A Harmony of the Gospels (Part 2)
Lesson 6 – A Harmony of the Gospels (Part 2)
Dr. Craig Blomberg
Understanding the New Testament
This is the sixth tape and lecture in our series on introduction to the New Testament. We left off in the middle of the great Galilean ministry during the life of Christ in our survey of harmony of the Gospels and the main themes and events they describe about Jesus. We pick up our overview of Mark as our baseline Gospel with chapter 4, which contains a series of parables in verses 1 to 34. Matthew and Luke contain most of these and considerably more. Indeed, parables form perhaps the most characteristic and distinctive form of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. At first glance their purpose seems straightforward to reveal or illustrate the nature of God’s Kingdom through well-known stories involving metaphor or symbolism trying to depict God’s ways with humankind through generally familiar objects or events that first-century Jews in Israel would have understood, but at the same time challenging them with surprising twists of plot in most of the parables so that for those who were not spiritually as well as intellectually prepared to accept Jesus’ claim, there was also a concealing function to the parables as the otherwise puzzling verses in Mark 4:11-12 make plain.
Throughout the history of the church, perhaps based on the detailed point-by-point explanations of two of Jesus’ parables already in the Gospels, the parable of the sower at the beginning of Mark 4 and parallels and the parable of the wheat and weeds found only in the middle of Matthew 13, it has often been common to treat all of the other forty or so parables of Jesus in similarly detailed allegorical or symbolic form. But it is probably significant that the Gospel writers record Jesus’ detailed explanations only for these two passages. Other narratives do not seem to be as naturally interpreted through every detail containing hidden symbolism, at least not if we are to adopt the approach of assigning meaning to elements of the stories of Jesus which his original audiences could have discerned. It is better to focus on the main characters of the parable to look for a central point of the passage that all of the sometimes rich detail points to and to unpack that point if one wishes to go into more detail in interpreting the parable following the actions and lessons learned by the central characters.
If we jump outside of the parables of Mark 4 for a moment to illustrate we may consider a parable as detailed as that of the prodigal son in Luke 15 where the lesson learned from the younger brother is that repentance is always possible, or another way of saying that is that God delights in the return of his children no matter how far they have fallen, but no older brother would have been necessary in that story if that was the only lesson communicated, so presumably there is a second prong as well, that we are not to begrudge God’s generosity to the particularly wayward. And finally, the father as the unifying character who interacts with both sons as the master figure with two subordinates, a very common structure in Jesus’ parable, shows remarkable grace and mercy to both of his children just as God’s nature as Heavenly Father leads him to show great mercy and compassion to his people.
We may apply a similar approach to the parable of the Good Samaritan also outside of Mark 4, this time in Luke 10:29-37. Clearly a key lesson of the passage is that one is to imitate the mercy shown by the Samaritan so that Jesus ends his account saying – go and do likewise – but again the contrasting foils of the priest and Levite would have been unnecessary to make solely this point, presumably something along the lines of the lesson that religion or religious duty should not ever be used as an excuse for not showing love is taught by their negative model. But thirdly, a simple Jewish lay person could have been the hero of the story. Once we realize that Samaritans and Jews were often hated enemies of one another, the sting in the tail, the twist in the story that gives it its surprising punch, which makes some unwilling to accept it, is that Jesus is calling us to show love and compassion even to our enemies. Again we see a parable with three prongs to it.
After these parables, and we could certainly take the time to discuss many others, Mark proceeds both in Mark 4:35-6:45 and again in 9:2-29 to present another series of miracles, this time primarily involving not healings or exorcisms but more spectacular miracles over nature – the resurrection of people from the dead, walking on water, stilling a storm, and the like. We are to understand these not first of all as simply signs of Jesus’ compassion, though they doubtless include this motive, nor merely to serve humanity in response to faith, though there are times when the text says that Jesus declares someone made whole because of his or her faith, nor merely to respond to the lack of faith in a given individual as we see particularly if we turn this time to similar nature miracles in the Gospel of John and consider such passages as the changing of water into wine or the healing of the nobleman’s son in John 2 and 4, respectively, which we have already considered briefly, but while of all of these purposes do appear at times the overarching significance seen in Mark 6:50, 9:7, and elsewhere is, again, as with the miracles of healing to demonstrate who Jesus is and to bring people to worship him. Tucked in between these additional miracles are a section in Mark 7:1-8:22, which we might refer to as Jesus’ teaching on kingdom ethics. Here more than anywhere else he rejects and indeed contradicts the oral laws of the Pharisees (see especially Mark 7:8) and even foreshadows a coming time when certain elements of the written laws of Moses will no longer apply in the way they have during the Old Testament and intertestamental periods (see Mark 7:19 with his declaration of making all foods clean). This leads very naturally to the assumption that Jesus is also declaring all people clean, since one of the major barriers to intimate fellowship with Gentiles in Jesus’ Jewish world was their eating of unclean food.
