Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1–12)
There are two ways to deal with Jesus Christ. I am thinking specifically of those of you here tonight who do not yet worship Jesus as the greatest treasure of your life.
Herod and the Wise Men
There are two ways to deal with Jesus: the way of Herod, and the way of the wise men. The way of Herod is to get rid of Jesus. It was pure hypocrisy when Herod said he wanted to go worship the child. He did not intend to worship him. He intended to get rid of him. And in a matter of days, he would kill every baby boy in Bethlehem under two years old to get rid of Jesus. He failed. Herod’s way always fails.
Of course, nowadays it’s too late to kill Jesus. He has risen from the dead and he is alive, this very night, reigning in heaven. He will come back someday as King of kings. But we can, with less violent and more sophisticated ways, try to get rid of him, evade him, follow the Herod way.
We usually get rid of him by recreating him in our minds in ways that strip him of his claim on our lives: he’s a mere legend, or a moral teacher like other gurus, or just another prophet, or a mere symbol of hope. When I was in graduate school in Germany in the 1970s, a very popular book was Jesus for Atheists. Lo and behold, Milan Machoveč discovered that Jesus is, after all, a perfect embodiment of twentieth-century Marxism.
For two thousand years, people have been trying to get rid of the real Jesus by reinventing him in their own ideological image. But the Herod way of dealing with Jesus has never worked and will never work. You cannot get rid of Jesus. And I plead with you tonight: Don’t live your life trying to evade Jesus.
“You cannot get rid of Jesus. And I plead with you: Don’t live your life trying to evade Jesus.”
Instead, deal with Jesus the way the wise men did. “Going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). Falling down signifies submission, and worship signifies treasuring. Submission to Jesus as your supreme King. Worshiping Jesus as your supreme Treasure. This is a huge change for all of us. Nobody is born this way. Jesus calls it new birth (John 3:3–8).
News to Make the Angels Sing
When this change happens to us, by God’s grace, we become the beneficiaries of God’s Christmas purpose. A few chapters later, Jesus tells us why he came — why there’s a Christmas: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). That’s the best news in all the world, for two reasons.
First, every one of us in this room tonight is under the guilt and bondage of our sinfulness toward God. We deserve judgment, and we know it. It is a debt we can never pay. And Jesus, God in human flesh, says, “I have come to pay it. I give my life to pay this ransom.”
Second, when we experience this forgiveness and freedom through the death of Jesus, we discover that for the rest of our lives, and for the rest of eternity, Jesus works for us. Omnipotence works for us. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” — meaning, through all our pleasures and all our pain, Jesus is working to bring us to everlasting happiness in the presence of the all-satisfying God.
This is the good news of great joy that made the angels sing. It’s yours tonight, if you renounce the way of Herod and embrace the way of the wise men: they fell down and worshiped.
The song that we are about to hear, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” will end on a note that will be a perfect moment in the pilgrimage of your life to do what the wise men did: to say to Jesus, “My heart is not my own. It’s yours. I worship you, my King, my Treasure.”
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By Betsy Howard — 1 year ago
ABSTRACT: Seventeenth-century poet George Herbert once likened the experience of meditating on Scripture to inhaling a shooting star: the Bible disrupted his insides, shook his heart, and demanded visceral expression. So, as pastor of a rural country parish in southern England, he expounded Reformation doctrine and spirituality in what would come to be recognized as some of the best devotional poetry in the English language. A look at Herbert’s canon reveals why he felt the need to express scriptural doctrine in heartfelt verse, and it also illustrates some of the differences between Protestant and Catholic spirituality at the time. By expressing the theology of the Reformation in poetry, Herbert’s work adorns Protestant doctrine with an appropriately affectional response.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Betsy Howard, assistant professor of literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to explore the craft of George Herbert’s devotional poetry.
In addition to his two English poems probing the intricacies of the Bible, George Herbert (1593–1633) viscerally describes the experience of meditating on Scripture in his Latin poem “In S. Scripturas,” or “On Holy Scriptures”:
Alas, what spirit, and ardent whirlwindTurns my thoughtsOver in my heart of hearts?Sitting by the doors at eveningHave I inhaled a shooting star,What’s more, not knowing howTo lie wholly hidden in a foul lodging,Is she considering escape?Did I, in eating honey, eat the beeSwallowing her home with the queen?1
In “In S. Scripturas,” Herbert links meditation not with its cognate descriptor, ruminating, and the metaphor of a cow’s slow digestion through its four-part stomach, but with windstorms, burning balls of gas ricocheting with uncontainable kinetic energy through the body, and the festering pain of an esophageal bee sting. For Herbert, Scripture moves forcefully and uncomfortably in a place that is “imo pectore” or, as he describes elsewhere, “hart-deep.”2 Tornados, meteors, and beestings are Herbert’s metaphorical amplifications of Scripture’s ability to disrupt one’s spiritual insides, much like the declaration in the book of Hebrews that the word of God can pierce “to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow” (Hebrews 4:12).
Given our modern cultural stereotypes of seventeenth-century Reformation spirituality, we might find ourselves surprised by the bizarre, violent beauty and the ludicrous aptness of Herbert’s comparing an evening spent meditating on Scripture to the shock of accidentally sucking in a shooting star. While the degree of vitality and imaginative energy in Herbert’s verse finds, perhaps, few contemporary peers,3 the activity of moving from scriptural and doctrinal study to composing verse adaptations of Scripture and devotional poetry was popular, even commonplace, in early seventeenth-century English Reformation culture.
Exploring the explicit connections that Herbert draws between scriptural study, the affections, and eloquence, and then setting this see-feel-say chain within the complex devotional culture developing out of and in response to various strains of the Reformation, may help to explain the popularity of theologically oriented verse in Herbert’s day. Within a larger diverse culture of devotional poetry encouraged by the Reformers and the Counter-Reformers alike, seventeenth-century English Protestantism tethered understanding to feeling and expression in ways that fostered theology expounded in poetry.
“For an early-modern English Protestant, believing a biblical truth did not stop with intellectual assent.”
To clarify how a widespread flurry of devotional poetry might accompany the exegetical and catechetical labors of the English Reformation, this essay appeals to Herbert’s canon to demonstrate how early-modern English Protestants turned to poetry to expound and amplify the theological convictions that they rooted in their readings of Scripture. Then, to answer how divergent Catholic and Protestant confessional approaches impacted a widespread culture of devotional poetry, this essay turns to the subgenre of lacrimatic poetry — or the poetry of devout sorrow — to explore how Herbert articulates a theology of godly sorrow. Herbert’s poetry of tears is both wary of Counter-Reformation treatments of penitence and eager to supplant mannered depictions of weeping in devotional poetry with probing, visceral ones. He expands facets of Reformation soteriology by linking tears of contrition to tears shed over Christ’s passion to tears wept for the sins and sorrows of others.
Devotional Poetry as Theological Amplification
One of the English Reformation habits of heart and mind that encouraged the composition of devotional poetry was a conviction that orthodoxy leads to doxology. In other words, for an early-modern English Protestant, believing a biblical truth did not stop with intellectual assent; instead, the more attention one gave to teasing out the implications of a particular doctrine or a passage of Scripture, the more one expected to be moved, and this affective response — whether love and admiration or distress and conviction — found a consistent outlet in the composition of devotional poetry. This is how Herbert’s metaphor of the shooting star works in “In S. Scripturas”: the narrator has taken in some portion of Scripture, and it not only comes in forcefully but will, we expect, come out again with significant force. Thus, in the poem’s argument, meditation on Scripture provokes the affections toward utterance.
Herbert’s “In S. Scripturas” is a doxological celebration of Scripture’s affective power, just as chapter 7 of his didactic prose work The Country Parson encourages parsons to bring to their congregation “texts of Devotion,” which Herbert defines as “moving and ravishing texts, whereof the Scriptures are full.”4 Here, Herbert not only assumes that parishioners can and will inhale their own shooting stars in Scripture, but he also expects that his fellow parsons will have already been so moved. He insists that, when parsons preach, they “dip . . . and season . . . all our words and sentences in our hearts, . . . so that the auditors may plainly perceive that every word is hart-deep.”5 In his culinary metaphor, Herbert exhorts fellow parsons to marinate their words in their affections, knowing that our affections help us to adorn what is already beautiful so as to help others see its beauty.
“For Herbert, ‘hart-deep’ words reflected a genuine desire to share beautifully what he had found to be beautiful.”
For Herbert, however, speech flavored by the affections is the opposite of affectation or what we might call performative, mannered speech. As a professionally trained orator who left his position at Cambridge for the pastorate, Herbert was acutely sensitive to slipping into sounding merely witty, or learned, or eloquent. He took with him to the Bemerton pulpit of southern England his skills of imaginative precision and persuasion, and he wrestled openly in his verse with a fear that the beauty of his poetry might be merely rhetorical show. At the same time, Herbert shouldered the particular responsibility and reality of shepherding in a rural country parish, where he recognized that he would need to take greater pains “by all possible art” to help his parishioners cultivate their attention to Scripture.6 Kate Narveson identifies Herbert’s posthumous collection of English verse, titled The Temple by his friend Nicholas Ferrar, as “didactic devotional guide” within a “culture of practical divinity.”7 If Herbert’s Temple displays his unique elocutionary talent, it simultaneously showcases a pastoral desire to stir up the affections of others toward God. For Herbert, “hart-deep” words reflected a genuine desire to share beautifully what he had found to be beautiful.8
What then does such genuine, heart-soaked speech sound like? Although in The Country Parson Herbert is teaching on the genre of sermon-craft, marinated speech readily suggests rhetorical genres like poetry that linger, amplify, and expound. Fresh paraphrase, arresting comparisons, and resonating word pairs reframe even the most quotidian truths and underscore the most astounding. In The Temple, Herbert returns again and again to spiritual themes demanding further consideration. He has five poems titled “Affliction,” all of which wrestle with the question of suffering from a different angle; he also has three poems on Scripture, three on love, two on prayer, two on baptism, and two on the temper, not to mention the times that each of these themes reappears in other poems. In his poetry, Herbert makes a “study of himself,”9 laboring to explicate his own desires and motivations, his agonies and his joys, as a means of working Scripture’s claims into the woof and weave of his everyday life, making them square with the varied, uneven nature of his own experience.
Scripture in Paraphrase
Herbert’s spiritual-literary habit of writing and rewriting poems on passages of Scripture and doctrines derived from Scripture against the grid of his own experience evinces his participation in a larger early-modern English Protestant surge of scriptural studies, which extended well beyond family and private Bible reading or exegetical homilies into a wide range of Scripture-based activities.
Chana Bloch has described Herbert’s poetic style as “a kind of biblical shorthand,”10 and as Brian Hanson illuminates, Herbert was hardly unique in his habit of amplifying Scripture: alongside devotional poetry, the seventeenth century witnessed a proliferation of devotional prayer books and catechisms.11 Gary Kuchar describes entering a seventeenth-century Anglican church as an experience akin to entering a “scrapbook of scripture,” given the prominence of biblical texts on the walls and windows and in the daily liturgical reading from the Book of Common Prayer.12 Narveson roots the flourishing of devotional poetry, in particular, in the seventeenth-century Protestant treatment of the Psalms as “infinitely expandable” by elaboration and paraphrase, since they provide an example of how to “express and anatomize the godly heart.”13 Catholics and Protestants alike shared a preference for the popularly designated “seven penitential psalms” as “the foundation of domestic devotional culture,”14 particularly in new metrical renderings.15 Even Sir Francis Bacon published a “translation” (an adaptation) of these seven psalms.
The easy metric adaptability and the expressive vulnerability of the Psalms were not the only devotional models that scriptural study provided early-modern readers; Herbert’s “Holy Scriptures II” underscores Scripture’s syntopical mode, where “this verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie.”16 Early-modern Protestant devotional poetry, including a significant corpus by women poets, cultivated habits of comparative reading by joining and juxtaposing passages.17 Like the handmade Scripture harmonies produced by Herbert’s friends at Little Gidding,18 composing devotional poetry was often an activity of analysis and organization just as much as it was an exercise in spiritual reflection and expression. Its beauty, therefore, was often one of parataxis and collation.19
Poetry of Tears
As cataloged by Hannibal Hamlin, however, seventeenth-century English devotional poetry’s popularity was not limited to Reformation spiritual practices. The Catholic Counter-Reformation also placed a strong emphasis on a culture of devotion, including the composition, circulation, and reading of devotional poetry. While we could catalog the general differences between Catholic and Protestant English devotional poetry, it might be more helpful to pick one shared mode — the poetry of tears, which Kuchar identifies as a “literary agon” of the day — and use it to distinguish between Counter-Reformation impulses and Protestant ones.20 We can then assess how Herbert engages this popular (and theologically contested) subgenre as he explores the characteristics of godly sorrow.
Kinds of ‘Devout Sorrow’
While the connection between tears and contrition was common and significant both to Catholic and Protestant devotional traditions in the seventeenth century, Richard Strier distinguishes two important differences between the Catholic and Protestant traditions as it relates to tears’ role in repentance: early-modern Catholicism approached repentance as a multiple-step process, including contrition, confession to a priest, and satisfaction.21 Strier clarifies, and Hanson corroborates, that Protestant traditions expected contrition and its visible tears as integral to repentance, but they understood such tears to be the fruit of forgiveness rather than its cause.22 Hamlin summarizes the distinction: both seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation and Protestant theological traditions shared practices of penitential devotion, including rewriting, reciting, and adapting the penitential psalms, but only Catholic practices of penitence required further acts of penance.23 As a result, in devotional verse, Counter-Reformation depictions of weeping are often mannered or stylized, as seen in the poetry of Herbert’s Catholic contemporary Richard Crashaw, as distinct from a rawness and “introspective intensity” in Protestant verse employed to communicate what Barbara Lewalski identifies as a markedly affective response to God’s work in the heart.24
In addition to the penitential verse that often foregrounded the activity of weeping, Kuchar identifies a shared Protestant and Catholic devotional tradition of devout sorrowing over Christ’s passion and his agony, what he calls the “compassio” — one in which the weeper suffers in remembering Christ’s suffering.25 Herbert’s poetry of tears reflects Kuchar’s first two modes of devotional sorrow: penitential and compassio sorrow. Herbert’s “Grief” and the weeper in “The Thanksgiving,” who responds to Christ’s tears in “The Sacrifice,” for example, display penitential tears as the fruit of genuine repentance that then overflow in remembrance of Christ’s suffering. But Herbert’s canon offers us a distinct third category of devout sorrow — a weeping over the sin and suffering of others, as demonstrated in Herbert’s “Church-Rents and Schisms.” I identify these tears on behalf of others as second kind of compassio, which is at its heart an evangelistic compassion — modeled after God’s grieving for us, whether Christ’s in “The Sacrifice” or the Holy Spirit’s in “Ephesians 4:30,” and rooted in Herbert’s understanding of genuine love as a concern for another’s holiness.
In his penitential mode, in his compassio meditations, and then in his compassionate tears, Herbert presents crying as a form of labor doomed, in part, to the failure of insufficiency. Nonetheless, across his poems, he suggests the real possibility of spiritual gain by means of tears in the midst of and even because of their insufficiency. If tears cannot be proportional to that which there is to grieve, what does the apparent failure of tears in Herbert teach us? In presenting the insufficiency of our tears, Herbert recalibrates devotional expectations for the “literature of tears” in Protestant practice by illuminating how tears of contrition, tears of compassio for Christ, and tears of compassion for others all transform the weepers, drawing them closer to Christ in an increased knowledge of self, an increased gratitude for Christ’s atoning death, and an increased imitation of Christ.
Sorrow over Self
If the knowledge of one’s sin is ever expanding, such a theological framework demands an ever-increasing degree and scope of mourning over sin. No matter the amount of tears, Herbert’s logic runs, our sins are more, such that we never grieve proportionately to our offenses. That one weeps more for one’s sins, nevertheless, is perceived as spiritual growth. It is much like the experience of sitting for one’s doctoral exams: the more one studies, the more one is acutely aware of how little one knows, but this sense of an increasing lack of knowledge over time quantitatively translates to more knowledge than any earlier moment.
“That one weeps more for one’s sins is perceived as spiritual growth and increased self-knowledge.”
These ever-increasing tears of contrition are the tears of “Grief,” in which Herbert modifies the pathetic fallacy: nature does not weep for him or his sins; instead, Herbert’s narrator wishes he could harness the natural world to augment or supplement his own tears. Because “Grief” pits tears and what Kuchar calls their “raw sincerity” against mannered speech as a test of genuine contrition, it is not to be lost on us that the narrator wishes to supplement his tears with other forms of “raw” water: springs, clouds, rain.26 The narrator’s crying is a primordial moment summoning the undistinguished watery chaos before creation; Herbert’s narrator wishes to “suck” into his veins “all the wat’ry things / That nature hath produc’d.”27 Herbert demands an absurd amount of water, reflecting a high degree of the narrator’s self-knowledge: he needs ocean-faucets for eyes.
Sorrow over Christ
A devotional compassio mode, meanwhile, is the epistemological counterweight to an ever-increasing sense of one’s own sorry state — to know one’s sins better is to come to better see the sufferings of Christ. As the covering of our sins is made possible only by the sufferings of Christ, any meditation on one’s own sins is always opportunity to weep for the weeping Christ. As John Drury describes, Christ’s suffering for Herbert is a double “epiphany”: that Christ suffered is inextricably bound up with why Christ suffered.28 Christ cries out in “The Sacrifice” to the disciples, “Weep not, dear friends, since I for both have wept / When all my tears were blood, the while you slept: / Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept: / Was ever grief like mine?”29 The poem’s dominant epiphany is that Christ has suffered. But “The Thanksgiving” is quick to pair Christ’s agony with its cause — which then translates to more tears for the narrator:
O King of grief! (a title strange, yet true, To thee of all kings only due)O King of wounds! how shall I grieve for thee, Who in all grief preventest me?Shall I weep blood? why, thou hast wept such store That all thy body was one door.30
Beyond the arresting image of Christ depicted as a huge bloody, weeping eye, the increased agony of the weeper also registers strongly in the stanza. Here Herbert captures the contradiction of Christ’s passion: if our reckoning with our sins doesn’t lead to despair, it inevitably leads to relief as meditation on our sins is transformed into gratitude for Christ’s suffering. Simultaneously, however, our own discomfort increases, for compassio easily flows out of a contrition that recognizes Christ’s suffering as a result of our sinning.31
Sorrow over Others
The sufferings of Christ increase our tears shed for him, but Herbert returns to Christ’s tears as yet a final model for our own devotional sorrow. In his depiction of Christ’s passion, Herbert’s “The Sacrifice” introduces a Christ who weeps not only for himself and his own suffering, but also for us, and therefore he creates a final category of devout sorrow: compassion for a sinner or sufferer for whom one does not bear any culpability. “The Sacrifice” announces that Christ “has wept” for both himself and the disciples. Beyond the contrite narrator-sinner weeping, Christ figures as the most prominent weeper in Herbert’s poems. Because Christ does not sin, Herbert makes clear that devout sorrow extends beyond sorrowing for our own sin. Christ’s suffering on our behalf is closely tied to his sorrowing for our sins and our state — it is a compassionate, personal weeping, like Rachel weeping for her children who are no more.
Herbert’s Christ in “The Sacrifice” echoes the grieving Holy Spirit in his poem “Ephesians 4:30,” where Herbert’s narrator grounds his grief in the grief of the Holy Spirit. The compassionate grieving of God for him motivates him to grieve his sin, and thus God’s compassion for our sin and our state provokes the grieving of contrition and, in turn, the compassio: “Then weep mine eyes, the God of love doth grieve: / Weep foolish heart, / And weeping live.”32 Herbert moves from God’s grieving for him to his acknowledgement that such sorrow is beyond his nature: “since still to wail / Nature denies; / And flesh would fail” to weep enough for his sin. He finds his resolution, therefore, in the blood/tears of Christ in a contrition that lingers in the compassio mode: “Lord, pardon, for thy son makes good / My want of tears with store of blood.”
The compassion of Christ for sufferers and sinners, in turn, creates the model for Herbert’s weeping narrator in “Church-rents and schisms.” Herbert’s narrator cries for the global church in her decline, personalizing the crisis by personifying church as mother:
O Mother dear and kindWhere shall I get me eyes enough to weep,As many eyes as stars? . . .. . . would at least I might With these two poor ones lick up all the dew, Which falls by night, and pour it out for you!33
Herbert’s speaker mourns for a bickering church as Jeremiah weeps for the Israelites: “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1). The tears in Herbert’s poetry display a strong ethos of sorrowing over sin and suffering — both one’s own and another’s. Because the diverse occasions to sorrow and the degrees of human sorrow are seemingly endless, so too Herbert’s call for tears without end.
But in the same way that Herbert’s metaphors turn to the natural world that God has made to augment insufficient tears, Herbert’s poems assert that God himself will provide a stock of more tears in the dew that comes like new mercies in the morning. Herbert’s poetry of devout sorrow offers a twofold consolation model. On the one hand, his sorrowing over sins repeatedly resolves itself by pivoting from a greater knowledge of one’s sins to meditations on Christ’s passion, with ever-increasing gratitude because Christ’s death cancels all manner and degree of sin. But in Herbert’s poetry of tears, Christ is not only our Savior; he is also a model to us. If Christ has wept for us, so we also are to weep for ourselves and for one another.
Among his contemporaries, Herbert weighs in on the theological meaning of tears by illustrating how tears evidence that contrition is a fruit of repentance prompted by the work of the Holy Spirit. In Herbert’s poetry, the tears shed in remembrance of Christ’s passion highlight his suffering for our sins such that our own tears need not be those of despair but of gratitude. As Christ weeps for us, Herbert also finds it fitting that Christians weep for others in their sin and suffering.
Pastor and poet, George Herbert participated in an early-modern English Reformation theological culture that understood devotional poetry as an appropriate, even expected, affective response to meditating on Scripture. Poetry provided for Herbert both a genre in which to anatomize his own motives and affections as well as a platform to amplify Christ’s death on his behalf and God’s (often inscrutable) work. By leaving a collection of his poetry at his death to Nicholas Ferrar for potential publication, Herbert recast his poems of private devotion as those of pedagogical devotion, provoking others to engage heart-deep with Scripture and Scripture’s God.
By Mark D. Thompson — 2 weeks ago
ABSTRACT: Faithful discipleship means following Jesus and submitting to his authority in every area of life, including how we treat the Bible. Jesus appealed to the authority of Scripture in the face of temptation and opposition. He used it in teaching his disciples. And importantly, he looked to Scripture to explain who he was, the message he preached, and the works he accomplished. Faithful reading of Scripture follows in Jesus’s steps by submitting to the authority of the Bible that both anticipates and explains him.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Mark D. Thompson (DPhil, University of Oxford), principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, to explain how Jesus treated Scripture and how his approach shapes the task of Christian theology.
What does it mean to be a Christian disciple? Putting it as simply as possible, being a disciple means following Jesus Christ. Christian disciples want to follow their Lord in everything, to be shaped by his teaching and his example in the way they think, feel, and behave. We want him at the center of our perspective on the world, his mission as the priority of our life, his glory our chief concern in every endeavor. That is as true for the Christian theologian as for any other disciple.
Christian theology can helpfully start at any number of places. Its fundamental ground lies in the triune God himself. Theology has long been defined as “words about God and all things in relation to God.” Yet because what we know about God is made known by God — spoken through the prophets and apostles, and given to us in the more permanent form of Scripture — all true theology arises from and is tested by the Bible. So, we could start the discussion of any theological topic with a reflection upon the person of the triune God or upon what the Bible tells us about that specific topic.
But what makes theology specifically Christian theology is the critical place accorded to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God and Savior of the world. He is the one in whom the revelation of the triune God finds its proper focus (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:1–3; 2 Corinthians 1:20), he is the one who enables us to come before the God who made us without fear (Ephesians 3:11–12), and he is the one who both endorsed the Old Testament (Luke 24:44) and commissioned the apostolic program that produced the New Testament (Matthew 28:19–20). Prior attention to what Jesus taught is how the Christian theologian demonstrates faithful discipleship.
