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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

God's Work in Jesus

May 1, 2014 •

This article is the third part of an on-going series. The first part is called "Salvation is by Works Alone," the second is titled "God Works Grace," the fourth is "Sympathy Made Perfect," and the fifth is "Only Jesus' Grace Works."

“I have come to do your will, O God,” Jesus says to his Father (Heb 10:7). With this declaration, Jesus circumscribes his earthly life. He knows his purpose on earth is to work, to carry out God’s work. He came to do the will of God. 

What was this will of God for work of his Son? On this, scripture speaks with clarity. Even prior to his birth, the angel said to Joseph, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  (Matthew 1:21) Jesus means Savior; his life’s work was in his name.

And Jesus took his name seriously, for in it lay his work assigned by his Father. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:45) He gave his “body” as an “offering” (Heb 10:12, 14) for our salvation: “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb 10:10)

Jesus came to die a sin-and-death-conquering death. This is true and magnificently so, but it is the culmination to the story. Readiness for redemptive death required a preparation in the Redeemer’s life. The redemptive plot required a time-tested, faith-tested, and obedience-tested Son. God’s work by Christ necessitated God’s work in Christ.

Before he could give his life, he had to live his life. His full life was fully necessary for his death to be an effective ransom for many. Redemptive grace required an excellent death. An excellent death required an excellent life. An excellent life required learned obedience in the context of suffering, from the very beginning!

Though the Bible tells us virtually nothing about Jesus’ boyhood other than the oft-told temple episode when he was twelve (Luke 2:41-51), it makes explicit his personal development. Let me explain. Or better yet, let the physician evangelist do so: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52)

Make no mistake, Luke understands Jesus to be God (cf. Luke 20:410-44). But it is equally critical that we give full credence to Jesus’ humanity as well. According to Luke, Jesus increased. He developed. By his growth, he became something he was not prior. Yes, Jesus had to grow, mature, and improve. Yes, grow. Yes, mature. And yes, improve.

For those of us steeped in popular theology, Luke’s statement might sound odd. Even heretical. How does God incarnate increase in wisdom? Not to be a doubter, but did Luke get that right?

The words are as significant as they are plain. I begin with the physical growth, the second descriptive term that prevents dehumanizing Jesus. The Lord was not always a man; once an infant and then a young boy, he grew in stature. Not such a hard pill to swallow for us. But Dr. Luke does not leave us with a biological and chronological diagnosis. He does not leave us with developmental charts, head circumference, or growth percentiles. His concerns direct us elsewhere.

The first description concerns Jesus’ intellectual and moral growth. Jesus advanced in wisdom. As a young man, Jesus was inexperienced and immature. He had to grow in his understanding of and application of the Scripture. Surely prodigious (teaching in the temple at age twelve to a marveling audience!), he himself was a work in progress. Jesus had to advance in sonly wisdom and sonly obedience by personal appropriation of the Word of God.

Youthful and immature, Jesus was once not wise enough, even not obedient enough! But do not misunderstand. That Jesus learned wisdom and learned obedience did not involve any foolishness or disobedience on his part! Learning obedience does not presuppose disobedience. Progress in wisdom does not presuppose sinful foolishness.

Jesus did not learn from his errors or from his sins; he had none of those. Ever! He learned rather from his faith exercised in the context of human weakness and a world under the curse of sin and death. He learned practically and perfectly to trust in his Father. In this swelling trust, he grew in favor with God.

The crises of faith and obedience during his entire life prepared him for the cosmic crisis at the cross. Prior to Gethsemane and Golgotha, he faced the wilderness. Prior to his trial before Pilate, he faced trials of innumerable and increasing difficulty. He endured the humiliation of human life in a fallen world, the misunderstanding of family members, the ridicule of the peoples, the hatred and evil intentions of the religious leaders, and the habitual cluelessness of his own disciples!

In his suffering, “he learned obedience.” (Heb 5:7) In his suffering, he matured. He became wise; in fact, he became Wisdom itself (1 Cor 1:30). Jesus learned obedience each step of the way from Bethlehem to Golgotha. He ran the rugged race successfully, he climbed the mount of suffering with holy joy (Heb 12:1-2), and in it all, he grew in favor with God as he readied himself for his ultimate task – giving his life for his people.

What about his growth in favor with man? Many have suggested a generic social maturity in the life of Jesus. But it seems best to appreciate this phrase with the eye to the gospel of Luke as a whole. In his sufferings, Jesus learned to identify with men, women, and children of all ages and stages. In his tenderness, he reached out to the downcast, the rejected, and the scum of the earth. With the ease of welcoming grace and winsome maturity, Jesus showed himself without peer amongst the elite of society. Named Jesus, he had come to save his people from their sins – people of all walks of life. He matured into a Savior who dazzled, befuddled, and in some cases endeared his contemporaries. “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well.’” (Mark 7:37a).

If his obedience was learned by suffering, his respect was earned by a seasoned compassion. From the “sinner” woman (Luke 7:36-50) to the first class citizen Nicodemus (John 3:1-15), as the matured Son of God, Jesus caught the favorable eye of all sorts of people.

The work of Jesus was truly first a work in him. He had to grow. He had to mature. He had to do the will of the Father in his life in order to complete the will of the Father in his redemptive death. By the Spirit, the Father worked in him personally so that by the Spirit, the Father could work through him redemptively.

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men. The rigorous reality compels our unqualified trust. As believers, we believe in the name of Jesus; we depend upon the completed work of the Son of God because of the completed work in him.

Related Articles: "Salvation is by Works Alone," "God Works Grace," "Sympathy Made Perfect," and "Only Jesus' Grace Works."

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