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The Favorite Texts of Jesus

James Freeman Clarke

Taken from The Hour Which Cometh, and Now Is (Boston: Walker, Wise, and Co., 1864), pp. 315-330.

Luke iv. 17: "He opened the book and found the place."

When you read an interesting book, it becomes more interesting if you find that some one whom you love and respect has read it before you, and has marked, here and there, any favorite passages. The first time I read Spenser’s “Fairy Queen,” it was in Kentucky, and in a copy which had belonged to the poet John Keats. It was marked all through with his pen at those places which especially interested and pleased him. I enjoyed the book all the more for those marks. The pleasure you find in this, arises, I think, from the fact that you are reading two minds at the same time,—the mind of the author, and that of the previous reader. You seem to look into the heart and thought of him who has gone before you; and, whenever you come to his pencilmark, you say, “Why was he interested in this?” and you stop a moment to read in your friend’s mind
what his thought was about the author.

Now, suppose that we could have the very copy of the Hebrew Scriptures which was used by Jesus when a child, a boy, a man, at Nazareth,—the very rolls, marked in the margin with his hand at his favorite passages: could any thing be more interesting than this? Would it not let us into the mind of Christ to see what texts he loved the most in all the volume? How very interesting, how deeply affecting, would it be to see the Bible which our Lord used! I was interested in John Keats’s marks in “Spenser,” because he was a poet too. A poet reading a poet seems to be a good guide; but Jesus, the prophetic soul, reading the books of the great prophetic souls who went before him, interprets them to us best of all.

We have not the Bible that Jesus used; but we have almost the same thing: we have his favorite passages in the Old Testament given to us in another way. We have his quotations from it preserved for in us the New Testament. All may not be preserved; but we have about forty passages, quoted by Jesus from the different Jewish Scriptures.

I have thought it might be interesting and useful to look at these, or at some of them, and so get a glimpse into the mind of Jesus through this little window.

Jesus has quoted about thirty-nine passages from eleven books of the Old Testament. From each of the five books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, fifteen passages; nine passages from the Psalms; seven from Isaiah; eight from Jeremiah, Hosea, Malachi, and Zechariah.

He has quoted nothing from the historical books, from Joshua to Esther inclusive; nothing from Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or the Song of Solomon; nothing from.twelve of the prophets, including Ezekiel and Daniel.

Let me remark, before proceeding further, that, in quoting from the Old Testament, our Lord thinks more of the spirit than of the letter. He quotes sometimes from the Hebrew, and sometimes from the Septuagint Greek translation; and of some passages it is hard to say whence they are quoted. Sometimes he puts together two texts from different places, as when he says, “It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” The first half is from Isaiah, the last from Jeremiah. Therefore he has not any idea of using these passages logically as proof-texts, or controversially as arguments adapted to convince doubters; for, in such a case, it would have been necessary for his purpose to quote with precision. The object for which he adduces these passages is moral and spiritual, for which no such accuracy is needed.


Christ Fulfilling scripture

He sometimes spoke of himself as fulfilling these Scriptures. I think we often have a false idea of what is meant by this. We suppose that it means to adduce a prediction which is literally accomplished by a fact. We suppose that Jesus did certain things merely to fulfil the predictions of Scripture. Thus we might suppose that Jesus healed diseases to fulfil one prophecy of Isaiah; that he kept silence about himself to fulfil another; and spoke in parables to fulfil a third.[1]

But this is not the Scripture meaning of “fulfil.” Such a fulfilment of prophecy as this would have no value, and reflect no honor on prophecy. When an astronomer predicts an eclipse to take place on a certain day, at a particular hour and minute, and it does happen at that very time, we see in it a proof of knowledge on his part; but if God should interfere, and cause an eclipse to happen then, merely to confirm the astronomer’s prediction, it would not be any proof of his science. So, if Jesus worked miracles or spoke parables merely because it had been predicted that he would do so, it would not redound to the credit of the prophecy. If you predict, that, on a certain day, I shall preach a sermon on a certain text, and I select that text in order to fulfil your prophecy, do you not see that it would not give any one faith in your prophetic talent?

