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Jesus' Spiritual Growth

Jesus' Spiritual Growth

A Meditation

Perhaps we are under the impression that Jesus himself did not need to undergo the process of spiritual deepening. Such an idea would be wrong. It is contradicted by all the indications that we can glean from the gospels, no less than by the explicit statement that Jesus grew in wisdom and grace (Luke 2:52). Being truly human in every sense of the word, Jesus needed to reflect, to incorporate new experiences into his self-concept, to reinforce his ideals and nurture his heart and mind with new images. Jesus was the most vibrant, open, sensitive, keen, inquisitive religious leader that ever lived. If his humanity, as we believe, presented “the exact likeness of God’s own being” (Hebrews 1:3), it reflected also the irrepressible vitality of God. At the same time, being one of us, Jesus needed to learn-"Even though he was God’s Son, he learned through his sufferings to be obedient" (Hebrews 5:8). And the need to suffer was precisely a very upsetting discovery Jesus made.

Distressing Premonitions

Since the gospels recount events in a systematic, rather than a chronological way, it is difficult to trace the exact sequence of incidents that led to that discovery. It is possible that the clash with the scribes and Pharisees started it off. Jesus refused to accept the pharisaic interpretation of the Sabbath rest. He cured people on the Sabbath. When he healed a man who was partly paralyzed, “they were filled with rage and began to discuss among themselves what they could do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). The Law prescribed the death penalty for transgressing the Sabbath, so it was killing him they had in mind. The awareness of this threat became all the more real for Jesus when news of John the Baptist’s death reached him. He withdrew to a lonely place to reflect and pray. There, in the presence of his Father, the inescapable conclusion must have dawned on him: If I continue my ministry in this way, they will certainly put me to death.

“I tell you that Elijah has already come and people did not recognize him, but treated him just as they pleased. In the same way they will also mistreat the Son of Man” (Matthew 17:12).

It is easy to talk about it now, but for Jesus the realization must have come as a shock. The hostility of the scribes hurt him deeply. The prospect of having to face pain and humiliation upset him. And, most of all, the threat of possible failure loomed large. Was there no way out? What direction did the Spirit want him to go? How could he be true to his mission? How could he ensure that the kingdom would be established, whatever might happen to him? Jesus needed to re-examine his entire position, his motives and ideals, his feelings and his thoughts. When, in prayer and inner wrestling, he came to accept his impending death as part of his mission, he was, in fact, deepening his spiritual life. He learned; he grew in wisdom and grace; he became more true to himself.

Trying to enter into Jesus’ mind obviously is not easy. We necessarily oversimplify the thoughts and emotions that tossed him backward and forward. Certainly in Nazareth, while preparing for his mission, the possibility of opposition must have been in his mind. But if, for the purpose of our reflection, we simplify matters a little, we may say that the integration of suffering into his thought pattern marked for Jesus an important new step in his interior life. What enabled him to take this step? From what source did he draw the images and concepts that made him see his mission in this new light? The answer is simple and straightforward: from the inspired scriptures. Or, to put it in our terms, from the Old Testament. It is here that our analysis of Jesus’ progressive self-understanding becomes immediately relevant to our discussion.

The hymn of the suffering servant of God (Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12) certainly molded Jesus’ thinking. But other Old Testament texts were equally important. The following event is revealing:

“About a week after he had said these things [regarding his future suffering], Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him and went up a hill to pray. While he was praying, his face changed its appearance, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly two men were there talking with him. They were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in heavenly glory and talked with Jesus about the way in which he would soon fulfill God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:28-31).

What took place on that lonely hill? Why did Moses and Elijah appear?

Models and Allies

Moses and Elijah, we are told by commentators, represented the Law and the Prophets. Jesus was to fulfill both. True. But this kind of commentary missed the psychological aspect of the happening. Jesus went up a high hill to pray. His mind was filled with the shock of his future suffering. The determination to live up to his mission “until death” was taking hold of him, but he needed to clarify his vision and to strengthen his resolve. That is why he went up to pray. And while he prayed, he groped for examples from the inspired past that would help him, that would show him how to respond to the challenge. Moses came to mind, and Elijah.

