Jesus—His Life and Message: Teaching Methods
March 24, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Teaching Methods
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
(This article is my summary of points expounded on by Robert H. Stein in The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings.)
Jesus was a tremendous teacher who knew how to captivate His audience and powerfully deliver His message. There was something about the way He taught that attracted people to listen—so much so that crowds of thousands would stay for days at a time listening to Him.1
All throughout the Gospels, Jesus refers to and quotes the Old Testament in His teachings. However, unlike the scribes and rabbis, whose teaching was generally based on Scripture interpretations which other rabbis of the past had taught, Jesus taught with unique authority which came from His Father.2 Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, for example, He repeatedly said, You have heard that it was said … But I say to you….3 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.4 His actions of healing and casting out demons also reinforced His authority to teach.
Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”5
In addition to speaking with authority, Jesus used a number of different teaching techniques in order to deliver His message in an interesting and captivating manner. Being aware of the different styles of teaching He used can help us to better understand the meaning of the message He shared. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Jesus would sometimes overstate a truth. By using exaggeration, He would emphatically make His point. Making such overstatements was characteristic of the Semitic speech of the day.6
One such example of Jesus’ use of overstatement is:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.7
Jesus wasn’t promoting self-mutilation; He was using overstatement to vividly point out that we should tear out anything from our lives which is causing us to sin, no matter how painful. Using overstatement was a tool to convey in stark terms the point He was making.
Similar to overstatement and exaggeration, Jesus used hyperbole, which portrays an action that is impossible. An example is when Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees blind guides: “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”8 Clearly one cannot possibly swallow a camel, but this impossible word picture strongly makes His point. Another example is when Jesus instructs us to first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.9 The meaning of the word picture is clear, though obviously impossible.
Jesus also used puns, or plays on words, where two similar-sounding words have different meanings, or where the same word may have two different meanings. Jesus’ puns aren’t detected in English or other language translations, but they exist in the original Aramaic which Jesus spoke.
One of the verses quoted above is an example. “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” In Aramaic, the word for camel was gamla and the word for gnat was galma. So the pun was “You blind guides, who strain out a galma and swallow a gamla.” Another example is “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”10 In Aramaic, the word ruah is used for both wind and spirit. So the ruah blows where it wishes … So is everyone who is born of the ruah.
A simile is a comparison between two things that are unlike each other and are introduced by a connector such as “like,” “as,” “than,” or by a verb like “seems.” An example is: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”11 Another example is:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness.”12
In these similes the comparison and the differences are clearly seen. In the first simile, believers are likened to sheep and are supposed to be like serpents in wisdom and as doves in blamelessness. In the second, the Pharisees who look righteous on the outside but are inwardly corrupt are likened to tombs which are outwardly clean and impressive, but inside are full of corruption.
A metaphor is a comparison of two essentially unlike things. Metaphors don’t use connectors like similes do, saying that something is like something else; instead they make an implicit comparison. A simile would say “the eye is like the lamp of the body,” while a metaphor would say “the eye is the lamp of the body.”
Examples of Jesus’ metaphors include “You are the salt of the earth”13 and “You are the light of the world.”14 Another example is “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”15 With these metaphors, Jesus makes a direct comparison between two dissimilar things. He likens His disciples to salt and light, and the harvest to the masses that need to hear God’s message. Likewise, the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John are metaphors: “I am the bread of life;” “I am the light of the world;” “I am the vine; you are the branches.”16
Jesus used numerous proverbs—short pithy sayings, generally one sentence, that contain a memorable statement made in a striking manner. The following sayings of Jesus can be considered proverbs: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.17 For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.18 “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”19
A riddle within Scripture is a typical form of wisdom saying which challenges the individual to discover the hidden meaning of the saying. Some examples of Jesus’ use of riddles are:
“I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”20 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.21 For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?22
A Fortiori (Lesser to Greater)23
A fortiori (ah-for-she-ory) statements are a type of logical argument that makes a case that if one thing is true, then it can be inferred that a second thing is even more certainly true.24 It was a teaching technique used by Jewish rabbis to teach “from the lesser to the greater” or “the light to the heavy,” meaning that if a conclusion applies in a lesser case, it also applies in a more important one. This lesser-to-greater argument is recognized when the text says something like “If … how much more ….”
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!25 A second example is: He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other.26
Use of Questions
Jesus used questions in a variety of ways in His teachings. One way was to help His listeners affirm or crystalize their own thoughts, beliefs, or position on an issue by causing them to reflect and come to the right conclusion through their own thought processes. By asking the question, He impressed His point more firmly in the minds of listeners. An example used at a turning point in His ministry was when He asked His disciples:
“Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”27 A second example is found in the parable of the good Samaritan when Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He (the lawyer Jesus was speaking to) said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”28
Jesus sometimes used counter questions as a means of making His point when He was expected to give an answer in hostile situations. One such example was when He was in the temple and the chief priests, scribes, and elders asked Him:
“By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me” … So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”29
He also sometimes asked rhetorical questions—which are asked not for the purpose of drawing out a verbal answer, but to produce an effect. Sometimes that effect was to get His listeners to mentally agree with the point He was making. One such case was when the scribes said that “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” Jesus responded with “How can Satan cast out Satan”?30
Sometimes His rhetorical questions were used to add weight to a statement, such as:
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?31
Sometimes He used questions to express His frustration:
Jesus sometimes conveyed His message in a nonverbal way. He allowed His actions to express what He intended to say. One such example was His encounter with the rich chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, who was trying to see Jesus but because of the crowds was unable to. Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a tree. When Jesus saw him, He said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.34 Jesus’ action of dining with the hated tax collector preached the message that salvation was available to sinners.
When John the Baptist’s disciples conveyed John’s message, asking if Jesus was the one who was to come, Jesus’ response was:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”35
When Jesus healed people, and performed other miracles, His actions preached the presence of God’s kingdom and stated that Jesus was the Messiah.
As Jesus taught through both His words and actions, many of those who heard began to believe that He was the Messiah, the one sent from God. His resurrection from the dead would prove that He was.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Mark 8:1–3, Matthew 15:32.
2 For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me (John 12:49–50).
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works (John 14:10).
3 Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28, 33–34, 38–39, 43–44.
4 Matthew 7:28–29.
5 Mark 1:25–27.
6 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 8.
7 Matthew 5:29.
8 Matthew 23:24 NAS.
9 Matthew 7:3–5.
10 John 3:8.
11 Matthew 10:16.
12 Matthew 23:27.
13 Matthew 5:13.
14 Matthew 5:14.
15 Matthew 9:37–38.
16 John 6:35, 8:12, 15:5.
17 Matthew 6:21.
18 Matthew 26:52.
19 Mark 6:4.
20 Mark 14:58.
21 Matthew 24:28.
22 Luke 23:31.
23 The phrase a fortiori is Latin for “from [something] stronger,” or with stronger reason.
24 CITE. Copyright © 1981–2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill.
25 Matthew 7:9–11.
26 Matthew 12:11–13.
27 Mark 8:27–29.
28 Luke 10:36–37.
29 Mark 11:28–30, 33.
30 Mark 3:22–23.
31 Mark 8:36–37.
32 Mark 9:19.
33 Luke 12:14.
34 Luke 19:5–6.
35 Matthew 11:3–5.