Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE TESTIMONY OF THE GOSPELS”

 

 

I was delighted when one of our church’s college students approached me a month or two back to inform me that one of his college professors had misused his position as an educator to attack Christianity in the classroom. Such is to be expected by dishonest bullies who use their platform and their age and experience to overwhelm mismatched college students who are simply looking to take a class. However, a batter is expected to hit the pitches that are thrown at him, so long as they are in the strike zone. Therefore, though there are two thousand years of scholarship that any intellectually honest person could draw on to discover the truth himself, we will address some of the issues this lazy teacher has raised.

From the e-mail our young man sent to me with the college professor’s assertions, it appears that the instructor has not read the Bible nearly as carefully as he has read Dale Brown’s DaVinci Code. Nevertheless, one of his comments is that “the four Gospels are contradictory and not in agreement.” Is he reading the same Bible that I read? May I take that ball and run with it for a bit? If we are going to be intellectually honest, we must consider what we are dealing with. There are four books in the Christian Bible that are typically termed Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which have been available for anyone and everyone to read, to study, to consider, to accept, or to reject, for almost two thousand years. Now, in 2009, an unknown teacher stands up and posits that these literary masterpieces that stand towering above all other comparable works are contradictory and not in agreement? Anyone can say the Mona Lisa is not great art. Excuse me, but the burden of proof is on him. The responsibility to defend his assertion is his. The requirement to produce convincing evidence rests on him, not Stephen, not me, and not on anyone else.

This college instructor’s burden is much the same as the atheist’s burden. Atheists get very excited as we conduct ministry and shout, “Prove there is a God!” No, I do not have to prove there is a God. The Bible does not attempt to prove there is a God, but begins with the assumption of God’s existence that all but the most foolish people agree with. It is the atheist’s burden to prove there is no God. The same thing is true in this case. Was this man dealing with a more sophisticated audience he would have been immediately challenged for outrageously and unreasonably placing a burden on his class to disprove something that is so widely held by those capable of reading. Disbelieve the Bible if you want to, but do not be so incredibly ridiculous as to maintain that the Gospels contradict each other and disagree.

That said, and not for one moment yielding to his presumptive implication that the burden of proof is not on him, let me speak to you this morning about the harmony and the message of the Gospels.

 

First, THE HISTORY OF THE GOSPEL

 

Webster’s indicates the word “gospel” is derived from the Middle English word godspell, which means good news, and is intended as the translation of the Greek word euangelion, good tidings.[1] More on this later.

Originally, of course, there was only one gospel. Mark 1.1 opens, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This was the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Thus, the reaction of the angels and the shepherds when they received the good news of Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, Luke chapter 2.

If you understand that nothing was committed to writing beyond the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures until some time after Christ’s earthly ministry concluded, and He was crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended to heaven, then it becomes clear why Jesus chose His twelve apostles, and why it was so important that Judas Iscariot be quickly replaced after he committed suicide in the aftermath of his predicted betrayal of the Savior.

Listen as I read Acts 1.15-26, explaining the selection of Judas Iscariot’s replacement some weeks after our Lord’s resurrection:

 

15     And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,)

16     Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus.

17     For he was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry.

18     Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.

19     And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.

20     For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take.

21     Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,

22     Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.

23     And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.

24     And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen,

25     That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.

26     And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

 

Throughout the course of these men’s lives they (more on Paul later) were the chosen designees who testified with certainty as eyewitnesses, from the baptism of John the Baptist, being privy to all His teachings, His miracles, and His holy life, and observers of not only His crucifixion, but with hundreds of others that He had risen from the dead. However, these twelve were mortal men, who passed off the scene in time. Eleven were martyred, with only the youngest, the Apostle John, living out the course of his life to a good old age and dying a natural death at the end of the first century. Before the men who orally transmitted the good news of what they saw had passed off the scene, the good news was committed to writing.

 

Next, THE HISTORY OF THE GOSPELS

 

We know that Christianity was advanced by the preaching of the Gospel by the eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection (including Paul, who saw Jesus while on the Damascus road), and those who knew them, for several decades. However, at some point those eyewitnesses, and those who knew them, would begin to die off. As well, Christianity was expanding at an ever-increasing rate. Something had to be done to reduce the Gospel story to writing to preserve its accuracy. Something was done. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the five Gospel accounts, with four of them named after their human authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and with Paul’s Gospel being spread through the numerous New Testament letters he wrote.

