Rightly, he begins at the beginning, the opening words: "Scroll of lineage of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham." These dictate the whole purpose of what follows: two great themes, rule and righteousness.
Certain expositors have conveniently (from their own point of view) overlooked that this preface is not the preface to Matthew's Gospel only; for once again do we find David named in a preface—in Romans 1:3. God's Evangel is concerning His Son, Who comes out of David's seed according to flesh. Moreover, at the close of his ministry the Apostle Paul refers in a very special way to David, thus: "Keep in memory Jesus Christ (as) having roused out of dead ones, out of David's seed, according to my Evangel." This is an echo of Mark 16:14, the only other occurrence of "having roused" (Middle Voice), where the Lord Jesus reproaches the Eleven" seeing that they believe not those who gaze on Him having roused out of dead ones." Both these are here rendered too literally to be good English, but this is necessary to make the point. So, already, we are confronted with two facts which may well be regarded as basic principles for the understanding of the Gospels: first, that they are the essential introduction to the rest of the Greek Scriptures, including Paul's Epistles; second, that they form a sort of interwoven fabric of thought; for Matt. 1:1 points us to Romans and to 2. Timothy, which itself points in a different manner back to Mark.
Probably most readers have noticed that in my two series of recent years, on Grace, and on Flesh and Blood, I have taken each of my subjects in one sweep, so to speak, right through the Greek Scriptures. When the truth about "Dispensational Truth" came to my notice, there came as well a deeper realization of the essential unity of the Greek Scriptures; even though there is diversity as well. What the Apostle Paul teaches that belongs exclusively to his Evangel, for that very reason cannot be true for other of God's people at other times and in other circumstances. But this does not mean that there are not other teachings of his that are not exclusive in this way; and moreover there are other teachings in the Greek Scriptures which are addressed to other people in their own times and circumstances. Provided that each set of teachings is kept within its proper context, each is true within that context. Both the covenant and the non-covenant aspects of God's truth are necessary for the perfect revelation of Himself to all humanity. In a piece of cloth, some threads form the warp, some the woof; both sets are necessary before the threads can become cloth. So it is with God's truth—neither aspect of it is complete without the other. If we had only the four Gospels and Acts, the opening words of Matthew would not take us very far, nothing like so far as they do when illumined by Paul's Epistles. This is plainly true for the references to David; it becomes even plainer on studying the references to Abraham, as noted in our previous paper. For the references to him in the Gospels leave one big question unanswered: How does anyone become in the fullest sense one of Abraham's seed? The passage in John's Gospel, John 8:31-59, which contains the whole of the references to Abraham in this Gospel, does not even suggest the question, let alone answer it. Matthew does suggest the question (Matt. 3:9 and 8:11), but does not attempt to indicate any answer. In Luke's Gospel (Luke 20:34-44) there is one passage bearing on the opening words of Matthew's, but its message becomes clear only in the light of what was later revealed by the Apostle Paul. The Gospels interlock. No one of them can be fully understood apart from the others or from the rest of the Scriptures.
Notwithstanding all this, the fact remains that Matthew is particularly (though, we must keep in mind, not exclusively) concerned with the two themes of rule and righteousness. So the opening scroll of lineage of Jesus Christ, the royal line of David the king, divides into three sections of fourteen generations each. And, incidentally, there are still unsolved problems in connection with this and the genealogy in Luke's Gospel. Then, in relating the account of Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of the Lord Jesus, according to Matthew he was addressed as "Joseph, son of David." Then, suddenly but quite naturally, appears the opening of the other theme. First, Joseph is described as "righteous," and he is told that he is to name Mary's Son "Jesus, for He shall be saving His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). Then is announced the fulfilment in part of the prophecy of Isa. 7:14. What is fulfilled is the Virgin Birth of the Lord Jesus, what is announced is the future name of the One here called Jesus, the "name 'Emmanuel,' which is, construed, 'God with us.'" Here, and here alone in the Greek Scriptures, does this name appear, and it links the message to Joseph both to 1. Cor. 15:28 and Rev. 21:3.
This is what was said to Joseph before the birth of the Lord Jesus; yet, even before that, Mary (Miriam in Luke's Gospel) had herself received a message from God. That, unlike what Joseph received, dwells on David and the theme of rule. So, once again, we cannot bind down any of the Gospels exclusively to one idea. Not till John (the Baptist) was born did Zacharias, his father, bring forward the theme of Abraham and righteousness, and, even so, he first referred to David (Luke 1:69-79). Each account here supplements the other, neither claiming monopoly.
However, with Matthew's second chapter the characteristic feature of his Gospel beings to develop. After the birth of the true King comes the reaction of the false king. How entirely in keeping with other aspects of God's revelation this is!
With Matt. 3:2 comes John the Baptist's announcement, "Repent! for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near!" As we have already noted, with the thought of repentance comes a reference to Abraham. The two strands of thought are not to be severed.
After the betrayal of John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus Himself takes up John's. announcement (Matt. 4:17); then He calls Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and then He evangelizes the Kingdom and announces its principles in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1—7:29). This whole section is peculiar to Matthew, though some of it is repeated later and recorded in other Gospels; and it must be studied as a whole with special care if his Gospel is to be understood. The expression, "the Kingdom of the heavens" occurs six times in it and is peculiar to Matthew. The word righteousness occurs four times, out of six altogether in Matthew (5:6, 10, 20; 6:33); and the stern atmosphere is fully in keeping with the idea of the King proclaiming the principles of His Kingdom. The Sermon is followed by two miracles; and in the context of the second, carried out for a centurion and therefore one of the Gentiles, is the first intimation of the coming disaster for Israel and the ensuing blessing for Gentiles (Matt. 8:10-13); and this intimation was also a warning.
Presently there is another section peculiar to Matthew,8:18—9:2; for what is recorded in Mark 4:35—5:17 and Luke 8:22-37 belongs to a later occasion. Then from 9:18—11:30 is another large section belonging to Matthew only and coming in chronological order after Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:39.
We must return now to the Sermon on the Mount because it is one of the most misunderstood passages in all Scripture, perhaps the most; and certainly the most misrepresented. To begin with, it is not a code of laws for the Kingdom; neither does it in any way invalidate the Law, which it would have done if it had been a new code of laws. Rather, it displays the Law as influenced, but not superseded, by the grace which came through Jesus Christ. The relationship between law and grace is not yet fully understood among us, but this point must await discussion in its proper place. True, the word nomos, law does occur three times in the Sermon (5:17, 18; 7:12), and they are conclusive. The first two assert most positively that the Lord Jesus had not come to demolish the Law or the Prophets, and that the Law was to be fulfilled with the utmost completeness and finality. The third sums up the very essence of the Law and the Prophets; for it asserts the basic principle that lies behind them and gives them their meaning and validity. It is a shocking and altogether evil misrepresentation of Scripture to talk, as so many do who ought to know better, as if the Sermon were the propounding of a so-called "New Law." It is nothing of the kind, and the term is nowhere found. The Sermon summarizes the essence of the ideas which lie behind the Law as set out by Moses, and the testimony of the Prophets from first to last.
