What makes a person wise? What helps you to grow and to experience blessings in your life?
In most traditions, we are taught that what makes us wise is meditation, contemplation, study.
Christians also often believe that what makes us wise is Bible study, worship, and prayer. We think that if we want to grow as Christians and be more spiritual that we should pray more, worship more, and study the Bible more. We think that is what God wants, and that God will be happy and we will experience many blessings and growth (both personally and in our churches) if we do this.
But Jesus is the leader of our faith. He is the one who knows how we can grow as Christians. In Matthew 5:24-27, Jesus says that more Bible study, worship, and prayer can actually be the path to foolishness, not personal growth.
Jesus says that what makes a person wise is to hear what he says and to do it.
This is confusing and troubling to many Christians. It is confusing to many Christians because we know that there is nothing we need to do to be saved except to believe in Jesus. Doing the word sounds like works are also somehow required for salvation. We know this can’t be true, and so we think it is safer for us theologically if we focus on hearing the word—believing it, studying it, praying about it, and worshiping the one who gave it—and we think of doing the word as something we do out of gratitude for what God has done for us, not something that is essential to proper hearing.
But Jesus does not say we are saved by doing the word. He says we are made wise by doing it and made foolish by only believing it, studying it, praying about it, and worshiping he who gave it.
That is because we often forget that God did not create us in order to save us. In Ephesians 2:8-10 the Apostle Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith so that we can finally begin to do the work God created for us to do from before the foundation of the world. That work is to bear his image to the world.
God created us so that when the world sees us it will see him, and it will come to know him and his character and worship him. That is the purpose of every human being. When we believe in Jesus we are saved and become God’s sons and daughters. But we are foolish sons and daughters if we do not understand the work of our father and how he graciously uses us to accomplish that work. (He is not dependent upon us; he brings us into the family business for our sake, not his.)
As we do the word, two things will happen.
First, we will come to know God’s character in ways that cannot become known to us only through worship, bible study, and prayer. God created human beings in order to bear his image in the world, not our own. So the commands Jesus gives to us cannot be understood or done by us to others until after we first permit Jesus himself to do them to us, and we receive the fullness of his grace. (Remember that in the Upper Room Peter had to give permission to Jesus to wash his feet.) We have to observe what Jesus does and how he does it because it’s his image that he wants us to bear—his love he wants us to show people, not our own. He is not trying to make us into more loving people; he is trying to show the world that he himself is loving. He uses us to accomplish this purpose because we are his visible representatives in the world.
This is why Jesus tells the disciples in the Upper Room: Love one another as I have loved you. When he says this he does not only mean that we should love others because he loves us. He means that we should love others as (i.e., in the same manner as) he loves us. His goal is not simply that we should be grateful for his love and thus become more loving people. His goal is that the world might come to know him and his character and his love through us.
So Jesus does not command the disciples to wash each other’s feet until he has first washed their feet and he has shared the word explaining this great grace. Then he commands the disciples to wash each other’s feet in the same way and the same attitude and for the same purpose as he washed theirs, namely, so that they might come to know experientially the true character of his father, and so that they might enable others to come to know experientially the same thing.
Every command of God is like this. Because his goal is that human beings bear his image in the world, he gives us his love freely and he explains the nature of that love so that we will be able to share his love, not our own, in word and deed with others. If we study the bible, worship, and pray with the knowledge that we are made to bear his image into the world, our eyes will be more open to his specific, ongoing, gracious action in our lives. Preparing to do the word makes us better hearers.
There is a second thing that will happen as we do the word: Our flesh will slowly die. We will be forced to rely upon his power if we are faithful to do his word exactly and specifically as it demands to be done. We will be freed from the constraints of reason, success, pride, security, and safety. What he commands cannot be completed if we cling to these things. In fact, what God commands cannot be done by us at all. God is in the business of crucifying flesh, not sanctifying it. If we carefully listen to his word and seek to do exactly what he says, we will cling to his word, his power, and his love. We will continually have to draw ever more deeply and attentively upon his love for us in order to know that love well enough to be able to share it with others. We will need to have the same relationship with Christ as he has with his father so that he becomes the source of our words and deeds. We will learn how to let him live through us so that there is less of us and more of him in our lives.