Chapter 2.

The Gospels Themselves: Preliminary Questions

We come now to look at the Gospels themselves. A few characteristics lie upon the very surface here.

1. Why are there Four?

In a general way, these are four parallel narratives of the life, works, teachings, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were written by four different individuals, and while narrating many things that are common to all or most of them, there are omissions and additions in each which even from a human standpoint would mark them out as four distinct and, we will add, independent narratives.

There are differences of style in language, method of treatment, arrangement of subjects, and other features which prove this. These will occupy us later when we come to take up the distinctive differences of the four Gospels. We merely mention here what the most casual reader will observe. We are, however, not looking at the four Gospels as human productions, but as a part of that perfect word of God inspired by the Spirit, where nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous. The Spirit of God would never give

His sanction to a multiplication of narratives, were there not some special, defined and necessary reason for it. We may, then, here ask the question: Why are there four Gospels instead of one?

A few answers suggest themselves.

The importance of the subject. This is suggested by the four narratives. No ordinary reader could, when he came to the Gospels and read through the first, and then in the second found again a fresh narrative of the same life, and passing to the third, found the same blessed subject, which also is repeated again in the fourth Gospel — we say, no ordinary reader could fail to get the impression that here was the most important central fact in all the word of God, to which his attention was called in a special way.

Its richness and fulness. He would also, if thoughtful, have the conviction that there must be a richness and fulness in connection with this wondrous Person which could be most adequately set forth in four separate narratives.

Each with a special object. If he were a believer in inspiration, he would probably come to the conclusion that each Gospel must have been written with some special object in view, and therefore must present our Lord in a character appropriate to that object.

The persons for whom written. As in the Epistles some special condition in the local assembly was frequently the occasion of, or at any rate, gave character to the epistle, so the question would naturally rise, Do similar reasons account in any measure for the different Gospels?

The authors of the Gospels. This is always a minor question, except indeed where the writer comes with a special message, as the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the epistles which they wrote. It is a proper question, however, to ask who the four Evangelists were, and to get what idea we can of those personal characteristics which would indicate their special fitness for the peculiar form of the narrative which they wrote and the object which the Spirit of God had in its production. The discussion of these last three points will be found summarized in the 4th section of Chapter 3.

2. The Harmony of the Four Gospels*

{*The following pages originally written for this book are also inserted in "How to Study the Bible" under the head "Harmony Studies (pp. 107-117) as being an essential part of the subject.}

Had God intended that we should have but one narrative, He would have given us the record of the life of our Lord in that form. Our attention, therefore, should be directed to each separate Gospel to ascertain, as far as we may, its general character; its main theme; its point of view; the manner in which it presents our Lord.

These questions, it will be found, affect the entire narrative, and the very arrangement of subjects will be seen to have been governed by the main object before the inspired writer.

We further remark that there is a fulness and multiplicity of detail in the life of our Lord and in His public ministry, crowded as it was in the three brief years usually allowed, which would furnish abundant material illustrative of the special object which each Evangelist had before him. We get intimations of this in various ways. For instance: "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people." Here is a sample statement of the tireless activities of a Life which had no hours of relaxation or periods of rest.

No doubt that in the various conversations which are recorded, as for instance in John 10, or the period just prior to the last passover, when there were various discussions with the leaders of the people in the temple, we have abridgments; special attention being given to those features of the discourse which are more particularly related to the general theme of that Evangelist. This perhaps will account for the apparently different modes of expression in the different Gospels. For instance, in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew (Matt. 21:40, 41), our Lord's question: "When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?" is answered by those whom He was addressing; while in Mark He seems Himself to answer it (Mark 12:9), and in Luke also it is the same. We find, however, in examining more closely, that our Lord Himself in Matthew gives an answer in addition to that which His hearers gave (ver. 43): "Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof."

This in itself indicates that the narrators are not in conflict with each other, but simply recording that portion of the conversation which had special reference to their main theme.

But we speak here more particularly of what are called "harmonies." This has been a favorite method of study by Bible students, and quite an account could be given of the various harmonies compiled from the first diatessaron to the latest harmonies of the four Gospels. While these have very much that is in common, and indeed we may say that the general outlines of the Gospel narratives are not so difficult of recognition, yet there is sufficient divergence in the details which indicates that it is very difficult, not to say impossible, to arrange every portion of the four narratives so as to blend them in one smoothly-connected whole. This is not because there are contradictions, but simply that this was not the object of the Spirit of God in giving us the fourfold record.

It is difficult for us to divest ourselves of a certain external exactitude,which is really not a proof of the highest kind of accuracy. Probably all of us have passed through — if we are not still in it — the stage in which our idea of harmony means that we can piece together the four narratives so completely as to leave no gaps. This might be possible, if, for instance, Matthew or any one of the other Evangelists had written four Gospels instead of one, with but the one object. In doing this, he could dwell in one upon certain features, making provision for the addition of other features which could be taken from a second or a third narrative. When, however, we have four different Evangelists with four different objects in view, as we have said, this becomes impracticable. The entire method of treatment is different.

Minute details may be recorded in one Evangelist which in another are passed over without any allusion, or in a few words of generalization. Sometimes indeed, the occurrence is so marked that we can decide its place without difficulty, and therefore find room next to it for what manifestly belongs there. For instance, in connection with the narrative of the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes in the Gospel of John, we have the record of our Lord's discourse which was based upon that miracle. The feeding of the multitude took place at a distance, but we know that His return to Capernaum was on "the next day" or indeed during the same night, and that the discourse in the synagogue there upon. "the Bread of God which came down from heaven" must thus be placed in connection with the miracle itself.

There are numbers of cases like this, particularly in the synoptic Gospels, all of which are an interesting and profitable subject of study with more or less definite conclusions to show as the result of our labors.

Thus, helpful books on "The Life of Christ" endeavor to weave together the one narrative from all four Gospels in the way above indicated, and we have no fault to find with that kind of study if it is prosecuted in a reverent spirit. But we rise from all such with the conviction that God's order is better than man's, and that in proportion to our understanding of each Gospel in its individual character, we shall have the material for a clear view of some of the blessed perfections which mark His life as a whole. We may say unhesitatingly that we would advise a more careful study of each Evangelist separately before attempting any harmony.

This brings us to notice another matter. The order in the Evangelists is by no means always chronological. Our Lord's entrance into public ministry and the close of His precious life by His atoning sacrifice and death are at the beginning and the ending of each of the narratives, but it is difficult always to place in their chronological setting His various acts and teachings. Indeed, some have questioned whether His ministry was as much as three years, believing that the feast spoken of in the fifth of John is not the passover, but one of the other feasts. Thus, there would be but three passover seasons referred to in John — John 2, John 6 and John 13. If these are all the passovers in His public ministry, then it was evidently but two, not three, years in length. We do not believe however that such a conclusion is demanded by the facts, nor does it seem to allow for sufficient time in which to bring together all the occurrences of that wondrous life. Other considerations also confirm this. Certain expressions in Scripture we naturally connect with His life three and a half years suggest that "midst of the week," to come at a later date, when the sacrifice and oblation shall be made to cease (Dan. 9:27). "Lo, these three years," when the Master was still seeking for fruit from the tree, intimates something similar.

As already said, the Evangelists are not giving us so much a consecutive, chronological narrative, as selecting certain features in our Lord's life which illustrate the special themes of their Gospels. Luke, probably more than the others, gives what we may call the moral, rather than the chronological order. Events are grouped together by him, not in the sequence in which they occur — sometimes indeed being separated by quite a length of time — but according to their bearing upon some feature of our Lord's character to which the Spirit of God would call our attention. Instances of this will be given as we take up each Evangelist. We refer only to the general subject here.

We might remark in this connection, that a hard literalness will often mislead us. Even the use of certain adverbs usually indicating time does not necessarily imply chronological sequence. For instance, we use the adverb "then" in a moral as well as a chronological way in ordinary discourse. If we were giving a number of occurrences which illustrated a certain characteristic, we would connect them together by this adverb without the thought of succession, simply meaning that our evidence was cumulative.*

{*We give an illustration to make clear the statement. Suppose our object were to point out the unselfishness of a person demonstrated by a number of acts of kindness. We would not necessarily give these various acts in the order in which they occurred, but with reference to the special feature of his character which they illustrated. We might put it in some such way as follows:

"When a boy, he once gave up his holiday in order to spend the time with a sick comrade; then he relinquished all his right in his father's estate; then, when he had a few dollars which he had been saving up to make a purchase for himself, he heard of a widow, an entire stranger, who was in need, and gave it all to her."

