All this year at Bayside Church we’re reading a Harmony of the Gospels. This method of Bible reading helps to see the chronology of events in the life of Jesus and better understand how the accounts relate to each other. Each week I highlight the relevant readings on my social media pages. When I did that last week I got this response from one of my Facebook friends:
“Thanks Rob, good reading. The title ‘Harmony of the Gospels’ caught my eye. In seminary we’re learning out about theologians who are on the quest for the historical Jesus because they think that there are discrepancies within the gospels and due to the length of time (70 to 80 years) in between when they were written and when the events took place, they feel we don’t have a full picture of who Jesus really was. What are you thoughts on the internal variances between the gospels? I’m not sure what to make of the whole idea. The title ‘Harmony of the Gospels’ caught my eye.”
It’s a good question and here’s my response:
“The reason I’ve used the word “Harmony” is because we’ve attempted to put the Gospels in chronological order of events and then included the various accounts from the four Gospels together. There are certainly discrepancies between the four Gospels and, in my opinion, some people go too far in trying to reconcile them [for example, John has Jesus dying on a completely different day to Matthew, Mark & Luke]. I think it takes a lot of pressure off to read the Gospels for what they are – eyewitness accounts from four different people, written at different times to different audiences. It’s good to study who the authors are, whom they each wrote to and why they wrote. This will help understand the differences between the Gospels.”
I have found the same challenges over the years with various Bible teachers who seem to jump through hoops to try and prove that the Bible has no discrepancies or inconsistencies. It’s as if the very presence of a discrepancy would threaten the inspiration and validity of God’s Word and thus we must ultimately prove the Bible has no flaws. Personally I don’t see any problem with discrepancies in the Bible. I believe the Bible is the Word of God, I believe it’s inspired by the Holy Spirit, and I also believe that God used people to write His Word down and make it available to humanity. It’s at this last point that discrepancies can creep in – God’s method has always been to work through flawed, fallible, inconsistent people (the Bible is full of them) so why would we think the finished result of His revelation would ever be perfect? It’s just like the Church – a group of flawed, fallible, inconsistent people gathering together as a community of believers. It really is a recipe for imperfection.
It’s important that a reader of the Bible understands that its 66 books were written by at least 39 different authors over a period of 1,500 years. They were written in three major languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – to different audiences in diverse cultures for various reasons. While there is consistency of the major truths of the Bible – particularly concerning God’s plan of salvation for all people – each book or letter should be read as complete in itself with an understanding of the culture, history, language, personality of the author, His reason for writing and so on. We should also consider that the Bible is an Eastern book that can be easily misunderstood by those who read and study it from a modern Western perspective.
It’s also vitally important that we understand the progressive and changing nature of God’s revelation through Scripture. For example, reading through the book of Leviticus from a 2016 western perspective can be quite daunting. There are instructions on how much to pay for slaves and how to treat women as well as various rules on what not to eat. Some of these commands boggle our minds and we can easily wonder at the injustice of what we read. But when you understand that these things were written 3,500 years ago to a Middle Eastern culture, that had very few if any written rules, we get a different perspective. In some instances this was the first time regulations were written down that actually gave slaves and women some sense of fair treatment. Until then they were considered a man’s goods and chattel.
Leviticus, and other Books in the Hebrew Scriptures, was quite revolutionary in its day. It upheld human rights for disabled people (19:14), refugees (19:33-34) and the elderly (19:32). Leviticus defended good morals and behaviour that would cause a community to function well.
Jesus’ teaching continued the revolutionary revelation in His time. The gospels record Jesus’ teaching that abolished the Leviticus food rules so we know that they no longer apply to us today (Mark 7:19) – thank goodness J. He reached out to people that others would have nothing to do with such as lepers, the unclean, the sexually immoral and the mentally ill. The New Testament Scriptures continue to break down walls that divide people and communities – racial, gender and economic barriers are non-existent in Christ says Paul (Galatians 3:28).
People tend to see God through the lens of their own time and culture – this is just as true for us today! For the war-like people of early Bible days God was a warrior who would help His people to destroy their enemies. When God came to earth in human form in the person of Jesus He was able to set the record straight. On one occasion Jesus is
“Sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” James and John were stuck with an old revelation of God and saw themselves like Elijah the prophet. Jesus “turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Jesus gives us the ultimate insight into the true nature of God, “For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
For more on this topic watch or listen to these two messages: