The Most Reverend Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop Emeritus of Wales, reflects on the different perspectives of the four Gospel writers.
The four Gospels give us four different accounts of the Passion of Jesus. Each Gospel writer not only gives his own account of the events leading up to the death of Jesus, so that the details are not the same in each story, but they also see the event of the Passion in their own particular way, bringing their own insight to bear on it. In a real sense, there is not, therefore, just one account of the Passion of Jesus, but four of them. They are like four artists who have all been asked to paint the same landscape, and yet, although it is the same landscape, they see it in different ways.
You can see the differences between the writers most starkly when you look at the sayings of Jesus on the Cross, for not one of the Gospels records all the seven sayings of Jesus. Instead, different words from the Cross are reported by different Gospel writers.
Mathew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 have only one and they are the same: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” St Luke has three sayings of the dying Jesus on the Cross not found in any other Gospel. Luke 23:34: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:43: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:46: “Father into thy hands I commit my spirit.” St John also has three sayings of the dying Jesus, which are not to be found anywhere else. John 19:26-27: “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” John 19:28: “I thirst.” John 19:30: “It is finished.”
So immediately the question arises as to why do different Gospels record different sayings? Are they the actual words of Jesus on the Cross? Did Jesus utter seven last words? Now, in all of this it is necessary to remember two things. Firstly, all the Gospels were written many years after the events they are describing. Nor were any of the disciples, apart from John, present at the Crucifixion. Secondly, the Gospel writers are not writing history as a modern historian would, describing an actual event and its significance. Instead they had a theological purpose in mind. The churches for which they wrote their Gospels faced their own problems, and so they wrote those Gospels in order both to instruct and strengthen those churches in their difficulties. As a result, there is not one account of the Passion of Jesus, but four different ones, and we must let each Gospel writer tell his own story in his own way, meaning that it is not always possible to determine how much is interpretation and how much is fact.
Yet, although the four accounts are different, each account has one thing in common with all the other accounts. Each writer presents the story of Jesus’ Passion as a unity, as one story, not a string of episodes. In this way, there is a notable contrast between the Passion narratives and the other narratives in the Gospels, where we find separate and self-contained episodes strung together not in any historical order. When it comes to the Passion of Jesus, however, each Gospel has the preliminary events of the priests’ plot to destroy Jesus, and then the story is that of a single Jewish day, from the evening of the Thursday until the evening of the Friday. Within that single day we have the entry to Jerusalem, the supper, the agony, the arrest, the trial, the sentence, the journey to the Cross, the Crucifixion itself and the burial. It is one story, sweeping on from sundown to sundown. The narratives move rapidly, telling one tale which is to be read from start to finish. The story is the same one, but each Evangelist uses the stream of events to make his own theological points.
Moreover, not only do the four Evangelists tell of the Passion as one unbroken story, they also tell of it with one dominant motif, despite the differences in their theology. This motif is not the heroism of Jesus, nor the horror of the event. The appeal is not to sorrow or pity or admiration. Rather, in each of the four Gospels there is great emphasis on how evil does its worst, and yet God overrides the evil for His great ends. Human evil is at work that has Jesus in its power and carries Him, step by step, to destruction. Yet, all the while God is at work working out His own purpose, wresting good out of evil. The response the Evangelists evoke from their readers is faith, not primarily repentance but faith, the belief that here in the Crucifixion men are standing in the presence of God.
So, the Evangelists do not write stories about the Passion, but one story of how Christ died according to the Scriptures. It was necessary to have this unified story because the Church needed a coherent account of the last days of Jesus. This was necessary to prove that what had happened to Jesus corresponded exactly with Old Testament prophecy and was all part of God’s plan, because of the astonishing claim the Church made for this Jesus, namely it claimed divine honours for a young man who had shortly before suffered capital punishment at the hands of the Romans, after due process of Roman law, the accusers being the accredited leaders of the Jewish faith. If the Church was to sustain its claim in the eyes of people with a Jewish background it had to show that the charges against Jesus were false, inspired by the pride and jealousy of the Jewish leaders. Moreover, the Cross to the early Christians was the centre of their faith and so a connected account of the last part of the ministry of Jesus came into existence long before there was an account of the first part of the ministry. The writers of these narratives are also at pains to point out the innocence of Jesus against all the charges brought against him. Thus the guilt lies with those who had plotted his death. This was necessary to show that no charges of crime or sedition had been upheld in an imperial court – Christianity was not a criminal movement, so the Roman authorities had nothing to fear from Jesus or Christians.