Far closer to the truth is the concept of the Sermon as a code of principles for the guidance of subjects of the King in this present eon. One might almost call it a code of proper behaviour. Those who claim to belong to the Kingdom are expected to justify their claim by behaving accordingly; not in any sense under compulsion, but because they acknowledge the rule of the King. This must not be considered as in any sense making for or amounting to legalism. The standard is not an imposed yoke of bondage but a charter of freedom for the righteous to live as God's people ought to live, a charter of good manners, in fact. These principles are "laws" only in the sense that they embody the ultimate intentions of the Law as regards conduct (though not in any sense contradicting the teaching set out in Galatians), and are based on the Law. They represent the standards required of all who are true subjects of the Kingdom; not because they must live according to them or perish, but because if they are truly of the Kingdom they will live according to them. How they are to succeed in this high aim is not revealed here, and could not be until the time came for that revelation. That time came with the Epistle to Romans, which, we must ever keep in mind, is a permanent revelation, not destined to pass away when we are removed from the scene, which deals with both those under covenant and those free from covenant.
Yet the Sermon is associated with the Law, in that it implies recognition of the principles behind the Law coupled with desire to live and walk in accordance with those principles. In this, there is nothing in any way inconsistent with the ideas set out by the Apostle Paul. On the contrary, the ideas behind the precepts of the Sermon are entirely in harmony with those declared by Paul, except only that Paul is concerned (apart from incidental matters, here and there) with people who are wholly free from the curse which the Law brings on those who break it. This atmosphere of reigning grace in all that Paul enjoins on Christians must not be allowed to befog the fact that Paul could and did condemn sin with the utmost severity and in no uncertain terms. That there are differences, some quite considerable, between what is taught in the Sermon and what is taught by Paul is, as pointed out above, due entirely to circumstances. The Lord Jesus was addressing Himself to Israel, the Covenant people; so He spoke in terms of those things which belonged to them as Israel. When, in due course, the rejection of the Kingdom by Israel as a whole brought those things which belonged to them to a close for many centuries, the Lord through Paul spoke again, and spoke in a manner appropriate to the new situation. The Sermon, in the form as given, has passed away for the present, till conditions become appropriate for it again; yet the essential facts and principles behind that form remains as valid as ever they did.
From all this one most important conclusion emerges. We may state it as an obvious truism: The Sermon on the Mount belongs to those to whom it belongs, and to nobody else. Of course! It is the code of behaviour for those who belong to the Kingdom; primarily in its covenant aspect, with suitable modifications for those outside covenant. These modifications are found in Paul's Epistles. So it is worse than foolish to talk (as most of Christendom does) as if the Sermon concerned those outside the Kingdom. Nothing more foolish can be imagined than trying to apply the rules of the Kingdom to those who refuse to acknowledge it.
This blunder it is that has caused too many to treat the Sermon with indifference and even contempt. The laws of the U.S.A. do not apply in Britain; indeed, some even of the laws of Scotland do not apply in England, and vice versa. So nothing but harm and frustration can come of trying to act as if they did. How can one expect the standards of the Sermon to apply among those who reject the King Who propounded them?
Soon this question answered itself. The Sermon failed to work out, even among those for whom it was intended, with the exception of a faithful few.
The crisis occurs in Matt. 12:22-45. By this time it had become plain that the proclamation of the Kingdom had failed, for the present, so far as the bulk of Israel was concerned. The Lord Jesus sets this out in the clearest form in Matt. 13:11-17; and then, and not till then, He discloses the Secrets of the Kingdom of the heavens.
Two very curious points arise here. The first is that this section, though vital to Matthew's argument and unique as a whole to Matthew, is paralleled in part by Mark and Luke, who also have an additional parable of which there is no trace in Matthew and which is irrelevant to his theme; and Mark has a second parable peculiar to himself. The Parable of the Sower is common to all three and Mark also has the Parable of the Mustard Seed. This matter will have to be looked into when we come to consider these Gospels.
The other point is that the Lord's mother and brothers attempt to talk to Him before He utters the Parable of the Sower, according to Matthew and Mark, but after it, according to Luke. This is generally regarded as a dislocation in Luke's narrative or, less politely, as a discrepancy. I am not prepared to accept this on any terms. Is there, as a matter of common sense, any good reason why they should not have made a second attempt? The accounts in Matthew and Mark are very similar, that in Luke rather different, but not sufficiently so to be discordant. The Matthew account (12:46-50) rounds off what has gone before and is a distinct hint of the coming change which was to result in the Kingdom being unlocked to the Gentiles. The same applies to Luke 8:19-21; but if we see it as a second attempt it gains a great deal of point. Not only does it reinforce the lesson of the first attempt; but it also looks forward, particularly its closing sentence, to the occasion at the end of Acts when the Jews had to be reminded of the quoting of Isa. 6:9, 10 to their fathers. The Isaiah quotation and this incident both are a repudiation of what is merely according to flesh. Luke's lay-out here is well in accord with the notion that his Gospel is, to some extent at least, intended to be the Gospel particularly suited for the Gentiles. Such little hints and coincidences are not only a fascinating study in themselves, they also illustrate the internal harmony that exists in and between the Gospels themselves and reinforce the concept of them as the product of a planned operation directed by the Twelve Apostles themselves.
Matthew 13 closes with an incident that demonstrates the extent of the unbelief encountered by the Lord Jesus, even in His own country. This, as it were, is the final clinching proof that justifies to the hilt what had been previously said and done. Also, as if to round off the proof, there follows at once (14:1-12) an account of the murder of John the Baptist. Now the stage is set for the inevitable sequel.
The Lord Jesus went on teaching about the Kingdom of the heavens, but only with His disciples. The next long passage peculiar to Matthew is 18:10-35. There follows one more scene of His conflict with the Pharisees (19:3-12), then more teaching for His disciples (19:13—20:16); and then the opening of the terrible events that were to follow in Jerusalem (20:17-19). Matthew 21 opens with the first entry into Jerusalem, and Matt. 22 with another conflict with the Pharisees, characterized by a parable which gives a preview of the disasters for them which were to follow.
However, before this there is one short passage (16:17-20) which calls for consideration first. A significant characteristic of Matthew is that it is the only Gospel to use the word ekklEsia, church, here and in 18:17. Another curious fact is that Peter never uses the word, in spite of the way his name is coupled with its first occurrence in the Greek Scriptures, neither does he in his earlier name, Simon. Yet another curious fact is the repetition of 16:19 in 18:18, this time to the disciples including Peter, and not to him only. This passage was discussed in the paper "God's Evangel and God's Church" (Vol. 22, 1960, p. 106), in which certain serious errors about "the Church" were refuted. In the light of this paper we can see that in Matt. 16:17-20 the Lord Jesus was indeed talking about the building of His Called-out Company. Peter was to unlock the Kingdom of the heavens so that, in due course, the Called-out Company of God's people could be built. If he had not unlocked the Kingdom, it would have remained closed till this day and nothingof what is related in Acts could have taken place. Many people shut their eyes firmly to this fact. One writer even declares: "Peter's keys would not be any service to us, for we do not enter that kingdom." Then, how does he account for the fact that apart from the first three occurrences of "Kingdom" in Acts, it is Paul or those associated with him who refer to the kingdom, and nobody else? These other references are five in number (Acts 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Of the first three, Acts 1:3 is by the Lord Himself, 1:6 is by the Eleven and 8:12 by Philip. After Acts, it is Paul who has most to say about the Kingdom. Though Peter certainly did unlock the Kingdom, he confined himself to his allotted task and did not talk about it. Unlike so many people, he carried out his job without advertising himself.
What this passage does show, in the light of subsequent events, is that the intended scope of Matthew is as wide as the whole of the Greek Scriptures. It bears a similar relation to them as Genesis does to the Hebrew Scriptures. We ought not to require to be told this; for Matthew tells us so himself in his opening words, as seen in the light of the other passages that speak of David and Abraham. He confirms this right through; even though not evidently at the time, but only in the light of subsequent events. Matt. 16:17-20 does so; the quotation of Isa. 6:9, 10 at Matt. 13:14, 15 does so. This point marks the cessation of the Kingdom proclamation so far as the bulk of Israel is concerned; but it also marks the opening of it for all who believe the Lord Jesus; because, although the keys of the Kingdom were not used till Pentecost, the whole of the events recorded after Matt. 13:14, 15 were the essential preparation.
Some writers affirm strongly, almost passionately, that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, others, that it was originally written in Greek. The latter, apparently, do so on two grounds: first, that since it was not written till comparatively late, later than some, if not all, of Paul's Epistles, when the Church was made up largely of Gentiles, a Hebrew 'Matthew' would have been unintelligible to most Christians; second, that if it had been translated into Greek, it would not have been in the fullest sense inspired. The reader will notice that both these are based on feeling rather than evidence.
There is a considerable amount of ancient testimony that Matthew's Gospel was written in Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew commonly spoken in Palestine at that time. There can be no doubt that the primary intention of Matthew was to present his Gospel to the Jews, on the same general principle as Paul's in going to Jew first. In spite of the events recorded in Matthew 12 and 13, Matthew alone quotes the statement by the Lord Jesus in Matt. 15:24: "I was not commissioned except for the lost sheep of Israel's house." There are repeated references back to the Hebrew Scriptures, about sixty in number. His genealogical table relates the Lord Jesus to David and Abraham. Plainly, an important part of Matthew's design was to display the Lord Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Bishop Wordsworth makes the interesting suggestion that the reason why the Apostle Paul in his endeavours to convince the Jews that Jesus is the Christ never found it necessary to refer to the Hebrew Prophets for confirmation, was that all that was necessary in that respect had already been done by Matthew. I think this is sound and is remarkable for its insight; for Wordsworth did not have the evidence for Matthew's very early date available as we have now.
So there really is no difficulty involved in the idea that Matthew wrote his Gospel, or a draft of it, first in Hebrew and, a little while later, turned it into Greek. This is entirely in harmony with the indubitable fact that the first ministry of the Twelve was exclusively to Israel. Although many Jews spoke Greek and it is pretty certain that the Lord Jesus carried on most of His ministry in Greek; it would have been very natural, and a graceful courtesy, for the Twelve, who, after all, were Jews, to begin their ministry to their own kinsfolk in their own language. Presently, as the Apostle Paul took over the main testimony assisted by fresh apostles, the Hebrew Gospel would fall out of use. If so, this explains the problem presented by Matt. 27:8 and 28:15. One can readily imagine Matthew translating his own Aramaic into Greek some while after, perhaps after the other three Gospels had been completed. The field first called the Aramaic equivalent of "Blood-field" became "agros haimatos" by then; so Matthew adds a brief note that the new name had persisted "to this day." Similarly, the word of the chief priests and the elders continued for some time "unto this very day." The preposition here used, mechri, unto, implies that something goes on up to a point, and then stops. The blazing abroad of their word was necessarily only a temporary affair and, no doubt, came to an end with the corresponding blazing abroad of the truth by the Twelve and by the Apostle Paul. It is likely, then, that the interval covered by the two time marks did not last more than about a decade; so that Paul could begin his ministry with the Gospels in Greek in his hands, as implied in Acts 17 and 1. Cor. 15:3-5.
The question of inspiration was referred to a while back. The notion that Matthew could not have written his Gospel a second time, with minor variations, without compromising its "inspiration" is untenable; and results from the idea, still held in a measure by some, that the "inspiration" of Scripture mean that it was in some way dictated by the Holy Spirit. This is not so. All we need to ask of any Scripture is that it should have been written originally in accord with the will of God and that it should be undiluted truth. If Matthew indeed translated his Greek Gospel from an earlier Hebrew one, there would have been no reason whatever why he should not have added some embellishments to make it the more suitable for his new readers.
In the year 1845 the discovery of a new planet, Neptune, was announced almost simultaneously by a Frenchman, Le Verrier, and an Englishman, J. C. Adams. At once a storm of controversy broke out, both nations claiming priority; that is to say, that their man discovered the planet first. By now, most astronomers are content to give both illustrious men the very great credit they deserved.
That such controversy broke out over the order of publication of the first two Gospels is extremely unlikely. Who would have cared then, anyhow? For all Christians the important thing was that the Gospels, endorsed by the Apostles, had been given to them for their learning. Whether one was published before another could have mattered very little if at all. And if that were the issue nowadays, and that only, it could matter very little either. However, on studying modern writings about the Gospels, it soon appears that, for the critics, "the priority of Mark's Gospel" means not only that it was published first but also that the writers of the other Gospels made use of it in (supposedly) compiling their own attempts. Needless to say, such an extension of the meaning of the word "priority" would not be tolerated in other studies, and would not be in this one but for the fashionable craze to assume that most, if not all, of such ancient writings are of composite authorship. I use the word "craze" deliberately because, as a matter of unquestionable fact, books certainly known to be of composite authorship of that sort are very rare, if they exist at all.
Furthermore, unless the Gospels are forgeries, written some fifty or so years after the events they purport to describe, there is no imaginable reason why their authors should have copied and edited the work of their alleged predecessors. If they were in a position to write of these matters with any authority at all, they could quite well have written first-hand accounts. If, in fact, they had to work up the memoranda or recollections of others, the question must arise why these others did not compile and publish their own accounts themselves. And, indeed, we know that this is precisely what some of them did and what (as I have already pointed out) many of us would have done had we been privileged to share their experiences. Luke, in the preface to his Gospel, states quite plainly this very thing, and there is no just reason to suppose that he was lying about it. Are we so much better than the Apostles and their followers that we may attribute to them literary dishonesty that would be treated with scorn today?
Did Matthew use Mark's Gospel when preparing his own?
Let us begin by looking at the parallel passages Matthew 17:10-13 and Mark 9:11-13. Matt. 17:10, 11 is closely paralleled by Mark. Then comes the latter half of Mark 9:12, a question, which is peculiar to him. Then the first and third sentences of Matt. 17:12 are paralleled by the first and second sentences of Mark 9:13, and thereafter the two accounts diverge. Now, is not this just the sort of thing one might expect to find where two men independently are recounting an event well-known to them, bearing in mind that these two have very different characters and are writing from widely different stand points? Of course it is! And it may be noted that even in this brief episode both writers display these two features quite plainly. First, what Mark says, he tends to say more verbosely than Matthew and Luke, while these tend to relate more events and parables altogether than Mark does. Second, the standpoints are not hard to perceive: Mark thinks of the Lord Jesus chiefly as the suffering Servant of God, who has been foretold in the Scriptures (Mark 9:12, 13), though Matthew's parallel passage (17:12) does not ignore this theme. Matthew sees the Lord Jesus as the Messiah Who came at last, and was not perceived by Israel, and whose forerunner, John the Baptist, did not receive proper recognition either, for Israel rejected both King and Kingdom. The great Fore-runner was also God's suffering Servant; so Mark's account of the murder of John the Baptist by Herod is lengthier than those of Matthew and Luke put together. Thus, if they are independent accounts, their differences are understandable and readily explained.
If, on the other hand, Matthew used Mark as his source, and confined himself to correcting and improving on Mark, why are there the considerable differences between Matt. 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-30, Luke 9:7-10? For even the brief episode of Matt. 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13, omitted by Luke, raises several difficult problems. Why did Matthew (supposedly) change the form of Mark 9:11? Why did he ignore Mark's appeal to Prophecy. Whence did he get the addition he is supposed to have made in vv. 12, 13? If it be replied that he found and 'used other sources as well, these questions remain: Why did he ignore some of his source, Mark? Why were these sources not allowed to stand by themselves as Scripture? And if the sources were not wholly trustworthy, why did he not use sources that were? There is no getting away from the fact that if Matthew were not competent to write a Gospel all of his own, he could not possibly be competent to edit his supposed sources; whereas if he were competent to write a Gospel of his own, there is no imaginable reason why he should have been content merely to edit the work of other, and manifestly less competent, persons.
In 1937 a distinguished Roman Catholic writer, Dom John Chapman, O.S.B., wrote a book contending that Matthew wrote his Gospel first and that Mark used it in compiling his own Gospel—in fact, the now generally accepted view reversed. I do not propose to do more than mention this in order to point out that his view is open to similar difficulties to those enunciated in the previous paragraph. Chapman certainly puts up a case for his view; but like practically everyone who touches this subject, he stultifies himself by assuming that the idea that the three Gospels were written separately is entirely out of the question. Yet this is the very thing that ought to be proved first before ever any inquiry as to who copied from whom can even be started. In this matter, the cart has almost invariably been put before the horse.
This subject has become so vast that one can easily get lost in a maze of one's own making. This is what so many critical writers do, and what I propose to try to avoid by keeping as far as possible within matters already touched on. So I will return to another, Mark 1, but this time vv. 21-45 and the opening of the next chapter.
This, and the parallel passages, Matt. 8:1-17, Luke 4:31-41, all look simple and straightforward—and they are. No one reading any of the three would find anything but a plain connected story except in one thing only, and that in Mark's account, which suggests that; between its first and second sentences there is a time-gap. The former sees the Lord Jesus and certain disciples entering the city, the latter implies prompt action, not as soon as they entered, but on the sabbaths; the question when those sabbaths occurred being left open. It is worth noting that Mark uses the words eutheOs, immediately, and euthus, straightway, almost synonymous, nearly as often as do the rest of the Greek Scriptures. The Greek texts vary, and there is often reasonable doubt as to which of the two is the correct reading, though fin practise it matters little. Mark views the Lord Jesus particularly as God's Servant, and his frequent use of one or other of these two words emphasizes the Lord's unremitting zeal for this service.
That some sort of gap in time actually took place is shown by the account of the healing of the leper and of the centurion's paralytic boy, both peculiar to Matthew (Matt. 8:2-13); yet, if we compare Mark 1:21, 22 with Luke 4:31, 32, we must perceive that there is no real contradiction. Luke 4:32 precedes Matt. 4:18, Mark 1:16, and both precede John 2:1. Then much material ensues, till the sentence "And they were entering Capernaum" follows on Matt. 8:4. This begins Mark 1:21, and the rest of the verse follows after a gap ending with Matt. 8:13. Then Mark 1:23 with Luke 4:33 follow on Mark 1:22. The apparent note of urgency in Mark is absent from Luke; and Mark plainly means, not that on entering Capernaum the Lord hastened to the synagogue, but that on the sabbaths He made it His immediate business to teach. This is borne out in Mark's account by the occurrence of euthus in v. 23. There is no sort of haste about all these things, but simply a deliberate movement of the narrative from event to event. The next event (another "straightway," in Mark 1:29) then is the miracle in Peter's house, recorded in all three Gospels, and then the healings at sunset, also recorded in all three. Then Matthew pauses, while Mark and Luke continue the narrative (Mark 1:35-39, Luke 4:42-44); then a section peculiar to Luke (5:1-11); then a section which Mark and Luke have in common (Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16); then one peculiar to Matthew (8:18—9:1); then two verses peculiar to Mark (2:1, 2) and one to Luke (5:17) Then, at last, all three have a section in common, the account of the healing of the paralytic (Matt. 9:12; Mark 2:3-5; Luke 5:18-20).
The reader should trace these out for himself, when he will find two things: first, confirmation of my contention a while back that each Gospel has a perfectly connected story; second, that right through the passages we have been examining, the accounts dovetail into one another in a most remarkable way. These facts make nonsense of the notion that the author of any one of the accounts had the work of one or more of the others and used it for framework of his own story.
Suppose that, here, Matthew had used Mark's account. Then he has, between two opening sentences in Mark 1:21, interpolated eight verses of his own, and then omitted seven verses of Mark's. Then he makes in two verses a precis of Mark 1:29-31 and in one verse a precis of Mark 1:32-34, followed by a short interpolation of his own. Not content with all this, he omits Mark 1:35-45, adds a chunk of his own material (Matt. 8:18 9:1) and then drops Mark 2:1, 2 and drastically abbreviates Mark 2:3-5 into one verse, Matt. 9:2. The idea is simply absurd.
Next, suppose that here Luke used Mark's account. Then he omits Mark 1:21, 22, goes with him for the next twelve verses, omits Mark 1:36, 37 and adds part of v. 42 and vv. 43, 44 of Luke 4, goes with him in Luke 4:44 and Mark 1:39; inserts Luke 5:1-11, goes with Mark for the next five verses, leaves out Mark 2:1, 2, adds his own material in Luke 5:17 and agrees with Mark 2:3-5 in Luke 5:18-20.
