Content of Jesus' Teaching

{{Template:Jesus Navigation}}

The content of the teaching of Jesus

When an attempt is made to produce a summary of the teaching of Jesus, the difficulties of classifying it in a concise manner are at once apparent, for different scholars select different aspects as being of most importance. Nevertheless, a useful summary may be produced, provided it is borne in mind throughout that Jesus was not a dogmatic theologian. What He taught had an essentially practical value, and it is necessary to examine the teaching as a whole to obtain a satisfactory concept of it. Some effort has therefore been made to classify the teaching under major themes.

Teaching about God

There are three main aspects in the teaching of Jesus about God—as Creator, Father, and King. It will be noted that these aspects are expressed in terms of activities rather than as attributes, but the latter are not excluded. The creatorship of God is seen esp. in teaching on His providential care for His creatures. That God was Creator of the world is assumed rather than explicitly stated. The clearest statement is in Mark 13:19—“the creation which God created.” That Jesus taught a special providential care is seen particularly in His statements regarding the heavenly Father’s care for and knowledge of such creatures as sparrows (Matt 10:31). It was basic to the teaching of Jesus that God watched over the whole creation.

It is in the realm of God’s fatherhood that the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching becomes most evident. Israel had learned to conceive of God as Father, because Israel as a corporate whole was viewed as God’s son. Sonship in this sense, however, was national rather than individual. It was not until Jesus taught it that men considered the possibility of a personal relationship with God. Certainly His Jewish contemporaries, with their transcendental view of God, could not conceive that He could be thought of in terms of intimate fellowship. As a mode of address in Jewish prayers, “Our Father” is not unknown (cf. G. F. Moore, Judaism [1927-30], II, 202ff.). The use by Jesus of such expressions as “Your heavenly Father knows,” however, or the whole approach to God seen in the Lord’s Prayer strikes a new note. Men accustomed to approach God with holy fear would find incredible the insistence on the father-son relationship in the teaching of Jesus. This was the unique feature in His approach. It should be remembered that the idea of men being sons of God has as its basis the fact that God is the Father of Jesus. At the same time Jesus drew a distinction between man’s sonship and His own sonship. The most striking illustration of this distinction is found in John 20:17, when Jesus said to Mary that she was to report to the disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and to your God.” Man’s sonship cannot, of course, be considered apart from the divine Son, but the distinction must be maintained.

At the baptism of Jesus a heavenly voice attested His divine sonship, and this may be regarded as normative for His whole ministry. He was not called as the prophets were to a specific task, but was attested as possessing a specific status. It was in the consciousness of this status that He executed His ministry in obedience to the Father’s will. Nowhere is this brought out more forcefully than in John’s gospel, where Father and Son are seen in such close relationship. It is on the strength of His consciousness of His own special relationship with God that Jesus brings to men the concept of God as their own Father. Even though they had had the word on their lips previous to His teaching, they had never entered into the spirit of it. God had never before become such a living reality as the heavenly Father. This was no mere accepted formula, but adoption into a new family relationship.

It was maintained by T. W. Manson (The Teachings of Jesus [1945], 113ff.) that the Lord’s Prayer contains a concise summary of the main aspects of Jesus’ teaching on the fatherhood of God. He sees two main divisions, the Father as sovereign arbiter of world history and the Father who cares for and ministers to each child.

Under the first division the focus is upon God as a person to be glorified (cf. Matt 5:16). The prayer for the coming of the kingdom is in accordance with the Father’s pleasure (Luke 12:32). It is the Father’s appointment that men should possess a kingdom (Luke 22:29). The necessity for God’s will to be done is an integral part of Jesus’ own relation to the Father, as is seen in the prayer in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36).

Under the second main division there are three requests in the Lord’s Prayer which draw attention to different facets of the Father’s care for His children. Daily bread is indispensable, and Jesus therefore assured His disciples, “Your Father knows that you have need of these things” (i.e., food and clothing) (Matt 6:32; Luke 12:30). Next, forgiveness of sins is requested, and again the request may be echoed from the sayings of Jesus elsewhere (cf. Matt 6:14f.; Mark 11:25). The third request is for protection and deliverance, and this draws further attention to that providential care which was noted under the creatorship of God.

