The Surprising Savior (1): Introduction

Amazing,” “astounding,” “awesome,” “unbelievable” – these superlatives, and others like them, have become part of everyday speech. Beloved by headline writers, advertisers, and commentators of all sorts, they scream at us from every angle, attempting to arrest our eyes and attract our attention, often only to tell us about something mundane, ordinary, and pedestrian. The result is as inevitable as it is regrettable – through overuse and misuse, these words lose their power, and leave us at a loss when we attempt something that really is awesome or unbelievable. And our understanding as well as our expression is diminished. It is difficult for us to grasp exactly what Newton meant by “amazing grace,” to grasp the force that the adjective had for him, and the sense of astonishment and wonder that flooded his soul as he contemplated what God had done in saving such a wretch as he.

“Marvelous” and “marveled” are words that have suffered a similar fate to some of the more commonly used superlatives. Though they now sound slightly old- fashioned, they convey to us approbation – “you’ve done a marvelous job” – or pleasurable surprise. It requires an effort on our part to grasp the original force of the word: “to be filled with wonder or astonishment.”  But, when we read our Bibles, it is precisely such an effort that we must make. When we read about people marveling, we must not imagine a mild or a fleeting interest. This marvel was not a mild sensation to be ultimately dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. It went far deeper than that; it was a sense of wonder, an almost physical sensation as people came face-to-face with something so dramatically out of the ordinary as to demand their attention and stir their souls to wonder. In fact, the English word “marveled” (sometimes translated “wondered” or, in newer translations “amazed,” “astonished,” or “shocked”) translates the Greek word thaumazō, which has at its root the idea of a response befitting the manifestation of the supernatural.

It is no surprise, therefore, that almost all of the 47 occurrences of the word in the New Testament describe the response of men and women to supernatural manifestations. With the exception of Revelation 13:3, which describes the response of the world to the satanically empowered healing of the beast’s deathly wound, it is divine action that causes men and women to wonder. And preponderantly, it is Christ Who moves men to wonder. Time and again in His movements amongst men, His actions, His words, and even His restraint burst the seams of normal expectations, demonstrating an authority that came from another world, and causing men to realize that they were in the presence of no ordinary power – and no ordinary man. Their normal expectations and usual explanations were alike shattered by the surprising Savior.

In this series of articles, we will, God willing, consider some of those occasions recorded in the Gospels where people responded with wonder to the Lord Jesus Christ. As we do so, we will come to appreciate not just that He caused people to wonder, but that He did so in a variety of ways. Men marveled at His power over disease (Mat 9:8), over nature (Mat 8:27; 21:20; Mar 6:51; Luk 8:25), and over demons (Mat 8:33, Mar 5:20; Luk 9:43; 11:14). Repeatedly, they marveled at the wisdom and authority of His words (Mat 22:22; Mar 12:17; Luk 4:22; 20:26). The disciples marveled at His grace as they found Him in conversation with a despised Samaritan. Pilate marveled at His restraint as He stood silent in the face of His accusers (Mat 27:14; Mar 15:5). Later, when news of His death reached Pilate, he marveled once more (Mar 15:44), not appreciating that it was Christ, and not death, that was in control of Calvary’s timetable. And, in the supreme moment of wonder, the disciples marveled at the empty tomb (Luk 24:12) and at the appearance of the risen Christ (Luk 24:41). The wonder that Christ produced was not limited to a single event, or even to a single type of event. It was multi-faceted and variegated. In every circumstance He exceeded expectations and, again and again, men and women stood gazing in wonder at the “only begotten of the Father” (Joh 1:14).

We should notice, too, the range of people that marveled at the Savior. On quite a number of occasions the multitude marveled (Mat 9:8,33; 15:31; Mar 5:20; Luk 4:22; 9:43; Joh 7:15). In general, this was not a partisan crowd, predisposed to be impressed by the Savior. At best impartial, and at worst hostile, they were nonetheless compelled to wonder as they saw and listened to the Savior. On other occasions, His enemies wondered (Mat 22:22; Mar 12:17; Luk 20:26). Primed though they were to find fault with the Savior, His words forced them to abandon their cynicism and their criticism, and in spite of themselves, to wonder at His wisdom. Even Pilate, an experienced administrator and the veteran of countless interrogations and executions, was moved to wonder at the silent suffering of the Savior (Mat 27:14; Mar 15:5), and at the unexpected schedule of His death (Mar 5:44). And His disciples wondered. It is axiomatic that those who know us best are least likely to be surprised by us – and even less likely to be impressed. The old adage that no man is a hero to his valet is badly out of date as to its details, but just as true as it ever was. So it is striking that, from the beginning of their time with Christ right through to the end of His time on Earth, the disciples marveled at their Lord (Mat 8:27; 21:20; Mar 6:51; Luk 8:25; 24:12,41; Joh 4:27). No measure of intimacy and no degree of familiarity could be sufficient to make the Lord Jesus ordinary. Indeed, the inverse was – and is – true. Like the disciples, the more we learn of Him and come to know Him, the more cause we find to wonder.

And we should wonder. Nothing really shocks us, and still less surprises us. The cheapening of superlatives is a symptom, rather than a cause, of an age where everything seems jejune and ordinary. To our unsaved friends – and the marketers that target them – the solution seems to be the febrile pursuit of entertainment and technology. But we can refresh our souls and expand our minds with something far grander and greater than earth can muster. Let us never become accustomed to Christ, or feel that we have a grasp of His greatness. Rather, as we consider the wonderful things He did, and said, and showed, may we wonder, as men did then, at our surprising Savior.