Harmonizing the Gospels 101 - Part I


Click Here for Parts I, II and III - Harmonizing the Gospels 101

In our study of John thus far, we have encountered a number of narratives that also appear in the synoptic Gospels.
• We have found that differences between John’s account and the synoptic Gospels are quite common.
• Our lesson last week, the triumphant entry, was one such example.

In light of these differences, it is time to have a primer on the discipline of Gospel Harmonization.
• Doing so will strengthen our view of the reliability of Scripture and provide for us an apologetic against those who mischaracterize the differences.
• And it will provide for us a foundation from which to approach apparent errors and contradictions in Scripture.

Inerrancy and Harmonization:
Before we get into definitions and methods, a fundamental relationship needs to be addressed.
• There is a direct relationship between one’s view of inerrancy and one’s view of harmonization.
• In other words, the extent of harmonization one thinks is necessary is related to one’s view of inerrancy.
• The more demanding one’s view of inerrancy the more crucial harmonization becomes.
• Conversely, the lower one’s view of inerrancy the more irrelevant harmonization becomes.

An illustration will help tease this relationship out.
• My brother has a very demanding view of the reliability of computers.
• He seems to think that they should never have glitches, crashes, hiccups, etc.
• This view is based on wishful thinking, ignorance or a caricature; it is not based on actual computers.
• His view persists because he has invested very little time in learning the “ins” and “outs” of computers.
• Therefore he has virtually no ability to trouble shoot and solve problems.
• As a result of his expectations, when the smallest problem arises he has a fit, and concludes that computers are useless and should be thrown out.

By contrast, I have a more realistic view of computers.
• I know how they work, know their strengths and weaknesses and know how to trouble shoot.
• My expectation of computers is based on knowing computers, not on wishful thinking or some caricature of what someone thinks a computer should be.
• As a result of my view, when problems occur I am not put off; I simply look for a solution or work-around.
• I recognize the value and importance of computers and never suffer any disillusionment with them.

We will see that contained in the two orthodox views of inerrancy and harmonization are implications very similar to the above two views just illustrated.

The most important takeaway I hope to give you in the course of this discussion is this:
• Our view of harmonization needs to reflect what the Gospel writers would expect, not what we would expect in the 21st century.
• In other words, we need to let the Gospel writers themselves and their methods of teaching and transmitting God’s Word inform our view of harmonization not modern, outside influences.

What is needed:
The information needed to arrive at a properly informed view of Harmonization is extensive.
• With respect to the Gospels, for example, considerations have to be given to how knowledge was learned and transmitted.
• This would involve such things as individual and collective memorization, the role of eyewitness testimony, oral history, oral tradition and literary styles such as historiographies and biographies.
• And it would involve not only seeing these things in a Jewish context but also in a Greek context.
• And, of course, there are the theological and supernatural considerations.

Fortunately, scholars have done all the leg work for us.
• All we will do here is synthesize and summarize their insights.
• But first, we will begin with definitions.


Some terms relevant to our discussion are inspiration, inerrancy and harmonization.
• Because each flows from the other, we need to know what they all mean.

“By inspiration of Scripture we mean that supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the Scripture writers which rendered their writings an accurate record of the revelation or which resulted in what they wrote actually being the Word of God” – Millard Erickson.

Inspiration is directly taught in Scripture:
• 2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV) — 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
• 2 Peter 1:19–21 (ESV) — 19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

And that what the Apostles taught was considered God’s Word (and thus inspired) is also taught in Scripture:
• 2 Peter 3:2 (ESV) — 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles,
    o The apostles transmission was both oral and written.
• 2 Peter 3:15–16 (ESV) — 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
• 1 Thessalonians 2:13 (ESV) — 13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
• 1 Corinthians 14:37 (ESV) — 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.

The Doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture is straight forward.
• The concern is simply, if “it should be shown that the Bible is not fully truthful, our view of inspiration would also be in jeopardy” – Millard Erickson.
Understanding that Scripture is the “fully truthful” inspired Word of God, the question arises what does it mean to be “fully truthful”?
• This is the question inerrancy.

Unlike the Doctrine of Inspiration, “the doctrine of biblical inerrancy [is not] explicitly affirmed or taught in the Bible” – Erickson.
• It is a logical implication of the Inspiration of Scripture and the attributes of God.
• And to simplfy the discussion, we will narrow down the orthodox views to just two.

Two Orthodox Views on Inerrancy (Erickson):
• (1) Absolute Inerrancy – This view holds that when the Bible writers spoke of something, whether it was science, history, or anything else, they intended to make “fully true” statements.
    o Under this view, “apparent discrepancies can and must be explained”.
    o This is the literal or wooden view.
    o That the Bible speaks of the “sun rising” is problematic for this view.
    o There are those who currently argue that the earth is at the center of the universe.
• (2) Full Inerrancy – This view also holds that the Bible makes “fully true” statements.
    o But it qualifies this position.
    o References to science, history, etc. “are reported the way they appear to the human eye. They are not necessarily exact; rather, they are popular descriptions, often involving general references or approximations. Yet they are correct. What they teach is essentially correct in the way they teach it” – Millard Erickson.
    o From a human perspective, the sun rises.
    o This view understands Scripture to be without error in its original manuscripts and from the perspective of the writers, not necessarily with 21st century precision – context is king.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy expands on Full Inerrancy this way:

We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise. 
So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: Since, for instance, nonchronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed
The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of irregularities of grammar or
spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (for example, the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. It is not right to set the so-called “phenomena” of Scripture against the teaching of Scripture about itself. Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.
So it is in light of these CSBI comments Millard Erickson can state:
• “The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms. This definition reflects the position earlier termed full inerrancy” – Millard Erickson.

Unorthodox views of Inerrancy:
• Though not relevant to our discussion on harmonization, there are a number of unorthodox views.
• Some examples include views that hold that the Bible is without error only as it concerns salvation; the Bible is not a revelation from God and so Inerrancy is not an issue; the Bible is not a collection of propositional truths it simply “points us to a person-to-person encounter” with the faith community; etc.
• Under these views harmonization is not a concern or an issue.

Inerrancy Summary:
It is seems obvious that trying to Harmonize Scripture holding to the Absolute Inerrancy view could prove to be problematic.
• This view is similar to my brother’s view of computers.
• This view could easily lead to frustration and disillusionment with God or Scripture.
• The Full Inerrancy view, by contrast, taking into account all that it does, might provide a more realistic view of Scripture.
• As such, it might allow for a less stressful relationship between Inerrancy and Harmonization.
• We will explore this soon enough.

Now we can move on to Harmonization.

Harmonization is simply the method by which we account for apparent errors or contradictions in Scripture.
• Millard Erickson gives us two primary orthodox views of Harmonization.
• Both hold that Harmonization is a direct corollary of Inerrancy which is a direct corollary of the Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration, as previously discussed.

Two Orthodox Views on Harmonization:
• (1) Harmonistic Approach – This view acknowledges the problem texts and holds that all can be resolved using “currently available information”.
    o And not only can they be harmonized, they must be harmonized.
    o If they aren’t harmonized, damage is done up the line – lack of Harmonization leads to holes in Inerrancy which causes problems with Inspiration.
• (2) Moderate Harmonistic Approach – This view acknowledges the problem texts and holds that most can be solved “as far as reasonably possible with the data currently available”.
    o It understands that additional relevant information may come to light to help harmonize those texts for which no current reasonable solution is found.
    o But it also acknowledges that some of the data needed to harmonize may be lost.
    o Therefore, given the data we currently have, it might be that not everything can be harmonized.
    o And the fact that Harmonization might have limits in no way damages Inerrancy and Inspiration.

It should be fairly obvious that the Harmonistic Approach is wedded to the Absolute Inerrancy view.
• Likewise, the Moderate Harmonistic Approach is wedded to the Full Inerrancy view.

It should also be obvious that the Harmonistic Approach is under the most pressure to Harmonize.
• As a result of this pressure, Millard Erickson says, “The harmonistic school has in many cases done a real favor to the cause of biblical scholarship by finding creative solutions to problems. To insist on reconciling all of the problems by utilizing the currently available data, however, appears to me to lead to forced handling of the material.”
• Richard Bauckham says that attempts to force harmonization, “denies each Gospel the integrity of its own distinctive portrayal of Jesus. It creates harmony too soon, before the diversity has even been noticed.”
• Moreover, we have to wonder if the text itself is asking us to harmonize it on such a grandiose scale.

Consider the following:
• We know that Matthew and Luke shared Mark as a source.
• And Matthew and Luke also shared another source, “Q”.
• It is also suggested that Peter, who served as Mark’s primary source, also had influence in at least one other Gospel (John – according to Richard Bauckham).
• Yet, in spite of all this commonality and familiarity the Gospels have substantial differences.
• The Gospel writers certainly knew about them; they were the ones that made them.
• So, apparently the differences were not a problem for them.   
• In fact, “By presenting us with four portrayals that are not harmonized already for us, the texts keep us seeking the Jesus to whom all four portrayals are reliable but not exhaustive witnesses” – Bauckham.

Couldn’t they see they were hurting their cause and damaging their claims that Scripture is Inspired?
• They weren’t idiots; they could have simply decided, “I need to fix my story of the Rich Young Ruler, it doesn’t quite match up with Mark’s version”.
• Or, “If we are going to make up something about this Jesus fellow, it would be more credible if all of us were in agreement about the details”.
But they didn’t; Why not?

The answer to this question is found in the answer to the following question:
Are there good reasons to go with the Full Inerrancy/Moderate Harmonistic Approach over the Absolute Inerrancy/Harmonistic Approach?
• And the answer to this question relates directly to the options available to us in our harmonization efforts.

We will attempt to answer this question by getting a handle on how God’s Word was transmitted.
• As we stated in the introduction, there are a great many variables relevant to this issue.
• So once we delve into these variables, we will then examine the options available to us in the harmonization process.
• And then finally, we will see how these options help us harmonize specific examples.


John 12:12-18 – The Colt, The King and The Lazarus Thing

Thus far in John 12, we have seen how costly and fragrant worship can and should be.
• And interestingly, we have repeatedly seen John reference Lazarus.
    o “where Lazarus was” (vs. 1)
    o “Lazarus was one of those” (vs. 2)
    o “also to see Lazarus” (vs. 9)
    o “put Lazarus to death” (vs. 10)
    o And in today’s text, “called Lazarus out of the tomb” (vs. 17)
• This begs the question.
    o Why, in the midst of a story about Jesus, does John repeatedly focus on Lazarus?

Additionally, our text today is ripe with symbolism and misunderstanding.
• From the palms, to the colt to the pronouncement as king.
• We will explore its meaning and significance and why it was misunderstood.

We will tackle the symbolism first.


John 12:12–16 (ESV) — 12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

It has to be pointed out that Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem is the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9.
• Jesus’ entry took place “seven weeks and sixty-two weeks” from the time of Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild the temple in 445 B.C.
BTW – depending on the various calculations – that puts us at about 33 A.D.

large crowd” (vs. 12).
• Scholars estimate that the population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was about 100,000.
• The Jewish historian Josephus tells us the population of Jerusalem swelled to over 1 million during Passover.
• So "large crowd" is no exaggeration.

BTW – knowing these numbers helps us understand the actions of the Jewish leadership at this time.
• Matthew 26:3–5 (ESV) — 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”

Why Palm Branches?
• Because “nothing in the Old Testament…prescribes palm branches at Passover” but at the Feast of Tabernacles (the lulav) – D.A. Carson.

• Psalm 92:12 (ESV) — 12 The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
    o Spiritual Context - associated with righteousness
• 2 Maccabees 10:7 — 7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.
    o Religious Context - used in rededication of temple in 164 B.C.
• 1 Maccabees 13:51 — 51 On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.
    o Political Context - used to celebrate victory of Syrians in 141 B.C.
• Kostenberger tells us that, “palms appear on coins minted by the insurrectionists during the Jewish wars against Rome” in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D.
    o Political Context - used to signify the resistance of Israel against its oppressors.

Significance of Palms:
It is likely that in our text, the perceived context by the crowd was a political one.
• In other words, the palm branches were used to express “nationalistic hopes” with Jesus as a “messianic liberator” from the Romans – Kostenberger.

All of this is further supported by the following declaration of the crowd.

What kind of King?
Hosanna…the King of Israel!” (vs. 13)
• Hosanna literally means, “give salvation now” and comes from Psalm 118:25, “Save us, we pray, O Lord”.
    o Generally, it was used as a term of acclamation or praise.
• The crowd followed up this praise with Psalm 118:26.
    o Psalm 118:26 (ESV) — 26a Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
• By Jesus’ time, this verse was ripe with messianic implications.
• In fact, John the Baptist asked Jesus in Matt. 11:3 if Jesus was “the one who was to come”, an allusion to the expectation of Psalm 118:26.
• And of course the one who was to come, in a Davidic sense, would be the “King of Israel”.

This declaration by the crowd was similar to the crowds’ pronouncements in John 6.
• John 6:15 (ESV) — 15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
• And just as the crowds of John 6 abandoned Jesus when confronted with the truth at Capernaum, in just a few days, they would do so in Jerusalem as well.

Stark Contrast – Palm Branches, a War Horse and the Colt:
Jesus confronts the crowds’ perception of His kingship in a way that was completely at odds with the scene and their expectations.
• He purposely arranged entry into Jerusalem, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 (see Mark 11:2-7), on a colt.
• Zechariah 9:9 (ESV) — 9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
• Jesus took it upon Himself to claim that He was the fulfillment of Zechariah’s king.
• A king quite different from the one the crowd longed for.

By Jesus’ action, the crowds’ expectation of the King of Israel who “was to come” and bring deliverance from Roman oppression is purposely challenged.
• The crowd “went out to meet” (vs. 12) their nationalistic warrior king.
• But Jesus took his place on the back of a colt - “humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
• By doing this, “Jesus refuses to reinforce their political and nationalist aspirations” – Carson.
• Carson says it had the effect of, “dampening down” their expectations.
• In other words, it was a buzz kill.
• “Nothing further from a Zealotic view of the Messiah could be imagined” – Beasley-Murray.
• To fulfill the crowds’ expectations, Jesus would have had to enter Jerusalem on a snorting war horse
    o Something Jesus will do one day – on a white horse.

The Gentle King:
So, King Jesus was the gentle, humble and sacrificial king of Zechariah 9.
• One could easily see why, given the political context of the time (under Roman rule), so many rejected the gentle king.
    o It was simply not something they wanted.
• Zechariah’s gentle king was in complete opposition to the crowd’s desired war king.

In fact, the gentle king of Zechariah can be contrasted with the war king as follows (D.A. Carson):
• (1) “the cessation of war” // the crowd wanted an insurrection instigator
• (2) “the proclamation of peace to the nations” (including Gentiles) // the crowd wanted Gentile Rome wiped out
• (3) “the blood of God’s covenant that spells release for prisoners” // the crowd wanted to imprison its Gentile captors

Now let’s examine John’s commentary in vs. 16 about understanding the difference between the war king and the gentle king.


John 12:16 (ESV) — 16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.

It could be said that the hard hearted could only trust in a Jesus riding a war horse to deliver Israel from Rome.
• But those who had eyes to see and ears to hear could trust the Jesus on a colt.
• However, John points out in vs. 16 that not until after Jesus was glorified did the disciples fully understand the symbolism behind Jesus’ actions.
• Perhaps because, in part, the fulfillment of the Zechariah prophecy was legitimized by the resurrection.
    o Otherwise, it could be seen as a dead Jesus who had manipulated events to appear as fulfillment.
    o In other words, He is not king because He is dead.

This is peculiar because Jesus’ own words to the disciples, prior to his triumphant entry, made clear the nature of His kingship, as alluded to by Jesus appropriation of Zechariah’s prophecy.
• Mark 10:32–34 (ESV) — 32b And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

This inability to grasp certain truths, leads us to an interesting insight.

The Heart before the Mind
For the believer, the disciples lack of understanding points to the profound inability of the mind, due to cultural and other pressures, to sometimes lag behind the legitimate trust of a regenerated heart.
• In other words, our regenerated hearts can trust while simultaneously our minds fail to comprehend.
• The disciples believed in their hearts Jesus was Messiah.
• Yet they also thought and expected that He would restore Israel politically as the crowd did.
    o Acts 1:6 (ESV) — 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
• They were simply unable to understand all its implications until Jesus’ life was seen in context of His resurrection and until they were given the Holy Spirit.
    o John 14:26 (ESV) — 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

This idea has a couple of important implications for us.
• (1) We should be capable of recognizing and shedding cultural and social intrusions that dim the clarity of the truths of Scripture held in trust by the Holy Spirit.
• (2) We should be patient with fellow believers whose understanding lags behind their heart.
    o Jesus was certainly patient with the disciples.

Finally, it is worth ending this part of our discussion with some insight into what Jesus’ was feeling during the triumphant entry from Luke’s Gospel.
• Luke 19:41–44 (ESV) — 41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Having understood the symbolism behind the triumphant entry, let’s explore why Lazarus plays such an important role in John’s Gospel.


John 12:17–18 (ESV) — 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.

We saw last week that, with respect to salvation, the fact that Jesus resurrected Lazarus was really not the issue.
• The real issue was why wasn’t this recognition decisive in bringing about saving faith.
• In other words, signs were a witness to Jesus’ identity and relationship with the Father, but not all who witnessed the signs made the connection and trusted (salvifically) in Jesus.
    o In fact, Matthew 11:20 tells us that the witnesses to Jesus’ works that did not repent were under judgment.
• Lazarus was, in a sense, symbolic of this conundrum.
    o One which Jesus addressed in John 3, John 6 and John 10.

But Lazarus was also pivotal in more than just highlighting the need for a work of God in the heart of man.
• And these other reasons are why Lazarus plays such an important role for John since, as we saw in the introduction, John 11.

