decide to attempt such a pointless theft, which would give them absolutely no benefit, with immense dangers outweighing any possible good. It is also strange that Roman soldiers could have allowed such a falsehood to be spread and not expect to be punished for such dereliction of duty. This was the invention of the hateful Jews, who stubbornly refused to believe in the truth of Christ’s resurrection, even though it was evident, and yet they only managed to confirm the great truth of Christianity.

Overall, The Four Gospels is a work that has made the Gospels more alive within my soul. In time, they have gone from being a collection of abstract events and moral teachings to a living fountain of God’s truth that fills me daily with the love of God and His commandments. Archbishop Averky did an outstanding job of filling in scriptural gaps with Orthodox tradition, known Jewish customs at the time of Christ, historical context, and powerful exegesis. This is one of the few books that has made a marked difference in my understanding of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind.

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With regards to Christ's agony on the cross, I have heard Fr. Stephen De Young make the point that in Christ's time, there were not numbered chapters or verses in scripture, thus the way a passage was referred to in shorthand was by quoting the passage's first line.

Christ is quoting Psalm 22 which begins in despair:

1 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?

Why are You so far from helping Me,

And from the words of My groaning?

2 O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear;

And in the night season, and am not silent.

However the psalm goes on to reveal that the despair was answered by God's saving grace:

19 But You, O Lord, do not be far from Me;

O My Strength, hasten to help Me!

20 Deliver Me from the sword,

My precious life from the power of the dog.

21 Save Me from the lion’s mouth

And from the horns of the wild oxen!

You have answered Me.

22 I will declare Your name to My brethren;

In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.

23 You who fear the Lord, praise Him!

All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him,

And fear Him, all you offspring of Israel!

24 For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;

Nor has He hidden His face from Him;

But when He cried to Him, He heard.

So Christ's statement can be seen as a microcosm of how the Lord unfailingly delivers man from the midst of despair, and not merely as a statement of despair alone.

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