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A Harmony of the Gospels

Lesson 5 – A Harmony of the Gospels (Part 1)

Dr. Craig Blomberg

Understanding the New Testament

This is tape five of our series of lectures on an introduction to and survey of the New Testament. In this lecture we turn to the life of Jesus of Nazareth putting together information from all four of the Gospels and beginning to trace the major periods and activities and teachings of Jesus’ life.

By way of introduction we need to set the life of Jesus of Nazareth into its historical and chronological context. As odd as it may sound by modern dating standards, our best estimates for the date of Christ’s birth are somewhere between 6 and 4 B.C. Yes, I know that means 6 to 4 before Christ, but the calendar, as it came to be developed in European Christian circles by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in the early 500s, appears today to have been off in its calculation by a few years because of a lack of knowing for sure the date of Herod’s death, information that can be gleamed through the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. So Herod died in the year that now has come to be known as 4 B.C., but because the calendar was changed from ancient Roman or Jewish forms of dating to this Christian form of dating without an accurate knowledge of the year of Herod’s death, who obviously died after Jesus was born since he sought to kill the Christ child, our numbers are just a few years off.

The adult ministry of Jesus most likely spanned the years 27 or 28 through 30 A.D., though some prefer dates corresponding to 30 or 31 through 33. The only years close to the necessary times for Christ’s death in which Passover fell on a Friday were in fact 30 and 33. The problem with choosing a date as early as 30 is that Luke speaks in the beginning of Chapter 3 of it being about the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius, whereas Tiberius came to rule in what we now call 14 A.D. But there is some evidence to suggest that he did have significant governing powers as early as 12, which would allow for a date using inclusive dating where 12 was the first year of his reign for 15th year to be 28 and given the greater ease of acknowledging that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry, so Luke 3:23, as well as fitting in all of the information that Acts and the Epistles requires from the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the various events in the Book of Acts, most commentators prefer a date for Jesus’ death of about 30.

John’s Gospel uniquely records two or possibly three Passover trips of Jesus to Jerusalem outside of his final trip which allows for a period of ministry somewhere probably between two and a half and three and a half years. It has been popular over the centuries to break those three years, roughly, into a year of obscurity where Jesus was not yet well known, a year of popularity where he was considerably liked by the masses and a year of rejection as opposition to him grew leading up eventually to his execution. We really do not have enough information from the Gospels, however, to speak of each of these three periods as even close to a year in length, so it is probably better to speak of them as phases or periods of Christ’s adult public ministry instead.

Matthew and Luke begin their accounts of the life of Jesus with incidents surrounding his birth. They include incidents just before and a few years after that birth and Luke uniquely ties Jesus’ birth together with the birth of another key figure, John, the son of Elizabeth and Zachariah, who comes to be known as John the Baptist and comes to be believed to be the metaphorical fulfillment of the prophecies that a prophet like Elijah would come before the advent of the Messianic Age to prepare the hearts of God’s people, to preach judgment, repentance, and restoration. It is interesting to observe Luke 1-2 interweaving accounts related to the promise and the birth and the subsequent ministries of both John and Jesus showing ways in which they are both similar but ultimately also even more dissimilar with Jesus far outstripping John in his significance.

Matthew in Matthew 1 and 2, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the ways in which Matthew sees Jesus’ birth as fulfilling Old Testament prophesies. Some of these are straightforward prediction and fulfillment such as the Messiah having to be born in Bethlehem, but others are what Christians over the centuries have come to speak of as typology, the kind of fulfillment that was common and commonly understood among ancient Jews to represent recurring patterns of God’s acting, particularly in creating and redeeming his people throughout history, such that the believing Jew seeing an Old Testament event remarkably paralleled in some event surrounding the life of Jesus, would conclude that these were not random or chance parallels but rather signs of the same God acting in recognizable, predictable ways throughout history and thus filling full the original teachings of Scripture. The Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament words for fulfillment can in fact mean precisely what in English we often describe as filling full. Thus, for example, in Matthew 2:15 citing Hosea that “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” in its Old Testament context in Hosea 11:1 this refers to the past event of God bringing the children of Israel, his collective son, out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Matthew following early Christian tradition, however, sees it as no coincidence that the holy family has had to flee to Egypt so that Jesus, as he comes also as a very young boy back to Nazareth, is indeed coming out of Egypt again. Given all the other possible experiences of his early childhood, the fact that this particular parallel transpires convinces Christians that God is filling full that original Hebrew Scripture.

