I once spent an entire year reading only the gospels during my quiet times. More specifically, I read the gospels using Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry’s The NIV Harmony Of The Gospels. Have you ever used a ‘harmony of the gospels?’ It can be a meaningful, interesting, confusing, and troubling experience all at once. Why confusing and troubling? Because in books like this the editors line up in chronological order the events from the life of Christ providing a comparison of the similarities and sometimes differences between the gospel writers as they attempt to retell the stories and teachings of Jesus. What you soon discover is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John often disagree as to what happened, or one of the writers might leave out something significant that the others included or vice versa. Critics of the Bible use words like discrepancies and contradictions to describe these differences.
I like the word differences better than discrepancies or contradictions. You see, I’m not trying to discredit the Bible or prove that it is a man-made book which is usually the agenda of those who revel in discovering the differences in the accounts of Jesus’ life. I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God but I also know that there are some differences, and sometimes significant differences in the four gospel accounts. How do I explain those differences? I don’t. I have no good explanation for them. I’ve heard some attempts but nothing that was completely satisfying to me.
I don’t know why Matthew said it was the mother of James and John who asked a favor of Jesus, and Mark says James and John were the ones who asked. I don’t know why Matthew tells the story of two blind men being healed by Jesus and Mark and Luke, telling the same story, say it was only one man. I don’t know why Mark says that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would give his disciples the words to respond with when standing before their interrogators but Luke tells us that Jesus promised them that he would give them the words. What did Jesus really say? Was it the Holy Spirit who would visit the disciples? Was it Jesus? I don’t know. Why does Mark say that the women who visited the tomb of Jesus on that early Sunday morning were met by a young man, while Matthew says it was an angel, and Luke says it was two men? Which story is right? I don’t know. And to be honest with you, I don’t really care that much.
None of these differences touch upon anything too important. However, if we had discrepancies between gospel accounts pertaining to the nature of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth…subjects like that, then we would have a problem on our hands.
Critics of Christianity and the Bible argue that even if these differences are minor they prove that the Bible was written by man, contains errors, and cannot be trusted. This is not an entirely incorrect line of reasoning. In other words, if Mark was wrong in reporting that there was one man waiting at the empty tomb when there were really two…where else was he wrong? I understand this way of thinking but it’s not my way of thinking.
I’m not bothered by these differences. They make me curious as to what really happened, whose story is the correct one, but they don’t bother me. The overall harmony of the Bible, for me, is an argument in favor of it’s inspiration. I find the relatively few ‘contradictions’ interesting but not something I stumble over.
After spending a year reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John I felt that together they gave me the whole picture of Jesus’ life and ministry. I guess even that is not entirely true since John tells us that there were many other things Jesus did that were not recorded. I need all four of the gospel stories in order to get the whole picture. If I only had Luke there would be details I missed out on. If I only had John there would be a lot of information missing. No single gospel writer possesses the whole story.
No single Christian or denomination possesses the whole story. Every stream of Christianity has some important point of teaching where they are wrong. We need each other with all our differences in order to see and experience the totality of Christ. And even with one another’s unique perspective, we still “see in a mirror dimly.” I want to be looking for that part of Jesus in others that is lacking in me. Regardless of the ‘group’ I identify with the most, those outside of that group have something to teach me, something to show me, something I need. We might have significant disagreement over important theological topics but they are still my sisters and brothers in Christ. Even if I am right on a certain point and they are wrong, God loves us the same.
The gospel writers, like the body of Christ, do not always agree and yet there is a harmony between them. There is far more that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have in common than not. At any given time I can choose whether to focus on my differences with someone or focus on my similarities. It is at those points of similarity that we have harmony. When we disagree with one another we have an opportunity to practice love, humility, honor, and respect. Disagreements provide us the opportunity to experience harmony despite the disagreements.