The teaching ministry of Jesus1
Jesus was an effective Preacher and sought after Healer. But He was also a master Teacher (Matt. 4:23; John 3:2).
Throughout the Gospels, we encounter a variety of teaching episodes—learning experiences crafted specifically for His twelve disciples as well as for the individual or for thousands (Matt. 13:54; Mark 2:13; 4:2; 9:31; 10:1; Luke 4:31; 13:10; John 4:5–26; 7:14). His Sermon on the Mount, for example, was an outdoor training session in which both the disciples and a multitude participated (Matt. 5:1, 2).
In His teaching, Christ used a variety of approaches and methods that promoted engagement and reflection and helped His learners better comprehend and apply His instruction. We will examine some of His strategies.
Teaching through illustrations
Matthew observed that Jesus often used illustrations (Matt. 13:34). Many of these included vivid imagery—picking grapes from thorn bushes, pouring new wine into old wineskins, the blind leading the blind, and a thief unexpectedly breaking into a house (Matt. 7:16; 9:16, 17; 15:14; 24:43, 44). Jesus also used the concrete and familiar stories to teach about the abstract and, per-haps, unknown. “ ‘Watch out for false prophets,’ ” He said. “ ‘They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves’ ” (Matt. 7:15).2 On another occasion, Jesus warned His disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees. At first, they thought He was speaking in literal terms—but then realized that He “was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees”(Matt. 16:11, 12).
Jesus also told stories; about 40 are recorded. Their purpose was to make His lessons easy to remember and also to serve as the basis for future learning (Mark 4:33, 34). These stories were generally brief, on average, seven verses in length.3 The stories were not complex or laden with multiple meanings. Generally, Jesus would focus on a single point. In the story of the 10 virgins, for example, He concluded,
“‘Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming’ ”(Matt. 25:13, NKJV). Furthermore, the stories belonged to the people. Jesus did not teach about distant lands or exotic circumstances. Rather, He spoke primarily about the ordinary things of life, such as losing money, looking for a job, making bread, and getting married. Finally, the concepts He embedded in His stories were not trivial but, rather, great truths, such as humility, how to pray, the plan of salvation, and the eternal reward.
Jesus used current news as instructional material. When some of His listeners told Him about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed in the temple, Jesus answered, “ ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans . . . ? Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?’ ” (Luke 13:1–5). Similarly, Jesus used what was apparently just-off-the-press news when He told about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him (Luke 10:30).
As the basis for teaching, Jesus also used historical events. One Sabbath, as Jesus and His disciples were passing through a grain field, some of the disciples began to pick a few heads of grain. The Pharisees accosted Jesus, asking: “ ‘Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ ” Jesus answered, “‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?’ ” (Mark 2:23–26). Similarly, Jesus referred His listeners to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush as well as the martyrdom of the prophet Zechariah (Mark 12:26; Luke 11:50, 51).
When teaching certain concepts, Jesus would use tangible objects. One day, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to Jesus and asked Him, “ ‘Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’”
“‘Bring me a denarius,’ ” Jesus replied. When they brought the coin, He asked, “ ‘Whose image is this?’ ”
“‘Caesar’s,’ ” they said.
“‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,’ ” Jesus stated, “ ‘and to God what is God’s’ ” (Mark 12:13–17). On other occasions, Jesus used a withered fig tree to illustrate the power of faith, ravens and lilies to exemplify quiet confidence in God, and bread and wine to represent His own sacrifice (Mark 11:13–23; Luke 12:24–27; Matt. 26:26–28).
Teaching through action
Jesus believed that it was important for those He taught to be involved in active learning. One day the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and asked, “ ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ”
“ ‘Yes, he does,’ ” Peter replied. “When Peter came into the house,” Jesus asked, “ ‘What do you think, Simon?’ . . . ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?’”
“‘From others,’ Peter answered. “ ‘Then the sons are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. ‘But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours’ ” (Matt. 17:24–27).
One might conclude that with so many villages and towns to reach and with such a brief period of ministry available, Christ would send His listeners to individually apply what they had learned.
In commissioning the twelve disciples, however, Jesus sent them out two by two (Mark 6:7–13, 30). In like manner, He subsequently sent out 70 others to engage in collaborative learning (Luke 10:1).
