HOW LONG WAS CHRIST’S EARTHLY MINISTRY?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Throughout the 20 centuries of church history, multitudes of erroneous teachings have cropped up. Some of the most ridiculous religious beliefs we hear about today can often be found in a primitive form in the days of the “Church Fathers” (the theologians who lived in the decades and centuries immediately after the Apostles). One of these strange teachings is that Christ’s earthly ministry was merely one year long. Is there any merit to that claim? Does the Bible say one way or the other?
We begin by understanding that each of the Four Gospel Records—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—serves a special purpose. They are not to be combined into one continuous Book or narrative (as some “Church Fathers” did). Rather, they are to be respected as four distinct views/presentations of the same Lord Jesus Christ. These Four Gospel Accounts do not read word-for-word, and they do not always report the same statements or events. Moreover, when we compare all four accounts, John’s stands out as quite unique. Matthew, Mark, and Luke usually read very closely with each other. Thus, they are collectively known as “the Synoptic Gospels.” In stark contrast, John’s Gospel Record is largely “new” material, reporting what the Holy Spirit purposely withheld from the Synoptic Gospels.
John’s Gospel Record stands out in another particular instance. By furnishing us with the Book of John, the Holy Spirit provided us with “markers” or “milestones” on Israel’s religious calendar. We can identify times of year, and thus extrapolate approximately how much time elapsed between Christ’s water baptism and His crucifixion. Let me show you how we can use the Bible to establish a rough estimate of the duration of Christ’s earthly ministry.
THE PASSOVERS FOUND IN JOHN’S GOSPEL RECORD
Notice the religious-calendar “benchmarks” as found in John’s Gospel Record:
- Passover 1 — John 2:13: “And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” As the opening verses of the chapter indicate, Jesus’ ministry actually began before this Passover. This was springtime.
- Passover 2 — John 5:1: “After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” While Scripture does not explicitly identify this as “Passover,” we can infer that it is because John employs “a feast of the Jews” as indicative of Passover in John 6:4. This would have been springtime.
- Passover 3 — John 6:4: “And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.” John 7:2 refers to “the Feast of Tabernacles” (autumn, early October). John 10:22 speaks of “the Feast of the Dedication” (today called “Hanukah”) and “winter.” In other words, John chapter 6 was in springtime, John chapter 7 was in autumn, and John chapter 10 was in wintertime.
- Passover 4 — John 11:55: “And the Jews’ passover was nigh at hand: and many went out of the country up to Jerusalem before the passover, to purify themselves.” Jesus died around this Passover, as the succeeding chapters of John bear out. This was in springtime.
At the bare minimum—even if one were to argue John 5:1 is not clearly labeled in Scripture as “Passover”—Jesus’ earthly ministry covered three “springtimes” and three Passovers. Three Passovers would mean at least two years. If it covered four Passovers, that would mean at least three years. But, the Holy Spirit did not leave us to wonder exactly what number it was. We can briefly survey the Four Gospel Records to find additional information to help us.
Luke chapter 13 is very useful in settling this matter for us: “ He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none.  Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?  And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:  And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.”
Jesus Christ is talking about His Heavenly Father sending Him to the nation Israel to find faith and righteous works. How long did the “certain man” say he had come looking for fruit on the fig tree? Why, three years (verse 7)! He found no fruit, of course, for Israel was too stuck in her religious goodness to recognize her evil nature and her failure to generate works pleasing in God’s sight.
According to Luke 3:23, “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli….” The Lord, in order to serve as a priest over Israel (Hebrews 3:1; cf. Zechariah 6:13), had to be at least 30 years of age because that was the minimum age of a Levitical priest as per the Mosaic Law (Numbers 4:3). Our Lord Jesus Christ had at least three years of earthly ministry, dying (and resurrecting, of course) at age 33.