Comparative Studies in the Synoptic Gospels (Fragments)

The Genealogy in Luke

The origin of the great teachers of old is hardly traceable; the tree of the royal family of Great Britain can be followed back a thousand years with tolerable exactitude; but a thousand years beyond that it is lost in antiquity; but here is one which goes back, according to Luke, that most charming of Biblical writers, to Adam, and thence to God.

“Adam was of God;” let this primary fact be carefully noted in these days of evolution and “ascent from the ape.” God is the originator of the human race, a fact which disposes of the crude and absurd Darwinian theory.

The Genealogy in Matthew

The Messiah was of the tribe of Judah, and of the royal family of that tribe. His claim to royalty could not be questioned, for the simple reason that the archives proved the fact. He had lineal title to the throne; and although so lowly—meek and lowly in heart—He was indeed the King. “What I have written I have written,” was Pilate’s answer to those who wished his sentence to be altered. That sentence will stand for ever.

The Announcement of the Birth of the Lord

Mary’s natural difficulties were set aside by the calm pronouncement of Gabriel, “With God nothing shall be impossible,” and, on believing that, she peacefully replied, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word,” and then, how “blessed is she that believed!” She was the honoured vessel for the introduction into manhood of the Lord. He was that “holy Thing” born of her, and who should, as thus born in time, “be called the Son of God.”

How absolutely necessary, in the entire economy of faith, it is for us also to believe that “with God nothing shall be impossible”—nothing! His power is infinite, and no physical law is beyond that power. Nature is clearly subservient to the will of its Maker.

Let our minds therefore be set at rest, too, as we believe in God’s omnipotence.

Matthew presents Joseph to us as a man of high moral character. He was “a just man,” and, moreover, of a kindly disposition. But an insuperable difficulty stood in his way. He formed a becoming plan for its removal, but this as rendered unnecessary by the direct interposition of the Lord. An angel appeared to him in a dream, and gave him an explanation, whereby he was more than satisfied. His misgivings departed (and if his, so should ours), and “he took unto him his wife.”

The Birth of the Lord

A casual census of the Roman Empire called Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem—the city of David—for enrolment

A mere accident, we might say, but it was one of those mysterious accidents which form a link in the chain of the hidden purpose of God

“And so it was, that, while they were there … she brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger” (Luke 2:6-7).

How artless the story! How marvellous the truth! Never was gilded cradle so dignified as was this manger! Oh! for a spirit of reverent adoration as we draw aside the curtain and gaze upon the infant form which lay in that cradle! The exercise is most profitable. This was the first step in the path of condescension from the “form of God” to the “death of the cross,” and exceeding fair it is.

John the Baptist’s Birth and Lowliness

The birth of John, though super-natural, was not miraculous; that of Isaac was similar; and but for the special interpositioning of God’s powers neither could have occurred. “Thou shalt call his name John,” said the heavenly messenger, adding that he should be great in the sight of the Lord, that he should turn many to righteousness, and—observe—that, as predicted by Malachi, he should go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elias. Herein lay his distinctive greatness.

No wonder that his birth caused much interest amongst all his kinsfolk. “What manner of child,” they asked, “should this be?” “And the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:66).

He was the last in the line of the prophets, and had the distinguished honour of introducing, at his baptism, the Lord Himself, the beloved Son of God, to public life and ministry.

He cherished a very high appreciation of the Lord, and a correspondingly low one of himself.

He said, as we read in Matthew 3:11, “He that comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear;” or, as in Luke 3:16, “Whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose;” or, as in Mark 1:7, “the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” What a thorough self-effacing appreciation of his Master! and what rare humility!

The Baptism of the Lord

The Spirit chose the form of the dove—the bird of love and purity—and lighted on Him.

Here we have a signal proof of the essential holiness of His person. No atoning work was needed by Him prior to this anointing; no blood required to fit Him for this oil—“the Spirit of God descended on Him.”

Are we not prepared for that which follows as a kind of consequence? “This,” declares the voice from heaven, “is My beloved Son”—pointing Him out, not in comparison, but in absolute contrast to all beside, the perfect One “whom I have found My delight” (Matt. 3:7).

