One of the values of harmonizing the four gospels is that we get a fuller picture of the life of Christ. I remember the Christmas of 1973, when I was seventeen years old, my father and I went to the Holy Land with one of my father’s dear old friends, David Yarn, a Professor of Religion at Brigham Young University. Bro. Yarn took us to the various holy sites and read to us the stories of Jesus. He used a book he had published in which he harmonized the stories recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into a kind of running narrative. For the first time in my life I gained an interest in learning about Jesus Christ.
Because of that experience, I decided to return to the Holy Land the next year and make a personal study of the life of Christ. This was my first experience in school in Jerusalem. I attended one of BYU’s early study abroad programs. It was a small program in those days. We lived in a little Arab hotel in East Jerusalem. I had a little room to myself.
I found a small Arab bookstore that sold bibles. I bought two bibles and a ringed binder with paper. I decided that I was going to make a harmony of the life of Christ similar to David Yarn’s. I cut the stories of Jesus out of the bibles and pasted them onto the paper of the binder making a running story.
For the next six months of my life, I devoted every spare moment to the study of the life of Christ. I studied the history, the culture, and the language of the New Testament. After my mission, I returned to the Holy Land to continue my study of the life of the Savior. Those days are very precious to me. I learned so much. More importantly, I gained both a strong testimony of the Savior and a deep and abiding love for Him.
Since those early days of my life, I have taken the opportunity to study the four gospels in other ways. I have come to learn that as valid as harmonizing the four gospels is, there is tremendous value in studying each gospel separately. Indeed, I have found that it is as wonderful an experience to study the life of Christ through the eyes of each individual gospel as when it is studied through harmonization. In fact, only through studying each gospel singly will we understand why Joseph Smith changed the name of each gospel from “The Gospel of Matthew, Mark Luke or John. . .” to “The Testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John”
In fact one of the down sides of harmonizing the gospels is that the stories recorded by the gospel writers are taken out of their original context. Hence, we lose the original meanings that each writer meant to convey when he recorded the incident. This will become clear through the following writing.
John 5-6 In Context
In John 5-6, John records miracles and discourses given by the Savior both in Jerusalem and Galilee. John 5 begins with the story of the healing of the invalid at the pools of Bethesda, just north of the temple in Jerusalem. This miracle occurred on the Sabbath day and as such created quite a controversy among the religious Jews in Jerusalem. John records the Savior’s discourse given to the Jews in which He disclosed his divinity to them. In John 6, John records two miracles occurring around Passover time. The first miracle was the multiplying of the bread while the second miracle involved walking on water. Then John records what has now become known as the Sermon on the Bread of Life.
In and of themselves, these are significant chapters. But when they are considered in the overall make up of John’s gospel, they become remarkable.
John wrote his gospel to convince his readers that Jesus was the one anointed to save man from sin. He stated: “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” (20:30-31).
The Signs and Discourses
In this statement, John calls the Savior’s miracles “signs” rather than miracles. He saw within each miracle a truth verifying that Jesus is the Christ. He was selective in his use of miracles, limiting the number to seven. Further, most miracles he recorded are unique to John’s gospel and fit well the message he was sending to his reader. He associated each sign with a discourse given by the Savior that reflects the miracle. It appears that the sign and miracle should be read in conjunction with each other with the miracle being a sign that verifies the truth taught in the discourse.
The three miracles recorded in John 5-6 ought to be read with the other miracles recorded by John in mind. The following is a list of the miracles and discourses.
- Sign: Water converted to wine (2:1-11)
Discourse: The natural man converted to the spiritual man (3:1-21)
- Sign: Bringing life to the nobleman’s son (4:46-54)
Discourse: The living waters that bring everlasting life (4:1-42)
- Sign: The healing of the invalid on the Sabbath (5:1-18)
Discourse: The Divine Son, the Lord of the Sabbath (5:19-47)
- Sign: Miracle feeding of the multitude with bread (6:1-15)
Discourse: Christ is the bread of life (6:22-66)
- Sign: Jesus walks on water (6:12-21)
Discourse: Christ, who will walk into the presence of the Father, offers living water to all (7:14-39)
- Sign: Healing of the man born blind (9)
Discourse: Christ is the Light of the World (8:12-59)
- Sign: The raising of Lazarus from the dead (11)
Discourse: Christ, the Good Shepherd, will lay down His life for his sheep that he might bring about the resurrection (10:1-18)
It can be seen that John 5-6 comprise the third and fourth signs and discourses used by John as part of his thesis proving that Jesus is the Christ. Further, in the present reading assignment, the discourse associated with the miracle of the Savior walking on water is not found but is located in John 7. It is helpful for the reader to keep that in mind when reading these chapters.