And yet it is the accepted critical view that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are derived by a sort of scissors-and-paste operation from that of Mark! If that is scientific criticism, one can only marvel, and wonder how much stupider it would have to become before it would be reckoned as unscientific.
Only one rational explanation of the phenomena in this section of the Gospels is possible: that each is an independent account by, or on behalf of, actual witnesses of the facts recorded. Then, and then only, can we understand why there is such variety of material, why the accounts at the points where they touch are in substantial agreement, and why they do not contradict one another.
This is not to say that the writers were not in touch, and even in consultation, with one another; but simply that they were not making compilations from documents obtained from various sources. That is the generally accepted view, and by any reckoning it is inherently improbable.
In a very critical review of Butler's book, "Matthew, Mark and Luke," in order to disprove his contention that Matthew's Gospel was written first and was used by Mark; Dr. H. G. Wood actually cited Mark 1:21-39 as a clear indication that "Mark's order is original and Matthew's secondary and derivative." Mark's order certainly is original; but, as the reader will have perceived clearly by now, so is Matthew's and, for that matter, Luke's. Wood keeps on insisting—what few would deny—that Mark's order is original and logical; but he appears to imagine that this proves somehow that Matthew's order is not. Admittedly, after Matt. 8:13 Matthew substitutes for what Mark and Luke relate no more than a brief summary. But why not? There is no imaginable reason why he should have to choose to follow Mark and Luke here. Yet the very fact that he does not seems, by the queer logic so common among the critics, to prove to them that he does! This is what Wood actually has the effrontery to say about Matthew here:
In fairness it should be added that Wood makes a good point against Butler when he notes that Mark 2:1—3:6 "presents a series of incidents, not necessarily connected in time or place, but linked together by the theme of the growth of Pharisaic opposition." This is so; and, as he says, it shows that Mark's source for these accounts could not have been Matthew; for the latter relates the first three incidents in his Chapter 9 and the other two in his Chapter 12, the space intervening being occupied by three miracles, the general statement in Matt. 9:35-38 and the three parenthetical passages noted in our previous chapter. Where Wood goes astray is in failing to perceive that all this counts equally cogently against the notion that Matthew used Mark's Gospel as his source.
Next, Wood compares the arrangement of Matt. 12:21-32 with Mark 3:20-30, to the disadvantage of the former; but he fails to notice that Mark's account now is less full than Matthew's, so that the conditions in Mark 1:21-39 are reversed. He identifies Matt. 12:24 with Mark 3:22, thereby creating a contradiction, for the former refers to the Pharisees, the latter to the scribes; whereas Matt. 12:22-24 precedes Mark 3:20. Peculiar to Mark is Mark 3:21-22, but his account from vv. 23-30 is briefer than Matt. 12:25-32, and then Mark omits altogether the matter in Matt. 12:33-45. Thus, the notion that one copied from the other makes whichever it was a clumsy bungler. The weakness of Wood's approach is that it is merely one of destructive criticism. Consequently, he cannot perceive that Matthew 12 and 13 form the great climax of the first part of his account, being the record of the rejection of the Lord Jesus as Messiah by the bulk of Israel, and the tremendous consequences thereof.
The real problem here is why Mark only recorded a part of these events. In fact, if he were going to record only a part, why did he record any of it at all? Moreover, what is the significance of Mark's additional matter in Mark 4:21-27? Here there might perhaps be some excuse for alleging that Mark derived his material from Matthew 12 and 13, and misunderstood it; yet strangely enough, so far as I can discover, no critic has done this. Yet for the Christian such treatment of God's Word is out of the question. We have to recognize that here, in Mark's Gospel, is a real problem. In my first draft I confessed that I could not see any solution. The trouble is that if we interpolate Mark 4:21-29 between the second and the third of Matthew's series of eight parables, making ten in all, we nullify the whole point of the eight. Mark's two do not fit into them. Later, it occurred to me that, possibly, the Lord Jesus spoke Mark 4:21-32 again, at some later session, after Matt. 13:52. This idea is developed in a further paper, which I hope will be published in due course. It accords with the fact that Matthew's account allows for only eight parables and makes no room for the two peculiar to Mark; whereas Mark's general comment in Mark 4:33, 34 does specifically leave room for Matthew's parables here hot quoted by Mark. The only possible objection to setting Mark 4:21-32 after Matt. 13:52 is that this involves a repetition of the parable of the mustard seed. Yet should we assume that this is merely a repetition?
The existence of such hitherto unsolved problems as this should stimulate us to earnest and thorough further study. Instead, most people ignore the matter or, like all the critics, attempt to cut the knots instead of untying them. They invent superficially attractive theories, and apparently they are prepared to try to force their theories to general acceptance. That is emphatically, not the way of reason or good sense which is, after all, the method of true science. We ought to be content to know what is known, and content not to know what is unknowable, meanwhile exploring methodically the vast territory of the unknown which lies between the two. If, instead of that, we make guesses, however attractive, and seek by all means to force the facts into agreement with them, we are merely enshrouding ourselves with obscurity as the cuttlefish makes the sea around it opaque with ink.
The real trouble with the destructive critics is that whatever God had done they would have been dissatisfied with it. The first three Gospels are somewhat alike so, according to the critics, two or perhaps all three of them must have been fabricated from various sources. John's Gospel is strikingly different from the others so, according to the critics, it cannot have been real history, but only a meditation on the life of Christ or a sort of religious novel. If, however, there had been only one Gospel, the critics would assuredly have insisted that in the absence of any other confirmatory Gospel the whole story is too incredible to be taken seriously. If the accounts agree, one must be copied from the other; if they appear at a casual glance to disagree, one must be in error and any explanation that resolves the apparent disagreement must be rejected as forced and artificial—according to the critics. In this fantastic contest the critic always has to win, because the dice with which he plays are heavily loaded in his favour. So must it ever be while the Lie is developing towards its full fruition (2. Thess. 2:1-12).
Only too painfully evident is it that not even God Himself could satisfy these men, for they are impervious either to reason or to evidence. This may sound startling, even irreverent; but it is neither, for the uniform testimony of both Scripture and experience is that God never compels faith. And rightly, for the whole idea of such compulsion involves a contradiction in terms The essence of the idea of faith is freedom of choice. When God does compel the unbeliever, it is not by faith, but by sight, by experience. Those who refuse to believe God will, in due time, have to learn the truth by the terrible process of experiencing it for themselves.