That period of time between the crucifixion and the writing of the Gospels was referred to as the formative period. During the heyday of the very liberal German Tubingen school, it was popular to date the Gospel accounts to a hundred or more years after Jesus’ crucifixion. F. C. Bauer, along with other critics, assumed that the New Testament Scriptures were not written until late in the second century A.D. He concluded that these writings came mainly from myths or legends that had developed during what he believed to be the lengthy interval between the lifetime of Jesus and the time these accounts were set down in writing. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, archaeological discoveries had confirmed the accuracy of the thousands of New Testament manuscripts. Discoveries of early papyri manuscripts bridged the gap between the time of Christ and existing manuscripts from a later date. In 1955, Dr. William F. Albright, recognized as one of the world’s outstanding biblical archaeologists, wrote:

 

We can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after circa AD. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today.

 

Eight years later he stated in an interview that the completion date for all the books in the New Testament was “probably sometime between circa A.D. 50 and 75.” That being the case, the written Gospels appeared much sooner after Christ’s earthly ministry than many first thought.

Dr. John A. T. Robinson, lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, has been for years one of England’s more distinguished [Bible] critics. Robinson accepted the consensus typified by [liberal] German criticism that the New Testament [and therefore the Gospels] was written many years after the time of Christ, at the end of the first century. But, as “little more than a theological joke,” he decided to investigate the arguments on the late dating of all the New Testament books, a field largely dormant since the turn of the century. The results stunned him. He said that owing to scholarly “sloth,” the “tyranny of unexamined assumptions” and “almost willful blindness” by previous authors, much of the past reasoning was untenable. He concluded that the New Testament is the work of the apostles themselves or of contemporaries who worked with them and that all the New Testament books, including John, had to have been written before A.D. 64. Robinson challenges his colleagues to try to prove him wrong. If scholars reopen the question, he is convinced, the results will force “the rewriting of many introductions to — and ultimately, theologies of— the New Testament.” With the arrival of Robinson’s Redating the New Testament (1976) which pays greater attention to historical evidence than did the form critics, the date has been pushed back to as early as circa A.D. 40 for a possible first draft of Matthew. Most scholars who do not presuppose an antisupernatural bias date the synoptic Gospels generally in the 60s, some a little earlier. There is, then, strong evidence that the formative period was no more than seventeen to twenty years in length, possibly as little as seven to ten years for an Aramaic or Hebrew version of Matthew spoken of by Papias, one of the apostolic fathers.

This conclusion is corroborated by several pieces of converging evidence. First, it is evident that the Book of Acts was written in approximately A.D. 62. It does not mention the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, an event that would have been impossible to omit since Jerusalem is central to much of Acts. Next, nothing is mentioned of Nero’s persecution of A.D. 64. The book ends with Paul in Rome under the confinement of Nero. Third, neither does Acts mention the martyrdoms of three central figures of the book: James (A.D. 62), Paul (A.D. 64), and Peter (A.D. 65). Why aren’t their deaths mentioned when Acts does record the deaths of Stephen and James, the brother of John? Finally, if Luke wrote the book of Acts in A.D. 62, then the Gospel of Luke must be dated earlier, probably in the late 50s.

The early church fathers affirm that Matthew wrote his account first. Many modern critics say Mark wrote his first. In either case, almost everyone agrees that they both wrote before Luke, which puts their dates of composition no later than the late 50s. Thus again, the formative period could have been no longer than seventeen to twenty years. The formative period should not be construed as that period of time in which some “creative community” was forming the content of the Gospels. It is rather that period of time when the form of the material was in transition from an oral to a written medium.

Analyzing the critics’ conclusions of late authorship, Albright wrote:

 

“Only modern scholars who lack both historical method and perspective can spin such a web of speculation as that with which critics have surrounded the Gospel tradition.”