Jesus’s View of Scripture
With that understanding of theology in mind, when we think about the nature and function of the Bible — “the enduring authority of the Christian Scriptures” (as one impressive tome puts it) — keeping Jesus at the center of our thinking is not optional.1
The record we have of his life and teaching in the Gospels comes from eyewitnesses, either directly in the case of Matthew and John or indirectly in the case of Mark (who, early testimony confirms, recorded the recollections of Peter) and Luke (the companion of Paul who collected statements from a vast number of eyewitnesses and wove them into a coherent narrative). Studies of the phenomenon of eyewitness testimony point out not only that the Gospels were “written within the living memory of the events they recount,” but that even the differences of perspective and detail confirm rather than undermine their veracity.2 The Gospels are the recollections of multiple eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did, and thus they reveal what Jesus thought about the authority of Scripture.3
What, then, are we told about Jesus’s attitude toward the Scriptures he inherited (our Old Testament) and those by means of which his apostles would fulfill his commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth until the end of the age (the New Testament)?
Authority of the Old Testament
Most basically, Jesus understood the words of the Old Testament to bear the authority of God, an authority that surpasses that of any other person, institution, or body of writing. This is clear from his appeal to Old Testament texts when tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11), when challenged by the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 19:1–9; 22:15–46), and when teaching his disciples (Mark 9:13; 14:21, 27). At each point, the Scriptures he quotes are enough to settle the matter. They are definitive in the sense that they are what God has to say on the matter.
The temptation in the wilderness is an interesting case in point. There are clear parallels here to the temptation faced by Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:1–6). The tactic employed by Satan in the garden of Eden is one he has continued to employ throughout human history. He casts doubt first on the clarity of God’s word (“Did God actually say . . . ?”), then on the truthfulness of God’s word (“You will not surely die”), and then finally on the character of God and the motives behind his word (“God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”).
Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan. There he had heard the voice from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
It should be no surprise, then, that the first temptation Jesus encounters is to doubt the word of God and seek to prove his identity on some other terms: “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Matthew 4:6). Jesus responds by appealing to Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
With the second temptation, Satan assaults the truthfulness of God’s promise in Psalm 91, to which Jesus answers with Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7).
The third temptation, to fall down and worship the devil, is an assault upon God himself and is met with Deuteronomy 6:13: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10). At each point, Jesus’s confidence in the word of God and its authority is on display.
In his exchanges with the Pharisees, Jesus often cites Scripture with the words “it is written” (Mark 7:6; John 6:45; 8:17) or “have you not read?” (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10). Jesus expects the words that God had given his people through the prophets to be sufficient to settle the matter. He tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to make precisely that point (Luke 16:19–31). It is of no use to search for confirmations in the miraculous, as hard hearts will always find ways to explain the evidence away, as they did when the tomb was empty after Jesus’s resurrection (Matthew 28:13). “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
The “have you not read” question has an edge to it. Jesus expects them not only to have read but to have understood, believed, and obeyed what they read. This question carries with it the assumption that the meaning of Scripture is accessible. In the words of the Protestant Reformers, Scripture is clear. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every single part of the Old Testament is simple or easy. It doesn’t mean that any individual text can be plucked out of its context and, without reference to the rest of the Old Testament, immediately make sense. Nevertheless, it is accessible. Comparing one part of Scripture with another, the harder parts with the easier, sheds light over time.
Seeing Jesus’s life and ministry as the fulfillment of the promises made in the Old Testament puts the last and most important piece in place (which is what the Ethiopian eunuch found in Acts 8:26–38). But the point that Jesus is making is that what we have been given is enough — enough for the Israelites who had only the words from Sinai (Deuteronomy 29:29); enough for those who only had the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (our Old Testament, Luke 24:44); and enough for those who have all that and its fulfillment in the gospel and in the ministry of Jesus’s specially commissioned messengers, the apostles (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Jesus as Old Testament Fulfillment
It is especially important that Jesus locates himself, his identity, and his mission against the backdrop of the history and promises of the Old Testament. At the very beginning of his ministry, when he attends the synagogue at Nazareth, he reads Isaiah’s prophecy of the one anointed by God in Isaiah 61 and then says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
His favorite form of self-description, “the Son of Man,” evokes the scene in Daniel 7 where “one like a son of man” is given the authority to execute the judgments of God. Though he does not use the title “Son of David” for himself, he responds positively to those who do, and he himself makes use of Psalm 110, which refers to the Davidic King (Matthew 22:42–45). When he is identified as the promised King coming to Jerusalem, and the Pharisees insist he rebuke those who do so, he answers, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
He contrasts the hard-heartedness of the religious leaders with the responses to the wisdom of Solomon (Matthew 12:42) and the preaching of Jonah (Matthew 12:41), and he says, “Something greater than Jonah is here. . . . Something greater than Solomon is here.”
As the time of his crucifixion approaches, he speaks more frequently of the prophecies concerning the suffering of the Messiah (Luke 9:22; 17:25; cf. 24:26–27), and at the Last Supper he uses the language of the “blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:28; Exodus 24:8), and the “new covenant” (Luke 22:20; Jeremiah 31:31), to describe what is unfolding on the night of his arrest. He knows that, as the suffering servant, he will be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37; Isaiah 53:12).