The early Church also saw the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin. Paul writes: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” There are three separate aspects to this connection: Jesus died at the season of Passover; He gave to His followers a covenant rite to supersede the Passover; His death was the true Passover sacrifice fulfilling and superseding the old. There is little to explain how it was a sacrifice or to explain the suffering, just that it was a necessity.
Thus around the recital of the Gospel there were gathered many interests in the Church’s mind, memory and teaching which were to create the final shape of the traditions about the Passion. Small wonder then, that by the time the Gospels were written, the story is seen in richly varied forms and each Evangelist deals with the Passion story in his own way.
St Mark’s Gospel
I am going to deal in turn with the Passion narratives in each of the four Gospels. I shall start with St Mark since it is the first account of the Passion to be written down in a Gospel.
The account St Mark gives is very strange. It is very bare and almost unbearably realistic. It moves rapidly from incident to incident. Once the action has begun, it must go through to the bitter end. The sentences become shorter and shorter, the story staccato-like. On the days before Good Friday, Jesus speaks on six occasions and on each occasion His words seem strange and no explanation is given about them. The first occasion is at the anointing at Bethany, when Jesus says an unnamed woman has unwittingly embalmed Him in advance for burial. The second mysterious word is His instruction to two disciples to follow an unknown man bearing a pitcher of water, and to make ready the Passover. The third comes in the upper room, when, after a prophecy of betrayal, which no one understands, He utters the words: “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. The fourth mysterious word, spoken when they have left the upper room, is that “all will be made to stumble because of Him, but that after being raised up He will go before them into Galilee”. The fifth mysterious word is in the garden, when His soul is sorrowful unto death, and He cries to the Father that the cup may pass from Him, but that His Father’s will may be done. The sixth is uttered to those who are sent to arrest Him, that what they do is done so that the scriptures may be fulfilled.
Once arrested, Jesus speaks three times only. To the Jewish nation in the person of the High Priest, He affirms that He is the Messiah, and that the Son of Man will be seen in power. To the Roman world, in the person of Pilate, He replies to the question: “Art thou the King of the Jews?” with the non-committal “Thou sayest”. To God He raises the cry of desolation: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” And having so cried, He dies.
All of these things serve to underline the utter loneliness of Jesus, and there is worse, for His disciples have all left Him and fled after His arrest, and Peter has denied that he knows Him. It is not a question of Jesus and His friends against the enemies; it is a question of Jesus alone against enemies and friends alike. All of this St Mark brings out with terrible vividness. Jesus is isolated not just from the human race but also separated from God. He dies in loneliness and darkness. St Mark says “there was darkness over the land” from the sixth hour to the ninth hour. There is a feeling that the whole world and God have deserted Jesus.
But, and it is a big but, God is there, though people do not yet know where to look for him. Behind the darkness there are faint gleams of light though hardly perceptible. For when Jesus dies, the veil of the temple, meant to conceal the presence of God from the eyes of people, now no longer does so. The dwelling place of God is with humanity in the person of the crucified Jesus: God is made manifest. Moreover, at the moment of Jesus’ death in the despair of seeming God-forsakenness, one who was present at the Crucifixion for no other reason than duty, a pagan centurion, confesses: “This man is the Son of God.” This is the point where faith has still to believe in hope, against all hope, and discern the presence of God in total darkness. St Mark is telling us that, although we may have moments when we feel God is far from us, God is always there in His mercy and His love, just as He is present on the Cross of Jesus, although the evidence may all be pointing the other way. In our darkness and suffering, God is present although we may find that hard to believe.
This is St Mark’s first message to us, but he also has another. We see that message in the words of one commentator: “Stand back; keep your distance.” It serves to show that what is being done here, is being done by God himself. It is being done without our aid and despite our sin. Our only contribution is to be part of that busy world which brings it about that Jesus must die. There is quite a clear division between God in Christ on one hand and all of us together on the other. We need to be saved and St Mark’s message seems to be that to that salvation or redemption we can make no contribution at all. We cannot save ourselves. It is God alone, through His love in Jesus Christ, who saves us through accepting us. All we can do is stay where we are afar off, to keep our distance, and to learn that what is done on the Cross is none of our doing.