Rejecting the Gospels completely as entirely mythical is one thing; rejecting them partially as a mass of legend, perhaps mixed up with history, put together by ignorant and superstitious men, yet nevertheless containing a kernel of some sort of "spiritual truth," is quite another, and an incomparably less intelligent, act. Downright unbelief is a sensible attitude, up to a point, for it does at least face the issues to some extent. It declares, in effect, "I find this incredible, so I will have nothing to do with it." Partial unbelief has nothing to be said in its favour, for it evades all the issues. It declares, in effect: "I find this incredible, so I am going to extract the spiritual truth from it, and live by that, and cast aside the material husk in which it is embedded." Yet never by any chance do those who think this way produce their "spiritual truth" and offer any evidence of any sort, let alone proof, that it is, in fact, "truth." It is easy to see why: they are claiming to possess something that does not exist—the age-old "confidence trick."
Here someone may protest that when such people extract a proposition like "God is love" from the Scriptures, they have seized on a spiritual truth of commanding importance from them.
The operative words are "from them"; for here is the very point where these people completely beg the question. For ask them just why they have extracted this proposition and not some other proposition. Why, we must ask, does this proposition happen to be true and some other proposition happen to be untrue? Experience shows that never by any chance will they give a straight answer to such a question. Perhaps one will reply that the proposition appeals to him, another that it has come as a flash of spiritual insight, another may even reply that he believes it because it is true.
These are three descending steps in the scale of honesty of mind. The first man's reply is at least candid; he admits that for him his own tastes are the final arbiter. If he likes something, that is good enough for him. He does, in effect, place self first; and at least he is honest enough to admit it. The second also is candid in some measure; for he does at least admit that the choice is his own; but he tries to cover up his self-centredness by pretending that the insight has come to him from some outside source. Yet he does not attempt to explain why it is this insight that has to be accepted, and not some other insight, such as that the Lord Jesus rose again from the dead. In short, he has sought to cover up his self-centredness with a kind of smoke-screen of confusion of thought. For the third, the smoke screen is complete. He will not admit that self-will comes into the matter at all; so instead he pretends that the proposition is objectively certain, being self-evident; and he will go to any length rather than admit that it is not.
For it is a fact that the proposition "God is love" cannot be known to be true unless it is a revelation from God Himself. Therefore, if there is no certain revelation of God, it is impossible to believe the proposition. If God had not revealed Himself to us as One Who is love; it might equally well be true that "God is hate"; and, indeed, some have even dared to advance such a proposition and to endeavour to rule their lives by it. All propositions about God are meaningless unless, first, God exists, and, second, He has chosen to reveal Himself to us; and what is meaningless is necessarily not true, for a statement cannot be true unless it has a meaning.
About thirty years ago a very well-known English bishop with advanced Modernist views used to quote very frequently the text Heb. 13:8 from the King James version: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever." Although of note as a scholar, he did not appear to realize that this translation is hardly adequate, and that much closer to the original Greek is: "Jesus Christ, yesterday and today the same, and into the eons." Apparently he was unaware, either, that the evidence for the authenticity of Hebrews is not quite so convincing as that for the Gospels. So doubtful was his theological attitude to them that attempts were made to delate him for heresy. Yet he claimed to rest on this particular text in Hebrews, though it is wholly indefensible apart from full recognition of the Divine authority of the Epistle and of the Gospels. How can we know anything for certain about Jesus Christ when the only information we possess regarding His life and His acts derives from documents which are as unreliable as, according to the critics, the four Gospels must be? Yet the bishop thought himself able to affirm with confidence an assertion about Jesus Christ which is far less credible than the assertion, "God is love." If the Gospels are not absolute truth, the Hebrews Epistle is plainly worthless.
Blindness of this sort is now almost universal in the churches. That being so we have no cause to be surprised that a large and rapidly increasing proportion of intelligent people is turning away from them. It is easy to accuse these people of blindness, and of folly in refusing to investigate Christianity, but wholly unfair. When those who are reputed to be the shepherds are themselves groping in thick darkness, what chance have the poor misguided sheep? How many of us would have found the Way for ourselves, instead of being led into it under God's guidance by friends, by circumstances or even by apparent chance? Very few, and I am not one of them. Are you?
We should examine ourselves, too, in order to see whether we also are not at fault, in part, for the present state of affairs. We can at least say that most avenues of publicity are closed to us. That could not have been said of our predecessors; nevertheless, we must wonder whether we would be more effective than they were if we had their opportunities.
Thus, it would help towards a better understanding of the Gospels to investigate this view and examine some matters that shed light on it. Right away, it is obvious that Mark is brief in the sense that he omits matter which Matthew and Luke contain. He has nothing to correspond with the first two chapters of either, or the first fourteen verses of John's Gospel. His preface, in the first three verses, leads straight to an account of John the Baptist. This theme is set out in all four Gospels, and a comparison of their treatment of it should make an instructive starting-point.
Mark's preface is very different from that of the other three. He starts: "Beginning of the Evangel of Jesus Christ, Son of God." Then he proceeds to the ministry of John the Baptist, but in a way of his own. First he says: "According as it is written in Isaiah the Prophet"; but, instead of quoting Isaiah at once, he quotes the opening verse of Malachi 3:1. However, strong evidence exists for rejecting the Greek text on which this is based and reading, with the A.V.: "According as it is written in the prophets." It is, of course, arguable that the reader must be expected to use his common-sense and appreciate that the rest of the quotation is in fact from Isaiah; but such a plea actually begs the question. The words from Malachi have an importance of their own in that, like the first two verses of Mark, there is nothing corresponding with them in the other gospels. They are the essential part of the quotation; the rest is the link with the other gospels. Verse 1 is the title of the gospel, vv. 2 and 3 a sort of motto to set the tone of the narrative proper, which starts at v. 4.
So before reading Mark we ought to read right through Chapters 3 and 4 of Malachi. They put us in the correct frame of mind for the remainder. There is a persistent tradition that Mark was really recording the narrations of the Apostle Peter. Possibly; though the addition of his supposed ministry at Rome is certainly false. There is no reason why Peter should have gone there and every reason why he should not. The account of Paul's visit in Acts 28 is out of keeping with such an idea, as also is the Romans Epistle.
Mark's account is more truly an "evangel" than the other three. The word itself occurs eight times in it against four in Matthew and none at all in Luke and John, and two only in Acts. In Mark 1:14, 15 and 10:29 the word occurs in the same context as the word "kingdom," so do three of the four occurrences in Matthew. The fourth, Matt. 26:13, is parallel with Mark 14:9.
When we come to the ministry of John the Baptist we find that Mark's opening account is much the briefest of the four. Consistently with the Gospel's character as the beginning of the Evangel of Jesus Christ, it leads as swiftly as possible to Him. It omits the chronological details of Luke 3:1, 2 and the proclamation of the Kingdom of the heavens of Matt. 3:1-3 and, more striking still, the denunciations in Matt. 3:5-10 and 12 and Luke 3:7-9 and 17, 18.
