How Jesus Knew the Word

His Secret to Scripture Memory

Cross Conference | Louisville, KY

Have you ever considered how Jesus came to know Scripture?

Anyone who reads the Gospels can see that Jesus clearly knew the Hebrew Bible well. He quotes Scripture over and over, and does so with the authority and freshness of someone who hasn’t only memorized God’s words but truly knows God’s heart. Jesus has profound insight into what the words of God mean, and so he is able to put Scripture to use in everyday life. He does not simply recite sentences he put to memory, but he is able to apply Scripture in various situations as he encounters them.

You might think, Well, of course Jesus knew Scripture! Jesus is God! He didn’t need to learn it, or work at it, like we do. But that suspicion betrays a significant misunderstanding in what it means for Jesus to be fully God and fully man in one person.

So, we have a little Christology to do here first. Jesus, as we encounter him in the Gospels — in human flesh and blood, walking this earth with human feet, speaking with a human tongue and mouth — this Jesus quotes and makes use of what Scriptures he has come to know with his human mind. The human Christ didn’t know Scripture simply because he was God. As genuinely human, he had to learn it. What he knew, and quoted, is what he had come to learn. Luke 2 tells us that “the [Christ] child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom,” and then a few verses later: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:40, 52). Born to us as human, Jesus grew not only in his human body but in his human mind.

Jesus is the universe’s unique two-natured person. He is fully God and fully man. Which means he has not only a human body but also a “reasoning soul,” that is, human emotions and a human will, and a human mind.

So, that’s our little Christology lesson. Now, in these few minutes together, let’s look at how Jesus knew Scripture so well.

Jesus’s Relationship with Scripture

In an earlier session this afternoon, we looked at Jesus’s habits of retreating and reentering, of withdrawing from society to commune with his Father and then returning to bless and teach and show compassion to others.

And the major piece we left out there, and now turn to in this session, is Jesus’s relationship with Scripture. It’s a remarkable theme to track in the Gospels. You might think, “Well, he’s God, so he just speaks, and whatever he says is God’s word” — which is true — “so he doesn’t really need to quote previous Scripture.” And then you observe how often, how strikingly often, Jesus says, over and over again, “It is written . . . It is written . . . It is written . . .” Scripture is central and pervasive in his ministry and teaching.

So, I’d like to do two things. First, let’s briefly see it in action and get a taste of the place of Scripture “in the days of his flesh” while among us (Hebrews 5:7). Then let’s address how Jesus knew the word so well. Very practically, how did Scripture come to have such a place in his life and ministry? And I hope that here, as we look at Jesus, you might catch a vision and find encouragement for how Scripture could come to have such a place in your own soul and ministry.

‘It Is Written’

First, then, the taste. Throughout the Gospels, we see in Jesus the evidence of a man utterly captivated by what is written in the text of Scripture.

At the outset of his public ministry, Jesus, led by the Spirit, retreats to the wilderness, and there, in the culminating temptations before the devil himself, he leans, not just once, but three times, on what is written (Matthew 4:4, 6–7, 10; Luke 4:4, 8, 10).

Then, returning from the wilderness to his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus stands up to read, takes the scroll of Isaiah, reads from 61:1–2, and announces, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He identifies John the Baptist as “he of whom it is written” (Matthew 11:10; Luke 7:27). He rebukes the proud by quoting Scripture (Mark 7:6; Luke 20:17). And when he clears the temple of money-changers, he does so on the grounds of what is written in Isaiah 56:7 (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46).

At every step on the way to Calvary, he knows that everything will happen, he says, “as it is written” (see especially the Gospel of John, 6:31, 45; 8:17; 10:34; 12:14, 16; 15:25). In Mark 14:21, he says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him.” Luke 18:31: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.”

His life and ministry turn on the word of God written in Scripture.

How Did Jesus Know the Word?

So, then, how does Jesus know the word so well? If Jesus isn’t simply drawing upon his divinity to quote texts and put to use concepts his human mind had never learned and considered, then how is it that Jesus knows Scripture so well?

The inspiration for this session came from reading Sinclair Ferguson’s chapter on “The Spirit of Christ” (in his book The Holy Spirit). There he addresses our question:

Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture did not come [magically from heaven] during the period of his public ministry; it was grounded no doubt on his early education, but nourished by long years of personal meditation. Later, in his public ministry, it becomes evident that he was intimately familiar with its contents . . . and also possessed in his human nature a knowledge of God by the Spirit which lent freshness, authority, and a sense of reality to his teaching. (44)

That’s what I want for you wherever God leads you: freshness, authority, and a sense of reality to your teaching.

Now, when Ferguson speaks here about Jesus’s “public ministry,” he implies an important relationship between public and private life: what Jesus says publicly in his three years of ministry reveals what he has learned and come to know in his three decades in private — and what he continues to feed and nurture in secret communion with his Father.

So, there are two parts here to Jesus’s private life, outside his public ministry. First, “his early education.” Before he could even speak, his mother and Joseph and others in Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth would speak to him. Surely Mary quoted Scripture and sang Scripture to her son as he grew. This foundation, this “grounding,” of his early education, was important. Yet Ferguson rightly puts emphasis on the second and longer phase of Jesus’s private life.

He says that “Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture . . . [was] nourished by long years of personal meditation.” This is the secret to how Jesus knew Scripture so well: long years of personal meditation. Which is what I want to challenge you to this afternoon.

Lost Art of Meditation

What is meditation? It’s important to ask because we don’t do this very well today. This is countercultural. Biblical meditation is a lost art today. We’re not talking Eastern meditation, where you try to empty your mind and repeat a mantra, but biblical meditation, where you fill your mind with God’s words, and his truth, and slow down and seek to more fully understand the meaning of God’s words and feel their significance in your soul.

Biblical meditation pauses and ponders God’s words without hurry. It chews on the truth communicated by the words of God. It doesn’t just keep on reading at the breakneck speed at which our pixelated screens are teaching us to read (or better, skim). Meditation pauses and slows down and seeks to deeply ponder the truth of God’s word, and sense its weight upon the heart. That’s the kind of meditation that nourished “Jesus’s intimate acquaintance with Scripture.”

In other words, Jesus, like us, learned Scripture. He worked at it. Jesus knew Scripture so well, and quoted it so frequently, and spoke with such freshness and authority and a sense of reality because of his “long years of personal meditation.” His public ministry and teaching, with his seemingly effortless familiarity with God’s word, revealed years of personal, private enjoyment of God’s word.

Jesus knew Scripture so well not just because he was God, but because he dedicated his human mind and heart to daily, personal meditation on the word of God — and this even without having his own personal material copy of the Bible, like we do today. He had to remember and rehearse what he had been read and sung and taught. And so he did, to great effect.

Following Jesus into Scripture

I close with a threefold exhortation.

One, become the kind of person now, in God’s word, in private, that you hope to be someday in public ministry. Over time, who you have become in secret over your Bible will be revealed in public ministry.

Two, learn the power of memorizing God’s words. When you come across particular verses, or even phrases, or longer sections that feed and focus your soul in Christ-honoring ways, put them to memory. Try to build them into the folds of your brain, to put to use in sustaining your own soul and the souls of others.

And finally, three, go deeper still — deeper than mere reading, deeper even than mere memory. Make memory serve meditation. Memorize to meditate, and slow down to meditate as you memorize. And memorize, as a side effect, because you meditated. Set a course now for nourishing your “intimate acquaintance with Scripture” with long years of personal meditation, like Jesus, and with the help he purchased for you in the power of his Spirit.