In Mark the words are more direct: “Thou art My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased;” and in Luke still more direct: “Thou art My beloved Son: in Thee I am well pleased.” Thus we see that words were spoken for His own ear as well as for the ears of others. The acknowledgment was personal as well as public. And thus He was anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power for the ministry of His life here below.

The Temptation

In the record of the temptation in each of our Gospels “the devil” is spoken of. His actual existence is accepted unquestioningly; nor, to those acquainted with history in the Old Testament, would there be any need to prove it.

That existence may, with other mysteries, be vainly explained away in our foolish day; but such explanations leave the difficulties unsolved, and only demonstrate more clearly the truthfulness of Scripture. Here, then, we find the devil in dread, personal actuality, daring to tempt the Son of God now in human form.

What eternal issues hung on the result! The “strong man” boldly encountered the “stronger;” and it was necessary that, at the start of the Lord’s mission and of His spoliation of the “strong man’s goods,” His victory should be absolute. That victory was a glorious moral triumph. Our Lord had just been anointed by God, and had received the richest of heaven’s salutations. He, as thus anointed, is ready to serve. The Spirit of the Lord was upon Him. He could go and not only preach the gospel to the poor, but also deliver the captives of the enemy.

This enemy, then, must first be overcome, and the Lord is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, apart from the haunts of men and to the place of solitude, to encounter the foe.

The conflict, if such it may be called, was unseen by human eye. There were no serried ranks of trembling and anxious spectators, as in the Valley of Elah, and the weapons in this case were not stones from the brook, nor carnal missiles, but only words from the Book used in perfect wisdom, and, as the sword of the Spirit, resistless in force. The dependent Son of Man wielded no other sword than the written Word of God, and it was in His hand divinely effective.

Led or driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, the Lord was there for forty days. It may be difficult to say whether the temptation covered all that period; but clearly, when after fasting all the time He was then hungered, the devil chose that precise moment for his assault.

Adam was surrounded by the opulence of Eden when assailed by the serpent, and, alas! fell under his power; the Lord was in circumstances of outward destitution at that juncture.

The words chosen by the Lord for the defence were all taken from Deuteronomy, that book in which Moses laments continuously the failure of the people, but which supplied the armoury for Him who, in circumstances of similar dependence as theirs, never failed at all. Is it any wonder that this book should have become a special object of Satan’s attack today.

Christ’s Ministry—Opening and Character

The public ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ was simply the expression of what He was. His words and Himself were identical (John 8:25), and inconsistency there was none, nor, seeing who He was, could be.

Hence, whether in the exhibition of good or in the denunciation of evil, He only gave expression to the absolute moral perfection which dwelt within.

And, therein, He stands alone. Inconsistency may be traced in other servants of God, none in Him. This will be found in all His ministry, past, present, or to come—in the exercise of grace today or of righteousness and judgment in the future; for He is “the same yesterday, today, and for ever.”

It may be said that the Lord presented Himself at first to Israel for acceptance by them. They having refused every overture on the part of God hitherto, the Son is now sent, “last of all,” to them. “He came unto His own,” in order to receive fruit; and, in these Gospels, the treatment He received is gradually traced to its awful close. The probation of man terminates at the cross. No fruit was yielded; there was nothing but leaves. The imprisonment of John was the signal proof of the condition of the people, and is the starting-point of the public ministry of Christ. He retired into Galilee, so that the “great Light,” foretold by Isaiah, should shine among a people who had lain in the shadow of death. But although outside of Juda He attracted crowds thence, as, indeed, from all around, by the might of His hand as well as by the music of His voice.

In Matthew and Mark He called for repentance, because the kingdom had drawn nigh. He was the living embodiment of that kingdom, and there He was, the King, to be owned.

In Luke there is not the same call to repentance. He opened His ministry in Luke in the synagogue of Nazareth by applying to Himself the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me.” He claimed that place and power:

“The Lord has anointed Me to preach the gospel … to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord;” and, having read these significant words, He stopped. All eyes were fixed upon Him. He met the gaze unflinchingly, replying, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” He maintained His claim to be the Messiah. Then gracious words flowed from His month, to which all bore witness; but, strange to say, they only responded by saying, Is not this Joseph’s son? How can the Nazarene be the Messiah?

But if grace is despised it can, and does, find acceptance somewhere. If Israel refuse it, a Gentile widow in her need, or a Gentile leper in his despair, will make it welcome. Enough! The brow of the hill and death for such words as these!