Jesus recalled how Moses had met God in the burning bush, how he had been sent to bring God’s people out of Egypt. He saw, in his mind’s eye, how Moses protested: “I am nobody. How can I go...?” (Exodus 3:11). He relived Moses’ struggles with the Pharaoh, Moses’ trouble with the people:

“Why have you given me the responsibility for all these people? I didn’t create them or bring them to birth! should you ask me to act like a nurse and carry them in my arms like babies all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors?" (Numbers 11:11-12).

He felt Moses’ disappointment when the people set up the golden calf, and his exasperation, anguish, and anger. But after all this, and through it all, he experienced Moses’ elation in being allowed to be so close to the Father. He saw vividly how Moses, high on a mountain too, experienced God’s presence.

“I will make all my splendor pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my sacred name. I am the LORD and I show compassion and pity on those I choose.... When the dazzling light of my presence passes by, I will put you in an opening in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away, and you will see my back but not my face” (Exodus 33:19-23).

And Jesus knew that it was this closeness to the Father that had carried Moses through until the end of his mission.

Then Jesus thought of Elijah. How he had to flee from his own country during the drought. How he confronted the prophets of Baal on the Carmel. How after his victory over them Elijah had had to flee once more. He saw him there, lying in the desert under the shade of a tree, saying to God: “It’s too much....Take away my life; I might as well be dead!” (1 Kings 19:4). But again he saw consolation in Elijah’s meeting with God. There, in the cave on God’s holy mountain, Elijah experienced God’s presence.

Then the LORD passed by and sent a furious wind that split the hills and shattered the rocks-but the LORD was not in the wind. The wind stopped blowing, and then there was an earthquake-but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire-but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the soft whisper of a voice. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (1 Kings 19:11-12).

It was this experience, Jesus knew, that had given Elijah the strength to continue his mission.

Ecstasy and Resolve

Jesus himself was transported into a trance. “A change came over Jesus: his face was shining like the sun, and his clothes were dazzling white" (Matthew 17:2). The presence of God enveloped him, as it had done Moses and Elijah before. And Jesus felt the confirmation these two great prophets had felt. He heard the Father say: “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased-listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). The Father thus reaffirmed him as the new Moses and as his messianic servant, and gave Jesus the guidance and inner support he needed. From now on he would resolutely set his face toward Jerusalem to meet the challenge head-on. His encounter with Moses and Elijah helped him to do this.

At this stage, being children of our time, we may ask: Did Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus in a physical form? Maybe they did. It seems equally possible that Jesus had a spiritual encounter with them. His talking with Moses and Elijah may have been a very intense, personal confrontation-so intense that he felt they were almost physically there. Jesus told the three apostles about this experience and in later tradition it was formulated as if the two prophets were present as visible persons. We find a similar development in the temptation stories which were recounted by Jesus in the form of a well-known midrash, then taken up in the gospels as narrated events. Such an interpretation of Jesus’ encounter with Moses and Elijah does not minimize the historicity of the transfiguration account. Whether Jesus talked to them in visible form or in a spiritual confrontation, the outcome remains the same: He was comforted and strengthened by what they had experienced. And, like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus was so filled by the Father’s closeness to him that he could now confidently accept his death. Peter gives this confirmation as the substance of the transfiguration experience.

“We were there when he was given honor and glory by God the Father, when the voice came to him from the Supreme Glory, saying, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased!’ ” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

The Role of the Past

From this one happening in the life of Jesus we can learn many things We see that he had to grow and to deepen his understanding and commitment. We also find that the scriptures provided him with the inspiration he required. It was by his reliving of Moses’ and Elijah’s experiences that Jesus prepared himself for the special revelation his Father was to give him.

From: ‘Ancient Prophets on My Mountain’ in Inheriting the Master's Cloak by John Wijngaards, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame 1985, pp. 83-88.

John Wijngaards



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