Belief comes from hearing the living Word of God preached concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 10:17). I think that is agreeable. In a related way, the careful exposition of the Word of God is desparately needed in the Church today. These are things we should not neglect. So, how should we read the living Word of God? Should we follow the storyline on its terms?
Reading “Vertically”: Following the Storyline
The four Gospels record seven sayings of Jesus from the cross. Many sermons have been preached on these seven “words” of Jesus. While insight can be gained from this approach, the danger is that we will miss each writer’s unique contribution. No Gospel records more than three of these sayings, and each has its own perspective on the crucifixion. In Mark, for example, Jesus says only one thing from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forksaken me?” The crucifixion is a dark and foreboding scene. The narrator intentionally draws the reader into Jesus’ experience of isolation and dispair. Introducing Luke’s reassuring, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” or John’s traiumphant “It is finished” misses Mark’s point.Similarly, throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus offers God’s love and forgiveness to sinners. Jesus’prayer life and intimacy with the Father is also a frequent theme. It is a fitting climax, therefore, that in Luke, Jesus continues to offer forgiveness to sinners from the cross (“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”; “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise”) and expresses his trust in and dependence on the Father (“Father, into your hand I commit my spirit”). To introduce Mark’s statement of isolation and despair risks distorting Luke’s portrait of Jesus. Each Gospel has a story to tell. By reading vertically, we hear that story on its own terms.
Reading “Horizontally”: Comparing Their Accounts
While there is a danger in harmonistically reading one Gospel’s presentation into another, thare are also benefits in comparing their accounts using a “synopsis,” which places the Gospels in parallel columns. By comparing the Gospels, we can identify each writer’s themes and theology. For example, by comparing Luke with Matthew and Mark, we see that Luke often introduces statements about Jesus’ prayer life, revealing his interest in Jesus’ intimacy with the Father. We may call this reading horizontally–comparing the Gospels to discern each Evangelist’s unique theological perspective.
When is a harmony legitimate? While harmonistically reading the Gospels risks missing each Gospel’s narrative and theological themes, a harmony is beneficial when asking historical questions. The Gospels claim to be historical narratives, and so it is legitimate to investigate them from the perspective of what actually happened.
Jesus’ trial scene, for example, takes on different contours in each of the four Gospels. While a narrative may ask about the themes of each Gospel writer, the historian asks basic historical questions: What role did the Jewish and Roman authoritites play in the arrest of Jesus? Before whom was he tried. What accusations were made against him? Why was he crucified? The historian’s task is to examine and critique all of the available evidence in order to piece together a credible historical account. Here a harmonistic study is necessary and helpful in order to glean as much information as possible from the available sources.
Though the Gospels were written at a specific time, in a specific place, and with specific purposes, they are of timeless benefit for the church. The unique unity and diversity of the four Gospels provide the church of all ages with an authoritative and inspired portrait of Jesus Christ.
Mark L. Strauss (Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels, 32-35).