The Four Living Creatures and The Gospels

by Robert Engelbach on May 20, 2015

The Four Living CreaturesThe passages in Ezekiel describing The Four Living Creatures are mysterious and phantasmagorical. They are open to interpretations of all varieties, exoteric and esoteric. The Books of Daniel and Revelation also contain surreal images, but most of them are not as complex and elusive, and the symbolism is usually more obvious. For instance, Daniel’s vision of the various kingdoms that arise to rule his known world can be related to historical kingdoms. The description of a lamb upon the throne in Revelation also has a clear symbolic meaning. Ezekiel’s vision is more difficult to explain. Despite the complexity of Ezekiel’s vision, as we shall see, at least one feature of this Old Testament passage will be made clear by its association with the four Gospels of the New Testament written seven or eight centuries later. This will not only help establish a unity between the Old and New Testaments, but will also suggest a special significance of these four Gospels that is not present in the non-canonical ones, even though many of the others are especially enlightening and worthy of study to those who can acquire an understanding of them. It will also suggest that our historical world of physical dimensions moving through time is not all that exists, and that we are being touched and enlightened by something beyond. This something beyond seems to be providing us with a clue about itself in one age and tying it to a clue in another.

We have exoteric and esoteric explanations for what is beyond. The exoteric is easier to grasp with the five senses and follows a common teaching that people in various religious denominations can follow without figuring it all out for themselves, and still sense the mystery of what is beyond. Experiencing that sense of mystery is a vital first step beyond the five senses. Even though elements of exoteric teachings may eventually become obstacles to those who are inclined to look further for understanding the mysteries, the exoteric teachings are not expendable. The esoteric paths would not exist without the exoteric as a starting point. If I have to learn to walk before I can run, should I condemn walking once I have learned to run? Of course not. And for the same reason, I believe the something beyond us has established and preserved the exoteric for the benefit of all, even though a deeper and more personally relevant interpretation of truth may await those who follow the esoteric paths.

Ezekiel’s Vision

The Book of Ezekiel opens near the river Chebar in Babylon where the Jewish priest, Ezekiel has been staying for the last five years after being deported with the exiles from Jerusalem. He sees a vision of a storm blowing in from the north, and within the storm lightning flashes from a huge cloud lighting up the entire sky with dazzling brightness. So far it looks like some of the fiercer storms some of us may have been experiencing as a result of climate change, although nothing supernatural. But then he sees what looks like four living creatures in the center of the cloud. As the storm cloud rolls in, enabling him to get a closer look, the creatures are somewhat like humans but each creature has four faces and four wings. Each creature has the face of a human in front, the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle in the back. There are many other unusual features of the creatures, but it is the faces that we will selectively focus on in this post, because the symbolism of each of the four faces relates to each of the four Gospels.

So we will leave aside all the other incredible symbolic features of the creatures; for instance, that they are mobile, that they portray a physical manifestation of the Spirit of God, that a supreme being in human form hovers in a brilliant cloud above them, that the creatures are multiple yet connected by overlapping angel wings so that they move together as a unit. We will also leave aside that in a later chapter, Ezekiel comes to understand that the Jews in captivity can still worship God, even though they are far away from the Temple ruins in Jerusalem, because the Spirit of God goes with them, moving just like The Four Living Creatures.

Getting back to the four faces in the living Creature – the human, the ox, the lion, and the eagle. This can be interpreted in two ways. Traditionally, when considered together with the brilliant cloud over it, it is interpreted as a theophany, a visible manifestation of God. But it can also be a revelation of man’s nature. In this analogy, the physical strength and size of the ox represents the human body. The domineering and aggressive lion represents the emotions. The human with a highly developed capacity for thought and reason represents the intellect. The eagle with a capacity to fly and having intense powers of vision represents the spirit – an aspect of ourselves that soars into the beyond and returns with marvelous insight, transcending the limits of personal identity and its otherwise incomplete understanding.

The Synoptic Gospels

The first three Gospels – Mathew, Mark, and Luke – are in a category by themselves, apart from the Gospel of John. These three are called the Synoptic Gospels. The word “synoptic” means “taking a common view”. If we were to lay all three Gospels side by side, they would represent three slightly different viewpoints of approximately the same course of events happening in about the same order. They each span a timeframe from Jesus’ birth on earth to his ascension into heaven.