Reason 1:
The obvious reason is that Lazarus resurrection points to Jesus’ own resurrection.
• We covered this in depth in John 11.
• The Kingdom Resurrection was not at all what the Jews expected.
• Lazarus was symbolic of its inauguration through Jesus.

Reason 2:
Lazarus’ resurrection was the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly life.
• “Jesus knows his raising of Lazarus from death is going to provoke the course of events that will lead to his death” – Richard Bauckham.
• In verse 18, John tells us that, “the reason the crowd went to meet him” was because of Lazarus’ resurrection.
• In other words, the triumphant entry is how Jesus made a symbolic public declaration that His time has come.
    o Remember, there were well over 1 million Jews in Jerusalem.
• And this entry was made possible by the attention He drew to Himself by raising Lazarus.
• Something He no doubt did at the request of the Father (see John 5).

Reason 3:
Lazarus represents the anguish of Jesus’ coming suffering.
• John 11 details the “exceptional stress on Jesus' emotions” in the context of Lazarus’ death and coming resurrection.
    o “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (vs. 33)
    o “Jesus wept” (vs. 35)
    o “deeply moved again” (vs. 38)
• We see that Jesus’ “sympathy with the bereaved is mixed with anguish on his own behalf” - Bauckham.
• “In order to help the family he loves by restoring their brother, he must initiate the process of his own suffering and death” – Richard Bauckham.

And Jesus’ initiation of “his own suffering and death” leads us directly to our 4th reason for Lazarus’ prominence.

Reason 4:
Lazarus represents both the extent of Jesus’ love for us and the extent of His obedience to the Father’s ordained mission.
• “John depicts the raising of Lazarus as the event which prefigures Jesus' willingness to die for the sake of those he loves” – Richard Bauckham.

We have now explored the symbolism of the triumphant entry.
• We have seen Jesus’ deliberate contradiction of the crowds’ expectations.
• And we have seen why Lazarus has played such an important role in John since John 11.
• Now we can move to the more general task of comparing and contrasting the 4 Gospel versions of the triumphant entry.


John 12:1-8 – Worship is Costly and Fragrant

John has shown us in John 11 that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had already determined to kill Jesus.
• And John 11:55-57 makes it clear that the Passover will be the context for this action.
• In fact, John tells us in verse 57 that the Sanhedrin gave orders to the Jews to turn Jesus in “so that they might arrest him”.
• As we have seen previously in John, to disobey the Jewish leadership could result in excommunication from Temple life, not something a Jew would welcome.

It is within this context that John begins the last 6 days of Jesus’ life.
• This last week begins with a scene from Simon the lepers home just outside of Jerusalem, in the village of Bethany.


John 12:1–3 (ESV) — 1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

John tells us that Jesus had come to Bethany because Passover was near.
• Bethany, as we saw in John 11, was only a couple of miles from Jerusalem.
• This was a convenient stopover for Jesus as He made His way to Jerusalem.

And apparently, in honor of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, a meal was held with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in attendance.
• And at this meal, Mary did something remarkable.
• To understand just how remarkable, we need to get some background on the use of ointments at the time.

Background on Ointments/Spices/Fragrances:
There were several uses of ointments/spices/fragrances for the Jew at this time.
• Anointing Oil (Exodus 30:23-25)
• An incense, “for the exclusive use of priests” (Exodus 30:34-38; 2 Chr 2:4) – AYBD.
• A freshener for the home or bed
• As presents or a peace offering gift (Gen 43:11).
• And “they were widely used in connection with funerals” – AYBD.
    o Most of the time to mask odors or for ceremonial purposes.

A couple of examples of their use in connection with funerals:
• Jeremiah 34:5 (ESV) — 5 You [Zedekiah] shall die in peace. And as spices were burned for your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so people shall burn spices for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!” ’ For I have spoken the word, declares the LORD.”
• 2 Chronicles 16:14 (ESV) — 14 They buried him [Asa] in the tomb that he had cut for himself in the city of David. They laid him on a bier that had been filled with various kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer’s art, and they made a very great fire in his honor.
• Mark 16:1 (ESV) — 1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

Background on Mary’s nard:
• Mary’s nard was made from the spikenard plant.
• This plant was only found in the Himalayan mountain's of India.
• This Indian spikenard plant is actually extremely difficult to get now.
• It was all the more difficult to get 2000 years ago.
• We also know that this type of nard was typically transported and stored in an alabaster jar (Mark 14:3).
• Beasley-Murray tells us that an “expensive perfume in an alabaster jar might be released only through breaking its long neck” (Mark 14:3).
• So when Mary broke the neck and began to anoint Jesus’ feet, there was no turning back.

