A Harmony of the Gospels (Part 3) and Introduction to Acts
Lesson 7 – A Harmony of the Gospels (Part 3) and Introduction to Acts
Dr. Craig Blomberg
Understanding the New Testament
This is lecture seven of our series surveying the New Testament and introducing it. We left off ready to scan the passion narrative proper, those events that involve Jesus’ crucifixion, and then move on to its sequel, his glorious resurrection. All four Gospels narrate various hearings of Jesus before Jewish and/or Roman authorities. Boiling them down to the most straightforward harmonization we find from John’s Gospel, Jesus brought first to Annas, the father-in-law of the current high priest Caiphas and previous high priest, a plausible scenario, because although Rome installed and deposed high priests at its willing, a high priest in Jewish thought occupied that position for life. Jesus’ confession before the Sanhedrin, or Supreme Court, over which the high priest presided was in bare-bones form to acknowledge that he was the Christ, the Messiah. Mark puts it in that straightforward form of language whereas Matthew and Luke use the more indirect form – “you say that I am.” This is probably not a denial but an implication of the authorities in the very charge they are pressing against Jesus.
Contrasting with Jesus’ bold confession is Peter’s cowardly denial before maid servants and other people of little power in the Jewish world and certainly not compared to the authorities before whom Jesus is on trial for his life. Because nighttime hearings, whether with Annas or then subsequently with Caiphas, were not contexts in which legal verdicts could be rendered in Jewish law, Mark and Matthew appear to describe a subsequent brief hearing as dawn comes to rubber stamp or repeat in brief the proceedings of the night giving it some semblance of legality (see Mark 15:1 and parallels).
The charge against Jesus turns out to be blasphemy, probably not just because he has acknowledged that he is the Christ, Jews were in fact looking for someone to be their Messiah, but because of his subsequent language (found in Mark 14:62 and parallels) that the Jewish leaders would see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, an illusion to Daniel 7:13-14, one who was much more of a heavenly or divine Messiah than most Jews expected and therefore could be viewed as transgressing the boundaries between humanity and divinity in Jewish thought. Here is a key text for helping us to understand Jesus’ use of the term “Son of Man,” his most characteristic and distinctive term. It is not so much a mere affirmation of Jesus’ humanity, though it is that, but as an allusion back to the remarkable human being who is ushered into the presence of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. We see here one who is exalted and apparently divine as well. We might sum up these comments by stressing that “Son of Man,” therefore, in the Gospels is more commonly a synonym rather than an opposite expression from “Son of God.”
Next comes Jesus’ trial before Pilate since Rome forbade Jews under most circumstances to instigate on their own capital punishment. We see in Mark 15:2 another guarded confession with a similar interpretation as that which should attach to Jesus’ reply to the Sanhedrin. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, is convinced of his innocence and tries to release Jesus but the crowd demands Barabbas, one who is called a lestes in Greek, a criminal, a revolutionary, an insurrectionist, perhaps today we would use the term terrorist, not merely a thief as in some translations. He would have represented the fledgling emerging Zealot movement that wanted to overthrow Rome by force and hope for a repeat of the Maccabean miracle. Pilate caves in to the pressure of the crowd but also tries to pawn Jesus off on his Galilean counterpart Herod Antipas who has been ruling there since the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C. and who was visiting Jerusalem during this Passover festival. But Antipas also finds him innocent and sends him back to Pilate who finally gives in to the crowd’s shouts for Jesus’ crucifixion and delivers him up to this form of cruel execution.
Normally a crucified individual, a death reserved for the most part for criminals or slaves, took place over a two to three-day period as the condemned individual died slowly and finally by suffocation, unable to lift his head sufficiently off of his chest in order to breathe. Jesus, on the other hand, dies unusually quickly, within three to six hours on the same day that he was put on the cross. Historically this may well have much to do with the fact that he has received the whippings from the Roman authorities, which alone in some instances proved fatal. But theologically it may well be to stress the voluntary nature of his sacrifice. Even at his death he still has the strength to cry out and surrender his spirit to God.
