Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness by Michael Card. IVP Books. 176 pages. 2018
Respected musician, Bible teacher and author Michael Card has been working on this book about hesed for ten years. It is a word that many will not be familiar with, but which he writes that it is tempting to say is the most important word in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though a book that he thought would take one year to write took much longer, he tells us that understanding hesed is actually a lifelong journey, and that none of us will ever get to the end of it in this life.
He first encountered the word hesed while working through the laments of the Old Testament. He describes hesed as being an untranslatable, three-letter, two-syllable word. Early in the book he gives us what he describes as an initial, ever-incomplete working definition of hesed:
When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.
In this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, he looks at the word hesed in its immediate context in a number of passages and tries to understand what the meaning was for the author at that particular point in time. He states that a good case can be made for the claim that hesed has the largest range of meaning of any word in the Hebrew language, and perhaps in any language. It occurs nearly 250 times in the Hebrew Bible throughout all of the three major divisions—the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, with the majority of occurrences (127) in the Psalms. He tells us that the vast range of hesed is also made evident by the staggering number of English words translators employ in their effort to render it (which he details in an appendix). For example, the King James Version of the Bible uses fourteen different words for hesed. He tells us that a single word is rarely enough in a given context to express all that hesed means, so Bible translators are forced to pile on adjectives.
The author tells us that the purpose of this journey is not to become preoccupied with a single word. Instead, he wants us to hesed as a key that can open a door into an entire world—the world of God’s own heart, the world of loving our neighbor and perhaps even our enemies.
The author takes us to several passages in the Bible, using Exodus 34 and Moses’ encounter with God, which he describes as the defining moment of hesed in the Hebrew Bible. He writes that Moses has asked to see God’s glory. The Lord has responded by revealing the true nature of that glory: compassion, mercy, truth, kindness, hesed.
As I read this book, I found myself moving from a basic understanding of the word hesed, to worshipping the God of hesed. The author’s final challenge for the reader is to take the understanding we have in our heads of hesed and allow the Spirit to move it into our hearts. He tells us that we must enter into the world of the word hesed and then take that world into our world, back to our families, to our churches and towns—to our enemies.
The book concludes with four helpful appendices – occurrences of hesed in scripture, a comparison of Bible translations showing the English words that are used to translate hesed, a vocabulary of associated words and for further study.
I highlighted a number of passages as I read this book. Below are 25 of the best quotes from the book I wanted to share with you.
- God himself hopes that our response to his hesed will be an infinitely smaller, yet still indescribable, expression of our own hesed.
- It’s almost as if our imaginations cannot embrace a God who is perfectly loving and perfectly just at the same time.
- We need to establish in our own minds, for our own sakes, what the implications are of being in relationship with the God who is slow to anger but rich in hesed.
- He is both perfectly just and merciful. His children can always expect from him more forgiveness and mercy than they deserve.
- He is the God who delights in being kind, in loving his creation, and in offering forgiveness and salvation to those who have no right to expect anything from him.
- One of the fundamental facets of hesed is reciprocity. Once a relationship or covenant of hesed is established there is an unspoken mutuality. The one who was initially shown hesed naturally demonstrates hesed in return.
- Reciprocity is an indication that you have internalized the truth of hesed. If it is not returned freely in gratitude, you have not understood the nature of the hesed that was shown to you in the first place. You have, in a sense, violated hesed if you fail to show hesed in response.
- We extend mercy and offer forgiveness as followers of Jesus, not to manipulate some sort of system whereby we expect to receive something in return but because we have been the recipients of his mercy and respond from a sense of gratitude to him.
- Hesed is something you sing about! To sing about hesed from a resonating heart is usually better than merely talking about it.
- We see hesed incarnated through the One who says that he himself is hesed.
- Clearly, when the translators of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible thought of hesed, the word that came to mind most often was mercy.
- As we seek to understand the intersection of the world of hesed with the life of Jesus, we will see that it provides a significant piece of the puzzle that is his life. Hesed occupies a significant part of his teaching.
- Though we have no right to expect anything from Jesus, he will nonetheless give us everything precisely because, like his Father, he is full of grace and truth.
- Because of the hesed of God incarnate in Jesus, sinners are blessed, while those who hate hesed place themselves outside of God’s lovingkindness.
- The way you respond to the God of Exodus 34, the God of hesed, is to boldly ask him for what you do not deserve and then to stand by and confidently wait for him to be amazed.
- The person who understands the lovingkindness of God is always ready to persistently seek, ask, and knock on the door that opens up to a world they have done nothing to deserve.
- In eight of the thirty parables, hesed is the central theme.
- In Jesus’ parables, expressions of hesed tend to have this over-the-top character. The father of the prodigal son sprints out with a ring and robe and shoes. He puts on an extravagant feast with orchestrated music. That is the nature of hesed.
- Hesed is almost always an extravagant expression of kindness, forgiveness, and love. It is something you do.
- If you truly love hesed as Micah 6:8 says, you should love having it shown to you as much as showing it to others.
- God commands his people to do justly and to love hesed. We struggle with both.
