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Jesus Is Wisdom

I asked a few days ago whether we could consider Jesus' parables and sayings as the New Testament equivalent of wisdom literature, and, if so, in what ways we should understand what Jesus says to be different from the books of the Old Testament that we commonly label "Wisdom Literature."

First, I want to defend the idea that Jesus frequently teaches in a style and function that we can (and should) define as "wisdom." I will use the definition that Proverbs gives of wisdom literature to get us going: "Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Prov. 1:5-6). Solomon here gives us a pretty wide stylistic definition for wisdom literature, but the essential thing, I think, is that wisdom literature is advice on how to live wisely--that is, how to live skillfully (the basic meaning of the Hebrew word chokmah).

Solomon defines such skillful living in the very next verse: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction" (Prov. 1:7). I would also point out that the style of wisdom literature in Proverbs does not exactly match what we see in the book of Job, which functions in a more speculative manner. In other words, we don't really get advice on living from Job, but it causes us to think about the way in which God has wisely ordained the world to work. So, in summary, "wisdom literature" is very broad indeed, but it deals with either (1) instructional wisdom for skillful living, or (2) speculative wisdom that tackles life's big questions.

Because of all of this, I don't think that there should be any problem with labeling much of what Jesus says as wisdom. His parables often act as riddles, and his "kingdom ethic" clearly gives us advice about skillful living (e.g., those who exalt themselves do not live skillfully and will be humbled, but those who humble themselves do live skillfully and will be exalted, etc...). I think that we can easily call what Jesus does (in some places, at least) as his own "wisdom," different from other genres of law, narrative, poetry, and epistle, and so I would be interested if anyone has any further objections to why we couldn't differentiate the genres this way.

But let's get back to the original question: what is the essential difference between what Jesus teaches and what we find in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature? In my mind, the essential difference is that the Old Testament writers taught the wisdom that they had sought out and learned; Jesus, on the other hand, is himself the definition of the wisdom that he taught (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30).

I have really been wrestling since Wednesday with what that might mean, and I would like to suggest the following explanation. Let's say that a group of people wanted to measure everything they did by a standard of whether I, Jacob Gerber, would do it. (God forbid that anyone ever makes this kind of WWJD bracelets!) So, they would try to match exactly my courage as well as my fear, my love as well as my conceitedness, etc... How would they go about determining that exact balance? Certainly, they would have to look at me and at my life.

But let's ask another question: How do I know how to live according to Jacob-ness? Is it an external, objective quality that I have simply mastered, or do I simply live according to Jacob naturally? In other words, am I simply the best at being Jacob, or do I define what it is to be Jacob? I think the answer is clearly the latter.

In the same way, when we say that Christ is our wisdom, we are not simply saying that Christ is the wisest of all that have ever lived, as though wisdom is a quality outside of him that he happened to master. Rather, he defines what it is to be wise. So, it is somewhat misleading to say that Jesus teaches wisdom if we think along the lines of the way in which Solomon and the other wisdom writers of the Old Testament taught wisdom. Rather, we are almost saying that Jesus teaches himself, and, in a sense, Solomon and the gang were trying to teach the personality of Jesus (even if they didn't really know who he would be) in what they wrote.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told the crowds, "The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here" (Luke 11:31).

So, when we study wisdom literature (in the Old Testament or in what Jesus teaches), we are trying to learn and imitate his personality. We are trying to become like Jesus, because to become like Jesus is to become wise. And here is why seeking wisdom is important: this sort of wisdom transcends our ideas of personal holiness, because wisdom is a much broader category than morality, although it certainly encompasses it. Generally, when we think of morality, we reduce everything either to terms of niceness or of boldness for the truth. Wisdom, however, shows us not only when to encourage children with perfect tenderness to come to us and when to drive people out of temples with whips, but also when we should ask our antagonists pointed questions and when we should stand silent in the face of our accusers.

Therefore be wise, just as your Savior in heaven is wise.

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Here's a particularly tough question: How does Hebrews 5:8-9 fit in w/ this?

8Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him

At least at first glance it seems like there's some sort of learning of wisdom going on there for Jesus. That he's not just being himself, but striving to live according to God's wisdom as defined in the law and prophets? And maybe that's a part of humanness? Just thinking...

Great question! I had to think quite a bit before I was ready to suggest an answer.

It seems that there are two ways that we could understand the phrase "learned obedience." The first way would be that Jesus, in the earlier points of his life, didn't have any conception of obedience whatsoever, and so he just kind of did his own thing. Then, after a while, God had to break Jesus of his independence, teaching Jesus how to obey him.

Now, that is the way that you and I learn obedience as fallen human beings, but that is not a viable interpretation alternative for Jesus.

Here is the second way we might understand it: it was never Jesus' nature not to obey, and so, in that sense, he did not have to learn obedience in the way that we do. He did, however, have to go through a progressively difficult litany of temptations, including everything from peer pressure as a boy to a one-on-one confrontation with Satan in the wilderness.

So, every time one of these trials came up in Jesus' normal human development, Jesus had to exercise his obedience to his heavenly Father in a fresh way--that is, he had to learn (experience) what it was to obey his Father in that specific way. Of course, he passed every test as he went through life, even to the point of sacrificing his own life for us on the cross, but that was because his nature was intrinsically bent toward perfect obedience, just as ours is intrinsically bent toward disobedience. Jesus is Wisdom.

I think this second option preserves Jesus' human nature and his nature as the God who defines wisdom. Jesus never had to learn a new way of living in the way that we do (since we are, because of our fallen nature, unwise), but he had to learn how his way of living would play out in each new situation. So, for every story that we read about Jesus in the gospels, we read a story about perfect Wisdom in action.

Tell me if you see any other possibilities for how to interpret that verse that I haven't accounted for. Again, great question.

What about Proverbs 1-8,9? Is not Jesus infact the personification of Wisdom? I wisdom, reside at the hand of the Father, a skilled craftsman, participating in the design, and effecting creation? Surely Jesus embodies, defines and speaks wisdom - i.e. "the fear of the Lord". Just thinking along.

Absolutely--thanks so much for mentioning that. When I have been thinking about this post, I kept thinking about those passages in Proverbs, but, when I went to write, I would forget to cite those.

But, yes, the Church has, since the beginning, seen Jesus as the embodiment of Wisdom, especially because of verses like Proverbs 8:22 and 29-30, where Wisdom says, "The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old....when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man."

I think that those verses help a lot to provide the biblical support for what I argued, so thanks for bringing them up.

Thanks, I think that answers my question well.

I think I bring it up because I've been trying to be careful in my thinking to distinguish between Jesus incarnate, born as child in 3 AD, and the eternal Son, the second person of the trinity. Certainly the "fullness" of deity (and thus wisdom) dwelt in this first-century human, but how did his humanity affect that?

i.e. I think in his humanity, Jesus had to learn math, whereas the eternal Son possesses all knowledge. And I think you can say he had to learn wisdom in the way you described. Not that he ever was sinful or disobedient, but imperfect in his understanding of wisdom? I'm too quick to assign omniscience to Jesus the man, thus minimizing his humanity.

I'm trying to be careful, because I know these are important, difficult issues. Council-worthy, even. :)

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