Water and Life
Beyond the signs and discourses theme, John laced other themes through his gospel to express his witness of Jesus as the Christ. Important to John 5-6 is the water/life theme. Water is one of the most significant elements in sustaining life. In the Gospel of John, Christ is shown as having power over water and thus has the power to give life–particularly spiritual life! Note the following examples:
• Christ turns water to wine (2:1-11)
• Christ’s discourse to Nicodemus: Only through water baptism can one receive the Holy Ghost that brings spiritual rebirth and life (3:1-8)
• Christ’s discourse on Living Waters at Jacob’s well (4:1-26)
• Christ heals the invalid man at the Pools of Bethesda (5:1-9)
• Christ walks on water (6:15-21)
• Christ offers living water from his belly during the Feast of Tabernacles (7:37-39)
• Christ heals the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam (9:1-7)
• Christ washes the feet of the twelve (13:1-17)
• Christ, while on the Cross, thirsts (19:28)
• Christ’s belly produces water and blood when pierced by the spear of the soldier (19:34)
It should be observed that except for the miracle of walking on water, all these stories are unique to John’s gospel.
Both the healing of the invalid in John 5 and the walking on the water in John 6 form a part of the water/life theme and should be read with that in mind.
The healing of the invalid is a sign that Jesus as the Christ has the power to heal man from sin. This is made clear from a statement made later in the story. Sometime after he had healed the invalid, the Savior found the man in the temple and said to him, “Behold, thou are made whole: sin no more lest a worse thing come unto thee” (5:14). The implication is that by healing the man, the Savior had also forgiven and healed him of his sins. Therefore, the Savior not only healed the man physically but also spiritually. Therefore, the invalid was given spiritual life.
In John 6, the water/life theme continues through imagery of both water and bread. The Savior walking on water is a sign of Christ’s power over life. The multiplication of the bread is a sign of the same thing. But only by eating the bread of Christ can one gain eternal life.
Another theme interlaced through John’s gospel is the fulfilment and replacement theme. For John, the coming of Christ brought about a replacement and fulfillment of events and places which were held sacred among the Jews. In other words, Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the sacred events and places of the Old Testament. The following are examples of this theme.
• The replacement of the Temple with the body of Christ (either resurrection or body of the Church) (2:13-22)
• The replacement of the worship in the sacred mountains of Gerizim and Ebal with the worship of Christ (4:1-26; particularly 20-26)
• The replacement of the Sabbath worship of the Pharisees with the proper worship of the Sabbath taught by Christ (5)
• The replacement and fulfillment of the Feast of the Passover with Christ, the Bread of life (John 6)
• The replacement and fulfillment of the Feast of the Tabernacles with Christ, the light and life of the world (John 7-9)
In line with this theme, we find Christ in Jerusalem healing an invalid man on the Sabbath day. As already noted, the man was not only physically healed but spiritually healed. The combination of a healing done on the Sabbath is highly significant. Truly, one of the main purposes of Sabbath observance is so that we as mortals who struggle with sin can renew our covenants with God thus bringing into our lives the healing power of the atonement through the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is given to man by Jesus Christ. Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath and thus the Lord of our spiritual health. Therefore, the replacement and fulfillment theme is found in John 5: Christ is the true fulfillment of the Sabbath.
Likewise, Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover. Recall that to free Israel from Egyptian bondage, the Lord sent a series of plagues upon Egypt to soften Pharaoh’s heart. The final plague was the death of the firstborn (Ex. 10). The Israelites were taught that in order to avoid this plague, they were to participate in the ordinance of the Passover (Ex. 11-12). This was a special dinner which involved the eating of a roasted lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Blood from the lamb was placed on the lintel of the door and the posts. After the “destroying angel” (D&C 89:21) went throughout Egypt killing the firstborn of every man and animal, Pharaoh relented and allowed the children of Israel to be released from bondage.
The lamb was symbolic of the sacrifice of Christ. The bread also symbolized the life that would come through the sacrifice of Christ. When the Savior multiplied the bread in John 6, He was revealing that He was replacing the Passover feast with Himself. He is the bread that must be eaten in order for man to be freed from spiritual bondage and have spiritual life.
