Not only do books change lives, but paragraphs do. And not only paragraphs, but even single sentences. “Paragraphs find their way to us through books,” John Piper writes, “and they often gain their peculiar power because of the context they have in the book. But the point remains: One sentence or paragraph may lodge itself so powerfully in our mind that its effect is enormous when all else is forgotten.”
In fact, we might even take it a step further, to particular phrases. That’s my story. It’s been a loaded phrase, but a single phrase nonetheless, penned by Jonathan Edwards and printed in a book by Piper, that has proved life-changing: “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.”
As a sophomore in college (and with the help of some older students), I was becoming wise to the bigness and sovereignty of God, but I was still naïve about how it all related to Jesus. Help came when Piper published Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ.
At first, I read it too fast, and benefited little. But when I came back to it, and read each chapter devotionally (thirteen chapters plus the intro, so a reading a day for two weeks), it awakened in me a new love for and focus on Jesus.
The most transformative section of the book was chapter 3. The chapter begins like this, landing on the phrase from Edwards that lodged itself so powerfully in my mind:
A lion is admirable for its ferocious strength and imperial appearance. A lamb is admirable for its meekness and servant-like provision of wool for our clothing. But even more admirable is a lionlike lamb and a lamblike lion. What makes Christ glorious, as Jonathan Edwards observed over 250 years ago, is “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” (29)
No One Like Him
The life-changing phrase first appears in a sermon, “The Excellency of Christ,” preached under the banner of Revelation 5:5–6. Edwards says,
There is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ. The lion and the lamb, though very diverse kinds of creatures, yet have each their peculiar excellencies. The lion excels in strength, and in the majesty of his appearance and voice: the lamb excels in meekness and patience, besides the excellent nature of the creature as good for food, and yielding that which is fit for our clothing and being suitable to be offered in sacrifice to God. But we see that Christ is in the text compared to both, because the diverse excellencies of both wonderfully meet in him.
I was captured by the thought, and reality, that Jesus brings together in one person what no other men or angels — or even the Father or the Spirit — unite in one person. Lionlike strength and lamblike gentleness.
“Unless we know Jesus specifically, and in greater detail over time, we will come to know him wrongly.”
What I began to see for myself in those days is that Jesus isn’t just the means for humans to get right with the Father. Christ, the God-man, is also the great end. He is the fullest and deepest revelation of God to mankind. To see him is to see the Father. And the Father means for us to see, and savor, his Son as the great treasure of surpassing value, as the pearl of greatest price.
Fresh and Holy Discontent
What Edwards’s well-crafted phrase, and Piper’s short book, did for me was to woo me into a lifelong hunt for details about Jesus. The line awakened a fresh and holy discontent for the popular vagueness about Christ’s person.
Years ago, I heard from a veteran at a Christian publisher that books on Jesus don’t typically sell well today. People want to read and learn about trending topics and life application. They think they already know about Jesus. Tragically, they are content with little knowledge (and often vague knowledge) about the most fascinating, mindboggling, profound subject in all the universe: God become man.
Edwards was not that way. He didn’t mention Jesus on his way to some other more popular topic; he focused on Jesus. He lingered on Jesus — in the case of this particular sermon, for 15,000 words (roughly two hours).
Seven Diversities in One Son
In the first part of the sermon, Edwards addresses the diversity of Christ’s excellencies: his infinite highness as God and his infinite condescension as man, alongside his infinite justice and infinite grace. Then, in part 2, he speaks to the conjunction of those excellencies, specifically the virtues in Christ which “seem incompatible otherwise in one person.” This is the heart of it — seven “admirable conjunctions” Edwards highlights in Christ:
- Infinite glory, and lowest humility;
- Infinite majesty, and transcendent meekness;
- Deepest reverence toward God, and equality with God;
- Infinite worthiness of good, and the greatest patience under sufferings of evil;
- An exceeding spirit of obedience, with supreme dominion over heaven and earth;
- Absolute sovereignty, and perfect resignation;
- Self-sufficiency, and an entire trust and reliance on God.
As just one taste of the feast, consider what Edwards says about Jesus’s humility:
Humility is not properly predicable of God the Father, and the Holy Ghost, that exist only in the divine nature; because it is a proper excellency only of a created nature; for it consists radically in a sense of a comparative lowness and littleness before God, or the great distance between God and the subject of this virtue; but it would be a contradiction to suppose any such thing in God.
Yet in becoming man, Christ, without losing his highness or deity (as if that were possible), gained humanity and the ability to humble himself (Philippians 2:8). Jesus, the God-man, is “above all” as God, “yet lowest of all in humility.” Edwards continues,
There never was so great an instance of this virtue among either men or angels, as Jesus. None ever was so sensible of the distance between God and him, or had a heart so lowly before God, as the man Christ Jesus.
Precise, Extensive Glories
God the Father means for his people to treasure his Son, Jesus, not as a general concept, but through his particular, Scripture-revealed contours. God made us to know his Son in his precise and meticulous and extensive glories, not in mere generalities and nondescript statements. He made us to go further up and further in to the glories of Christ in all their detail and brilliance for all eternity.
If our knowledge of Jesus consists in mere generalities and nondescript statements, then we will be prone to embrace a misguided vision of Jesus. Unless we know him specifically, and in greater detail over time, we will come to know him wrongly. And we will not love the true Jesus deeply and fervently.
Which leads to one final truth about Jesus’s “admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” Jesus is not just the right answer to the problem of sin, but in his diverse excellencies, he satisfies the complex longings of the human soul.
He Satisfies the Complex Soul
Paul prays in Ephesians 3:16–19 that God’s people would “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
“Jesus is not just the right answer to the problem of sin, but he satisfies the complex longings of the human soul.”
All the fullness of God is found in this man Jesus. Full humanity and the fullness of deity. We marvel at his bigness and might and omni-relevance, and we melt at his grace and mercy and meekness, and all that comes together in one spectacular person — all the fullness of God in this God-man — whom we will one day see face to face, where we will more fully know and enjoy him without obstruction for all eternity.
So, I finish, then, with one more quote from Seeing and Savoring, and the prayer that God might do for you what he did for me twenty years ago:
This glorious conjunction [of diverse excellencies in Christ] shines all the brighter because it corresponds perfectly with our personal weariness and our longing for greatness. . . . The lamblike gentleness and humility of this Lion woos us in our weariness. And we love him for it. . . . But this quality of meekness alone would not be glorious. The gentleness and humility of the lamblike Lion becomes brilliant alongside the limitless and everlasting authority of the lionlike Lamb. Only this fits our longing for greatness. . . .
We mere mortals are not simple either. We are pitiful, yet we have mighty passions. We are weak, yet we dream of doing wonders. We are transient, but eternity is written on our hearts. The glory of Christ shines all the brighter because the conjunction of his diverse excellencies corresponds perfectly to our complexity. (31–32)