The Role the Four Evangelists Play in Christianity

The Writers of the Gospels

An evangelist is a person who seeks to evangelize—that is, to "announce the good news" to other people. The "good news," for Christians, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, the Apostles are considered evangelists, as are those in the broader community of early Christians who go out to "make disciples of all nations." We see a reflection of this expansive understanding of evangelist in the modern usage of evangelical, to describe a certain type of Protestant who, in supposed contrast to mainline Protestants, is concerned with making converts to Christianity.

Within the first few centuries of Christianity, however, evangelist came to refer almost exclusively to the men that we call the Four Evangelists—that is, the authors of the four canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Two (Matthew and John) were among Christ's Twelve Apostles; and the other two (Mark and Luke) were companions of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Their collective testimony to the life of Christ (along with the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Saint Luke) forms the first part of the New Testament.

Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

The Calling of Saint Matthew (Marinus Claesz van Reymerswaele)
The Calling of Saint Matthew, c. 1530. Found in the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Traditionally, the Four Evangelists are numbered as their gospels appear in the New Testament. Thus Saint Matthew is the first evangelist; Saint Mark, the second; Saint Luke, the third; and Saint John, the fourth.
Saint Matthew was a tax collector, but beyond that fact, relatively little is known about him. He is mentioned only five times in the New Testament, and only twice in his own gospel. And yet the calling of Saint Matthew (Matthew 9:9), when Christ brought him into the fold of His disciples, is one of the most famous passages of the gospels. It leads to the Pharisees denouncing Christ for eating with "tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 9:11), to which Christ responds that "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). This scene became a frequent subject of Renaissance painters, most famously Caravaggio.

After Christ's Ascension, Matthew not only wrote his gospel but spent perhaps 15 years preaching the good news to the Hebrews, before heading East, where he, like all of the Apostles (with the exception of Saint John), suffered martyrdom.

Saint Mark, Evangelist

Representation of the evangelist Saint Mark while is absorbed in writing the Gospel; in front of him, a dove, symbol of peace.
The evangelist Saint Mark absorbed in writing the Gospel; in front of him, a dove, symbol of peace.

Mondadori/Getty Images

Saint Mark, the second evangelist, played an important role in the early Church, even though he wasn't one of the Twelve Apostles and may never have actually met Christ or heard Him preach. A cousin of Barnabas, he accompanied Barnabas and Saint Paul on some of their travels, and he was a frequent companion of Saint Peter as well. His gospel, in fact, may be drawn from the sermons of Saint Peter, which Eusebius, the great Church historian, claims that Saint Mark transcribed.

Mark's gospel has traditionally been regarded as the oldest of the four gospels, and it is the shortest in length. Since it shares certain details with Luke's gospel, the two are commonly regarded as having a common source, but there is also reason to believe that Mark, as a traveling companion of Saint Paul, was himself a source for Luke, who was a disciple of Paul.

Saint Mark was martyred in Alexandria, where he had gone to preach the Gospel of Christ. He is traditionally regarded as the founder of the Church in Egypt, and the Coptic liturgy is named in his honor. Since the ninth century, however, he has been most frequently associated with Venice, Italy, after Venetian merchants smuggled most of his relics out of Alexandria and took them to Venice.

Saint Luke, Evangelist

Saint Luke the Evangelist holding a scroll and blesses at the feet of the cross on the left.
Saint Luke the Evangelist holding a scroll at the foot of the cross.

Mondadori / Getty Images

Like Mark, Saint Luke was a companion of Saint Paul, and like Matthew, he is barely mentioned in the New Testament, even though he wrote the longest of the four gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles.

Saint Luke is traditionally regarded as one of the 72 disciples sent by Christ in Luke 10:1-20 "to every town and place he intended to visit" to prepare the people for the reception of His preaching. The Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that Luke traveled extensively with Saint Paul, and tradition lists him as a coauthor of the Letter to the Hebrews, which is traditionally ascribed to Saint Paul. After Paul's martyrdom in Rome, Luke, according to tradition, was himself martyred, but the details of his martyrdom are not known.

In addition to being the longest of the four gospels, Luke's gospel is extraordinarily vivid and rich. Many details of Christ's life, especially His infancy, are found only in Luke's gospel. Many medieval and Renaissance artists drew their inspiration for works of art concerning the life of Christ from the Gospel of Luke.

Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Close-up of a mural of a saint on a wall, John the Evangelist, Patmos, Dodecanese Islands, Greece
Close-up of a mural of Saint John the Evangelist, Patmos, Dodecanese Islands, Greece. Glowimages / Getty Images

The fourth and final evangelist, Saint John, was, like Saint Matthew, one of the Twelve Apostles. One of the earliest disciples of Christ, he lived the longest of the Apostles, dying of natural causes at the age of 100. Traditionally, however, he has still been regarded as a martyr for the intense suffering and exile that he endured for the sake of Christ.

Like Saint Luke, John wrote other books of the New Testament as well as his gospel—three epistles (1 John, 2 John, and 3 John) and the Book of Revelation. While all four gospel writers are called evangelists, John has traditionally held the title of "The Evangelist," because of the remarkable theological richness of his gospel, which forms the basis of the Christian understanding of (among many other things) the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ as God and man, and the nature of the Eucharist as real, rather than symbolic, Body of Christ.

The younger brother of Saint James the Greater, he may have been as young as 18 at the time of Christ's death, which would mean that he may have been only 15 at the time of his calling by Christ. He was called (and called himself) "the disciple whom Jesus loved," and that love was returned, when John, the only one of the disciples to be found at the foot of the Cross, took the Blessed Virgin Mary into his care. Tradition holds that he lived with her at Ephesus, where he helped found the Ephesian Church. After Mary's death and Assumption, John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation, before returning to Ephesus, where he died.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Richert, Scott P. "The Role the Four Evangelists Play in Christianity." Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, Richert, Scott P. (2020, August 27). The Role the Four Evangelists Play in Christianity. Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "The Role the Four Evangelists Play in Christianity." Learn Religions. (accessed March 28, 2023).