No one can consider these aspects of the teaching of Jesus about God without being impressed by the closeness of the relationship between Him and the Father and between the Father and His earthly children. Whatever parallels in terminology may be found in the rabbinical writings, there is nothing in them to compare with the sense of filial obedience and affection toward God inculcated by Jesus, of which He Himself was the best example.

The third aspect of God—as King—will be more fully dealt with under the heading of the kingdom. But no true approach can be made to the kingdom without recognizing that its basis is the character of God as King. This involves not only the concept of majesty, but also of sovereignty. It is assumed that what God has purposed He is competent to bring to fruition. It is, therefore, taken for granted throughout that His designs cannot ultimately be thwarted. The teaching of Jesus regarding the kingdom, which will be considered in the next section, is supported by the absolute certainty of the final triumph of God in His world.

Teaching about the kingdom

a. Various schools of thought. Undoubtedly the kingdom teaching of Jesus must be ranked among the most important themes. Much debate has been occasioned by it, and it will, therefore, be necessary to give a careful definition of the concept to avoid confusion. The notion of a kingdom in the sense of a community over which a king reigns is not the dominant concept. It is, rather, the rule of God which is uppermost. This, however, needs further definition in the light of the various uses of the term by Jesus. These uses may conveniently be grouped under two categories: (a) those announcing a future kingdom and (b) those announcing a present kingdom. The existence of these two aspects has created a real problem in interpretation. Many have considered them to be mutually exclusive and have, therefore, rejected one or the other of them.

The view that for Jesus the concept of the kingdom was wholly eschatological was strongly maintained by Johannes Weiss (Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes [2nd. ed. 1900]) and Albert Schweitzer (op. cit.), whose interpretation has come to be known as Consistent Eschatology. According to this view, the apocalyptic elements in the teaching of Jesus are the most important elements, and His mission is to be understood as wholly eschatological. Moreover, it is said that Jesus expected this eschatological event to take place in His lifetime. There have been many modifications of this eschatological view since Schweitzer’s interpretation, but there is still support for the basic presuppositions behind it. Thus for Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus is seen as an apocalyptic prophet who expected the imminent arrival of the kingdom (Theology of the New Testament, I [Eng. tr. 1952], 22). A similar position is adopted by M. Werner, Formation of Christian Dogma (1957), 9-27 and R. H. Fuller, The Mission and Achievement of Jesus (1954), 25ff., who both maintain that Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom was eschatological.

A strong movement in reaction to this school of thought may be termed the noneschatological interpretation of the kingdom. This was the view taken by T. W. Manson (op. cit.), who regarded the kingdom as coming in the experience of individuals. The kingdom is not eschatological, but present. It is God’s will being done here and now, supremely in the obedience of Jesus. The mission of Jesus was to lead others into a similar experience, and the mission of the Church is to win the world for Christ. Since, when this is done, there will be no need for an eschatological consummation, the eschatological interpretation can be dispensed with.

Many others have taken up a similar view, such as F. C. Grant (The Gospel of the Kingdom [1946]) and J. W. Bowman (Prophetic Realism and the Gospel [1955]). The former of these considers that Jesus’ kingdom teaching was a social gospel, while the latter propounds a theory of prophetic realism which conceives of the kingdom in terms of present personal relationships between God and man. But it is C. H. Dodd who has suggested the most thorough-going non-eschatological view by his theory of realized eschatology, by which he means that Jesus’ original teaching was that the kingdom had already arrived (cf. The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, [2nd ed. 1944]). He finds his support for his theory in Paul’s eschatology and in that of the fourth gospel. The apocalyptic language of Jesus is regarded as symbolic. Another advocate of non-eschatological kingdom teaching was William Manson (Jesus the Messiah [1946]), who confined the kingdom to an inner consciousness in men.

