The Teachings of Jesus

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 1


The Kingdom And The Bible

One of the great Christian ideas which is taking hold of the thought of our day is that of the kingdom of God. Set by Jesus in the forefront of his teaching, neglected in later years or limited in its meaning, we have come more and more to see its significance. It has given to us a Christian view of history. Humanity's story is no unmeaning tangle of events, nor is the world a mere machine that blindly grinds us all at last to dust. All this would give us happenings, not history. We have history only when events have a meaning, when there is movement toward a goal. For Christian thought God is the moving force, and the final goal is that rule of truth and right and peace which will bring man's highest life and which we call the kingdom (or kingship) of God.

If this, then, be our thought, that God is in his world working out such ends, then it will affect definitely our conception of the Bible and our mode of study. The Bible is not a book apart from the world, not so many words dropped down out of the sky. It is the evidence of this work of God in the world; it is the fruit of that higher life of men which has been wrought by his Spirit. Back of the Bible lies this great movement which we call the development of the Kingdom. Out of this movement the Bible has come, and of that movement it is the witness.

Dynamic Study of the Bible.—All this suggests a certain mode of Bible study. It is not enough to ask what a certain Bible verse means. It is not enough to ask when and by whom a book was written, what facts it contains, or what doctrines it teaches. We need a dynamic study of the Bible. These events that are recorded, what do they mean for this movement of the kingdom of God? These teachings, how do they witness to the growing truth and the clearer light which God is giving to men? This life of prophet and people, is it the life of God that is to make at length the new world? This book is one of a series in which the Old Testament and the New are studied from this standpoint. In a companion volume the life of Jesus is presented. In this we study the teachings of Jesus. We want to know just what message Jesus brought to men, what he had to say about the great questions of God and our life here and our future, and what this message has meant for the growth of the kingdom of God. Here is the heart of all Bible study, for in Jesus we have the clearest word that God ever spoke to men and the greatest deed that God ever wrought for men.

The Place Of Christ

The Return to Christ. —The return to Christ has been, one of the great religious movements of our age. Never before have the life and words of Jesus been studied with such care and interest. The volumes which present these themes are numbered by the thousands, and of all these books hardly a single one had been written a hundred years ago. To-day, as never before, we see that Christianity means Jesus Christ. Other things have their place—the church, the creeds, the forms; but Christ stands supreme, and all the rest must constantly be measured and tested by him. This has not always been so. Christian men have always put Christ's name first, but in practice, when men asked what Christianity really was, frequently something else came in between. Sometimes it was the church, sometimes a creed, sometimes the letter of the Bible.

His Supreme Authority.—We know to-day that there can be only one final authority for us, and that is the mind of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. The church has authority only so far as it is filled with the Spirit of Christ and is doing his will. The creeds have authority just so far as they set forth the truth that is in Christ. And the Bible itself must be used with constant reference to Christ. The authority of the Bible does not lie in its letter. We cannot pick out passages here and there as we will. Here too Christ is the final standard. When he rules out the ancient law of divorce, it must fall, even though it stands in the Bible. If his spirit condemns the morals of Judges or Joshua, then we cannot defend them. More important, however, is this: the study of Jesus shows us that the Bible represents not a dead letter but a living movement. What we see is not so much the imperfection of the Old Testament as its preparation for the New.

This, then, is the reason why we give special study to the message of Jesus, a message which he gave to us in his spirit and life as well as in his words. Here is God's full and final answer to the cry of man. The great philosopher Kant once said that all the questions of men might be summed up in these three queries: "What can I know?" "What must I do?" "What may I hope for?" Christ is the answer to all three. We cry: "What may I know? What is the meaning of this world? What is the power back of it? What is my life?" Jesus answers all with one word, "Our Father." His love and his power are the key to all. We ask: 'What must I do? What shall be the rule of my life? What do I owe to others?" Again the answer is with Jesus: "That you may be children of your Father." To show the spirit of the Father in our life with our brothers, that is all. "What may I hope for?" we ask again. "What shall be the end of human life and strife on this globe? And what of the single human life? If a man die, shall he live again?" Again Jesus answers all with one phrase: "The kingdom of God." This heavenly Father is to rule; that means the kingdom of righteousness here, that means the eternal kingdom beyond, that means life for us now, that means life to come.

The Place Of Teaching In Jesus' Work

His Constant Task.—"And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom." It was thus, as a teacher, that Jesus began his work. And that is what we see as we follow him month after month; he is ever teaching. Now he stands in the Nazareth synagogue or in the magnificent temple court at Jerusalem, now by the side of the lake where the pressing throngs crowd him into a boat. Now it is on the road as he walks with his friends, again at the table where he has been bidden as guest. Sometimes it is to crowds that fill the house and overflow into the street, or that cover the hillside; again it is to one woman by the wayside, one visitor at night, or a few mothers in the market place. Always he is teaching, talking to men about the Kingdom, showing men God and the life of his sons. Sometimes it is to idle throngs that listen and turn away, sometimes to wondering crowds that hang upon his words, again to scowling priests or the crafty pupils of the scribes who are waiting to entrap him, again it is to his beloved companions. He takes weeks and months just to teach that last little group. His last days are spent, in the midst of imminent peril, in teaching; and when he leaves the temple for the last time and goes to the sacred upper room with the twelve, it is to use those last precious hours to give one more lesson to his followers.

