Jesus’s teachings were striking and memorable, not only because he used a variety of teachings methods but more so because of what he taught, that he was the incarnate, divine Lord who had brought his heavenly kingdom to earth and that the rules of this kingdom were much different from the rules of the kingdoms of earth.
Jesus was known for his teachings because of the methods that he used and the message that he preached. Throughout his teaching ministry, Jesus used a variety of methods that made his teachings both striking and memorable, understandable and provoking. These methods included many well-known methods of his day, as well as qualities that we are still familiar with—poetry, proverbs, exaggeration, parables, similes, riddles, and paradoxes. However, what set his teachings apart from others was the message that they contained. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God had come, and that he, as the incarnate and divine Lord, was its ruler. This kingdom challenged the standards of the kingdoms of men and called its citizens to live in radically different ways.
Jesus was known for his ability to teach. He is called “teacher” forty-five times in the New Testament. The Aramaic title “Rabbi” is used fourteen times of Jesus, even though he was not formally trained as a Rabbi. The people, however, recognized that Jesus was indeed a teacher sent from God. Like other teachers, Jesus had disciples, announced divine commands, buttressed his teaching with Scripture, debated with others, was questioned about legal disputes, and employed various techniques to make his teaching more memorable. He taught both in the countryside and in the cities. He taught in the synagogues and, on at least one occasion, from a boat. He often was able to gather large crowds who could be so enthralled by his teaching that they simply forgot about their need for food. What made Jesus’s teaching unique was not only what he taught but also how he taught it.
The Method of Jesus’s Teaching
Jesus used a variety of teaching techniques to impress his teaching on his hearers. Such techniques were used to clarify his meaning, motivate (or sometimes shock) the listeners, or reveal the true intent of God’s Word—all the while making his teaching memorable. Some forms of Jesus’s teaching include poetry, proverbs, exaggeration, and parables, and many others (such as puns [Matt. 23:24], similes [Luke 17:6], metaphors [Matt. 5:13–14], riddles [Mark 14:58], paradoxes [Mark 12:41–44], irony [Matt. 16:2–3], and questions [Mark 3:1–4]).
Most of the poetry Jesus used (expressed by the Gospel writers) involve parallelism, with about two hundred examples in the Gospels. There are four main types of parallelism: synonymous, antithetical, step (or climactic), and chiastic.
In synonymous parallelism, a subsequent line (or lines) expresses a similar (synonymous) thought to the previous line. The second line, while it may be virtually synonymous, can also clarify or intensify the first line. About fifty examples Jesus’s use of synonymous parallelism appear in the Gospels. For example, Jesus says, “For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (Mark 4:22). Here, “hidden” parallels “secret” and “manifest” parallels “come to light.”
In antithetical parallelism, the second line contrasts with the first line. This is the most common form of parallelism in Jesus’s teaching, with nearly 140 instances. For example, “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:17). The terms “healthy” contrasts with “diseased” and “good fruit” contrasts with “bad fruit.”
In step (or climactic) parallelism, the second line continues and advances the thought of the first line. There are about twenty examples of this type of parallelism in Jesus’s teaching. One is, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt. 10:40). Notice that the first line is repeated (“whoever receives me”) and then an additional element is added which advances the teaching (“receives him who sent me”).
Finally, chiastic parallelism involves the inversion of parallel statements (A, B, B1, A1). There are 16 cases of this type of parallelism in the Gospels. For example, “The Sabbath [A] was made for man [B], not man [B1] for the Sabbath [A1]” (Mark 2:27).
Proverbial statements are also employed by Jesus. Such statements are not to be taken as absolutes but are general principles. For example, Jesus states, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). As is the case with a proverb, exceptions are not provided. Jesus’s statement does not mean that all who fight with swords will die by a sword. Rather, the meaning is that, generally speaking, those who are accustomed to fighting with swords are likely to be killed by a sword. Thus, a person knowing the truthfulness of the proverb will be wise to heed its teaching.
Exaggeration can be wrong if it is used deceitfully—especially when the listener is not anticipating exaggerated language. However, in ethical teachings, exaggerated language is a powerful tool that can leave an indelible impression on the hearer (or reader). There are two types of exaggerated language: overstatement and hyperbole. Overstatement is an exaggerated statement that is possible (though not intended) to complete. For example, when Jesus taught, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matt. 5:29), although such an action could be done, that is not the desired intent of Jesus’s statement. Hyperbole, however, is an exaggerated statement that is impossible to complete. For example, Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees, “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24). Although it is impossible for someone to swallow a camel, the ethical point is clear: don’t be so careful about the little things so as to ignore to do the big things. Exaggeration is a powerful form of communication as it arrests the attention of the hearers. It also demonstrates the seriousness of a situation. For example, if removing an eye would help you avoid hell, it’s worth removing.