These three facts are arranged in a somewhat cumulative order, rather than chronological. They point out that the natural unselfishness of youth was not a boyish impulse, but found expression later on in a sacrifice of what was his own to other members of his family. The generous care for the utter stranger gives an added feature to the character, though the act itself may have taken place long before what is recorded in the second place. The adverb "then" would not imply the chronological, but rather the moral order.}

In Matthew, as we shall find, our Lord's teachings are grouped together, and similarly His miracles. Very likely what had taken place over a considerable space of time is massed together with this object in view. It will be found, without doubt, that all is perfectly accurate, although some things may be quite beyond us, as for instance, the opening of the eyes of blind Bartimaeus. Did it take place before our Lord's entry into Jericho, as it seems to be from Luke 18:35, or afterwards, as Matt. 20:29 seems to indicate?

There are a number of possible explanations: as for instance, that the narrative of the opening of the eyes in Matthew is not meant to show that our Lord had passed through Jericho before He opened the eyes of the two blind men, but that it falls into its place because of its reference to the beginning of His final presentation to the people. Thus it would suggest that work of grace in the heart of the remnant which will take place in the latter days. Its relation to Jericho is not so much emphasized as that to Jerusalem: while in Luke the opening of the eyes took place before our Lord reached the spot, and our attention is therefore called to that act of grace earlier than in Matthew. But Matthew at least does not require us to believe that it took place after He left Jericho, while Luke does seem to show that it actually occurred before He reached the town.

Another explanation might be that our Lord lingered about Jericho, down in the valley before going up to Jerusalem, and that there may have been two approaches to the town, one of which is given in Matthew after He had wrought the miracle, but that He returned back eastward from Jericho and the miracle actually took place there as narrated by Luke.

We notice, too, that Matthew, as is his manner in several other cases, mentions more than one individual who was the subject of this mercy. There is doubtless a special reason for this, though probably Bartimaeus was prominent in the matter. If only we have it settled in our souls, that both accounts are absolutely true, and that all we need is to understand the special object of the Spirit of God in the form of the narrative, we will find no difficulty in believing literally both.

But we will not dwell upon further details. What has occupied us will be sufficient to show that an open and reverent spirit which is not seeking for contradictions will be amply rewarded. No doubt, further study and deeper familiarity with the manner of each narrator will reward our patient and prayerful examination into details which for the present seem impossible of being harmonized.

The opposite of this spirit is seen in much of the higher critical work. Apparent discrepancies are eagerly sought for and given as evidence of fallibility in the narrators. Thus, the feeding of the four thousand is but another and contradictory narrative of the feeding of the five thousand. The critics, however, seem to forget that both are not only recorded by the same Evangelist, but our Lord afterward speaks of both in connection with the question raised by His disciples. (See Mark 8:19-21.)

The two cleansings of the temple, one at the beginning of His public ministry, recorded in John, and the other at the close recorded in the synoptists, is another case in point. Each is in beautiful accord with the main object of the narrator. Both undoubtedly took place. In John, the one at the beginning of His ministry is given because in that Evangelist our Lord from the very first is seen as rejected: "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." The purging of the temple therefore, at the beginning of His Judean ministry and particularly recorded by John, shows our Lord as outside the system of things in which He yet tarried, if perchance they might repent. He repeats the same act at the close of His ministry as recorded in the other Gospels, at which time His rejection is especially emphasized.

It will be found that if there is a desire on our part to learn the reason why things are given to us in the order in which we have them, instead of stumbling over that which, after all, were it a mere question of common veracity would not be raised, the difficulties would largely vanish and we would be in a fair way to get explanations which the Spirit of God could not give us if we approached the subject in an irreverent, unbelieving manner.*

{*For other suggestions as to the study of Gospel Harmony, see Chapter 5, "The Relation of the Gospels to Each Other."}

3. The Question of Inspiration

Any measure of familiarity with the Gospels, and particularly with the synoptists,* leads to questions of accuracy in a narrative: for instance, as to the same event, its relation to other narratives, and the exact words used in conversations. We do not now speak of the willing use which unbelief has made of these seeming contradictions to throw discredit upon inspiration as a whole; but many sensitive consciences have been disturbed and much anxiety has been awakened by questions such as those indicated above, for which no definite answer could be given. It is as though a person had two dear friends, equally esteemed, but whose statements apparently differed to some extent and the question of their veracity was raised — not by themselves indeed, as though they were contradicting each other, but by those who heard them.

