How to Teach God’s Commands to Children Living in a Hostile Culture

Written by Amy K. Hall |
Friday, March 1, 2024
As with the exodus, the cross is proof that God is real and powerful. He moved history in exactly the way he promised (see Isaiah 53). He raised Jesus from the dead! More than that, if he was willing to give his own Son for our good, we can trust that he is for us. He loves us. The objective evidence of his love is right there on the cross, and we can argue for the cross with objective evidence.

In a society that’s hostile towards Christian morality, how should we go about teaching our children God’s commands so that they’ll desire to follow him rather than the culture surrounding and pressuring them?
Not a God of Blind Faith
The first thing to remember is this: Our God is not a God of blind faith. As our Creator, he knows we are beings who need reasons for what we do, beings who are rational and who love, beings who are motivated by a desire to seek our good and the good of our loved ones. Of course, our sin distorts these qualities, even at the best of times, and we can be deceived about what actually is good for us (see Eve). But at root, our rationality and our desire to pursue what’s good for us are both good aspects of our humanity that God repeatedly appealed to when revealing his commands to his people.
We see a clear example of this approach in Deuteronomy 6:20–25, where God instructs the Israelites as to what they should emphasize when teaching their children his commands:
When your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the Lord our God commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand. Moreover, the Lord showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers. So the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today. It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the Lord our God, just as He commanded us.”
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How to Get a Good Conscience

What Kind of Conscience Should We Desire?
Two kinds of conscience are desirable, and cannot be commended too highly.
A good honest conscience. Conscience is good in respect of its integrity when it gives a right judgement of everything according to the Word of God. I grant that the law of nature binds, ecclesiastical laws bind, and political laws bind, but the Word of God is the principal rule, which precisely binds the conscience, because of its author. “There is one law-giver, who is able to save and to destroy …” (James 4:12).
A good peaceable conscience. Conscience is good in respect of its peace when it excuses, absolves, and comforts as it should — that is, when it is pacified by the blood of Christ. There was once a dying man, and it is said that the devil appeared to him, and showed him a very long parchment, where his sins were written on both sides, and they were many. Three quarters of the words he had spoken in his life were idle words, and all his actions were classified according to the ten commandments. Satan said to the poor sick man, “Do you see this? Behold your virtues! See how you will be judged!” But the poor sinner answered, “It is true, Satan, but you have not included everything, for you should have added here below, The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all our sins, and you have also forgotten, Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Why do We Need a Good Conscience?
1. You cannot possibly get rid of your conscience, therefore be persuaded to get a good one. The unconverted do what they can to extinguish conscience. They flatter it with worldly reasoning, they bribe it with mock devotions, they wound it with heinous provocations, they scar it with habitual wickedness, they trample it underfoot by sinning in spite of it; they run away from it by diversions, and will not endure to hear it. Yet they can sooner turn their souls out of their bodies, than conscience out of their souls. Indeed, even amongst all these indignities, their conscience is as fresh and active as if it was not being abused in these ways. It is only waiting its opportunity to be heard, and then it will make what was done perhaps 40 years ago as if it had been but yesterday. A conscience you must have, and sooner or later it will do its job.
2. Your own conscience will be either your best friend or your greatest enemy (of all created things), to eternity. There’s no greater riches, no greater pleasure, no greater safety than a good conscience. However great may be the pressures of the body, the hurry of the world, or the intimidations of Satan, they can’t reach the conscience. A good conscience uniquely cheers the dying body, joyfully accompanies the departed soul to God, and triumphantly brings both soul and body to the tribunal to come. There’s no more profitable means, nor surer testimony, nor more eminent conveyer of eternal happiness than a good conscience. On the other hand, there is no greater torment than an evil conscience. Though its gentler checks may be disregarded, its louder clamours will make you tremble. What will you do, when conscience shall reproach you with your abuse of mercies, incorrigibleness under judgements, contempt of Christ, and hatred of holiness? If you can’t endure to hear what conscience has to say now, how will you endure it to eternity?
How Can We get a Good Conscience?
But how shall we get such good consciences? Here are some suggestions.
Count No Sin Small
Screw up your obedience to every command to the highest. Ferret out every sin to the most secret corruption. When you have set your watch against the first risings of sin, beware of the borders of sin.
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Evaluating the Hearts of our “Church Kids”