Both Matthew and Luke describe the fact that Jesus was conceived of the Virgin Mary and biologically there was no human father involved. Why is such a miracle significant surrounding the birth of the Messiah? If this liberator was indeed to pay an infinite penalty for the world’s sins he had to be fully divine, but if he was to be our representative so that he took our place and died a sacrificial death that humans deserve to die he had to be fully human. While we do not entirely understand the interplay between the human and the divine in Jesus’ birth, nor would we want to insist that we know only what God knows, that this was the only possible way to bring about such a human-divine combination. It does make sense that one who was both fully God and fully human could have on the one hand the direct, divine parentage of God through the Holy Spirit and on the other hand the human lineage of Mary.

Apart from this theological doctrine, the accounts in Matthew and Luke of the infancy of Jesus emphasize the testimony of angels, of shepherds, of the Magi, often known as the wise men, and speak of peace to people of good will or those with whom he is well-pleased, introducing Jesus as the one who will be both Christ and Lord. There is only one incident that occurs in Jesus’ childhood, narrated in any of the four Gospels after these opening events and before the narration of the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry, and that is his visit to the temple at age twelve where again he impresses his teachers and his parents with his wisdom. But the main emphasis for Luke seems to be not so much on his divinity here as on his humanity as the passage, and indeed Luke’s infancy narrative more generally, concludes in Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and humans.” As we might phrase it today, Jesus grew intellectually, he grew physically, and he grew spiritually. In the voluntarily adopted limitations of the incarnation he did not emerge from the womb able to access his divine omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence, but grew as all human children did and then finally he grew socially. Nevertheless, it will be clear that at key junctures in his adult ministry, when and only when it is his Father’s will, he can tap into the supernatural knowledge and power that are his alone by virtue of his divinity.

At this point all of the Gospels move to Jesus’ initial ministry or his period of obscurity. For Mark this is where his Gospel begins. For John there is the lofty prologue describing the God-Man from all eternity past as divine now becoming flesh in the human baby Jesus, but after these opening eighteen verses John 2 picks up the story with Jesus in the context of the ministry of John the Baptist, as in the other three Gospels, even though Luke alone had narrated events about John’s birth. The Gospel writers agree that John is the prophet come to herald, to testify, to witness to the coming of the Messiah. His message is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and baptism to symbolize this change and newness of life. The ceremony of baptism was not a new one. In Jewish circles they required it of those converting to Judaism from other religious backgrounds. But John was unprecedented in calling all Jews to undergo this particular ceremony as if none of them was adequately right with God. Jesus appears on the scene and indeed submits himself to John’s baptism despite John’s protests (see Matthew 3:17) not therefore because he needed to repent himself of any personal sin, but in order to identify with John’s ministry and message and put his stamp of approval on it, as it were. Perhaps to identify with the collective sin of the children of Israel and certainly as an opportunity for his Heavenly Father to testify in the voice from Heaven to Jesus as his beloved Son whom all people must follow. One might imagine that such a striking introduction to Jesus ministry would lead naturally to the beginning of his dramatic public teachings and miracles, but in fact we read in all three Synoptic Gospels that the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan. It is probably not a coincidence that this is the sequence Jesus must experience, testing what kind of Messiah he will prove to be. Will he attempt to prematurely usurp the kingly role, which is not yet to be his? Or will he be the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 who will lay down his life for the sins of the world and await a coming future day when he will return in glory as the triumphant king and general of the heavenly armies quenching all evil at his Second Coming?

The nature of his three temptations strikingly resemble the three kinds of temptations that John will later summarize in 1 John 2:16 as indicative of all human experience. The temptation to turn stones to bread to satisfy the desires of the flesh, to rule over the entire kingdoms of the world satisfying the desire of the eyes, and to have his life spectacularly saved by God’s angels after jumping off the temple top thereby exemplifying the temptation of the pride of life. Hebrews 2:17-18 powerfully depicts the relevance of resisting such temptations that represent all human temptation. Christ can therefore identify with anything we experience, any seductions to sin. As the writer of Hebrews phrases it, he has been tempted in every way like ourselves but without sin. And again in chapter 4, we have a great high priest who is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He, by never giving into temptation therefore, had the hardest life-long struggle with temptation, since those who give in immediately experience a period of time in which they no longer struggle since they have given in. It is wrong then for any Christian ever to say or think that Christ cannot relate to him or her, because he has experienced representatively and resisted and gives us the power to resist, see 1 Corinthians 10:13, if we but choose to avail ourselves of it through the Holy Spirit for any temptation that may come our way. When we give in therefore we have only ourselves to blame.

