CHRIST’S SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM


CHRIST’S SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM

Harry Foster

Reading: Proverbs 8:22 – 9:5

IF it is true that Christ may be found in all the Scriptures, it is certain that in the book of Proverbs we can find much about Him as the true Wisdom of God. As a poet, Solomon used a feminine figure to typify Wisdom, but Christ can readily be identified in the description we are given of His eternal existence: “I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began” (8:23) as well as His intimate share with the Father in the works of creation: “I was there when he set the heavens in place … when he gave the sea its boundary so that the waters should not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side” (8:27-30). Those who know the Lord Jesus will readily identify Him in these and similar statements.

All this means that when we move into Chapter 9 we have no doubt that it is the Lord Jesus, as the personification of wisdom, who invites simple souls to share in the hospitality of His seven-pillared house. We hear the echo of the gospel invitation in Wisdom’s call: “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed” (9:5). We know that it is the Lord Jesus who invites the wayward (for that is the meaning of the word ‘simple’) and those who lack judgment to receive freely the benefit of His generous provision.

There is nothing partial or unfinished in the gospel feast or in the person of Him who invites us to partake of it. There is nothing vague or fragile about the house into which we are welcomed, for He has built it with sturdy pillars and there are seven of them. In the Bible the number seven speaks of divine completeness. The apostle John takes especial pleasure in using this number. In his Gospel he deliberately selects seven sign-miracles, though another is added in Chapter 21, for eight is the resurrection number. To parallel these seven signs, John records that Jesus also used the name I AM in a sevenfold description of Himself.

In a previous article [Vol. 16, No. 2, p. 21] I drew attention to a divine pattern in the seven utterances from the cross. I hope that it will not be thought fanciful if I suggest that a similar pattern is offered to us here, in John’s Gospel. The central pillar of the seven is concerned with the atonement — “I am the good Shepherd; the good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11). This is number 4. The extremities, numbers 1 and 7, remind us of the symbols of that sacrifice — “I am the bread of life” (6:35) and “I am the true vine” (15:1). Pillars numbers 2 and 3 speak of light and access — “I am the light of the world” (8:12) and “I am the door” (10:7), while numbers 5 and 6 make similar statements — “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) and “I am the way …” (14:6).

The design is balanced and complete. These seven descriptions of the I AM constitute the seven pillars of Christ’s wisdom. John’s seven sign-miracles can be made to suggest a correspondence between the names and the actions of the Lord Jesus. Both the names and the signs are meant to give us much more than an interesting pattern. John wrote them to give us a heart-warming revelation of our glorious Lord.

When God revealed Himself to Moses, He indicated the absolute perfection of His being in the name “I AM that I AM”. In a sense this is quite logical as a title, for any valid conception of the Deity must regard God as the One who is [81/82] eternal and all-sufficient, One who is completely independent and needs neither advice nor assistance from anybody. This self-description of God as the I AM is constantly repeated in the Old Testament; it is more than a title, it is His personal name, a name that none can copy and none can share. God has it all.

The startling truth in the New Testament is that Jesus, although truly a human being, yet made the same claim about Himself. He is the I AM. This is implicit in the seven phrases we are considering, but there is much more than that. He affirmed, “I AM from above … I am not of this world” (8:23) and went on to warn His hearers, “If you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins”. It is a pity that the N.I.V. translators saw fit to make the addition to His solemn claim to make it read, “If you do not believe that I am (the one I claim to be)”, but at least they have indicated by their use of brackets that the Lord did not use the words which they have inserted. His sweeping statement was that there is no hope for the sinner if the crucified One was not the I AM. In any case we read a few verses on that the Lord told His critics, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58) prefacing these words with His solemn ” Amen, Amen”. The Lord Jesus did not apologise for adopting the divine name, and we need not apologise for applying it to Him. I AM is exclusive: it implies that He alone can help us. I AM is also inclusive, for it assures us that all our needs are fully provided for in Him. To every need of ours, the Lord Himself is the all-sufficient answer. I do not propose to follow the seven titles in order, but will try to extract a few spiritual realities which emerge from them.

CHRIST’S PERFECT SUFFICIENCY

Wisdom, so we are told, has hewn out her seven pillars and built her house for the express purpose of providing a banquet for the simple. In a note on 1:22 the N.I.V. translators tell us that “the Hebrew word rendered simple in Proverbs generally denotes one without moral direction and inclined to evil”. I imagine that our word ‘wayward’ conveys something of this idea. In any case the force of the invitation to those who are in danger of perishing in their lack of judgment is not merely to offer them information or advice but to succour them with food and drink. So we are told of the servants sent out to the highest point of the city to broadcast the invitation to all and sundry.

