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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : II The Teacher with Authority

The Life Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Rush Rhees

II The Teacher with Authority

230. To his contemporaries Jesus was primarily a teacher. The name by which he is oftenest named in the gospels is Teacher, -- translated Master in the English versions and the equivalent of Rabbi in the language used by Jesus (John i.38). People thought of him as a rabbi approved of God by his power to work miracles (John iii.2), but it was not the miracles that most impressed them. The popular comment was, |He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes| (Matt. vii.29). Two leading characteristics of the scribes were their pride of learning, and their bondage to tradition. In fact the learning of which they were proud was knowledge of the body of tradition on whose sanctity they insisted; their teaching was scholastic and pedantic, an endless citing of precedents and discussion of trifles. To all this Jesus presented a refreshing contrast. In commending truth to the people, he was content with a simple |verily,| and in defining duty he rested on his unsupported |I say unto you,| even when his dictum stood opposed to that which had been said to them of old time.

231. In this freedom from the bondage of tradition Jesus was not alone. John the Baptist's message had been as simple and unsupported by appeal to the elders. Jesus and John both revived the method of the older prophets, and it is in large measure due to this that the people distinguished them clearly from their ordinary teachers, and held them both to be prophets. One thing involved in this authoritative method was a frank appeal to the conscience of men. So completely had the scribes substituted memory of tradition for appeal to the simple sense of right, that they were utterly dazed when Jesus undertook to settle questions of Sabbath observance and ceremonial cleanliness by asking his hearers to use their religious common sense, and consider whether a man is not much better than a sheep, or whether a man is not defiled rather by what comes out of his mouth than by what enters into it (Matt. xii.12; Mark vii.15). Jesus was for his generation the great discoverer of the conscience, and for all time the champion of its dignity against finespun theory and traditional practice. All his teaching has this quality in greater or less degree. It appears when by means of the parable of the Good Samaritan he makes the lawyer answer his own question (Luke x.25-37), when he bids the multitude in Jerusalem |judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment| (John vii.24), when he asks his inquisitors in the temple whose image and superscription the coin they used in common business bears (Mark xii.16). His whole work in Galilee was proof of his confidence that in earnest souls the conscience would be his ally, and that he could impress himself on them far more indelibly than any sign from heaven could enforce his claim.

232. Jesus was not only independent of the traditions of the scribes, he was also very free at times with the letter of the Old Testament. When by a word he |made all meats clean| (Mark vii.19), he set himself against the permanent validity of the Levitical ritual. When the Pharisees pleaded Moses for their authority in the matter of divorce, Jesus referred them back of Moses to the original constitution of mankind (Matt. xix.3-9). His general attitude to the Sabbath was not only opposed to the traditions of the scribes, it also disregarded the Old Testament conception of the Sabbath as an institution. Yet Jesus took pains to declare that he came not to set aside the old but to fulfil it (Matt. v.17). The contrasts which he draws between things said to them of old and his new teachings (Matt. v.21-48) look at first much like a doing away of the old. Jesus did not so conceive them. He rather thought of them as fresh statements of the idea which underlay the old; they fulfilled the old by realizing more fully that which it had set before an earlier generation. He was the most radical teacher the men of his day could conceive, but his work was clearing rubbish away from the roots of venerable truth that it might bear fruit, rather than rooting up the old to put something else in its place.

233. The Old Testament was for Jesus a holy book. His mind was filled with its stories and its language. In the teachings which have been preserved for us he has made use of writings from all parts of the Jewish scriptures -- Law, Prophets, and Psalms. The Old Testament furnished him the weapons for his own soul's struggle with temptation (Matt. iv.4, 7, 10), it gave him arguments for use against his opponents (Mark xii.24-27; ii.25-27), and it was for him an inexhaustible storehouse of illustration in his teaching. When inquirers sought the way of life he pointed them to the scriptures (Mark x.19; see also John v.39), and declared that the rising of one from the dead would not avail for the warning of those who were unmoved by Moses and the prophets (Luke xvi.31). When Jesus' personal attitude to the Old Testament is considered it is noticeable that while his quotations and allusions cover a wide range, and show very general familiarity with the whole book, there appears a decided predominance of Deuteronomy, the last part of Isaiah, and the Psalms. It is not difficult to see that these books are closer in spirit to his own thought than much else in the old writings; his use of the scripture shows that some parts appealed to him more than others.