After the ministry of John the Baptist the Gospel of John includes, and John alone includes, additional information, very selective though it is, about this opening phase of Jesus that we have called his period of obscurity. John 2-4 reflects this segment of selected events from Jesus’ life prior to the phase of popularity, also known as the great Galilean ministry, which all four Gospels proceed afterwards to narrate. John 2-4 narrate four main episodes unique to the Gospel of John. The first miracle of John 2 of the turning of water into wine in Cana, which occurs in six stone jars used for the Jewish rights of purification suggests in a culture steeped in Old Testament and other Jewish writings in which wine frequently represented in moderation the joy that God brings particularly at celebratory times among his people that new wine was being needed for the new age or covenant that Jesus was bringing about. One thinks of the little parables or metaphors of new wine requiring new wineskins in the Synoptic Gospels in Mark 2 and parallels. The old deluded water of Judaism, as it were, was being replaced by the new powerful refreshment of Jesus. Then, in what appears to be a quite different incident from those that the Synoptics relate at the end of Jesus’ life he clears the temple as a protest against worship being replaced by commerce, but even more directly uses this as an opportunity to predict his own resurrection and to speak of his body as the new temple, which ultimately it will become clearer both before and after the cross that such a metaphorical temple means that Jesus’ followers no longer need worship at simply one location where the Jewish temple stands or have sins forgiven uniquely through animal sacrifice at that location, see especially the middle segment of John 4 and the dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well, where the one who is coming will enable worship in spirit and truth irrespective of the location on the various mountaintops of both Samaritan and Jewish temples.

The third main episode of John 2-4 involves Jesus’ nighttime discussion with Nicodemus, a key pharisaic and Jewish teacher. Here the key verses involve 3:3 and 3:5 in which Jesus declares that human birth alone is not adequate. Simply being born a Jew into the covenant family of God’s people does not make one automatically right with God and fit for heaven. One must have a personal relationship indicated by the metaphor of a new birth, a spiritual birth, and thus just as the miracle of water into wine speaks of a new joy in the messianic age, followed by Jesus’ temple precincts protest reflecting the new temple of the messianic age, now we understand Jesus to be teaching about a new birth, which the messianic age brings. John 3:16 often has been the most common and beloved and well known verse used by Christians to sum up this teaching, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”

And then fourthly and finally after some additional information and dialogue about John the Baptist and Jesus and a comparison of their ministries, in some senses a carryover from the events of chapter 1, we turn in John 4 to the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. There is quite a striking contrast between this conversation and the one dominating chapter 3 between Jesus and Nicodemus. One could hardly imagine two more different dialogue partners for Jesus in his world; one a powerful, well-to-do, well educated, religiously orthodox man, and the other a powerless, maritally-suspect, outcast, Samaritan, uneducated woman, and yet Nicodemus final contribution to his conversation with Jesus suggest that at least at that point in his life he does not adequately understand what Jesus is trying to teach him, whereas the Samaritan woman, by the end of the narrative of her involvement with Jesus in John 4, understands enough to become a messenger and missionary and witness to her own townspeople as many Samaritans, the woman included, acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. From this episode Jesus concludes in commenting to his disciples that the fields are indeed white or ripe for harvest, a passage regularly cited throughout the history of the church to encourage missionary activity. But we must remember that not all fields around the world are at every time equally ripe. More often than not it is those whom society has stigmatized as of the wrong gender, or the wrong race, or the wrong religion, or of immoral background among whom God is most working and wishing to draw people to himself. If we wish to be on board with the heart of God’s plans, we will always make sure that a heart for the poor and the marginalized and those discriminated against in our world take a central place in our ministries. There is here, thus, a fourth new feature exemplified in John’s Gospel, a new and more universal offer of salvation, one which probably accounts for the final incident in John 4, the healing of the nobleman’s son as well since the word basilikos, for nobleman in this context, was commonly used for a Gentile or non-Jewish official.