The meaning of the crucifixion is perhaps best seen in what have come to be called the seven last words of Christ from the cross, though in fact what this means is the seven last sayings, or sentences, that Jesus speaks as recorded in the four Gospels. In one probable chronological sequence they are first – “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” – forgiveness offered to his enemies in their presence, in their hearing, even as they are killing him in one of the most agonizing forms of execution devised by humanity, a remarkable distinctive of Jesus’ ministry and of the Christian faith when it is functioning in a way faithful to its origins. Second, to the criminal, or insurrectionist, next to him on the cross who has a change of heart and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom, Christ replies, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise” – a reminder that eternal life is available to the truly penitent even when it is in the very last moments of their deaths. Thirdly, looking at Mary and John the beloved disciple, he says, “Woman, behold thy son; son, behold thy mother” – concerned for his family and closed friends and followers even in his agony. Joseph may well have passed away by this point and Mary in a highly patriarchal society would need to come under the umbrella protection of some man. Her sons, Jesus’ half-brothers, have not yet displayed faith in Jesus, so it is natural for he who taught on spiritual kinship, being closer and more important than biological kinship, to turn to the disciple he most loved to care for his mother and vice versa. The fourth saying from the cross involves Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It would appear that this is the moment in which he senses he is bearing the sins of the world and their penalty, separation from God, experiencing God’s complete abandonment, the rupture of that wonderful and previously unbroken relationship of community and perfect oneness and intimacy with his Father. Fifthly, “I thirst” – physical anguish no doubt, but it is hard not to see a spiritual depth to this cry coming after God’s departure, as it does. Sixth, “It is finished” – the drink that he refuses to swallow to alleviate his pain and suffering, but again the spiritual mission of his on the cross of atonement. And then finally, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” – echoing a common Jewish child’s bedtime prayer. Despite the agonizing sense of abandonment, he remains trusting with childlike faith in the God who had promised to raise him from the dead after his agony.
And so, accounts of that resurrection follow the accounts of the crucifixion. Here is the most spectacular miracle and most central event and doctrine flowing from Christ’s life and defining the Christian faith. In an age of modern skepticism we have to ask if it can be believed. But what are the alternatives? Are we to accept the swoon theory that Jesus never quite died on the cross, only appeared to, and revived in the cool of the tomb, managing to push an enormous stone away, escape, appear to his followers and convince them that he was a strong and healthy individual? Preposterous. Or perhaps the body was stolen? This was the Jews original fear in Matthew 27 and the excuse they gave when their attempt to put a guard at the tomb to prevent the ruse had failed in Matthew 28. But if Jesus’ followers somehow pulled off this ruse, then they built their religion, for which many of them died martyrs deaths, on a known lie. A huge psychological improbability. Did the women go to the wrong tomb as has been suggested and thus find it empty and begin to preach the resurrection? But then Jesus’ antagonists, particularly the Jewish leaders, would merely have had to go to the proper tomb and produce the body to disprove them. Perhaps we have what some have called mass hallucination or a little bit less unacceptably, a subjective visionary experience? But with Paul explaining in 1 Corinthians 15 that over five hundred people, many who were still alive and could be interviewed at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians 15, had had this experience it becomes more difficult to account for this way. More importantly the disciples were psychologically in a spirit of defeat, cowering behind locked doors for fear of their arrest and execution next, not the state of mind to experience a vision in which they believed to have seen their Lord risen.
The only even somewhat plausible alternate explanation to the resurrection besides that it really happened is that it is some of kind of late, legendary addition to the Gospels. Perhaps originally the Jews believed only that Jesus lived on in spirit and not in body, but over time the story took more and more details making it sound as if it were a bodily resurrection. There could be some plausibility to this explanation. If Jesus had been a Greek and ministered, say in Athens, and a few generations later the story of his life had made its way to the east to Israel to Jewish circles, because Jews believed strongly in the resurrection of the body whereas Greeks did not. But given that the rise of Christianity was in exactly the opposite direction, the theory becomes most implausible. If anything, what would have initially been described as a bodily resurrection should have lost elements of the material or bodily nature in its story as it spread in Greco-Roman circles, but this theory has to proceed in the opposite direction.
