The 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.
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.
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.