Introduction: "How Do You See the Death of the Messiah?"
This is the first of a series of Lenten Reflections on the Death of the Messiah, the death of Jesus, the Christ. Our understanding of Christ's Passion has been warped by well meaning persons who have sought to over simplify the accounts of His death. But we need to understand the Cross of Christ as God has taught it, not as we might like to hear it. This sermon and the next will be an overview of all four Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus. The remaining sermons will be a more detailed look at the accounts of Mark and Luke.
Jesus’ death, when viewed in the light of his subsequent resurrection, is the most important event in the formation of Christian faith. Our salvation depends on it. And so we certainly need to understand what the Bible says about it, not what we might have heard that it says, or what we might wish that it says.
I chose the series title, “The Death of the Messiah,” in honor of the magnificent work of the same name be Dr. Raymond Brown. His 1800 page long book is universally recognized as the most significant contribution to understanding the death of Jesus in the history of the church. His work is the cornerstone of my own study of this subject.
We will be looking at the passion and crucifixion of Jesus through four very different sets of eyes: those of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. And we must remember a critical fifth set of eyes: our own. This fifth set of eyes is the one which has filtered what we know from those four very different accounts into one account that we believe fits what happened to Jesus in the brief time of his Passion.
And our unconscious filtering may lead us to think that all four Gospel accounts of the death of the Messiah are essentially the same, and that our understanding of what happened to Jesus and how he approached his death is based on a coherent account. But that is not true.
The accounts of his death are not the same; and the Jesus depicted in each account is quite different from the others. The four gospels vary substantially as to what happened, and as to how Jesus is viewed by each writer of the individual stories.
For some that may be jarring and disquieting. Through the centuries Christians have wanted to "harmonize" the four accounts, to make them into a single homogenous unit, with no loose ends. None of those attempts, however, have been successful. That is because when we seek to harmonize the gospel accounts we fall victim to believing what we want to believe rather than what the Bible clearly tells us.
The early church struggled with this problem. But the church, from the beginning, believed that the scriptures, even while differing in detail, sometimes shockingly so, were the divinely inspired work of God. And, for over 1600 years, the church has said that, regardless of their lack of harmony, the four Gospel accounts of Jesus were intended to give us different pictures of Jesus; and that all were true when viewed by the eyes of faith.
The church has consistently held that no one account of his life, death and resurrection could capture all the facets of his life and death. Therefore, while many individuals have tried through the centuries, the church has never encouraged the attempts to harmonize the Gospels. The church has been content to allow the Gospels to stand as they are, seeing them as four different, divinely inspired, ways of viewing the same events.
The truth is that the Gospels, and the death of Jesus as reported in them, are different, both in substance and in theological outlook. The Jesus described in Matthew and Mark is a far different Jesus than the one described in John, in almost every way imaginable. Now, you have two choices as I tell you this. You can say that they all cannot be true and insist on force fitting them into your own pre-conceived ideas of what you think should or must have happened.
Or, you can look at the Gospels as they stand and see what God is trying to tell us about the death of Jesus through the divinely inspired work of these four stories. We will do that in this series. And what we shall find when we are finished is that Jesus was and is a far more complicated being than we thought; and that the writers of the Gospels had to struggle with that fact. They also had to struggle with the fact that they wrote long after the event took place.
Jesus died about 30 AD. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written 30 to 40 years later. Luke was likely written around 50 years after the death of Christ. Matthew was written 50 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. And John’s account was written 60 to 80 years after the death of the Messiah. In other words, if they were writing today, they would be writing about something that happened somewhere between 1930 and 1980!
No one felt a need to write the Gospels immediately after Jesus died. The impetus to write down the Gospels was that Jesus did not return as soon as expected; and the stories were starting to get confused, sometimes deliberately, as they were passed down verbally year after year. The original eye-witnesses were dying off, or already dead. And many false gospels were springing up in the widely dispersed church. Luke makes this clear in the preface to his Gospel where he tells us that he is writing it to “set the record straight.”
Each of the four Gospels was intended for the Christian community in which the writer lived. He was not writing to the universal church. And each writer's sources were slightly different. Mark, the earliest written, wrote primarily from the oral tradition, that is, from the verbal stories of Jesus told in his community by its leaders. Matthew, writing quite a bit later, relied heavily on Mark's gospel, often word for word. But he wrote a much longer Gospel, adding items from the oral tradition in his community.
Matthew also added early Christian "apologetics", in other words, “defenses of the faith” made by early church leaders against accusations that the Christian claims were false. He adds, for instance, scenes about the death of Judas, about Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair, about the dream of Pilate's wife, and he places guards at the tomb – just some of the changes he made to blunt attacks on the church.