Even more significantly Paul speaks of his testimony in 1 Corinthians 15 to the resurrection and to having been taught about it and learning who the first eyewitnesses were as something that was passed on to him, that he faithfully communicated to the Corinthians. He uses here the technical language of oral tradition and oral tradition in a context of central Christian doctrine, the kind of thing, which would most likely have been taught as soon as Saul of Tarsus was converted. Chronologically we can date this conversion to within two to three years of Jesus’ crucifixion and thus the atheist, skeptical historian, Gerd Lüdemann from the University of Bonn, has written two works on the resurrection with the remarkable claims that, not withstanding his conviction, that the resurrection is accounted for on the basis of some kind of subjective vision, hypothesis, it cannot be a late legend. It must have been something that was widely believed even if misjudged or misperceived within the very first year or two of the rise of the Jesus movement. But then if there are good reasons for rejecting mass hallucination we are thrown back on the probability of a genuine miracle of resurrection. Probability that is reinforced by such observations such as all four Gospel accounts stress that women were the first witnesses to the miracle, an unlikely invention in an age in which women were most commonly disallowed as legal witnesses in legal courts. Or the fact that something dateable to one particular Sunday had such a pronounced affect on the early church that within one generation it had changed its weekly day of worship from the Jewish Sabbath, or Saturday, to Sunday morning in honor of the resurrection despite the appearances of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures that the day of the Sabbath was inviolable and could not be changed. Or consider the testimony from Deuteronomy 21:23 that, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” – and that already in intertestamental Jewish thought crucifixion and its posture, a victim nailed to a crossbar, arrangement of pieces of wood, was viewed as similar enough in appearance to hanging from a tree that the same biblical penalties and interpretations were attached to it. Jesus, for every Orthodox Jew including Jesus’ Jewish followers, was by his death proclaimed by the very Word of God to have been cursed by God and yet Christians believed he was still the Messiah. Cursed by God for the sins of the world, but not for his own sins. What on earth led them to that remarkable conviction if not a bodily resurrection?
Or again, consider the fact that of the many would-be messiahs in the first century after their deaths, either their followers disbanded and their movements died out, or allegiance was transferred to a son or a brother, a close family member or follower and yet neither of these things happens in the case of Jesus. We must take account of the very real likelihood of Jesus’ bodily resurrection and recognize its significance again as explained in 1 Corinthians 15 that the possibility of all humans bodily resurrection and eternal enjoyment of a life to come depends on the credibility and the truth of Christ’s bodily resurrection and that it also gives some indication of the nature of that body. In continuity with the body of this life, so that we all retain some recognizable distinctives even as Jesus did, but with enough change that just as Jesus was not always recognized, we will have what Paul in Romans 8 will speak of as a glorified body, remedied from all the imperfections of this fallen and finite world. What a marvelous future to which to look forward.
We are ready now to leave the Gospels and turn to the Acts of the Apostles, to the one example of a literary genre in the New Testament that forms a sequel to a gospel, in this case to the Gospel of Luke. We have already discussed most of the relevant introductory details about Luke as author, a date probably near to 62, an audience of primarily Gentile Christians perhaps somewhat more well-to-do than the addressees of the other three Gospels, but we may itemize some distinctive purposes of this theological history book as a sequel to the theological biographies of Jesus. In Acts, Luke charts the progress of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, from an exclusively Jewish sect to a predominantly Gentile religion over the course of barely over three decades. He highlights the ministry of key figures in the early church but scarcely all or even a majority of the twelve apostles. Most focus in the first twelve chapters is on Peter and an even more exclusive focus in chapters 13 to 28 is on Paul. Thus the traditional title, the Acts of the Apostles, can be a bit misleading. And as with the titles for the Gospels it would not have formed part of the original manuscripts but would have been added, no doubt, early in the second century. Many over the centuries have suggested that perhaps the Acts of Peter and Paul would be a better title, though theologically because of Luke’s emphasis on the Spirit’s role and guidance throughout the formation of the church, an even better proposal is that it could be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. But the title after nearly two-thousand years is not likely to change.
