February 3, 2008
Jesus: The Royal Teacher
Matthew’s Gospel (5:17-20; 7:28-29)

I’ve been deeply influenced by various teachers over the years. Louie Serensits, my 12th grade English teacher, inspired in me a love for learning that I never really had before. Martin Schrag, my advisor at Messiah, first introduced me to the peace position and a life of reconciliation and non-violence. Morris Sider, so dear to all of us here, instilled in me the discipline needed for serious study and was most responsible for encouraging me to pursue advanced training. John Oswalt, my primary professor and advisor at Asbury Seminary, modeled for me a life in which academic expertise and spiritual experience—mind and heart—were wonderfully balanced. And Bernhard Anderson, my Old Testament Theology professor at Princeton Seminary, lived out a life of Christian devotion that defied so many of my previously existing theological and historical assumptions. One can be a devout follower of Jesus, I learned from Anderson, without embracing certain narrow-minded views that I had always thought essential. I’ve had the privilege of studying with some great teachers over the years, and I continue to thank God for them. They shaped me, pushed me, and cared for me. But none of them ever said, “If you love your father or mother more than me, then drop my class!”

Jesus did—and a great deal more. Yet Matthew considered him to be the consummate teacher. So enamored was Matthew with Jesus and what he taught, in fact, that he included within his gospel five major collections of “class notes,” if you will. Notes from Jesus’ sessions with the crowds in Galilee. Notes from guided discussions with the disciples. Notes from heated debates with the Scribes and Pharisees. In contrast to Mark, who depicts Jesus as a man on the go—moving about from place to place—Matthew portrays Jesus, first and foremost, as a teacher.

But what kind of teacher was Jesus? What might it have been like to study under him? In an article entitled, “What Makes a Great Teacher?” Lisa Rosenthal lists seven characteristics that great teachers typically share in common. I thought it might be interesting to see how Matthew’s Jesus measures up.

1. A great teacher has clear objectives. Stated outcomes expressed carefully in the syllabus. And Jesus? Matthew informs us that Jesus came into the world to (1) proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven (4:23), (2) call people to repent of their sins (4:17), (3) save people from their sins (1:21), (4) teach people to follow him in word, deed and thought (5:48), and empower people to make disciples all over the world (28:19-20). These seem plain enough, don’t they? Jesus had clear objectives.

2. A great teacher is prepared and organized. This one is a little trickier, isn’t it? After all, Jesus didn’t organize the final form of Matthew’s Gospel or even the way in which his sayings are arranged here. But if you look more closely, you certainly get a sense that Jesus gave great thought to his teaching. For example, he frequently pulls together a wide variety of thoughts and ideas in compact illustrations and parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid,” he said. Then in his joy that person “goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Jesus condenses enormous amounts of wisdom and advice in clear, brief sayings like the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,…” “Blessed are those who mourn,…” And Jesus demonstrates a familiarity with his audience and the issues they face—the tension between law and grace, anger, divorce, prayer, discerning between what is true and what’s not, the end times—that reflects careful thought and planning. Jesus didn’t walk into his classroom clueless. He didn’t ramble on and on about nothing. He was prepared and organized.

3. A great teacher is a master of his subject matter. Great teachers know their stuff. Did Jesus? Throughout his teaching sessions, Jesus, for one thing, demonstrates a deep familiarity with and understanding of Scripture. He uses Scripture to ward off temptation (“One does not live by bread alone” [4:4]), illustrate his primary points (“…even Solomon in all of his glory was not clothed like one of these” [6:29; 10:15]), instruct his disciples (“I have come to set a man against his father….” [10:35-36; 13:14-15]), correct his opponents (“Have you not read what David did…?”[12:3]), and express the deepest concerns of his own soul (“My God, why have you forsaken me?” [27:46]). Jesus knew the Bible.

But his mastery of his subject matter hardly stopped there. Jesus, it seems, was equally aware of related viewpoints and theories published by the Scribes and Pharisees. He was familiar with the secondary literature—the books and articles that the scholars had written—and he carefully analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of their positions. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus said seven times, “You have heard it said, but I say to you….”

Yet Jesus’ expertise went even beyond that. Jesus also demonstrated a first-hand knowledge of and personal relationship with the primary authority in the field. I mean, I remember how impressed I was as a young graduate student when a professor would tell stories about his personal dealings with the “biggies,” so to speak. In a class that I took in Jerusalem, the professor, Anson Rainey, often gave us inside information derived from his own associations with everyone on the “Who’s Who” list of archaeologists. It was exciting. All throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is in touch with and telling others about his Father. Jesus knew his subject matter inside and out. He possessed both an intellectual grasp of the material as well as a deep, spiritual connection with God.