So we get a narrative in this order: Mark 1:1-3; Luke 3:1, 2 and then Matt. 3:1; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3 together. Mark and Luke simply tell us that John the Baptist proclaimed the baptism of repentance for the pardon of sins; but Matthew quotes his actual words: "Repent! for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near." Then Matthew gives the same part of the quotation from Isaiah as Mark, but Luke gives much more, ending with the words: "And all flesh shall be viewing the saving-work of God." Thus, at the very start, we get the salient features of the first three gospels. Mark's stress is on the Lord Jesus as God's patient Servant, so he has least to say here about the service of John the Baptist. Luke thinks of Him as the Man, so he places John the Baptist into his setting in human history, quoting Isaiah the most fully to indicate the consequences for human history, ending up with: "And all flesh shall be viewing the saving-work of God" (Luke 3:6). This word, sOtErion, saving-work, occurs only in Luke's writings (Luke 2:30; 3:6; Acts 28:28) and Paul's (Eph. 6:17; Titus 2:11) and in the former it is related to human history each time. In this section of our study Matthew has least to say, but he does repeat John's words; making, as it were, a trumpet blast heralding the arrival of the King, in harmony with his main theme throughout. The word kingdom occurs fifty-five times in Matthew to twenty in Mark.
Here one point has to be guarded. These differences in the gospels are matters of emphasis; and all the above ratio of 55 to 20 demonstrates is that Matthew emphasizes the kingly aspect of the ministry of the Lord Jesus.
Proceeding, we find that Mark continues to be the briefest in references to John the Baptist, and the name occurs less frequently than in the other three—not that they are reticent about him, for his name is found 23, 16, 24 and 20 times respectively in the four. This contrasts notably with the way he is generally ignored and even written-off by Christians.
First Matthew and Mark unite in relating how John the Baptist was dressed and what he ate (Matt. 3:6; Mark 1:6) and his baptizing the entire Judea and all Jerusalem. Their order is different; but as no question of relative time is involved, the effect is only on emphasis. Then Matthew and Luke take over (Matt. 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9), and then, for five verses, Luke alone. Then comes John the Baptist's further proclamation about baptism, in Matt. 3:11, 12; Mark 1:7, 8; Luke 3:16, 17, this last followed by a short summary of John's subsequent work.
What the critics would regard as a parallel passage occurs at John 1:26, 27; but it is obviously a subsequent repetition of John the Baptist's saying that is recorded in the other three gospels; for they refer to the Christ as "coming," whereas this refers to Him as present. Consequently the passage John 1:15-27 must be placed later, as we shall see presently. We must observe, too, that both Luke 3:19, 20 and John 1:28 are parenthetical remarks, as also is Luke 3:23-28. They are obviously inserted as they are so as not to disturb the flow of the narrative or to clash with the other accounts.
Next come the three accounts of the baptism of the Lord Jesus. Sorted out, the order of events is seen to be Matt. 3:13-15 with the first part of Mark 1:9; Matt. 3:16, 17 with Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21, 22. After that comes the account of the Lord's temptation; but Luke meantime has chosen this place for inserting his genealogy of the Lord. Bearing in mind that Luke's purpose is to display Him as the perfect Man and the effect of the entering into human history of the perfect Man, we can perceive the appropriateness of this parenthesis. Itself, it traces His descent (as to the Law) through Joseph to Adam and to God; and this disclosure is made at the moment of His acknowledgment by God: "Thou art My beloved Son: in Thee I delight!" (Luke 3:22). And, at once, we read of "Jesus, full of holy spirit" returning from the Jordan and going to His temptation—in short, the beginning of His display to the whole Universe as the first of the New Creation's perfect Humanity.
We will leave the temptation of the Lord for the present, at any rate, and go on to what follows. Here there should be a pause, to leave room for the lengthy account in John 1:15-51. It has always been a problem to fit this into the general framework, perhaps partly on account of the mistake made by many of supposing that John 1:26, 27 refers to the baptism of the Lord Jesus. Yet vv. 15-18, 26-27, 29-34 made it perfectly plain that the event recorded in Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22, had already taken place. He was already "full of holy spirit" (Luke 4:1) and it seems only reasonable to suppose that the successful surmounting of temptation fully justified John the Baptist in speaking as he did in John 1:15, 27, 29, 34. Moreover if we place this passage after the Lord's baptism, we have in it the culmination and completion of John's ministry and its abrupt ending by his betrayal and imprisonment followed immediately by the coming of the Lord Jesus to Galilee (Matt. 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 4:14).
Here we must pause again and consider a further problem, the placing of John 1:1-14, and 15-18 in comparison with the other gospels. Personally, I would be inclined to place the former before anything else. The latter follows logically after it, but it can hardly be placed before Luke 1; so I think that in a comparative display of the gospels I would place it just after Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:5 and Luke 3:6. This and other considerations show how impracticable it is to prepare a consecutive narrative embodying everything in the gospels continuously. But it is quite practicable, and most instructive and enlightening, to set out the four accounts in parallel columns, which is what I had in mind in the first part of this paragraph. Such a comparison is realy essential for any adequate examination of the gospels; and I would recommend anyone who wishes to embark on such a study to do this following the general lines of Appendices 97, 156, 166, etc., of the Companion Bible as a first approximation.
The opening and the closing sections of the gospels will, I hope, form separate studies. Meanwhile we proceed with our study of the ministry of John the Baptist; but, in passing, the parenthesis in Luke 3:23-38 should be taken note of; for it is the first of other parenthetical passages in the gospels, and failure to take account of them has led to a great deal of con fusion. Here Luke judged it necessary to record the pedigree of the Lord Jesus as to the Law; that is to say, along the line of descent of His mother's husband; so he interrupts the narrative for it, choosing the point immediately after the record of His baptism and before the temptation which opens His ministry and demonstrates that He truly is the Son of God. No fitter point can be imagined.
It is very significant that the account of the opening of the active ministry of the Lord Jesus in Matthew and Mark begins with a notice of the betrayal of John. Characteristically, as remarked earlier, Matthew begins with a kingly proclamation, Mark with a bare statement. Luke, however, makes no such reference but records instead the Lord's return to His home, Nazareth, where He sets out good news for humanity in general in one of the most important passages of all Scripture, which I hope to comment on later.
John the Fore-runner had to close his ministry before the Lord Jesus could open His own. Though many references to John the Baptist remain, what he now accomplishes is hidden by the glory of the One Who follows him, great as he himself was, as the brilliance of the rising sun so illuminates the atmosphere that the stars and often even the moon cease to be visible to the eye. From the earthly standpoint the task allotted to John was indeed a thankless one, nevertheless he had a reward which none greater can be imagined on earth, the praise of his Lord.
The first mention of John the Baptist after his imprisonment occurs in Matt. 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:30-39; and it affords a sad example of man's failure in things spiritual. It is a complaint by his disciples that the disciples of the Lord Jesus were not fasting and an unfavourable comparison of the latter with the Pharisees. Thus Matthew. Mark's rather fuller account suggests that it was a joint complaint by the disciples and the Pharisees, so perhaps the Pharisees had heard John's disciples complaining, and had joined in. Luke's account, the fullest of all, informs us of a complaint by the Pharisees and the scribes to the Lord's disciples before that of John's disciples. Already we see John's disciples and the Pharisees united in unbelief.
