How can we know that the four canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are the Word of God? They don’t explicitly claim that they are Scripture. When Jesus proclaimed that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Mat. 5:18), the Gospels hadn’t yet been penned, and so this claim didn’t pertain to them. And when Paul insisted that all Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), certainly the OT Scriptures
would have come to mind.
However, Paul does quote the Gospel of Luke as “Scripture”:
- For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4), and “The worker deserves his wages (Luke 10:7).”
He regarded his own writings as Scripture:
- For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe. (1 Thess. 2:13)
Paul could not have been claiming this honor for only his own writings (Eph.2:19-20; 3:4-5). He also seemed to suggest that there was additional written and authoritative testimony – “the preaching of Jesus Christ” - apart from “my gospel”:
- Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began. (Rom. 16:25)
It seems likely that his reference to “the preaching of Jesus Christ” was not in reference to the preaching he had heard but the preaching of the apostles found in the Gospels. Peter also testified that Paul’s writings were Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16), and suggests that the Words of the apostles are on par with the canonical words of the “holy prophets”:
- [“I write this second epistle”] that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior. (2 Peter 3:2)
Although Peter doesn’t explicitly mention the Gospels, there is no reason to suppose that “the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior” wouldn’t also include the apostolic Gospels. Paul testified in a similar manner (Eph. 3:3-5). Besides this testimony, Jesus claimed:
- “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Mark 13:31)
How has His words been made to “never pass away?” Through the canonical Gospels! Interestingly, these four were held in such high regard that no question had ever been raised by the church regarding their canonicity. They had such extensive historical support that even the agnostic Bible-skeptic, Bart Ehrman, concedes:
- The oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus…are the four Gospels of the NT…This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the NT and in its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity…it is the conclusion that has been reached by every one of the hundreds (thousands, even) of scholars. (Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code, p. 102)
Jesus also attests to the future teachings and writings of the apostles in this way:
- “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27)
- “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:12-13)
Jesus not only provided authoritative testimony about prior Scripture, but in these verses, He gave testimony to what would be written. The Holy Spirit would guide the apostles into “all truth.” And this, they would both teach and write.
Jesus did not simply commission the apostles. God also made it plain that their Word – oral or written – was authoritative:
- For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will. (Hebrews 2:2-4)
With such miraculous attestations, it would be reasonable to accept the apostolic writings – the Gospels included – as Scripture. It was because of miraculous attestation (2 Cor. 12:11-12) that the early church readily and universally received all of Paul’s 13 epistles as Scripture. It is therefore likely that this same attestation accompanied the Gospels, explaining they too had been universally accepted as the Word of God.
Consequently, the early church devoted “themselves to the apostles' teaching”:
- They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. (Acts 2:42-43)
There is no reason to suspect that such devotion wouldn’t also include the apostolic writings – the Gospels. How else are we to understand the universal and unequivocal acceptance of the Gospels as Scripture within the contentious early church!