Mark has one final point to make. By having the Roman centurion say: “Surely this man is the Son of God”, not a disciple or a member of Jesus’ family but a total stranger and a foreigner, Mark is reminding us we have no monopoly on God as individuals or as a Church. Sometimes obedience to Jesus and faithfulness to His God is more evident outside than inside the Church.
St Matthew’s Gospel
In Matthew the Passion of Jesus takes up a third of the Gospel. He follows Mark very closely, giving virtually no more than an expanded edition of Mark, with the exception of adding the story about the remorse and death of Judas, the tradition of Pilate receiving a message from his wife and washing his hands, and the portents which occurred immediately after the death of Jesus.
Despite following Mark so closely, he has his own distinctive approach. First, he is very anxious to set the whole story of the life and death of Jesus in the context of the Old Testament, quoting from it wherever he can to show that the story of Jesus is a fulfillment of the scriptures. The Last Supper is full of Old Testament images, both in the form of the meal itself and in Jesus’ reference to the Covenant: “This is my blood of the Covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28) He fulfills all of the Old Testament promises, showing that the birth and death of Jesus is part of the wider story, even if it is the climax of God’s relationship with humanity. In other words, God has been at work in the history of His people, the Jews, for a long time, preparing for the coming of Christ, the Messiah, and in Jesus the whole of Jewish history is summed up, the deliverer they were seeking. Matthew’s purpose in doing this was to show his readers that Jesus was not just an ordinary man, but the one for whom the Jews had been waiting, the one sent by God to Israel. This fact is proved by the correspondence between his life and the Old Testament prophecies.
St Matthew’s emphasis on God’s salvation in the history of the Jews, brought now to fulfillment and to a climax in the person of Christ is of crucial significance to us as Christians today. We are sometimes guilty of seeing God’s activity in Jesus Christ as something that was discontinuous with his work before the coming of Jesus, almost as if God in Jesus invaded the world that was in the grips of evil in order to save it from catastrophe. By anchoring Jesus as the fulfiller of God’s activity through the Jewish people, St Matthew reminds us that the God we contend with in Jesus is the God who has never deserted His world. He is the God who is revealed in the prophets, such as Hosea and Jeremiah, as the God of suffering and love, and here in Jesus this divine love is expressed supremely. The Creator God is the Redeemer God and this saving work has been going on all the time and is now revealed in the Cross of Christ. God’s saving work is not a once and for all event in Jesus; God’s saving work has been in action from the beginning of our creation. Our God has always been concerned for His world, and in Jesus this concern is revealed in a supreme degree.
There is a second thing to note about St Matthew’s approach to the Passion, namely that he is anxious to link up Jesus’ life and death. It is St Matthew above all who lays great emphasis on Jesus as a teacher, and it is His teaching that is, in the end, responsible for bringing Him to the Cross. He looks behind the Jewish law in order to reveal the nature of the God who gave it. For example, He takes some of the rules by which his fellow Jews lived, rules about murder and adultery, divorce and revenge. He not only repeats these, but also uncovers beneath them the inner attitudes that are more important to God. He says: “You have heard that it was said ‘Do not commit murder,’ but I say to you whoever is angry with his brother will be brought before the judge.” Or: “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In other words, Jesus is saying God is not primarily concerned with the rules you keep. He is more concerned with the kind of people you are. He does not deal with outward appearances but goes to the sources of human life and deals with the character and attitudes of a person, for these ultimately determine our words and deeds. When you deal with people at that level, the threat to them is enormous. Few people are guilty of murder, but we have all done our share of hating. Pain was, and is, felt because what we see of God in His teaching and what we see of ourselves are poles apart. Jesus uses the law to reveal the nature of God and then shine it deep into our hearts, searching out the deepest levels of our natures and attitudes and telling us we must be like God, we must be perfect as God is perfect. Both Jesus’ hearers and ourselves are threatened by this teaching, and react predictably with hate and fury because we do not like to be shown how far from perfection we really are. The result for Jesus was the Cross.
St Luke’s Gospel
St Luke’s story of the Passion is, in many ways, derived from St Mark’s account, and yet it is also very different. The narrative is not bare and unadorned but is told with great literary skill, which marks the Gospel as a whole. Mysterious words are explained. For example, the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” are followed by teaching on the necessity of disciples serving one another after the pattern of the one who is amongst them as their servant. The prophecy that all will be made to stumble disappears, as does the cry of desolation from the Cross.