Since both of these opposing views were obliged to explain away the alternative elements, they were equally unsatisfactory, and it is not surprising that various attempts have been made to find a synthesis between the present and future aspects of the kingdom. Such a synthesis has gained considerable support and would seem to be the most reasonable deduction from the evidence. The difference between different interpreters is due to different ideas of how the kingdom is a present reality. Some maintain that the kingdom is present only in the person and acts of Jesus; others, that it is timeless and can therefore be present and future at the same time; still others, that the kingdom is essentially the powerful activity of God and is immediate, although the fullest consummation is future; still others, that the kingdom is essentially future, but is so near that its effects have spilled over into the present; and yet others, that the kingdom must be understood existentially, in which case time ceases to have relevance for it. It is impossible here to discuss these various views, but enough has been said to demonstrate the complexity of understanding precisely what Jesus meant when He spoke of the kingdom. At the same time, we shall not be amiss if we recognize that the teaching of Jesus cannot be understood unless room is made for both present and future aspects. Some attempt will now be made to summarize the main facets of this kingdom teaching.


c. Aspects of the kingdom. Sufficient has been said to show that Jesus Himself taught a present experience of the kingdom. But it is necessary to outline briefly in what that experience consists. G. E. Ladd (Jesus and the Kingdom [1964]) has focused attention on three aspects of this, which will serve admirably as a summary of the teaching. The first is the kingdom as dynamic power. The concept here is of a spiritual conquest over spiritual forces. The many instances of exorcism in the gospels are evidence of the dynamic power of Jesus over the spiritual adversaries. The binding of the strong man armed, in one of the parables of Jesus (Luke 11:21, 22), is symbolic of His ministry and of the present realization of the kingdom. In this connection the remark of Jesus when the seventy returned from their mission of announcing the kingdom is significant, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). The whole concept of the ministry is dynamic, consisting not only in words but also in healing deeds. The authority of Jesus in His teaching bears the mark of the present reality of His kingdom and differentiates it from the hopes of the scribes.

Second, it is important to note that in all His teaching Jesus made it clear that the kingdom is God’s not man’s. The mission of Jesus was the mission of God in redemptive activity. Ladd brings into his considerations here the fact that God is a seeking, inviting, fatherly, and judging God. In other words, he deduces the nature of the kingdom from the nature of God. But as it is God’s kingdom, it differs from all other kingdom concepts. It is supernatural in character.

Third, the whole concept of salvation must be related to the present character of the kingdom. Ladd speaks here of the aspect of salvation which is present and links with this the gift which God now gives to the members of the kingdom, i.e., salvation and righteousness. This is an attempt to integrate the salvation teaching of Jesus with the kingdom concept. If the kingdom is central in Jesus’ teaching, then all other aspects of His teaching must be related to it.

Membership in the kingdom is, therefore, for those who receive God’s gift of salvation. This distinguishes it at once from any notions of a materialistic or nationalistic kingdom. It makes clear, moreover, that the kingdom will not be established by the converting of the world to the Christian faith. Jesus never foresaw a universal acceptance of the Gospel, as the parable of the Sower and the Seeds shows. It is nevertheless a kingdom which could be the subject of prayer for its establishment, as is seen by the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” in the Lord’s Prayer. The uttering of such a prayer expresses a desire for a fuller realization of what is already taking place. The constant emphasis on repentance and faith as prerequisites for approach to God demonstrates the essentially spiritual nature of the kingdom. More will be said later about the ethics of the kingdom.

d. The eschatological event. This aspect of the kingdom is equally important and must be given full weight. It is undeniable that, in addition to viewing the kingdom as present, Jesus also looked toward a future event. These two aspects are complementary. In the eschatological discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, Jesus used apocalyptic imagery in such a way that some kind of catastrophic event in the future, in the eschaton, must be understood. The best way to incorporate both present and future aspects of the kingdom is by maintaining that the same kingdom, which at present exists in a dynamic form in the activity of God among men, will receive its consummation in an event at the end of history. These two aspects are brought into close proximity in the kingdom parables, which must next be considered.

e. The parables of the kingdom. First, they illustrate the growth of the kingdom. It will not be established by irresistible power, but by action akin to the growth of seed. The most evident feature here is the fact that only one of the four types of soil mentioned in the parable of the Sower is productive. There is a considerable element of mystery about the kingdom, which is given only to some to understand. The unexpected character of the kingdom is illustrated by the parable of the Tares, where the distinction between the true and the false was not at once apparent. Indeed, separation will not take place until the eschaton. The kingdom in its present state cannot, therefore, be considered as an identifiable entity.

