Harmonize or Homogenize? Four Gospels, One Truth

There is an idea abroad in the world of Biblical scholarship called harmonizing. the four gospels. It would seem quite logical for those who love and trust the Holy Bible to ask, "does any disharmony appear to begin with"? If so, can it be cast out only through the mediation of the priests of higher Biblical criticism?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke - conventionally known as the synoptic. gospels - do not chronicle the very earliest days of our Lord's earthly mission. Jesus' very first public acts after His baptism are mentioned only in the fourth gospel, written by the apostle John. These very first public acts, recorded in the first few chapters of that gospel, include Christ's first miraculous sign (the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee), His first (of two) "clearing of the temple", His interview with Nicodemus, a time of co-laboring in rural Judea with John the baptizer, and His discussion with a certain Samaritan woman - and with her townsfolk thereafter - at the well in Sychar.

The beginning of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples Peter, Andrew, James and John (these four being two pairs of brothers), is the specific focus of this paper. To fully appreciate the observations below, it will be necessary to repeatedly refer to these four short passages, because the information they offer is carefully compared and contrasted:

1) Matthew 4:12-22
2) Mark 1:14-23
3) Luke 5:1-11
4) John 1:35-43

Matthew and Mark both record the same "follow me" call of our Savior to the foursome. It takes place by the shores of Galilee, after the imprisonment of John the Baptist. Luke tells of an APPARENTLY similar encounter in the same locale. It occurs at approximately the same time, but varies in several details from the Matthew/Mark account, most obviously regarding a miraculous catch of fish. John writes of yet another meeting involving Jesus and at least two of these future apostles. According to John, they meet for the first time before the Baptist's arrest, and NOT at the Sea of Galilee!

Does this all mean that Scripture has glaring mistakes? Must we choose Matthew/Mark, OR Luke, OR John as the one accurate narrative of the call of some of the Twelve?

Absolutely not. Here's why...

First, the gospels are distinctive writings, as are the other sixty-two books of the Bible. Their subject matter is the ministry of the only sinless Man who ever lived, and the most important One. This means that we must be careful not to treat them as ordinary biographical data, or as crafted stories (2 Peter 1:16). Just as Ephesians is more than an ordinary letter from a friend, so the gospels are nothing less than special, Divinely inspired documents, unparalleled in all of literature. This should be kept in mind when seeking to "harmonize" them.

Second, the fact that God gave us four gospels is itself significant. Had He wanted one exhaustive, chronologically linear book of the entire earthly ministry of Immanuel, He could have inspired someone like the methodical Luke to lay it out (cf. Luke 1:3). Instead, He gave us four perspectives, four treasure houses of knowledge of the days of the Son of Man; a four-faceted jewel of the surpassing glory of Christ which even His voluntary humiliation could not fully obscure.

Third, is not the attempt to neatly itemize the ministry of God incarnate somewhat presumptuous? What was said by one of those to whom it was given to write of it, under Divine inspiration? In John 21:25 we read that the world itself would not contain the books that would be written, should all that the Man from Nazareth did be journalized! The gospels deal with the Eternal One coming into time. We may conceive of the gospel writers as giving us "slices" of Jesus' life; nourishing slices of the true Bread from heaven which we need for life and godliness.

Fourth, the order of time in the gospels is subservient to the task of setting forth Christ's glorious person, His matchless discourses, and His exalted deeds. Yes, there are APPARENT, superficial discrepancies in the order of events in one gospel compared to another. However, they are no disturbance to our confidence in the Bible. None of these discrepancies are direct contradictions. Think of them as Divine literary devices. They direct our understanding to what is really important. They do this without compromising full historical veracity. We might liken their existence in Scripture to the use of "flashback" in a movie or book.

Fifth, let's not forget to compare Scripture with Scripture. What does Holy Writ tell us of human nature? Is not someone like Peter an example for us? In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed out of a grief that was to the point of death. Three times, Peter and his companions were found sleeping, failing to keep watch in prayer with their Master. Three times he disavowed allegiance to his King while Jesus was on trial, and the cock crowed to Peter's sorrow. Three times, the resurrected Son of God asked Peter, "Do you love Me?", to Peter's further sorrow. Three times, a sheet descended from heaven in a vision sent to teach Peter. It taught him that gentiles are acceptable to God in the Ascended Beloved, now at work through His advancing gospel, preached through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven (1 Peter 1:12).

Is it not quite reasonable, then, that there was more than one outward call by our Lord to Peter? Follow this writer in the way of inference. Note that Peter was first introduced to Jesus by his brother Andrew. This happened somewhere south of Galilee in the Jordan valley, where the Baptist ministered (John 1:23, 28, 40, 41). It would have taken place after Jesus' baptism, and after His temptation by Satan in the wilderness. What happened to Peter after that exchange? Was he evading the haunting witness of John, that fiery, repentance preaching prophet whom his brother Andrew had been following? Did Peter return to Galilee, fleeing from the mysteriously attractive Stranger about whom the baptizer spoke in such lofty terms? Was Peter initially wary of this Man Who presumed to give him a name upon meeting him? Perhaps he continued in this frame of mind, if he saw or heard of Jesus again, during those "few days" Jesus spent at Capernaum after the wedding in Cana (John 2:12).

According to John, Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover after those few days in Galilee (John 2:13). While in town, He prophesied of His resurrection ("destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up") as He cleared the temple court of the money changers and sellers of sacrificial beasts. He visited with Pharisee and seeker Nicodemus at night. Upon leaving the city and Israel's antipathetic leadership, Christ spent an unspecified amount of time with certain unnamed disciples in the Judean countryside. Those disciples baptized there, under His aegis, with Jesus' forerunner and kinsman also baptizing nearby (John 3:22, 23). When the Baptizer was imprisoned (John 3:24), Jesus returned to Galilee via Samaria (Matthew 4:12, John 4:3,4) to begin His Galilean ministry in earnest.

As that mighty Galilean ministry began, Jesus again encountered the two sets of brothers at the seashore and directly called them to follow Him. He did not call total strangers, but men who had previously met Him and were coming to know about Him. That was AT LEAST the second time Simon Peter, the rock, met Jesus. Matthew and Mark faithfully report that Peter and the other three set out to follow the One they were beginning to dare confess; "they left all, and followed Him". Peter's mother-in-law was then healed, and there was a flurry of other healing and deliverance activity in Capernaum and its environs (Mar 1:30ff).

Finally, Peter, Andrew, James and John saw Jesus decree a miraculous catch for one of their own fishing boats (Luke 5:4ff). Luke places this event in the midst of that aforementioned flurry of activity, as the eager multitudes were virtually crowding Jesus into the sea itself! According to Luke, it occurred shortly after the healing of Peter's mother in law, probably within days of it (Luke 4:38ff). Notably, Luke does not indicate that Jesus formally CALLED the four in connection with this piscatorial spectacle! Luke does reveal that He said, "Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men". Then, showing the slowly increasing strength of their fledgling, on again/off again discipleship, Luke echoes Matthew's and Mark's comment : "And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him." (Luke 5:11)

In other words, upon seeing this miracle, most of the staff of "Brothers & Brothers Fishing of Galilee, Inc." determined with all resolve to follow Jesus! As the events immediately following Jesus' own arrest make clear, their resolve was still not confirmed even after being with him for many months. Perfect love had not yet completely cast out fear (1 John 4:18). The Peter who cried when the cock crowed did not really become "the rock" until he and his fellow apostles were clothed with power from on high at Pentecost. Following that promised empowering, we finally read of courageous exploits and bold witness to the end. Like Steven the mighty deacon, James the son of Zebedee was martyred (Acts 12:2). Jesus had predicted Peter's death to the glory of God (John 21:19). Tradition gives evidence of the fulfillment of that prophecy, and suggests that other apostles also suffered the deaths of martyrs.

Please refer again to the four passages cited earlier. John shows us how Peter and company first met the Man Who knows what is in man. Unlike it was for Philip (John 1:43), we read of no direct command to follow at that point. They only nibbled at that moment, we might say. Mark and Matthew do show us the Head Fisher issuing his standing orders to them..."Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men." (Mar 1:17, Matthew 4:19). The hook of effectual calling is now in them. Finally, Luke records a fitting miracle and encouraging admonition that further cements the relationship of Peter, Andrew, James and John with their Divine Captain. Now from the heart, they forsake their own lives for Jesus' sake. The real wonder has taken place! The souls of these disciples have been landed onto the only Ark of salvation, Jesus the Redeemer.

Have you ever wondered what became of Zebedee, James' and John's dad? Maybe he hung this sign on the door of the family business:


In conclusion: it appears that the three supposedly conflicting accounts of the call of Peter, James, John and Andrew are actually three separate events! These are not three dissonant testimonies of one event which we must try to forcefully blend into one, destroying the Bible in the process. No need for "higher" criticism's clip and paste utility! Rather than being threats to our assurance that we truly have the priceless treasure of God's inspired, infallible, inerrant, fully authoritative Word, they are part of the supernatural wisdom of Scripture, available to the one who will dig into his Bible with a Berean spirit!

Wisdom, says Jesus, is justified by all her children (Luke 7:35). What encouragement this offers to Christians down through the centuries to persevere in following, though they have often lapsed back into old ways! What a testimony to the patience and longsuffering of God, Who pursues His elect and saves them in spite of themselves!

Simon Peter and all the "three time losers" who have come along since him can take heart. They can still turn to the Lord while He may be found, resolved to follow, though it be for the third time, or the fourth or the fiftieth. Did not our gracious Master Himself command that we are to forgive seventy times seven times?

What sweet honey from the rock and delightful harmony God Himself has placed in His "gospel quartet"!

Pastor Keith Graham, 1997
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