Both Matthew and Luke seem to have shared ideas from a written source that we no remaining record of. We know this because both Matthew and Luke have identical word for word accounts in their Gospels that are unknown to Mark or John and that had to come from a written source shared by both writers.
John's Gospel is radically different than the others, so different that while the other three are called "synoptic," that is, they can be "viewed together," John's is called simply "the fourth Gospel." There is no strong evidence that John relied on any of the other three Gospels in the composition of his Gospel.
John was very intentionally writing a theology of the Christ, and an anthropology of our reaction to Him, and so his emphasis is on discerning who Jesus is, what Jesus' relationship to the Father is, what Jesus said and taught us as that relates to God's intention for Jesus here on earth, and how we respond to it, or reject it.
And so John focuses on a ministry by Jesus that he reports was longer and more complicated than the ministry reported in the other gospels. In John, Jesus' ministry is three years long, not one or one and a half years as reported in the other Gospels; three Passover feasts are celebrated during his ministry, not one, and Jesus makes three trips between Galilee and Jerusalem, not one. In fact, in John most of Jesus' ministry is concentrated in Judea and Jerusalem, not in Galilee as in the other Gospels.
In John’s Gospel the chronology of the trial and crucifixion is quite different as well, including saying that the Friday of the crucifixion was not the Passover, but the day of Preparation for Passover. John has no Passover meal in the upper room, but rather an ordinary supper after which he washes the feet of the disciples and proceeds to make several lengthy speeches to the disciples, speeches the other Gospels know nothing about. And there are many other differences about the last days of Jesus in John's Gospel.
But, as different as these Gospel narratives are, we must be clear about one important truth: none of the Gospel writers was trying to write history. All were writing documents of faith: kerygma, proclamation, filtered through the eyes of faith.
They were all writing, consciously or not, theology, not history. “History” as we know it today, based on careful gathering of the physical facts, was not on the agenda of these writers. It was, in fact, unknown to any writers of the time! The Gospel writers wrote to tell us the Good News of Jesus, not to nail down the precise facts of his life. Theirs was a labor of love. They were not trying to write a text book for use in a college history course. They were writing statements of faith, of proclamation of the Good News of the coming of God’s Son.
So, where does this leave us? Well, if you believe, as I do, that the Bible is not just another book; that it is something more than, say, the writings of Shakespeare, or Plato, or Martin Luther; if you believe, as I do, that the writers of the Bible were divinely inspired, anointed by the Holy Spirit to write what they wrote, then, with me, you must conclude that the differences in the four Gospel accounts of the death of the Messiah were intentional.
The differences will never be reconciled by us, or by anyone else. But I believe that God gave us four Gospels, not one, on purpose. And I believe he expects us to read all four of them and to learn from them, content to let them be for us what they are: divinely inspired books for educating us about the great mystery that is our God, and about his Son, Jesus, the Christ.
We will, later in this series, explore two of these Gospel accounts in some detail. We will note some of the places where the Gospels clearly do not agree on the details. But the primary focus will be to allow us to see the Jesus that each writer saw, the Jesus that the Holy Spirit inspired them to write about, the Jesus that we need to know, but, in Philip Yancey's brilliant phrase, may well be "the Jesus we never knew".
God didn't give us four different Gospel accounts by accident; so next Sunday we will begin to explore the question of whether or not it might actually be good that we have four different portrayals of the death of the Messiah!
God bless you all as we explore this series as part of our Lenten discipline, with the clear intention of better understanding what the Gospels tell us about the “Death of the Messiah.”
I hope that you will enjoy this blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Because I have had in my 74 years several "careers" and enthusiasms my post topics are wide ranging but mostly relate to Christianity, theology, religion, politics, personal memoirs, and a life long passion for over 60 years: motorcycling. Many of the posts combine elements of more than one of these.
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PS: Blogspot has changed what blog members can access and I cannot get into the "About Me" text below to amend it.
But, since August 2014 I have been serving the St. John United Church of Christ in Strasburg, Ohio, as Interim Pastor.
Retired Protestant Pastor and Theologian, credentialed by the
United Church of Chris. Education: BA, MA,
M.Div, Thd. Public Service: NY State Office of Executive Development;
Federal Exec. Branch: Executive Office of the President, BOB; Interior,
BLM; Non Profit: Ford Foundation, Energy Policy Project; Congressional:
General Accounting Office; Private industry: Grow Group, Inc.; US
Paint; Owner, the Energy Center, St. Louis. Christian service: Pastor,
First Congregational UCC, Ottawa, Illinois; Pastor, St. Paul's UCC,
Port Washington, Ohio; Pastor, Moravian Church, Gnadenhutten, Ohio.Interim Pastor, The Baltic Parish, Ohio; Interim Pastor, St. John UCC, Strasburg, OH