The same quality of unexpectedness is seen in the parable of the Mustard Seed. Smallness is difficult to reconcile with the divine kingdom, but there is a marked contrast between its beginnings and its end state. This is the main point of the parable. The present is related to the future as the mustard seed to the tree. Jesus’ contemporaries could see only the seed, but He looked beyond to the further demonstration of the kingdom.

A similar truth is taught in the parable of the Leaven, where the imperceptibility of the operation of the kingdom is in mind. Some problem exists over the fact that the whole lump of dough is leavened, which has sometimes been regarded as illustrating the permeation of evil within the Church and sometimes of the permeation of good in the world through the Church. But neither interpretation is as probable as that which sees the ultimate triumph of the kingdom at the consummation of the existing world order.

Two parables, the Treasure and the Pearl, draw attention to the value of the kingdom. It does not appear worthwhile to all, but those who are discerning will recognize its inestimable worth, exceeding all other values. On the other hand, the parable of the Net reminds the hearer that, for the time being, some who do not deserve it will share in the benefits of the kingdom until the final establishment of it.

That the kingdom of God is not to be restricted to Jews is clear from the parable of the Vineyard, which was addressed to the Jewish leaders and which concluded with the statement, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Matt 21:43). This aspect of universality of the kingdom is found also in Matthew 8:11, 12. In both these passages the Jews receive the offer of the kingdom before the Gentiles. The kingdom applies not only to all nationalities, but to all classes within nations (cf. Matt 12:31). This latter thought comes in the application of the parable of the Two Sons, which stresses the need for repentance and faith.

The parable of the Marriage Feast in Matthew 22 shows the fate of those who scorn or ignore the summons of the kingdom. This once again seems to point to the rejection of the kingdom by the Jewish people and differentiates the kingdom of God from their nationalistic concepts.

It remains to note the relationship of the kingdom to the Church. Many exegetes have identified the two, but this is difficult for several reasons. Nowhere does Jesus describe His disciples exclusively as members of the kingdom. Moreover, the Church appears to have arisen out of the kingdom. It is the Church’s task to witness to the kingdom, and the Church is the instrument and custodian of the kingdom. Ladd maintains that they are separate concepts, one taking its point of departure from God, the other from men (op. cit., 258-273).

f. The ethics of the kingdom. The problem of the ethics of Jesus is important in this context. No survey of the teaching of Jesus can in fact ignore the predominant place which ethical injunctions have in the total sayings of Jesus. Yet it is the ethical teaching which has been most paralleled in Jewish ethical sayings and instructions, and this raises the problem of the extent to which the ethics of Jesus can be considered unique. Even though many of the individual sayings of Jesus may be paralleled, the over-all impression of the Jewish ethical teaching is legalistic, whereas the teaching of Jesus breathes a different atmosphere. It is no longer conformity to law, whether written or oral, but the pursuance of the will of God understood as the norm for the kingdom of God.

Our purpose is only to draw attention to the salient features of the ethics of Jesus in relation to the kingdom teaching. The first characteristic is that the authority for the ethics rests in the authority of Jesus who rejected several scribal interpretations of the law and modified the whole approach to ceremonial observances. The basis of Jesus’ own authority for ethics was His claim to fulfill perfectly the will of God. Second, it is noted that the ethical teaching is an essential feature of both the present and future aspects of the kingdom. Where God’s rule is active, that rule must find expression in behavior which befits the character of God. This is essentially the religious sanction in Christian ethics. It is not the sole sanction, for the eschatological aspect is equally important. There is no support for excluding either, and such a one-sided view as Schweitzer’s Interimsethik must be rejected (i.e. that the ethic of Jesus was intended only to be temporary).

What Jesus taught was of more than passing significance. It possessed eternal validity and is as relevant to the present age as to the future. This does not mean that there are no difficulties in fulfilling the ethical demands. To love one’s neighbor as oneself and, even more, to love one’s enemies makes absolute demands upon any man. There can be no denying that these demands are an exprssion of divine love.