A child who loves God will progressively grow in true obedience to parents—generally quick to obey (without the persistent eyeroll, sigh, or stomp) because he or she desires to please the Lord. This child (though certainly not perfectly) will show honor for his or her parents through facial and vocal responses, as well as actions, in an increasingly God-pleasing manner.

Christian parents have the responsibility and privilege to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:1–4). One of the challenges—perhaps the most difficult—is teaching our children not only to obey, but also to love God.
Children who grow up in Christian homes and churches are somewhat similar to children who grew up in the covenant community of Israel. Jewish parents were to circumcise their sons at eight days old as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. They were to love God themselves and teach God’s word to their children.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-9; cf. Deut 11:18-21)
God also required that each Israelite born into the covenant “circumcise” his heart through personal faith evidenced by love for God and obedience to his word.
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deut 10:12-16)
As New Testament believers, with the law having been put aside (cf. Gal 3:23–29), we are not required to circumcise our sons. The New Testament does not require any rite that places our unbelieving children in the “church community.” Only a believer with a credible profession of faith and repentance is baptized and added to the church in the New Testament.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. . . . So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:38, 41-42)
The difference between the Old Testament covenant community and the New Testament church is clear. But the similarities in bringing up children in both of these contexts are notable. In both, parents love God, and they teach their children about God and their responsibility to love and obey him as well.
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3 Major Biblical Problems with Elihu’s Counseling of Job

In light of the main message of Job and in view of a comprehensive biblical model of counseling, we can conclude that: Elihu was wrong about God, wrong about Job, and wrong to focus exclusively on confronting Job while never comforting Job. Elihu’s God is Sovereign, but not a Shepherd. Elihu relates to Job only as a sinner, not a sufferer.

I’ve spent the past several months reading the Bible cover-to-cover seeking to discern the Bible’s teaching on traumatic-suffering and embodied-souls. So far I’ve studied Genesis 1 to Psalms 150. I have over 400 pages of single-spaced typed notes.
I have eighty-five pages of notes on the Book of Job alone. As part of my study of Job, I’ve collated over four dozen examples of poor counseling from Job’s miserable counselors. I hope to summarize that material into a couple of blog posts at some point in the future.
Like others, I’ve wondered where Elihu (Job 32-37) fits into the picture. Is he a worthy model of a wise counselor? Or, is he a prime example of how not to counsel? Or, perhaps he is a mixture of both good/wise and bad/foolish counsel?
In Eric Ortlund’s book on Job, Piercing Leviathan, He notes that some commentators have assessed Elihu positively, while others have evaluated Elihu’s counsel negatively. Ortlund then lists about a dozen reasons why he sees Elihu’s counsel as unwise and unhelpful.
Christopher Ash, in his book, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, notes that “almost every commentary is skeptical about Elihu, critical of his views, his tone, and his character. Such a widespread agreement among critics should not be lightly jettisoned…” (327). Yet Ash disagrees with the majority of commentators. He then lists about half-a-dozen reasons why he sees Elihu’s counsel as wise.
While I was preparing to write and post this blog, I saw a blog post by James Fields at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors: Wise Counsel from Job’s Counselor, Elihu. As the title suggests, Fields provides a positive assessment of Elihu’s counseling, listing seven areas of fruitful counsel.
Interestingly, while God confronts Job’s three miserable counselors, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and while God affirms Job (Job 42-7-11), God ignores Elihu. God never mentions Elihu—for good or bad, as wise or foolish, as a positive or negative model of biblical soul care.
So what do we make of Elihu from a biblical counseling perspective? As we seek to answer that question, we want to do so through two important grids, perspectives, or lenses:

Grid #1: What is the main message of Job?
Grid #2: What is a comprehensive model of biblical counseling?