He “went His way”! So much for Nazareth.

Thence He went to Capernaum, and performed “mighty works,” with what effect we know. Repentance there was none.

He called four humble fishermen to follow Him and they obeyed. His fame spread through all Syria, but a fame only on the lips of passing admirers; the foundation for that which lasts was lacking.

At this juncture Matthew gives us “the Sermon on the Mount,” consisting, as it does, of maxims of the highest possible kind. If the Law, which was holy and just and good, forbade outward acts of evil, this touched the innermost springs of the heart. It makes known to us, not redemption, nor the way of peace with God, but the holy principles of that kingdom of which Christ was the blessed exponent. Such principles, while condemning the innate evil of the human heart, show the intrinsic purity of the kingdom of heaven. It may be added that the Father’s name occurs nearly twenty times, in order to indicate that, back of all, there was a fountain of grace, deeper than that which Moses learned ere he received the second set of Tables from the hand of the Lord God, “merciful and gracious.” To be “perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), is clearly the very acme of highest practical attainment. But the way to this is not taught in the Sermon.

In comparing the early chapters of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one cannot but be struck by the resemblance they bear to the Cherubim (Ezek. 1:10; Rev. 4:7). There certainly is much of the lion in Matthew—the tremendous fortiter in re and unsparing judgment of evil; then there is the patient, constant, unwearied labour of the ox in Mark; in Luke there are the grace and moral beauty of the only perfect Man; while John’s Gospel, unfolding that which passes beyond all that characterizes the Synoptic Gospels, would answer to the eagle which soars in the heavens. Each has its own true and suited character.

Parables common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke

The parables are six in number:
  1. The New Cloth and Old garment.
  2. The New Wine in Old Bottles.
  3. The Sower.
  4. The Mustard Seed.
  5. The Wicked Husband-men.
  6. The “Fig Tree and all Trees.”

The word “parable” signifies the act of placing together; hence, a comparison or similitude. A parable is to the subject what a likeness is to the person; it is a resemblance presented enigmatically, but sufficiently clearly to indicate to the attentive mind that which is signified. It can therefore be used without giving offence, and may convey truth both gently and effectively. To be understood, it is necessary that the senses should be alive and exercised, otherwise it would fall on ears unappreciative and deaf.

The parabolic form of communication was frequently used of the Lord. There are, in fact, nearly forty parables in His ministry, extending from the brief adage, “Physician, heal thyself,” to the long and deeply interesting account of the “Sower” who sowed the seed—the Word of God.

It need hardly be said that each of these parables contains a depth of meaning, a width of range, a simplicity, a dignity, and a power all its own. The design lies on the surface, so that it may be read by the opened eye; and yet, though so perspicuous, it remains unperceived by “the wise and prudent” of this world. Like the pillar of fire, it gives light to Israel and is but darkness to the Egyptian. But it is always thus in divine teaching: in order to apprehend the truth we must be taught of God. This is absolutely necessary. The keenest intellect is wholly incapable of discerning the mind of God, which is, alas! but foolishness to it. The “natural man” (be he never so intellectual) receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned—a solemn word for our days of learning and criticism—“but he that is spiritual discerneth all things,” he has that capacity because he has the Spirit of God—“the unction” whereby he “knoweth all things.” See the force of this in the answer given by the Lord to the query of the disciples: “Why speakest Thou unto them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10-17).

“But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear,” were His gracious words to the “babes and sucklings” whose hearts God had opened. How blessed!

We cannot look at the six parables which are common to our three Evangelists without being struck by their immense moral power and divine applicability.

THE NEW CLOTH on the old garment teaches us, in principle, the great foundation truth of the “new birth” The flesh is irremediable—“the carnal mind is enmity against God … They that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:7-8) Hence the absolute necessity of a totally new garment. There can be no coalition between the flesh and the Spirit: “Ye must be born again.”

THE NEW WINE in new bottles only emphasizes this fact. The receptacle must be new in order to contain the new wine. Hence, “that which is born of the Spirit” is spoken of as well as the Spirit itself. There is the new tenement for the new Tenant, “If any man be in Christ—a new creation.” No wonder that each evangelist presents these two basic parables!

