7-2 The Teaching Style Of Jesus
The Style Of Jesus
The Lord and the Gospel writers seem to have recognized that a
person may believe in Christ, and be labelled a 'believer' in Him,
whilst still not knowing the fullness of "the truth":
"Then said Jesus to those Jews which had believed on him, If
you continue in my word, then are you truly my disciples; and you
shall know the truth" (Jn. 8:31,32). Clearly the Lord saw stages
and levels to discipleship and 'knowing the truth'. The life of
Jesus was a life of outgiven grace and seeking the salvation of
men, after the pattern of Joseph going to seek the welfare of his
brethren. Even when he was delirious, according to the Hebrew text
of Gen. 37:15 [AV “wandering”] he told the stranger that he was
seeking his brethren (who hated him); seeking them was his dominant
desire. And so it was in the life of the Lord. Like His Father,
He was willing to be incredibly patient, in order to win people.
Consider how without any doubt, God granted forgiveness during the
Old Testament, on the basis of the shedding of blood. He allowed
the Priest to make a real, valid atonement for sinners. And yet
Hebrews makes clear that that blood couldn’t redeem sin. Yet God
as it were imputed faith and understanding to the offerers which
they surely didn’t have.
Consider some examples from the life of His son:
The Demon Issue
The centurion seems to have believed in demon possession. He understood
that his servant was “grievously tormented” by them. He believed that
the Lord could cure him, in the same way as he could say to his underlings
“go, and he goeth” (Mt. 8:6-10). And so, he implied, couldn’t Jesus just
say to the demons ‘Go!’, and they would go, as with the ‘demons’ in the
madman near Gadara? The Lord didn’t wheel round and read him a lecture
about ‘demons don’t exist’ (although they don’t, of course, and it’s important
to understand that they don’t). He understood that this man had faith
that He, as the Son of God, had power over these ‘demons’, and therefore
“he marvelled, and said…Verily…I have not found so great faith, no, not
in Israel”. He focused on what faith and understanding the man had. With
the height of His spirituality, with all the reason He had to be disappointed
in people, the Lord marvelled at a man’s faith. It is an essay in how
He seized on what genuine faith He found, and worked to develop it, even
if there was an element of false understanding in it (1).
In Mk. 9:23, the father of the child was asked whether he could believe
[i.e., that Jesus could cast out the demon]. The man replied that yes,
although his faith was weak, he believed [that Jesus could cast out the
demon]. His faith was focused on by Jesus, rather than his wrong beliefs.
Faith above all was what the Lord was focusing on in the first instance.
Legion believed he was demon possessed. But the Lord didn’t correct him
regarding this before healing him; indeed, one assumes the man probably
had some faith for the miracle to be performed (Mt. 13:58). Lk. 8:29 says
that Legion “was driven of the devil into the wilderness”, in the same
way as the Lord had been driven into the wilderness by the spirit
(Mk. 1:12) and yet overcame the ‘devil’ in whatever form at this time.
The man was surely intended to reflect on these more subtle things and
see that whatever he had once believed in was immaterial and irrelevant
compared to the Spirit power of the Lord. And yet the Lord ‘went along’
with his request for the demons he thought were within him to be cast
into ‘the deep’, thoroughly rooted as it was in misunderstanding of demons
and sinners being thrown into the abyss.
“By whom do your sons cast them [demons] out?” (Lk. 11:19) shows the
Lord assuming for a moment that there were demons, and that the Jews could
cast them out. He doesn’t directly challenge them on their false miracles,
their exaggerated reports of healings, nor on the non-existence of demons.
He takes them from where they are and seeks to lead them to truth.
There may well be more examples of this kind of thing in the NT than
may appear to the English reader. The warning that the wicked will be
cast into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil (Mt. 25:41) was
referring to the apocryphal fate of supposedly ‘wicked angels’ as recorded
in 1 Enoch 54. The references to Tartarus and sinful angels in 2 Peter
and Jude are also clear references to wrong beliefs which were common
in Jewish apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical writings. These wrong ideas-
and they are wrong- are not corrected directly, but rather a
moral lesson is drawn from the stories. This is the point of the allusion
to them; but there is no explicit correction of these myths in the first
instance. The way the Lord constructed His parable about the rich man
and Lazarus in Luke 16 is proof enough that He Himself alluded to false
ideas without correcting them, but rather in order to make a moral point
within the faulty framework of understanding of His audience. Indeed,
the Bible is full of instances of where a technically ‘wrong’ idea is
used by God without correction in order to teach a higher principle. Thus
an eagle doesn’t bear its young upon its wings; it hovers over them. But
from an earth-bound perspective, it would appear that [looking up], the
eagle is carrying its young on its wings. God accommodates Himself to
our earthly perspective in order to lead us to Heavenly things. He doesn’t
seek to correct our knowledge at every turn, or else His end aim would
not be achieved.
