Content of Jesus' Teaching
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
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
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 , 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.
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) (
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(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 ) and J. W. Bowman (Prophetic Realism and the Gospel ). 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 ), 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 ) 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 (
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
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” (
The parable of the Marriage Feast in
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.
It is extraordinary how much is said about rewards in the teaching of Jesus (cf.
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 , 298-316). Bultmann (Theology of the New Testament I , 29) considered the Son of man passion sayings as vaticinia ex eventu, but without adequate basis. A comparison of the three passion predictions (cf.
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). 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 ).
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
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
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.
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
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 (
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
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
b. His death was voluntary. In the good shepherd allegory, Jesus not only states that the Good Shepherd gives His life for His sheep (
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” (
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
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
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” (
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
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 (
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 (
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.
The other mention of the Spirit in the teaching of Jesus occurs when He breathes upon the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (