by Mark Minnick
This article first appeared in FrontLine • January/February 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
This is the first of three parts. [Part Two] [Part Three]
Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?
Over a quarter of a century ago, Wilbur Smith, one of the world’s foremost authorities on religious books, told of speaking in a large evangelical church whose gifted pastor had been preaching for 25 years. Having had the opportunity of looking over the man’s library, Smith remarked with some surprise that he didn’t see any volumes on the life and work of Jesus Christ.
Smith’s observation seemed to take the pastor off guard, but after checking for himself the man acknowledged that he did not own a book on the subject. Smith related this incident not because it was rare, but because he had observed a strange phenomenon among ministers—what he called “the mysterious neglect of studying the life of Jesus Christ.”
If such a neglect exists, it isn’t for lack of choice material. A quick check of the top shelf behind me finds nearly 100 volumes on various aspects of the life and ministry of Christ, and that’s in addition to the 125 or so commentaries on the Gospels on the shelf below it and the more than 50 volumes of Christology in the bookcase of doctrinal works across the room. But what I’ve collected through the years is only a small sample of what’s available. Before me even as I write is a volume entitled Jesus Christ Our Lord, done by Samuel Gardiner Ayres (librarian of Drew Theological Seminary) in 1906, which annotates and classifies over 5,000 English titles on Christ. And Smith estimated Ayres’ work contained just about half of the works authored on this subject in English during the last two hundred years, not to mention those published in German, French, Italian, and other European languages!
Let’s suppose that a pastor was willing to put himself to some trouble to develop a really first class section in his library on the life and ministry of our Lord. I’d like to devote this and next issue’s column to some personal recommendations, categorized according to the particular aspect of our Lord’s life and ministry upon which the works focus. Thankfully, most are currently in print. Some will have to be searched out through used book dealers. A select few are the rare treasures a really book-loving man would part with a whole case of shotgun shells to get his hands on.
I will never forget the delight with which I first read a harmony of the Gospels. It would not be an overstatement to say that I had only the sketchiest conception of the sequence of events in our Lord’s ministry until I became acquainted with these indispensable works. How many of us, for instance, have observed in our reading of the Gospels individually that our Lord was the object of six sabbath controversies and that they occurred chronologically in two clusters of three each? Or how many of us knew that He endured not one, or two, or three, but six hearings or trials before His crucifixion, or that He appeared to His disciples no less than five times on the first day of His resurrection? These are the kinds of vital keys to interpretation that a harmony turns up.
Harmonies are of two types. One weaves the four Gospel accounts together in a continuous narrative and is called a diatessaron, and the other prints the four in parallel columns wherever they record the same or similar material. Most students of the Gospels much prefer the latter type, so I’ll limit my recommendations to it.
My favorite is A Harmony of the Gospels (Moody Press) by Robert Thomas and Stanley Gundry, due to the detailed footnotes and the 12 essays in the back that discuss everything from the history of the production of harmonies to the reconciliation of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. The book is also well bound and lays flat—no little consideration if you carry it into the pulpit for reference (something I’ve done many times while preaching on the events of the Passion Week in particular).
For purposes of comparison on finer points of chronology, I like the older work done by John Broadus, one of the founding professors of the first Southern Baptist seminary organized in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1859. This original work was revised by his son-in-law, A. T. Robertson, in 1922, and was for decades a standard in the field. It still warrants respectful consideration.
Those looking for an even more finely focused harmony will want to take a look at The Horizontal Line Synopsis of the Gospels by Reuben J. Swanson. The format parallels the Scripture in horizontal lines rather than vertical columns. Similarities and differences stand out immediately, giving the preacher instant recognition of how the Gospels complement one another, not only in a given passage, but line by line and word by word. The approach so breaks up the continuity of the accounts, however, that continuous reading is almost impossible.
One further work that has occasionally saved me an immense amount of trouble when comparing, not the English, but the Greek text of the Gospels, is Synopsis of the Four Gospels, edited by Kurt Aland. Aland places the Greek text (Nestle- Aland) in parallel columns on the left page and the English text (Revised Standard Version) on the right, enabling those a little rusty with their Greek to make their way around reasonably well. It’s not for everyone, but for those who need such a specialized tool Aland has performed a great service.
One caution that should be shared about pastoral use of harmonies comes out of the experience of W. A. Criswell, who pastored First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, for more than 40 years. Criswell once began a series following a harmony through the life of Christ. But after awhile he grew increasingly uneasy that it was taking too long to reach the Passion Week and Resurrection. He concluded that the Holy Spirit had produced four Gospels, not one, so that the reader would be brought relatively quickly to the death and resurrection of Christ again, and again, yet again, and still again. Confessing to the congregation his mistake in departing from preaching the Gospels individually, he abandoned the harmony!
Dr. Mark Minnick pastors Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.