St Luke also puts immense emphasis on Jesus’ innocence. He is very fond of trial stories as the Book of Acts shows, delighting to record the accusations brought against Christians and their dismissal by the authorities. He records with care what the accusation was and how Pilate would not allow that it had any substance at all: “I find no case to answer.” So too, when Jesus has died on the Cross the centurion who watched him does not make a confession of deity in Luke’s account, but an assertion of innocence: “Without doubt the man was innocent.”
Moreover, in St Mark, Jesus is passive and alone, in St Luke, He is active and draws near to others as they draw near to Him. As they offer sympathy, they receive sympathy in return. Women weep for Him, the crowds who come to see what is happening do not mock but return beating their breasts. Peter, although he denies Him, is won to penitence when Jesus looks on him. Only one of the thieves reviles Him, the other looks to Jesus in faith and penitence and is promised a place in paradise. Jesus acts out His own teaching when He prays for forgiveness for His enemies. Whereas in St Mark He receives no response from the Father, in St Luke He commits himself into the Father’s hands with the words: “Father into they hands I commend my spirit.” The darkness has gone and the tragedy has given way to heroism. It is the death of the perfect martyr, patient before his accusers, that is being described.
Luke’s account has several messages for us. First, that what brought Jesus to the Cross was His love and forgiveness for people. In this love, sympathy and forgiveness of Jesus, the love, sympathy and forgiveness of God are made visible and comprehensible to us. It is in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus reveals above all the forgiving Father. It is in Luke that we get the story of Zacchaeus and the Prodigal Son. Luke’s parables are about God’s gracious invitations to sinners to draw near. Jesus’ death is of a piece with His life, for here the forgiveness of God for people is not just talked about but embodied. The forgiveness continues in the Passion even as Jesus is nailed to the Cross and suffers. So, we get Jesus healing the servant of the High Priest, wounded by the sword of Peter; He prays for those who crucify Him; He pardons the thief who repents. Even in the act of being reviled, rejected, crucified by men, God’s answer through Jesus is forgiveness and love. Through the Cross, God in Christ says ‘you can betray me, you can hate me, you can misjudge me, you can crucify me but nothing will alter my love or forgiveness’. Even when we spurn that forgiveness, it is met by further forgiveness.
St Luke makes another point here too. He does not depict the people as enemies as St Mark does. St Mark seems to hold the people and the reader at a distance from the Cross, an act of divine mystery in which people are challenged to repent and believe. St Luke invites the people and the reader to come near, for the Passion is to be embraced and imitated. It is significant that in the saying about the disciple taking up His cross and following Jesus, St Luke has added the word ‘daily’. The imitation of the Passion is to be a mark of the Christian life. St Luke tells us to come to the Cross and receive the forgiveness of God and through that forgiveness to forgive others. The only way to break the power of evil is through love and forgiveness, although this may come at tremendous personal cost. But all of this is only possible because God has made it possible through revealing and embodying this nature of forgiving love in Jesus of Nazareth. Because of His cross, we too are enabled to be cross bearers.
St Mark and St Luke are making two very different points. St Mark tells us to keep our distance because what is being done, is being done by God without our help. It is God alone who redeems and justifies man. St Luke tells us to come closer and receive God’s forgiveness, and by doing so, we will be enabled in our own lives to reproduce Christ’s spirit: the spirit of love and forgiveness. On the one hand, we stand before God naked and we have to learn that it is through Him alone that we are saved (St Mark), but having done that we are drawn from being spectators of that which is done to being sharers of it (St Luke), so that in receiving forgiveness, we are now bidden to reproduce it in our own lives.
St Luke has a third thing to say about the Passion. It is Luke alone who talks about the Prodigal Son and who emphasises the way Jesus mixes with outcasts and sinners. He champions their right to be included in the story of Jesus by giving one of their representatives a place of great honour. In the Passion story, the dying thief who asks Jesus to remember him is told: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The first man into the Kingdom is a criminal and he is there to represent all the rest. Luke shows us more than outcasts; he includes all kinds of underprivileged people. He records Jesus’ promises to the poor, the hungry and the women. He seems to be giving a positive answer to the question ‘Do people matter?’ He reminds us that in God’s eyes people matter, and matter in their own right as persons, not because they have status or privilege or ability or possessions, but simply because they are people. No matter what the world may think of a person, he matters to God. The people God chooses to be His servants are not special people or people of superior moral quality, they are people like you and me.
