“Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22).
Actually, this post should be titled “How Could Jesus Christ, Being Sinless Man, Increase in Favor with God?”, but we do get to New Year’s resolutions at the end….
In Luke 2:52, it says “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (NIV). The ESV, however, has “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
The word translated either “grew” or “increased” respectively here comes from the Greek προέκοπτεν (transliterated “proekopten”), which Strong’s concordance says means “I advance, make progress”, “originally of the pioneer cutting his way through brushwood”.
It is interesting to look at the other ways the word is used in the New Testament. In 2 Timothy 3:13, for example, it reads “…while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived”. “Will go on” might be better translated “advance”, “proceed”, or even “grow”.
Looking at these passages it seems to me that one is proceeding, advancing, or growing towards something meant to be understood as concrete – one might even say some kind of “real, identifiable target” (note also that this word is identified with prophetic foretelling, or announcing something planned before it occurs – see Acts 3:18). For example, in Romans 13:12, we read “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” “Far gone” is rendered as “nearly over” in other translations. Interestingly, in I Timothy 5:21, a form of this word (noun) is connected with the concept of prejudgment, prejudice, partiality, or preference.: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging…” (ESV). Here, the idea is to not have predetermined “designs” (or goals), we might say, regarding someone, or something.
Going along with this idea of goals, ends, or purposes (the specific Greek word for this being τέλος, or “telos”), I was also was also curious to look more closely at the Greek word for complete, or perfect, where this idea is much more explicit. For example, Hebrews 5:8-9a reads:
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”
Here, the Greek word is τελειωθεὶς (teleiōtheis), which comes from the original Greek word τελειόω (teleioó). It can be variously defined as “(a) as a course, a race, or the like: I complete, finish (b) as of time or prediction: I accomplish, (c) I make perfect; pass: I am perfected.” This passage is particularly challenging to us because it does not talk about Jesus completing a goal, but reaching a goal for His person – becoming complete, or perfect. Looking at the other ways this word is used in the New Testament, it is perhaps a little bit more understandable when we think about it in relation to our own completion or perfection as Christians – something that we discern must be related to our being sanctified, or made holy (i.e., set apart for God’s service and cause) and glorified in Christ.[i]
Looking at these passages though, I was also led to wonder, “is there a word also typically used for growth that tends to be more organic in its connotations”? Here, we can talk about the word αὐξάνω (auxanó). The growth of plants is described with this word as seen, for example, in Matthew 6:28; Mark 4:8, Luke 12:27 (“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”). Peter talks about the Christians “growth in grace (II Peter 3:18) and in Ephesians 4:15, Paul says, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” Peter further talks about “growing up into salvation”[ii] with the help of “pure spiritual milk” (I Peter 2:1-3).
Further, both Luke 1:80 and 2:40 talk about John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ growth, respectively, in this, it seems, more organic way:
“And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
“And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.”[iii]
Finally then, we come back to the beginning of this post: there is the challenge that God’s grace, or favor, is said to increase with Jesus. How can this be? It seems clear that somehow, God’s favor with Jesus increased. That does not mean that He was not pleased with Him as a baby, but I think it does mean that as Jesus became a man – taking on the spiritual and moral responsibility that comes with that[iv], reaching this goal – His Father really did, in some sense, become more pleased.
So how can we get a handle on what is going on here? How should we think about the significance for this passage in our own lives?
First, regarding Jesus’ growth, an illustration from my pastor: We can be pleased with the sapling that we plant in our back yard. But as it grows it provides both shade and fruit. And thus we become more pleased with it. It was no less “sinless” as a sapling, being exactly what it should be. It was, however, not “perfected”, i.e. not in a position to bear fruit and give shade…
Second, in thinking about this passage’s significance for our own growth, I, as a Christian father, look at it this way: In Scripture, children are commended for their faith and trust, not their love and obedience. Regarding my children, I want to see the little sinners as made perfect forever, covered as they are in the blood of Christ: I do not want to look at them and see a lack or deficiency, for their sin or otherwise (even though Christ came to “complete” the Scripture [John 19:28], there was no “deficiency” in it!), even if I would be a fool if I did not see mature manhood as the goal.[v] The justification God has for them in Christ should be the basis and foundation of my love for them, and not even the maturity of their new man created in Christ (little ones are only able to do so much, as they are far from mature manhood). That said, as they increase in wisdom and stature as they mature, am I well-pleased? Do they grow in my favor? Yes – this is the way it is meant to be, with our telos! Strange as this may sound, we are becoming perfected in the One who became perfect!
- The law cannot inspire the obedience it demands – but the Gospel can inspire us to say “Amen!” when we hear the beauty that is God’s law/will![vi]
- If the Western church is indeed “weak in sanctification”, it is because it is looking to Christ less, not more; for less, not for more.
- We should not focus on our ability to [weakly] cooperate in sanctification. We should just recognize it, affirm it, and look to Christ for all good things.
- There is a “positional” sanctification (us in Christ – this goes with justification) and a “deepening” and progressive sanctification (Christ in us).
- And finally, if you doubt your sanctification, look to Christ whom you are in: for us, He “became perfect” on earth, according to His human nature.[vii]
In general then, in humanity, the mature or aged character is better than childish character (not the child-like faith Christ commends)! To say the very least, it is better to progress from ignorance to wisdom, as this is fitting for one who increases in age.
And here is the great mystery: Could this be true for Christ’s human nature as well, meaning that as He grew it no longer needed to only have wisdom and stature shared with it by the divine nature?[viii]
Indeed! And so, to re-vamp Athanasius, from his 4th century work, On the Incarnation: God became a son of man – and learned obedience, grew in favor with God, and became perfect (complete) – that we might become a son of God.
That means that in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness, life and salvation from sin, death, and the devil! Yes, even for you – for whom good resolutions to be and do better fail time and again. Go forth in His pardon and power again!
Image credit: growth (http://wiirocku.tumblr.com/post/122834409243/ephesians-415-esv-rather-speaking-the-truth)
[i] “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us…By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment.” — I John 4:16,17
“…whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him.” — I John 2:5
“I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.” — John 17:23 (see Col. 3:14 also)
“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” — I John 4:12
‘…having been made perfect, [Jesus] became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” — Hebrews 5:9
“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” — Hebrews 10:14
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” — Philippians 3:12
“You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” — Hebrews 12:23
“…set your hope fully [perfectly/completely] on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” — I Peter 1:13
[ii] The Lutheran is eager to talk about distinguishing justification from salvation per se here. Our sanctification and corresponding glorification are surely a part of our salvation but the original reasons for the Lutheran distinction between justification and sanctification was basically to assure true Christians that they were true Christians! More specifically, this means comforting sinners who are genuinely terrified due to their sins before God that God is gracious to them in Jesus Christ, giving them peace with Him.
[iii] This is also the word used where John the Baptist talks about Jesus increasing while he must decrease….
[iv] What could this mean – perhaps even for young Jesus that the law was intuitive in that He recognized wisdom when it was explicitly taught to Him or shown Him and not otherwise?
[v] We were made for Paradise and ought to realize that and train ourselves to think like that, being innocent of evil. Luther tells us that in the garden the tree of life preserved man’s “powers and perfect health at all times” and that they would have often refreshed themselves from the tree of life and praised God and lauded him…. Here, we can see that, for Luther, the Tree of Life was not some kind of reward the Christian would eventually obtain through something like a “covenant of works”, but was rather something given to sustain them in fear, love, and trust from the beginning, as they matured from being able to sin to not being able to sin.
[vi] A man who differs with me regarding the third use of the law characterized my position as: “[The idea is that we are going to progress in sanctification….] And it is the third use of the law which is going to aid in this somehow”, and I would affirm this is accurate. I would also contend this is wholly unremarkable. It seems to me that even non-Christians often become aware of what is good – and even develop a taste for what is good! – by participating in things they perhaps did not want to partake in, or had mixed feeling about partaking in. Besides being exposed to other good things in this process (good things are often coupled with other good things) participation in certain activities and circumstances themselves can assist in changing attitudes – we often see this when persons have children, for example. This kind of growing “civil righteousness” would not avail before God of course, and for the Christian the righteousness they grow into more and more by faith in Christ comes because they are saved (i.e. they have peace with God), not in order to be saved (this post from Pastor Mark Surburg, summing up part of the message of C.F.W. Walther’s classic book “The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel”, is excellent food for thought here).
[vii] What is the nature of the character in the Christian who has begun to have a new will that delights in God’s law? A related question: What are the qualities of this incipient or inchoate righteousness (as the Formula of Concord calls it – see this post for more) in the Christian?
Does the will of the Christian, insofar as he is a new man (for our “old Adam” remains with us until death, otherwise, we would not experience such wages), learn and grow? Can this new man in the Christian grow more mature and stronger? Might this explain the seeming confusion we see here with the sixth article in the Formula of Concord, in the Lutheran Confessions (the article on the third use of the law – see this post)? As trust in God increases, should we say that this is what happens – that the sanctified life we have in Christ somehow increases in humble strength and power? (never understood to happen according to the world’s definition of “strength”, nor independently of the Triune God, but in proper dependence on Him!).
[viii] And this, of course, does not mean that Jesus Christ, in His divine and human nature, should ever be understood as existing and acting independently of His Father and the Holy Spirit.