I read a story this week about a guy who, when he was quite young, received some life-changing wisdom from his father. His father said, “Knowledge is power,” and then attributed those words to Francis Bacon. But the boy heard his father saying, “Knowledge is power. France is bacon.” For years afterwards, he struggled to figure out what the expression, “France is bacon,” meant and how those two sentences were connected. In high school, he once asked his teacher what this quote meant; and she went on and on for ten minutes explaining how knowledge was power, but stopped short of clarifying how France is bacon. Frustrated with her avoiding his true question, he cut to the chase, threw up his hands, and asked, “France is Bacon?” And she said, “Yes. Francis Bacon.” For the next decade, whenever someone said the famous line, “Knowledge is power,” he would always “finish” the quote by adding, “France is bacon,” only to receive weird looks. It wasn’t until college, when he saw the quote written down with the attribution, that it finally all made sense.

What people say and what people hear are often two different things. If that is true, here’s my question: Given the incredible latitude the authors had in composing their gospels (Ipsissima vox, baby!), would Jesus even recognize his words in the gospel? Now, think about that before you answer. Given . . .

  • That the authors rarely provided the very words of Jesus when quoting him
    (no Ipsissima verba – no “the very words”)
  • That the authors felt free to adjust the chronology of events according to their purposes
  • That the authors would often choose to edit out major events in Jesus’ life and ministry (try finding the Sermon on the Mount in Mark!)

Then how do we know that the gospels are not more the emphases of the authors than they are of Jesus?  In other words, who are we hearing in the gospels, Jesus or the evangelists? There was a funny bit years ago about a group of people listening in on Jesus’ Beatitudes from a great distance. As a result, they were not able to hear Jesus clearly. So instead of Jesus blessing the meek and peacemakers, they heard him bless the Greek and the cheesemakers. Who are we hearing in the gospels, Jesus, something close to what Jesus said or the gospel authors? And as you ponder that, let me make things even more difficult.

Consider the story of Jesus calming the storm in Matthew 8 and the parallel in Mark 4. Here are some of the differences (nothing too earth shattering here).

  • Both accounts have Jesus sleeping in the boat, but Mark adds him sleeping in the stern on a cushion (a change in minor details).
  • In Matthew the disciples say (8:26), “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” while in Mark, the disciples say (4:38), “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (a change in tone).
  • In Matthew Jesus makes a comment and then rebukes the winds and the waves; in Mark Jesus rebukes the wind and says to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” and then makes a comment. (a change in order).

But then the earth is shattered (at least, kind of).

  • In Matthew, Jesus says to the disciples (8:26), “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” But in Mark he says (4:40), “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (that’s right, NO faith!)
  • In Matthew the account ends with these words (8:27): “The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’” while in Mark we read this verse to end the story (4:41): “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’” (that’s right, not amazed, but terrified).

Now, I would like to argue that being of “little faith” is very different from having “no faith” (like the difference between heaven and hell) and that being amazed is quite different from being terrified (imagine the difference if your spouse said to you, “You amaze me” versus “You terrify me.”). As a result of these differences, it seems obvious that these two authors are doing something completely different with the substance of the story.  The last lines prove it. In Matthew the disciples are amazed at who Jesus is (that’s good!). In Mark they are terrified (that’s not so good!).

What is Matthew’s intent here? It is clear that Matthew has softened Mark’s account a bit so that the focus is more in line with his theme of showing who Jesus is. Here, Matthew wants to show that Jesus has power over all creation. He also wants to show that the proper response to Jesus as King over all creation is faith. When Jesus stills the storm, the disciples are amazed and move closer to belief. Suffice it to say, that is not Mark’s intent.

