Recently a friend gave me what looks to be a fairly promising resource on Gospel studies. It comes from a sound, evangelical perspective that distances itself at the outset from the rationalism and historical-criticism that has been so influential in this area of scholarship since the 19th century. As I scanned the table of contents, one of the first chapters to catch my eye was on the question of chronology. For a moment I entertained the hope that this one would be different. Instead, I was met with what has become almost standard fare, even from scholars with a high view of Scripture. I refer to the fatalistic presupposition concerning gospel chronology that assumes no real story of Jesus’ life and ministry can be ascertained from the record we have been given. Since the prospect of total randomness does not bode well for writing a book on something, different authors will assert that the material was organized in some fashion, but in the last century it has not been at all fashionable to suggest chronology was one of them. Geography, themes of teaching, and types of miracles are all set forth as possible governing factors, but a linear sequence of events is viewed as a naive and antiquated notion.
Before briefly arguing for the viability of a chronological understanding of Jesus’ life and explaining why it is so important, let me first state three points of common ground that I readily acknowledge must temper conclusions on this subject:
- An exact chronology is impossible with the information the Holy Spirit chose to include in the canonical gospels. We cannot project onto the gospels a modern concept of reporting of events that was foreign to antiquity or pretend there aren’t significant gaps in what has been revealed.
- A chronological arrangement is not the only way to view the life of Jesus. The bulk of the gospel of Matthew is clearly not arranged chronologically. Instead, it evidences an oscillating pattern of discourse and narrative. This must be valued and appreciated as a reflection of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
- Chronological does not mean comprehensively chronological. The gospel of John is arguably the most rigidly chronological of the four, and yet it skips vast portions of Jesus’ public ministry.
The great mistake comes when these limitations are inordinately emphasized and allowed to quench the hope of discovering the general chronology of Jesus’ ministry that clearly emerges upon careful observation. The result is all too often a sloppy reading of the text which misses a host of chronological markers because it is assumed that they couldn’t be there to begin with. Once these presuppositions are done away with, several obvious features of the gospels become compelling. First, the gospel of John is structured around three consecutive annual Passover feasts (John 2:13, 6:4, 13:1) with events that transpire in between them. Secondly, Luke begins with an overtly chronological claim:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1–4, NASB95, emphasis added)
This is difficult to ignore or marginalize if seriously grappled with. Finally, the progression of the gospel of Mark almost exactly parallels that of Luke. The latter includes much more information than Mark, but only minor variations in order exist between the overlapping content. This allows for a high degree of confidence in the basic chronological orientation of Mark, something that is very rarely given any merit. If these features are recognized, and the unjustified premise of Matthean priority done away with, then the reconstruction of a general chronology becomes more than feasible. With this framework in place, the hard (but joyous) work of scrutinizing details to form a more cohesive narrative can begin. It will quite likely take months, if not years, before this very real story becomes the stage, so to speak, where the individual events in the gospels are acted out. Why expend such time and energy to acquire this perspective?
The reason for this “waste” is, first and foremost, His worth. God took on flesh and the life He lived is matchless in its beauty. All beauty, but most certainly the matchless kind, deserves to be valued to the fullest extent possible within the limits of the beholder. The human life of our Maker is intrinsically worth searching out. Whatever other reasons we might be able to muster for why to prayerfully study the chronology of the life of Jesus, that has to be paramount. It is a travesty that as Christians today we seem to have an insatiable appetite for hearing what Jesus will do for our lives but demonstrate almost no hunger to discover the details of His life. Right now, enthroned in the highest heavens, Jesus remembers the details. When His people – His friends – allow love to compel them to scour the gospel record for every crumb of clarity they can find, it moves His heart and bears witness of His splendor.
Magnifying Him and ministering to Him is the primary motivation, but it is not the only one. Apart from the theological foundations of His divinity and humanity, nothing has caused the life of Christ to grip my heart more than understanding its chronological progression. The reason for this is quite simple. Our hearts were created to be deeply moved by stories. No one who has ever come under the sway of a good book or been entranced by a good movie needs to be convinced of this. Yet most attempt to read the gospels as if they were a collection of disjointed episodes haphazardly strewn together between a manger and a cross. It is little wonder that our affections remain placid when the life of our Beloved is approached in this way. In reality, a powerful drama is unfolding on those pages. It is a story so portentous that the Holy Spirit used four different books to tell it. God took on flesh with a mission in mind, and it was not to randomly wander about Galilee doing good and biding time until He could be crucified for the forgiveness of our sins. When we take the time and stare long enough for pieces of time to start falling into place, our souls can at last feel the force of what was actually happening in the first coming of Jesus.
Above all else, as this narrative becomes real to us, its chief character does so as well. Chronology allows for a thirty year-old Man with fire in His eyes to emerge from behind the curtains of our ignorance and take center-stage in His story. Through the Spirit within us and the Bible before us, we are slowly drawn into concrete encounters with Jesus akin to those who brushed up against Him as He walked through their streets. When this begins to happen, everything changes.