 

He added that the period is “too slight to permit any appreciable corruption of the essential center and even of the specific wording of the sayings of Jesus.”

Howard Vos, researcher, declares, “From the standpoint of literary evidence the only logical conclusion is that the case for the reliability of the New Testament is infinitely stronger than that for any other record of antiquity.[2] That is the history of the Gospel record from the human perspective.

 

Finally, THE TESTIMONY OF THE GOSPELS[3]

 

The New Testament is the ultimate authority for the life of Christ. In that collection of books, His life is set forth in four distinct phases: First, His eternal existence, essential Deity, relations and activities as pure spirit prior to all time and history. Next, His foreshadowing in time, prior to His incarnation. This is done by an interpretation of the Old Testament. Third, His incarnation, or earthly life, from His birth to His death. Fourth, the glory life of His exalted humanity, from His resurrection and ascension to the end of time. As mentioned before, the Greek word rendered “gospel” means good tidings of any kind, but in this collection of books, it means the good tidings of salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Nowhere in New Testament usage does the word “gospel” mean a history, as when we say, “the Gospel according to Matthew.” The word “gospel” occurs often alone, or with the article only; as “preach the gospel,” or “believe the gospel.” In connection with the Father, we have the usage: “The Gospel of God,” “The Gospel of the grace of God.” In connection with the Son, we have the usage: “The Gospel of the Son,” “The Gospel of Christ,” “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is also used with another modifying term, “The Gospel of the Kingdom,” and it is used with reference to its purpose, “The Gospel of Salvation,” and to its duration, “The Everlasting Gospel.” Our English word “gospel,” remember, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon, “godspell,” meaning “a story of God.” We employ the word in this narrative sense when we say, “Matthew’s Gospel,” or “The Gospel according to Matthew.” In this last sense, meaning a narrative, there have come down to us in writing five Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. Of these, it is surprising to most Christians to learn that Paul’s was the first that was reduced to writing, and John’s the last. Three of these Gospels are called synoptics: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, because they present a common view. These five Gospels must be considered as an independent and complete report about our Lord from each author’s viewpoint. They were written by different men, at different times, for different purposes—for different ends—and each, I repeat, must be considered as a complete view. That is to say, notwithstanding the multitude of books that have been written upon the subject, there is no satisfactory evidence that any one of them had before him, or was influenced by a copy of any other from which he consciously borrowed, or which he supplemented in any way. Nor is there any reliable evidence that any two or more of them had access to a common original written Gospel now lost.[4] There was, of course, before any writing, a common oral Gospel, but mere human memory could not be relied upon to recall with accuracy the minute details such as we find in Mark, nor the very words of long discourses, such as we find in John and Matthew. We must look elsewhere for an adequate explanation of their agreements and differences. In the final analysis, the inspiration of each author best accounts for the plan of his account, not only in the material he selected, but in what he omitted, in his authoritative portrait of our Lord. Westcott in his introduction to the Gospels, cites the fact that three portraits of Charles I were painted, one giving the front view, the others the right and left profile views, and these three portraits were to enable a sculptor to carve a lifelike statue of him. The sculptor could not carve this statue with accuracy from a front view only, nor from either one of the two side views only. In the same way, we have five wonderful portraits of our Lord, in order that we, in the study of them from their different angles of vision, may get a full view of our Lord and Savior. We have already said that the New Testament considers the life of our Lord in four distinct phases: His pre-existence, His Old Testament foreshadows, His incarnation, and the glory life of His exalted humanity after His resurrection. Each Gospel writer considers only so much of these four phases as is essential to his plan. Mark, with very vivid details, considers the public ministry of our Lord, having little to do with either His pre-existence, His foreshadowing in the Old Testament, or His life after His ascension. Matthew and Luke alone consider the infancy of our Lord. Matthew and Paul particularly consider the interpretation of the Old Testament, foreshadowing of our Lord. Luke, in the book of Acts, discusses much the exalted life of our Lord in the establishment of the churches. John and Paul both address His pre-existence, as well as the activities of His exalted life. This John does in Revelation.

