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Let me review briefly what we have seen so far about Wisdom and Jesus before I dive into today’s new material.
I began this series with a simple question: Why did Jesus’ followers start thinking that he was, not just a human teacher and savior, but God in the flesh? Then I considered several popular answers to this question, none of which quite do the job. So I began to examine what the first Christians believed about Jesus and why. I then documented the exaltation of Jesus as Lord, and showed how the early Christian understanding of Jesus as savior contributed to seeing him as God.
In my last two posts I illustrated how Jesus was identified with divine Wisdom. The Jewish Wisdom Tradition often spoke of God’s Wisdom as if “she” were a female character, a consort of the Lord himself. The Jewish sages didn’t actually believe that Wisdom was some sort of goddess alongside the one true Lord, of course. But they exercised considerable poetic freedom in the way they portrayed God’s Wisdom as a female being.
In my last post I focused on the prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18). Here John waxes eloquent about the Word of God, active both in creation and in revelation. Behind John’s notion of the Word lies the Jewish conception of Wisdom, as demonstrated by many clear parallels between Wisdom in Jewish tradition and the Word in John 1:1-18. Today I want to examine even more striking connections along this same line. (Photo: A contemporary model of the Tabernacle. Photo used with permission of holylandphotos.org.)
The first comes from the post-biblical Wisdom document known as Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus). Here divine Wisdom is pictured in this way:
Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. . . .
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist. . . .
Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I sought a resting place;
in whose territory should I abide?
“Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.’
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion. (Sir 24:1-3, 6-10)
Glorious Wisdom, who existed in the beginning and who came forth from the mouth of God (as God’s Word) was seeking a place among people. God chose a special place for her tent, telling Wisdom to make her dwelling (literally, to pitch her tent) in Jacob. And what exactly was this tent? It was the tabernacle, later the temple, in which God was present on earth.
Another Jewish sage who went by the name of Baruch also waxed eloquent about Wisdom’s presence among the Jewish people:
Learn where there is wisdom,
where there is strength,
where there is understanding, . . .
Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses?
No one knows the way to her,
or is concerned about the path to her.
But the one who knows all things knows her,
he found her by his understanding. . . .
This is our God;
no other can be compared to him.
He found the whole way to knowledge,
and gave her to his servant Jacob
and to Israel, whom he loved.
Afterward she appeared on earth
and lived with humankind.
She is the book of the commandments of God,
the law that endures forever.
All who hold her fast will live,
and those who forsake her will die.
Turn, O Jacob, and take her;
walk toward the shining of her light. (Bar 3:14-15, 31-32, 35-37; 4:1-2)
In Baruch’s vision, Wisdom wanted to be found by people, but they were uninterested in her. So God sent her to earth in the form of the law of Moses. One who embraces the law walks toward Wisdom’s light.
Both Sirach and Baruch envision God’s Wisdom as desiring to be found by people who fail to receive her. But Wisdom, glorious and shining with light, comes to earth to dwell among people. According to Sirach, her “tent” is the Jewish tabernacle/temple. For Baruch, she takes the form of the Mosaic law. True life will be found by the person who embraces Wisdom, either by participating in the Jewish sacrificial cult or by accepting and living by the Torah.
Now, with this picture of Wisdom’s visit to earth firmly in mind, read again these lines from John’s prologue:
In the beginning was the Word . . .
What has come to being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, . . .
The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:1, 3-4, 10-12, 14, 17)
John’s picture of the Word is clearly reminiscent of Wisdom in Sirach and Baruch. The Word seeks to be found by people, but is at first rejected. Undeterred, the Word finally comes in a definitive form among the Jewish people, not as the tabernacle or the law, but as the human being, Jesus.
The parallel between John and Sirach is even clearer in Greek than in English. Our translation reads, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In fact “lived among us” is a distinctive Greek verb skenoo. It means, quite literally, “pitch a tent” (skene means tent in Greek). This is the same word group that appeared in Sirach 24: “and my Creator chose the place for my tent [skene]. He said, ‘Make your dwelling [kataskenoo] in Jacob . . .” (v. 8). Such a close verbal parallel is not an accident. John is intentionally using the language of the Wisdom tradition, though giving it a completely new meaning. God’s Wisdom has indeed “pitched a tent” on earth, not in the tabernacle/temple, but in the flesh of Jesus.
Similarly, in verse 17
, John contrasts the Mosaic law with the “grace and truth” that has come through Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Whereas Baruch envisioned Wisdom as coming in the law, John identified the locus of Wisdom’s presence in the person of Jesus. He alone gives grace and truth, making God known to us (v. 18).
So, to summarize what we’ve seen so far, among the Jewish sages God’s Wisdom was seen as “pitching a tent” on earth in the form of the tabernacle/temple or the law. John, using similar language and imagery, says that God’s Word/Wisdom became flesh in Jesus. Wisdom’s “tent” wasn’t the tabernacle or the law, but the fully human person of Jesus Christ.
If Jesus was the incarnation of divine Wisdom, wouldn’t this imply that he was far more than human? Yes, according to John. As he says in verse 18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). God the only Son!!?? This sounds serious, and indeed it is. In my next post I’ll begin to look at how Jesus as “son of God” also contributed to early Christian belief that he was God.