The next reference to John the Baptist in the chronological order of the Gospels occurs after the parenthesis if Matt 10:1; 11:30 (discussed presently) and after Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:39 during the second visit of the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem related in John 5:1-47 (in vv. 33,36, peculiar to John's Gospel). Here is the plain declaration by the Lord Himself that John's testimony is true, and that His own testimony is greater than John's. Anything that could express more emphatically than this passage the outstanding importance and significance of John's ministry is impossible to conceive.
Meanwhile there is a reference to John the Baptist in the third of the three parenthetical passages which together cover Matt 10:2—11:30 (i.e., 11:2-15). The first two, covering the whole of Matthew 10, are not fixed to any point of time. Even the closing words, the first half of Matt. 11:1, though tied to the Lord's commission, are followed by a short statement so general that it cannot be fitted into any time sequence at all; and the third is also parenthetical. In fact, we may confidently affirm that a negative reason (at least) why these passages occur where they do is that here they do not interrupt the flow of Matthew's narrative, as they would had they been placed almost anywhere else. The passage in Luke parallel to this is Luke 7:18-35, which fits well into its context and gives a more detailed statement of what happened.
Some writers disapprove of finding parenthetical passages in these accounts, though why any reasonable person should do so is hard to imagine. In them there is no question of any dislocation of the text. They are so placed simply because that is the best way to supply information without breaking the flow of the narrative. This is particularly noticeable in the account of the murder of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:6-12; Mark 6:17-29). Luke makes a special point of writing his account consecutively (Luke 1:3) so, lest there should be any doubt at all among his readers, he simply quotes Herod's own words (Luke 9:9) and leaves it at that. It is Mark who has to explain Herod's part in the history in its sequence following the despatch of the Twelve two by two (Mark 6:7); so he relates how Herod heard of the works of the Lord and the Twelve and supposed that John had been roused from the dead. As this implies that John had died, a narrative of the circumstances of his death becomes inevitable." The whole is the most natural thing imaginable, and only the most perverse of critics could find anything amiss, for the account dovetails with perfect smoothness at this point. What makes this smoothness all the more noticeable is that it is a quality by no means always to be found in Mark, who occasionally writes as if he were recording someone else talking. An example occurs a little later on, in Mark 8:4-9, six verses, in which and occurs eleven times plus once as an adverb also.
Thus John the Baptist's mission ends, though references to it continue to crop up from time to time. The first is in Matt. 16:14-30; Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-20. The next is in Matt 17:13, and is peculiar to this Gospel. The parallel accounts of the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-38, do not mention John the Baptist as Matthew's does, but owing to his version it is not easy to read them without having John indirectly in mind. Counting these in, Elijah is related to John the Baptist in all but eight of the thirty occurrences of his name in the Greek Scriptures. In John 1:21 John the Baptist explicitly denies that he is Elijah; yet in Matt. 11:13, 14 the Lord Jesus makes the remarkable assertion: "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesy until (the prophesying) of John; and if you are willing to receive (him), he is Elias who is about to be coming." That was the situation as it existed at the time when the Lord was speaking. Though the words as quoted in Matt. 11:13, 14 are part of a parenthesis in the account, they are placed in their correct historical sequence in Luke's account (Luke 7:18-23), this section of which comes in historical sequence before Matt. 13: 14, 15.
Thus, when the Lord uttered those words, so far as anyone else was aware, it was still possible for Israel to repent and accept Him as Messiah and therefore for John to be the coming Elijah. The two exceptions were the Lord Himself and John, who had already explicitly declared he was not Elijah. The Lord Jesus had made a conditional statement in Matt. 11:13, 14. Given the conditions the statement would have been true; but He knew that the conditions could not be fulfilled by Israel. Yet He could not say say so, for that would have prejudiced the issue and the turning point of His ministry, Matt. 13:14, 15, had not yet been reached. So the statement was conditionally true, though, in fact the conditions were unfullfillable. Some have suggested that if this were the case He was being disingenuous; but that is entirely untrue. There is nothing wrong about making a conditional promise, still less a conditional statement. Ordinary folk may be pretty certain that it will never have to be honoured; but that is the fault of those who fail to comply, not of the one who makes it. The same applies to a conditional promise by God. The fact that He knows what the outcome will be, is irrelevant. What fault there is lies with those who deceive themselves by their own blindness or self-will. God does not deceive them; they do it entirely by themselves. Moreover, as shown in the three passages discussed below, taken together, there is a broad hint that the actual Elijah is not in view at all.
In this matter no one had for long any ground for self-deception, because the pronouncement of Matt. 13:14, 15 was soon after to be made and was already a foregone conclusion to anyone with any spiritual vision at all. So, quite soon, immediately after His Transfiguration, the Lord Jesus announced that He would soon be rising from among the dead (Matt. 17:9; Mark 9:9).
Comparison of Matt. 17:10-13 with Mark 9:11-13 is very instructive, because it makes plain beyond any possible doubt that they are completely independent accounts of the same event. Each has something peculiar to itself. For our present theme, the important one is Matt. 17:13: "Then the disciples understood that it was about John the Baptist that He spoke to them." Also it is necessary to observe that only once in the three passages in Matthew in which Elijah and John the Baptist appear in the same context (11:11-15; 16:14; 17:10-13) has Elijah's name the Definite Article, namely, the first (Elijah, the one about to be coming). This means that nowhere in the second and third are we compelled to think of "the Elijah," that is to say, "the Elijah we have already been speaking about." So it is permissible to read Matt. 17:12 as "an Elijah has already come." And in Mark 9:13 similarly, for the same reasoning applies, "an Elijah also has come." So we are not told that John actually was Elijah; but that he was one who possessed the characteristics of Elijah, which indeed he did. Next, there is a brief reference to John The Baptist in John 10:40-42. This section, John 10:22-42, seems to fit in between Luke 13:22 and 23; and it has an importance considerably greater than its parenthetical nature would suggest, for some have held that many of John the Baptist's followers eventually formed a sect of their own. This passage certainly suggests that any such idea is most improbable. He himself never wavered from his testimony that he was no more than the fore-runner of One far greater, and there is no sign that any of his followers thought of him otherwise.
The next and last reference to John the Baptist occurs in Matt. 21:23-32; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8, and relates the dilemma in which the Lord Jesus placed the chief priests, scribes and elders in connection with the baptism of John.
In conclusion, I would point the reader again to the opening verses of John's Gospel and, to what has been left out of this study, the account of the circumstances of the birth of John the Baptist in Luke's Gospel. Both in their very different ways point to his supreme importance, in the former, for God's purposes as a whole for humanity in general, in the latter, in the eyes of God Himself.
R.B.W. Last updated 7.4.2006