So why was Mary’s act remarkable?
• We will get to the significance of her act shortly.
• For now, let’s look at Judas’ and Jesus’ response to Mary’s act.


Judas thought it a waste:
John 12:4–6 (ESV) — 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.

Like so much they experienced, the disciples could use hindsight to look back with clarity.
• And John did so here by contrasting the sacrifice of Mary with the selfishness of Judas.
• Judas had apparently been stealing from Jesus’ ministry for some time, whereas Mary was serving.

Interestingly, however, it didn’t appear that at the time they suspected Judas’ motives.
• Even at the Last Supper they seemed surprised to learn that Judas would betray Jesus.
• John 13:22 (ESV) — 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.
• John 13:28–29 (ESV) — 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him [Judas]. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor.

Moreover, we learn from Mark’s account that it wasn’t just Judas that had a problem with Mary’s actions.
• Mark 14:4 (ESV) — 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that?

So what of the substance of his words?
What was the worth of Mary’s alabaster jar of nard?
And was it wasted?

Judas tells us that the nard was worth 300 denarii.
• As we have seen, the nard was very hard to get.
• And its rarity and point of origin were reasons why it was so valuable.

How valuable?
• 300 denarii was equivalent to a worker’s pay for a year (a denarii a day – excluding Sabbath and other holy days).
• Inflation makes that 300 denarii equal to about $50,000 today (2006 median annual household income).
• This is why, referring to rare ointments like Mary’s nard, we are told that “only the Kings and the very wealthy could afford to use them lavishly” – AYBD.

This means that Mary, Martha and Lazarus household must have been either fairly well off or had been the recipient of the nard as an heirloom passed down through the family.
• So whether or not this was a huge financial sacrifice for the Mary, Martha and Lazarus household we just don’t know.
• But in a broader context, the value of this nard was enormous.
• So Mary’s actions would have been seen as wasteful no matter how wealthy they were.

And so Judas’ question is no doubt one that we all would have been thinking.
Was this a waste as some thought?
• Leave it to Jesus to give us some perspective.

Jesus thought it…:
John 12:7–8 (ESV) — 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

To get at Jesus’ take, we have to answer this question.
What does Jesus mean when He says, “so that she may keep it for the day of my burial”?

First, “the day of my burial” was obviously not literally referring to the day itself – that was still days away.
• Kostenberger addresses the “day of my burial” this way, “[It] refers not so much to the event itself as to the laying out of the corpse in preparation for burial”.

Secondly, scholars agree that Jesus’ words in verse 7 “most likely…involve[d] some kind of ellipsis” – Kostenberger.
• The ellipsis would have been something to the effect of, “[she did not sell it]” – Kostenberger.
• So the text is to be understood as, “Leave her alone, [she did not sell it prior to today] so that she may keep it for [the preparation] of my burial”.

This would mean, then, that Mary perhaps understood that Jesus’ time had come and that He had to die.
• “Jesus was symbolically set apart for burial by the only one who really understood what was happening” – Boice.
• However, many argue that, “There is no clear evidence that Mary or anyone else understood before the cross that Jesus had to die. She meant this to be an act of costly, humble devotion, but like Caiaphas (11:49–52) she signaled more than she knew” – D.A. Carson.
• Yet, even if Mary didn’t know what was coming, Jesus at the very least was saying that Mary had kept the nard, “in the providence of God—for just this purpose: the anointing of Jesus’ body in anticipation of his burial” – Kostenberger.
• And, whether knowingly or not, she had begun what Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea would complete later (John 19:38-42).
    o John 19:40 (ESV) — 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
    o This was in preparation for Jesus’ burial.

The answer to our question about Jesus’ view:
• Whatever the extent of Mary’s knowledge, it is clear that Jesus approved of Mary’s use of the nard.
• He did not think it was wasted.
• And in so doing, He was also suggesting that He and His death were worthy of this lavish and extravagant honor.

But what of Judas’ claim that Mary’s use of the nard was at the expense of the poor?
Surely Jesus loved the poor more than some extravagant symbolism?

To this question, Jesus simply says the poor will always be with us, but He will not.
What does this mean?
• Scholars agree that Jesus was quoting The Pentateuch.
• Deuteronomy 15:11 (ESV) — 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
• You will notice that there is a command here to be generous with the poor.
• And, of course, this is echoed in NT teachings as well.

Therefore, scholars agree that Jesus is in no way justifying the neglect of aid to the needy for His sake.
• Jesus is not to be used to neglect the poor.
• This is not a justification, for example, to spend 12 million dollars on a new sanctuary at the expense of meeting the needs of the community.
• In fact, Kostenberger says that Jesus, “indirectly concedes that under normal circumstances Judas may have had a point” – Kostenberger.

