The first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, share many of the same narratives, but if you have read them at all, you know that they often contain different details. While skeptics seize upon this fact to discredit them, they studiously ignore what every crime novel and crime drama aficionado knows—when the stories are exactly the same between witnesses, the police know something isn’t right, most likely criminal collusion. Their very differences are testimony to the Gospels’ accuracy. But that isn’t my point today.
Each gospel writer wrote to a different audience and with a different aim in mind. Probably the most obvious is that Matthew wrote to Jews to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the King of God’s restored Kingdom promised over and over in the prophets. He begins his account with the genealogy of Jesus, something important to all Jews, and without which none of them would have even begun to entertain the thought of who this Jesus person might be. He carries that genealogy through Joseph. Though we know that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, establishing him as the legal father was important to show he was in the royal line of Judah, with the legal right of inheritance.
Matthew uses more than fifty direct quotations from the Old Testament and even more allusions to connect Jesus to the Jewish prophecies, than any other gospel writer. Even in the gospels themselves we read about the false Messiahs running around during the first century. Matthew more than any other writer did his best to ground his readers in the idea that Jesus alone fulfilled prophecy and had the credentials to be the promised Christ.
Each gospel writer had his own purpose based upon his time and audience. When you are studying one of the gospel books, you will completely lose this if you insist on bringing in every other account of the same incident as you go along. Matthew chose his events and his details to accomplish something. Don’t make it all in vain. Look for the clues. Remember the audience. Get out of Matthew what Matthew intended you to get. You are NOT smarter than an inspired apostle.
There may be a place for a Harmony of the Gospels study, but if that’s all you ever do, constantly flipping over to the other gospels “to get all the facts” you will miss something significant. If the Holy Spirit had not intended that we at least occasionally study them separately, resisting the urge to flip, He would have written one all-inclusive gospel. Again, we are NOT smarter than the Holy Spirit.
Having said that, let’s say you are studying, not a whole gospel, but a single event in the gospels. Now is the time to compare all accounts. I like to make columns, one for each book that contains the event, and then write down the verse citation and exactly what is said or done there. You will be surprised at even the minute differences.
You would do well to ask yourself, “Why did Matthew say this and Mark something else?” For example, in Matt 9:18, Jairus is called “a ruler” while Mark calls him “one of the rulers of the synagogue” (5:22). Why would Matthew leave out the identifying phrase? Remember who Matthew is written to—Jews. What ruler would they automatically think of? Mark on the other hand is written primarily to a Roman audience. They had all sorts of rulers, and might never have thought of a ruler of the synagogue.
Also, Matthew specifically says that Jairus “knelt” before Jesus, while Mark and Luke talk about “falling before him.” The latter speaks of desperation, the first of humility and respect. For a ruler of the synagogue to kneel before Jesus would be a powerful testimony of Jesus’ identity to a Jewish audience.
So once again, here is the basic rule: If you are studying a book, stay in the book. Find out who it was written to and ask yourself why this event and these details would matter to that audience. What is it that the writer wants you to learn? Study the various events in the same book and look for connections between them. Keith recently discovered just by doing this that Matt 19 is not about divorce and remarriage, which is all anyone ever seems to mention. Look at all the events in that chapter and you will see that it is about what you should be willing to give up for the kingdom’s sake: your sexuality, your self-esteem, and your material possessions. You keep hopping around and you won’t see it. You lose sight of the purpose of the book—the King and his kingdom—and you won’t ever get it.
If you are studying an event in particular, by all means, compare accounts so you can get all the facts. Just don’t ever think you know more than an inspired writer and the Holy Spirit who directed him.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)