Jesus is the Beginning, the Middle, and the End

way“I am the way, the truth, and the life” is Jesus’ (in)famous reply to Thomas’ request for directions to the Father (John 14:6). The text has been in dispute ever since, especially in light of disputes about salvation, exclusivism/inclusivism, and the sole Lordship of Christ.  What does it mean for Jesus to be the “way, the truth, and the life”? How can a person be a life? Or a way? Or the truth? How are they connected?

Once again, Calvin cuts to the core of the matter and sheds an illuminating (and worship-inspiring) light on the text:

The way, the truth, and the life. He lays down three degrees, as if he had said, that he is the beginning, and the middle, and the end; and hence it follows that we ought to begin with him, to continue in him, and to end in him. We certainly ought not to seek for higher wisdom than that which leads us to eternal life, and he testifies that this life is to be found in him. Now the method of obtaining life is, to become new creatures. He declares, that we ought not to seek it anywhere else, and, at the same time, reminds us, that he is the way, by which alone we can arrive at it. That he may not fail us in any respect, he stretches out the hand to those who are going astray, and stoops so low as to guide sucking infants. Presenting himself as a leader, he does not leave his people in the middle of the course, but makes them partakers of the truth. At length he makes them enjoy the fruit of it, which is the most excellent and delightful thing that can be imagined.

Commentary on John 14:6

These are not primarily words of divisive exclusion (although they do testify to Jesus’ exclusive role as Savior), but of assuring grace.  We might be tempted to look to our own plans, prayers, righteousness, special knowledge, inner strength, or find multiple mediators.Jesus here is telling us that he is the beginning, middle, and end of our salvation. It’s not just that we can’t turn anywhere else, but that by the mercy of God, we don’t need to.

When it comes to gaining the life that is truly life, there’s no way around, or above, or away from Jesus.  He himself is the source of that life. We don’t start by Jesus and do the rest ourselves, or move on to something deeper to get to life. No, at every step of the way, it is Jesus moving us along. He is the one who recreates us, brings us to participate in the truth that leads to life, and guides us by the hand to that life that we would not be able to find on our own strength.

Soli Deo Gloria

Careful Reader

close readingCareful readers of Scripture see instruction in every turn of phrase. That’s how Calvin read the text. Trained as a humanist scholar, he was attentive to both the content as well as the form in which we receive it. Actually, more accurately, he understood that the way the authors said something was part of what they were saying. Commenting on Paul’s greeting to the Colossians, Calvin draws out the significance of his prayer of thanksgiving for the believers:

He praises the faith and love of the Colossians, that it may encourage them the more to alacrity and constancy of perseverance. Farther, by shewing that he has a persuasion of this kind respecting them, he procures their friendly regards, that they may be the more favourably inclined and teachable for receiving his doctrine. We must always take notice that he makes use of thanksgiving in place of congratulation, by which he teaches us, that in all our joys we must readily call to remembrance the goodness of God, inasmuch as everything that is pleasant and agreeable to us is a kindness conferred by him. Besides, he admonishes us, by his example, to acknowledge with gratitude not merely those things which the Lord confers upon us, but also those things which he confers upon others.

Commentary on Colossians 1:3

He notes first the rhetorical purpose of the greeting: to encourage his readers to faith and perseverance and endear himself to the readers at Colossae by assuring him of his warm affections for them. Calvin reads the text understanding that, though inspired and having apostolic authority, Paul writes at the human level as one who still uses common language, specific rhetorical forms, and rational approach to persuade his reader.

Next, and this is the significant portion, Calvin calls attention to the fact that when Paul wants to encourage them, he doesn’t congratulate them, he thanks God for them. Calvin not only sees what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Typically we would congratulate someone on their faith, hope, and love. Not Paul—he knows the true source of our goodness. Instead, Paul thanks God to acknowledge the theological reality that all blessings come from comes from his fatherly hand. Not only that, it points to a brotherly love grateful even for those things which don’t come directly to us. Again, even the shape of his encouragement is pedagogical.

Calvin was not a cursory or careless reader, and just as Paul teaches us in the way he encourages the Colossians, so Calvin gives us an example in our studies of the Word. Convinced that we are reading more than just an ancient text, but God’s own self-disclosure through human speech, we read that human speech with reverent sensitivity to every detail.

Soli Deo Gloria 

The Order Doesn’t Matter Because a Painting is All We Need

Why?  Why not?

Why?
Why not?

Anybody who’s given the Gospel accounts more than a cursory reading knows that there are apparent inconsistencies between them. Were there one or two angels at the tomb when Jesus arose? Did the Transfiguration happen 6 or 8 days after his teaching on  the cost of discipleship? Issues like these have motivated theologians and biblical scholars to write works of apologetics and “harmonies” of the Gospels reconciling these issues. Sometimes the answers work quite well and other times you end up with “solutions” that are worse than the problem they’re trying to explain.

Now, most of us might suspect that the older an author, the more conservative and likely to try and come up with an answer, no matter how odd, in order to “cover” for the Gospel-writers. That’s why it was funny to run across this little tidbit in Calvin’s Harmony of the Law on the temptation accounts. When you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke, you see that the order of the temptations is switched up. How does Calvin account for this?:

It is not of great importance, that Luke’s narrative makes that temptation to be the second, which Matthew places as the third: for it was not the intention of the Evangelists to arrange the history in such a manner, as to preserve on all occasions, the exact order of time, but to draw up an abridged narrative of the events, so as to present, as in a mirror or picture, those things which are most necessary to be known concerning Christ. Let it suffice for us to know that Christ was tempted in three ways. The question, which of these contests was the second, and which was the third, need not give us much trouble or uneasiness. In the exposition, I shall follow the text of Matthew.

Harmony of the Law, Matthew 4:5-11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:5-13

Long before modern historical and literary critics came on the scene, Calvin knew that we must not impose modern standards of historiography on the Gospel writers. Their intent was not to give us a perfect blow-by-blow, video-camera-replacing description, but to give us those things “most necessary” for us to know about Jesus’ saving ministry. This isn’t imputing error or falsehood to them, but recognizing the nature the of the account they’re trying to provide. It’s no insult to recognize a wonderful painting for what it is; the problem comes when you’re expecting an HD photograph. God has given us what he knows we need in his Word, not what we think we need.

Soli Deo Gloria