A great teacher forms strong relationships with students and shows them that he cares about them. Jesus, of course, taught in various settings and to a wide range of audiences. He taught massive general education classes like those at Penn State, but he also taught seminars with his disciples and even independent studies with particular individuals. You’d often find him chatting one-on-one with someone over a cup of coffee. As one might expect, he demonstrates care and compassion in ways appropriate to the situation. With respect to nameless people and large crowds, Matthew informs us that on four separate occasions Jesus had compassion on them (9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34)—he touched them, fed them, healed them and taught them. In his stern rebuke of the Pharisees and other religious leaders in 23:13, Jesus also defended the nameless masses who he believed were victimized by legalism and harsh religiosity.

As the size of the group grew smaller and the classroom setting more intimate, however, Jesus’ relationships with his students grew deeper as well. When he called his twelve disciples and commissioned them for ministry, he placed a great deal of trust in them. He empowered them, in other words, and gave them authority over the very forces of evil (10:1). Jesus took plenty of time to answer their questions (13:10; 24:3), corrected them and even wept over them when they failed (17:17; 23:37), and applauded them when they caught on (16:17). And all throughout the training period, Jesus invited students to cast their cares upon him (11:28-30).

Five minutes into an exam during my senior year in college, one of the students in the class walked to the front of the room, dropped his test paper into the waster basket, and walked out. Within moments, the teacher left his desk and, as I found out later, caught up with the student. “Why don’t you stop by my office later this afternoon and retake the exam,” he suggested after a brief conversation. And the student did. He passed the exam with flying colors and did quite well in the course. I’ve never forgotten Al Long’s compassion so vividly expressed that day. He, like Jesus, cared about his students.

5. A great teacher engages students and gets them to look at issues in a variety of ways.
Even a quick glance at the discourses in Matthew suggest that Jesus was far more than a capable lecturer. He saw his role as more than a transmitter of information. Jesus, for one thing, told a number of parables that required careful thought and reflection. He asked questions to stimulate his listeners’ intellectual faculties. “Who do you say that I am?” he asked the disciples. And finally, he pushed his listeners to compare and contrast what he was saying to both the sacred texts as well as to what others were saying. “You’ve heard it said,” he’d remark. “Now here is what I say.” Or, “The Pharisees interpret a passage this way, but here is how I read it.” What do you think? Jesus, the teacher, provoked careful thought and conversation.

6. A great teacher sets high expectations for all students. Where does one begin here? Throughout his teaching sessions, Jesus forcefully calls his students to new levels of godliness in all areas of their lives. In terms of relationships, he instructs them to set aside foolish differences and reconcile with each other. “Love your enemies,” he says, and “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” then turn the other cheek as well. With respect to ethics, Jesus internalizes the demands of the Old Testament and insists that even our thoughts be pleasing to God. “Don’t even call another person a ‘fool’ or undress a person of the opposite sex in your mind.” In terms of personal piety, Jesus encourages his students not to worry or fear, whatever the circumstances. And with respect to mission, one can hardly believe the job description. “Go out into all the world and make disciples.” And here is what you can expect. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves (10:16),” and few people will choose to follow. “You will be handed over to councils, whipped in public, and dragged before governors and kings.” And by the way, don’t accept any payment for your services! Talk about high expectations.

Several years ago, I taught a general education level Bible class at the college. On the first day of class, one particular student looked over the course requirements and dropped the class. When I asked him why, he said, “It will hurt my G.P.A.” He already assumed that he wouldn’t get an “A”, so he vanished. You can imagine how I felt a few months later at graduation when that same student won the award for having the highest G.P.A. in the graduating class! How would he have felt about Jesus’ requirements?!? Jesus expected a lot of all of his students. He expected their very lives.

A great teacher communicates frequently with the students’ parents. I don’t know about this one. I do know that Jesus communicated regularly with his own Father, and he certainly stayed in touch with Peter’s mother. He was often at her house. And the other parents? Who knows? If I know anything about Jesus, though, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. He did, after all, stay in touch with my parents.

Great teachers. I’ve studied with some, and perhaps you have, too. Matthew certainly did. According to his gospel, Jesus was the greatest teacher of all. And he still is. Although Jesus taught in the flesh for just a few years, he continues through the Holy Spirit to be with us and teach us down to this very day. His objectives haven’t changed. He still wants to forgive our sins and transform us into obedient followers who witness for him throughout the world. His attitudes haven’t changed. He cares about you and me every bit as much as he did about his original disciples. But his expectations haven’t changed, either. He stills calls us to come to him and die. As I said, none of my teachers ever asked me to love them more than I did my mother and father. None of my teachers ever asked me to pluck out my eyes or cut off my hands if they caused me to sin. None of them, except Jesus.