Jesus First: Some Notes

This post consists of three short sections, each making a point related to keeping Jesus first in our reading of Scripture.

What We Look to Jesus For

As Christians, we look to Jesus more than anything or anyone else. And I think it is helpful to divide what we look to Jesus for into three categories: how He lived, what He taught, and His theology.

There is some overlap here. He would course live in a way consistent with the precepts He taught, and part of what He taught can be described as theology. Nonetheless, I think that the division is useful.

To give just a couple of illustrations: (1) He taught us to behave in specific ways, but He also related this behavior to what the Old Testament taught about God’s commandments and statutes; I would put the former into the “taught” category, and the latter into the “theology’ category. (2) He taught us how to pray, but He Himself prayed frequently, so we have from the Gospels both something He “taught” and one way in which He “lived.”

Now, I have done one short post on how Jesus lived, and I’ve done several longer ones on Jesus’ theology. But I doubt that I will venture into an exegesis of all that He taught: There’s just too much to be said on that for me to presume to cover it comprehensively (though I’m happy to continue writing about particular teachings).

Jesus outside the Gospels

Christians believe that Jesus is present in the Old Testament, but those passages can be interpreted without referencing Him — and are of course, by Jews in particular. Suffice it to say that a discussion of Jesus’ presence in Old Testament events and prophecy would be, and probably is, a great subject for a book, but will not be discussed further on this post.

As for the New Testament, Jesus is written about one way or the other in every book but, aside from the Gospels of course, He is an actor in only Acts and Revelation (and is directly quoted only in those books and at I Corinthians 11:24-25, where Paul is describing the Last Supper).

In Acts, Jesus is still with the Apostles in chapter 1 (He is quoted at 1:4-8) until He makes His Ascension (1:9). Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus and what He said then and immediately after to Ananias and then Paul is described circa 9:3-16, 22:6-21, and 26:12-18. He also appears to Paul in a night vision at Acts 18:9-10 when he makes his first trip to Corinth; He visits Paul again at night in Acts 23:11. And Paul quotes Him (“It is more blessed to give than to receive”) in his farewell to the Ephesus elders at 20:35. Finally, Peter quotes Jesus in Acts 11:16 — how He used to say, “John baptized with water, but you shall baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

In Revelation, Jesus is frequently present, and He is quoted at length in His letters to the seven churches (1:8-3:22). He is also quoted four times in the final chapter (22:7, 12-13, 16, and 20). It has to be noted as well that, in Revelation, John is writing about what Jesus did in a vision, rather than about what He did corporeally.

A couple of observations here: (1) It’s interesting how Jesus appeared three separate times (at least) to Paul; and (2) it’s also interesting that the three direct quotes of Jesus outside the Gospels and Acts are by Paul, Peter, and John (i.e., none by James or Jude or the author of Hebrews).

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Here is a question that occurred to me in the course of looking through the New Testament letters as I wrote this post: Is it surprising that Jesus is not quoted and described more in those letters than He is?

Perhaps, but remember that more may have been written and, especially, said — by these authors and many other people — than has been preserved for us. Remember, too, that what Jesus said and did in the Gospel accounts was out there and circulating — in both oral and written forms — and the letter writers might have felt no need to repeat all that.

We also have to look at each letter writer individually. Paul wrote the lion’s share of the letters, and he had only limited contact with Jesus. He might also have been reluctant to quote Jesus directly when he had not been an eyewitness to Jesus making the quoted statement.

The author of Hebrews might have been Paul; if not, it might have been someone (like Barnabas or Apollos) who likewise may have had little or no personal contact with Jesus and thus could not speak authoritatively on what He said and did.

The other four letter writers did have personal contact with Jesus, though. James and Jude were Jesus’ brothers, but I don’t believe we know how much contact they had with Him during his ministry. There is some dispute about which John wrote the Johanine letters, but it is quite plausible that in any event he knew Jesus well. But II John and III John are very short; as for I John, this letter is very much about Jesus but perhaps what needed to be said in here about what Jesus said and did had already been covered in John’s Gospel. Richard Bauckham thinks that John was reluctant to include in his Gospel material that was already present in the other Gospels, so it is plausible that John would have felt similarly reluctant to repeat himself.

Likewise, while it is Peter who is perhaps most intriguing on this point — Wouldn’t we have expected him to tell us directly about Jesus? — the answer may be that he did: in the Gospel according to Mark. And so he did not feel any need to go out of his way to add to that in his two letters.

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Now, what prompted me to write this post is the fact that it seems to me that what Jesus said and did is of surpassing interest, and that it is worthwhile to highlight those passages — putting them in red, so to speak.

Is it wrong to be more interested in what Jesus said and did than in what, say, Paul said and did? Well, certainly it is of more interest what Jesus did than what Paul did if we are looking for role models; there’s no reason to think that Paul’s actions are perfect, even when they are described in Scripture. Indeed, even when Paul presents himself as something of a role model, he cautions that he is not perfect. See Philippians 3:12-17. That is not true of Jesus.

But if Paul says something in Scripture, is that as binding on us as if Jesus had said it? As I understand the rules for Scripture, the answer is yes, with the only caveat being how confident we are that everything now in Scripture belongs in Scripture. In other words, if we know that Jesus said something, then that is binding on us no matter what the source (I’m assuming that we can find a source to be reliable even if it is not Scripture), but if Paul said something then it is binding on us only if it is in Scripture (though of course we may decide that we agree with something Paul said even if he said it in a source that is non-Scriptural).

But in the next part of this post, I will discuss why — even though, to quote II Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” — it makes sense to conform what others said to what Jesus said rather than the other way around.

And to return to the point with which I began this section of the post: If you are most interested in what Jesus said and did, then the overwhelming majority of what you will want to read is in the Gospels and nowhere else.

NLRB v. Catholic Bishop and the Bible

There is a general principle of interpreting ambiguous Scriptural verses (let’s not pretend that there aren’t any) so that they don’t conflict with one another (let’s not pretend that such tensions don’t exist). That’s a principle that lawyers apply as well, when interpreting different laws.

But then there’s the question of whether to bend verse 1 more than verse 2 or vice versa. Once again we lawyers have a principle here that is sometimes applicable, namely that there is a hierarchy of laws — with the constitution at the top, then statutes, and then regulations — and that lower laws are to be bent (“construed” might be a better word) to avoid conflicting with higher laws, rather than the other way around. Thus, for example, statutes will be interpreted so that they will not conflict with the U.S. Constitution, or even raise constitutional questions. That’s the holding of the U.S. Supreme Court in, for example, the 1979 case of National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago (and the bishop won, so it’s a pleasure for a Christian blogger to cite the case).

I would propose that here, too, there should be an analogous practice in interpreting Scripture. That is, I think there is a hierarchy of Scripture, and that verses lower in the hierarchy should be bent or construed to avoid conflicting with higher verses, rather than the other way around. I hasten to affirm that it’s all Scripture and it’s all true — indeed, the whole point is to interpret Scripture so that it is not self-contradictory and thus can all be honored.

So what would this hierarchy look like? Pretty simple, actually: At the top would be anything that Jesus said, especially if He said it clearly and/or frequently. Next would be other verses in the New Testament — with, again, added weight for clarity and frequency. And then would follow, finally, verses in the Old Testament, with the same clarity/frequency proviso. No doubt there can be additional principles adduced, as well as more elaboration, but I think those three points are the most important.

This is one reason I went to the trouble that I did to isolate the theological statements by Jesus in the Gospels (see the embedded links that follow for those statements in MatthewMarkLuke, and John). Where the Old Testament or another New Testament writer, like Paul or James or Peter or John or Jude, says something that, if interpreted too broadly, would start to bump up against something Jesus said — well, then it should not be interpreted too broadly. And, as I say, the rule should be that what’s written or said by non-Jesus people should be conformed to what Jesus said, and not the other way around.