Finally, we may note that Luke defends Christians in the Acts against charges of lawbreaking both under Jewish and under Roman law and that Roman leaders during this first generation of Christianity, things will change afterwards, are in fact described as consistently upholding the innocence of the Christian movement. A very simple three-fold outline of the book can be suggested by Act 1:8 in which Jesus, during his appearances during the forty days between his death and his ascension to heaven, promises the twelve that they will be his witnesses first in Jerusalem and then in Judea and Samaria and finally to the uttermost parts of the earth. Another way to outline Acts is to observe the six places where Luke gives a summary statement, something to the effect of “the Word of God grew and spread,” or similar statements that suggest a particular phase in the narrative of the life of the early church as he is presenting it has been completed.
On either outline we begin in Acts 1 through at least 6:7, the first such summary statement with the church in Jerusalem spanning approximately the years A.D. 30 to 32. We are told about Jesus’ resurrection appearances and then his ascension back to heaven, which demonstrates that the period of resurrection appearances is over, that God has now exalted Christ to his former heavenly position. We read in chapter 2 of the Pentecost Feast that May of A.D. 30, most likely, fifty days after the Passover, the Jewish harvest festival, that in intertestamental Jewish literature had come also to be associated with the time of the giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai and thus a fitting time for Jesus to pour out his Spirit as promised in the farewell discourse of John 13-17 at the beginning stages of the New Covenant with his people. Although the Holy Spirit came and went on faithful Jews in Old Testament times empowering them for special acts of service, it will now be the case that the Spirit will indwell permanently all believers from the moment of their conversion onward. This arrival of the Spirit is testified by the dramatic miracle of the followers of Jesus being able to be heard in a myriad of the native languages of those Jews who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover from all over the empire. Of course, they could have understood someone speaking in, what for most would have been a second language, namely, Greek, and so Peter proceeds to explain this phenomenon in Greek in what we might think of as the first Christian evangelistic sermon culminating in the call to repent, to be baptized, to receive the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of sins, a package that will consistently throughout the rest of the New Testament be kept together, a package of events which has only two exceptions and a third apparent one, which we will have to deal with in the course of our survey of the Book of Acts.
Shortly thereafter the first Christian healing, Peter and John with a lame man with striking parallels to Jesus’ healing various paralytics leads to Peter’s second evangelistic sermon and the numbers grow from three thousand to five thousand who respond appropriately. Not surprisingly, the arrest that Jesus’ followers feared immediately after Christ’s death comes now that Jewish authorities see what a powerful affect his followers’ ministry of preaching and healing is having. They are forbidden to the speak in the name of Jesus, but their reply, which has been a classic text defining when civil disobedience is appropriate in every era of church history, is that when God’s and human’s laws or rules conflict, we must obey God rather than humans. We are also introduced in these opening chapters of Acts to a striking arrangement or method of caring for the poor, first of all within Christian circles and then beyond, namely, communal sharing. Combining Acts 2:45 with the later passage in 11:29 we have, in fact, the two halves of what would many centuries later become the summary of Carl Marx’s Communist Manifesto – From each according to his ability, to each according to their need – but Marx, of course, believed that this had to be done in an atheist rather than in a religious context and that it was something that could and should be legislated. Both of those changes probably making it as ineffective as it, in fact, has proved to be in parts of the world afflicted with Communism.