This fits in quite closely with some of the calls by Christ Himself in the Gospels, and it particularly applies to the first of His claims which is “I AM the bread of life”, and the illustrative miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. This is perhaps the most striking of John’s sign miracles, for it reinforces what has already been recorded in the other three Gospels. There are surprisingly few matters which are mentioned in all four Gospels. John clearly did not feel it his business to repeat what the other three had written. This sign-miracle with the sequel of Jesus walking on the water is an exception.

He not only repeats the story which the Synoptics had told, but gives us a few extra details which they had no liberty to mention. The first is the association with the Feast of the Passover. The next is that Jesus already had it in mind to work this wonder. The third is that the five small loaves and the two small fish were not provided by the disciples but by an unnamed lad. What is more, John makes no mention of the employment of the apostles to carry the food to the groups of seated guests as the other three Evangelists do. He speaks as though Jesus did it all by Himself: “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish” (6:11)

The mention of the Passover is in accord with John’s principle of pointing out the fact that Jesus is the true fulfilment of all Old Testament types. The other three ways in which he adds his own details seem to me to play down any thought that Jesus needed the assistance of His disciples. Of course they acted as the Synoptic Gospels tell us, but surely John’s purpose is to focus on the absolute sufficiency of Christ. His disciples did not know what to do and did not even supply the meagre loaves and fishes which the Lord used. In this striking way Jesus demonstrated the truth of the words I AM. Perhaps John’s way of telling the story suggests that in fact all the satisfied [82/83] guests felt as though they had received their portions directly from Him. They hardly noticed the apostles, just as those at Cana of Galilee hardly noticed the servants who brought the water made wine to the table.

Every one of these seven pillars has its own testimony to the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus and all together they emphasise His glorious ability to provide for every human need at all times. The first sign-miracle took place at a wedding and the fifth at a graveside. They point us to Wisdom’s gracious invitation to the simple to leave their own ways and find life in Christ and to those who lack judgment to begin to walk in the way of understanding. The I AM is the answer to every possible need.

CHRIST’S PRESENT REALITY

Wisdom speaks to us in the present tense. Jesus did not say, “I was”, even when he spoke of Abraham’s day: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58). Although He was always looking forward to the future, His emphasis in the matter of faith is on present realities. Every one of His seven pillars stresses what we may know of Him today. Two of the sign-miracles of John’s Gospel give occasion for us to note this insistence on what is not only past or future but present and immediate. They concern the statement I AM the bread of life and I AM the resurrection and the life. The events are indeed past history — they really happened — but they stress immediate reality.

i. Not only a matter of the past

The phrase, “I AM the bread of life” arose out of the long discussion between the Lord and the Jews after the feeding of the five thousand. The Jews were very proud of their nation’s past and they challenged the Lord Jesus with the wonder-food of the wilderness which they still called Manna. They set great store on this national miracle of survival by bread from heaven, associating the name of their great hero, Moses, with it. Jesus put them right in the matter of who was responsible by saying, “It was not Moses who gave you the manna”, but He carefully avoided the obvious correction that it was the Father who had given it, for that would have been to focus on past history. He therefore completed the sentence by saying, “but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven” (6:32). It is the true bread, the spiritual reality and not the typical illustration, and He [the true bread] is now being given — not a bit of past history but an up-to-date gift of life to God’s People.

The past is past, however wonderful it may have been. No-one can live on past tradition. What we need, and what Jesus offers, is present and immediate. In this matter of the bread of life He is the I AM. It is noteworthy that when the Jews demanded a sign He did not respond by citing His miracle of feeding the multitude, which should have been proof enough of His deity. That, however, although so recent was now past experience for those who enjoyed it. What matters is not only what He gave, but what He now gives . Even if we knew the exact location of that desert feast and modern Christians could make a pilgrimage to it, their experience would be as nothing compared to the spiritual reality which comes from a personal taste of the I AM.

It is indeed a fact that the foundations of our faith depend on the past. We wholeheartedly believe all that the Gospels say about the miracles of Jesus. The words of Jesus show, however, that He multiplied the loaves to establish the lasting wonder that hungry people may still eat and be satisfied by feeding upon Him. It is an interesting fact that John always avoids any use of the noun ‘faith’ and writes of the activity of ‘believing’. There must be an initial act of ‘receiving’ Him but that is only valid for those who go on believing in His name (1:12).

