Among many other reasons, Jesus is beautiful because he is multi-faceted; he is not a flat character or a one-dot-on-a-white-canvas piece of minimalist art. He is multi-dimensional. We begin to glimpse this glory through the diverse titles the God-man bears and holds—Christ, Messiah, Anointed One, Savior, Friend, King, High Priest, Creator, Pantocrator (Almighty), Lord, Crucified One, Risen One, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, New Adam/Second Adam/Last Adam, King of the Jews, Man of Sorrows, Light of the World, Hope of All Nations, Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Prophet, Apostle, Bread of Life, Rabbi, Paraclete, Lion, and Lamb. In this many-layered variety we get a hint of what Jonathan Edwards called the glorious juxtaposition of divine excellencies.
But there’s another title Jesus wears, even though few Christians today have uttered or considered it. He is Christ the Educator.
On first hearing it sounds odd. Christ the Teacher sounds a bit more normal. Teacher is indeed an important title for Jesus with obvious biblical warrant: he’s constantly teaching and instructing; he’s pictured as a teaching prophet, a teaching king, and a teacher of wisdom comparable to Solomon the Wise. So Christ the Teacher is a good title.
But I am suggesting Christ the Educator, not just Christ the Teacher. Is this mere wishful thinking coming from a higher education administrator and professor?
I don’t think so. Scripture, theology, and church history all show us that while Christ is certainly a teacher in the sense of revealing true knowledge, he’s also more. He is the Educator of Souls.
Christ as Educator means he doesn’t merely impart information; he transforms souls. He is the one who leads us out (the original sense of “ex-ducere” = “educate”) of darkness, ignorance, sin, and death, and conducts us from life to death, mortality to immortality.
Christ and Paideia
The key to understanding the difference between Christ as Teacher and Christ as Educator is to recognize something crucial about the true nature of education. It is, to use the ancient word, paideia.
Paideia, which comes from a Greek word relating to children, is used ubiquitously in Greek literature to refer to bringing children from childhood to mature adult life through education. Paideia is an ancient idea that continued to drive educational philosophy through most of Western civilization’s history until the 20th century.[ii]
According to this understanding, the goal of education is to train and bring to maturity the whole person—body, mind, and soul. Paideia is consciously shaping the young to understand and appreciate “the beautiful and the good,” always pursuing “excellence” or “virtue.” All throughout Greek literature the end goal (telos) of whole-person education is understood as the satisfied life of flourishing that the mature (teleios) alone can experience. This goal (telos) and state of maturity (teleios) are both important Greek words that appear also in the Bible, often translated as “perfect” and “perfection.”
Thus, paideia education has to do with making people, not training people to make things, as is the case with the emphasis on vocational training prevalent today.[iii] Paideia doesn’t merely transfer information and develop job skills. Rather, true education not only informs but also transforms us from immaturity to maturity through habits, affections, and liturgies.[iv]
This is precisely why many theologians and pastors throughout history have spoken about Christian discipleship as paideia and have used the title of Educator or Pedagogue for Jesus. One of the three major works of the influential church father Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215), for example, is all about this true title and role of Jesus—Christ the Educator. And Clement isn’t alone in reflecting on the beauty and significance of this understanding of Jesus.
Christianity and Paideia
This understanding of education as paideia proves helpful in reading and interpreting Scripture. While the Bible’s vision of paideia is distinctly Christian, it’s still a vision of paideia. The Greek Bible’s teachings cannot be divorced entirely from the language and concepts of the worldview in which they were produced. And in the providence of God the New Testament authors lived and breathed in a time in which this view of education (in both Jewish and Greek contexts) was prominent. Indeed, I’d be so bold as to suggest that paideia is used to explain and illustrate the truth of the gospel and the meaning of salvation.
Consider how the Gospels depict Jesus’ ministry and how Paul and other apostles continue this pattern. The ministry of Jesus and the subsequent apostles is gathering disciples who will not only learn content-truth but who will also learn to grow in maturity through imitation (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 3 John 1:11).[v]
And notice again that biblical word “disciple” (mathetes). We’ve become so accustomed to its English gloss and so unaccustomed to ancient education that we often don’t see the connection. A disciple is a student, a learner, the follower of an educator/pedagogue. Whether in the Jewish rabbinic tradition or the many forms of ancient Greco-Roman paideia, an educator gathers disciples/students and trains them to maturity of mind and soul. At the fundamental level of our identity Christians are called disciples, students. And one unmistakable—but often overlooked—implication is that Jesus is our Great Educator.
He’s many other things, of course—King, Savior, Friend, and so on—but he is also Educator. He’s more than our Pedagogue, but he’s not less. Indeed, I’d suggest that despite our loss of this insight today, it is a central motif at the core of how Christ and we are presented in Scripture.
Much more can and should be said about this beautiful truth; many Old and New Testament texts can be re-read in light of this renewed insight of God’s salvation as soul-educating work.
As one example, consider these words from Hebrews, noting how the Greek text evokes the concept of paideia and teleios-maturity so common throughout the ancient world.
It was fitting that God, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make perfect through suffering the champion of salvation. (Heb. 2:10)
Although Jesus was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the cause of eternal salvation to all who obey him. (Heb. 5:8–9)
Have you now forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My children, do not regard lightly the education (paideia) of the Lord, nor be weary when instructed by him. For the Lord educates the ones he loves, and he educates every child whom he receives.” It is for education that you endure. God is treating you as children. For what child is there whom his father does not educate? If you are left without education then you are illegitimate children and not heirs. We had earthly fathers who educated us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but God educates us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all education seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5–11)
There is a great richness of meaning in these texts that goes beyond our discussion here. But with renewed eyes as disciples of Jesus we can hear his invitation to learn and be trained in soul by our gracious Christ, the Educator.
[i] John Piper has a meaningful devotion on this in Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, chapter 3, “The Lion and the Lamb.”
[ii] David Naugle has a helpful introduction to paideia here.
[iii] See Wendell Berry’s essay “The Loss of the University.”
[v] Jason Hood provides a robust biblical theology of imitation in his book Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern.