The Spirituality of Jesus

Jesus Series - 2

The Spirituality of Jesus

(Mark 1:29-39)

What was the inner secret of Jesus’ remarkable public life and impact on human history? This address, the second in a series on ‘The Challenge of Jesus’, given at an evening service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 16 February 1997, looks at the hidden factors that shaped Jesus’ character and destiny.

The private life of a public figure is a fascinating subject. How does such a person sustain the tremendous demands of public service or activity? In the case of Jesus this is a particularly interesting subject. How did he handle the demands of a public ministry of preaching and healing that drew great crowds? What was the secret of the great impact that his life and death have had on the history of the world? What spiritual influences shaped his life? What devotional practices nourished his faith? What was Jesus' spirituality?

1. Jewish Upbringing

Jesus was the product of a devout Jewish home. We see glimpses of his home life in the infancy narratives at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Socially his parents were poor, as we can tell from the fact that they presented two pigeons rather than the customary lamb on the occasion of Jesus’ circumcision and presentation in the temple - the offering of the poor allowed in the Law (Leviticus 12:8, Luke 2:24). His mother Mary’s song at his birth - the Magnificat - is both a song in praise of God’s justice, bringing down the powerful and exalting the meek, and a canticle rich in biblical imagery showing a piety steeped in the Jewish Scriptures (Luke 1:46-55). Joseph was a man of integrity, a morally upright but sensitive man, inclined to put Mary aside privately, without fuss, until assured by the angel that her child was not the result of infidelity (Matthew 1:19-25).

So Jesus grew up in an atmosphere of Jewish piety, familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, observing the Jewish festivals, steeped in Jewish ways. This is particularly clear in the episode when he visited the Temple as a twelve year old - possibly the Jewish barmitzvah ceremony when a Jewish boy was admitted to adulthood and responsibility before the Law (Luke 2:41-51). Here is a scene of Jesus discussing Scripture and theology with the leading rabbis - which at this time may have included the great Jewish scholars Hillel and Shammai. The question and answer method of discussion is characteristically Jewish, and a proven technique for learning with understanding.

Jesus would not only have known and understood the Scriptures - he would also have lived and applied them. He knew his way around the Scriptures. We can see this at the start of his ministry when he unrolled the scroll in the synagogue of his home town Nazareth, looked up (without the aid of modern chapter and verse divisions!) the only prophecy in the Bible about the Messiah written in the first person (Isaiah 61:1-2), read it, and applied it to himself (Luke 4:16-21). We see his familiarity with the Scriptures in his frequent debates with the Pharisees and religious traditionalists of his day, where Jesus always went behind their traditions and interpretations to what the Scriptures actually said. His familiarity with the Jewish Scriptures is evident even in the agony of his crucifixion, when his cries of anguish include quotations from a Messianic psalm: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Psalm 22:1, Mark 15:34).

2. Personal Retreat

Jesus spirituality was not only grounded in the book of Scripture, but also in the book of Nature. We see him withdrawing from the pressure and intensity of his public ministry and the demands placed upon him by crowds of needy people, in order to be alone on the hills of Galilee to pray (Mark 1:32-37). Jesus also made sure that his team of disciples had respite from the pressures of their ministry, taking them across the lake for a retreat away from the crowds (Mark 4:35-36, 6:30-32). Jesus clearly knew the importance of personal retreat and solitude, for personal refreshment and spiritual recreation. He refused to place himself under the continual pressure of external need or self-imposed performance. The bow strings need to be relaxed between performances if the violin is to retain its quality.

These retreats would have been times of aloneness and intimacy with God. They were occasions when Jesus would have delighted in the beauty of the natural world: the wind in the grasses on the Galilean hills, the riotous colours of the wild flowers in spring, the water splashing on the sides of the boat or sparkling on the lake.

This became the source of many rich illustrations in his teaching. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’ (Matthew 6:28-29). ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’ (Matthew 6:26). ‘You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?’ (Matthew 7:16). Many of Jesus’ teaching illustrations were drawn from the natural world. ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5). ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow . . . .’ (Mark 4:3). ‘The earth produces of itself, first the stock, then the head, then the full grain in the head.’ (Mark 4:28). God’s handiwork teaches us much about God’s ways.

3. Filial Obedience

A third feature of Jesus’ spiritual life was his humble surrender to God’s will. So distinctive is this that it is reflected in the term that Jesus uniquely used to address God: the term Abba, ‘Father.’ When one considers the Jewish emphasis on God’s transcendence and otherness, this term, used exclusively by Jesus in speaking of God, was a uniquely bold expression of his intimacy with God.

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus steps out of anonymity, and at the lowest point of the earth’s surface, is baptized with John’s baptism of repentance, humbling himself as the servant of the Lord who came to identify with sinners in order to save us from our sins. At this point of self-humbling Jesus is empowered by God’s Holy Spirit and commissioned for his Messianic ministry. God’s voice affirms his approval of Jesus’ servant attitude: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.’ (Luke 3:21-22).

This humble dependence upon the one he called Father was the key to Jesus’ healing ministry. The nearest to a hospital that Jesus ever ministered in was the Pool of Bethesda - a kind of spa where the sick and infirm came to be cured. Jesus didn’t evacuate the whole hospital, but healed only one man there. The passage which follows explains why: ‘The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does the Son does likewise.’ (John 5:19).

The real root of sin is self-reliance, our autonomy. The root of Jesus’ spirituality was reliance upon God, what we could call his theonomy. ‘I have come in my Father’s name,’ says Jesus, ‘and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him.’ (John 15:43-44).

Jesus was dedicated to doing his Father’s will, devoted to seeking his Father’s glory - to the very end of his life. We see this supremely in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest. There, taming his agony with prayer, he prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me: yet not what I want but what you want.’ (Matthew 26:39). And again a second time he prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Matthew 26:42).

This resolute surrender to the Father’s will - the exact antithesis of modern theories of self fulfilment, self-actualization, or self-realization - was his final act before he died: ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ (Luke 23:46). In death, Jesus trusted God his Father, and looked for his Father’s vindication. He showed a supreme confidence in his Father’s goodness, justice and sovereign ability to guard his person and protect his honour - even in the ultimate sacrifice of death. In turn, God honoured that confidence by raising him from the dead - declaring him by the resurrection to be indeed the Son of God (Romans 1:4). Thus Jesus is our inspiration to remain true to God, even when it is personally difficult or costly to do so.

Rob Yule
16 February 1997

© 1997, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand