In his day, Jesus was primarily known as a teacher. His disciples, the crowds and even his enemies called him teacher. He came to Israel with a message of salvation. He was a Spirit anointed teacher who penetrated the hearts of all who heard him. His disciples were transformed by his teaching so that in the end they worshipped him and were willing to lay down their lives for him. The crowds heard him gladly and were deeply moved by him. The religious leaders were cut to the heart by his teaching but rejected and hated him, and ultimately killed him. Jesus was a teacher like no other. His teaching changed the world. But Jesus’ teaching was explanatory in that it was a commentary on his person and his work of salvation, his death on the cross for sin and his resurrection from the dead.
The teaching of Jesus is thick throughout all four gospels. Even when he is dealing with questions or healing someone he is teaching. But the main focus of the teaching of Jesus is found in large blocks of teaching that are found predominantly in Matthew and John. Luke has a great deal of teaching but usually in smaller units. Matthew has five large teaching units, chapters 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 24-25, the most famous of which is the first, The Sermon on the Mount. The major teaching units in John are found in chapters 5-10 and 14-17.
In surveying the teaching of Jesus we will focus on six aspects of his teaching. First, we will look at Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, then we will look at Jesus’ use of parables. Next we will observe his call to radical discipleship and his teaching on the end times. Lastly, we will emphasize two final teaching units: (1) the last instructions to his disciples, the upper room discourse, which he gave the night before he was crucified, and (2) the resurrected Lord Jesus sending out his disciples on their mission, the Great Commission.
The Kingdom of God
The central message of Jesus’ teaching was the kingdom of God. Everything focused on that. Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God had an intimate connection to the Old Testament teaching of the kingdom of God through the covenants, especially the Davidic covenant.
The Old Testament teachings about the kingdom has two perspectives. One can be called the universal kingdom of God. God is king over all things even though some angels and all people rebel against his lordship. He is still king. And from this perspective we see the second sense of the kingdom of God in the Old Testament, the redemptive kingdom of God.
Some refer to this as the mediatorial kingdom. In the redemptive/mediatorial kingdom, God calls his covenant people to mediate his redemptive work to the world. The basic storyline of the Bible is, Creation – Fall – Redemption – Restoration. In the redemption phase of the storyline God works through covenants. In this way God is bringing about his plan of redemption to the world.
The kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching exhibit several tensions. First, there is the “when” tension. Is the kingdom of God in the present with the coming of Jesus, or is it in the future? This tension in the teaching of Jesus about the kingdom of God is resolved by saying that the kingdom is already here in the coming and ministry, and specially the passion of the king, but it is not yet fully consummated. It will be consummated in his second coming. This can be seen in the teaching of Jesus and in his parables.
The second tension in the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom of God is a “where” tension. Where is the kingdom of God? Is there some physical place the kingdom resides, or is it just in the hearts of Jesus’ followers? This is a reign vs realm question. Again, the tension is resolved by understanding Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world and is now among us, but will one day in its consummation be gloriously global.
The third, and final, tension is a “who” tension. By who, I mean who is in the kingdom of God? Is the kingdom personal and individual, or is it communal and social? Jesus said that one must enter the kingdom. The kingdom is entered by personal faith, so in that sense the kingdom is individual. But when a person enters the kingdom they enter the community of the redeemed. They have a relationship with the king, but also with all others in the kingdom. The kingdom has a wonderful communal aspect that cannot be neglected.
In Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God he presented himself as the king who came to establish the kingdom. The kingdom Jesus offered would be counter intuitive to what most expected, but it would be the perfect fulfillment of the promise of God in the Old Testament. Entrance into the kingdom turned on surrender to Jesus as king and Lord.
Jesus’ teaching was colorful, penetrating, and dynamic. People were astonished and amazed by his teaching and remarked that no one else taught as he did. One of the main features of Jesus’ teaching was his profuse use of parables. Parables were short stories, illustrations and even metaphors. Jesus had the amazing ability to get to the heart of an issue with a simple, brief and picturesque parable. He took something everyday and understandable and used it to unravel complicated spiritual truths.
It’s unclear exactly how many parables are in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). People count them in different ways as to what they think constitutes a parable. There are probably as least 40 parables in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew gives 24 parables, while Mark only has 9. Luke records the most at 28. Some of the parables are repeated in two or all three synoptics. Matthew has 11 unique parables and Mark only 1. Luke has the most with 15 unique parables. Some of the most beloved parables are unique to Luke, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.
Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg believes the parables have one, two or three points depending on the number of main characters. Main characters do not have to be people. For example, in the parable of the Sower, the three main characters are the sower, the unfruitful seed and the fruitful seed. Each character in the parable has a point to make in the scope of the meaning of the parable itself. This makes a lot of sense and gives a richer and deeper meaning to the parables of Jesus. It is an interesting note that while some parables are given to reveal a spiritual truth, many are intended to hide it (Matthew 13:13)!
All the parables of Jesus are related in some way to the central message of the kingdom of God. Many begin with the phrase, “The kingdom of God/heaven is like …” or “To what shall I compare to the kingdom of God.” The parables fleshed out the kingdom of God for the people. For some it was life, for others it was death.
Jesus’ Call to Radical Discipleship
Jesus demanded total commitment and surrender to himself as Savior and Lord. His disciples are to love him and follow him with such joy and delight that they are willing to lay down their lives for the kingdom of God. Those not willing to make such a commitment cannot enter the kingdom or be a disciple (Matthew 10:37-39; Mark 8:31-38; Luke 14:25-27). The call to radical discipleship is not a call to the bold and committed Christian, while other less committed Christians are saved but not serious. The call to radical discipleship is what it means to be a Christian. Jesus called those who would go make disciples. He loved and discipled them with that view in mind. Discipleship was, and is, Jesus’ master plan to redeem and transform the world. Every disciple/believer has a unique and strategic role to play in the mission of Jesus.
Jesus’ Teaching on the Judgment of Israel and the End Times
As we have seen, the focus of Jesus’ teaching was the kingdom of God. Related to that emphasis is Jesus’ teaching on eschatology (end times). This teaching appears throughout the synoptics in his general teachings and the parables but especially in what is called the Olivet Discourse. This teaching of Jesus is found in Matthew 24 (followed by related parables in chapter 25), Mark 13 and Luke 21.
This teaching of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse looks forward to two events: (1) The judgment of God on Israel (2) The coming of Jesus in the end times. The difference between these two events and where one stops and the other begins in the text is difficult to fully understand. Biblical scholars disagree on these issues.This is not to say that we should not work hard to understand these passages, we should. They are very important. We must be humble and teachable in our interpretation of these texts.
Most agree that the first part of the discourses deals with God’s judgement on Israel in AD 70 when the Romans defeated and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. This would happen 40 years after Jesus gives this prophecy. It would be a difficult time for the people living in Israel and for the church there. They had rejected and murdered their Messiah. It was unthinkable.
The second part of the discourse deals with the coming of Jesus in the last days. Here is where the difficulty comes in clearly understanding what part of the text refers to AD 70 and what part refers to the last days. Some scholars believe that these time frames go back and forth at points. What is clear, nonetheless, is that there will be a dreadful time of judgment in the near future and then, sometime future to that, the end will come. Some believe that everything prophesied by Jesus in the discourse was fulfilled in AD 70 with war of the Romans. Most scholars, however, believe that part of this teaching looks forward to a time of intense judgment form God just before Jesus returns.
The Upper Room Discourse
John chapters 13-17 comprise the largest body of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament. All the words of Jesus have a unique quality and power, but along with the Sermon on the Mount these words are the most profound. This teaching is often called the Upper Room Discourse. This section begins with the Last Supper and continues through that night. This is the night before Jesus is crucified.
Jesus is preparing his disciples for the shock of his death. What will transpire in the next twenty-four hours will rock their world and threaten to shake them loose form their faith. He has much to say in comfort, but much more to say regarding their mission. Believers who read these chapters must do so with deep meditation and prayer.
Chapter thirteen deals with events during and immediately after the Last Supper. After the supper Jesus washes his disciples feet. Washing feet was a task reserved for the lowest servant. Jesus takes on the role of a servant to teach his disciples the attitude they must have towards one another and the people they will serve in their mission. The foot washing was also a picture of the cross.
After Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him, Judas leaves to do this deed. Jesus then issues the command to his disciples to love one another just as he had loved them. This would be their defining mark of a true disciple.
The first extended discourse is in chapter fourteen. This chapter is framed at the beginning (14:1-3) and the end (14:28-31) with comfort. Between the two words of comfort Jesus reinforces his disciples hearts with truth about who he is and his promise of the Holy Spirit who will lead and empower them in their mission.
At the end of chapter fourteen Jesus and the disciples leave the upper room where they have celebrated the Passover meal. Somewhere along their way Jesus relates to them the parable of the vine and branches (15:1-11). This moving picture of the relationship between Jesus and his followers is designed to encourage them to remain in him, in vital connection to him. It would serve the reader to meditate on the connection with Jesus. The chapter ends with Jesus’ honest warning that since the world hates him the world will also hate them. The chapter explores three relationships believers experience: (1) relationship with Jesus (15:1-11), (2) relationship with one another (15:12-17), (3) relationship with the world (15:18-27).
The discourse continues in chapter sixteen with three very meaningful promises of Jesus to his disciples. First, Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit (16:1-15). Second, Jesus promises his disciples that though they will experience great distress in the short tern, they will have great joy no one can take away (16:16-24). Third, Jesus promises his followers victory over the world. Because they believe in Jesus the Father loves them and though they will have struggles in this world Jesus will give them peace because he has overcome the world (16:25-33).
Chapter seventeen is often called the High Priestly prayer of Jesus. This is the longest prayer of Jesus we have in the NT. The prayer is shaped in three parts. Jesus prays for himself (17:1-5), for his disciples (17:6-19) and for all who will believe through his disciples message (17:20-26). He prays for himself that the Father would glorify him in his work. He prays for his disciples that the Father will protect & sanctify them. And he prays for future believer that they will unified.
The Great Commission
The Great Commission is given by the resurrected Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20 and in Luke 24:36-53. The Great commission is the command of Jesus to all disciples to go make disciples who go make disciples. Jesus had spent over three years training his disciples for this mission. The Great Commission characterizes Jesus’ teaching as giving commands to be obeyed and instructs his disciples to teach future disciples to obey them all. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will come upon them since his power will be necessary to fulfill the mission Jesus gives them. Jesus’ personal presence through the Holy Spirit will be with his people until the end of the age when he returns.
Jesus’ teaching in the Bible is widespread, profound and transformative. It speaks to our deepest needs and the longings of our hearts. Jesus’ teaching also challenges us with regard to our sin and lack of commitment. Every believer in Jesus Christ must spend serious time in study and meditation on the teaching of Jesus. He calls all believers to know him, love him and serve him. It is impossible to fulfill that call without growing in an intimate and personal knowledge, and an honest application of his teaching. Those who truly love him deeply desire to know him more. And he desires to speak into our hearts and lives. A commitment to carefully read through the four gospels will bear great fruit in our lives