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4. The Earthly Life of the Incarnate Christ

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[Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth in a series on “The Person of Christ.”]

The historical study of the life of Christ provides much of the material contained in the New Testament on the person and work of Christ. Though a study of the Gospels is not the primary concern of systematic theology, the general facts as presented of the life of Christ on earth necessarily form a background for the important doctrines which relate to His person and work. No other period of history is given more minute revelation than the few years of Christ’s public ministry.

Though each of the Gospels presents a full picture of all aspects of the person of Christ, a particular emphasis can be observed. The Gospel of Matthew is primarily directed to presenting Christ as the King, the Son of David who will reign over the house of Israel. Hence there is emphasis upon the genealogies, upon the credentials of the King, and extensive teaching on the subject of the kingdom itself in the Sermon on the Mount and the discourse in Matthew 13. The Gospel of Mark is the Gospel of action, presenting Christ and His works as the Servant of Jehovah. Little attention is paid to His background, and the emphasis is on the evidences that He is indeed the promised Deliverer of Israel. The Gospel of Luke emphasizes the human aspect of Christ, dwelling upon the details of His birth, and presents Christ as the perfect Man born of the Virgin Mary. The emphasis of the Gospel of John is on the deity of Christ, and evidence is produced demonstrating that He is indeed the Son of God and that those who believe in Him receive eternal life.

The fact that there is a varied emphasis in the four Gospels does not imply that there is contradiction. It is rather that four different portraits are given of the same person, and, though there is variation, it is not a distorted presentation. The Gospel of Luke, emphasizing the humanity, also presents full evidence that He is the Son of God. Hence, the four different biographies, when combined, give a perfect picture. Real problems are sometimes raised by the comparison of narratives in the four Gospels, but conservative scholarship has been united that there is no contradiction, that each record is authentic and inspired of the Holy Spirit.

Different principles have been used to analyze the life of Christ. The most common and beneficial is the combination of the chronological and geographical divisions which are related to His life. Using this method, an eightfold division is possible.

The Birth of Christ

The details of the birth of Christ are given in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew the central fact that Christ is the prophesied King of Israel and the promised Son of David is presented, and His genealogy is traced through Solomon and Jechoniah. As indicated in previous discussions, Matthew gives the legal genealogy while Luke seems to trace the lineage of Christ from David through Nathan and Mary His mother, and continues the line to Adam.

The Gospel of Matthew presents Joseph’s aspect of the story, the account of the visit of the Magi, and other details which confirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of David. The Gospel of Luke traces some of the more human elements. The birth of John the Baptist and the related incidents, the experience of Mary and her Magnificat, the details of the birth in Bethlehem, and the visits of the shepherds and the words of Simeon and Anna with profound simplicity give the details of the birth of Christ.

The Thirty Years of Obscurity

Matthew 2; Luke 2

Relatively few details are given concerning the life of Christ before His public ministry. Matthew’s Gospel records the flight into Egypt and the return to Nazareth, and immediately plunges into the ministry of John the Baptist which introduced Christ. The Gospel of Luke alone presents the incident of Christ in the temple at the age of twelve. Here is early evidence of His Messianic consciousness and His divine omniscience. The boy Jesus astonished the wise men of His day with His understanding and answers to their questions. After a brief glimpse of Christ in His youth, Luke also turns to the ministry of John the Baptist as it introduces Christ. It is evident from this brief narrative that the Spirit of God is not interested in satisfying the curiosity of those who would know the details of the early life of Christ. The glimpses given are sufficient to testify to His person and provide a background for His public ministry.

The Opening of Christ’s Public Ministry

Matthew 3:1—4:11 ; Mark 1:1-3; Luke 3:1—4:13 ; John 1:19—2:12

In the introduction to the ministry of Christ, the Synoptic Gospels as well as the Gospel of John recount the ministry of John the Baptist, his message of repentance, and the baptism of Jesus Christ. All three of the Synoptic Gospels mention the temptation of Christ in the wilderness for forty days, though Mark’s account is very short. The Gospel of John emphasizes the early followers of Christ and the word of Christ to them. The details of the winning of Andrew, John, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael are recited in rapid succession followed by the account of the opening miracle as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter two , where Christ turned the water into wine at Cana and had a short ministry in Capernaum.