- Bryan Stevenson has articulated this elegant unity between justice and mercy in his book Just Mercy. It is the finest synthesis of these two concepts I have ever read.
- In Jesus of Nazareth, the embodiment of hesed, God was perfectly just and perfectly merciful.
- It would be remiss of me not to mention the profound cost associated with doing hesed. It is a costly enterprise, perhaps the most costly enterprise. It cost God everything.
- Hesed can shape our prayer life, our experience of worship, and most especially the posture we take as we engage with the world around us.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact that the ministry of Michael Card’s music, writing and teaching has had on me over the past thirty years. As I read his latest book, the final in his four Gospel Biblical Imagination Series, I also listened to the companion album John: A Misunderstood Messiah (which Michael has indicated will be his last ten song album). I remember the joy of hearing Michael playing an advance recording of “All I’ve Ever Done” (a beautiful song he did with Ginny Owens about Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well). I heard it for the first time over the sound system during the sound check the afternoon of April 27, prior to the concert that night at East White Oak Bible Church.
As we drove around town during the weekend of the Biblical Imagination Conference on Matthew in April, I mentioned that I had read and very much enjoyed Michael’s previous book on the Gospel of John, The Parable of Joy: Reflections on the Wisdom of the Book of John published in 1995. Michael mentioned that he had learned so much more about the Gospel of John since that time and that there would be much new material in the book.
A few concepts that Michael refers to throughout this book are:
- The Motif of Misunderstanding
- Radical Reversal
- John “whispering” to his readers
- Eyewitness accounts
What I love most about Michael’s writing and teaching is how he brings out things in familiar texts that we never knew or thought of before. This is through the use of the informed imagination. I highlighted a number of passages along those lines and want to share some of them with you below. But most of all I want to recommend that you read this wonderful book about the Gospel of John yourself.
• “We must engage the Scripture at the level of the informed imagination,” Bill (Lane) said too many times to count.
• First, we stopped and asked a few simple questions of the text, simple, yet better questions than we had thought to ask. Next we did our homework, or Bill did our homework for us. Once you experience this sort of engagement with Scripture, nothing will ever be the same.
• Who Is John? He is the last of the Twelve.
• I find it fascinating that two of the Gospels were written by men whose mothers were among the first followers of Jesus. There is Mark, whose mother, Mary, opened her home to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). The other is John.
• Perhaps most remarkable, we can infer from John 19:25 and Mark 15:40 that Salome may have been the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This would mean Jesus and John would have been cousins. If this is true it would help explain Jesus’ remarkable request that John care for his mother, a request he made from the cross (Jn 19:26-27).
• Tradition says he (John) was roughly one hundred years old.
• One of the keys to engaging with the text at the level of the informed imagination is to take the facts and learn to ask what they mean. If we are to engage with our imaginations, we must to learn to discover what the facts mean.
• If John was indeed an eyewitness, what might we expect from his account of the life of Jesus? Whenever eyewitnesses give their accounts of incidents, they offer details that only someone who was physically present would know.
• Be on the lookout as we work through the Gospel of John for these kinds of eyewitness details.
• If John was indeed a pastor, as the later traditions and his three letters suggest, what might we expect from a Gospel written by a pastor?
• If indeed John was written in Ephesus, as Ireneaus and Eusebius affirm, we would expect such a unique location to have an effect on the content of the Gospel.
• What would we expect of a Gospel written in a city like Ephesus?
• Two-thirds of the action in John’s account of the life of Jesus takes place in the holy city.
• John virtually bases his Gospel on the Wisdom books. He quotes or alludes to the Wisdom writings twenty-seven times.
• But a closer look at the Wisdom books reveals a surprising, more pervasive theme: the inadequacy of Wisdom.
• In fact, the inadequacy of wisdom is the fundamental theme of John’s Gospel.
• Each time Jesus reveals himself in John, he is phenomenally misunderstood. The motif of misunderstanding presents Jesus not as the great Teacher but as the misunderstood Messiah.
• The other principal theme of his Gospel is based on a passage from the book of Deuteronomy. It provides the basis for Jesus’ self-understanding as the “Sent One”.
• A facet of Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father that only John brings out is wrapped up in the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18. In response to the people’s fear of God, he promises to send another prophet like Moses. By Jesus’ day this individual was simply referred to as “the Prophet.” His likeness to Moses would be centered on two concepts; he would only say the things God told him to say, like Moses had done, and he would be the “Sent One,” deriving his authority solely from the One who sent him.
• He is one of the few remaining eyewitnesses and the last of the Twelve. The uniqueness of the content of his Gospel is not a product of a systematic reorganizing of the story of Jesus’ life as much as it is the result of decades of preaching and teaching the material. The unique stories he presents, the structure of the seven miracles, the numerous omissions and substitutions: these are the stories that held together over all those years. The themes of darkness and light are a result of the filter of decades of time. These are the stories that lasted. The incarnation was not simply some organizing theological principle, the centerpiece of his high Christology; it was the theme of John’s life. It was the lens through which he focused and understood Jesus’ life.