In prison, John the Baptist wondered whether Jesus was truly the Messiah. He sent his disciples to ask. Jesus did not immediately reply but, rather, went about the activities of His ministry. At the end of the day, Jesus said to these disciples, “ ‘Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor’ ” (Matt. 11:2–5, NLT). Perhaps the greatest example, however, of Christ’s enacted teaching took place in theupper room. After the meal was over, Jesus arose from the table, wrapped a towel around His waist, and began to wash His disciples’ feet (John 13:4, 5, 12–17).
Teaching for thinking
When teaching, Jesus would often ask, “What do you think?” (Matt 17:25; 18:12; 22:42; 21:28). Then He would extend their thinking in a variety of ways.
For example, Jesus made use of similes and metaphors, often expanding these into well-developed analogies. He compared His generation to children playing in the marketplaces and calling out to their companions: “ ‘ “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” ’ ” (Matt. 11:16–19). He then went on to describe how many had similarly chosen to reject both the ministry of John the Baptist as too austere and that of the Son of Man as overly accepting. On another occasion, Christ pointed out the hypocrisy and skin-deep religiosity of the scribes and Pharisees, likening them to “ ‘whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead’ ” (Matt. 23:27, 28).4
Jesus asked questions effectively (Luke 2:46, 47). As a teacher, He used questions for a variety of reasons: to remember the known (Matt. 16:9, 10), clarify concepts (Luke 13:14–16), correct erroneous ideas (John 4:35), guide thinking (Matt. 11:7–9), motivate personal thought (Matt. 16:13–15), affirm truth in the mind (Matt. 14:31), and invite a faith response (Mark 5:30).
Jesus also invited His listeners to engage in analysis and reasoning. When His opponents declared that He drove out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, Jesus replied, “ ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ ” (Mark 3:22–27).5
Jesus engaged His learners in problem solving. In addition to storyproblems—such as that of the sons of the owner of a vineyard (Matt. 21:28–31), Jesus used learning experiences as problem-solving assignments. After He had been teaching a group of thousands, His disciples came to Him late in the afternoon and said, “ ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.’”
Jesus replied, “ ‘You give them something to eat’ ” (Luke 9:12, 13).
On various occasions, Christ led His learners through comparison and contrast. The parable ofthe wise man and the foolish man is a prime example. There were aspects in common—receiving instruction, building a house, experiencing a storm. But there were distinguishing elements as well—the application of knowledge, the foundation, and the outcome (Matt. 7:24–27).6
Christ wanted His listeners to grapple with conundrums and, thereby, engage in deep thinking. Here are some examples of paradoxes and anomalies that He used for this purpose:
“‘Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave’ ” (Matt. 20:26, 27). “ ‘Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it’ ” (Luke 17:33). “ ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first’ ” (Mark 10:31).7
Teaching for retention
Jesus understood that crucial concepts are not learned through a single exposure. Repetition is needed. To enhance reinforcement, however, Jesus incorporated variety. A key construct in Christ’s teaching, for example, was the kingdom of heaven. On one occasion, He told His listeners, “ ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you’ ” (Matt. 13:11). Then He proceeded to approach the concept from multiple perspectives: a man who sowed good seed in his field, a mustard seed, yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour, treasure buried in a field, a merchant looking for fine pearls, and a net that caught all kinds of fish (Matt. 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47).
In Jesus’ time, many held the idea that poverty was God’s curse while riches were evidence of His favor. In refuting this misconception, Jesus stated, “ ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ ” (Luke 18:25, NKJV). Pointing out the Pharisees’ myopic focus on trivia, He declared, “ ‘You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel’ ” (Matt. 23:24). Discussing the human tendency to find fault with others, Jesus talked about removing the plank from one’s own eye before focusing on the speck in another’s eye (Luke 6:41, 42). In each case, Jesus used hyperbole to underscore a concept and make it memorable.
The case of the Samaritan woman
What do you see when you observe Jesus, the Teacher? Consider His inter-actions with the woman at the well (John 4:5–26).