But what Jesus is pointing out is that, in fact, current circumstances are not “normal circumstances”.
So what is it that is not a normal circumstance?

The Incarnation – Not a Normal Circumstance:
The abnormal circumstance is the physical presence of the incarnate Son of God that will soon come to an end.
• Jesus speaks of the significance of this elsewhere.
• Mark 2:18–20 (ESV) — 18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
    o Matt 6:18 tells us that the Father rewards those who fast.
    o Many argue that one of these rewards is a sense of the presence of God.
    o What need is there to fast when God is Jesus and walks with you?
    o What need is there to seek His presence?

How does Jesus pointing this out help us?
• Jesus is not justifying poverty, He is warning against not placing proper value in His incarnation and mission.
• The Gospel necessitates the incarnation, the physical presence of God in human form.
• We give Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection its due when we speak of the Gospel.
• But understanding the incarnation, the “Word in Sandals”, is as necessary and is just as worthy of our time and study.

Now back to a topic we skipped.
What was the significance of Mary’s act?


We have already seen that she was symbolically preparing Jesus’ body for His coming burial.
But was there more going on?
• Well answer a few questions to figure this out.

Additionally, John’s account seems to differ a great deal from Mark’s.
• How does John’s account harmonize with Mark’s where they differ?
• Understanding the symbolism behind Mary’s act will shed light will help us harmonize the two.

Meaning of Mary’s Act – what else was going on:
(1) What Her Behavior Tells Us.
• Interestingly, the fact that Mary let down her hair and used it to wipe Jesus’ feet was almost as shocking as applying a year’s salary worth of nard.
• This is because Jewish women simply did not let their hair down in public.
• To do this was to portray oneself as very loose morally and so to lose respect in the community.
• Additionally, because Jesus was single and a rabbi, her act would have been seen all the more as inappropriately suggestive in a relational context.
• In other words, this act was “sure to raise some eyebrows” – Kostenberger.

So from Mary’s behavior we see that to honor and worship Jesus is more important than our worldly reputation.
• We should desire to worship Jesus as He deserves and not concern ourselves with our reputation in the process.

(2) What the Perfume Tells Us
• John tells us, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (vs. 3).
• This speaks to and symbolizes the lavishness of Mary’s act.
• In fact Carson calls it an act of “extravagant love”.

So what?
• When we are lavish and extravagant in our worship and honor of Jesus, our act can have far reaching affects.
• “The fragrance of the act will extend far beyond the event itself” – D.A. Carson.
• We know this because Jesus said of Mary’s anointing:
    o Mark 14:9 (ESV) — 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
• And Paul says of the Christian:
    o 2 Corinthians 2:14–15 (ESV) — 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,

So from the perfume we see the power and fragrance of worship.
And its power is far more “fragrant” than we previously considered (both before God and the world).
• Of Noah’s sacrifice, God said:
    o Genesis 8:21 (ESV) — 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.
• Of the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, God said:
    o Deuteronomy 4:28 (ESV) — 28 And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.

And finally, the lavishness of Mary’s act can be seen in what it symbolically said about Jesus.

(3) What the Anointing Tells Us
• To get at the symbolism, we need to take a look at what the anointing can signify.
• 1 Samuel 10:1 (ESV) — 1 Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his [Saul] head and kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you to be prince over his heritage.
• 1 Samuel 16:13 (ESV) — 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.
• Psalm 89:20 (ESV) — 20 I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him,
• 2 Kings 9:1–3 (ESV) — 1 Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, “Tie up your garments, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-gilead. 2 And when you arrive, look there for Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi. And go in and have him rise from among his fellows, and lead him to an inner chamber. 3 Then take the flask of oil and pour it on his head and say, ‘Thus says the LORD, I anoint you king over Israel.’ Then open the door and flee; do not linger.”
In each case, who has been anointed?

So given the context and extravagance of Mary’s anointing, it is clear that the anointing of Jesus was, “a consecration of Jesus to royal service” – Beasley-Murray.
• In fact, the symbolic expansion of this royal service is further clarified with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
    o John 12:13 (ESV) — 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

So from the anointing, whether she knew it or not (as discussed earlier), Mary was anointing Jesus as Messiah and King.
• And Messiah, of course, means “Anointed One”.

Now that we have seen the deeper meanings behind Mary’s act, we need to address why it helps us harmonize John’s version with Mark’s version.

Harmonizing Mark and John:
First, what differences are we concerned with here?
• 1) John names Mary – In Mark she is anonymous and referred to as “a woman” (Mark 14:3).
• 2) John says Mary anointed Jesus’ feet – Mark says she, “poured it over his head” (Mark 14:3); and has Jesus saying she, “anointed my body” (Mark 13:8).

Now we will see how the symbolism behind Mary’s act helps explain the seeming contradictions between John and Mark.
• We will deal with the Mary’s anonymity in Mark first.

Mary’s Anonymity:
Given the fact that Jesus says in Mark 14:9 that the woman’s act will be “proclaimed in the whole world”, her anonymity in Mark is “quite extraordinary” – Bauckham.
How is an anonymous woman’s act told “in memory of her” (Mark 14:9)?
• And if John knew her name, certainly Mark’s source for his Passion narrative did too.
• It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

So how do scholars account for her anonymity?
• Bauckham and Theissen do so via a literary convention called “protection anonymity”.
• This can be best understood by knowing both (1) how early Mark’s Passion narrative was (as in its nearness in time to the actual event) and, (2) it geographical source (where it originated).

With respect to (1) above – nearness in time:
• We know that John was probably written in the late 80’s or 90’s A.D.
• But scholars argue that, “parts of [Mark’s] Passion account would have to have been composed within the generation of the eyewitnesses and their contemporaries” – Gerd Theissen.
• This would put the source for Mark’s Passion narrative as early as the mid 30’s A.D. – Theissen.

With respect to (2) above – geographical source:
• “Only in Jerusalem was there reason to draw a cloak of anonymity over followers of Jesus” – Gerd Theissen.
• If Mary’s name was left out on purpose, as B&T claim, this would only have been necessary if the source for the narrative was Jerusalem – ground zero the Passion narrative.
• In other words the geographical source of Mark’s Passion narrative was Jerusalem.

So all this means is that:
• At the time and place the source of Mark’s Passion narrative “took shape”, “this woman would have been in danger were she identified as having been complicit in Jesus’ politically subversive claim to messianic kingship” – Richard Bauckham.
• Otherwise, there would be no need for anonymity and protection.

So, Mary’s anonymity in Mark actually speaks to just how fragrant and powerful the Kingly symbolism we just discussed actually was.
• Mary’s act put all involved in danger.
• And remember, the Jewish leadership’s case to Pilate was that Jesus had claimed to be “King of the Jews”.
• Mary was part of that “inauguration” and so was part of the “uprising” and thus in danger.
    o BTW – another example of this “protection anonymity” is Mark 14:47.
    o “one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant”

So now we have an explanation as to why Mary is anonymous in Mark and not in John.
What about the differences in where on His body Jesus was anointed?

The Anointing:
As we have seen, Mark has Mary anointing Jesus’ head, and Jesus’ body, whereas John has Mary anointing Jesus’ feet.
How do we account for this?
• The simplest explanation is that Mary anointed all of the above, and Mark and John differ only in their focus and emphasis.
• This certainly fits with burial preparation attributed to Mary by Jesus since “a body for burial required covering the entire corpse” – Apologetics Bible.

However, there is another explanation.
• As discussed earlier, it is possible (as James Boice suggested) that Mary knew what Jesus was about to face.
• This knowledge would have been a revelation from God similar to the following.
• 1 Samuel 16:2–3 (ESV) — 2b And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ 3 And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.”

If this were the case, the only question is how much did she know?
• In other words, if Mary knew how Jesus was ordained to die, as He had hinted at Himself (His “lifted up” language), it seems reasonable that she anointed as follows:
• Jesus’ Head – the place the Kings crown of thorns would be placed.
• Jesus’ Body – perhaps His side (the spear) or wrists (the nails)
• Jesus’ Feet – the nails

So the difference in the anointing in John and Mark is probably just a difference in emphasis.
• However, if Mary knew of the nature of Jesus’ coming death, her anointing was recognition that Jesus’ Kingship and Messiah status were to be fulfilled through the cross.

Lesson for Us:
Mary’s example demonstrates for us the extent to which Jesus is worthy of our honor and worship.
• She shows us that proper worship of Jesus can be humiliating and costly.
• But that its impact in our lives can be pervasive.
• We are still living under the repercussions of Mary’s act of anointing the King Messiah.
The question, then, is do we worship Jesus as we should?

Judas’ attitude and John’s commentary, on the other hand, demonstrate that denying Jesus His due honor and worship is tantamount to stealing from Jesus.
• It is denying Jesus what He is due.
• It is to live life out of balance.
Do you have a fragrant and costly life of worship like Mary, or do you count the cost like Judas?