There is another sense in which the word “fulfilled” is used in the New Testament. Jesus fulfilled Scripture in another way. To “fulfil,” in the Scripture sense, is “to carry out perfectly;” it is to develop a principle or truth to its ultimate result. Thus “love is the fulfilling of the law;” that is, it carries law out to its last results. “Fulfil ye my joy;” that is, carry it fully out. “He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him;” that is, give them all they desire. “It becometh us to fulfil all righteousness;” i.e., carry it all out perfectly. Thus the law is fulfilled, obedience is fulfilled, joy is fulfilled, in this way, by being carried to perfection.

Jesus fulfils all things in the law and the prophets by carrying each thing fully out to its perfection. “I came not to destroy, but to fulfil.” He sees a germ of good in all things; he comes to fulfil it. He destroys nothing. He does not destroy any thing in nature or in man, or in human life, or in the religions of the world; he fulfils them all.

Thus it was that Jesus did not destroy, but fulfil, the Hebrew law. He took up its essence into his own doctrine, and dropped its accidental form. He fulfilled its morality by a higher morality. The law written on stone was fulfilled by a law written in the heart. He changed it from a law of negation and prohibition into one of attraction, of positive good. Thus, when the law said, “Do not murder,” Christ fulfilled it by saying, “Love your enemy.”


Mercy, and Not Sacrifice

One of his favorite passages—which he quotes, indeed, twice, and in reference to two different matters—is from Hos. vi. 6: “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings.” The first time was when Jesus was reproved for eating with publicans, and said, “Go, and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.” The other time was when his disciples plucked ears of corn on the sabbath day. The Pharisees blamed them; but Jesus said, “If ye had known what this means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Evidently, he had thought of it often, and deeply. What does God wish of us? Does he wish any thing from us? Does he wait and long to have any thing? He wishes for mercy to man, not sacrifice to himself; good-will to our brethren, not
worship to himself. Sabbath-keeping is good; but love is better,—care for man is better. Do we realize this? I am afraid, not. We do not know now, eighteen hundred years since Christ said it, twenty-six hundred years since Hosea said it, what it means. There is meaning in it yet, which the Church has not exhausted. Jesus was deeply convinced that good to man was the best worship of God. God is wishing for this; God is wishing that you and I should do more for those who need than we now do.


Man Lives By Truth, Not By Bread

Another favorite passage of Jesus is found in Deut. viii. 3. It teaches that God led the Jewish nation forty years in the wilderness, to humble and prove it, and to know what was in its heart; and goes on thus: “He humbled thee and proved thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only; but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God doth man live.” In the Hebrew text, the original expression is “every thing;” in the Septuagint it is “every word.” Jesus here follows the Septuagint.

In reading Deuteronomy, his eye caught at this. How does man live? What is man’s true life? Not of the body, but of the soul. What is his real food? Truth, the sight of truth, coming from God, —this is his real life.

If, then, he must sacrifice every thing else,—all comfort, success, appreciation, reputation; if he must be laughed at, set aside, counted as nothing; if his life seems a failure; if he have many enemies and few friends, —all this is nothing, if he really sees the truth; for this will make him strong and happy. He can live on this, and live joyfully. He will have no sense of sacrifice; all will be glad and joyful in his heart while he sees the truth.

In the hour of his great temptation, these words of Moses came to him; and it had become an intimate conviction with him, so that he resisted the temptation easily, and said to Satan, “I do not need bread: I need to be right. I am not hungry for any thing this world can give; I am hungry for truth: my longing is for that.”

So afterward he laid to the Jews (with a reference to this passage in his mind), “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.” Miraculous bread does not come from heaven; for,after all, it is material food, not spiritual. Nothing comes from heaven but what is spiritual.

This quotation also illustrates his meaning in the petition, “Give us this day our daily (necessary) bread.” Truth is daily bread, more necessary even than earthly food; and is always to be understood as included in this petition.


God the God of the Living

The passage (Matt. xxii. 32; Mark xii. 26; Luke xx. 37) quoted from Exod. iii. 6, 16, is very interesting and important.

God in this place says to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus takes this as the proof-text of immortality in the Old Testament. Why did he do so?

It is well known that there is little to be found in the Old Testament concerning a future life. Some writers say that nothing is there. All that the Jews learned about it they are said to have learned in the Babylonish captivity. Yet some other passages Jesus might have quoted. There is, for instance, the famous passage in Job, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” &c. There is that in Daniel, “Many of them who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever.”

But Jesus passed by these texts, which are commonly quoted as proof-texts of immortality, and took this one. Why? If God is our God, he says, we cannot die. He is a living God. He speaks of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as being his. The moment he calls them his, they must be alive. For God to think of them would make them alive, if they had been dead a thousand years.

Is not this the only guaranty of life? It is the interest felt by God in each particular soul, the love of God for each soul. If every soul is a separate being to God, with a separate, special value, a name of its own, then each soul must live. If he knows you and me, knows us as he has made us, and made us for himself, then we cannot die.

Why, if you have taken pains to carve a figure, or draw a man’s face with a pencil, you do not quite like to destroy it. You have put some of yourself into it. God has put something of himself into each of us. We, therefore, all live to him, for we all live from him.

This is the highest proof of immortality; but it is a proof not addressed to the logical understanding, but to the higher reason. It shows us what Jesus regarded as the true authority of the Old Testament in proof of doctrine.

The common mode of proof by theologians is to say, “Here are so many texts in which such a doctrine is stated by Moses, Job, Solomon, and Micah; but these are inspired men; therefore God says it; therefore, whether you can understand it or not, you must believe it.” This is arguing like a pedagogue, not like a Christian teacher.

But Christ does not quote Scripture thus. He does not concentrate a battery of texts, torn from their contexts, with which to confuse and prostrate an opponent. Instead of this, his argument demands the presence of some religious insight in order to be understood, and it is convincing in proportion to the amount of faith in the hearer. The word of Jesus profits only when mixed with religious faith in those to whom he speaks. To feel the force of this passage, for example, one must know something of the nature of love, human and divine; something of the nature of the human soul, and its worth; something also of what life really is.


The Messiah

There is a peculiar interest in noticing the passages which Jesus quotes from the Old Testament, in regard to the Messiah, as applied to himself.

Luke iv. 18, 19,—taken from Isaiah (lxi. 1, 2). Jesus quotes the following passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised; to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

In this passage, which Jesus selected from the book of Isaiah to read at Nazareth among his own people, and which he applied to himself after having read it, we gather the view he himself took of his own work.

There are many other passages in Isaiah, usually applied to Christ, and supposed to be predictions of the Messiah, which Jesus might have quoted, but did not. There is the passage concerning “Immanuel,” in the seventh chapter. There is the passage (Isa. ix. 6) in which Christ is usually believed to be predicted, and in which he is called “Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace;” but Jesus does not select this passage.

Then there is the famous passage (in Isa. xi.) in which is described the Branch that was to grow out of the stem of Jesse, —a passage which contains a beautiful description of the coming of Christ, and of his kingdom of peace; but even this he passes by. More remarkable is it that he entirely omits to notice the famous prophecy (in Isa. liii.) of the man of sorrows, except by a casual allusion. Still less does he refer to the prophecy of a triumphant and conquering Messiah, who overcomes his enemies, and subdues nations; but he selects this passage, in which the Messiah is described as sent to preach to the poor and to heal the broken-hearted. Evidently he had often dwelt in his mind upon this view of the Christ. He saw himself called to be the Messiah in this high sense; and in this sense he really became the Messiah.

There is another passage concerning the Christ, which he quotes (Matt. xxii. 44) from the hundred and tenth Psalm. In this Psalm, David calls the Christ, whose coming he foresees, “my Lord.” Jesus asks the Pharisees how David could have called his own descendant “my Lord.” This question, which is left unanswered both by the Pharisees and by Jesus himself, shows that he had meditated upon its meaning. He saw that the Messiah was not to be merely a continuation of David, or a reproduction of David; he was to go on from the standpoint of David to a much higher one. David was already so glorified in the Jewish mind, that the Jews mostly expected in the Messiah only another David; but Jesus had seen intimations in the Old Testament itself of that which he saw clearly in the prophetic instincts of his own soul,—that the day of the Messiah was to transcend by a long interval that of David.