Thus, we should not be surprised that this segment turns quickly to Jesus’ withdrawal from Galilee and his one extensive mission in Gentile territory during his earthly life (note the references in the latter part of this section of Mark to his traveling among Tyre and Sidon, cities Northwest of Israel and Phoenicia, to Decapolis and Bethesda, cities east of the Sea of Galilee and of the Jordan River). All of this then brings the opening half of Mark’s Gospel and the parallel segments of the other Gospels to a pivotal or initially climatic position with Peter’s confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi in 8:23-9:1. We already commented on how at on the one hand Peter reaches a peak of understanding among Jesus’ followers at this stage. If we add the parallels in Matthew and Luke into the mix we have Peter describing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the divine God-Man, but also immediately afterwards we discover that he still lacks significant understanding because he is not prepared for Jesus’ predictions that the Messiah must suffer. This then leads in all of the Synoptic accounts to the last main segment of Jesus’ ministry, that period or phase or stage often referred to as one of growing rejection.
Before we turn to that final phase, we must go back and make at least a few brief comments on the remaining unique material found in Matthew and Luke and also to a certain degree in the Gospel of John that has overlapped with the period of his popularity, but which is not treated in the Gospel of Mark. We noted briefly in introducing Matthew’s Gospel that the main structural distinctive of Matthew when compared with Mark was that he added or expanded five major segments of teaching, sermons or discourses, if we like. The first was the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 through 7 sometime early in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. The topic is the Kingdom of Heaven, a euphemism or polite way of avoiding the divine name of God used particularly in Jewish circles, and undoubtedly this sermon has spawned about as many different interpretive positions in the history of the church as one can imagine, not least because it is so challenging and at the same time so popular and well-known. We are convinced with most contemporary scholars and Christians who have looked in detail into this question that the best way of understanding Jesus’ overall teaching about the Kingdom, particularly with its very perfectionistic commands seemingly creating an ideal that no one in this life could live up to, is that they fit into the framework of Jesus’ teaching more generally. Through his ministry he is bringing about a new stage in God’s reign on earth, but it will not be completed and his people will not be able to perfectly fulfill his desires until he returns at his second coming. So the Sermon on the Mount does reflect a classic summary of Jesus’ ethical ideals, of God’s demands for a new covenant age, which should always challenge us to greater spiritual maturity, never allowing us to think that we have arrived, but on the other hand not discourage us so that we despair of living the Christian life, because God knows that we will only make certain amounts of progress in this world.
Probably the three most famous parts of the Sermon on the Mount involved the Beatitudes at the beginning, God’s kingdom blessings dramatically reversing human standards as to what kinds of people Jesus declares blessed. The Lord’s Prayer in 6:9-13, a model of praise and repentance and intercession and petition given to Jesus’ followers when asked how to pray and the Golden Rule in 7:12, a classic summary of Christian Ethics – do to others what you would have them do to you.