Grid #1: The Main Message of Job—How Do We See God in the Midst of Our Suffering?
I could write a book on Job, traumatic suffering, and our view of God. But this is a blog post, so I’ll seek to be succinct. Job is not just about Job. It is not just about suffering. It is not even just about God.
Job is about how we see God in the midst of our suffering. Job is about the lens through which we view God as we face suffering. Job is about facing suffering face-to-face with God our Sovereign Shepherd.
Job’s three unwise counselors spoke wrongly about God.

They saw God as a Great Sovereign, but not as a Good Shepherd.
They saw God as all-powerful, but not as all-loving.
They saw God as just, but not as loving, gracious, compassionate, merciful, kind, giving, forgiving, and redeeming.
They saw God as a harsh Judge, a cruel Tyrant, not as a forgiving and giving Father.
They saw God as a works-oriented God, not as a grace-centered God.
They mistook God’s shepherding for condemnation and judgment.
They saw God as a petty, “tit-for-tat,” vindictive, childish God who only gives good to us when we are good; and always gives bad to us when we are bad. They saw God as being an immature child who says, “You hit me first; now I’ll get back at you!” “You started this; I’ll finish it!” “I do get mad, and I get even!”
Because they misunderstood God, they misunderstood suffering. They said suffering is always caused by sinning. According to them, every sufferer is always suffering because of their direct personal sin.

In Job 38-42, God reveals Himself to Job in all His infinite fullness (view this post to see over forty biblical couplets of God’s Holy-Love). The God of Job, the God of the universe, is:

Our God of Holy-Love.
Our Shepherd-King.
Our Sovereign Shepherd.
Our Good Shepherd and Gracious Sovereign.
Our Affectionate Sovereign.
Our God of Holiness and Grace.
Our God of Compassion and Justice.
Our Infinite, Intimate God.

So our ultimate assessment of Elihu’s counsel must be based upon how well or how poorly Elihu’s view of God aligns with how God reveals Himself in the Book of Job.
Grid #2: A Comprehensive Model of Biblical Counseling—Sustaining, Healing, Reconciling, and Guiding
In Gospel-Centered Counseling and in Gospel Conversations, I develop in detail a biblical and church history model of biblical counseling. Since this is a blog post, I can only provide the most basic outline of that approach here.
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A La Carte (March 1)

The first day of a new month is always a great time to pause to remind yourself of this: Right now, at this very moment, God is reigning from his throne. All is well.
A new month always brings new Kindle deals and I’ll do my best to have an updated list in the early morning.
If you want to begin the new month with some reading, Westminster Books has you covered. They’re offering a deal on Defeating Evil and several other titles about that tricky issue of the existence of evil.
(Yesterday on the blog: New and Notable Christian Books for February 2024)

Trevin Wax looks at some interesting evidence that there may be some rumblings of revival among Gen Z. “Today, I wonder if we’re seeing the beginning of a revival among Gen Z, particularly those in college. As I survey the landscape, I see signs of hope and renewal that strike me as unexpected and remarkable.”

Here’s an explanation of why pastors may benefit from inviting specific people to evaluate their preaching.

Jacob lays out the challenge of Christian contentment. “We think that contentment is gained by adding to what we have. But the Christian seeks contentment, not by addition, but rather by subtraction.”

“Anger has been flaring up everywhere lately. It pervades modern life, ready to erupt any moment like popcorn five minutes deep in hot oil. And it is not just spilling out over world events or relational conflicts but also seemingly minor things. I see it in impatient drivers, eye-rolling store clerks, and people arguing online. Sometimes, when I see these behaviors, I realize I am looking in a mirror.”