Perhaps Jesus’s most well-known method of teaching is the parable, which accounts for about one-third of all his teaching. In the Gospels, Jesus tells at least fifty different parables. Unfortunately, the parables are not only some of Jesus’s most cherished teachings, they also constitute some of his most misunderstood teachings.
At its basic definition, a parable involves a comparison. For example, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Matt. 13:44). Thus, the “kingdom of heaven” is compared (has some resemblance) to a “treasure.” Such parables are fairly easy to comprehend since the point of the comparison is usually highlighted in the parable itself (e.g., sacrifice whatever you need to enter the kingdom since it is worth it). In other parables (e.g., the parable of the sower/soils and the parable of the wheat and tares), Jesus explains the various comparisons since it may not be obvious to his hearers. Although parables have often been allegorized, it is best to seek the main idea of the parable based on the parable’s context (why did Jesus give the parable?). Additionally, it is helpful to seek to understand the parable from the perspective of the original audience before applying it to a modern context.
The Message of Jesus’s Teaching
Jesus was the consummate teacher, not only because of how he taught but because of what he taught. The following section will explain three prominent topics in Jesus’s teachings: (1) the reality of the kingdom of God, (2) living in the kingdom of God, and (3) the Lord of the kingdom of God.
The Reality of the Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God is the central theme in Jesus’s teaching. According to Mark, Jesus’s message can be summarized as: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15; see also Matt. 4:17, 23; Luke 4:43). The Gospels contain seventy-six different kingdom sayings of Jesus (and just over one hundred including parallels). The kingdom refers not to a physical realm but to the reign of God. Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The kingdom can, therefore, be defined as God’s final, decisive exercising of his sovereign reign, which was inaugurated during Jesus’s ministry and will be consummated at his return.
Although the phrase “kingdom of God” is not used in the Old Testament, the concept of God as king and one who rules over his kingdom abounds (Dan. 2:44; Pss. 22:27–28; 103:19). God is frequently spoken of as the King of both Israel and all the world. And yet, there is also the expectation that God will one day rule over all his people in an unparalleled fashion. Therefore, when Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God had come, his Jewish audience knew that he was referring to the complete rule of God over Israel and all the nations.
Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is both present (already) and future (not yet). That is, the kingdom of God is both a present reality (Matt. 11:11; 12:28; Mark 1:15; 9:1; Luke 11:2; 17:20–21) and a future hope (Matt. 6:9–10; 7:21; 8:11–12; Mark 14:25). When Jesus (the King) came to earth he ushered in the kingdom. This kingdom, however, is still contested in the world and will not be fully experienced until every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus as the King. That would have to wait until the King returns (Jesus’s second coming).
The phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” are synonymous, representing the same reality. This can be demonstrated by comparing parallel passages where one text reads “kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3) but the other has “kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). “Heaven” is a substitute for the divine name “God.” Furthermore, Matthew uses the terms interchangeably in the same context: “Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:23-24). Also, the kingdom of God (God’s rule) is not identical to the church (God’s people).
Living in the Kingdom of God
Jesus came not only in fulfillment of promises of the Davidic king who would rule over Israel and the nations, he also came as a prophet who is greater than Moses (Deut. 18:18). In that role, he taught how kingdom citizens should conduct themselves. And yet, Jesus never offers a systematic ethical system. Moreover, some of Jesus’s teachings appear to be contradictory. For example, the law is eternally valid (Matt. 5:17–20; Mark 12:28–34), but certain commands are abolished (Matt. 5:31–42; Mark 7:14–23). In other places, it appears that Jesus’s expectation of obedience is impossible. For example, he states, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). And it’s not just outward obedience that is required: even inward obedience—including one’s motives—is demanded (Matt. 5:3–8; 12:33–37; 23:35–36; Luke 11:33–36). Finally, it is possible that some of Jesus’s teachings are binding only on certain individuals. For example, Jesus tells the rich young ruler to “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21) but he doesn’t specifically require that of everyone.
In light of these difficulties, how are we to understand Jesus’s ethical teaching? First, we must be aware of the literary forms Jesus used in his teaching, especially exaggeration (see Matt. 5:33–37, 38–42; 7:1; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 14:26). Second, not all of Jesus’s teaching requires a universal application. Jesus requires the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor because Jesus knows that his wealth and possessions are the idol keeping him out of the kingdom. Third, we must seek to understand the original intent of Jesus’s teaching. It’s tempting to read our meaning into the text, but this should be avoided. In Luke 6:20, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Although it might be tempting to read the “poor” merely in economic terms, the parallel passage in Matthew 5:3 (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) prohibits such a narrow interpretation. Finally, the ethical teachings of Jesus are primarily directed to Jesus’s disciples—those who have already responded to his call in faith.
In sum, Jesus teaches that what is needed is a new attitude (heart), and not just outward obedience (Matt. 15:11; 23:27–28). The command to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29–31; cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18) summarizes all the divine commands. Christians should treat others as they themselves wish to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Love for others should be understood primarily as actions, not affection (Matt. 25:31–46; Luke 6:27–28; 10:25–30), which is to be extended even to our enemies.
The Lord of the Kingdom of God
As the long-awaited King from the lineage of David, Jesus is thus the Lord of the kingdom. But he is no ordinary king. Not only is he called “Wonderful Counselor,” “Everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace,” but he is also called “Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). Several features demonstrate Jesus’s lordship and divine status in the Gospels—namely, (1) his titles, (2) his words, and (3) his actions.
Several titles demonstrate Jesus’s lordship and divinity. First, Jesus is called “Messiah” or “Christ.” He was specially chosen and set apart as God’s anointed agent (cf. Pss. 2:2; 18:50; 2 Sam. 1:14; Dan. 9:25). Although Jesus typically avoids using this term because of its political connotations, he does acknowledge the appropriateness of the title as a description of him on several occasions (Mark 8:27–30; 14:61–62).
Second, the title “Son of God” emphasizes intimacy with God (Mark 14:36), election to perform a special service (Matt. 16:16), a unique relationship with God (John 20:17), and (in some contexts) divinity (John 5:17–18; 8:54–59; 10:30–33).
Third, the title “Son of Man” is the most common title that Jesus uses for himself. Although this term could emphasize Jesus’s humanness, based on its connection with Daniel 7:13–14, it should be understood as one who is the eschatological ruler and judge (see Matt. 10:23; 19:28; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62).
Fourth, the title “Son of David,” found frequently in Matthew’s Gospel, indicates Jesus’s kingly status as the one who is the rightful heir to David’s throne. But Jesus teaches that the Messiah is more than simply a descendent of David; in fact, he is David’s Lord (Mark 12:35, 37).
Fifth, Jesus is referenced as “Lord,” which was applied to Yahweh in the Old Testament. Although the term could be applied to gods, human kings, masters, or others, in several contexts it is used of Jesus when a Jew would expect it to be applied to God (Mark 2:28). Jesus uses this title in reference to himself in Matthew 24:42.
Finally, in John’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly given the title “God” (John 1:1, 18; 5:17–18; 10:30–33; 20:28; cf. Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; 1 John 5:20). Other titles include “king” (Matt. 2:2), “servant of the Lord” (Matt. 12:18–21), “prophet” (Matt. 13:57), “Savior” (Luke 2:11), “Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36), and the “Word” (John 1:1).
Jesus’s divinity is also demonstrated through his words. As one who is greater than Moses, he has unique authority over the law (Matt. 5:31–32, 33–37, 38–42; Mark 7:17–19). His words about himself would be inappropriate and self-centered if he were not divine. For example, he indicates that a person’s eternal destiny is determined by their rejection or acceptance of him as Lord and Savior (Matt. 10:32–33; 11:6; Mark 8:34–38; Luke 12:8–9). Furthermore, he states his supremacy over Abraham (John 8:53), Jacob (John 4:12), Moses (Matt. 5:21–48), Jonah (Matt. 12:41), Solomon (Matt. 12:42), David (Mark 12:35–37), and the temple (Matt. 12:6).
Finally, Jesus’s actions (a form of visual teaching) also demonstrate his deity. He has unique authority over the temple (by cleansing it; Mark 11:27–33) demons (by exorcising them; Mark 1:27, 32–34; 5:1–13; Luke 11:20), Satan (by plundering his house; Mark 3:27; Luke 11:21–22), disease (by healing the sick; Mark 1:29–31, 40–45; 2:10–12; 7:32–37), and the Sabbath (by being Lord over it; Mark 2:23–28). His divinity is also witnessed in his ability to predict the future (his sufferings, resurrection, and the destruction of Jerusalem), know the thoughts in people’s minds (Mark 10:21; 12:24), and forgive sins, something which only God can do (Mark 2:10; Luke 5:21–24).