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Jesus' Unwritten Words

Jesus’ Unwritten Words

Some people like to read from editions of the Bible in which the words of Christ are printed in red ink. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s because they value His spoken words more than words that have been written or spoken about Him. Certainly His words are the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Jesus said that a mark of true discipleship is continuance in His Word (John 8:31).

The gospels contain many of Jesus’ teachings, proverbs, parables, sermons and conversations. We learn His ways by learning His words. As His followers we surely want to know Him in every way we can, so that we may live the way He wants us to live. So we pay attention to His words.

We may forget that not everything Jesus did and said is recorded for us in the four gospels. The last verse in John’s gospel reminds us of that fact.

Let’s take a look at some other sayings of Jesus which are recorded elsewhere in the New Testament. Are there conclusions we can draw from the fact that our Lord’s apostles quoted Him as saying things we do not find written in the gospels?

Paul quotes “the words the Lord Jesus himself (who) said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” This saying is often connected to admonitions about Christian stewardship and generous giving. But how often do we remember that this comes from the Book of (Acts 20:35), and not from the gospels? When Paul gave this word to the leaders of the Christian church at Ephesus, he was speaking as the representative of Jesus Himself, establishing generosity as a timeless precedent for the church.

When he wrote to the Corinthian believers about the sanctity of marriage, Paul quoted a saying of Jesus that is not found in the gospels, though it clearly parallels statements Jesus made about divorce and remarriage. This is serious stuff for people living in a permissive society. “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10-11). Jesus and Paul want us to know that while not everything about marriage is fun or easy, married couples are to stick together and work it out. The rest of the Bible provides plenty of help in knowing how to do that. Our church tries to do that too.

Here’s another one. “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14). Since I receive my living from preaching and teaching the gospel, I will not say anything about that but “thank you” to the church for providing for the pastors and our families, in accordance with the Lord’s command.

Finally, 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches us about the Lord’s second coming for His people and the resurrection of the dead. Paul teaches us to base our hope on the very word of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep” (v.15). Jesus is saying that many of His followers will be alive when He returns. The saying also reminds us that those who have died in faith will not be left behind when the living are caught up to meet the Lord in the air.

We can think of inferences to be drawn from these quotations and allusions. One is that the apostle Paul based his theology squarely on the teachings of Jesus. In his thirteen letters he carried them forward and revealed additional truths from Jesus not explicitly taught during his earthly ministry. What he wrote was itself the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). He taught many things that were not mentioned by Jesus in the gospels, but he taught nothing that was inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Where did Paul learn these unwritten sayings of Jesus? Perhaps it was from other apostles (Galatians 1:18-19). Maybe the Greek physician Luke, Paul’s close associate, shared with him some of the fruits of his careful research into the life and ministry of Jesus (Luke 1:3-4). Some of them may have come to Paul by direct revelation from Jesus. We know that the Lord appeared to him on several occasions. We may be sure that Paul valued these words of Jesus as much as the ones printed in red ink.

Occasionally the apostle thought it good to repeat a saying of Jesus that was not found in the gospels to accentuate its importance for the church. These sayings continue to stir our thinking about generosity, about family life, and about the happy hope of seeing Jesus when He comes again.

These sayings are called agraphoi, unwritten sayings, or otherwise unknown sayings of our Lord. Now we know them. Let’s write them on our hearts.