Other Examples In The Teaching Of Jesus
- The Lord’s men were accused of ‘threshing’ on the Sabbath because
they rubbed corn in their hands (Mk. 2:23-28). The Lord could have answered
‘No, this is a non-Biblical definition of working on the Sabbath’. But
He didn’t. Instead He reasoned that ‘OK, let’s assume you’re right,
but David and his men broke the law because they were about
God’s business, this over-rode the need for technical obedience’. The
Lord Jesus wasn’t constantly correcting specific errors of interpretation.
He dealt in principles much larger than this, in order to make a more
essential, practical, useful point.
- The eagerness of the Lord for the inculcation of faith is seen in
the way He foresees the likely thought processes within men. “Begin
not to say within yourselves....” (Lk. 3:8), He told a generation of
vipers; and He eagerly strengthened the centurion’s faith when it was
announced that faith was pointless, because his daughter had died. And
we sense His eager hopefulness for response when He said to the woman:
“Believe me, woman...” (Jn. 4:21 GNB). Even though she was confrontational,
bitter against Jewish people, and perhaps [as it has been argued by
some] pushing a feminist agenda...the Lord sought for faith
in her above correcting her attitude about these things. God too seeks
for faith, and some of the ‘flash’ victories He granted in the Old Testament
were to otherwise unspiritual men who in their desperation turned to
Him. He so respects faith that He responded (e.g. 1 Chron. 5:10-20).
- When the Jews mocked Him for saying that He had seen Abraham, the
Lord didn’t respond that of course that wasn’t what He meant; instead
He elevated the conversation with “before Abraham was I am”.
- The disciples didn’t have enough faith to cure the sick boy. Jesus
told them this: it was “because of your little faith…if ye have faith
as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove…”
(Mt. 17:20 RV). Think carefully what is going on here. They had not
even faith as a tiny grain of mustard seed; they didn’t have the faith
to cure the boy. But Jesus says they did have “little faith”. He recognized
what insignificant faith they did have. He was so sensitive to the amount
of faith in someone, even if it was insignificant in the final analysis.
We likewise need to be able to positively and eagerly discern faith
in those we preach to and seek to spiritually develop. In a similar
kind of way, God was disappointed that His people had not only been
disobedient to Him , but they had not even been obedient to
their conquerors (Ez. 5:7). He so values obedience, and had an attitude
that sought to see if they would show it to at least someone, even if
they had rejected Him.
- The Lord spoke of not making the Orthodox Jews stumble by not paying
the tribute; yet He goes on to say that one must beware lest we make
the little ones who believe, to stumble (Mt. 17:27; 18:6). Is it not
that He saw in Orthodox Jewry the beginnings of faith…a faith which
was to come to fruition when a great company of priests were later obedient
to the faith in Him? None of us would have had that sensitivity, that
hopefulness, that seeking spirit. It is truly a challenge to us.
- When the disciples foolishly sought to have what they thought were
to be the favoured places at His right hand and His left, the Lord could
have answered: ‘You foolish people! Those on my left hand will be condemned!’.
But He graciously didn’t comment on their glaring error. He pushed a
higher principle- that we should not seek for personal greatness, seeing
that God is the judge of all (Mt. 20:23). Yet sadly, so much of our
preaching has been solely concerned with pointing out the errors of
others without being sensitive to what little faith and understanding
they do have, and seeking to build on it.
- When the people asked: “What sign shewest thou then, that we may
see, and believe thee?” (Jn. 6:30), the Lord could have spoken words
similar to Heb. 11:1 to them- He could have corrected them by saying
that actually, faith is not related to what you can see. You cannot
“see and believe” in the true sense of belief. But the Lord doesn’t
do that. He says that He in front of them is the bread of God, miraculously
given. And their critical tone changes: “Lord, evermore give us this
bread!” (:34). This surely is our pattern- not to necessarily correct
every error when we see it, but to pick up something the other person
has said and develop it, to bring them towards truth.
- Another woman thought that by touching His garment, she would be
made whole. She had the same wrong notion as many Orthodox and Catholic
believers have today- that some physical item can give healing. The
Lord corrected her by saying telling her that it was her faith-
not the touch of His garment- that had made her whole (Mt. 9:21,22).
