The Teaching Method of Jesus

In a previous post I wrote about how the parables of Jesus were intended to hide truth rather than reveal it. We looked at some reasons why Jesus taught this way.

But a follow-up question remains. If Jesus told parables, and parables were cryptic, can we say that the primary teaching method of Jesus was to confuse people rather than teach them? No, we cannot say that. Though disguising truth was why He told parables, parables were not the primary teaching method of Jesus. He spoke in parables to certain people, for certain occasions, to accomplish certain purposes, when teaching about certain truths.

But every other time Jesus taught, He used what some might call an “expository method.” Jesus taught through books of the Bible. The gospels reveal that nearly every week of His ministry, on the Sabbath, Jesus could be found in the synagogue, teaching the Bible to those who had gathered to hear it. We often don’t realize Jesus did this. We tend to think He just wandered about from place to place, healing people, and telling stories on mountain tops.

But the reality is that those are a few isolated incidents. His miracles and parables in the countryside get recorded and get the most attention because they were what made His ministry memorable. But nevertheless, every week, Jesus was in the synagogue, teaching the Word of God.

And how did He teach in the synagogue? Well, we know from the Bible and from many other sources that the teacher would pick a section of Scripture, would stand and read it, then sit and explain it. Jesus does this in Luke 4:16ff, Luke 6:6ff, Luke 13:10ff and many other places.

And the typical method of synagogue teaching was book by book, verse by verse. Typically, when Jewish Rabbis taught the Torah, they taught it straight through (cf. Neh 8:8), and this is probably how Jesus taught (cf. Luke 4:16-21; 4:31; 6:6; 13:10). Jesus “took the Old Testament Scriptures, read them, explained them, and caused the people to understand them” (Pentecost 1981:137). This practice was also used by the early church (Acts 2:42; 13:14-15; 14:1-3; 15:21; 18:4; 19:8-10; etc.). John Lightfoot records that the one who taught this way was often referred to as “an interpreter,” and the teaching as an “interpretation” (Lightfoot 1989:68; cf. 1 Cor 12:10; 14:26). This is partly because the readings were in Hebrew, while some of those in the synagogue may have only understood Greek or Aramaic. So the text was read in Hebrew, then if an interpreter was present, it would be interpreted into a language everyone could understand, and then explained and taught so it could be understood and applied. This is what Jesus did in the synagogues He visited.

Jesus taught the Scriptures every week. He read the text, explained the text, applied the text. There is no better way of understanding God and His Word.

This post is based on the Grace Commentary for Luke 4:14-15.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about this. I’d be interested to know if you think that cultural learning norms should influence the way we teach the Bible. How much of the way Jesus taught was determined by his culture (hence meaning we need to re-evaluate the best way to do this in our culture) and how much is universal?

  2. says

    Mark,

    That is a fantastic question, and one that I have been struggling with for about two years now. Prior to that, I would have argued that both the method and message of Jesus were universal norms and we should try to emulate both as much as possible.

    Now I am not so sure.

    Briefly, here is where I’m at now: Jesus used the predominant cultural method for teaching available at the time to spread His message. We can do the same. I also think He used the cultural values of His time to shape His message (e.g., Honor and Shame). I believe we can allow culture to shape our message as well, but must be much more cautious as we do this.

    So regarding methods: If Jesus were walking the earth today, I wouldn’t be too suprised if He had a website and a blog. Does this mean that everyone who wants to teach as Jesus taught should have a website and a blog? Hardly. Therefore, I also don’t think everyone needs to be teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, or in a church on Sunday.

    Regarding the message: Our culture values money and power. Would Jesus then teach a “health and wealth” gospel? I don’t think so. However, He very well may teach “eternal rewards” as a way to motivate life change. Many ministries believe that Jesus did in fact teach “eternal rewards” but they don’t understand that what Jesus was actually teaching was “Honor before God.” Rewards and honor are related, but not identical.

    I’m getting off track.

    Bottom line: Jesus used cultural norms to shape BOTH His message and methods. So should we. Spirit-inspired creativity is our limit.

    By the way, as a result of posting here, I checked out your site. You ask some great questions! I will be reading more! Thanks.

  3. says

    Hi Jeremy,

    I think that’s a great answer and definitely gives me some things to think over. I’ve become a lot more aware recently of how we tend to read the Bible through our own cultural lens without stopping to think what things meant for the people at the time. I think your example is very true – how Jesus appealed to people’s honour/shame mindset, but we often read those passages through a rewards/debt worldview – I’d never really thought about that before.

    As we teach the Bible I think it’s important that we both understand what things meant in their original cultural context, and also understand our own culture and how we can best communicate exactly the same message in our own context. As you say Jesus wouldn’t teach a prosperity gospel, but the fact that prosperity is important in our culture might affect the way he would teach kingdom truths.

    Have been following your blog for over a year, and I love the way you combine theology with practical down to earth living as a Christian. Keep it up!

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