The Chronology of the Gospels

While there are no chapter breaks in life, there are incidents of action and dialogue. When we look back on what was said and done in our own life, we may recall different viewpoints. We may also see a thread common to each view that pulls us through. That thread is called time. Time may reveal both a beginning and an ending.

The basis for deciding how to separate Jesus’ life into events was to follow the lead of the Scriptures. Although the events flow from one to the next, there are differences in the focus of the action, in the people involved, in location, or in time. Each divide may not be evident in every gospel but will come to light when they are all viewed together.

We allow the Scriptures to set the divisions because the Bible is the supreme authority on itself. The keys to unlocking its treasures are found within its own pages. That includes the keys to chronology.

The most basic key is that God’s words are pure.

Psalm 12:6 
The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.

Another is that the books of the Bible are God inspired. None are the product of man’s intellect or desire.

II Peter 1:20-21 
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.  
For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

As we consider these core principles further, certain corollaries emerge:

• If we accept that God is perfect, and that He authored the Scriptures, then we also must accept that God’s Word as originally written was perfect, without errors or contradictions—not only within one book, but between all the books combined.

• If His Word is perfect and divinely inspired, then what is included or not included in each of the individual gospels was by divine design, not man’s judgment.

• If His Word is perfect, then the order of the words in each individual book would also have to be perfect.

Normally the words and actions in each gospel appear in the order in which they occurred. It is amazing how consistently the four gospels agree together on the order of events in Jesus’ life, as well as what occurred during each event. (The critics say this is because one was written first and the rest drew from it. That is man’s unbelief promoting man’s intellect above God’s wisdom.)

And yet, to say the order of the words is perfect does not imply they are always in order based on time alone. We might think that would be the case, but very few authors adopt that viewpoint. The order of events in any book is what fits the author’s purpose. So it is with the Bible.

For instance, the parable of the sower appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In each gospel the interpretation of the parable follows right after, during Jesus’ teaching. Yet the interpretation was not given among the multitudes. The twelve asked about the meaning of the parable later, when alone with Jesus, as Mark 4:10 reveals.1 The Author placed the explanation directly after the parable, in each gospel, for the readers’ sake.

Why a Chronology?

Time is a major factor when piecing together any sequence of events. Chronology is the basis of all history.2 With an accurate timeline in place, we can construct an accurate history.

Without an accurate timeline, our arrangement is always suspect. Chronology is the anchor that keeps us safe from the shallows of needless speculation and endless doubt. From the wide range of suggested birth dates through the guesswork on whether Jesus’ ministry lasted one year, two years, three and a half years, or five to the attempts to squeeze all the events in Passion Week between Good Friday and Sunday morning, the need for an accurate reckoning is clear.

The result of our efforts is 164 distinct incidents or events. Most appear in more than one gospel, giving us more than one viewpoint. These incidents have in turn been divided into smaller bits of action, dialogue, or narration. This approach illustrates how beautifully the four gospels agree, while it reveals the unique contributions of each gospel.

Establishing a Standard

Through the centuries men have attempted focusing on either Matthew, Mark, or Luke as the standard for the sequence of events in Jesus’ life. How can we determine the true order? The answer is in the Scriptures. The introduction to one of the four gospels declares itself to be foremost in matters of chronology.

Luke 1:1, 1:3–4  
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,  
It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,  
That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

The words “from the very first” in verse three could be better translated “from above.”3 Luke was given the understanding and inspiration to write his Gospel by the Author, God.

The words “in order . . . that” in verse three seem to imply purpose. That is only partially true. The words “in order” are translated from a Greek word meaning “according to the order or succession, consecutively, in connected order.”4 Luke’s Gospel was written with understanding from above to set the true order of events in Jesus’ life. The events in Luke appear in the order they are in for a reason.

Some scholars believe Matthew was the first gospel written. But, a large section of Matthew is not chronological (we will see more on Matthew later). This may have been exploited to sow doubt and confusion. Luke’s Gospel sets the chronological record straight to bring the believers back to a place of security and safety in their beliefs.

There is similar confusion among the believers today. When commentators promote the differences in the gospels and play one gospel against another, they do nothing to build certainty, trust, and safety in the hearts of those who believe.

The good news is, not only are the incidents appearing in Luke’s Gospel noteworthy, the order in which they appear is just as noteworthy. No other gospel declares this. Only Luke sets itself as the gold standard for the chronology of the gospels.