Again, He had focused on what was positive in her, rather than the negative.
We know that usually the Lord looked for faith in people before healing
them. Yet after this incident there are examples of where those who
merely sought to touch His garment were healed (Mk. 6:56; Lk. 6:19).
They were probably hopeful that they would have a similar experience
to the woman. One could argue they were mere opportunists, as were their
relatives who got them near enough to Jesus’ clothes. And probably there
was a large element of this in them. But the Lord saw through all this
to what faith there was, and responded to it. It is perhaps not accidental
that Mark records the link between faith and Jesus’ decision to heal
in the same chapter (Mk. 6:5). When we fear there is interest in our
message only for what material benefit there may be for the hearers,
we need to remember this. To identify wrong motives doesn’t mean that
we turn away; we must look deeper, and hope more strongly.
- Yet another woman was evidently a sinner; and the Lord made it clear
that He knew all about her five men. But He didn’t max out on that fact;
His response to knowing it was basically: ‘You’re thirsty. I’ve got
the water you need’. He saw her need, more than her moral problem; and
He knew the answer. When she replied that she had no husband, He could
have responded: ‘You liar! A half truth is a lie!’. But He didn’t. He
said, so positively, gently and delicately, ‘What you have said is quite
true. You had five men you have lived with. The one you now have isn’t
your husband. So, yes, you said the truth’ (Jn. 4:16-18). He could have
crushed her. But He didn’t. And we who ‘have the truth’ must take a
lesson from this. He let Himself be encouraged by her response to Him,
even though her comment “Could this be the Messiah?” (Jn. 4:29) implies
she was still uncertain. Raymond Brown has commented: “The Greek question
with meti implies an unlikelihood” (The Gospel According To
John, Vol. 1, p. 173). And so this Samaritan woman was at best being
deceptive when she said that “I have no husband / man / fella in my
life” (Jn. 4:17). The Lord could have answered: ‘Don’t lie to me. You
know you’re living with a man, and that you’ve had five men in your
life’. Instead, the Lord picks up her deceptive comment positively,
agreeing that her latest relationship isn’t really a man / husband as
God intends. I find His positive attitude here surpassing.
- The Lord knew that Peter had a sword / knife hidden in his garment
when in Gethsemane. But He did nothing; He didn’t use His knowledge
of Peter’s weakness to criticise him. He knew that the best way was
to just let it be, and then the miracle of healing Malchus must have
more than convinced Peter that the Lord’s men should not use the sword.
For their Master had healed, not murdered, one of the men sent to arrest
- “John bare witness unto the truth [i.e. the legitimacy of Jesus’
claims]. But I receive not testimony from man [e.g. John]; but these
things I say, that ye might be saved…I have greater witness than
that of John… the works which the Father hath given me… bear witness…
the Father himself… hath borne witness of me”. I wish to stress the
Lord’s comment: “But these things I say, that ye might be saved”.
The Lord wanted men to accept His Father’s witness; but He was prepared
to let them accept John’s human witness, and actually this lower level
of perception by them, preferring to believe the words of a mere man,
would still be allowed by the Lord to lead them to salvation.
- There is no record that the Lord corrected the disciples’ misunderstanding
that He was going to commit suicide in order to “go unto” Lazarus (Jn.
11:16). He let events take their course and allowed the disciples to
reflect upon the situation in order to come to a truer understanding
of His words.
- The disciples thought the resurrected Christ was a spirit, a ghost.
They returned to their old superstitions. Yet He didn’t respond by lecturing
them about the death state or that all existence is only bodily, much
as He could have done. Instead He adopted for a moment their position
and reasoned from it: “A spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me
have” (Lk. 24:39). The essence of His concern was their doubt in Him
and His resurrection, rather than their return to wrong superstitions.
- The record stresses the incongruity and inappropriacy of the young
man’s self-righteousness: “The youth answered, all these have
I kept from my youth up”. He was young- and he says that since
a young man he had kept all the commands. Now the Lord doesn’t lecture
him about self-righteousness, nor does He point out that the young man
is way over rating his own spirituality and obedience. Instead, the
Master focuses on the positive- as if to say ‘You are zealous for perfection?
Great! So, sell what you have and give to the poor. Go on, rise up to
- The Pharisees had reasoned themselves into a position whereby plucking
heads of corn whilst walking through a corn field on the Sabbath was
regarded as reaping. When the Lord was questioned about this issue,
He didn’t reply as most of us would have done: to attack the ridiculous
definition of ‘work on the Sabbath’. He seeks to teach by general principle
that the extent of His Lordship meant that He and His men were free
to do as they pleased on this kind of matter.