“There was nothing unusual about the night. I was leaning against the doorframe to the bedroom they all currently share, Bible open in my hands. The lamp was turned off in their room to help them settle down and I was relying on the hallway light for my reading. The plan was simple as always. Read a little bit, discuss a little bit, sing a song or two together, pray, give kisses and hugs goodnight, and finally, navigate multiple attempts to get out of bed again for various and sundry reasons. It was a typical night, not the kind of time I would have predicted for the conviction of the Spirit to fall.”

I enjoyed this somewhat (but only somewhat) tongue-in-cheek guide for Americans who are traveling to the UK. “Magnanimous character that I am, I thought I’d help out our American friends—teach them a lesson or two about how things work outside the land of the free, and more specifically in the bog-ridden ‘tiny island across the sea’ that is Great Britain.”

When Americans were first battling to secure the right to abortion, many Christians offered a solemn warning: To devalue life in the womb is to devalue life everywhere… Never has this been so clearly seen as in the scandal of Kermit Gosnell.

The power of a temptation is in its falsehood. Every temptation is leveraged on a lie. Every time. Always. Without exception. Temptation is a sales pitch begging you to buy into a misperception of reality.
—John Kitchen

How Preachers Grow Graceless

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast. Well, coming up soon — I believe on Wednesday of next week — as we read the Bible together, we read the first section of Matthew 23, where Jesus confronts the religious rulers of his day. And to anticipate that text — which is itself loaded with a full day’s worth of reflection — we have a cluster of thoughts and questions from a listener named Jim who lives just outside of Nashville.

“Pastor John, hello to you. I’m a bi-vocational elder and sometime preacher at my little church,” Jim writes. “I have always been drawn to Jesus’s words about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:1–5. The text is instructive to me about preaching and personal holiness. It seems to suggest at least four things.

“(1) Hypocrites can preach truth. Jesus says these Pharisees are truth-tellers; therefore, ‘observe whatever they tell you’ (verse 3). That line is startling. There’s an obligation to obey the truth of what they get right, even though they, the Pharisees, are hypocrites. Does that hold true today? Irrespective of whether we know a preacher is truly obedient in private, we receive the truth of their preached words. It also seems to apply to men who are later disqualified for sin, and people are left wondering about all the truth they learned from that preacher over the years.

“(2) It seems to speak to a preacher’s assurance. It suggests that preachers who preach truth well do not find in that homiletical skill the grounds of their personal assurance if their private life does not measure up. Is that true?

“(3) It speaks to the calling of pastors to preach holiness. In verse 4, it seems the calling of others into personal holiness and living out personal holiness go together for a preacher. Would this make a preacher hesitant to preach holiness because his life doesn’t measure up in private? How far does his life need to measure up until he’s a hypocrite? Do I repent for myself every time I call for holiness from the pulpit? These questions haunt me, a preacher with remaining sin within me.

“(4) It speaks to all our service. If we serve only so others see us serving, that service is rendered vain (verse 5).

“Many thoughts and questions intertwine for me over this text. What do I get right and wrong on Matthew 23:1–5?”

Well, first of all, I just commend Jim for reflecting so profoundly on this text.

Let me give quick, short answers to those four questions — especially the last one, I think, was more of a comment — and then step back and see how those words of Jesus are so relevant for all of us.

Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

Here are the words from Jesus. Jesus said to his disciples,

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. (Matthew 23:2–5)

1. Hypocrites’ Teaching

So, the first question Jim asks is, What should we do with the true teaching of hypocrites — preachers who preach true things and live a double life, denying by their private lives what they preach in public? There are three responses to that.

First, when duplicity is discovered in a pastor, the pastor should be removed from his service, according to the qualifications given for the elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–16.

Second, truth is truth even if a donkey or a heretic or the devil himself speaks it, just as when the demons called out to Jesus, “[We] know who you are — the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). Then Jesus wouldn’t let them talk, it says in Mark 1:34, “because they knew him.” They got part of the truth right, but they hated it. So, we must not make a preacher’s sins the only measuring rod of all that he teaches. He may say true things and hate them, and we should believe the true things and not hate them.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that Jesus’s words about knowing them by their fruits (Matthew 7:20) are wrong, because there is always plenty about a false teacher that is false and misleading and needs to be recognized — even if many of his doctrinal sentences are true.

Third response to that first question: no, you do not have to assume that, when a pastor is discovered to be guilty of ministry-disqualifying sin, you need to reject all the truth that he’s taught you over the years. You don’t have to go back and say, “Well, I guess everything he taught me for all those years was false.” You don’t have to do that.

“Let us put to death immediately every temptation to love the praise of man.”

However, it will always be good to reassess that teaching in retrospect and see if there were omissions or imbalances in it — true as it was — that we can see in retrospect were owing to his hidden sin. He skipped things, he didn’t say certain things, and he rode this hobbyhorse all the time. And you see now in retrospect why he was skipping them, why he was riding his hobbyhorse.

That’s my response to his first question.

2. Oratory and Assurance

Second, he asks how the preaching gifts (the skills) of a pastor relate to his assurance. Now, part of the answer is that no public rhetorical skills can atone for private reprehensible sins. It is possible to be a great orator and a lost sinner. The blood of Jesus and its effect in our holiness is the source of our assurance, not our rhetorical skills. Which means, yes, that true, godly, humble, Christ-exalting preaching will be part of that holiness — and thus, in that sense, part of a pastor’s assurance.

3. Preaching Holiness

The third question Jim asks is, How holy do you have to be to preach holiness? That’s a good question. The way I would answer would be this: not perfect and not careless. Or to say it another way, humbly penitent for remaining failings but vigilant to gouge out your eye rather than sin and bring the gospel and your church into disrepute. According to 1 Timothy 4:15, your people need to see you passionate in your pursuit of holiness.

4. Serving for Praise

And the fourth question Jim asks is, If we serve to get the praise of man, is our service ruined before God? And the answer is yes, our service is ruined if we live for the praise of men.

So, those are my brief answers to the questions, but let’s step back and see how these words of Jesus relate to all of us.

Practice of Pharisees

I think it’s always helpful when you see a text like this to break it down into pieces, and then see how the pieces relate to each other. So, there are three steps that I see in Jesus’s exposure of the scribes and Pharisees.

One, they use the truth to cover their own sin. It says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” — that is, they teach what the truth of the law of God says — “so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2–3). So, they cover their non-practice with teaching Moses’s law. They use truth to cover sin.

Two, they do not accompany that teaching with any God-dependent doctrine of enabling grace. They don’t teach people how to avail themselves of God’s grace to help them obey. They just leave people with burdens — heavy, weighty, crushing burdens of God’s commands — to do with no help at all. They won’t lift a finger to help people obey. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4). There’s no doctrine of sanctifying, enabling, empowering grace.

And the third step in exposing these rascals is that they love the praise of man more than God or his truth. That’s the deep, deep desire, pleasure, treasure of their lives. It’s the governing principle of their lives. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5).

Fruit from a Poisoned Root

Now, here’s the key question: How do those three indictments relate to each other? Here’s what I would suggest, and this is how they become so relevant for all of us. I’m going to go backward and show how they build.

Number one, Jesus has put his finger on the deep desire of their lives — the deep love of their lives. What do they love? What do they desire? What’s the passion and the treasure of their lives that’s driving their decisions, their behaviors? And the answer is the praise of man. They taste how delicious is the pleasure of self-exaltation that comes through other people’s praise. That’s number one.