On top of Luke’s testimony, we find confirmation in the Gospel of Mark. The events in Mark closely follow Luke’s order of events, to the point where Mark can be viewed as a second source for the sequence of events where Luke is silent.

In this pairing of Luke and Mark we see the standard set by Moses, reiterated by Jesus, and repeated by Paul. “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (quoted from II Corinthians 13:1).5 God left no room for doubt—He set the chronology in one gospel and established it in a second. Luke and Mark are the two witnesses by which every word of the gospels is established.

The certainty of this timeline of events is significant. Once we recognize that Luke and Mark together set the standard, we realize Matthew’s chapters 8-13 are not chronological, and may be reconciled to Luke and Mark not by adding another year to the timeline, but by viewing those ten sections in their chronological order (see Appendix 4). Likewise, the “additional” Passover feasts in John do not fit  with the timeline.  The feasts mentioned in John 5:1 and 6:4 must refer to other feasts, not Passover.

Luke and Mark have something else in common. Both can be viewed as being written from a sandals-on-the-ground perspective. What would we have seen if we were there, with Jesus, on the streets and in the homes where he ministered? That is the viewpoint they both share.

Matthew and John Add Their Perspective

The Gospel of Matthew covers many of the same events as Luke and Mark, but the order is not the same. The order is not the same because the perspective is different.

Matthew was written to show how certain events fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. The order of the events was secondary. For this reason, their sequence in Matthew chapters 8–13 differs from Luke and Mark. Luke and Mark remain the standard.

Another aspect of Matthew is that it often gives us additional information we would be unaware of by observation. For instance, when Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, Matthew shows him speaking directly with the centurion. Luke, relating the same incident, shows the centurion went to the religious leaders with his request, and they appealed to Jesus on his behalf. He never spoke directly to Jesus.6

So, is Matthew lying? Of course not. Thoughtful analysis is necessary to recognize what Matthew is revealing in comparison to the other gospels—an analysis that is rooted in the laws of language and biblical perspective.

In this instance, Matthew is using the figure of speech where actions are credited to one person that were carried out by others at his request or by his authority, just as one may speak of their president or prime minister’s accomplishments, knowing he has a large staff of people helping him.

Matthew shows the centurion speaking directly with Jesus. Luke shows the  centurion speaking to the religious leaders, and them speaking with Jesus on his behalf. Jesus responded to the centurion though them, as one man in authority to another. This figure is common to every language.7

The Gospel of John’s perspective is so different from the other gospels that many consider it conflicting and impossible to harmonize. There is no mention in Matthew, Mark, and Luke of much of what we read in John. When John includes events in the other gospels, we do not see the detail we see in the others. John may summarize a detailed sequence of actions with only one verse. Again, it is written from a different perspective.

John 20:30–31 
And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:  
But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. 

John gives record after record of Jesus’ works. It shows the disciples, John the Baptist, the woman at the well, the man born blind, the many he fed from a few loaves and fishes, and many more who believed he was the Son of God, after hearing his teachings and seeing the miracles which he did.8 These are related in John so we also may believe on the Son of God and attain salvation.

While Luke and Mark look to the present and Matthew the past, John looks to the future. In John we learn of the coming spirit by which men will worship God in spirit and in truth. This spirit would be in them an unlimited resource, like rivers of living water. This spirit would guide them into the “all truth” and teach them of things to come.9

As to John’s chronology, the key is accepting the standard set by Luke and Mark. Much of John relates Jesus’ teaching at the annual feasts in Jerusalem. The dates of these feasts are specified in the Old Testament, or commonly known from other sources. Once we recognize the value of the pairing of Luke and Mark, the events of John are easily integrated with the other gospels.

[1] Mark 4:10: And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.

[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), p. 9.

[3] Ethelbert W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek Testament, 10th ed. (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1971), s.v. First (from the very).

[4] Ibid, s.v. Order (in).

[5] See also Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Matthew 18:16, Genesis 41:17-32.

[6] Appendix 3, “Notes on the Narrative of Events,” Event 52.

[7] Finis Jennings Dake, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, large print edition (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, 2001), s.v. Luke 7:6, note n.

[8] See John 1:29–34, 1:40–49, 4:21–29, 9:34–38, 6:12–15, 6:67-69, 10:32-38, 11:4, 11:23-27.

[9] See John 4:21–24, 7:37–39, 16:13–15.

The watch at the top of this article is a copyrighted picture by Wayne Lougee.


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