• John is the only Gospel that whispers this way. The translators often express this shift in tone by using parentheses. The other Gospels have parenthetical statements, but nothing like the Gospel of John.
• As I seek to engage the text with my imagination, these asides are more like whisperings. John uses this device in a number of ways.
• This use of parenthetical device makes John wonderfully present in his Gospel. He is beside us as we are reading, explaining, giving us details his experience has taught him need to be provided. It makes it easy to imagine that we are sitting at John’s feet hearing not simply his rendition of the life of Jesus but experiencing his whisperings, his asides. His Gospel is more a living monologue than a written story.
• The Gospel of John begins with a sermon that is a song. Arguably these are the greatest words ever written.
• He will present blocks of material and then sum up what he has said in a sermonic conclusion. Familiarize yourself with the tone of his preaching and you will recognize it again and again.
• Verse 5, the intermediate close of the opening sermon (John will resume preaching in verse 10), encapsulates the struggle of the whole of his Gospel. Throughout the remaining chapters, Jesus will shine, stubbornly, faithfully and obediently. It was his nature to do so. He will shine in the darkness that was the first-century world. Though that world will rally all its dark forces to extinguish the light that Jesus is, according to John, the darkness will fail. It will not overcome the light that is Jesus.
• In a city of professional teachers, intellectual descendants of Heraclitus, John will present Jesus as the teacher no one was ever quite able to understand. Those who do receive and believe, however, will become God’s own children, not born of flesh and blood but born by God’s own doing.
• In these four words John makes the single most remarkable statement regarding the nature of Jesus. It is the keystone to his high Christology: “The Word became flesh.”
• In his opening verses John had spoken of Jesus in terms of light and life. Now he expands. The living One, who was light, was full of grace and truth. Grace (charis) is a word that reaches back to the Hebrew word hesed. It is the defining characteristic of God in the Old Testament. It is often translated “mercy,” sometimes “love.” The King James Version translates the word fourteen different ways, having to invent the word lovingkindness.
• Though it is untranslatable, as the KJV difficulties reveal, a good working translation is captured in this sentence: “When the one from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”
• Of all the host of associations that might be made (e.g., 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6), Jesus being the Lamb of God represents the fact that God himself is going to provide a sacrifice, a lamb, just as Abraham had hoped he would in Genesis 22:8, when he was being asked to make his son the sacrifice. Now, in fulfillment of that image of the father offering his own son, God himself will provide Jesus to be the lamb, our sacrifice. It perfectly fulfills our working definition of the Hebrew word hesed: “when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”
• Verse 31 echoes and reinforces the motif of misunderstanding so central to John’s presentation of Jesus. Even John the Baptist, who had leaped in his mother’s womb, did not know who his cousin Jesus truly was, not until he saw the Spirit come down and rest on him.
• In verse 38 Jesus speaks his first words of the Gospel. Seeing that he is being followed, he asks “What do you want?” Imagine hearing these words addressed to you from Jesus himself, for that is exactly what John wants you to experience. How would you reply to such a question? What do you want from Jesus? Ask yourself.
• Verse 42 may very well be the first time Jesus and Peter had ever laid eyes on each other. Here John will use a special word only found twice in the New Testament and uniquely used to describe the way Jesus looks at Peter (see Lk 22:61). The word is emblepo, which means “gaze upon.” I think it functions in the narrative here to slow down time. There is a pause as Jesus looks intently at the person who will become without question his closest friend.
• Wherever Jesus says his “time has not yet come,” it implies that the time is coming for him. The cross is still almost three years away.
• John closes the scene by whispering an explanation to us. This was Jesus’ first miraculous sign, performed in Cana of Galilee. This is how he revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.
• 92 percent of his Gospel is unique!
• A deeply spiritual statement made by Jesus will always give rise to a profound misunderstanding in John’s Gospel.
• Most often water in John’s Gospel is connected to the identity of Jesus and the promise of new life through the Spirit.
• As Jesus makes his way to Galilee he must pass through Samaria. It is sometimes said that his willingness to go through the despised country of the Samaritans was a mark of Jesus’ compassion. While there is absolutely no question whatsoever in regard to Jesus’ compassion, the truth is that Galileans routinely passed through Samaria, according to Josephus. This misunderstanding is a result of superimposing Judean Judaism over Galilean Judaism. There were significant differences.
• This is another unmiraculous miracle, a miracle in absentia. All Jesus says is “Go, your son will live.” There is almost always a miracle behind the unmiraculous miracles of Jesus. On this occasion it is the faith of the father, whose panicked desperation vanishes, replaced by belief. The miracle is that he took Jesus at his word without seeing the proof. The miracle is that he believed before he saw.
• A case can be made for this being another of Jesus’ unmiraculous miracles. It was accomplished by the very ordinary command, “Get up.” There was no waving of arms. Nothing about the way Jesus performs this miracle apparently attracted any attention. If this is true, then we should expect to find a miracle behind the miracle. Verse 14 provides that miracle—if we have the eyes to see it. It is described in three simple words, “Jesus found him.” First, this implies that Jesus had looked for him. It was not enough for Jesus that the man had been healed of thirty-eight years of paralysis. Jesus had not come to simply give healing. He had come to give himself. And that is the miracle behind the miracle.
• Chapter 6 is the hinge on which the story of John’s Gospel turns. It marks a radical shift in Jesus’ ministry: from his greatest moment of acceptance and popularity to one of the darkest instances of offense and rejection.
• My mentor William Lane used to say that the followers of Jesus should always work at the level of their own inadequacy. We shouldn’t be satisfied simply doing the things we are good at. We should strive to be right on the edge so that if the Lord doesn’t show up to help us, we will fail miserably. This is the kind of place the disciples are now in.
• In verse11 you will miss the unmiraculous miracle if you’re not paying close attention. All Jesus does is “give thanks.” He simply says the blessing. There is not a hint of miraculous language.
• The key to understanding this miracle is found in the Greek word translated “basket.”
• The miracle? Exactly twelve small baskets are collected. The point of the miracle is perfect provision for the Twelve disciples, who are now serving as slaves.
• Manna is a fascinating Hebrew word that connects wonderfully to John’s motif of misunderstanding. The particle ma represents a question mark in Hebrew. The particle na is an exclamation point. Manna might be literally rendered “? !”
• The story of the woman taken in adultery is one of the most problematic passages in the New Testament in terms of authenticity.
• The story of the healing of the man born blind is the best example of John’s tendency to focus at length on Jesus’ interaction with a solitary individual.
• Here in John 10:34 he refers to the shortest psalm of Asaph (Ps 82). It is significant that around the time of the writing of John’s Gospel the Jews were making the final determination to accept the Wisdom writings into the biblical canon, and Jesus is quoted in John as referring to the shortest of the psalms as the “law” (so NIV; Greek nomos). This demonstrates Jesus’ regard for the Wisdom books as Scripture.
• The raising of Lazarus is the climactic miracle in the ministry of Jesus in John. It brings together themes that reach all the way back to the prologue (see Jn 1:4; 3:15-16; 5:24, 28; 6:35, 47, 51; 10:10, 28). It will be the miracle that will eventually lead to the cross (v. 53).
• Sometimes in our desperation we call out for Jesus to act immediately. Often he delays. The story of Lazarus shows there is always a reason.
• Jesus always refers to death as sleep, and he is always misunderstood (see Mk 5:39). By the time of the book of Acts, apparently the Christian community had adopted Jesus’ unique point of view (Acts 7:60).
• But resurrection is no longer a matter of a time or a place, but a person. Jesus is the resurrection. Not a theological abstraction but a living, breathing human being. It is one of his most disturbing habits, positing himself as the answer to a question or problem. It means that he is either a madman or the Son of God. There is no gray area; he has not left us with one.
• For his betrayal of Jesus, Judas receives 30 pieces of silver, worth roughly $3,000. At the moment Mary is pouring on Jesus’ feet ointment worth approximately $30,000. So this is the exchange rate between love and betrayal: 10 to 1.
• Without question, Jesus is entering the city as a royal figure. In verse 14 the image becomes even more certain as Jesus finds a young donkey to sit on. This is a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, a promise that the King who was to come would be riding a donkey’s colt.
• “Lifted up” is always a metaphor for crucifixion (see Jn 3:14). This is one of the most commonly misunderstood sayings of Jesus. Here, “lifted up” does not mean to be praised or worshiped. Yet many interpret this passage saying, “Jesus said if we lift him up (i.e., worship him), all men would be drawn to him.” Verse 33 makes it clear. He said this to show how he would die, that he would be crucified, that is, lifted up. It is a part of our calling certainly to worship Jesus. But he never said that by worshiping him all people would be drawn to him.
• The washing of the disciples’ feet is another lived out parable in John’s Gospel. Jesus finally gives up on words. He has spoken the truth to them: the greatest must become the servant. Now he will enact the truth for them.
• Peter is amazingly silent in John’s Gospel.
• There is a possibility that Jesus and Judas were far closer friends than any of the Gospels can bring themselves to say.
• If the world hates the disciples, remember that it hated Jesus first. The Eleven will not be the last of Jesus’ followers to struggle with understanding the hatred of the world and why it is directed against them simply because they belong to Jesus. It is a word his followers all over the world still need to hear. More disciples of Jesus are dying now than at any time in the history of the church.
• If you really want to get to know someone, listen to them pray. Chapter 17 is the longest and most personal prayer of Jesus in the New Testament. It reveals the intimacy of the relationship he had with the Father.
• In the second part of verse 12 Judas appears as the “son of perishing” (destruction). There is a play on words that none of the popular translations capture. Literally Jesus says, “None has perished except the son of perishing.” The same term is used in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in referring to the antichrist.
• It is remarkable enough that Jesus, in the midst of his sorrow, the weight of which he says is about to kill him (Mt 26:38), looks into the future and prays for his future followers—for you and me! His principal request is for oneness or unity. Our unity is a reflection of the unity that had always existed between Jesus and the Father.
• So many sermons have been preached on Pilate’s wistful question, “What is truth?” as if he was somehow drawn into the mystery of who Jesus might be. John’s Gospel, however, gives no grounds for this interpretation of the story. Pilate does not linger to hear an answer from Jesus. He turns and abruptly leaves. His tone throughout is impatient and irritated.
• For all of the bad press the Pharisees receive in the New Testament, never forget that the only two men with the courage to claim the body of Jesus were two Pharisees: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
• It is widely accepted that chapter 21 was appended to the Gospel after John’s death. Chapter 20 ended with a literary conclusion. The language shifts in chapter 21. There are phrases and new vocabulary that appear nowhere else in the Gospel, indicating a different author.
• It is interesting to note that no one immediately recognizes Jesus after the resurrection. Mary thought he was the gardener. Likewise, the disciples on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him (Lk 24:13-33).
• The persistence of doubt after the resurrection is a common theme in the Gospels.
• This passage is often referred to as the “reinstatement of Peter.” The popular idea is that having denied Jesus three times, Peter is now given an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment three times, thus undoing his denials.
• I prefer to see this as a story of Jesus providing pure encouragement to his friend who was so badly in need of it. Though he was forgiven, Peter might still be tempted to believe that he has forfeited his right to give leadership to the community. Jesus wants to encourage Peter that his acceptability is based on his love. There is nothing in his past that can disqualify him.
• This is the last example of the motif of misunderstanding in the Gospel. The last words of Jesus are misunderstood! Jesus says that if he wants John to remain alive until he returns, what is that to Peter? Peter must follow him. (This is the big “follow me” of discipleship.) Verse 23 explains the whole misunderstanding. Jesus never said John would not die. He was making a point to Peter. But, because of the misunderstanding, a rumor began that John would not die until Jesus returned.
• The book includes the following appendices:
Appendix A Material Unique to John
Appendix B The Motif of Misunderstanding
Appendix C Occurrences of John’s “Whispering”
Appendix D The Prophet Like Moses
Michael is currently working on a book on Hesed, a topic that he has great passion for. He has indicated that this will be his final book. For all of us who have been blessed by his ministry over the years, I hope that is not the case.
I know that any book or music project by Michael Card is going to be special. I first became aware of Card 30 years ago in 1984 as he was releasing his Known by the Scars album. There was some controversy as his record company originally had rejected the work, wanting him to produce an album that would have been more “radio friendly”. Many times he has released an album to go along with the book, or vice versa. In this case, two new songs are available, “Freedom” and “A Better Freedom” with the audio book if you purchase it through iTunes.
Card indicates that this book comes from a paradox, that in order to be truly free one must become a slave to Christ. He tells us that he rewrote the book many times. I remember him telling us on his fine radio program In the Studio with Michael Card that he was working on a novel about slavery. The feedback that he received from his manuscript resulted in him going in a different direction. He writes:
“So, I started again, focusing simply on slavery, with no characters and no story. But this version didn’t come together either. There was still something missing. I had failed to include the force that had drawn me to the topic of slavery in the New Testament in the first place – the experience of African American slaves. Having been a part of two African American congregations, I had heard my brothers and sisters speak almost continually as Jesus as their “Master.” They were able to relate to him in a way that had been closed to me. I needed to include, as best I could, their illuminating perspective. The result is the book you now hold in your hands.”
Card indicates that the book is meant to provide a basic introduction to the subject of slavery in both biblical and modern times, and what it means for the Christian life. He writes that it is designed to foster an interest in the topic. His hope is that the reader will get hooked on the notion of the radical transformation that occurs when someone embraces the gospel as a servant. In this book, Card leads the reader through a look at slavery in ancient Israel, Greco-Roman, New Testament slavery and the slavery in America. He gives us a helpful exposition of Philemon, which dealt with and Paul’s instruction to Philemon on how to deal with Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who has now become a Christian.
Card also instructs us on how many of Jesus’ parables included reference to slaves (see Appendix D for a listing of the Slave Parables). He also teaches how Jesus delivers the believer out of bondage and provides real hope and freedom.
The book includes several helpful short appendices including the sober Appendix E “The Facts of Modern Slavery”. Card writes that the unthinkable truth is that there are more men and women, boys and girls enslaved in the world today than in the three centuries of African American slavery combined.
This book was named to World Magazine’s list of best books for the 2010. Highly recommended.
In his music, Michael Card has often taken on extensive projects. He has produced three albums on the life of Christ; three albums on the Old Testament, and a project on lament, among others. Currently, with the Biblical Imagination Series, he is producing books on the Gospels of Luke (2011), Mark (2012), Matthew (2013), and John (August, 2014). Many of these albums are also combined with a companion book. In 2003, Michael released both a book and an album on the life of Peter, both titled A Fragile Stone.
Card explains that Peter has been somewhat neglected by Protestants who disagree with the Roman Catholic view of Peter as their first pope. As a result, there are not many books in print about Peter. As Card does so well, he first lays out some facts about Peter’s life. Some of these are:
• His given name was Simon bar-Jonah.