Now we are ready to turn to what all four Gospels recognize as the second major period of Jesus’ public ministry, what has often been called the period or phase of popularity. At this point it is impossible to itemize a detailed chronology of events, not because the Gospels are necessarily contradictory at any point, but simply because they often arrange material by theme or topic or literary form and simply do not provide us enough information to always know which events came after or before other ones. Listeners to this tape series who have access to a synopsis of the four Gospels, sometimes also called a harmony, that lists parallel accounts of the same events or teachings of Jesus in more than one Gospel in parallel columns on the same pages of the book can see how often events occurring in one sequence in one of the Synoptics appear in a quite different sequence in one of the other Synoptic Gospels, and without fail it is possible in these instances to recognize that at least one of the Gospel writers is not intending to write in chronological sequence so that there are no genuine contradictions among the texts, but neither are we able to put together a flawless chronology, though harmonies have often suggested various such possible chronologies. Because this is a very short tape series we will primarily follow Mark’s outline for the Galilean ministry or phase of Jesus’ popularity and very occasionally comment on certain distinctives in Luke or Matthew, after which we will then come back and pick up more major unparalleled episodes that occur in either Matthew or Luke during this same period of time.

So, to Mark 1, after the introductory material on Jesus and John the Baptist, Mark gives us a kind of headline in 1:14-15 about the message and ministry of Jesus during this period. He is coming to announce that the Kingdom of God is at hand or has drawn near and just as John had proclaimed before him, it is time to repent and to believe in the Gospel. All of these terms are crucial terms for understanding Jesus’ message throughout the Gospel accounts. “The Kingdom of God” is the most common way that Jesus describes the heart of activity through his ministry, which he is announcing. It refers not so much to a place as to a power, not so much to a Rome as to a reign and in English it is perhaps better to translate basileia as God’s kingship or his dominion or even sovereignty, or as one scholar has put it, God acting in strength in the ministry of Jesus. This power has drawn uniquely near in the person and ministry of Christ and after Jesus’ death and resurrection can be said to have arrived, though in the period between Jesus’ first and second comings the power of sin and Satan, though limited, remains significant and the kingdom will not have fully arrived on earth until Jesus’ return. The call to repentance refers to a change not merely of mind or heart involving apologies but a change of action. The Old Testament Hebrew word underlying the Greek term here for repentance involves a turning around, a 180-degree change of direction in behavior and we have already commented in an earlier lecture about Gospel as the key mark and way of summarizing the good news initially that Jesus brought and eventually applied to the message about Jesus as well.

After this headline Mark gives an account of the calling of some of Jesus’ first disciples. John 1 had already noted some earlier encounters between Jesus and some of the same individuals when they were followers of John the Baptist. They have had some time, therefore, to form opinions about Christ and therefore we need not understand Mark 1:16-20 as referring to the first occasion that Peter, Andrew, James, and John had ever seen or heard of Jesus. Nevertheless their response is dramatic. By chapter 3 Mark will describe a collection of twelve such individuals who formed the inner core of Jesus’ followers and it will become clear that the choice of the number twelve is not an accident. Like the twelve tribes of Israel formed from the twelve sons of Jacob in Genesis in Old Testament times, Jesus is constituting a new and true and freed Israel led initially by these twelve disciples also known in the New Testament as apostles in context where writers wish to distinguish them from the larger group of Jesus’ followers who also can be called disciples.