The Early Ministry of Christ in Judea

John 2:13—4:42

Only the Gospel of John records the early ministry of Christ in Judea. In John 2:13-25 the first cleansing of the temple is recorded on the occasion of Christ’s visit to Jerusalem at the time of the first Passover. Here also is recorded the first prophecy of His coming death. The Gospel of John then records the interview with Nicodemus and the contrasting account of the conversion of the woman of Samaria (John 3:1—4:42 ). Both of these incidents are in keeping with the theme of the Gospel of John showing Christ as the Savior.

The Ministry of Christ in Galilee

Matthew 4:12—18:35 ; Mark 1:14—9:50 ; Luke 4:14—9:50 ; John 4:43—8:59

After leaving Jerusalem when He observed the first Passover, Christ began His extended ministry in Galilee, using Capernaum as His home after His rejection at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). The Galilean ministry covered a period of a year and nine months and during this time Christ visited Jerusalem only on the occasion of healing the infirm man at the pool of Bethesda and possibly at the time of the second Passover mentioned in his public ministry. The close of His Galilean ministry was occasioned by His visit to Jerusalem at the time of the Feast of the Tabernacles mentioned in John 7:1-52 which was followed by a period of teaching ministry (John 7:53-8:59 ).

It is customary to recognize a threefold division of the Galilean ministry: (1) the period of ministry prior to the choosing of the twelve disciples (Matt 4:12-23; 8:1-4 ; 9:1-17 ; 12:1-14 ; Mark 1:14—3:6 ; Luke 4:14—6:11 ); (2) the period of ministry from the choosing of the twelve disciples to the departure from Capernaum to northern Galilee (Matt 4:23—8:1 ; 8:5-34 ; 9:18—11:30 ; 12:15—15:20 ; Mark 3:7—7:23 ; Luke 6:12—9:17 ; John 6:1-71); (3) the period from the withdrawal into northern Galilee to final departure from Galilee for Jerusalem (Matt 15:21—18:35 ; Mark 7:24—9:50 ; Luke 9:18—9:50; John 7:1—8:59 ).

During the first period the disciples are given their first call to service, the great miracles at Capernaum and elsewhere are performed, and the early opposition to Christ appears. In the second period, the twelve disciples are formally chosen; the Sermon on the Mount giving the principles of the kingdom was delivered; the notable miracle of the raising of the son of the widow at Nain is performed; and in the face of the growing opposition Christ denounces the Scribes and Pharisees and delivers the parables of Matthew 13. The opposition to Christ becomes more intense toward the close of this period. The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is rejected, and the Discourse on the Bread of Life occasions much unbelief. The second period concludes with the rebuke of the Scribes and Pharisees who come from Jerusalem to find fault with Christ for transgressing their traditions.

The third period includes the tour of Tyre and Sidon and the first healing of a Gentile. In contrast to growing unbelief, Peter is the spokesman for the faith of the disciples in Christ. Christ foretells His death and resurrection repeatedly, and this dark shadow is in contrast to His transfiguration. During the third period, while withdrawn from Galilee and Capernaum, He returns for a brief visit to Galilee and later to Capernaum. The period closes with a visit to Jerusalem in the fall of the year, on which occasion the events and discourse of John 7:1—8:59 , occur.

The Perean Ministry

Matthew 19:1—20:34 ; 26:6-13 ; Mark 10:1-52; 14:3-9 ; Luke 9:51—19:28 ; John 9:1—12:11

The Perean period of the ministry of our Lord receives its name from the fact that Christ upon His final departure from Galilee passed through Perea, ministering as He went; and after His arrival in Jerusalem He retired again to Perea until a few days before His Passion. As Christ left Galilee He sent out the seventy disciples on their mission (Luke 10:1-24). The parable of the good Samaritan and the events of John chapters 9 and 10 occur during the Perean ministry. After the feast of dedication in Jerusalem, some of the more important utterances of Christ are recorded. After the resurrection of Lazarus and the increased opposition to Christ which it aroused, Christ again withdrew into Ephraim. Until the time of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passion Week, Christ was not inactive. The Seriptures record the cleansing of ten lepers, the interview with the rich young ruler, and Christ dining with Zacchaeus. While at Bethany He was anointed by Mary. The period of His Perean ministry extends from the fall until the following spring of Christ’s last year.

The Passion Week

Matthew 21:1—26:5 ; 26:14—27:66 ; Mark 11:1—14:2 ; 14:10—15:47 ; Luke 19:29—23:56 ; John 12:12—19:42

The exact order of the events of the Passion Week is disputed, depending on the date given His crucifixion. Three theories have been advanced: (1) that Christ was crucified on Wednesday1 (2) that Christ was crucified on Thursday2 (3) that Christ was crucified on Friday, the traditional view.3 The reconstruction of the events of the week depends on the theory which is accepted. Generally speaking, however, the order of events is sufficiently plain even if the day on which some of them occurred is not clear.