One special facet of the ethics of Jesus is the emphasis on inner motives. Such things as anger, hatred, restraint, humility, cannot be judged by external law. They belong not to adherence to a code of rules, but to the manifestation of character (cf. Luke 6:45). The demands of Jesus are exacting—even careless words will have to be accounted for (Matt 12:36). Moreover, the claims of the kingdom are such that they must at times take precedence over family ties (cf. Matt 10:34-39; Luke 9:60, 61). Indeed the ethic of Jesus involves self-denial (Matt 16:24), which means that the claims of the kingdom must take precedence even over the claims of self. There is no other ethical system which demands the negation of the existing order to such an extent as to require the hating of one’s own life (Luke 14:26). Self ceases to matter. The affairs of the kingdom are of paramount importance.

It is extraordinary how much is said about rewards in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:12, 46; 6:4, 18; 18:1-4). The idea of return for merit, which was conspicuous in the theology of the Jews, is certainly not absent from the teaching of Jesus, but His teaching goes beyond this. The parable about the laborers in the vineyard admirably illustrates this point (Matt 20:1-10). The first group of laborers worked a whole day for a day’s pay; that was merit. The last group worked only an hour for a day’s pay; that was an act of grace. The basis of rewards in the ethics of Jesus is wholly different from normal human reckoning. The men of the kingdom must be prepared for new standards.

Jesus’ testimony concerning Himself

The evidence from the teaching of Jesus regarding His own person may be conveniently summarized under two main classifications: the names which He applied to Himself and the specific references to His person. Under the first heading it is important to distinguish those names which He applied to Himself from those applied to Him by others.

a. The names that Jesus used of Himself. The most widely used was Son of man and it will be well to begin with this, esp. as in the gospels it is found only on the lips of Jesus. A considerable amount of lit. has gathered around His use of the term in an endeavor to discover what He meant by it, but it will be possible here to give only a brief survey of the major considerations. The different interpreters may be classified in two groups, those who hold that Jesus Himself used the title and those who reject such a view. Clearly if the latter group is correct, the Son of man passages do not belong to the teaching of Jesus and should not be further considered for our immediate purpose. It is necessary, therefore, to comment on this point of view before proceeding to outline the self-testimony of Jesus.

On what grounds are the Son of man sayings regarded either as unauthentic or else interpreted of someone other than Jesus Himself? First, to take the view that most of the sayings are unauthentic, mention may be made of P. Vielhauer, who rejects those sayings about the Son of man’s earthly work and those about His sufferings, and deals only with those referring to His glory. But even these he denies to Jesus because of the lack of connection between the kingdom of God and the Son of man sayings. His deduction is that since one of these (the kingdom) is authentic, the other cannot be, but apart from the fact that this appears to be a non sequitur, the preservation of both lines of tradition in the gospels, without any apparent incongruity, militates against this view (H. E. Todt fully discusses it in his Der Menschensohn in der synoptischen Uberlieferung [1959], 298-316). Bultmann (Theology of the New Testament I [1951], 29) considered the Son of man passion sayings as vaticinia ex eventu, but without adequate basis. A comparison of the three passion predictions (cf. Matt 16:21; 17:22, 23; 20:18, 19) shows that the evangelists had no doubt that Jesus intended the Son of man to be understood as Himself. It will not do to regard these sayings as community creations, for in that case the use of the title becomes doubly unintelligible.

There are many advocates for the view that Jesus used the title, but that it was the Church which identified Him with the title (cf. Todt, op. cit. and A. J. B. Higgins, Jesus and the Son of man [1964]). It is impossible for our present purpose to discuss the detailed evidence on the grounds of which it is maintained that Jesus did not use the title of Himself, but the following survey will proceed on the assumption that Jesus meant to call Himself Son of man (cf. O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament [1959]).


In the four shared by Matthew and Luke it appears equally clear that Jesus is referring to Himself. Men will hate the disciples on account of Jesus. The Son of man is contrasted with John the Baptist in such a way that the title must be understood of Jesus Himself. Moreover, the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head, which fact relates to Jesus’ own itinerant ministry. And while blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven, blasphemy against the Son of man can be. All of these instances are intelligible if Jesus is describing Himself, although it still needs to be examined why He chose to use this title rather than the simple “I.” A comparison of Matthew 16:13 with Mark 8:27 shows how both forms have been preserved for the same question. Matthew has, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?”, whereas Mark has, “Who do men say that I am?” Since in both narratives Peter confesses Christ in the same form of words, “You are the Christ,” the conclusion is inescapable that the disciples understood Jesus to mean Himself.



