Sometimes, it feels like the people in biblical times had an inside scoop on faith and spirituality. We imagine that walking with Jesus and witnessing the events of his life, firsthand, would make us feel closer to Him. Yet often those people we envy are anything but models of faith. The disciples, for instance, astound us with their confusion, resistance, and lack of trust. There’s an important reason why. We need revelation more than we need experience. Take the episode of Jesus walking on the water. If we were there, it would have been memorable. But we may not have heard everything. We may not have understood everything. And even if we saw and heard everything, we may not have known what to make of it. We have something better than a view of this event, sitting by the 1st c. Sea of Galilee. We have revelation. God has given us in the gospels perfect accounts, not only recording the necessary historical details but giving us an authoritative interpretation of what we’re supposed to learn from them. Understanding this helps us to know how to read them.
A common way people read the gospels is in parallel. They compare parallel readings of the same event to try and fill in the details of what happened. It used to be popular to create harmonies of the gospels where the various gospel accounts were stitched together in chronological order to create a kind of biography of Jesus. There’s some value in doing this. It’s interesting to know how the various details and events recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John fit together. But revelation is more important than history. And the revelation concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus consists of four distinct voices. When we just use the gospels to reconstruct history, the gospels lose their voice and revelation loses its impact. Let me explain a common way that people do this.
The account of Jesus walking on the water occurs in three of the four gospels. Matthew, Mark and John record the event but Luke chooses to omit it. When people read one of the accounts, they’ll often check the other accounts to fill in the details. Where there are differences people are perplexed. All three accounts record Jesus’ words, “It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27; Mark 6:50; John 6:20). But in John’s gospel, the disciples take Jesus into the boat and immediately arrive at the other side (John 6:21). In Mark’s gospel, Jesus gets into the boat and the wind stops and the disciples are astounded because of their hard hearts. And in Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus to command him to come to Him on the water (Matthew 14:28). Critics of the Bible like to bring the charge of contradiction at this point. “The gospels are saying different things!” But in fact, with a little work each of the details of the various accounts can be lined up chronologically and the timeline detailed. The gospel writers aren’t contradicting each other but rather telling the same story from different perspectives and with different emphases. So what should we do with the differences?
When we come to differences between various gospel accounts, we should ask the question, “Why does he include this?” or “Why doesn’t he include this?” or “What unique point is he trying to make?” Two people can tell the same story to make a slightly different point. In John’s gospel, for instance, he makes mention of Jesus walking on the water but only very briefly. The entire section is just six verses (John 6:16-21) because he wants to return to his discussion of the bread of life, a theme which takes up almost the entire chapter. In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples worship Jesus after seeing Him calm the winds and they declare, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33), while in Mark’s gospel, they are “utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” Mark 6:51-52). They sound like they’re saying different things but one is essentially saying ‘half-full’ and the other ‘half-empty.’ Matthew is stressing the growing faith of the disciples and so it makes sense for him to include the divine worship and the account of Peter walking on the water, even if he does fall and is rebuked for doubting. Mark on the other hand is stressing the hardness of the disciples’ hearts and so it doesn’t suit his purpose to include the details about Peter’s initiative in getting out of the boat and walking on the water.
When you come to parallel passages in the gospels, start by remembering that the Holy Spirit has given us a perfect word and so we can look for how the details of the events may fit together. But more important than our reconstruction of the events, the gospel writers have given us an authoritative interpretation of the events and so we need to hear the story in the unique way that they’re seeking to unfold it.
May God’s Word speak powerfully into our lives as we listen and seek His face.
In awe of Him,