Number two, now we move backward (or forward) toward the next effect of that. What is the effect of loving the praise of man on the doctrine of grace in living a godly life? And the answer is that it cancels grace. Grace that enables a person to obey God’s law means we don’t get the praise — God does. Grace does. Grace is a breaking gift; it’s a humbling gift. They cannot embrace God-exalting grace because it contradicts their self-exalting love of human praise. So, they load men with burdens of duty and tell them, in essence, “Be self-sufficient like us” — implying that you’ll get some praise for your moral achievement like we get praise for our moral achievement.

And then finally, if they love the praise of man, and that keeps them from embracing God’s enabling grace for obedience, what do they do with truth, the truth of Moses’s law, when they sit on Moses’s seat? And the answer is that they don’t love the truth; they use the truth. Bible words become a cloak for hidden sin. They turn Moses’s seat into a place where they get human praise.

That is a warning to all of us, not just pastors. Let us, all of us, put to death immediately every temptation to love the praise of man. Instead, let us love the Christ-exalting, self-humbling grace of God through Jesus Christ to help us do what we need to do, and then let us use truth to stoke the fires of love for God and love for people.

How Jesus Knew the Word: His Secret to Scripture Memory

Have you ever considered how Jesus came to know Scripture?

Anyone who reads the Gospels can see that Jesus clearly knew the Hebrew Bible well. He quotes Scripture over and over, and does so with the authority and freshness of someone who hasn’t only memorized God’s words but truly knows God’s heart. Jesus has profound insight into what the words of God mean, and so he is able to put Scripture to use in everyday life. He does not simply recite sentences he put to memory, but he is able to apply Scripture in various situations as he encounters them.

You might think, Well, of course Jesus knew Scripture! Jesus is God! He didn’t need to learn it, or work at it, like we do. But that suspicion betrays a significant misunderstanding in what it means for Jesus to be fully God and fully man in one person.

So, we have a little Christology to do here first. Jesus, as we encounter him in the Gospels — in human flesh and blood, walking this earth with human feet, speaking with a human tongue and mouth — this Jesus quotes and makes use of what Scriptures he has come to know with his human mind. The human Christ didn’t know Scripture simply because he was God. As genuinely human, he had to learn it. What he knew, and quoted, is what he had come to learn. Luke 2 tells us that “the [Christ] child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom,” and then a few verses later: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:40, 52). Born to us as human, Jesus grew not only in his human body but in his human mind.

Jesus is the universe’s unique two-natured person. He is fully God and fully man. Which means he has not only a human body but also a “reasoning soul,” that is, human emotions and a human will, and a human mind.

So, that’s our little Christology lesson. Now, in these few minutes together, let’s look at how Jesus knew Scripture so well.

Jesus’s Relationship with Scripture

In an earlier session this afternoon, we looked at Jesus’s habits of retreating and reentering, of withdrawing from society to commune with his Father and then returning to bless and teach and show compassion to others.

And the major piece we left out there, and now turn to in this session, is Jesus’s relationship with Scripture. It’s a remarkable theme to track in the Gospels. You might think, “Well, he’s God, so he just speaks, and whatever he says is God’s word” — which is true — “so he doesn’t really need to quote previous Scripture.” And then you observe how often, how strikingly often, Jesus says, over and over again, “It is written . . . It is written . . . It is written . . .” Scripture is central and pervasive in his ministry and teaching.

So, I’d like to do two things. First, let’s briefly see it in action and get a taste of the place of Scripture “in the days of his flesh” while among us (Hebrews 5:7). Then let’s address how Jesus knew the word so well. Very practically, how did Scripture come to have such a place in his life and ministry? And I hope that here, as we look at Jesus, you might catch a vision and find encouragement for how Scripture could come to have such a place in your own soul and ministry.

‘It Is Written’

First, then, the taste. Throughout the Gospels, we see in Jesus the evidence of a man utterly captivated by what is written in the text of Scripture.

At the outset of his public ministry, Jesus, led by the Spirit, retreats to the wilderness, and there, in the culminating temptations before the devil himself, he leans, not just once, but three times, on what is written (Matthew 4:4, 6–7, 10; Luke 4:4, 8, 10).