Now, before we explain what Mark’s intent is, let’s look at another passage. Look at the accounts of Jesus walking on the water in Matthew and in Mark. The stories are very similar, except Mark takes note that Jesus meant to pass them by while Matthew, thankfully, leaves that confusing comment out (Mk. 6:48); and Mark leaves out the whole story of Peter walking on the water (which is odd since Mark’s gospel is thought to come from Peter’s testimony). But note how the accounts end. In Matthew, we read this about Jesus and Peter (Matt. 14:32-33):

“And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

And in Mark we read (Mark 6:51-52):

“Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”

If Mark’s being terrified and having no faith (after the stilling of the storm) was a shocking difference from Matthew’s being amazed and having little faith, then what we have here is a heart attack.  In Matthew’s account the disciples worship Jesus and confess that he is the Son of God. Meanwhile, in Mark, those same disciples in that same account are completely amazed (but not in a good way) because their hearts were hardened.

Think about some of the people in the Bible who had hard hearts, people like Pharaoh, the people who stubbornly turned their backs on God and covered their ears before the exile, Nebuchadnezzar in his arrogant days, and the people in Jesus’ day who refused to even consider Jesus’ signs. Who has a hard heart? Bad guys—he faithless, the stubborn, and those who do not seek God. Oh, yes, one other group—the disciples. And just in case you think this was a one-off, Jesus asks the twelve after they fail to grasp the significance of the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8), “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” Having a hard heart is one of the worst criticisms in the Bible, and the disciples were guilty of it.

Why does Mark paint the disciples in such an awful light? By the time Mark wrote his gospel in the late 50’s, people had a very high view of the disciples (very high—some might say, “saintly high”). In short, they were superstars of faith. And Mark’s audience knew they could never measure up. And if you can never measure up, why bother trying? Mark needs to combat this notion, and so he tells them the story of how the disciples before the resurrection repeatedly failed to follow Jesus. Instead of faith, they were overcome by fear. Instead of trusting in Jesus, they were overcome by doubt. Instead of giving themselves completely to King Jesus, they were overcome with hard hearts. Yes, Mark definitely paints the disciples with a harsh tone; but his purpose is not to malign them, but rather to show that even discipleship failures can grow and be used by God in powerful ways.  The disciples started somewhere (with no faith), but God transformed them into people of great faith; and the same God who transformed these failures, can transform our failures. See, Mark had a message that he needed to communicate to his audience about God’s transforming power, and so he told the story of Jesus and his disciples with that theme in mind. And he took every opportunity to bring out that nuance in the story because he knew he wasn’t writing history for history’s sake. He was preaching Jesus to a church that was struggling in their faith and wrestling with fear and unsure if they should give themselves fully to Jesus. Mark’s answer is to tell them the story of the disciples, and it is a great story.

Would Jesus approve of Mark’s freedom to shape the story in that way? Absolutely! While Matthew has Jesus chiding the disciples for their little faith, Mark makes it clear that it is a real rebuke. (Side note: Part of the problem here is how we read it. I see Jesus with a smile on his face kind of shaking his head and saying, “When are you knuckleheads going trust me?” Mark makes it clear that was not Jesus’ response.) Bottom line: Jesus could definitely recognize his words in Mark’s gospel. And Jesus would definitely recognize Mark’s theme of discipleship failure and the transforming grace of the Spirit.

Our goal in this series is to see how the gospels actually work and what kind of flexibility the gospel writers had in composing their accounts. That they weren’t interested in writing down a strict history of Jesus, utilizing only verbatim quotes, chronological accuracy and rigorous journalistic investigative techniques, should be very obvious by now. But they just didn’t make up things either. They preached all that Jesus said and did it in such a way that their audiences could see how Jesus’ life and teaching had life-changing significance for them.

Let’s end with a quiz. What is the famous quote from the movie, Apollo 13? If you answered, “Houston, we have a problem!” sorry, you are wrong. The actual quote is: “Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”  Now, if you say the differences between these two are negligible and that I’m being way too uptight, you not only are right, but you are going to love how the gospel writers approached the writing of their gospels. True, “we’ve had a problem” is the ipsissima verba answer. However, if your refrigerator blows a gasket and water is pouring out by the gallon on to your kitchen floor and you scream out, “Houston, we have a problem!” you would not only be using a great quote, but you would be bringing out the significance of that quote for a new generation in a totally different situation. And it would be spectacular! If you understand that, you get what the gospel authors were doing!

As for “France is bacon,” I can’t explain it to you, but I know it is true!