Miracles of Our Lord

A miracle is an act of super-human power, whether wrought by God in goodness, or by the malevolence of Satan, either mediately or immediately. It is effected apart from what are called the “laws of nature.” A law of nature is simply that the same cause, operating in the same circumstances, produces the same result; but in a miracle, there is the intervention of a new cause, and consequently with a new result.

Admit superhuman power, and all difficulty vanishes. “With God,” we read, “nothing shall be impossible,” “no thing,” neither “the Virgin-birth,” nor the resurrection of the dead!

“Miracles, wonders, and signs” are at times placed together in Scripture, and the one word is variously translated “miracle” or “sign.” A miracle is a sign. It is an evidence of such power as should attract attention.

Thus, the sun and moon are spoken of as signs in Genesis 1. They were to be “for signs, for seasons, for days, and years.” They clearly betoken the eternal power and Godhead of the Creator (Rom. 1:20), and call, universally, for His recognition as such (see Ps. 19). By them, by creation as a whole, man is left without excuse. He should at least own his Creator.

Turning to the miracles of our Lord, wrought chiefly in the earlier stage of His ministry, they appear before us as the beneficent proofs of the presence of God in grace. They were assuredly designed to win that confidence in Him which, alas! had been destroyed by sin.

The leaves of a fig-tree were used to hide the nakedness of sin. The only miracle not of mercy was the cursing the fig-tree. All the “signs” were of goodness and pity. God was here. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” But in vain. Every attestation that grace could show, whether by word or work, was disdained; acts of divine mercy witnessed by many or by few, words of heavenly wisdom and love: all failed to regain the confidence of man. He was hopelessly alienated from God. Hence the need of the atoning death of Christ. He was “made sin for us.”

Omit the fig-tree, and learn that every act of superhuman power exerted by the Lord was one of mercy shown to misery and healing for every woe, and you will admit that such grace calls for grateful adoration, confidence, and love.

These are such “works that no other man did” (John 15:24). They stand alone. Simon Magus might bewitch by sorcery; the man of sin may, under Satan, exert works of destructive power; the Lord Jesus wielded a hand of tender but almighty pity.

Had the reader or writer been in the case of the leper or of the palsied man, and had he felt the kind touch of this gracious Healer who removed effectively, freely, and without relapse the foul and fearful plague of years or of life; had he received from the dead his only son, or the tender daughter who had been torn from his embrace; had he witnessed the treasures of the sea responding to their Creator’s call, or the first fish caught carrying in its month the exact amount to pay a tax; had he noted how easily, how unostentatiously, and with what pure consideration for the good of others—the feeding, for instance, of hungry multitudes who, but for this supply, would “faint in the way”—could he but place them, in their perfect moral beauty, in contrast with the juggleries of the impostor, or the mere but terrible self-advertisement of Satan in his awful works of destruction and hate; could he read in these acts of miraculous mercy the direct interposition of God on earth in undoing the works of the devil, liberating his captives, and healing those whom he had oppressed; let him do this, and he will admire and adore and bless the Benefactor. He will find fresh cause to esteem the Founder of the wonderful and divine system of Christianity “which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him; God also bearing … witness, both with signs and wonders, and with diverse miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will” (Heb. 2:3-4). He will learn that that system was stamped, at its very inception, by deliverance from every kind of thrall—disease and death and demon; the dire and overmastering foes of humanity—all fled before the face and at the word of the Son of God on earth.

His works witnessed to a love that was equal to the power which effected them. They bore the divine stamp.

And what was their result? Did they affect man spiritually? They appealed powerfully to his senses—his intellect and mind—but did they by themselves reach his conscience? No! It may safely be said that a miracle, per se, accomplishes nothing in the conscience. In order that the Lord should commit Himself to any one it is absolutely necessary that the new birth should take place. Apart from that the kingdom of God cannot be seen (John 2:23). For this, thank God, no miracle, no phenomenon is necessary. It is the gentle work of His Spirit, and is, at the same time, a miracle. Every saint is a miracle of grace. But it was, without doubt, the sight of Christ’s miraculous power that led Nicodemus to make further inquiry and to learn such words as He who wrought the works alone could utter.

May we learn the meaning of the miracles of our Lord, and, still further, may we, like Mary, hear and value His words!