Barnabas is presented to us as a positive example at the end of Acts 4 who when a need arises sells a field and gives the financial proceeds to the Apostles to distribute to the poor. Immediately afterwards, and in striking contrast, is the negative example of Ananias and Sapphira who are condemned not for failing to share all that they received or for not giving enough with what they did offer to the Apostles, but for lying about the amount that they were sharing. The harsh action of striking them dead is mercifully not God’s typical way of dealing with his disobedient children, though occasional parallels throughout church history give us pause if we try to claim that he would never act that way again. In context, however, such disobedience and deception within Christian ranks so early in the church’s movement could have thrown the entire movement into jeopardy and it is striking that the one other place that the word for “kept back,” which can also be translated “swindled” found in Acts 5 for the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, the one other place that word appears in the Greek Bible is in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Joshua 7:1 for the sin of Achan during the time of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan. Achan and his family likewise were struck down for the sin of lying about what they held back from God. Perhaps this is, therefore, another testimony to the fact that God is bringing about his new covenant at this new juncture in human history and treating it as seriously as he did the time of the establishment of Israel in the Promised Land in fulfillment of the first covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The first segment, or subsection, of Acts comes to a close in 6:1-7 with the calling of the first helpers of the Apostles using a word that would later give rise to a similar term translated as “deacon” in English, here to ward off what could have been the first full-fledged church split along ethic lines, Hebrew-speaking Jews, probably mostly from Israel, versus Hellenistic Jews, or Greek-speaking Jews and perhaps those who were more inclined to followed various Greek rather than Hebrew customs as well. We see important principles here about the delegation of authority crucial to solving problems in leadership and in ministry. Those called to more “spiritual ministries” should delegate those who have more practical skills, but subsequent ministries of two of these seven deacons, as it were, Stephen and Phillip, show that this is scarcely a rigid distinction. We also see that all seven deacons represent Hellenistic names and that this is a separate way of dealing with one group of poor people from simply having one common pot administered by the same people to all. In chapter 11 we will see what, in the modern world, is an even more familiar model for caring for the poor anticipated in verses 27-30 as a predicted famine leads to a special offering to help those who are becoming particularly impoverished. No one way appears uniformly or is mandated to deal with all the poor and needy in Christian circles, but the concern to help such people remains constant.
The second panel, or subsection, begins with the stoning of Stephen after a brief description of his ministry and continues with the ministry of Philip the deacon, thus spanning 6:8-9:31. Here we see hints that the gospel is beginning to move out from strictly Jewish territory as well as beginning to take on conceptually broader understandings as well. It would appear that Stephen has recognized more clearly than anyone so far that the law no longer applies in the same way since Christ’s death and resurrection and that temple sacrifices are therefore altogether unnecessary. He thus becomes the first Christian martyr through stoning, perhaps an illegal and more mob-based action with some aura of legality attached to it, but this and subsequent persecutions merely cause the fledgling church to spread out and grow in the process. So we see the church moving out to Judea and Samaria and even to Galilee over the years of approximately 33 to 47 A.D. The ministry of Philip takes us to Samaria including the conversion of a sorcerer, Simon the magician, and to the converting of an Ethiopian eunuch, one who was castrated so that he could work safely in the royal harem, who was on the Gaza Strip traveling and reading from the Isaiah scroll.
There are all kinds of theological debates about the coming and going of the Holy Spirit and the timing of baptism that have divided God’s people over the centuries, but we must not lose site of the unifying theme that the Word of God is spreading to people who by Orthodox Jewish standards would have been most unlikely candidates for repentance and incorporation into the people of God, a magician, his fellow Samaritans, and one who probably was a black African and considered forever unclean because of his bodily mutilation. It is also in Acts 8 where the seemingly delayed arrival of the Holy Spirit after the belief and baptism of the Samaritans has led many to wonder if there is precedent here for some kind of second blessing, or even for saying that the Spirit does not always arrive when a person converts, or even for saying that he does not arrive at all until someone speaks in tongues. But the exceptional situation of the gospel making inroads into Samaria, the descendents of the half breeds, the unlawful intermarrying of Jews and Samaritans, probably accounts for the exceptional timing, which we do not find repeated anywhere else in the New Testament.
Finally in this panel we come to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, who had the best of both Greek and Jewish upbringings and education, whose very dramatic conversion experience was probably required precisely to convince him that he was as misguided as he was thinking that it was in persecuting and executing Jews become Christians that he was pleasing God. It is this Saul who will use his Gentile name Paul when he begins ministering primarily in Gentile circles later on in his Christian life, who becomes the main character in the second major section, or half, of the Book of Acts. But before we get there, Luke has some more stories to tell us of the gospel moving out even as it is still primarily thought of as Jewish in nature. These stories take us into the third panel, or subsection, of the first half of the Book of Acts and it is there we will begin on our next tape.