Summary: The main way people thought of Jesus when he was on earth was as “The Teacher.” Jesus did not teach morality or a way to get to heaven. He taught about the Kingdom of God. His life was a demonstration of the Kingdom and his death and resurrection established it. The Kingdom of God changes everything.
What if you only thought of me as a guy who lives in a trailer? That would be a distortion since it is incomplete. I do live in a trailer, but there is much more to me than just that. I have a wife and three kids, I love to backpack, teach Greek, and make music.
We tend to think of Jesus only as a Savior. This is correct but incomplete; and because it is incomplete it is a distortion. One of the most common ways Jesus was referred to by his first followers was not “The Savior,” but “The Teacher.” Here are a few examples.
- “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” (Matthew 8:19)
- “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit life of the coming age?” (Mark 10:17b)
- “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth.” (Luke 20:21)
- “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2. “Rabbi” means “hono red teacher.”)
- “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.” (John 13:13)
- Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” which means, Teacher. (John 20:16)
The last of these is especially revealing since it shows how Jesus’ closest followers regarded him on an emotional level. At the empty tomb, when Mary recognized Jesus, she blurted out the term closest to her heart: Rabboni! Teacher!
The word “Rabbi” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word rabbi (רַבִּי) which has the connotation of “Master.” This “Master” not primarily a ruler but an expert. We might speak of a master mechanic or a Zen master. A Master in this sense is a revered expert. That is how the followers of Jesus saw him. He was the Master, the Teacher par excellence.
Jesus is called “Teacher” or “Rabbi” over 50 times in the gospels. He is referred to as “Savior” only twice (Luke 2:11; John 4:42). This is not to say that Jesus is not a Savior. Thank God, he is! But his first followers thought of him first and foremost as a teacher. His teaching brought life and salvation.
We think of Jesus as a Savior who happened to be a good teacher. Of course he was a good teacher! What would you expect from the son of God? But Jesus’ first followers saw him primarily as a Teacher who taught the way of salvation. In other words, Jesus’ teaching is not something tacked on to salvation. His teaching is salvation.
So what did Jesus teach?
Jesus Taught the Kingdom of God
Jesus’ teaching made people drop their jaws. The response at the end of the Sermon on the Mount is typical.
When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching. (Matthew 7:28)
“Amazed” doesn’t quite cut it. The word ekplāsō (ἐκπλήσσω) means “astounded to the point of being overwhelmed.” In modern English we we would say they were blown away. They were moved. They were spellbound.
There were lots of teachers in Jesus’ day. What was so different about Jesus’ teaching?
It wasn’t that Jesus taught good behavior. Moral teachers are a dime a dozen. If you want a list of good behavior you can get one nearly anywhere. If you want someone to scold you and tell you that you ought to follow the list better, you can find plenty of people who are happy to do that too. This is the way the Scribes and Pharisee’s taught. It left people feeling bored and guilty and dreaming of temptation. Sadly, much teaching done in the name of Jesus these days has the same effect.
Jesus’ teaching was not a summary of good behavior, along with a stern lecture about how it must be obeyed. The unique feature of Jesus’ teaching is the revelation of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a heavenly triumph that turns the world on its head. The opening salvos of the Sermon on the Mount illustrate this:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This is not a catalogue of how to behave. It is the announcement that this upside-down world will be turned right-side up. The poor, the mourning, the gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer for doing good will be the winners.
It is easy to fall for the illusion that this is not true. In our fallen world it appears that God has abandoned good people to the wolves. Loved ones die of cancer. Prayers go unanswered. Hurricanes tear up cities. The poor die of hunger. The biggest bully wind up with all the toys. In this chaotic world, good behavior makes no sense. The only thing to do is grab all you can before your number is up. Be a looter. Morality is for chumps.
Jesus didn’t come to to this earth to reveal a moral code. He came to reveal another world. God is profoundly with us. God’s presence may seem as tiny as a mustard seed but it will soon be seen as the most obvious fact. God is working invisibly, like yeast in dough, to transform everything. God is turning the table on evil. In mysterious ways all things are working together for good. This is the promise of Romans 8:28:
“We know that to those who love God, all things are working together for good.” (Romans 8:28a)
The Greek tense of the verb “working” in is not future; it’s present. It’s happening right now. The promise is not that everything will come in the end. The promise is that everything is coming out okay right now. God is working all things together for good. “Though the wrong seem oft so strong. God is the Ruler yet.”
N.T. Wright’s translation of John 3:16 is another verse that reveals the central theme of Jesus’ teaching:
This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. (John 3:16)
To have “eternal life” is not to go to heaven when you die. It is to participate in the life of God’s new age right here in this world, along with the promise of an age to come that will exceed our wildest expectations.
Jesus was not a heavenly Confucius, who taught a brilliant system of morality. Of course Jesus was pro-morality. I suspect he would have loved Confucius. But the central feature of Jesus’ teachings is not morality. It is a new world in which morality makes sense. Very few of us need to be told what is right. We already know. Our problem is that we have no reason to do what is right. Jesus revealed a world in which good living makes sense and is desirable. This world is called “The Kingdom of God.”
Entering the Kingdom results in a shift in morality. But the invitation is not to a shift in morality but to a shift in Kingdoms. The Kingdom shift produces the morality shift. That’s why the transformation can rightly be called grace. We don’t earn our way into the Kingdom by good behavior. We enter a Kingdom we do not merit. Then our lives are transformed.
But Jesus did more than proclaim the Kingdom of God with words. He also revealed it by his life.
Jesus Revealed the Kingdom of God
Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God hit people with explosive impact because it was an expression of his life. Jesus walked what he talked. Or you might say he talked what he walked. As with all master teachers, Jesus’ life and message were integrated.
For example, Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God. He did this passionately. Frequently, he disappears to be alone with God. He gets up early (Mark 1:35)). He heads for the mountains (Mark 6:45). He is constantly lifting His eyes to heaven to speak to the Father (John 17:1). His life is rooted in the love of God.
The second commandment is to love our neighbor. Jesus exemplified this as well. He didn’t disappear to the desert like a Monk to live a holy life that was detached from the world. He plunged into the mess. It is easy to be holy by leaving the crowd. It is easy to go along with the crowd. It is hard to be holy in the midst of the crowd. Like too many religious leaders today, the Scribes and Pharisees spouted theology and ethics. Jesus lived and breathed love. People sensed this and flocked around him in droves.
Here are seven more examples of how the Teacher revealed the Kingdom of God by how he lived, not just what he said.
1. In the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of this World Is Rejected
Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” (Matthew 4:8-10)
Jesus recognized the Kingdom of this world for what it is: A cheap trick. A temple made with human hands with a false god in its central shrine. Jesus saw through the illusion and chose the heavenly kingdom with the living God at its center.
2. In the Kingdom of God, outcasts are embraced.
And a leper came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” (Mark 1:40-41)
In Jesus’ day, lepers were not just thought to be sick. They were considered defiled. Gross. Jesus threw his arms around lepers as well as other people everyone else avoided. Prostitutes. Tax collectors. He earned the nickname “Friend of sinners.” This was not a compliment. Jesus revealed that God is not afraid to have tacky friends. You’ll make the cut.
3. In the Kingdom of God, the sick are healed
While the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them. (Luke 4:40)
We are always losing the race for the cure. When we get one disease figured out, another pops up its ugly head. We can only guess at the reason for breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, and other horrible diseases but one thing is clear: they are no match for the Kingdom of God. Healing may come in this age or the age to come. But come it will.
4. In the Kingdom of God, all people are valued
The Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) (John 4:9)
Our world is fragmented along racial and gender lines. Jesus saw no lines. In the Kingdom of God, all people are valued.
5. In the Kingdom of God, the devil is defeated
If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)
We cannot see into the invisible realm but it is obvious that there is more going on here than meets the eye. The triumph of the Kingdom of God is universal, both on earth and in the heavens. The devil and his demons are no match.
6. In the Kingdom of God, sins are forgiven
“Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” And some of the scribes said to themselves, “This fellow blasphemes.” (Matthew 9:2-3)
One of the most astonishing things Jesus did was to pronounce peoples sin forgiven. In this, he clearly stepped out of the sphere of humanity and began to behave like God. He revealed himself to be its King, with the right to pardon. In the kingdom, sins are forgiven!
7. In the Kingdom of God, the dead are raised
Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43)
In this world, death is the enemy that no man defeats. In the Kingdom of God, even death is destroyed and not to be feared.
The central focus of Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God and his life was an expression of his teaching. But there is one thing more, the greatest of all. By his death and resurrection the Teacher was crowned King and opened the Kingdom of God to all.
Jesus Opened the Gates of the Kingdom of God
The death and resurrection of Jesus are great mysteries. Great minds have wrestled to understand how it all works. The really important thing, though, is not to understand the mechanics but to recognize the difference it made.
By his death, Christ revealed love as the centerpiece of God’s Kingdom.
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3)
The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. (Isaiah 53:6)
I heard a terrible Knock Knock joke that exposes how these verses are often misunderstood. It goes like this:
Jesus: Knock, Knock.
You: Who’s there?
Jesus: Jesus. Let me in.
You: Why should I let you in?
Jesus: To save you.
You: To save me? From what?
Jesus: From what I’m gonna do to you if you don’t let me in.
This is built on three false premises.
- Everything is okay in the house.
- What I need to be saved from God.
- God is bloodthirsty. Something will die: me or Jesus.
Each of these statements is wrong.
- All is not well in the house. The house is a mess. Our world is torn apart by sin. The house is on fire and in spite of our best efforts we can’t put it out. We are in desperate need of help.
- God’s attitude toward those who live in this messed-up house is not anger, but love. Jesus is at the door to rescue us. God is angry at the chaos in the house, not the inhabitants. He is like a fireman who shows up at flaming residence. The goal is to put out the fire and rescue the people. Everyone will experience God’s judgment; it’s a necessary part of cleaning house. But judgment is not an expression God’s anger. It is an expression of God’s love. It is how God puts out the fire.
- The cross was not a human sacrifice to satisfy God’s bloodlust. The cross is what happens when a holy God enters a human house. Anyone who loved a fallen person has experienced this. Love must be willing to take a hit. The cross reveals the depths of this love. God is a father who embraces the prodigal child, a shepherd who lays his life for the sheep. Jesus died for our sin, but not in the sense of becoming a human sacrifice to pacify an angry God. This is a pagan idea, not a Christian one.
The way many people think of the cross leads them to conclude that God is a seething, disapproving Father. Jesus shields us from a God whose greatest urge is to destroy us. But the cross is not a revelation of God’s anger but his love.
Jesus does not save me from the wrath of God.
God saves me through the love of Jesus.
The cross is not a loophole to keep a smoldering God’s from throwing heavenly lightning bolts at us. It is God’s entrance into this world to establish His Kingdom and save us.
By his death, God made suffering part of God’s Kingdom.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried
Everything that God touches becomes holy, even suffering. Although the mystery of evil is great, we are not abandoned by God in it. Because of the cross, all suffering becomes the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. Our pain, like Christ’s will be redeemed in ways we cannot yet imagine, just as the wounds of Christ become his greatest glory.
Crown Him the Lord of Love! Behold his hands and side.
Those wounds yet visible above, In beauty glorified.
By his death, Jesus showed contempt for the Kingdoms of this world.
“My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting. (John 18:36)
Pilate could not understand why Jesus didn’t put up a fight. Jesus did not fight because there was nothing worth fighting for. What if Jesus had gone to war with Rome and won? What would he have gained? A human kingdom that was already beginning to crumble. The real power was on the side of the Kingdom of God. Eternal victory was in the hands of the Crucified. What Pilate did not recognize is that Jesus was fighting; just not in a way that he could understand or for a Kingdom he could see.
By his death, Jesus displayed confident hope in the Kingdom of God
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34)
Jesus uttered these agonized words from the cross. They are a quote from Psalm 22. This expresses Jesus’ agony but it also expresses his hope. Jewish people knew the Psalms like we know the Beatles. To quote a line from a Psalm evoked the whole song. Here is how Psalm 22 ends:
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations will worship before You.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s
And He rules over the nations.
We feel two conflicting things in this world.
- Wicked people people are out of control and God seems to be absent.
- In some way, God will prove to be faithful.
The Psalms capture this tension. They are heartfelt, honest gripes about the state of this world and the feeling that God has abandoned us. But in the midst of chaos, there is hope. The darkness is fading. The dawn of the Kingdom is on the horizon. Jesus embodies this struggle and shows us how we must live in this world. We don’t pretend that all is well. We feel the struggle. But we don’t surrender. We endure. We trust. We wait for the dawn.
By his resurrection, Jesus was crowned King and gave us a taste of God’s final triumph
The resurrection is the supreme revelation of the Kingdom of God and the crowning of heaven’s King. The resurrection settles once and for all whose side God is on and what the outcome of this world will be. Jesus, who died as a forsaken nobody was crowned King of God’s Kingdom. This world will be turned upside down.
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name. (Philippians 2:8-9)
We get only a tantalizing taste of this. The fulness of God’s Kingdom remains just over the horizon. But the resurrection is the first ray of dawn. It is the certainty that the sunrise is on the way.
The Teacher did three things.
- He taught about the Kingdom of God.
- He demonstrated the Kingdom of God.
- He opened the gates of the Kingdom of God.
Following Jesus is not a commitment to be a better person. It is a change of citizenship. You become an expatriate who calls the Kingdom of God your true home. This is not an escape from this world but a discovery that gives meaning to it. You are a child of God’s Kingdom. You learn to speak its language and live by its customs. You have a magnificent Teacher. You become a follower, a learner, a disciple.
Who are these followers of Jesus? In the 1st century? Today? The answer might not be what you think. To this we turn our attention in next week’s episode: The Learners.