We might begin by noting that the learner was a marginalized person, with at least three strikes against her. First, she was a woman, and in that time and place, this meant that she was excluded from certain privileges. Second, she was also a Samaritan, an ethnic minority demeaned and sidelined by the Jews. Third, she was of flawed reputation, ostracized by her community. The fact that she came alone to the well at noon, rather than in the morning or evening when the women of a com-munity would typically gather for the social event, reveals that the women of her village scorned her.
Jesus, the Teacher, sits near the well. He is available, accessible. When the learner arrives, Jesus takes the initiative and asks, “Could you give Me a drink?” It is a request that the woman can readily fulfill. It is an expression that helps her feel valued and that provides an opportunity for service. Further, by asking for water, Jesus arouses interest. “How is it,” the woman asks, “that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (John 4:9, NKJV).
Notice also that Jesus begins with water, the topic that has motivated her journey to the well. But then He inserts an anomaly: Anyone who drinks the water that I give will never be thirsty again. This living water, in fact, will become a fresh, artesian spring, bub-bling up into eternal life. In so doing,Jesus transitions from the known to the unknown, from the concrete to the abstract, from the physical to the spiritual, and from the immediate to the eternal.
When the woman asks for this water, Jesus instructs her to go and bring her husband. It is an opportunity for witness, an assignment to share her knowledge with others. It also seeks to involve the student in active learning. In the dialogue that follows, Jesus moves from the learner’s immediate need, water, to her deep needs of self-worth and positive relationships. It is evident that Jesus knows the background, needs, interests, and dreams of His listener.
Jesus also helps resolve the learner’s misconceptions by clarify-ing concepts, in this case, her beliefs regarding worship: that it is not defined in terms of a place but of a spiritual experience. To wrap up the lesson, the Teacher delivers direct instruction, declaring, “I Am the Messiah!” Through it all, the overarching purpose is that the learner might know God and experience His saving power. It is a lesson focused on hope and transformation.
What were the outcomes? “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ They came out of the town and made their way toward him. . . .
“So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
“They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world’ ” (John 4:28–30, 40–42).
The woman becomes a believer, witness, and disciple-maker. And all because of her encounter with the Teacher and the life-changing effect of a single lesson.
The impact of His teaching
Jesus’ teaching strategies had a profound influence on His learners. When He taught, His listeners were surprised at His teaching because He spoke with confidence, in contrast to the teachers of the law (Matt. 7:28, 29). Turning to each other in amazement, they asked, “ ‘Where did this man get these things?’”(Mark 6:2, 3) “ ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel’ ” (Matt. 9:33).8
One day, alarmed with His growing popularity, the chief priests “sent the temple guards to arrest Him.” At the end of the day, the guards returned empty-handed. “ ‘Why didn’t you bring Him in?’ ” the priests raged.
“‘No one ever spoke the way this man does,’ ” the guards declared (John 7:32, 45, 46).
After His resurrection, Christ appeared unrecognized to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and fell into conversation with them. Later that evening, when they finally realized who their Guest had been, they exclaimed, “ ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ ” (Luke 24:32).
The influence of Jesus, the Teacher sent from God, can also be experienced in our lives and ministry. To paraphrase the words of John: Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the entire world would not have room for the books that would be written. But these were written that you might have faith in Christ, the Son of God; and having faith, that you might teach as He taught (John 20:30, 31; 21:25).
Hence, as chaplains or ministers, whatever else our roles call us to do, we, too, need to be effective teachers. And thus, by learning from Jesus, we can learn from the best.
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1 Adapted from John Wesley Taylor V, “Jesus Christ: Master Teacher,” Journal of Adventist Education, December 2010/January 2011, 4–9, http://circle.adventist.org/files/jae/JAE_v73n2.pdf.
2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from the New International Version.
3 The longest, the story of the prodigal son, is 22 verses in length, while four of the stories are told in a single verse.
4 In similar ways, Christ used analogies of a fig tree in springtime and of a hen gathering her chicks (Matt. 24:32, 33; 23:37).
5 See also Matthew 22:41–46.
6 Christ also told the story of ten virgins, all of whom were waiting for the bridegroom and all of whom slept. Five, however, had taken extra oil. These entered the joy of the marriage celebration, while the other five found themselves barred from the event (Matt. 25:1–13).
7 See also Matthew 11:11.
8 See also Luke 13:17.