The Passion Week began with the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem which occurred six days before the Passover—on Saturday if Christ was crucified on Wednesday and the Passover was on Tuesday,4 on Sunday if Christ was crucified on either Thursday or Friday. In this dramatic entry into Jerusalem, Christ publicly fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. Campbell Morgan suggests that this may have been one of three entries into Jerusalem on successive days.5 The day following the entry the second cleansing of the temple occurs. Tuesday probably marked the final messages of Christ to the people if the traditional chronology is assumed. On that day He warned them of the results of rejecting Him, answered the questions of His opponents, and silenced them, pronounced woes on the Pharisees, and delivered the great Olivet Discourse. The traditional view holds that there is no record of events on Wednesday, which according to Callaway was the day on which Christ died. The usual view is that on Thursday night Christ gathered His disciples for their last supper together. Some believe this to have been the Passover Feast, others a preliminary supper which was held before the Passover, which was to be held two days later, after the death of Christ. Some believe two suppers were held on the same night, one following the other, the latter being the real Passover. While controversy exists as to the details, the beauty of these last moments of Christ with His disciples remains, with the important Upper Room Discourse recorded in John 13-16 forming the main body of divine revelation.

The chronology of events following the arrest of Christ in Gethsemane indicates six separate trials were held, three before Jewish rulers and three before Roman rulers.

1. The trial before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (John 18:12-24), was held immediately after the arrest of Christ. In reply to questions, Christ tells them to ask those who had heard Him teach. The trial was entirely illegal, being at night, contrary to Jewish law; no indictment was prepared; no witnesses were heard; and no counsel was provided for the defendant—all required by the Jewish law.

2. The trial before Caiaphas immediately followed (Matt 26:57-66; Mark 14:53-65). At this trial false witnesses were produced, but the uniformity of their testimony could not be attained. In answer to the direct question of whether He was the Christ, Jesus affirmed it, and was convicted on this confession.

3. The third trial was held the following morning (Matt 27:1-2; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-71) probably because of the legal necessity of conforming to the Jewish law providing that trials must be held in daylight. Here Christ is asked if He is the Son of God. Upon His admission of His deity, Christ is convicted on the grounds of blasphemy and referred to the Roman rulers for sentence.

4. The fourth trial was held before Pilate (Matt 27:11-14; Mark 15:1-5; Luke 23:1-7; John 18:28-38). Christ is here accused of forbidding tribute to Caesar, perverting the nation, and claiming to be King of the Jews.

5. The trial before Herod is recorded only in one Gospel (Luke 23:8-12). At this trial Christ is silent to all questions and after being mocked by the soldiers is returned to Pilate.

6. The final trial before Pilate resulted in a second acquittal and the offer to scourge and release Christ (Matt 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:18-25; John 18:29—19:16 ). The alternative suggestion of Pilate that they accept the release of the wicked Barabbas and crucify Christ—made in the vain hope they would allow him to free Christ—was accepted by the Jews, and Pilate pronounces sentence on Christ according to the will of the Jews. In this travesty of justice, our Lord is condemned to death and led off to His crucifixion.

On the way to Calvary Christ carried His cross until, unable to bear it further, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service. Upon reaching the scene of execution Christ is immediately crucified along with two thieves who were crucified on either side. Over His head is the inscription which in full was probably: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

The order of events of the crucifixion of Christ is as follows: (1) Upon arrival at Calvary Christ is offered wine mingled with gall which would dull His senses (Matt 27:33-34; Mark 15:22-23; Luke 23:33; John 19:17). (2) After refusal of the drink, Christ is crucified along with the two thieves (Matt 27:35-38; Mark 15:24-28; Luke 23:33-38; John 19:18-24). (3) The first cry on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). (4) The soldiers divide the garments and cast lots for His coat, thus fulfilling Scripture (Matt 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23-24). (5) The chief priests and the scribes, as well as the people, mock Jesus (Matt 27:39-44; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35-38). (6) One of the thieves believes on Him (Matt 27:44; Mark 15:32; Luke 23:39-43). (7) The second cry on the cross: “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). (8) The third cry: “Woman, behold thy son” and to John: “Behold thy mother” (John 19:26-27). (9) The three hours of darkness (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). (10) The fourth cry: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46-47; Mark 15:34-36). (11) The fifth cry: “I thirst” (John 19:28). (12) The sixth cry: “It is finished” (John 19:30). (13) The seventh cry: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). (14) Jesus yields up His Spirit (Matt 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30).