St John’s Gospel
One of the great words in St John’s Gospel is the word to know: “Jesus knowing that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, He loved them to the end.” Or again: “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands and that He came from God and was going to God”, rose from the supper.
St John is at pains to tell us that Jesus knew what was in store for him and that he understood the meaning of it all. Indeed, in the whole of what he tells us about Jesus’ Passion, St John stresses again and again that it is Jesus who is in control of events, it is He who initiates them. He says: “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” and “I shall draw all people to myself when I am lifted up from the earth.” In His conversation with the disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus seems to speak almost from the other side of death and resurrection as he tells them of the new life in the Spirit, which will be theirs as a result of His death. There seems to be something almost disturbing about this Jesus of St John’s Gospel. He seems to be far too much in control of events and to know too much about what is going to happen to Him through them, raising questions in our minds about His humanity. Can someone foresee the future in the detailed way that Jesus seems to, seeing it all as part of a mission He has to fulfill, and still be human? St John’s Jesus seems more like a supernatural figure who only appears to be human. The Passion is seen almost as the acting out of a series of events in which the script has already been written in the counsels of God and is know to the chief actor, Jesus.
Now, we know St John was reflecting on the events of Jesus’ life a generation or so after they happened, and things seem much clearer to him as he looks back than they must have done to Jesus as he lived through them. That is not to say Jesus was unaware of the risks He was running, but that is very different from a being who sees everything in advance before it happens, so that all He has to do is act out a script that He knows by heart. This point is an important one, for it raises the whole question as to whether we believe that everything is determined and foreordained for us in the counsels of God, or whether in fact, events and people are still in a state of formation and it all depends on their responses and on circumstances as to how things will turn out.
A Jesus who knows exactly how things will play out is of little help to us because we have no certainty about the future. All we can do is hope in the future and trust in God’s goodness; far from us because we have to face the uncertainty of death with faith yet without certain knowledge of what is beyond. But if for Jesus the future was as much a mystery, a dread and a hope as it is for us, yet at the same time he dared to look at the future with belief and trust in God, seeking to do His will, then indeed this is a Jesus who can tell us something about what it is like to trust God and His love when events in our personal lives and on the world scene seem so uncertain and grim. Somehow or other, we just have to hang on to this faith in God, believing that He is with us in whatever we face.
St John, in looking back and reflecting on the life of Jesus, is at times in danger of losing His human dimension. Yet it is John who sees the glory of God revealed in the crucified Jesus. Jesus reigns by dying, His sovereignty is exercised through crucifixion. Since Jesus reveals to us the character of God, this tells us something vital about the God in which we believe. We tend to think of God as almighty and all powerful: a ‘King of kings, Lord of lords, the only ruler of princes’, as the old prayer has it. We look on Him as a celestial king unaffected by the misery of the world according to His sovereign will, and not too much troubled by what goes on in it. Yet, says St John, in this despised, rejected, suffering figure, God is revealed. It is in suffering and weakness that God comes to men. Love not power is the defining characteristic of God, for God is defined by Jesus, and His glory is made manifest in weakness.
We find it hard to take because we so often think of God in terms of power and omnipotence, ruling from some throne on high. Then we try to fit the God revealed by Jesus into that pattern, and it does not work. But, if we start with a God of love who puts Himself at risk in the very act of creation, and who continues to make Himself vulnerable, then the kind of God Jesus reveals to us causes us no problems. His strength is revealed in weakness – in the Cross. The Christ, and so the God, who comes to us, says Bishop Westcott, reigns from the Cross. As Christians we have to think of God in the light of Jesus, and not least from the suffering of Jesus. He is in the world on the side of suffering, of poverty, of those who have no rights. That is a message of hope for our brutal and bloody world.
St John also makes another point. To him the Cross of Jesus, which could be seen as a defeat for Jesus and the God He believed in, is a moment of victory. It shows that no matter what happens, according to St John, God uses suffering, despair and violence to enable something new to happen. After the Cross comes the Resurrection. St John seems to be saying to us too, you may be defeated and crushed and in despair, but God is greater than any evil you have to face and He will use that evil for His purpose, for His love cannot be defeated. That is a message of great hope when at times we feel our world is destined for disaster. When we feel like that, St John is telling us that God is still in control of His world and He always has the last word. He is the alpha but He too is the omega.