Anyone, including the college instructor, could easily examine these accounts of our Lord in two ways: First, considering each account alone, in order to get before our minds the author’s complete view according to his plan. Then there is the harmonic study of our Lord, putting in parallel columns so much as each account has to say on a given point, and looking at the testimony of all the witnesses. In the first method it is easy to see that Matthew writes for Jews, and his is the Gospel of the King and of His kingdom, according to a correct interpretation of Old Testament foreshadowings. We find, therefore, in Matthew, many Old Testament quotations. He seeks to prove to the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. Paul unites with Matthew in making the same proof, but with reference to a larger purpose than does Matthew. Mark’s Gospel may be called the Gospel of deeds rather than of teachings. It is limited to the earthly life of Jesus, and describes the mighty things which He did. It is most vivid and minute in details and has much of the narrative style. It is the “straightway” gospel. As only an eyewitness could give the vivid and minute details of gesture, posture, indeed the very look of the actors and observers, this has been called Peter’s Gospel. There is both external and internal evidence that Peter supplied most of the material of Mark’s Gospel. As Mark limits himself almost exclusively to one of the four phases of our Lord’s life and to only His public ministry, and as he makes but little special contribution to the sum of discourses, parables and miracles, we must find his most valuable contribution in his vivid and minute details, therein far surpassing all others. He surrounds his incidents with all the circumstances that make them impressive. We see the posture, gesture, look, and the effect. His particulars of person, number, time, and place are peculiar. His transitions are rapid, his tenses often are present not past, and we hear the very Aramaic words spoken, in direct quotation, such as “Boanerges,” “Talitha cumi,” “Corban,” “Ephphatha,” and “abba.” Luke’s Gospel may be called the Gospel of the Saviour and of humanity, his purpose being not so much to convince the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah, as to show His relation to all mankind. Because Luke’s is the Gospel of the Saviour and of humanity, his genealogy extends back to Adam. If Luke was not a Jew, he would be the only Gentile who wrote a book of the Bible. His writings, the Gospel and Acts, treat elaborately the earthly life of our Lord, and His post resurrection life up to Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. Renan the infidel, calls Luke’s Gospel “the most beautiful book in the world,” speaking of them as masterpieces of human literature, Isaiah and Luke surpass all other books of the Bible. One cannot, in a few words, recount all the special contributions of Luke’s Gospel. We may note a few:

 

ź  He alone gives an account of the birth and training of John the Baptist.

ź  He alone gives us the five great hymns, four of which have Latin titles: The “Hail Mary,” the “Benedictus” of Zacharias, the “Magnificat” of Mary, the “Gloria in Excelsis” of the angels, and what is called the “Nunc Dimittis” of old Simeon.

ź  He recites more miracles and parables than any other historian does, and of these at least six miracles and seventeen parables are not given elsewhere.

ź  More than the others, it is the Gospel to women, to the poor, to the sick, the outcast, and the foreigner.

ź  To him we are indebted more than to all the others for the incidents and teachings of our Lord’s ministry after the rejection in Galilee and up to the last week of that ministry.

ź  It is more than the others the Gospel of prayers and thanksgiving in giving not only the occasions when our Lord prayed, and often the prayers themselves, but the lessons on prayer taught to the disciples.

 