Luke, more than the other Gospels, is concerned with Jesus’ growth and development, and so Luke’s Gospel is associated with the human body. Luke describes how Jesus taught in the Temple at the age of 12 and how he then “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:25). Luke also goes into more detail than the other Gospels in describing Mary’s nurturing of her son, including her singing a hymn of praise at the prophetic announcement of her son’s destiny as Savior during his infant consecration in the Temple. The Nativity in Luke is very simple. No mention of the purges by King Herod. No arrival of wise men from Persia bearing gifts. It is mostly about the shepherds keeping watch over their sheep by night. This is a symbol of bodily control, being able to stay up all night. Also keeping the sheep from straying is a symbol for mastering bodily urges. Mastery of the body is a prerequisite for spiritual development. In doing this, the shepherds were visited by angels who announced the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus is symbolic of the birth of higher consciousness. I am going to remember that when my mind starts to wander during silent meditation, that there is a good reason to master restlessness.

Mark is more reflective of primordial emotions, not like the more advanced softer emotions such as sentimentality. The primordial emotions are swift, direct, and ruthless – like a lion. The emotions from the gut can size up situations more rapidly and often more accurately than rational thought. They play a part in what we call “first impressions.” Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, written from the gut in a style that is direct, abrupt, and to the point.

Mathew is concerned with thought, particularly the theological processes of thought that the Jews understood from the Torah. Mathew very carefully references the words and actions of Jesus to precedents and prophecies from the Hebrew bible. Mathew’s reputation as a thinker was apparently also known to the author of one of the non-canonical manuscripts. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus asks his disciples “Tell me what I am like?” Mathew replies that Jesus is like a philosopher.

Boris Mouravieff, a mid-twentieth century teacher of esoteric Christianity, explains in his book “Gnosis” that when we as individuals begin to develop interest in the esoteric paths, we are each biased to one of the three aspects of our nature – the mind, emotions, or body. The synoptic Gospels address each of these biases. These three Gospels are not, as some people view them, like newspaper articles that give sometimes contradictory accounts (there are some minor contradictions). They are the same basic truth but expressed with some variety in a manner that best suits each individual’s bias. Each of these – body, emotion, and mind (or ox, lion, and human) – address the three lower levels of our being.

The Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is a different story, so different that at first it became a concern to some in including it in the canon. However, as it turns out, its very difference makes the set of four Gospels complete. It addressed the highest level of our being – the spirit. In esoteric terms, the spirit is the “I” that transcends our personal identity. It rises above it, which is why it is associated with the eagle. The Temple in Jerusalem was a symbol for it because it was where Israel made contact with God’s presence.

The Gospel of John does not contain genealogies or descriptions of the Nativity. In this Gospel, Jesus “hits the ground running” being foretold and baptized by John the Baptist, and launched right into service. Jesus does not speak in parables to the public. He is addressing our highest level, the eagle that comprehends the spiritual. What reason would he have to speak in riddles as he does in the other Gospels, and then have to explain them in private to the disciples? He speaks directly and openly. All who have ears to hear understand him.

The opening of this Gospel is somewhat metaphysical and abstract. “In the beginning was the Word”. Here we have a description of unity between the transcendent aspect of the Father and the immanent aspect of the Son. The unity is extended to those who receive the immanent aspect of the Son, to become sons themselves in his likeness.

A profound statement about the Gospel of John is made by author Richard Smoley in his book “Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition” (pages 128-129):

But the esoteric backbone of John’s Gospel – and the aspect that most clearly illumines the central truth about inner Christianity – consists of seven pronouncements Christ makes: “I am the vine” (John 15:5): “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6); “I am the door” (10:9); “I am the bread of life” (6:35); “I am the good shepherd” (10:11); “I am the light of the world” (9:5); and “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)

Taken at face value, these are grandiose and improbable utterances. But viewed from the inner level, they constitute extremely powerful statements about the relation of the “I” of the self to the greater, collective “I” that is the true Christ. “I am the door,” for example, is to be understood not as a claim made by the man Jesus, but rather as saying that “I am” is the door through which we enter into higher consciousness. “I am the vine, ye are the branches” means that the greater Christ, who is the restored Adam, is the core of our identity as individuals. And “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father but by me” is not a narrow sectarian claim but a mystical utterance of the truth that the ineffable, transpersonal Father cannot be encountered except through the inner Christ. Viewed in this light, these utterances no longer seem arrogant or exclusionary. Rather, they remind us that by penetrating the core of our own being, we can make contact with the consciousness at the center of the universe.