The Lord Jesus wisely left with His Church one simple act of remembrance designed to illustrate this matter of feeding on Him in our hearts by faith. The Lord’s Supper does look back to the past and also points to the future, but it really majors on the present. We are to break the bread often, and when we do so we both proclaim His death on the cross and look forward to His Coming in the clouds, but the central command is that in our action we should [83/84] maintain a present communion with Him. The symbols speak to us of the I AM as our daily bread and of His blood as that which keeps on cleansing us from all sin.

ii. Not only a matter of the future

The second sign-miracle which emphasises this present tense experience is that of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. At the time when Jesus came to Bethany, Martha’s expectations were limited to the future: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (11:24). She was quite correct. So he will, and so will she and so, by God’s grace, will we all. Our resurrection, though, will depend not only on a divinely appointed occasion, but on a Person, and that Person is the One who announced to Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life”. So there is a knowledge of resurrection life which does not have to wait for some future date but applies to our immediate needs. This new life is a present reality when we know God and Jesus Christ whom He sent: “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die”.

The real thrust of the Lord’s words is the spiritual principle of resurrection life. To prove that He really is the resurrection He actually brought Lazarus out of his tomb but, unlike His own resurrection, that of Lazarus was a merely temporary experience. Whether he went back later to that same grave or to some other, death inevitably overtook him as it does us all. On some future occasion, as Martha rightly said, Lazarus will arise with a new body which will then be immortal. That emergence from the cave was a sign of what is yet to be, but it was more than that. It demonstrates to us that in Himself the Lord Jesus is life and His resurrection life is freely available to us here and now. Every new birth by the Spirit is a greater miracle than what happened to Martha’s brother, but the constancy of that miracle is to be maintained by a continual experience of the I AM. Another title which the Lord offered was “I AM the door”. He is the way of access. To that, however, He added the promise that through Him we are to go in and out (10:9). This does not suggest a once-for-all experience and certainly not an up-and-down one, but rather that we ought to have constantly new experiences of access. Every day and every hour, He is the entrance into new experiences of spiritual life.

CHRIST’S PRACTICAL POWER

A further point which arises from the parallels of His names and His sign-miracles is that it is a most practical experience to all of us who come to Him. The seven pillars are not just ornamental extras to His house but they are strong supports, ready to respond to every demand made upon them. We are not just expected to recognise His claims but we are invited to come to His house and taste for ourselves the present provision of the I AM. There is much to learn from these sign-miracles which John recorded.

i. I AM the True Vine

We begin with the miracle associated with the vine. It seems that after the conversation related in John 14, the Lord and His disciples went out of the upper room and perhaps passed by the great ornamental vine which formed part of the fabric of Herod’s Temple. That was not so much a false vine as a merely figurative one. When Jesus used the term ‘true’, He spoke of the reality, not only contrasting Himself with symbols of failure but even with what may have been genuine types of the truth. As He said, “I AM … the truth.” At Cana of Galilee He proved this truth. No doubt that newly married couple whose predicament is described in John 2:3 knew all about the symbolism of the vine. It is even possible that they had a pictorial vine in their new home, but at that moment of dire crisis what they needed was the real thing, for they had no wine. In fact the True Vine was sitting at their table, though they did not know it. When once the matter had been put into His hands, an abundance of rich wine was made available to crown that feast. When the Lord spoke of the Vine in John 15, most of what He said relates to the believer’s fruitfulness. It is all very important and in this issue I have been able to include some most helpful ministry on that chapter which George Harpur gave us not long before he went to be with Christ. But surely the miracle at Cana must be allowed to illustrate what Christ can do for the fruitless believer. The true story of the wine at the wedding gives a graphic reminder of the practical sufficiency of Christ and of the excellence of His provision. [84/85]

We are to taste and see how good the Lord is. The Master of Ceremonies there in Galilee knew nothing of the explanation of how the provision came to be available, but his palate told him that in a moment the Lord Jesus had done that which excelled nature’s best (2:10). He who is incarnate Wisdom issues the invitation, “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:5). Solomon wrote those words as part of his beautiful poetry, but Christ gives us the beautiful reality. He is the True Vine whose surpassing sweetness is available for every time of need which may occur in our lives and our relationships.

ii. I AM the Light of the World

In John 9 we have the story of the miraculous healing of a man who had been blind from birth. It was in association with this poor sufferer who never in all his life had known a single shaft of light that Jesus made the claim, “I AM the light of the world” (9:5). The man’s condition was tragic; for him everything was thick darkness. The disciples, acting like amateur theologians, wanted to provoke a hair-splitting enquiry which would have made an attractive subject for discussion on a T.V. programme, and been no more profitable than many of them. But Jesus was not in this world to argue about theories but to provide practical answers to men’s needs.

He not only claimed to be what John had earlier described as “the true light” (1:9), but He proceeded to illuminate the man who had lived all his life in total darkness. It is clear that the sign-miracle required no great effort on the part of Jesus. After all, He is the eternal Son who had uttered the Father’s decree, “Let there be light” when the whole world was in chaotic darkness and then the light had shone. Just one word of command from Him could begin a new world for the benighted beggar. It was in these terms that Paul described his own conversion; it was a new creation day for him: “For God that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). In the Genesis story we are told of light before the sun and moon were shining, while at Saul’s conversion the light that shone upon him was “above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26:13).

No-one would doubt that this emancipated beggar had his whole life revolutionised by his response to the One who said, “I AM the light”. What is more, the development of his story shows that the light was spiritual as well as physical and that it increased as he responded boldly to its implications. We only begin to live when the Lord Jesus enlightens our hearts but what is equally important, we only make progress in the way of life as we open our hearts and minds to His fresh shining.

iii. I AM the Door

Another of the sign-miracles of John’s Gospel will perhaps give us a helpful illustration of the practical reality of Christ’s name. This time we are to consider His claim, “I AM the door”. The story describes the experience of a man who for thirty-eight years had been trying unsuccessfully to gain access: “Sir, I have no-one to help me into the pool” (5:7). He so wanted to get in, but never could, at least never in time. Jesus solved his problem for him.

There are mysteries about that pool and the properties claimed for the one who could first enter it when its waters were troubled. They do not concern us, for what matters is what happened to the man, and there was no mystery about that: he discovered the practical reality of Christ’s claim to be the entrance — the door or the gate. He was so obsessed with his inability that he hardly paid attention to the Lord’s enquiry as to whether he wished to be made whole. Of course he did, but he seems to have been unable to think of anything more than his need to get into that pool on time. The Lord did not waste words remonstrating with him, and He certainly did not offer His services to help the man into the pool. He did something much better than that; He made the man whole with a word. Instead of bringing the man to the door, He brought the door to the man. And that is what He does to all who sincerely desire access into the mercy and grace of God.

My own opinion is that this was one of the most undeserving and even despicable of all those who were healed by the Lord Jesus. This is partly [85/86] borne out by the fact that Jesus proceeded to give him not a promise but a warning. The man reacted to this by becoming an informer to Christ’s persecutors. Never mind! There is grace for the most unworthy. In any case, what happened to him in terms of physical relief is surely recounted to us so that we may have a new conception of the grace and power of the I AM. Jesus said, “I AM the door”. He also said, “I AM the way”. In Him we find access and a welcome into the blessings of God.

SIGNIFICANCE OF WHAT IS SPIRITUAL

The seven pillars speak of permanence, and only the spiritual is truly permanent. Those who do not accept the infallibility of the Scriptures tell us that the early believers invented these stories just to assist us to appreciate the Lord’s spiritual powers. They are quite wrong. Each of these seven sign-wonders actually happened. But it would be rather foolish to stress His power to bring healing to men as if this were paramount, or to demand similar miracles in His Church today. That God can do miracles if and when He wishes no true believer would doubt, but the question which arises is that of genuine and lasting values, and these must be spiritual. In this connection what the I AM does for men in the spiritual realm is the real thrust of the message of John’s Gospel.

Perhaps I may revert to the apostle Paul in an attempt to stress this truth. Saul of Tarsus actually passed three days of blindness when physically he was in total darkness. He then received back his sight by a miracle, as is explained in the words, “Something like scales fell from his eyes and he could see again” (Acts 9:18). As part of his testimony on the steps of the Jerusalem barracks, he told his hearers of that miracle (Acts 22:11 & 13) but apart from that almost casual allusion he never seems to have mentioned again the physical wonder. On the other hand he continually wrote and prayed about the miracle of spiritual enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. This was what mattered. His writings abound with thanks for his own deliverance from spiritual blindness and prayers that his readers might know and walk in the light of the Lord. For him it was clearly the giving of spiritual sight which constituted the true fulfilment of Christ’s claim in this and in every other matter to be the great I AM.

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