Then, returning from the wilderness to his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus stands up to read, takes the scroll of Isaiah, reads from 61:1–2, and announces, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He identifies John the Baptist as “he of whom it is written” (Matthew 11:10; Luke 7:27). He rebukes the proud by quoting Scripture (Mark 7:6; Luke 20:17). And when he clears the temple of money-changers, he does so on the grounds of what is written in Isaiah 56:7 (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).

At every step on the way to Calvary, he knows that everything will happen, he says, “as it is written” (see especially the Gospel of John, 6:31, 45; 8:17; 10:34; 12:14, 16; 15:25). In Mark 14:21, he says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him.” Luke 18:31: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.”

His life and ministry turn on the word of God written in Scripture.

How Did Jesus Know the Word?

So, then, how does Jesus know the word so well? If Jesus isn’t simply drawing upon his divinity to quote texts and put to use concepts his human mind had never learned and considered, then how is it that Jesus knows Scripture so well?

The inspiration for this session came from reading Sinclair Ferguson’s chapter on “The Spirit of Christ” (in his book The Holy Spirit). There he addresses our question:

Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture did not come [magically from heaven] during the period of his public ministry; it was grounded no doubt on his early education, but nourished by long years of personal meditation. Later, in his public ministry, it becomes evident that he was intimately familiar with its contents . . . and also possessed in his human nature a knowledge of God by the Spirit which lent freshness, authority, and a sense of reality to his teaching. (44)

That’s what I want for you wherever God leads you: freshness, authority, and a sense of reality to your teaching.

Now, when Ferguson speaks here about Jesus’s “public ministry,” he implies an important relationship between public and private life: what Jesus says publicly in his three years of ministry reveals what he has learned and come to know in his three decades in private — and what he continues to feed and nurture in secret communion with his Father.

So, there are two parts here to Jesus’s private life, outside his public ministry. First, “his early education.” Before he could even speak, his mother and Joseph and others in Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth would speak to him. Surely Mary quoted Scripture and sang Scripture to her son as he grew. This foundation, this “grounding,” of his early education, was important. Yet Ferguson rightly puts emphasis on the second and longer phase of Jesus’s private life.

He says that “Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture . . . [was] nourished by long years of personal meditation.” This is the secret to how Jesus knew Scripture so well: long years of personal meditation. Which is what I want to challenge you to this afternoon.

Lost Art of Meditation

What is meditation? It’s important to ask because we don’t do this very well today. This is countercultural. Biblical meditation is a lost art today. We’re not talking Eastern meditation, where you try to empty your mind and repeat a mantra, but biblical meditation, where you fill your mind with God’s words, and his truth, and slow down and seek to more fully understand the meaning of God’s words and feel their significance in your soul.

Biblical meditation pauses and ponders God’s words without hurry. It chews on the truth communicated by the words of God. It doesn’t just keep on reading at the breakneck speed at which our pixelated screens are teaching us to read (or better, skim). Meditation pauses and slows down and seeks to deeply ponder the truth of God’s word, and sense its weight upon the heart. That’s the kind of meditation that nourished “Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture.”

In other words, Jesus, like us, learned Scripture. He worked at it. Jesus knew Scripture so well, and quoted it so frequently, and spoke with such freshness and authority and a sense of reality because of his “long years of personal meditation.” His public ministry and teaching, with his seemingly effortless familiarity with God’s word, revealed years of personal, private enjoyment of God’s word.

Jesus knew Scripture so well not just because he was God, but because he dedicated his human mind and heart to daily, personal meditation on the word of God — and this even without having his own personal material copy of the Bible, like we do today. He had to remember and rehearse what he had been read and sung and taught. And so he did, to great effect.

Following Jesus into Scripture

I close with a threefold exhortation.