• He is referred to almost two hundred times in the New Testament. By contrast, John is mentioned only thirty-one times.
• Jesus gave him the new name Peter, but then mysteriously never calls him by that name.
• He has a brother, Andrew, who first brought him to Jesus.
*He was originally from Bethsaida, but relocated to Capernaum.
• He was a fisherman by trade.
• He was not formally educated.
• He was married.
• He was in the core group of the twelve disciples – we could call them “the Three” – with his former fishing partners James and John.
• He was clearly the leader among the Twelve. The disciples are often designated “Peter and those with him”.
• His name always appears first in the lists of the disciples.
• He was the first to be called by name by Jesus.
• He was the first person to confess his sinfulness to Jesus.
• He receives from Jesus the most severe rebukes.
• At least seven miracles of Jesus were performed for Peter or connected to him.
• Besides Jesus, he is the central character in many of the stories in the Gospels.
• The first Gospel (Mark) was written because of him and became the pattern for the other Synoptics, Matthew and Luke.
• After his miraculous release from prison, Peter leaves Jerusalem, where James takes the lead, giving himself to missionary work at Antioch, Corinth and finally Rome.
What I most appreciate about Michael Card’s teaching is how he brings fresh insights to the Scriptures. A few excerpts from the book that I would like to highlight are:
• When Peter tried to walk on the water. Card writes: “The lesson is that Peter needed to sink in order to take the next steps of faith in Jesus. Because walking on the water does not ultimately increase our faith, only sinking does! Those who ask for miracles and receive them soon forget. But those who suffer for Christ’s sake never forget.”
• Regarding Good Friday. Card writes: “Jesus and his disciples were celebrating their Passover on Thursday when everyone else in Jerusalem was making preparations on Friday. This means that the Jews of Jerusalem were preparing and slaughtering their Passover lambs at precisely the same moment the following day, when Jesus, the Lamb of God, was dying on the cross.”
• On Peter’s denial. Card writes: “After he denies Jesus the third time, Luke records that Jesus turned and looked at Peter across the courtyard. It was this look, I believe, that broke Peter’s heart. The understanding gaze of Jesus could not have been one of disdain or condemnation. That was not Jesus’ way. I believe the only look that could have broken Simon Peter was of love and forgiveness. Which is just what we would expect from our Savior.”
I read this book when it was released in 2003. I recently to Michael reading the book in an abridged audio book format. As I listened to the audio book, I would from time to time stop and listen to a few songs from the companion album. This resulted in a wonderful experience.
Card reveals a Peter who is easy to relate to because he is flawed and so much like us, with all of his struggles, mistakes, joys and sorrows. Peter struggles with doubt, pride and immaturity. He shows fear and has a knack of saying the wrong thing. We could say that Peter reflects the best and worst in all of us. The reader can especially relate to Peter as Card focuses on Peter’s emotional life, his inner thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, Card shows how Peter goes from his three-time denial of Jesus to being the leader of the early church.
I read this book when it was first released in 2002 and recently listened to the audio book, which was read by the author. On a book about creativity, it is appropriate that the audiobook was the most creative of any I have listened to. Along with Michael reading the abridged text, he included his beautiful song “Scribbling in the Sand”, as well as conversations with his mentor – the late William Lane, his wife Susan, Howard Best and an amazing clip of Calvin Miller reading a poem “The Marionette”, which I had heard on Michael’s excellent radio program In the Studio with Michael Card. What made this clip so good was that Christian musician Phil Keaggy, who was hearing the poem for the first time, was improvising on the acoustic guitar along with the poem. I’ve heard that clip a few times now, and it is still amazing. That clip almost by itself is worth the cost of the audio book.
Card begins this book on creativity with the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. In this story Jesus knelt down and scribbled something in the sand. Card writes that commentators ask the wrong question when they ask what it was that Jesus wrote. Rather he states, the question should be why he wrote in the sand: “It was not the content that mattered, but why he did it. Unexpected. Irritating. Creative.”
Card uses Jesus as the pattern for our created life, to lay out what he calls a Christ-centered vision of the creative process as a road to him. He begins the book with a brief overview of creativity in the Bible, talking about some of the individuals who responded to the call to be creative. Card writes that this is a call on all of us who have been created in the image of God. He then reviews the words of the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2:6-11 as a paradigm for Christ-centered creativity:
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (ESV)
Card then applies ideas of Christ-centered humility, obedience and servant hood to the lives of his readers. This is not a “how to” book, but a book about discipleship and the lifestyle we are called to as we reflect the image and glory of God in our lives. Card looks at the intersection of art and the Christian faith, writing about the necessity and wonder of creativity. Card focuses primarily on Christ, and in doing so directs our attention to him as the source and objective of our artistic efforts. He challenges artists of all types to use their gifts as worship to the Lord. Michael discusses imagination, specifically the role of imagination in the prophetic books of the Bible. This reminded me that one of the albums in his three-volume Ancient Faith collection was the 1992 titled The Word: Recapturing the Imagination. The discussion about the imagination was especially interesting to me as we prepare for Michael’s Biblical Imagination Conference at Christ Church April 25-26. Card looks at the activity of Jesus in helping to create the universe, the need for a “lifestyle of listening” and also the importance of creativity in an industry (music) when too often all that is looked at is sales and popularity. This was a unique book and one that I recommend to you. I had not read any books on creativity from a Christian perspective in the past. In particular, I enjoyed the special features that were included in the audiobook version of the book.
A Violent Grace: Meeting Christ at the Cross by Michael Card. IVP Books. 2013 Edition. 182 pages.
I recently re-read this book for the 3rd time since it was published in 2000 to prepare for the Easter season, celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord. Michael writes that the purpose of the book is “to help you see the cross for what it is: on the one hand, the scene of the violent execution of the Son of God and, on the other, the source of His limitless grace.” Each of the short chapters ends with a short prayer.
I highlighted a number of passages as I read this short book the week before Easter, and wanted to share some of them with you.
- For a set of very different reasons, the cross seems to have disappeared from the Christian art and music of our own time. Worse, it has disappeared from many hearts and minds as well. Fewer and fewer of the churches I visit have crosses hanging behind or in front of the pulpit. Fewer songs sing of it. Fewer sermons celebrate it.
- From this greatest of negatives flow all the positives of our new life in Christ: from conflict, peace; from pain, healing; from death, life.
- Particularly in American Christianity, the cross has become somewhat objectionable.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave his life to remind us that the cross of Christ will forever remain the center of our faith.
- Many Christians are surprised to learn that there is more detail about the crucifixion of Jesus in the Old Testament than in the New.
- Jesus was born to die…so that I could be born again to new life. It is the miracle of a violent grace: God securing for us the priceless treasures of His grace—one violence at a time.
- Without the sorrows of Gethsemane, there will be no salvation at Golgotha. In Gethsemane, Jesus is locked in combat with a human desire we all recognize: to avoid pain, to hold onto life, to win against death.
- Do you see what is at stake for us in that struggle? If Jesus’ human desire does not lose, we will never win. If he doesn’t suffer this temptation, we will never be able to overcome when we are tempted.
- When you think about it, every temptation we face gets its power from our desire to say yes to ourselves—to our own rights, wants, and needs—and no to God.
- Not my will, but thine be done. He is willing to lose all so that we can win all.
- Unlike Jesus’ solitary struggle, we are never alone when our times of crushing come. He has gone before us; He has faced the worst that life has to offer. And, though it might seem otherwise, He remains by our side every minute.
- The help Jesus gives us now is both the will to make the choice to obey and the grace to pay the cost—no matter how bloody. By His Spirit’s power, we, too, can respond, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Jesus’ agonizing battle with temptation—while His best friends slept and His flesh melted with pain—secured for us forever the power to overcome it.
- Though people love to speculate about Judas’s motive, the Gospels make it clear. He asked the high priest, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” (Matthew 26:15). Judas betrayed Jesus for money.
- In the conversation that follows, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, You know I love You.” Jesus’ repetition unnerves Peter. He doesn’t realize that Jesus is offering him exactly as many chances to affirm his love as the number of times Peter has denied it. There must be more to say because Jesus invites Peter to walk with Him. And Peter does—for the rest of his life.
- Judas refused forgiveness and turned first to despair and then to death. Peter chose grace and life. Peter’s life is proof that because of Jesus’ undying loyalty to us, we have the power today to become His faithful friends, disciples, servants, and joyful ministers of His limitless grace.
- Nevertheless, the soldiers seize Him and bind His hands. Jesus does not resist. The one who measured the oceans in the hollow of His hands (Isaiah 40:12) chooses to be powerless.
- Pilate’s ultimate concern had nothing to do with governing justly and everything to do with staying in power.
- The one who had no legal counsel and stood alone before His enemies stands today in the Father’s presence as our eternal Advocate.
- Although Jesus stood alone to face His accusers, we never have to. When the powers of this world, seen and unseen, condemn us, Jesus is always standing alongside—not to protest our innocence, but to offer Himself as the one who has already stood trial for our sins
- “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged”. Eight words. One sentence. A footnote before Calvary. But I can barely bring myself to write about this scene or ask you to think with me about what really happened.
- Josephus revealed the ferocity of Roman flogging when, commenting on the fate of a prisoner of the Jewish War, he said that the man was lacerated to the bone with scourges. In fact, the only stipulation Roman law made was that a man would be flogged until the flesh hung from his back. The blows fell until the skin split open and the muscles were severed; until ligaments tore and bone chipped. Some men were disemboweled. Many did not survive. Some scholars think that Jesus may have been flogged twice. To intensify the suffering of the victim, flogging always preceded a crucifixion. As an unintentional mercy, it could hasten death when it resulted in a massive loss of blood.
- The righteous anger of God, diverted for all time, is pouring down on this man, His Son. But the fault is mine, and I must look away.