Put together these two passages, in one of which Jesus had found from Isaiah that the work of the Messiah was to comfort and help the lowly; and in the other, that by this work he was to become David's Lord. The two, thus united, result in the central idea of Christ's teaching, that he who humbles himself shall be exalted; that the work of the Messiah is to seek and save those who are lost. Thus, no doubt, by the revelations made to his own soul, and by meditations on these profound passages of Scripture, Jesus gradually formed in his mind the idea of the true
Messiah, and saw that he was sent to fulfil it. This was his mission in the world; for this God had sent him. He did not accommodate Scripture to his idea, as is the fashion sometimes to say; nor did he change his idea to suit the Scripture; but he saw that in essence and spirit they were identical. When he said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it and was glad;” and then added, “Before Abraham was, I was the Christ,”—we see that Jesus, meditating on the promise to Abraham, that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed, saw that this prophecy could only be fulfilled by a Jew, who, like himself, had risen wholly above the distinction of Jew and Gentile, and to whom all mankind were brethren, because children of
one Father.

Observe also the authority which the Master claims for himself as the Son of man,—that is, as the man in whom humanity took its full development; who, because perfectly Son of man, is therefore Son of God. For that which is perfectly human comes into a perfectly filial relation to the Father. He who stands in this relation to God and man stands higher than the Scripture, because at the source from whence the Scripture came. He has the same spirit from whence the Scripture proceeded. Hence Jesus considered himself to be, not the servant, but the master, of the
sabbath; not the servant; but the master, of the ten commandments. In Matt. xix. 18, he rearranges them, putting “Honor thy father and mother” after the rest, instead of before them; and adding an eleventh commandment, out of Lev. xix. 18: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Evidently, our Lord, in reading Leviticus, had seen this command shining like a star in the midst of the ceremonial and ritual ordinances. It left its place in Leviticus, and joined the ten great commandments, at his behest; for he was Lord of the Scripture as of the sabbath, because he was the Son of man.

This very phrase—“Son of man”—was taken by Jesus from Dan. vii. 13. In this passage, the Messiah is represented as “a man,” coming “with the clouds of heaven,” and standing before the “Ancient of days” to receive an everlasting dominion which shall never pass away. There Jesus could see himself to have been foretold by the prophets. He saw himself as a man, receiving an everlasting dominion, but coming “in the clouds of heaven;” for the “clouds
of heaven,” in the language of the Old Testament, indicate the obscurity which surrounds the providences of God. When Jesus predicts his future coming as to be “in the clouds of heaven,” he means that it will be without “observation.”

The subject I have spoken of is one for a book, not for a sermon.

These thirty-nine quotations from the Old Testament deserve to be weighed carefully, till we learn what Jesus found in each of them. His meditations on them are full of light for us all. We shall find that to him the Old Testament was a book most valuable, not for what it said, but for what it suggested; that he searched in it for the spirit, and not for the letter; that he did not value its prodigies and wonders; that he did not regard its long procession of marvels and
portents; that all its savage wars he omits to notice; and that of the worldliness, infidelity, and unbelief of its people and princes he says nothing. Solomon, for example,…to Jesus is nothing.

The texts most quoted by our modern Orthodox teachers and writers, Jesus never quotes at all.

Jesus took the best out of the Old Testament as out of every thing. This is the lesson of his quotations. He passes by the low, the mean, the false, and finds the good. Finding the good, he found the true; for only that which is good is really true.

How differently have others studied the Old Testament! Some study it to find proof-texts of this or that doctrine; some to find arguments in favor of old abuses, slavery, intemperance, polygamy, despotism, persecution, war, witchcraft; some to find faults, errors, contradictions, absurdities, in its letter; some to justify low views of God as an arbitrary Being, of man as a degraded being. But Jesus studies these inspired writings to find the best, highest, and purest
in all things. So he finds in them a divine spirit; he searches in them for a profounder sense of God's love; he develops them all to a higher-point; and he thus fulfills every thing which they contain. He makes them full of meaning and full of life. He takes out of the hard shell its living kernel; he supersedes much of them, and values always the practical part more than the ceremonial.



[1] The usual formula on these occasions is, "All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet," &c.


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