{*So called because they can be viewed together as presenting more marked similarities to each other than the Gospel of John does to them.}

It must not be thought that questions of this kind indicate an infidel mind, nor can they be waved aside by a warning that such things lead to infidelity. The word of God courts the fullest and most rigid examination, and we shall find that while there are things beyond our present comprehension, nothing is beyond reverent belief. Sleepless nights have no doubt been passed by sincere Christians who found themselves unable to answer satisfactorily to their own conscience why there are the apparent differences indicated above. Must the doctrine of verbal inspiration therefore be abandoned? Does inspiration only mean inspired thought, but not inspired language? What is the relation of personal individuality to these apparent contradictions?

These are some of the questions which an upright mind can raise, and which must be answered if we are to go on in the truth. This is hardly the place to enter into a discussion of details, but, as the Lord enables, we shall refer to numbers of these apparent differences and contradictions as we proceed with our subject. Here, however, we speak in a more general way.

Recurring to our illustration of two friends, each of them entitled to the fullest credence, each of them narrating with the distinct purpose of accuracy, we would probably refer any discrepancies in their narratives to the infirmity which is common to man. In other words, we would not claim infallibility for the best of men. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that, in courts of justice, if two witnesses describe the same event in identical language, with not the slightest discrepancy, a suspicion arises that the identity is due to a collusion rather than to impartial and independent observation. The same is true in all the relations of life. We expect the narratives of different persons to bear marks of their individuality, different points of view, etc., together with any personal peculiarities which we know they possess.

But we must not go too fast. The word of God is not a mere narrative of ordinarily truthful men. If inspiration means anything, it means more than this. It means that in God's use of the instruments whom He has chosen to record for us His narrative, no question of inaccuracy or human infirmity such as would be perfectly proper as to human productions, could be allowed as to Him who is holy and true, whose omniscience precludes the thought of imperfection and the essence of whose character is light. We know our Lord; we know the revelation which the Spirit of God has given, how it is "a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart," how it speaks not as men, but with authority, and how we have been compelled to bow to that divine authority in our inmost soul. This precludes the thought of inaccuracy in the Gospel narratives.

"But," it will be said, "the difficulties still remain." Let them remain, if only to test our faith further and to make us realize that we know only in part. A few considerations, however, may be of service here.

1. God does not set aside individuality. The instrument whom He uses is not as a stick of wood or a lump of clay, but a living, sentient man whose whole soul is carried along with his subject, who feels that which he writes. It would be abhorrent to the Christian mind to think of Luke, for instance, being an unconverted man. With overflowing heart, surely, every stage of his narrative was written with wonder and delight, and so with all the other Evangelists.

2. God has controlled and used it absolutely. Some might say, though it seems to go beyond what Scripture intimates, that the writers may not even have been conscious that they were under divine control. We instinctively feel that it is dangerous ground to take. We may say, however, that they wrote with perfect freedom; that their judgment and all other faculties were no doubt in full activity, but in this there was another Mind, another Heart, another Wisdom, permeating and controlling all; just as in creation God has not merely called all things into being and then left them alone, but "by Him all things consist." He controls, governs, and in a very real sense is in every vital process of nature.

3. This illustrated. We therefore expect, when we come to the written word of God, that the very peculiarities of the writers were not only overruled but used by the Spirit of God to bring out that which was His special purpose. For instance, Matthew, as a Jew, would naturally dwell upon those features of our Lord's life which were particularly connected with the national hopes and expectations of the remnant as predicted by the Prophets. He would thus observe and record matters of this kind and point out their connection with the Old Testament; but to say that his Gospel was merely the outcome of his individual and national peculiarities, would be distinctly a denial of inspiration.

Luke, as a Gentile, with therefore a wider view, would naturally point out features illustrating that view; but here also divine immanence and inspiration cannot be excluded. But we do not dwell upon further details.

Conclusion. In conclusion therefore, when we come to an apparent contradiction, we know that it is only apparent; instead of slurring it over, we should dwell upon it, ask as many questions as we can about it, pray for enlightenment as to it, and expect to find a solution which will not only justify the veracity of the writers, but which will show a special reason for the apparent discrepancy. Even where there is no thought of abandoning the truth of inspiration, the Lord's people may be great losers if they do not pause at the difficult passages in the Evangelists and dwell upon them in this way. As is often the case in nature, many beautiful jewels are contained within a stone whose outward appearance is uninviting; and as the very curves and knots in wood bring out a special beauty of grain, so it is in a higher sense in the Scriptures. The hard places will be found to have special beauty and suggestiveness.

So we come back to the simple statement: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God." If every jot and tittle of the law is to be fulfilled, surely the Gospels will present a similar perfection.