The two main aspects in the use of the title are therefore suffering and glory, and there is much to be said for the view that the title is a synthesis of the suffering servant of Isaiah and of the “son of man” in Daniel 7:13f. This led T. W. Manson (The Teaching of Jesus [1931], 211ff., The Servant Messiah [1953], 72-74) to regard the title as corporate, supposing that Jesus was including His disciples in the title. But it is difficult to believe that the disciples or any others would have understood it in this sense. It makes little difference what the antecedents of the title were unless they were recognized by Jesus’ contemporaries. A distinction must, however, be made between what Jesus Himself meant by it and what the disciples and others understood by it. It may be regarded as an Aram. expression meaning either man in general or man in particular. The latter seems the only reasonable proposition of the two. It may be that at least to the disciples Jesus was The Man par excellence. But for Himself the title no doubt carried far deeper significance. He prob. chose it as the most suitable alternative to the title “Messiah,” which He avoided for political reasons.

The titles Son of David, Son of God, and Messiah, although used of Him by others, were not used specifically by Jesus Himself. They do not therefore enter into the present discussion. Yet attention must be drawn to the fact that Jesus did implicitly accept them. In the case of His Sonship, His teaching in John’s gospel is full of references to His filial relationship with God. The title Son of God is therefore seen to be highly applicable to express that relationship.

b. Other indications. What other evidence is there in the gospels regarding Jesus’ view of Himself? There is more to assist here in John’s gospel than in the other gospels. Jesus frequently speaks of Himself as being sent. He is deeply conscious of His mission to do the Father’s will (e.g. John 5:17). He knows that He is sent for a specific purpose that no one else can fulfill. His testimony to Himself comes out vividly in the great “I am” statements in this gospel. “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6) is a unique claim. The same may be said of “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). No less far-reaching is His claim to be the light of the world (8:12), which could hardly be more comprehensive and universal.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the mind of Jesus there was a connection with the great I am as the name of Jehovah in the OT, particularly in view of the statement of John 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I am.” In the synoptic gospels the saying of Jesus nearest to the Johannine evidence is found in Matthew 11:27, which is a clear claim to uniqueness of filial relationship (but see also the accounts of Jesus’ baptism). Yet there are also hints in all the gospels, but esp. in John, that Jesus was conscious of human limitations. He knew hunger and thirst and the need for sleep and rest. He could express anger and show compassion. He needed prayer to sustain Him. But the human side, as we should expect, comes out more clearly in His actions than in His teaching.

The teaching about the work of Christ

The mission of Jesus was many-sided, but His special work was concerned with the significance of the passion. This forms the focal point of the gospel narratives, and all that precedes it must be interpreted in the light of it. The kingdom teaching, for instance, is seen in its true perspective only in the light of the cross.

Before examining the statements of Jesus relating to His own work, there are some preliminary observations which must be made. There is no doubt, to begin with, that Jesus regarded His mission as a direct fulfillment of Scripture. He stated His purpose to be fulfillment of the law (Matt 5:17). In the upper room, after the reference to the betrayal, Jesus added, “The Son of man goes as it is written of him” (Matt 26:24), a clear allusion to the coming passion. After the Transfiguration, Mark records a question of Jesus, “and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” (Mark 9:12). There are other references which add support to the view that Jesus was deeply aware that His own experience was the subject of prophecy (cf. Matt 26:56; Luke 18:31; 24:25-27, 44, 45).

It has sometimes been supposed that in John’s gospel a different account of the work of Jesus is found as compared with the synoptics. One such view is that it is the Incarnation rather than the Passion which is the basis of redemption. This is supported from John 6:53, where Jesus says, “...unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you” (cf. also 6:56). But if this is intended to relate to the Incarnation it would need to be understood in a quasi-physical way. It is more in harmony with the general tenor of the teaching in the passage to understand it in a spiritual manner. Another view is that redemption is by illumination, and for this an appeal is made to such passages as John 8:12 (“I am the light of the world”), John 17:17 (“Sanctify them in the truth: thy word is truth”), John 14:9 (“He who has seen me has seen the Father”). It is undeniable that there has been an effective illumination of the mind as a result of the coming of Jesus, but it would rob the mission of Jesus of its primary purpose if it were restricted to an educative process. The death of Christ is plainly presented in the fourth gospel as the object of the Incarnation, as an examination of the evidence will show.

a. His death as a sacrificial offering. There is much evidence for this aspect of the passion of Christ. In addition to the statement in John 6 cited above, which makes it clear that Jesus conceived of His flesh and blood as having been given for the life of the world, the most important evidence comes from the words used in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The institution must be seen against an OT background. It is described by Jesus as connected with the New Covenant, esp. His blood which is shed “for many for the remission of sins” (Matt 26:26-28). There can be no doubt that Jesus intended His disciples to understand that His death would result in remission of sins. The connection of this with the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant seems impossible to deny. Some have treated this evidence with reserve, because the words “for the remission of sins” occur only in Matthew, but they are so fully in harmony with the whole teaching of Jesus that they cannot reasonably be disputed on those grounds. Two of the sayings of Jesus in John’s gospel emphasize the finality of His work (17:4; 19:30). The latter of these statements, coming as it does direct from the cross, shows that the death itself was viewed as an accomplishment.

b. His death was voluntary. In the good shepherd allegory, Jesus not only states that the Good Shepherd gives His life for His sheep (John 10:11), but that He Himself lays down His life of His own accord (John 10:18). He maintained that Pilate had no power over Him except as it was granted from above (John 19:10, 11). He made clear that no love is greater than that which sacrifices life for the sake of friends (John 15:13). In his gospel, John seems to be particularly concerned to show this aspect of the voluntary self-giving of Jesus.

c. His death was a divine necessity. In the fourth gospel there is a developing sense of the inevitable character of the passion, described as “the hour.” Several times John mentions that his hour is not yet, until Jesus Himself says, “Father, the hour has come” (John 17:1). This sense of divine necessity is seen in the first prediction of the passion in Matthew 16:21ff., “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem...and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Compare also the angel’s reminder of Jesus’ words to the women at the tomb (Luke 24:7). The same idea is found in John 3:14—“The Son of man must be lifted up.” In all the gospels the death of Christ is seen as the climax to the mission of Jesus. There is no indication that it happened by accident. It was all part of a divine plan.

d. His death was substitutionary. When Jesus identified Himself with those who attended the baptism of John and when John hesitated at the thought of baptizing Jesus (according to Matt 3:14), Jesus said that He requested baptism because it was fitting for Him to fulfill all righteousness. Although He needed no repentance, He became one with those who did. In Luke 22:37 Jesus appeals to Isaiah 53:12 (reckoned among the transgressors) as fulfilled in Himself, which suggests that He regarded Himself in the role of the suffering servant.

There is one statement of Jesus which suggests the idea of substitution by the use of the Gr. word anti (in the place of). It occurs in Mark 10:45 (cf. Matt 20:28), where Jesus says that the Son of man came to give His life a ransom for (anti) many. The word ransom means an equivalent exchange price, and while the imagery used cannot be pressed, the idea that the Son of man did something in the stead of others is inescapable. There are, in addition, passages where a different preposition is used, but where the context suggests substitution—for instance, in the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:28, “poured out for many”) peri is used; while in the statement by Jesus that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:15), huper is used. Some scholars (e.g. Vincent Taylor) interpret these prepositions as expressing representation rather than substitution, but in neither case would this do full justice to the meaning.

e. His death was a triumph over the devil. When the conflict of the passion became imminent and Judas had already betrayed His Master with a kiss, Jesus conceded to those who arrested Him “...this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). Moreover, when Jesus referred to His death in the figure of a grain of wheat falling to the ground (John 12:23), He went on to announce, “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). He must have had something of this intense spiritual conflict in mind in His parable of the strong man who needed first to be bound before his goods could be seized (Matt 12:29). In a strong denunciation of Herod, Jesus told the Pharisees to go and report to that fox, Herod, “I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course” (Luke 13:32).