234. Jesus as a teacher was popular and practical rather than systematic and theoretical. The freshness of his ideas is proof that he was not lacking in thorough and orderly thinking, for his complete departure from current conceptions of the kingdom of God indicates perfect mastery of ethical and theological truth. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that so much of his profoundest teaching seems to have been almost accidental. The most formal discourse preserved to us is the sermon on the mount, in which human conduct is regulated by the thought of God as Father and Searcher of hearts. For the rest the great ideas of Jesus have utterance in response to specific conditions presented to him in his ministry. His most radical sayings concerning the Sabbath followed a criticism of his disciples for plucking ears of grain as they passed through the fields on the Sabbath day (Mark ii.23-28); his authority to forgive sins was announced when a paralytic was brought to him for healing (Mark ii.1-12); so far as the gospels indicate, we should have missed Jesus' clearest statement of the significance of his own death but for the ambitious request of James and John (Mark x.35-45). Examples of the occasional character of his teaching might be greatly multiplied. He did not seek to be the founder of a school; important as his teachings were, they take a place in his work second to his personal influence on his followers. He desired to win disciples whose faith in him would withstand all shocks, rather than to train experts who would pass on his ideas to others. His disciples did become experts, for we owe to them the vivid presentation we have of the exalted and unique teaching of their Master; but they were thus skilful because they surrendered themselves to his personal mastery, and learned to know the springs of his own life and thought.

235. Nothing in the teaching of Jesus is more remarkable than his confidence that men who believed in him would adequately represent him and his message to the world. The parable of the Leaven seems to have set forth his own method. We owe our gospels to no injunction given by him to write down what he said and did. He impressed himself on his followers, filled them with a love to himself which made them sensitive to his ideas as a photographic plate is to light, teaching them his truth in forms that did not at first show any effect on their thought, but were developed into strength and clearness by the experiences of the passing years. Christian ethics and theology are far more than an orderly presentation of the teaching of Jesus; in so far as they are purely Christian they are the systematic setting forth of truth involved, though not expressed, in what he said and did in his ministry among men. His ideas were radical and thoroughly revolutionary. His method, however, had in it all the patience of God's working in nature, and the hidden noiseless power of an evolution is its characteristic. Hence it was that he chose to teach some things exclusively in figure. So great and unfamiliar a truth as the gradual development of God's kingdom was unwelcome to the thought of his time. He made it, therefore, the theme of many of his parables; and although the disciples did not understand what he meant, the picture remained with them, and in after years they grew up to his idea.

236. Jesus' use of illustration is one of the most marked features of his teaching. In one sense this simply proves him to be a genuine Oriental, for to contemplate and present abstract truths in concrete form is characteristic of the Semitic mind. In the case of Jesus, however, it proves more: the variety and homeliness of his illustrations show how completely conversant he was alike with common life and with spiritual truth. There is a freedom and ease about his use of figurative language which suggests, as nothing else could, his own clear certainty concerning the things of which he spoke. The fact, too, that his mind dealt so naturally with the highest thoughts has made his illustrations unique for profound truth and simple beauty. Nearly the whole range of figurative speech is represented in his recorded words, including forms like irony and hyperbole, often held to be unnatural to such serious speech as his.

237. Another figure has become almost identified with the name of Jesus, -- such abundant and incomparable use did he make of it. Parable was, however, no invention of his, for the rabbis of his own and later times, as well as the sages and prophets who went before them, made use of it. As distinguished from other forms of illustration, the parable is a picture true to actual human life, used to enforce a religious truth. The picture may be drawn in detail, as in the story of the Lost Son (Luke xv.11-32), or it may be the concisest narration possible, as in the parable of the Leaven (Matt. xiii.33); but it always retains its character as a narrative true to human experience. It is this that gives parable the peculiar value it has for religious teaching, since it brings unfamiliar truth close home to every-day life. Like all the illustrations used by Jesus, the parable was ordinarily chosen as a means of making clear the spiritual truth which he was presenting. Illustration never finds place as mere ornament in his addresses. His parables, however, were sometimes used to baffle the unteachable and critical. Such was the case on the occasion in Jesus' life when attention is first called in the gospels to this mode of teaching (Mark iv.1-34). The parable of the Sower would mean little to hearers who held the crude and material ideas of the kingdom which prevailed among Jesus' contemporaries. It was used as an invitation to consider a great truth, and for teachable disciples was full of suggestion and meaning; while for the critical curiosity of unfriendly hearers it was only a pointless story, -- a means adopted by Jesus to save his pearls from being trampled under foot, and perhaps also to prevent too early a decision against him on the part of his opponents.

238. In nothing is Jesus' ease in handling deepest truth more apparent than in his use of irony and hyperbole in his illustrations. In his reference to the Pharisees as |ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance| (Luke xv.7), and in his question, |Many good works have I shewed you from the Father, for which of these works do you stone me?| (John x.32), the irony is plain, but not any plainer than the rhetorical exaggeration of his accusation against the scribes, |You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel| (Matt, xxiii.24), or his declaration that |it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God| (Mark x.25), or his charge, |If a man cometh unto me and hateth not his own father and mother ... he cannot be my disciple| (Luke xiv.26). The force of these statements is in their hyperbole. Only to an interpretation which regards the letter above the spirit can they cause difficulty. In so far as they remove Jesus utterly from the pedantic carefulness for words which marked the scribes they are among the rare treasures of his teachings. The simple spirit will not busy itself about finding something that may be called a needle's eye through which a camel can pass by squeezing, nor will it seek a camel which could conceivably be swallowed, nor will it stumble at a seeming command to hate those for whom God's law, as emphasized indeed by Jesus (Mark vii.6-13), demands peculiar love and honor. The childlike spirit which is heir of God's kingdom readily understands this warning against the snare of riches, this rebuke of the hypocritical life, and this demand for a love for the Master which shall take the first place in the heart.

239. Jesus sometimes used object lessons as well as illustrations, and for the same purpose, -- to make his thought transparently clear to his hearers. The demand for a childlike faith in order to enter the kingdom of God was enforced by the presence of a little child whom Jesus set in the midst of the circle to whom he was talking (Mark ix.35-37). The unworthy ambitions of the disciples were rebuked by Jesus' taking himself the menial place and washing their feet (John xiii.1-15).

240. The simplicity and homeliness of Jesus' teaching are not more remarkable than the alertness of mind which he showed on all occasions. The comment of the fourth gospel, |he needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man, for he himself knew what was in man| (ii.25), doubtless refers to his supernatural insight, but it also tells of his quick perception of what was involved in each situation in which he found himself. Whether it was Nicodemus coming to him by night, or the lawyer asking, |Who is my neighbor?| or a dissatisfied heir demanding that his brother divide the inheritance with him, or a group of Pharisees seeking to undermine his power by attributing his cures to the devil, or trying to entrap him by a question about tribute, Jesus was never caught unawares. His absorption in heavenly truth was not accompanied by any blindness to earthly facts. He knew what the men of his day were thinking about, what they hoped for, to what follies they gave their hearts, and what sins hid God from them. He was eminently a man of the people, thoroughly acquainted with all that interested his fellows, and in the most natural, human way. Whatever of the supernatural there was in his knowledge did not make it unnatural. As he was socially at ease with the best and most cultivated of his day, so he was intellectually the master of every situation. This appears nowhere more strikingly than in his dealing with his pharisaic critics. When they were shocked by his forgiveness of sins, or offended by his indifference to the Sabbath tradition, or goaded into blasphemy by his growing influence over the people, or troubled by his disciples' disregard of the traditional washings, or when later they conspired to entrap him in his speech, -- from first to last he was so manifestly superior to his opponents that they withdrew discomfited, until at length they in madness killed, without reason, him against whom they could find no adequate charge. His lack of |learning| (John vii.15) was simply his innocence of rabbinic training; he had no diploma from their schools. In keenness of argument, however, and invincibleness of reasoning, as well as in the clearness of his insight, he was ever their unapproachable superior. His reply to the charge of league with Beelzebub is as merciless an exposure of feeble malice as can be found in human literature. He was as worthy to be Master of his disciples' thinking as he was to be Lord of their hearts.

241. In the teaching of Jesus two topics have the leading place, -- the Kingdom of God, and Himself. His thought about himself calls for separate consideration, but it may be remarked here that as his ministry progressed he spoke with increasing frankness about his own claims. It became more and more apparent that he sought to be Lord rather than Teacher simply, and to impress men with himself rather than with his ideas. Yet his ideas were constantly urged on his disciples, and they were summed up in his conception of the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. This was the topic, directly or indirectly, of far the greater part of his teaching. The phrase was as familiar to his contemporaries as it is common in his words; but his understanding of it was radically different from theirs. He and they took it to mean the realization on earth of heavenly conditions (kingdom of heaven), or of God's actual sovereignty over the world (kingdom of God); but of the God whose will was thus to be realized they conceived quite differently. Strictly speaking there is nothing novel in the idea of God as Father which abounds in the teaching of Jesus. He never offers it as novel, but takes it for granted that his hearers are familiar with the name. It appears in some earlier writers both in and out of the Old Testament. Yet no one of them uses it as constantly, as naturally, and as confidently as did Jesus. With him it was the simple equivalent of his idea of God, and it was central for his personal religious life as well as for his teaching. |My Father| always lies back of references in his teaching to |your Father.| This is the key to what is novel in Jesus' idea of the kingdom of God. His contemporaries thought of God as the covenant king of Israel who would in his own time make good his promises, rid his people of their foes, set them on high among the nations, establish his law in their hearts, and rule over them as their king. The whole conception, while in a real sense religious, was concerned more with the nation than with individuals, and looked rather for temporal blessings than for spiritual good. With Jesus the kingdom is the realization of God's fatherly sway over the hearts of his children. It begins when men come to own God as their Father, and seek to do his will for the love they bear him. It shows development towards its full manifestation when men as children of God look on each other as brothers, and govern conduct by love which will no more limit itself to friends than God shuts off his sunlight from sinners. From this love to God and men it will grow into a new order of things in which God's will shall be done as it is in heaven, even as from the little leaven the whole lump is leavened. Jesus did not set aside the idea of a judgment, but while his fellows commonly made it the inauguration, he made it the consummation of the kingdom; they thought of it as the day of confusion for apostates and Gentiles, he taught that it would be the day of condemnation of all unbrotherliness (Matt. xxv.31-46). This central idea -- a new order of life in which men have come to love and obey God as their Father, and to love and live for men as their brothers -- attaches to itself naturally all the various phases of the teaching of Jesus, including his emphasis on himself; for he made that emphasis in order that, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, he might lead men unto the Father.

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