This moving spectacle of our blessed Lord dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world is of inestimable theological significance. Christ lived as no man has ever lived before, and He died as no man has ever died.

The Resurrection of Christ

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the crucial events in His life on earth upon which the significance of His entire life and death hangs. It is the first step in a series in the exaltation of Christ, and is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 16:10 as well as Christ’s own predictions of His resurrection (Matt 16:21; 20:19 ; 26:32 ; Mark 9:9; 14:28 ; John 2:19).

The order of events as relating to the resurrection appearances of Christ is presented in Scripture as follows. (1) The guards witnessed the angel rolling away the stone (Matt 28:2-4). (2) The arrival of the women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and others (Matt 28:1, 5-7; Mark 16:1-11; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1). (3) Mary Magdalene runs to tell the apostles, the other women following more slowly (Matt 28:8; Mark 16:8; Luke 24:8-10; John 20:2). (4) Mary Magdalene returns with Peter and John and sees the empty tomb (John 20:2-10). (5) The first appearance of Christ; Mary Magdalene remains after Peter and John leave and sees Christ (John 20:11-17; cf. Mark 16:9-11). (6) Mary Magdalene returns to report the appearance of Christ; the other women return and see Christ (Matt 28:9-10). The best texts omit here the words: “as they went to tell his disciples.” They actually were on their way back to the garden. (8) The report of the guards watching the tomb (Matt 28:11-15). (9) The third appearance of Christ; to Peter in the afternoon (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor 15:5). (10) The fourth appearance of Christ; on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:13-35). (11) The fifth appearance of Christ; to the ten disciples (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23). Though Mark mentions “eleven,” there appeared to be only ten disciples here. The term eleven seems to be used loosely of the group. (12) The sixth appearance of Christ; to the eleven disciples (John 20:26-29). (13) The seventh appearance of Christ; to the seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-23). (14) The eighth appearance of Christ; to the five hundred (1 Cor 15:6). (15) The ninth appearance of Christ; to James the Lord’s brother (1 Cor 15:7). This explains apparently why James, not a believer before the resurrection (John 7:3), immediately after the resurrection is included as a believer (Acts 1:14; Gal 1:19). (16) The tenth appearance of Christ; to the eleven on a mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18). (17) The eleventh appearance of Christ; at the time of the ascension (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:3-9). (18) The twelfth appearance; to Stephen (Acts 7:55-56). (19) The thirteenth appearance of Christ; to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-11 ; 26:13-18 ). (20) The fourteenth appearance of Christ; to Paul in Arabia. This appearance is somewhat conjectural (Acts 20:24; 26:17 ; Gal 1:12-17). (21) The fifteenth appearance of Christ to Paul in the temple (Gal 1:18; Acts 9:26-30; 22:17-21 ). (22) The sixteenth appearance of Christ; to Paul in prison (Acts 23:11). (23) The seventeenth appearance of Christ; to the Apostle John (Rev 1:12-20).

The fact of the resurrection of Christ, therefore, is one of the most well-attested events of ancient history, and is given a prominent place in the Scriptural presentation. The significance of His resurrection will be subject to further discussion later.

The Ascension of Christ

Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:49-53; Acts 1:8-11

Though allusions in Scripture to the ascension of Christ are much fewer than to His resurrection, the accounts as given demonstrate the bodily departure of Christ from earth and His arrival in heaven. In addition to the accounts given in Mark, Luke, and Acts, the epistles refer to the ascension as a fact (Heb 4:14; 1 Pet 3:22). The arrival of Christ in heaven is also repeatedly stated in Scripture in more than a score of passages (cf. Acts 2:33-36). It was a fitting climax for the life of Christ on earth and in fulfillment of His own declaration that He would return to the Father. The historical facts as they recount the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ and culminate in His ascension to the right hand of the Father give a solid basis for theological consideration of the person and work of Christ. The historical narratives are fully in keeping with the theological implications which are drawn from them in the epistles. Upon these facts rest our Christian faith and our hope of life to come.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Eugene C. Callaway, The Harmony of the Last Week.

2 James Gall, Good Friday.

3 Cf. A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Four Gospels; Stevens and Burton, A Harmony of the Gospels.

4 Callaway, op. cit.

5 G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John, pp. 209-10.

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