- It is one thing to speak in theological terms about an obligatory sacrifice for a fallen world. It is an entirely different thing to stand in the presence of brutal men and their instruments of torture and try to watch, realizing that Jesus endured all that and more for you and me.
- Yet His pain was the prelude to the outpouring of God’s favor. By enduring the violence in that circle of hate, Jesus accomplished a costly exchange. With each blow, He carried away our grief and our brokenness and bought back for us—for that howling mob and for every person since—the treasures of grace.
- “By his wounds we are healed,” wrote Isaiah. Healing through wounding; wholeness through brokenness. That is the way of the cross—the way of Jesus. It is the method of an upside-down kingdom, whose king dies for his subjects.
- When scorn and ridicule come, we never have to bury our heads in our hands or lash out in hatred. Jesus has gone before. Because He endured the scorn for joy, we can too.
- The Incarnation changes everything. The way is not just a set of directions or a collection of wisdom—it is a person. The truth is no longer just the correct doctrine or an airtight piece of evidence—it is a person. The life is no longer just a biological fact—it is a person.
- Hanging there between heaven and earth, Jesus became the sole reconciling force between God and every human being who would ever live. With His own blood, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and drew us all back under the covering of grace.
- Even during the violence, grace triumphed. First the thief dying alongside Jesus was won into the kingdom. Then the very soldier who carried out the sentence was won—and moved to worship!
- Jesus was sacrificed. His death was about making amends for something that had gone terribly wrong. He gave up His life as a substitute offering to pay for and take away the sins of the world.
- Those families walking into Jerusalem that day saw a bloodied man hanging on a cross by the side of the road. They didn’t know He was also a lamb. They couldn’t know that He was changing everything—that the old order was passing away and that the book of the law, along with its complex and highly symbolic system of sacrifices, was about to slam shut—because God had stepped up to the altar and, like Abraham, provided His own Son as the sacrificial Lamb.
- When complicated theological truths begin to overwhelm you, try focusing your attention on this one truth: Jesus Christ is God’s Lamb, slain for me.
- Jesus Christ is God’s Lamb for you and me. And as we come to the cross, let us come humbly, laying trembling hands upon the Lamb. He will hear us whisper through our tears: “What happened to you, Lord Jesus, should have happened to me.” Let us remember, too, that one day—and for all eternity thereafter—this sinless, spotless Lamb who was slain will reign— receiving all praise, honor, glory, and power.
- Now, because of the redemption Jesus purchased for us in darkness, we can live forever in God’s light. Because of the separation He endured for us, we—who have so often turned our back on our Father—have the guarantee that He will never forsake us.
- Jesus knew that our hunger for heaven—our sense of incompleteness now and our joy in what is to come—would draw us to Him. It is a famine of His making. Even for Jesus it was not glory in the moment, but the powerful hunger for the glory to come that was at work at the cross. Early Christians put a name to that longing—“Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). As you give Him your shame and weakness today, may He set that hope of glory before you like a feast.
- Yes, bloodshed is the epitome of violence. But for you and me, blood is also the costly guarantee of a most extravagant gift of grace.
- Even in heaven, Jesus will appear “dressed in a robe dipped in blood” (Revelation 19:13). But if you have let His blood stain you, you will be as white as snow.
- The stories of Mary and the others who personally encountered Jesus on Resurrection morning are among the all-time favorites for Christians. These stories speak to us of hope, of new beginnings, of victory over tears and disappointment of eventual triumph over death, and of joy. Most of all, they remind of us of who we are: We belong to Him, and He to us. We are the people of Resurrection morning, when new life in Christ prevailed over violence, and the age of amazing grace began.
- After all the public pronouncements at Jesus’ birth, the tumult of His life, and the public horror of His death, I must confess that I like the peace and quiet of Easter Morning.
- When we least expect it, our risen Lord comes to us. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he tells us (John 11:25, emphasis added). Then He invites us to share in His resurrection power and take upon ourselves His righteousness so that we can stand confidently in the presence of the Father.
- Jesus chose to reveal Himself by His scars.
- Have you ever wondered why the Father chose not to erase those marks of humiliation from the Son’s otherwise perfect resurrection body?
- The final violence is an invitation from the Crucified One to a crucifixion. And the crucifixion is ours.
- The simple fact is, if we take the name “Christian,” we, too, must be recognized by our scars. The visible proofs of crucifixion—not our accomplishments, degrees, possessions, or wealth—will become our identifying marks.
- I must warn you that, when we take them as chosen marks of our life, humility and obedience to Christ threaten to change us completely. They will do violence to the old, selfish, superficially promising pursuits that we have mistaken for life.
- I pray that this book has helped you rediscover some of your original passion and purpose in following Christ. I hope that you have experienced a new awareness of what God’s gentle violence and surpassing grace can accomplish in your life. This has been my experience in the writing of it.
Matthew: The Gospel of Identity by Michael Card. IVP Books. 272 pages. 2013.
Mark: The Gospel of Passion by Michael Card. InterVarsity Press. 2012. 206 pages.
Luke: The Gospel of Amazement by Michael Card. IVP Books. 272 pages. 2011.