The second key sermon in Matthew is the sermon on mission when Jesus first sends out the twelve to replicate his ministry of preaching and enacting the Kingdom without him physically present with them. Here the emphases include an urgency to the task, an expectation of persecution, which will indeed be fulfilled after Jesus’ death and resurrection and hence an interpretive key to this sermon recognizing that the initial commands in verses 1 to 16 primarily focus on the ministry of the twelve during Jesus’ lifetime with verses 17 through 42 primarily focusing on ministry after the resurrection. Matthew 13, as we have already noted, expands Mark 4 with Jesus’ sermon on parables about which we have talked briefly. Matthew 18 is his sermon on humility and forgiveness spoken just to the disciples, which strikingly contrasts on the one hand an endless demand for forgiveness where genuine repentance occurs, but balanced by the need to take disciplinary steps within the church culminating as a last resort if all other steps fail in the removal of certain degrees of fellowship from the flagrant and unrepentant Christian sinner. Finally, chapters 24 to 25 expand considerably Marks shorter sermon on last things in Mark 13. On one level they address the disciples’ request for a sign or signs about the coming destruction of the temple that the disciples and Jesus are looking down upon from the Mount of Olives as they gather with him there and the signs of the end of the age and of Christ’s return, which the disciples have understandably in their minds linked together with the destruction of the temple. Jesus, in fact, in his reply to their questions clearly separates the two events. He does talk about things that must occur before the destruction of the temple such as false messiahs appearing, wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, and the Gospel being preached throughout the known world, which seems to have occurred according to Paul’s claims in Romans 10:18 and in the opening chapter of Colossians, at least in a representative way, during that first generation of Christianity that spanned A.D. 30 to 70, so that the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 can be seen as the fulfillment of these prophesies. But, Christ goes on to speak of a tribulation beginning at that time of the destruction of the temple greater than the world has ever known or ever will again experience and, at least in Matthew’s account, immediately after that tribulation, the Son of Man appears in heaven and Jesus is seen to descend on the clouds to earth ushering in the events surrounding his second coming. Of many possible interpretations of this we think the best one is to understand this tribulation that Jesus refers to as the entire period of time between the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and his return, thus most of what we often today call the church age. This is not to suggest that there is nothing but tribulation during this period, but on the other hand it has been the experience of the majority of Christians worldwide in the majority of periods of church history that they do experience persecution for their faith to one significant degree or another and that life for them on this fallen planet is hard in many other ways as well. 2 Timothy 3:12 puts it almost as sweepingly when Paul declares that those who would live godly lives in Christ will be persecuted.
The upshot then of Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives is to say that the precise timing of the end is something that no one knows or can know and that even in the voluntarily accepted limitations of becoming human that Jesus adopted while he walked on earth, that he the Son did not know the time or hour of his return (see Mark 13:32). Acts 1 will describe the same truth using terms in Greek for times and seasons that are the broadest terms in the Greek language for any period of time suggesting that not only is it wrong to set specific dates for Christ’s return, it is wrong to suggest that we know the year or the decade or the generation or even the century of his return. Rather, we are to be alert for it at all times, but that alertness, particularly in Matthew’s expanded version of this sermon in the end of the chapter 24 and all of chapter 25, is not one of trying to observe signs of the times and thus calculate dates, but rather one of faithful Christian living at all times so that one is prepared for Judgment Day whenever it might come.
Turning now from Matthew’s Gospel to the material that Luke primarily adds to Mark’s outline during the major phase of the public ministry of Christ and the substantial popularity attached to it, we come to that large central section of Luke’s Gospel spanning 9:51-18:34, which in fact appears to occur towards the end of his period of popularity and perhaps also spanning the initial phases of his period of rejection. Whereas Mark 10 and Matthew 19 seemingly present one straightforward trip of Jesus from Galilee in the north of Israel to Judea and the capitol of Israel, Jerusalem, in the south in preparation for the Passover and Jesus’ death and resurrection there, Luke describes Jesus journeying on the road in a fashion which suggests not one straight last trip but a longer period of journeying on the road after he has left Galilee for the last time, or at least after he has left his hometown of Nazareth. It may well be that Luke has organized this section more topically than chronologically since outlines of it seem to demonstrate that he groups together small units of material on similar themes, thus potentially gathering additional teaching of Jesus not found in Mark from a number of phases of Jesus’ public ministry. But the theological significance of the journey is clear in 9:51. Jesus is traveling under the shadow of the cross knowing the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem and not shying from ultimately accepting that fate. Here is where we find the greatest frequency of Jesus’ parables about which we have already shared a little bit. Here is where we find some of the major themes of Luke’s Gospel which we dealt with ever so briefly in first introducing this Gospel in an earlier lecture, Jesus’ ministry to the poor and outcast among them, the sick and the Samaritans and perhaps in some instances even some Gentiles. Here is where we have some of the most dramatic teachings dealing with prayer, dealing with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, dealing with Jesus’ concern for women and placing them in significant roles counter-culturally among his followers and treating them with special dignity in contrast, I should say, to the standards of his day.
If we then turn to the Gospel of John, we discover that quite differently from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John’s major focus during Jesus’ primary public phase of his ministry is to narrate the various times that he travels at Jewish festival celebrations to Jerusalem and the teachings and claims and controversies that he generates there. All of them match Jesus’ claims with the meaning of a key festival or ritual in Judaism showing him to be the true fulfillment of Jewish hopes. John 5 describes him healing on a Sabbath and claiming that he can work just as his Heavenly Father works on the Sabbath, a claim that would have made sense to a Jewish listener only if he was claiming to be God himself. Then in chapter 6, although Jesus is not in Jerusalem, it is only John in 6:4 who links the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ sermon in the Capernaum synagogue about being the bread of life, the natural symbolism of that miracle to the time of Passover, which, of course, was the Old Testament festival celebrating the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land when in their need to hurry they could not allow the bread to rise that they took for them on their journey and so ate unleavened bread.
