Some Stories are so Good You Have to Tell Them Again and Again

Hollywood needs to be careful when remaking old classics. It could go extremely well or extremely wrong. The way I see it, Hollywood throws this caution to the wind for 1 of 2 reasons.

  1. The first film made so much money, a second one is sure to be a cash-cow as well.
  2. The story was so good it bears repeating.

The former is the line of thinking that usually applies to sequels. While it has provided movie-goers with gems like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or The Godfather II, it’s also the reason we have such cinematic snafus as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or The Godfather III.

The latter is the line of thinking that brings us great stories time and again, usually from a slightly different perspective. Take for example Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The movie you’re probably thinking of is from 1956 with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, but did you know that was DeMille’s second go at it? His first was a silent film in 1923. He “remade” his own film and it was epic. DreamWorks Animation tried its hand at the story of Moses and produced a wonderful version for both children and adults with The Prince of Egypt. Ridley Scott later made his attempt and directed Exodus: Gods and Kings, which was epically awful. Congratulations Mr. Scott, you succeeded in making me feel worse for Pharoah and the Egyptians than I did for Moses and the Israelites. Is it wrong of me to be somewhat happy that it was a huge flop and the studio didn’t even make half of its $140,000,000 production cost?

One of my favorite reboots is Steven Soderbergh’s version of Ocean’s Eleven. It’s well-written, well-acted, entertaining and fun to watch. The original from 1960 starring the Rat Pack didn’t capture my attention nearly as well (I fell asleep and finished the following day), but those in my parents’ generation would probably have a softer spot in their hearts for Sinatra and company than Clooney’s gang.

My point here is that sometimes a story is so good that, for better or worse, it bears repeating. And ultimately some people will enjoy or connect with one version over another.

Have you ever thought about the fact that there are four different accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus in the Bible? It’s the same story in each, just a different perspective. Though if you’ve ever read the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) there are places where it seems like they’re just copying off each other. I guess plagiarism wasn’t as big a deal back then as it is now in our litigious society.

Hey Matthew…in all that Old Testament research you did for your Gospel, did you ever come across the part that said, “Thou Shall Not STEAL!”? (Maybe he needs to watch The Ten Commandments.) Perhaps Mark was in such a hurry to complete his account (he uses some form of “at once” or “immediately” or “quickly” almost 50 times!) that he wasn’t even trying to shield his parchment from Luke’s wandering eyes.

I’ve certainly wondered why we need so many accounts of the same story that seem to be so similar. But upon closer inspection, it turns out those accounts are not nearly as similar as I once thought.

(John) Mark: Mr. Quick, Fast and in a Hurry

Let’s start by giving Mark his props. He seems to get slighted by some, overlooked for more detailed versions in Matthew or Luke. It just so happens, however, the most widely held belief (and there certainly are other beliefs) is that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a major source for their own accounts of the life of Christ. Roughly 50% of Mark’s Gospel is found in Luke’s account and about 90% of Mark’s Gospel appears in Matthew!

If you want a down and dirty, straight to the point account of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mark is your man. It’s as if his editor had him on a hard word count and Mark was bent on staying under the cap. Mark is on a mission, and as you read, he makes it clear that Jesus is too. Jesus has work to do.

Jesus was baptized then – BOOM – at once the Spirit led Him to the desert to be tempted (1:12). He then, without delay, calls His disciples who leave their nets at once to follow Him (1:16-20). Next, while Jesus is teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, just then a man possessed by an evil spirit cries out against Him and – BAM – exorcism (1:21-26). As soon as they left the synagogue, Jesus meets Peter’s feverish mother-in-law and – BIFF – fever be gone (1:29-31)! Then that very same evening the whole town brought sick people to Jesus and – POW – BONK – ZING – diseases are cured and demons driven out (1:32-34). Very early the next morning, Jesus is up and praying and leading His disciples to the next town where He finds a man with leprosy and faith and – ZAP – immediately he was cured (1:35, 41-42). Then all at once, Jesus sent away the cured man who – despite Jesus’ warnings – testified that Jesus had healed him (1:43-45).

Mark is moving at break-neck speed and that’s only the first chapter!

In 7:2-4 and 15:42, Mark explains the Jewish customs of Preparation Day and handwashing (yeah, handwashing, like he’s talking to barbarians or something). This and a few other clues reveal that his audience is the Gentiles, more specifically, Roman citizens. This fast-paced, get-to-the-point type of story-telling is right up their alley.

  • Mark is telling them exactly what Jesus did.
  • He emphasizes the fact that Jesus is a teacher (THE Teacher) by using some form of the word “teach”, “teacher” or “Rabbi” 39 times.
  • A key verse that highlights what I see as Mark’s main message is 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew (Levi): The Tax Collector and Eye Witness

If, in fact, Mark was the first Gospel written around AD 50, then Matthew was probably written shortly thereafter in the late 50s or early 60s.

While John Mark was a companion of Peter and got his material largely through the teachings and recollections of the apostle, Matthew was an apostle himself: an actual eye witness to the events Mark recorded. Naturally, he would have a slightly different take on the events than John Mark would. While Mark wrote with Gentiles in mind, Matthew focused on his fellow countrymen: the Jews.

The Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) were chalk full of prophecy concerning the coming Messiah (“Anointed One” in Hebrew). They believed God would send them a King to liberate them. The problem was that they largely viewed this liberation as being from the world power of the day rather than from the sin that so easily entangles us all. In other words, they weren’t thinking big enough.

One of Matthew’s main goals is to point out how Jesus fulfills all those Messianic promises from Scripture thereby establishing Jesus as the King of the Jews. According to my NIV Study Bible, Matthew “has more quotations from and allusions to the OT than any other NT author” and “Although all the Gospel writers quote the OT, Matthew included nine additional proof texts to drive home his basic theme: Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT predictions of the Messiah.” After an admittedly quick tally, I come up with about 25 total (give or take).

If you don’t like numbers, you may want to skip this next part.

So, what are the odds that one Man would fulfill all these prophecies? I’m not going to tell you because your head would literally implode and I’m not in the head-imploding business. Let’s just look at the odds that eight of these prophecies would be fulfilled in one Man. Fortunately for us, Dr. Peter W. Stoner has already calculated the odds. He spells it all out in his online book, Science Speaks. If you have the time (and aren’t afraid of numbers) you should check it out. Here’s the number:

1 in 1017 or 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000.

That’s 1 in 100 of whatever comes after trillion. In other words, multiply our National Debt by 5 and then multiply it again by 1,000.

Dr. Stoner dumbs in down for us common folk:

“Let us try to visualize this chance. If you mark one of ten tickets, and place all of the tickets in a hat…and then ask a blindfolded man to draw one, his chance of getting the right ticket is one in ten. Suppose that we take 1017 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars…Blindfold a man and tell him that…he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote using their own wisdom.”

And that’s just eight prophecies. Depending on who you talk to, Jesus fulfilled well over 300! The odds of that are 1 in unfathomable. That’s an example of science proving that Scripture is inspired by God because there’s absolutely no way the writers of Scripture, of their own devices, could have written so many prophecies that all came to fulfillment in one Man.

There would be no doubt to Matthew’s Jewish audience, that he – an eye witness – believes Jesus to be the King of the Jews and the long-awaited Messiah they’ve been looking for.

(Dr.) Luke: The Historian

Of all the Gospel writers, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that Luke had the highest amount of education. He was a doctor and historian and his vocabulary and command of the Greek language are top notch. Luke was not an eye witness, but spent a lot of his time with the apostle Paul, as well as other apostles, where he conducted much research into the life and ministry of Jesus.

Mark wrote with Gentiles in mind, Matthew focused on a Jewish crowd, but Luke’s Gospel seems to be a good blend of both. While Luke is more than likely a Gentile by birth and was commissioned to write by a very prominent Gentile (Theophilus), he writes in a way that captures the Jewish nature of a Jewish setting and the Greek nature of a more Hellenistic setting. In other words, Luke’s intended audience is much more broad than his fellow Synoptic writers.

There are certainly multiple points of emphasis in Luke, as well as the other three Gospels, but the one that has always stood out to me is Luke’s use of the phrase, “Son of Man”. To be sure, it’s more than a phrase; it’s a Messianic title used in Scripture.

The prophet Daniel had a vision and in Daniel 7:13-14 this is what he recorded:

“There before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into His presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

As it turns out, “Son of Man” is one of Jesus’ favorite ways to describe Himself. The truth is, Matthew records Jesus referring to Himself as the Son of Man more times than Luke does (28 to 24), but Matthew also refers to Jesus as the Son of God or Son of David about 25 times whereas Luke does so only about half as often. It’s not so much the abundance of “Son of Man” references in Luke, but the ratio of those references to other Messianic titles. When I read in Matthew, the context tells me that Matthew is pointing out how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament’s promises of a Messiah. When I read in Luke, the context tells me Luke is pointing out that while Jesus was indeed the Messiah, He was also a Man.

Neither overly Jewish, nor exceedingly Gentile, Luke says, “Jesus was human; relatable to everyone.”

Case in point: I have a friend who is new to the Bible and Jesus. When I told him that Jesus got so angry He once yelled at vendors in the Temple court for desecrating the House of God. He was so mad, in fact, that He literally turned over the tables on which their merchandise sat! Upon hearing the emotion – specifically a righteous anger – that Jesus displayed, there was a visible change on my friend’s face telling me that he could identify even more with Jesus now because Jesus was a human like everyone else. That’s the flavor of Jesus which Luke brings to the forefront in his Gospel account.

John (the disciple whom Jesus loved):

My dad is a general contractor and knows his way around the city. That said, he is also very predictable in the course he chooses (almost exclusively surface streets). If there are adjustments along his route, they are minor. Rarely does he deviate from his preferred path and only once in a blue moon does he dare to venture onto the freeway.

The Synoptic Gospels are very similar content-wise, yet each look at the material from a different set of lenses emphasizing different points; like veering slightly one way or another along your route. John, though still headed to the same destination, takes a sharp right when the others hang a left.