In sum, Jesus clearly understood himself in Old Testament categories and as the fulfillment of various strands of prophetic promise in the Old Testament.
Jesus’s Exegetical Method
Jesus understood the deep structures of the Old Testament: its covenant framework (Luke 22:20), its dynamic of promise and fulfillment (Matthew 26:54, 56), and its focus on the descendants of Abraham in a way that includes outsiders like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25–27). In the Sermon on the Mount, he exposes the real intent of the Law: not mere outward observance, but a changed heart and a deep personal faithfulness that demonstrates a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17–48).
Intriguingly, in a debate with the Sadducees over the resurrection, Jesus appeals to the account of Moses’s encounter with God at the bush that did not burn up. There God told the great prophet of the Old Testament, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6, 15). At first glance, Exodus 3 says nothing about the resurrection of the dead (and, to be fair, Jesus doesn’t say it does). Yet if you believe what God says in Exodus 3, then you cannot avoid the conclusion that life continues beyond the grave, and the dead are indeed raised. The Sadducees’ denial of the resurrection is entirely wrong if you take those words of Scripture seriously. Jesus here identifies what later theologians would describe as a “good and necessary consequence” of the teaching of Exodus 3. He demonstrates the same principle by his reflection on Psalm 110 in Mark 12: “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” (Mark 12:37).
There is nothing superficial about Jesus’s appeal to Scripture, which is a constant feature of his ministry. The word of God (and he refers to it as such in Matthew 15:6) gave him his understanding of himself and his mission, and directed all that he did during his earthly ministry. He was confident in its authority and reliability, even to the smallest details. He might not have written a treatise on the doctrine of Scripture or even delivered a sermon devoted to unfolding each of its characteristics. Neither did he use the terms we so often associate with the doctrine, such as inspiration, inerrancy, perspicuity, sufficiency, efficacy, and the like. Nevertheless, the way he spoke of and used Scripture confirms he believed in all these things.
Authority of the New Testament
All of this raises the question of the New Testament. Since it did not exist during the time of Jesus’s earthly ministry, there was no New Testament text with which he might interact. However, the critical thing about the New Testament is its connection to the ministry of the apostles, those called and set apart by Jesus to be the foundational messengers of the gospel.
Jesus entrusted his words to the apostles. He commissioned them in a unique way. Revelation 21 signals their significance in the great vision of the New Jerusalem: just as the gates of the New Jerusalem are inscribed with the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel, so the twelve great foundations of the city contain “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:12–14).
In the upper room, on the night he is arrested, Jesus promises his disciples the Spirit of truth, who will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26), “guide you into all the truth,” (John 16:13), and “take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14). Having been given all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus commissions them to “go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).
The apostolic authority of the apostles — including Paul, as “one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8) — lies behind the New Testament. They were Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). They had a unique place in God’s purposes arising from their commissioning by the risen Jesus. While all subsequent faithful Christian ministry takes up their message and follows their example, they maintain that special role. Jesus gave them his words (John 17:14) and even prayed for those who would believe because of the words they would share (John 17:20). Thus, Jesus’s attitude toward this apostolic ministry shapes and guides ours toward the New Testament.
Seeing What Jesus Saw
The Christian faith is a personal trust in a living Lord. It means delighting in God and all that he has done in creating us and redeeming us. It means following his Son, given so that the terrifying problem of our sin might be dealt with from the inside, thoroughly and forever. There remains something deeply personal about genuine Christian discipleship. Jesus is not known from a distance.
Tragically, some have attempted to set this personal relationship of trust and love over against confident yet humble obedience to the teaching of Scripture. “We follow Jesus, not the Bible,” one man foolishly wrote.4 Yet that is a false choice that would have made no sense at all to Jesus himself. If we are going to take Jesus seriously, we must take the Bible seriously, because he did! Conversely, if we do not take the Bible seriously — expecting our thinking to be changed, shaped, and directed by its teaching — then in the end we are not taking Jesus seriously. Jesus and the Bible are not somehow competitors for the mantle of truth. The one who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) also said to his Father, “I have given them your word. . . . Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:14, 17).
What did Jesus see in the Scriptures? He saw the written word of God given for the rich benefit of his people and the glory of his own name. He saw a word that challenges facile religiosity and invites us into the joy of faithful living in fellowship with the God who created all things with just a word. He saw a word that is worth trusting because, though what was written was originally written by human beings, it came into existence only through the work of the Holy Spirit. These are truly the words of Moses or David or Jeremiah, actively and creatively involved in their utterance — but these are finally the words of God to us.
So, Christian theologians, like all other disciples of the Lord Jesus, find in him the example that challenges and directs all that they do. Keeping Jesus at the center of our doctrine of Scripture prevents us from pitting his authority against that of the biblical text. It also keeps us from unsettling the proper balance between biblical theology and historical theology, even in the interest of a retrieval of “the great theological tradition,” as God’s words are always more important than the words of those who speak about God.
Finally, it reminds us that our engagement with Scripture is personal and relational, not merely theoretical and abstract, though it does involve the applications of our minds. We cannot rightly speak about God from a distance or (as a friend of mine used to say) “as if he has just stepped out of the room for a minute.”
In following Jesus, we find that we stand in the place indicated by the prophet Isaiah: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).
By Marshall Segal — 2 years ago
Before you make resolves for the new year — before you start a reading plan, or choose a diet, or buy a journal, or step on a treadmill — find a why worth changing for. As many more have observed before me, our resolutions often wilt because we didn’t have a why big enough to weather the inevitable temptations, distractions, and setbacks.
So what will your why be for the year to come? For me, I want my life to prove the worth of my calling from God. Not my calling to ministry, but my calling to God — the calling every genuine Christian shares. My why comes from 2 Thessalonians 1:11:
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.
What evidence do we see in our lives that we have been called by God? What might someone else see in us this year that would suggest something supernatural has happened? What habits might hint that we have been claimed by heaven? Will we live worthy of our calling — or not?
Could We Ever Be Worthy?
Does a Christian resolution for worthiness rub you the wrong way? “We pray for you that our God may make you worthy of his calling.” But none of us is worthy of this calling. Surely the apostle Paul knew that more than anyone.
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Romans 3:10–12)
“Who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. (Romans 11:35–36)
How could a sinner ever merit anything from God? We can’t. And yet God himself says, through his apostle, that we can be considered — by God — worthy of his calling. What would that mean? Not that we could ever earn or deserve this calling, but that we could increasingly honor the calling we have received by grace alone, based on the merits of Christ alone.
Godliness Honors God
Apart from Christ, we will never deserve to be called children of God, but we can still disgrace the calling we have been freely given — or we can adorn our precious calling with an ambitious godliness. “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works . . . so that in everything [you] may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:7, 10). Our lives can become a wild, grace-filled bouquet laid upon the saving and sufficient work of Jesus — a worthy reflection of his love, his cross, his power, his worth.
Again, Paul says, “[We pray] that our God may make you worthy of his calling . . . so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12). This is the worthiness of another world. As it grows and spreads in a redeemed life, it doesn’t welcome praise to itself, but gladly bows to worship Christ. The worthiness God finds in us glorifies the greatness of Jesus.
“Any worthiness God finds in us only glorifies the greatness of Jesus.”
Our worthiness proves his worth, not ours. Why? Because worthiness in us is an evidence and expression of his grace. God makes us worthy “according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We strive for a worthiness that draws others’ curiosity and admiration not to ourselves, but to him. We want them to think, Someone who lives like that must know something about life, about reality, about God that I don’t yet know. I want to know what they know and love like they love.
Worthiness in Real Life
So what might this worthiness look like in another new year? A few verses earlier, Paul unfolds the worthiness he sees blossoming in the Thessalonian church:
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. (2 Thessalonians 1:3–5)
How specifically was their worthiness displayed? Their faith and love held fast through suffering. And not just held fast, but grew. And not just grew, but grew abundantly. The apostle could see that God was for them and in them, because they were seeking God with greater intensity, trusting him with greater peace, and loving one another with greater devotion. Greater — greater faith, greater love, greater patience, greater peace, greater discipline, greater joy — greater is a worthy resolve for a new year.
Where, specifically, could you grow abundantly in the next year? What area of your spiritual life and love for others needs to be revived or nurtured toward greater maturity? Find a greater resolve to focus on, and hold onto, as you step into another January.
Made Worthy in the Valley
Don’t miss that the church in Thessalonica was made more worthy through their suffering. “We ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:4). Their hardships had become a dark and painful backdrop on which their faithfulness could shine.
Would anyone have seen their steadfastness in Christ if they hadn’t experienced adversity? Suffering, for them, offered an opportunity to experience more of God’s strength and mercy, and suffering also made it easier for others to see the God who was motivating and sustaining them.
How might that change how we think about the sufferings that will come over the next year? When our plans and resolves are inevitably disrupted and disappointed, will we assume suffering is only an enemy? Or, in the hands of our God, could suffering actually be a strange and precious friend of our worthiness?
The Who in Good Resolves
New resolves often fail without a well-defined, deeply-felt why, but they also fail because of a misplaced who.
“Before you make any resolves for the new year, find a why worth changing for.”
Look carefully, again, at verse 11: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” Who makes our lives worthy of such a calling? God does. Who fulfills our resolves for good and our works of faith? God does. Whose power will be the decisive agent for lasting change in our lives? His power.
Good resolves begin and end with God. Which means good resolves begin and persevere through prayer. And so Paul does not merely charge the Thessalonians to live worthy of their calling; he prays for them to be made worthy. “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling. . . .”
So how might we pray for greater faith and love in the new year?
Lord, I am not content to have last year’s love for you. I want a deeper, sweeter, more active faith in you. Nurture what you have planted in my soul. Prune away more of my remaining sin. Make the sufferings to come magnify your work in me. By whatever means necessary, cause me to grow and to grow abundantly. In Jesus’s name and for his greater glory in us, Amen.