Chapters 7 through 9 discuss the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem at tabernacles time, a festival celebrating the wilderness wanderings and God’s preservation of his people during that phase of their journey from Egypt to Israel described in the Book of Exodus. Here it was two key rituals associated with the tabernacles festival, lighting daily of a giant candelabra in the temple and a daily procession during the week-long festival, of priests drawing water from the Pool of Siloam and recalling the Old Testament text – “With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation” – that Jesus himself exploits as he refers to himself as the light of the world and the life-giving water. John 10 occurs in association with the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukah, that festival commemorating the liberation by the Maccabees at the time of Syrian and Hellenistic rule in 164 B.C. And here Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd echoing Ezekiel 34-36 in contrast with the evil shepherds of Israel, both Gentile at the time of the Maccabees, but now even more ironically the evil shepherds who are themselves Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Finally, we may resume our survey of the events described in Mark where all four Gospels begin to follow much the same sequence of events and where, with a few exceptions, the events are narrated in chronological form and topical or thematic groupings appear with much less frequency. John 11 fits somewhere early in this period and we might as well discuss it first since we have just been talking about the major claims of Jesus in this central portion of the Gospel harmony. John 11 involves the most dramatic miracle that Jesus performed of all, raising Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, and as with those earlier passages in John’s Gospel just discussed again lead to a particular claim by Jesus, namely that he is uniquely the Resurrection and the Life, but John also notes towards the end of this chapter that it forms one of the climactic events to convince the Jewish leaders that Jesus is too dangerous and must be done away with, a greatly ironic observation given that if Jesus has the power to raise Lazarus, surely he has the power to avoid death himself or return from the dead were the leadership of Israel to be successful in executing him. Nevertheless, the events continue that will lead precisely to that death and resurrection.
Returning then to Mark 10 we see a noticeable change in the narration of events as Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem there. Instead of the dramatic miracles, particularly of healing and over nature that have so punctuated the Synoptic narratives thus far, we now see an emphasis on teaching, on teaching his followers and would be followers about how to prepare for hardships to come both before and after his death and resurrection. Mark 10 begins with Jesus’ views on divorce in answer to Pharisaic questions trying to trap him since that was a hotly debated issue in their oral laws as well. Jesus on this occasion takes a stand that is stricter than either of the main Pharisaic positions, one of which said that any good cause could prove grounds for divorce, the other arguing only in the case of sexual immorality. While Jesus sides with that second view, he insists that this grants merely permission to divorce, it does not require divorce as in the case of the one Pharisaic position. Self-denial is continued as a theme in the brief account of becoming like little children, utterly dependent on the adult world just as believers or would-be believers must give up their own autonomy or independence and become utterly dependent on God if they would see the Kingdom of God. Then comes the rich young ruler who is told that he must sell all that he has and give to the poor. Is this a requirement for every would-be disciple? It is, in fact, the only such example in all of Scripture and Luke’s distinctive addition, not long after the account of the rich young ruler in Luke 18, of the converted tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19 who gives up voluntarily half of what he has and promises to restore four-fold to those whom he has defrauded followed by the parable of the pounds in which wise servants actually invest their master’s money and make more, but use it for God’s Kingdom purposes shows that there are many ways to use money and be faithful to God. But whatever is the greatest stumbling block to wholehearted obedience for any follower or would-be follower of Jesus may well be that which God is asking us to give up.
In Mark 11 and its parallels Jesus finally enters Jerusalem for what has come to be known as his triumphal entry celebrated in the seasons of the church as Palm Sunday, but it is probably better described as the non-triumphal entry, because, although Jesus receives acclamation from the crowds and his popularity apparently reaches a high point, there will be a dramatic contrast five days later from at least some of the same people as were in this Palm Sunday crowd because like Peter earlier, they too do not have room in their thinking for the concept of a suffering Messiah. They recognize that Jesus riding on a donkey fulfills the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, but they are still thinking of a sociopolitical and even military messiah not realizing the significance of the humble beast of burden as over against, for example, the white horse of Roman conquerors or the white horse of Revelation 19 that Jesus himself appears on in the visions to John symbolizing his return in triumph at the end of the age. Jesus goes into the temple the opening days of the last week of his life, confronts the Jewish leaders symbolically through clearing the temple, showing the corruption, the lack of access to Gentiles present there, symbolizing the coming destruction of that temple if Jesus’ teaching does not produce repentance extremely quickly. He also curses the fig tree in the final nature miracle of his ministry, the only one which is one of destruction, no doubt using the common Old Testament symbolism of fig trees for Israel to show the coming destruction of the unrepentant generation in which he finds himself in.
