When you read this subject you may be inclined to ask whether time element is different in the Fourth Gospel from that in the first three gospels? And when you ask this you undoubtedly ask with the correct view in mind, that the four Gospel narratives are together the one Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe and can maintain that there is inner harmony between these four gospels. If the four secondary authors give us the revelation of Jesus Christ through that there can be no contradictions, no real difference between them. Therefore we must explain the reason for the significance of the subject, “The Time Element and the Fourth Gospel.”
We know of course that the four Gospel narratives are not identical. If they were there would be no real reason for keeping them all in the canon. Though we can point to many things in which they are alike we all can point to differences between them. That is true of the time element also. From a certain point of view the reference to the time element is the same. And yet we notice distinct differences between them in this respect. Because of this difference there arises the problem of the time element in the four gospels, and especially in the fourth gospel because it is distinct from the first three.
With respect to that which is common to all four gospels in their historical reference you will notice that none of the four gives us a chronological table of the life of Jesus Christ. In our New Testament there is no biography of our Lord. Attempts have been made to construct a “life of Jesus” from the data given in the four gospels, but these attempts fail because there is not sufficient material from which to complete the entire life of Christ; and because Christ cannot be limited by this time—He is eternal and so also beyond time and space. The result of such effort is always more fiction than fact. We know, to make this plain, very little of the early life of Jesus. And of the three years of His ministry the events are not all given. And those that are given are not given to serve as a chronological time table. We read in John that these things were written which were for our faith, “that we might believe.” And that all the words and deeds of Jesus are not given. “If they should be ‘written,” John writes, John 21:25, “I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”
Although we do not have a time table in the gospels of the work and words of Jesus, we do have an important reference to time. We cannot change or distort the chronology which is given us. The time element is very essential for our understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ. For that reason a sermon on a Word of Jesus usually contains the important point, the occasion upon which Jesus spoke or performed a miracle. The Gospel narratives often begin with such expressions as, “Now when”, “in those days”, “and it came to pass”, “at that time”.
Now the chronology or the reference to time is not always the same in the four gospels. But we notice immediately that there is much more from the same viewpoint in the first three gospels than in the Fourth Gospel. For that reason the first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels. The word synoptic means viewed together. Although there is a difference of viewpoint among the three they are much more alike when compared to the Gospel according John.
There are several main differences which we can mention. The Synoptists, for example, write about Jesus’ activity in and around Galilee, while John limits it to Judea and Jerusalem. John therefore omits long periods which are accounted for in the first three gospels. In the fourth Gospel much more attention is given to the Word of Jesus. There is, to be sure, always an historical reference, the time element, but then John devotes the major portion to the words of Jesus upon each occasion. This is to be noticed immediately when we read of His discourse with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman, with the Pharisees, and His last discourse with His disciples before the crucifixion which takes up chapters 14-17. Because of this difference and because John devotes more space to the words than to events, the question arises what is the significance of the time element in John?
With respect to the question there are some who become higher critics and say that the time element in John proves that it is not the true Gospel. The following statement is made in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, “The comparison of the Synoptic narrative with that of John is an old and very simple study. It is a matter of historical discrepancy in two perfectly clear and definite accounts. (He means that of Mark and John, L. D.) The fact is the narrative in Mark cannot be made to agree with John, except on the supposition that one or the other is, as regards objective facts, inaccurate and misleading. For example, it is impossible to insert the story of the raising of Lazarus in the historical framework preserved by Mark. And if the narrative of the Passion in Mark and the events leading up to it in Mark 9:30-12 be historical in general outline then it is impossible to regard the story of the raising of Lazarus as in any way a narrative of fact.” This is an example of the attitude of higher critics. If something does not fit into their assumptions they reject it. In this case the assumption is that omission, on the part of John of the historical references in Mark and the other synoptists, makes John’s chronology not only incorrect but his whole account false.
For our own satisfaction we can explain that because in the Gospel according to Mark we have many more happenings given us in that period before and during Jesus’ stay in Bethany than in the Fourth Gospel, and because Mark and the other Synoptists make no mention of the mighty miracle of the raising of Lazarus, that therefore we cannot conclude that one record is untrue. We cannot prescribe how one narrative must fit into another and contain the same events. The assumption that if a record is true, for example, the record of the raising of Lazarus, it would be mentioned in the other records is a false assumption which the four Gospel narratives do not permit. We must maintain the principle that although it is the same Jesus and the same time concerning which they write, and the same Holy Spirit who inspired them, their viewpoint is nevertheless different. We may not fit the four viewpoints into one made by us, but from the four we receive the one Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. In their differences we have the riches of the Gospel. If one contradicted the other we would have reason to reject the testimony of one or both, but you notice even from the criticism made that no contradictions are found.
Another answer to this question admits of the inaccuracy of the time element of the Fourth Gospel but concludes that it was not intended to be accurate history. Bousett says that John’s Gospel is literary and not historical. J. A. Robinson in his Study of the Gospels says in answer to the idea of higher critics as quoted above, “It is the Gospel of the Christ of Christian experience. Because he views the Gospel history from the subjective standpoint, he allows himself freedom in remodeling the external events.”
This answer is also an impossible view to take. The time element in the Gospel of John as well as in the Synoptic Gospels is an integral part. Not one of the Gospel narratives can be received without the time element. It stands to reason that the historical element is not referred to as often in John because he records fewer events.
In the Gospel according to John there are specific references to time and place. If you peruse the gospel you will notice some of the following expressions which show how John connects his narrative with time. Chapter 1:28, “These things happened in Bethany where John was.” 1:35, “Again the next day.” 2:1, “The third day there was a wedding in Cana.” 2:12, “After this He went down to Capernaum. And it was near the passover of the Jews.” 4:43, “Now after two days He departed thence and went into Galilee.” 5:22, “The hour cometh and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of Man and they that hear shall live.” 7:3, “His hour was not yet come.” This is a familiar reference to time in connection with Jesus suffering in the Gospel according to John. We have such general references such as the foregoing and the expression, “After these things;” but we also have a very specific reference to time which shows how very observant the apostle John really was. In chapter 1:39 there is this reference to the extra hour: “And it was the tenth hour.” Again in connection with the cross in 19:14, “And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour.”
We must remember the deeply profound character of the Gospel according to John. John points us to the Person of the Mediator as the Son of God. He explains his own viewpoint, which is, “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 20:31. He is deeply profound because he refers to eternity from the beginning of his narrative and throughout. He begins with eternity. “In the beginning was the Word. . . .” And with all His discourses, with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman, with the Pharisees, and with His disciples, he amazes and baffles His hearers with His divine and eternal nature.
Though John gives the Christ from the point of view of the profound1 eternal, and incomprehensible, he nevertheless refers to the historical, to time. The eternal touches time, 1:14 “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” And that is so with every part of John’s record; it has an historical reference, a necessary time element, and “his record is true”. The time element is necessary for without it the writing would not be the Gospel, the “glad news” from heaven which touches our time. It would lack reality. Salvation is realized in time and space, is historically real, and based upon undeniable evidences. If we fail to see the importance of the time element in the Fourth Gospel we fail to see the marvelous evidence of the Incarnation.