The Windows of the Four Gospels

The first windows you see when you visit Zion are the windows on either side of the front doors of the church. Depicted in these windows, starting from the upper left side, are: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle.

These four symbols – man, lion, ox, and eagle – represent that strange, scary creatures known as cherubim. The cherubim always accompanied God as part of his heavenly retinue. But beyond this, they had two other important functions. First, they always accompanied God when he called someone to come and serve him. Second, the cherubim always led others in the worship of God. Calling to serve and calling to worship: that’s what the cherubim do. But why are they on the windows by the front door of the church?

If you take a closer look at those windows you will see that each of those figures is identified with a particular gospel. The picture of the man is associated with the Gospel of Matthew, the lion is associated with the Gospel of Mark, the ox is associated with the Gospel of Luke, and the eagle with John’s Gospel. The reason that they are by the front door is that in the same way that you enter into the life of Christ and his ministry by going into the four gospels and reading them, you enter into the life of Christ and his church by going through those front doors. Both the doors and the gospels mark a point of entry: the gospels are an entry into what Christ did long ago in his earthly life and ministry; the front doors of this church are an entry into what Christ is doing right now through our discipleship and ministry to this world. Serving and worshiping: it’s the same old story and it’s as true today as it ever was.

Some of you might be wondering, though, why these particular animal and human figures were chosen to symbolize particular gospels. It may interest you to know that already by the year AD 200 early Christian theologians were using the descriptions of the cherubim taken from both of today’s readings to characterize the four gospels. For the record, let me mention that not every theologian agreed with what animal represented which gospel. But the view that has largely prevailed, and the one adopted in our own windows is the view of Jerome, a man who lived around the year AD 400 and the one who translated the Bible into the Latin version known as the Vulgate.

Jerome chose the man to represent the Gospel of Matthew because Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus linking him to Abraham and to David and thereby placing Jesus squarely within human history. Matthew’s Gospel also shows us a Jesus who is really human, such as Matthew’s reference that Jesus was famished after he fasted for forty days in the wilderness during his temptation by Satan, and by giving us stories like Jesus welcoming and loving the children who came to him.

The lion was chosen to represent Mark’s Gospel because the lion throughout history has always been considered the king of the beasts, the king of animals and it is in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus’ own kingship over this world and over us is most clearly demonstrated. It is also often said that the beginning of Mark with its citation of Isaiah, A voice crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, comes across like the roar of a lion.

If there was one gospel that early Christians were actually unanimous about, it was that Luke’s Gospel should be represented by the ox. In the Old Testament the ox was the principal animal used in the Temple sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin. Luke’s Gospel not only begins with the father of John the Baptist performing his priestly duties in the Temple but time and time again it is Luke who shows that Jesus’ death on the cross was the necessary sacrifice for the salvation of the world.

And finally, we come to John’s Gospel and the eagle. While the other three gospels introduce us to Jesus either at his birth or at his baptism, John introduces to Jesus in heaven before time itself. In the beginning, says John, was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. In that way, says Jerome, John begins like an eagle soaring up to heaven itself. The eagle as the most noble and majestic of birds and animals is also an apt metaphor for Jesus in John’s Gospel because it is in John that Jesus’ divinity and full equality with God the Father are made most clear.

So then: four gospels and four representations of Christ: Jesus in his true humanity, Jesus as king, Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, and Jesus in his full divinity. But none of this means very much merely as information or data, it only means something when we treat the Gospels and the life of Christ the same way we treat the front doors of this church: as a place of entry into service, worship, and the fullness of all God’s glory.