Conclusion

The faces of the human, lion, ox, and eagle on the Four Living Creatures described by Ezekiel correspond to the mind, emotions, body, and spirit, respectively, of every person alive. In turn, they correspond to the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, respectively. There is a remarkable relationship between the exoteric aspects of the bible canon and the esoteric aspects that can be drawn from it and enriched from other sources.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Marelie May 20, 2015 at 11:49 pm

Excellent! Makes total sense.

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Robert May 21, 2015 at 9:28 am

Marelie,

Thanks for your compliment. Always glad to get comments from new readers or readers I was previously not familiar with. It does make total sense, the aspects of human nature symbolized by the four faces in Ezekiel’s vision also being represented in the four Gospels.

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Joshua Tilghman May 22, 2015 at 10:30 am

Robert,

This was a great post, especially for those who like a balance between the esoteric and exoteric. I liked your breakdown of the esoteric vision from Ezekiel, as mind, emotion, body, and spirit. I believe this was most definitely a representation of man, who also has God within. Thanks for this!

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Robert May 22, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Josh,

Thanks. The imagery of the creatures representing this interrelationship between God and man also appears in Isaiah and Revelation. Also at the Transfiguration, Jesus is overshadowed by a bright cloud, just like the creatures were.

The creatures are encircled or filled with eyes within their midst. I don’t know what that means. Could be omniscience or collective consciousness.

Some more conservative Christian commentaries interpret the creatures as actual creatures, not figurative representations, and that they are real life cherubim, a class of super-angels. I am inclined to interpret them as figurative.

Some commentaries assign the four heads different meanings and link them differently to the four Gospels. The lion as majestic king is assigned to Matthew where Christ is described as the King of Kings. The ox is interpreted as a sacrificial calf representing Christ as a servant who is sacrificed for our sins, which is the emphasis in Mark. The man corresponds Christ as the Perfect Man described in Luke. The eagle represents supremacy and sovereignty corresponding to John where Christ is portrayed as the Son of God.

The four heads show up again in rabbinic tradition assigning them to the flags of the four tribes that showed four divisions of the 12 tribes of Israel when they were encamped in the desert. They were divided with three tribes in the North, three in the South, three in East, and three in the West. All of them surrounded the Tabernacle. One tribe of each group of three became representative of the three. These were Judah, Dan, Ephraim, Reuben. Tradition has it that the emblematic flags for these tribes depicted a lion, eagle, ox, and man, respectively. The scriptures don’t specifically mention these on the flags, but there are various scriptures that hint at these tribes being associated with these.

So there is some symbolism of the four heads being associated with tribes of Israel spread around the Tabernacle. This carries over into Ezekiel and Revelation. The Tabernacle is believed to be a symbol foreshadowing Christ. The tribes represent different qualities of man being distributed among mankind. I think this could mean that Christ represents reunification, harmonization, and redemption of these qualities by intervention of Christ. I think Christ is both externally supreme and internally within, both deity and individual (and collective) consciousness.

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Jason May 22, 2015 at 5:01 pm

Robert,

I liked the explanation of the Gospels standing for different aspects of man. I want to talk about the quote from Smoley. He is very insistent that the seven pronouncements of Christ refer to the spirit of Christ that we are to search for inside us. Yet when I start reading parts of John then there are so many verses pointing to the person Jesus Christ himself being the “I am”. It seems like this is really what is meant, and that Smoley is pushing something that is not there in John. Smoley says it has to be his way because otherwise it is “grandiose and improbable”. Isn’t that the point of this Gospel? That Jesus is exceptional and miraculous, the Son of God, more than just one of us?