- The Lord explained that “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” would
have broken “the least” commandments, and would have taught men so (Mt.
5:19); and yet “the least in the Kingdom” was a phrase He elsewhere
used about those who would actually be in the Kingdom (Mt. 11:11). Here
surely is His desire to save, and His gracious overlooking of intellectual
failure, human misunderstanding, and dogmatism in that misunderstanding
(‘teaching men so’).
- As the Son of God, walking freely in His Father’s house, Jesus didn’t
have to pay the temple tax (Mt. 17:26,27). He could have insisted that
He didn’t need to pay it, He could have stood up for what was right
and true. But doing this can often be selfish, a defence of self rather
than a seeking for the Father’s glory. And so He told Peter that “lest
we should offend them”, He would pay it. He was so hopeful for their
salvation one day that He was worried about offending these wretched
men, who weren’t fit to breathe the same air that He did. We would have
given up with them; but He worried about offending what potential faith
they might have.
- The Pharisees resisted paying Roman poll tax because the coin of
Tiberius held him up to be God. The Lord’s response was that it should
be given to Tiberius, but that which bore the image of God- i.e. our
body- given completely to God. He didn’t say ‘Don’t touch the coins,
they bear false doctrine, to pay the tax could make it appear you are
going along with a blasphemous claim’. Yet some would say that we must
avoid touching anything that might appear to be false or lead to a false
implication [our endless arguments over Bible versions and words of
hymns are all proof of this- even though the present writer is more
than conservative in his taste in these matters]. The Lord wasn’t like
that. He lived life as it is and as it was, and re-focused the attention
of men upon that which is essential, and away from the minutiae. Staring
each of us in the face is our own body, fashioned in God’s image- and
thereby the most powerful imperative, to give it over to God. Yet instead
God’s people preferred to ignore this and argue over the possible implication
of giving a coin to Caesar because there was a false message on it.
Morally and dialectically the Lord had defeated His questioners; and
yet still they would not see the bigger and altogether more vital picture
which He presented them with.
- The Lord wasn’t naïve, although He was so positive. He told the disciples
quite frankly that they were full of “unbelief”, and couldn’t do miracles
which He expected them to because they didn’t pray and fast (Mt. 17:19-21).
And yet when quizzed by the Pharisees as to why His disciples didn’t
fast, He said it was because they were so happy to be with Him, the
bridegroom (Mt. 9:15). Here surely He was seeing the best in them. They
come over as confused, mixed up men who wanted the Kingdom there and
then and were frustrated at the Lord’s inaction in establishing it.
But He saw that they recognised Him as the bridegroom, as Messiah, and
He exalted in this, and saw their lack of fasting as partly due to the
deep-down joy which He knew they had.
- Similarly, His parable of the sower concluded by lamenting that His
general Jewish audience did not understand, and He spoke the
parables knowing they wouldn’t understand and would be confirmed in
this. And He stressed that a feature of the good ground is that His
message is understood. In this context, the Lord commends the disciples
because they saw and heard, in the sense of understanding (Mt. 13:13,15,16,23).
Yet so evidently they didn’t understand. And yet the Lord was so thrilled
with the fact they understood a very little that He counted them as
the good ground that understood.
- The wedding feast at Cana had been going on for some time, to the
point that men had drunk so much wine that they could no longer discern
its quality. The Lord didn’t say, as I might have done, ‘Well that’s
enough, guys’. He realised the shame of the whole situation, that even
though there had been enough wine for everyone to have some, they had
run out. And so He produced some more. He went along with the humanity
of the situation in order to teach a lesson to those who observed what
really happened (Jn. 2:10).
- The Lord evidently knew how Judas was taking money out of the bag.
As the Son of God He was an intellectual beyond compare, and sensitive
and perceptive beyond our imagination. And He noticed it; and yet said
nothing. He was seeking to save Judas and He saw that to just kick up
about evident weakness wasn’t the way. If only many of our brethren
would show a like discernment.
- When John the Baptist had his crisis of faith, and sent his men to
ask Jesus whether He was really Messiah, the Lord spoke of John to the
multitude as if he was a strong believer, no reed shaken in the wind
of doubt. And yet He didn’t just paper over John’s doubts and forget
them, pretending He hadn’t seen. The message He returned to John encouraged
him to look back to the Isaiah prophecies of Messiah, and to remember
especially the way that the weak, doubting ones would be made strong.
The Lord evidently sought to strengthen the weak John by this allusion.
- His attitude to John’s disciples is very telling. He saw those who
“follow not us” as being “on our part”, not losing their reward, as
being the little ones who believed in Him; and He saw wisdom as being
justified by all her children, be they His personal disciples
or those of John (Mk. 9:38-41; Lk. 7:35). John’s men had a wrong attitude
to fellowship- they should have ‘followed with’ the disciples of Jesus;
and it would seem their doctrinal understanding of the Holy Spirit was
lacking, although not wrong (Acts 19:1-5). Indeed, they are called there
“disciples”, a term synonymous with all believers in Luke’s writing.
And the Lord too spoke in such an inclusive way towards them. No wonder
His disciples had and have such difficulty grasping His inclusiveness
and breadth of desire to fellowship and save.
- This focus on the positive is shown by the way the Lord quotes Job
22:7 in the parable of the sheep and goats: “Thou hast not given water
to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry”.
These words are part of Eliphaz’s erroneous allegations against Job-
for Job was a perfect man, and not guilty on these counts. Yet the Lord
extracts elements of truth from those wrong words, rather than just
contemptuously ignoring them. Likewise Job 22:25 speaks of God being
our “treasure…our precious silver” (RV). Surely the Lord had this in
mind when saying that our treasure must be laid up “in heaven”, i.e.
with God (for He often uses ‘Heaven’ for ‘God’). And James follows suite
by approvingly quoting Job 22:29 about the lifting up of the humble
I am not suggesting from these examples that therefore doctrine is unimportant.
But what I am saying is that we must look for the positive in others,
and like the Lord in His attitude to demons, bear with them and recognise
faith when we see it. God worked through the pagan superstitions of Laban
regarding the speckled animals, and through the wrong beliefs of Rachel
and Leah regarding their children…in order to build the house
of Israel. He didn’t cut off His dealings with men at the first sign of
wrong understanding or weak faith or mixed motives. Moses seems to have
shared the primitive idea that a god rose or fell according to the fortunes
of his worshippers, when he asks God to not cut off Israel in case the
nations mock Yahweh. He could have responded that this was far too primitive
and limited a view. But no, He apparently listens to Moses and goes along
with his request!
John the Baptist showed the same spirit of concession to human weakness
in his preaching. He told the publicans: “Extort no more than that which
is appointed you” (Lk. 3:13 RV). He tacitly accepted that these men would
be into extortion. But within limits, he let it go. Likewise he told soldiers
to be content with their wages- not to quit the job. Consider too how
the disciples responded to the High Priest rebuking them for preaching;
he claimed that they intended to bring the blood of Jesus upon them (Acts
5:24). The obvious, logical debating point would have been to say: ‘But
you were the very ones who shouted out ‘His blood be upon us!!’
just a few weeks ago!’. But, Peter didn’t say this. He didn’t even allude
to their obvious self-contradiction. Instead he positively went on to
point out that a real forgiveness was possible because Jesus was now resurrected.
And the point we can take from this is that true witness is not necessarily
about pointing out to the other guy his self-contradictions, the logical
weakness of his position…it’s not about winning a debate, but rather about
bringing people to meaningful repentance and transformation.
Another example of the Biblical record going along with the incorrect
perceptions of faithful men is to be found in the way the apostles nicknamed
Joseph as ‘Barnabas’ “under the impression, apparently, that it meant
‘son of consolation’ [Acts 4:36]. On etymological grounds that has proved
hard to justify, and the name is now generally recognized to… mean ‘son
Yet the record ‘goes along’ with their misunderstanding. In addition to
this, there is a huge imputation of righteousness to human beings, reflected
right through Scripture. God sought them, the essence of their hearts,
and was prepared to overlook much ignorance and misunderstanding along
the way. Consider how good king Josiah is described as always doing what
was right before God, not turning aside to the right nor left- even though
it was not until the 18th year of his reign that he even discovered
parts of God’s law, which he had been ignorant of until then, because
the scroll containing them had been temporarily lost (2 Kings 22:2,11).
(1) It is likely that to some degree
the Father overlooks the moral and intellectual failures of His children
on account of their ignorance, even though sins of ignorance still required
atonement and are still in some sense seen as sin. This could explain
why Eve committed the first sin chronologically, but she did it having
been “deceived” by the serpent; whereas Adam committed the same sin consciously
and was therefore reckoned as the first sinner, the one man by whom sin
entered the world.
(2) Margaret Williams, Palestinian
Personal Names in Acts in Richard Bauckham, ed. The Book
of Acts Vol. 4 p. 101 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995).