  • The three healing miracles Jesus performs in John are exclusive to his account.
  • Two of the four displays of Jesus’ power over nature are only found in John.
  • John is the only Gospel writer to include the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
  • Rather than an account of Jesus’ birth or lineage or simply jumping right into the action (yeah we’re talking about you Mark), John has a unique prologue to set the tone of what’s to follow.

There’s a chart in my NIV Study Bible at the end of John’s Gospel called “The NIV Harmony of the Gospels”. According to this chart (and my crude math skills), about two thirds of John’s content is exclusive to his Gospel account. You might say that if the Synoptics are the feature film, John is the several hours of behind-the-scenes footage on the DVD.

In An Introduction to the New Testament, Carson, Moo and Morris put it this way:

“John adds stereoscopic depth to the picture we might gain of Jesus and His ministry, death, and resurrection from the synoptic accounts alone. By telling the same story from another angle, with many things omitted that they include and with many emphases that they scarcely treat, the total portrait is vastly richer than what would otherwise have been achieved.”

That reminds me of another movie. It may not go down as one of Hollywood’s cinematic masterpieces, but Vantage Point does a great job telling the story several different times from varying perspectives. Each time we watch the events of the morning unfold from someone else’s point of view, our vision of what actually takes place becomes clearer and clearer. It’s a great example of how telling (and retelling) the same story from several different, uh, vantage points, can enrich a story.

People have argued that Jesus was a good man and teacher, but never actually claimed to be God. Oh, really? I guess you haven’t read John. When I read through the fourth Gospel, what stands out to me the most (other than its obvious course change from the other three) is how John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus. From the beginning in 1:1 to the end in 20:31, John makes known, in no uncertain terms, that not only is Jesus truly God, but Jesus Himself proclaimed that truth.

Here’s but one example.

Have you ever been involved in a passionate argument? I don’t mean a disagreement or difference of opinion over where you are going to eat tonight or what movie to go see. I mean a ruckus-raisin’ run-in; a fists-at-the-ready face-off; a knock-down-drag-out brawl where each party seems to be one-upping the other with verbal blows. You’ll see one in John 8:48-59.

Here we find Jesus already in a heated discussion with some Jewish leaders concerning authority and identity. The Jews claimed they were children of Abraham. Jesus tells them that if they truly were children of Abraham, they would have recognized Jesus just as Abraham did. However, since they are more interested in executing Him than exalting Him, Jesus calls them children of the devil. (Ouch!)

The Jews retort that Jesus must be demon-possessed because Abraham and the Prophets died, yet Jesus said anyone who keeps His word would never taste death. They verbally assault Jesus with, “Are You greater than our father Abraham? He died and so did the prophets. Who do You think You are?” (It’s getting hot in here…)

Jesus shoots back and tells them Abraham is His witness to Who He is: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing My day; he saw it and was glad.” (Can you feel it escalating?)

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to Him, “and You have seen Abraham!” (Is that smoke coming out of their ears?)

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (Boom! Jesus lands a left hook they never saw coming!)

The casual reader will most likely miss the depth of this proclamation. It seems like Jesus is saying He was there before Abraham was born; and He is. But He’s saying so much more as evidenced by the following verse when the Jews immediately scrambled to find rocks so they could stone Him to death. Why would they do such a thing at this comment and not when Jesus called them children of the devil just a few short verses before? To get the answer we need to look at the original language.

When Jesus says, “I am”, the original Greek is ego eimi (εγω ειμι), which translates, “I, I am”. This phrase appears 24 times in John’s Gospel. Why is this significant? Turn over to Exodus 3:14. Here we find God telling Moses Who He is. What does God call Himself? “I AM WHO I AM.” Jesus didn’t respond to the Jews by saying, “Before Abraham was born, I was”. He said, “I am”. More accurately, understanding the context, “I AM!”. Not only was Jesus blaspheming in the eyes of the Jews by saying God’s name, which was considered too holy to utter out loud, but He had the audacity to refer to Himself by God’s name.

Wow!

Jesus believed He was God; One with the Father. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic or LORD.

Pick one.

Let’s review:

  • Mark shows us a Jesus that is constantly on the move teaching, healing and serving.
  • Matthew reveals how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies in Scripture.
  • In Luke, we see a Jesus that is fully human: the Son of Man.
  • In John, we encounter a Jesus that is fully divine: the Son of God.

Clooney’s gang scored big in Vegas while the Rat Pack ran out of luck. While the two versions of Ocean’s Eleven end in very different ways, the four Gospels maintain an integrity to the heart of the story throughout. Can you imagine if, in John’s Gospel, Jesus never left the tomb? There’s a plot twist that would cause a problem! While the differences in the four Gospels range from slight to drastic, evidentially they all arrive at the same conclusion.

Any one Gospel account is enough in and of itself to give us a picture of Who Jesus is for us to truly respond to Him in faith. But we are blessed with four unique perspectives providing us with a deep, rich understanding of the most important Man in history.

 

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