Mark 1:21 to the end of the chapter then introduces us to a series of Jesus’ healings of individuals, all of which raise the question of the supernatural just as the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception did, just as the miracles framing the period of obscurity in John 2-4 did. If we do not believe even in the possibility of a God existing and therefore by definition a being who has the power when it is his choice to supernaturally intervene and temporarily work outside of the normal processes of cause and effect in nature, then of course we will take all of these and many other miracle stories throughout the New Testament as ancient myths or legends at best designed to teach some spiritual truth but not intended to record factual history. On the other hand if God as classically conceived in the major religions of the world as a being at least partially separate from his creation and uniquely powerful and in control in sovereign power over that creation, then miracles follow naturally as a conceivable outgrowth of this God’s interaction with people on earth. On the other hand a miracle by definition refers to a very rare event, so we dare not conclude simply from believing in the miracles of the New Testament that these must be frequent events or that we somehow have the power to manipulate God through prayer or faith or ritual or any other mechanism and dictate to him when he must act in miraculous ways. Mark 1 like the other Gospel writers in each context of describing a group of miracle stories, however, is not interested in raising the question of whether or not they are possible, almost everyone in Jesus’ world believed that they were, rather the miracles become testimonies to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom culminating in Mark 3 with parallels in Matthew 12 and in Luke 11 that if God is working through Jesus, to use the language of Christ himself in the passages in Matthew and Luke in the context of Jesus casting out demons, a kind of healing narrative illustrated here in Mark 1 as well, “If I cast out demons by the kingdom of God, by the Spirit of God,” two complimentary ways of referring to the same power, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Either the Spirit or the finger of God acting in this unique fashion demonstrates the arrival of the kingdom, which therefore means that the king has appeared. If the new or messianic age has arrived then the Messiah must have arrived and therefore the most fundamental meaning of the miracle stories in the Gospels have to do with a demonstration of the arrival of the kingdom and of the king of that kingdom, thus bearing witness to Jesus’ identity.

Mark 2 all the way through 3:6 provides a collection of what have sometimes been called pronouncement stories, because they all climax in a key declaration or pronouncement of Jesus, but more specifically they all represent radical teachings of Jesus that arouse the wrath or ire of certain Jewish authorities, so that they have also been called controversy or conflict stories. The first of these, the healing of the paralytic in Matthew 2:1-12 is a bridge or transitional passage that in fact partakes both of the form of a healing narrative as well as that of a pronouncement or conflict story. There is a dramatic healing of a paralyzed man that occurs here, but it is simply the introduction to the even more dramatic claim and certainly the more controversial portion of the story that the Son of Man, Jesus’ favorite form of self-reference, has authority on earth to forgive sins, an authority understood in Jewish circles rightly on the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures as reserved for God alone.

We go on to see equally dramatic pronouncements of Jesus having to do with the call of sinners to repentance and to become his followers because it is the sick not the healthy who need a doctor, Jesus’ claim to be Lord even over the Sabbath and determine what does or does not violate the commandment from the Ten Commandments about resting and not doing any work on the Sabbath, and then jumping ahead to an additional pronouncement story at the end of Mark 3 declaring that his true family are those who do his will, who become his followers and that his biological family, if they are at this point not yet his followers, do not as was regularly believed in Judaism take priority over his spiritual family.

Tucked in between the pronouncement stories of 2:1 to 3:6 and the little pronouncement story with which Mark 3 ends in verses 31 to 35 are the first significant challenges to Jesus’ public ministry and as such set up a kind of sandwich structure in which teachings on discipleship including the formal calling of the twelve beginning in Matthew 3:7 frame the first significant opposition and alternate interpretation of Jesus’ ministry found in the middle section of Mark 3. The official leadership response anticipated already in 3:6 is to attribute Jesus’ supernatural powers to the devil, to Beelzebub, to Satan, which Jesus in turn responds to by suggesting that such a charge comes perilously close to the threshold of what he calls the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Apparently he does not believe that this border has been crossed, because he distinguishes in some of the accounts between blaspheming against him as the Son of Man and blaspheming against the Spirit itself, presumably a reference to those who truly do have a witness, a testimony given to them from the Spirit of God, which they then flagrantly and without ever seeking repentance, refuse and repudiate, but nevertheless it is a warning to any whether they think themselves to be a Christian or not, against reacting so diametrically opposite to one whose entire life exuded pervasive signs of God’s power and love and divinity, to so consciously confuse him with a servant of the devil, the closer one comes to doing that the more they are in jeopardy of being guilty of an unforgivable sin. It is important at the same time to stress that this sin is not one that Jesus warns those who have already committed themselves to him as followers against. Many times in the history of the church believers with very tender and sensitive consciences have worried that some specific act or attitude of theirs might have become such a blasphemy against the Spirit that they have forfeited salvation in a way they could never recover. The very fact that someone is worried and concerned and desperately wants to avoid such a sin is itself normally proof that they could not have committed such a sin, because, by definition, the one whom the Spirit cannot restore is the person who never wants to be restored or never wants to come to Jesus in the first place and continues throughout their entire lives from this point forward completely opposed to Jesus as one whom God has brought into and revealed to the world.