Jesus also confronts the Jewish leaders in his teaching with the chief priest over who is the true authority over the temple, with Pharisees and Herodians who took opposite sides on the issue of paying taxes and he finds a way to avoid their trap by suggesting there are appropriate ways of showing loyalty to Caesar, to the emperor, to human authorities, but only when they do not contradict loyalty to God. He debates the Sadducees on the resurrection since the Sadducees believed doctrine could be based solely on the laws of Moses and they did not find resurrection taught in the first five books of the Old Testament but Jesus does. Debate with a lawyer on the greatest commandment summed up in terms of loving God and loving neighbor. And then as he turns tables on the leaders and the crowd Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 in which David said, “The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your foot stool.’” Jesus in essence then asks the question of who the second Lord in this verse is. One is obviously God but who else is above David, King of Israel. The implied answer can be only one who is a divine messiah and the crowds marvel and the leaders are stumped. This leads then to Jesus’ final departure from the temple, his Sermon on the Mount of Olives, which we have already discussed, and then the events of Thursday and Friday that lead in a short span of time to his death on the cross.
The Last Supper on Thursday night with his disciples, a Passover meal commemorating Israel’s redemption from Egypt, now sees Jesus instituting additional symbolism for the bread and the wine that were part of that ritual. They represent his body and blood about to be sacrificed in death for the sins of the world. He commands his disciples to repeat the ceremony as a memorial of what will have happened, but also as an anticipation of the coming banquet in the last days when he returns and whether literally or symbolically feasts with all of his followers of all ages. John does not describe the meal itself as do Matthew, Mark, and Luke but adds considerable teaching that Jesus gave in the context of this meal, teaching which prepares his disciples for his death, focuses on the coming ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Advocate, the one who comforts and counsels and is called alongside his followers to help them. He teaches them some of his most intimate revelations of the relationship between the three persons of the Triune Godhead.
Prefacing all of this teaching is his dramatically symbolic act of washing his disciples feet completely reversing typical roles of master and followers and taking the role of a very lowly servant to highlight that their leadership should also be based on servanthood and not on strong, authoritarian, or hierarchical model as was so common in his day and tragically has been too often the common model in church history ever since. He concludes his teaching on this last night of his life in the Upper Room where he celebrated the Last Supper with his followers with a prayer to his Heavenly Father for himself, but then primarily for his disciples and for all of us under the heading of all of those who would become followers through the testimony of the disciples, which, of course, ultimately came to be written down in what we call the New Testament. It is striking that the central focus of this prayer is one for unity and sadly the church today as the result of two-thousand years of church history has fragmented into countless denominations and groupings where there is a desperate need under the banner of biblical truth to work together particularly across those natural dividing lines that humans have erected in the world to demonstrate to a fallen, watching world the unity that is possible, indeed that is uniquely possible in Christ as John 17 ends – so that the world may know that Jesus is who he claimed to be. In other words, the greatest evangelistic strategy for the church has never been a specific program but always has been a visible modeling of the unity of God’s people across those barriers that humans so naturally erect.
After this period of time on Thursday night in the Upper Room Jesus leaves, takes the twelve through the darkened town of Jerusalem, across the Kidron ravine or valley, to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the slopes of the Mount of Olives, asks them to remain awake and pray for him, though they fail him as they will again during these last hours of his life while he demonstrates his utter complete true humanity in repeatedly and fervently praying that if there be any way to avoid the agonizing torture of the cross, God take it from him. Here is a classic example of a prayer by one who is sinless not answered in the way he most fervently desired as a full human being, disproving all claims that unanswered prayer can only be the sign of a lack of faith. It would be blasphemous to apply that logic to Jesus’ unanswered prayer here. On the other hand we see Jesus’ true divinity and his perfect acceptance of his Heavenly Father’s will in the conclusion to these prayers when he says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” If God’s will cannot be accomplished except through the cross, then he is prepared to go through it. This sets up the closing phase, the climatic stage and the most important elements of Jesus’ life and ministry, namely his death and resurrection, which is where we shall resume our narrative in the next lecture.