The Seven I Am’s
Another theme running through the Gospel of John is the “I am . . .” theme. John records seven different “I am . . .” declarations. From these assertions, the Savior gives clear meaning to his role as the Messiah. The seven “I am . . .” statements are:
• “I am the bread of life: (6:41, 48, 51)
• “I am the light of the world” (8:12)
• “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9)
• “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14)
• “I am the resurrection, and the life” (11:25)
• “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6)
• “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5)
Of course, the phrase “I am” is intended to reflect the name Jehovah gave Moses when he asked: “Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” The Lord responded: “I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” (Ex. 3:13-14).
The seven I am’s recorded by John help us understand just who Christ is. In John 6, the first of the seven I am’s is recorded. The first “I am” declarative was intended to teach the reader that Jesus as the Messiah is the means by which man may receive spiritual life.
But it is of interest to note what is NOT included in the seven “I am . . .” declaratives. The Savior never declared: “I am the living waters.” According to John 7:37-39, the living waters are the Holy Ghost: “In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)” But the Holy Ghost is given to man from the Father through Christ. The Savior taught: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26).
Therefore, it is clear that through Christ all mankind may be spiritually born again and have spiritual life. But the actual medium through which spiritual rebirth comes is through the Holy Ghost.
In contrast to John’s purpose in recording the feeding of the five thousand and the Savior’s walking on water, Matthew uses these stories in different ways. Note the following.
Matthew used two stories to set up the stories of the multiplication of the bread and the Savior’s walking on water.
The first story deals with the rejection of Jesus by his own people in Nazareth. Having come “into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue.” But the people of Nazareth said: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?” To this Matthew adds, “And they were all offended (Gk. skandalizo) in him.” The Greek word skadalizo means to stumble because of a trap or stumbling block that is put in the way. The people of Nazareth could not accept Christ because their familiarity with him became a stumbling block. In response to this, the Savior said: “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house” (13:54-57).
This incident foreshadows the future rejection of the Savior by the Jews before Pontius Pilate. Of this rejection, the Apostle John said, “He came unto his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11). The rejection of Jesus by his own is followed by the story of the beheading of John the Baptist (14:1-12). Not only does this story show the rejection of John but also forecasts the Savior’s death.
The next few stories in chapter 14 seem to have been included by Matthew to deal with the question: “With John the Baptist gone and the death of Christ pending, who will shepherd the church?” The query is first answered in the story of the feeding of the five thousand (14:15-21). Upon hearing of the death of John, the Savior withdrew to a desert place–apparently to be alone! But the multitudes, hearing he was there, flocked out to see and hear him. His compassion upon the shepherdless sheep caused him to teach them and heal their sick (14:13-14).
As evening drew near, the apostles urged the Savior to send the multitude away that they might purchase food. However, He said: “They need not depart; give ye them to eat.” But the multitude, which consisted of 5,000 men plus their wives and children, seemed too large a group for the apostles to feed since they only had five loaves of bread and two fishes.
The Savior said: “Bring them hither to me.” He, who had rejected the temptation to make bread at the insistence of Satan to prove to him his divinity (Matt. 4:3), was now going to make bread to feed the hungry multitude. In the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the Savior not only fed the multitude physical food, but foreshadowed the feeding of the church spiritual food through the instrumentality of the apostles. This is seen in the following: Matthew carefully describes that after the Savior took the bread and fishes, he looked up to heaven where God is and blessed the food, then he “gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude” (14:15-21). It was in the Lord’s plan that the apostles should “feed” the church under His direction. This story established the line of authority: God, the Savior, the apostles, and then the multitude.
Having established the preeminence of the apostles in the church, the next story shows the preeminence of Peter among the apostles. The episode of the Savior walking on water is recorded by Matthew, Mark, and John. However, only Matthew informs us that Peter had faith to walk on the water (14:22-33). And though his faith waned in a moment of opposition, Peter was nevertheless sustained by Christ and with his help Peter continued to walk on water. To those whom Matthew wrote his gospel, he seemed to be saying that Peter, alone, was sustained by Jesus Christ to head the earthly church. Further, through Peter (i.e., ordinance of gift of the Holy Ghost administered through Peter’s priesthood keys), the life giving water of the Holy Ghost could be given to new converts to the Church.
It can be seen that though both Matthew and John recorded the incidents of the feeding of the five thousand and the Savior’s walking on the water, they did so with different purposes in mind. By reading these stories through the eyes of both apostles, two different messages can be gleaned from the same stories. Unfortunately, when the gospels are harmonized, the purposes of Matthew and John recording these stories are lost.
* John does not use the Greek word, dumanis, the favorite word found in the other gospels to refer to the Savior’s miracles. He either uses symeion, “a sign,” or ergon “a work.”