The teaching about the Holy Spirit

The synoptic gospels have considerably less teaching about the Spirit than John’s gospel, but there are nevertheless some significant statements. Jesus makes clear His own consciousness of the Spirit’s part in His mission. In Matthew 12:28 He says, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” It is true that in the parallel passage in Luke, “the Spirit” is replaced by “the finger of God,” but there can be no doubt that this alternative must be interpreted in the light of Matthew’s text. Particularly is this necessary since the statement comes within the context of the Beelzebub controversy (see below). Here then is the claim that Jesus’ activity in the spiritual realm is by the Spirit of God. When at the commencement of His ministry Jesus applied the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1, 2 to Himself, it was evidence of His own specific claim to the Spirit’s power. This was no doubt closely linked in the mind of Jesus with the descent of the Spirit on the occasion of His baptism and also His consciousness of being led by the Spirit to the place of temptation.

The blasphemy saying, which occurs in all three synoptic gospels, is an important evidence of Jesus’ teaching about the Holy Spirit. The occasion was the charge that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of the demons. Jesus in reply not only shows the impossibility of Satan casting out Satan, but also shows the true nature of the charge as a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This is unforgivable, although blasphemy against Jesus Himself as Son of man (according to Matthew and Luke) may be forgiven. In no more striking way could He have brought out the sovereign character of the Spirit’s work. Jesus recognized that the kind of obduracy that could attribute such beneficial results of the Spirit’s work to evil agencies was beyond forgiveness.

Another aspect of the teaching of Jesus regarding the Spirit is the promise of the Spirit’s guidance when the disciples have to answer for their faith (Matt 10:19, 20; Mark 13:11). In Mark’s account it occurs in the eschatological discourse, whereas in Matthew’s it is in the instruction given prior to the mission of the Twelve, but it is the kind of assurance which may well have been repeated several times. Luke has a similar statement placed in yet a different context (12:11, 12). In Luke 11:13 the Spirit is promised to those who ask the heavenly Father, and it is significant that Matthew records a parallel statement in which the promise is for “good things.” Luke’s account may be interpretive, but Jesus’ meaning may certainly have included this aspect of the gift of the Spirit. It seems a fair interpretation that by the gift of the Spirit is to be understood the source of all “good things” which the Father is willing to bestow. Yet another comment of Jesus which illuminates the work of the Spirit is found in Mark 12:36, where Jesus attributes to the inspiration of the Spirit the statement of David in Psalm 110:1. In this Jesus shows Himself to be in line with contemporary Jewish views of inspiration.

The evidence from the fourth gospel falls naturally into two parts, the sayings before the passion narratives and the sayings within these narratives. In the discourse with Nicodemus the Spirit is shown as the agent of regeneration (John 3:5f.). Without His activity there can be no rebirth. Whether or not there is in this chapter a reference to Christian baptism is a matter of debate, but it does not affect the essential work of the Spirit in spiritual renewal. In the same discourse in John 3, Jesus makes it clear that God does not give the Spirit by measure (v. 34), which suggests an unlimited gift. In the conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks of the spiritual nature of God and the need for His worshipers to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), and there must be seen here an allusion to the work of the Holy Spirit.

At the feast of Tabernacles Jesus promised that rivers of living waters should flow from those who come to Him, and John adds the comment that He spoke this of the Spirit. Although this is an editorial note, it is valuable as an interpretation of the imagery that Jesus used (cf. John 7:37-39).


The other mention of the Spirit in the teaching of Jesus occurs when He breathes upon the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Here it is the risen Christ who speaks and shows again the close connection between the Spirit’s work and His own. The gift of the Spirit was to be given at Pentecost, but here Jesus gives His own sanction to what may be regarded as a foretaste of that event. The power to forgive and to retain sins is granted at the same time (20:23) and cannot be divorced from the activity of the Spirit. It is not incongruous with the fact that God alone forgives sins, for Jesus Himself did not hesitate to pronounce forgiveness, and the same sovereign power is vested in the Spirit and then mediately through those possessing the Spirit.