Its puzzling. I was wondering if you or anyone else had any thoughts about this.

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Robert May 23, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Jason,

You are addressing a very legitimate issue. You are right that the overall language in John points to the person Jesus Christ as the source and fulfillment of all the 7 major “I am” statements, and one purpose of the Gospel of John is to demonstrate the special “Sonship” of Jesus Christ as part of the composite unity of God. The disciples need a Master to help them appreciate what they can become and to jump start their spiritual journey until they are ready to depend on the Holy Spirit within them, which starts to happen the more that Jesus withdraws from them and eventually ascends. They have the memory of his teachings and his model of a perfected man to fall back on, but one purpose in the rest of their earthly lives is to learn how to live by the spirit of God that springs forth from within them like a fountain. They were promised that if they believed in him, this would happen to them.

So here we have the disciples more and more becoming everything that Jesus was by depending on the spirit from within them moment by moment (with the memory of the human model and teachings to fall back on). When Peter revives a woman from death, this is a milestone, symbolic of the intensity of transfer of capability and mission from Jesus to those who follow him.

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Vernon McVety Jr. May 23, 2015 at 2:40 pm

Robert,

Thanks for another well-written article in-lightening us on the bible, with your stimulating distinctive explanation on the inner & outer meanings. And as a supplemented way of learning I’d like to add a little quotable ray of light to help the roses bud, especially for us students who follow the esoteric paths through the scriptural tradition, written by Frank Herbert in his classic Dune: “The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”

It’s great to know that there’s an experiential mystery in everyone’s personal evolving reality, which can never be ultimately fathomed by others. And it’s so much easier to appreciate and grow with when we get beyond the problematic stage of thinking we have to solve it with logic and rationalization. This line of thought by Herbert, I believe, is analogical to the popular saying in A Course In Miracles, “….we can either be host to God, or hostage to the ego.” Sometimes our intellect can be more a child of the ego than an instrument of growth and love. It keeps us aware. Blessings, and keep up the good writing. – Vern

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Robert May 23, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Vern,

Yes. I really like the quote by Herbert. It takes the pressure off. Good to hear from you Vern.

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deanna May 25, 2015 at 8:22 am

I was actually mentally wrestling with Ezekiel and the wheels recently. I even sat down and drew a picture last week to try and make more sense of it. And then I see this. Coincidence? Nah. I read your ‘about me’ and we share so many similarities. I told my husband I wasn’t going to read anymore commentary, and just believe that my intuition will tell me what is real; however, after stalking your blog over the past week i realize I haven’t found anything online that resonates with me like your blog. So I’ll keep you bookmarked. I think you’re a few steps ahead of me in this great journey. And so far I haven’t read anything that I can’t feel deep to my core. I know this type of blogging takes a bit of time and effort, and for that I thank you. This journey is so beautiful, and heartbreaking, at the same time. Without a doubt, I know my husband/wife have been married, and i experienced the ‘death’ of my ego. I had no idea what was happening, but my spirit was consoling me as the old Deanna died. It hurt,because as a human we believe we are the ego. But burying my earthly ego has given me more freedom than I ever imagined possible. Letting the past go, not worrying with the future, and living in the moment really is the secret to life.

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Robert May 25, 2015 at 11:15 pm

Deanna,

What a beautiful comment. I should tell you that I am the author, Robert, of this article but not the founder, Josh, of this blog whose “all about me” your read. So we may or may not be that alike, but I am glad you were able to make a spiritual connection. It is inspiring that you have had a profound experience of becoming liberated from your ego, and living in the present. Hope you continue to enjoy everyone’s articles.

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Steve November 14, 2015 at 5:16 pm

The 4 Creatures are what allows the physical world to be created. They are the “Word” or sound that causes GOD to vibrate and creates the false duality. This creates a polarity and an imbalance in this polarity creates Time and Space (also known as male and female forces) Space vibrating at still a grosser level create Matter. And so the 4 beasts are The Word, Time, Space and Matter.

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Joshua Tilghman December 25, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Interesting comment, Steve. Thanks.

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Knowledge July 21, 2017 at 1:52 am

4 Living creatures awesome

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