One, become the kind of person now, in God’s word, in private, that you hope to be someday in public ministry. Over time, who you have become in secret over your Bible will be revealed in public ministry.

Two, learn the power of memorizing God’s words. When you come across particular verses, or even phrases, or longer sections that feed and focus your soul in Christ-honoring ways, put them to memory. Try to build them into the folds of your brain, to put to use in sustaining your own soul and the souls of others.

And finally, three, go deeper still — deeper than mere reading, deeper even than mere memory. Make memory serve meditation. Memorize to meditate, and slow down to meditate as you memorize. And memorize, as a side effect, because you meditated. Set a course now for nourishing your “intimate acquaintance with Scripture” with long years of personal meditation, like Jesus, and with the help he purchased for you in the power of his Spirit.

Conclusion: Tips for Delighting in the Old Testament

The OT is Christian Scripture, and we can enjoy it best when we approach it through Christ and for Christ. The OT magnifies Jesus in numerous ways, and his person and work clarify how to rightly discern the continuities and discontinuities of salvation history. Through the light and lens that Christ supplies, Christians can enjoy in the same God and the same good news in both Testaments. We can also embrace all God’s promises and rightly apply Moses’s law as revelation, prophecy, and wisdom. 

Sweeter … Than Honey (Ps 19:10)

This blog series has invited you to a feast of rich food and a treasure of incomparable value. The OT was Jesus’s only Bible, and in it you can discover a perfect law that revives the soul, right precepts that rejoice the heart, and true rules that are altogether righteous (Ps 19:7–9). “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and dripping of the honeycomb” (19:10).
Through his Son’s life, death, and resurrection, the reigning God saves and satisfies sinners who believe and enables them to celebrate his Son’s greatness through all of Scripture. And “beholding the glory of the Lord,” we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). As a conclusion to this study, here are seven tips to those aspiring, as God intended, to delight in the OT through Christ and for Christ.
1. Remember That the Old Testament Is Christian Scripture
What we call the OT was the only Scripture Jesus had, and the apostles stressed that the prophets wrote God’s Word to instruct Christians. Paul says, for example, that God’s guidance of Israel through the wilderness was “written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11; cf. Rom 15:4). Similarly, Peter emphasized that “it was revealed to them [i.e., the OT prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you”—the church (1 Pet 1:12).
When Moses and the prophets wrote, they were writing for Christians (Deut 30:8; Isa 29:18; 30:8; Jer 30:1–2, 24; 31:33; Dan 12:5–10). In short, the OT is Christian Scripture that God wrote to instruct us. As Paul tells Timothy, these “sacred writings … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” and it is this “Scripture” that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Old in OT does not mean unimportant, and we should approach the text accordingly.
2. Interpret the Old Testament with the Same CareYou Would the New Testament
To give the same care to the OT as to the NT means that we treat it as the very Word of God (Mark 7:13; 12:36), which Jesus considered authoritative (Matt 4:3–4, 7, 10; 23:1–3), believed could not be broken (John 10:35), and called people to know so as to guard against doctrinal error and hell (Mark 12:24; Luke 16:28–31; 24:25; John 5:46–47). Methodologically, caring for the OT means that we establish the text, make careful observations, consider the context, determine the meaning, and make relevant applications. We consider genre, literary boundaries, grammar, translation, structure, argument flow, key words and concepts, historical and literary contexts, and biblical, systematic, and practical theology. We study each passage within its given book, within salvation history, and in relationship to Christ.
So many Christians will give years to understanding Mark and Romans and only weeks to Genesis, Psalms, and Isaiah, while rarely even touching the other books. When others take account of your life and ministry, may such realities not be said of you. We must consider how Scripture points to Christ (Luke 24:25–26, 45–47) and faithfully proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), ever doing so as those rightly handling “the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
3. Treat Properly the Covenantal Nature of the Old Testament
The two parts of the Bible are called the Old and New Testaments because they each principally address the old and new covenants, respectively.
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