John’s Gospel may be called the Gospel of positive knowledge, assurance, and comfort. It is more the subjective than the objective history. He means, evidently, to give to every Christian absolute knowledge, and internal assurance of the certainty of that knowledge. Paul, less than the others, addresses the details of His earthly life, discussing more the purposes of that life than its historical facts. It is interesting in comparing Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul to note each one’s special contribution to the complete history of our Lord. No mere human historian would have omitted from his history what any one of them omits. We cannot account in a mere human way, for the omission of the early Judean ministry by the Synoptic Gospels, or for John’s omission of the bulk of the Galilean ministry. A careful student of the several accounts of our Lord cannot fail to be impressed that no one of them alone, nor all of them together, intends anything like a complete biography like the one we find in the human history of a man. Each employs only that material essential to his plan, designedly leaving out everything not necessary to his purpose. John, at the close of his Gospel, rightly says, “Many other signs, therefore, did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye may have life in his name.” Every author could well have made a similar statement. What is true with reference to the facts of His account is also true with reference to His teachings. No one of them gives all of His teachings, or intended to do it, but only so much of the teachings as are necessary to his plan of history. Indeed, Luke, in Acts, says that his Gospel is an account of what Jesus began to do and to teach, implying that his second volume will tell what Jesus continued to do and to teach in His exalted life. It is interesting as well as profitable to collect together the incidents, miracles, parables, and discourses given by each writer alone. For example, Matthew alone gives the miracle of the healing of the two blind men, in chapter 9, and of the finding of the coin in the fish’s mouth. Matthew alone gives ten of the great parables—the tares, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, the dragnet, the unmerciful servant, the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons, the marriage of the king’s son, the ten virgins, and the talents. Matthew alone gives a somewhat full account of the great Sermon on the Mount, and the great discourses on the rejection of the Jews, and our Lord’s great prophecy extending from chapter 21 through 25 of his book. He alone gives us certain incidents of the life of our Lord—the coming of the Wise Men, the massacre of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, the return to Nazareth, the covenant of Judas for thirty pieces of silver, his repentance and his end, the dream of Pilate’s wife, the appearance of the saints in Jerusalem in connection with Christ’s resurrection, the guards placed at the sepulcher, the bribing of those watchmen to spread false reports, and the earthquake. It is in John alone that we find the early Judean ministry, the Samaritan ministry, the great discourse on the bread of life in Capernaum, the discourse of the Good Shepherd, and particularly the great discourse after the Lord’s Supper, as embodied in chapters 14-17. These four chapters of John constitute the New Testament book of comfort; Isaiah 39-66 constitutes the Old Testament book of comfort. Of course these examples of the special contributions of each of the Gospels are samples only, and not exhaustive.

 

Contradictory and not in agreement. That was one of the complaints leveled by the college instructor at the Gospels. Contradictory and not in agreement. What he seems unable to comprehend, or possibly unwilling to comprehend, is that the Gospels are obviously not contradictory because they are complimentary. They deal with subject matter so vast as to astonish the human mind with its breadth, its depth, and its length.

In each Gospel a somewhat different perspective is found, but a different perspective of the same individual, the eternal Son of the living God, virgin born as a means of clothing Himself in human flesh, living among us and conducting a supernatural ministry of teaching and miracle working, before suffering the death of the cross. The Gospel accounts show Him to be once dead but now alive, victorious over death and raised from the dead to be seen by reliable eyewitnesses, and then ascended to heaven until He comes again. Is He absent? Yes. Is He inactive in human history? No, He is not. You see, Jesus is alive.

Contradictory and not in agreement? To complain that the Gospels are contradictory and not in agreement is like an old grandmother complaining because the car that won the Indianapolis 500 last week does not have a trunk for her suitcase or seats for her grandchildren. She simply does not grasp what she sees before her. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are unique in literature, being in themselves a genre of writing that exists nowhere else, written by men who either saw the risen Savior or who collaborated with men who saw the risen Savior that we might see Him with the eyes of faith and be saved. Paul’s Gospel is set forth in a series of epistles, or letters.

I claim no originality in this message. I have relied heavily on comments written by B. H. Carroll a hundred years ago, and Josh McDowell’s writing over the last few decades, as they in turn relied heavily on and then added to the writings of many Christians before them. For two thousand years, the written Gospels have been available for anyone to read. Those who read with a closed mind find a justification for rejecting or dismissing the good news.

However, those who read the Gospel accounts with an open mind frequently respond as our brother, Ibrahim ag Mohamed, reacted when he opened the Gospel according to Matthew for the first time and read its message; if not immediately, at least eventually, embracing Jesus, the grand Subject of the Gospels, as Lord and Savior.



[1] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), page 788.

[2] Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, compiler, The Best Of Josh McDowell, (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1990), pages 79-81

[3] This portion relies heavily on B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation Of The English Bible, Volume 4, (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2001), vol 1, pages 1-10.

[4] I join B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation Of The English Bible, Volume 4, (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2001), vol 1, page 5 and Etta Linneman, translated by Robert W. Yarbrough, Is There A Synoptic Problem? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992) in rejecting the notion that any Q document ever existed.



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