The Meaning of Teaching.—It is plain that this work of Jesus meant far more than what usually passes under the name of teaching. It was no mere giving of information or training of the intellect. Education is the giving of self and the training of the whole spirit of a man. "The teacher is the life-sharer," writes a modern educator. "The educational process at bottom is the sharing of life." The work of Jesus is the best commentary on this statement. It is a mistaken conception of teaching which causes some people in the church to oppose regeneration to education and to insist that we need more of the Holy Spirit and less of religious culture. Jesus makes plain two facts concerning religious education: first, the great instrument of God's Spirit is the truth; the truth is what God uses to win men and to make men. Second, that truth must be in the life of the teacher that it may bring forth life in the learner. When Phillips Brooks defined preaching as "truth through personality," he told what true teaching was. We do not wonder then that the great leaders in the Christian Church, a Paul, an Augustine, a Luther, and a Wesley, were above all else teachers.

The Teacher's Creed

A Parable for a Teacher.—The Parable of the Sower might be called the teacher's creed. I doubt not it was spoken some time when the disciples were discouraged at the slow progress that was being made. It seemed so slow, so futile, just to go from village to village, talking to folks, explaining, inviting. The crowds that followed one day melted away the next. To do some great miracle, to command a great following, that would have seemed to them worth while. And so Jesus told them the story of the sower (Mark 4. 1-9). "I am a sower," he said to them. "There are some souls on whom my words fall, that are like the beaten ground where no seed can take root. Then there are folks who accept the truth at once, but have no depth of understanding or purpose; they shout to-day, but forget to-morrow. They are like that place in the field where a little soil covers the rock, where the wheat springs up quickly only to wither away. And there are the divided souls. They are interested in my words, but they have other interests, too, roots of selfishness and sin that are in them; and these other interests crowd out what I say. All this I see, but I see something more. I see the good soil, the simple earnest folks who take my words into honest hearts. And I know the seed: it has life in it. I know the power of the truth: and I know that it will bring forth thirty, sixty, a hundredfold."

Jesus' Trust in the Truth and in Men.—This was Jesus' creed as a teacher. He believed in the truth and its power. He flung it forth with prodigal hand and without fear as to results. It might grow slowly, but it had the life of God in it. And this truth was his trust. He did not organize a church or write a creed. He did not try to win the help of the people of influence, the scribes and priests. He simply went forth to sow.

He believed not only in the seed that he sowed, but also in the soil. Nothing is more wonderful than his confidence that men could receive his truth and rise to the higher life that he proclaimed. He set that truth before all kinds of folks: the reprobate taxgatherer, the outcast woman, the narrow Pharisee, the man of the crowd, the thief on the cross. And this faith of the teacher was not more astonishing than the results that followed. Buried aspirations sprang up at his touch. Men rose to walk in newness of life, to be the men that he saw they might be. When Christian missions have taken the highest ideals to pagan Africans and Fijian cannibals and debased Tierra del Fuegians, as well as to the down-and-out of the great city, they have simply shown this faith of their Master.

Jesus' Originality And Independence

What impressed the hearers of Jesus first of all was his independence. It was in such absolute contrast to the scribes, who were the professional theologians and acknowledged authorities. The test of a scribe was his knowledge of what others had said, his great duty was to remember the traditions of the past. Jesus "taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." This independence of Jesus is seen in his life. He knew himself as Messiah, and yet he went contrary to everything that men looked for in that figure. They looked for one to come in glory; he took the way of a servant. They thought of a king; he became a humble wandering preacher. They expected one who would convince people by his miraculous power; Jesus refused to work wonders simply to astonish or win men. This young Galilaean, a peasant from a petty village, set himself against all the leaders of theology and the rulers of the church. He had to oppose, indeed, even his own family and friends and townspeople. And all this was done among a people which reverenced authority and worshiped tradition to a degree probably nowhere practiced in the world to-day.

The Old Testament in Jesus' Life.—Did not Jesus recognize one authority at least—that of the Old Testament? As we study Jesus' relation to the Old Testament, we are struck first by his deep reverence for it, and then by the constant use that he makes of it. In these pages he found God's presence, God's word to his people of old, and God's word for himself. He does not claim to come with any new religion; it is the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob that he proclaims (Mark 12. 26). He censures the scribes not for following the Scriptures, but for making void its words by their traditions (Mark 7. 6-13). He answers his enemies with words from its pages, and his speech is full of Old Testament phrases and allusions. The place of the Bible is even greater in his life than in his teaching. It gives him wisdom and a weapon in his first temptation. It gives him light when he seeks the Father's will for his life; Isaiah's passages about the servant confirm him in the way of service and suffering that he has chosen. And in the last dread agony, it is the words of one of the psalms that are caught from his lips by those that stand near the cross.

Jesus' Discrimination.—And yet even here we see the independence of Jesus. It appears in the way in which Jesus selects from the Old Testament. He not only uses, but he passes by. He chooses that which is congruous with his own spirit and message: not the legal and ceremonial, but the moral and spiritual. His quotations are mainly from the Psalms and prophetic books, and from books of prophetic spirit like Deuteronomy. Especially significant is his use of the Messianic passages. Most of the Messianic passages do not seem to have influenced him at all, especially those that speak of the Messiah's glory and his destruction of his foes (see, for example, Psalm 2; Isaiah 11. 4). He read Isaiah 61.1, 2 in the Nazareth synagogue, but stopped in the midst of the sentence before the words, "the day of vengeance of our God." The passage that influenced him most, it would seem, was one which none of the Jewish scholars of his day, so far as we know, had thought of referring to the Messiah, namely, the passage of the suffering servant (Isaiah 52. 13 to 53. 12).

His Claim to Higher Authority.—But Jesus does more than select: he sets his own authority definitely above the Old Testament. Some of its rules he disregarded. Despite Leviticus 13 and 15, he did not shun or send away the leper and the woman with an issue of blood. Likewise he sets himself above the Sabbath law (Mark 2. 28). Other laws he specifically corrects or abrogates. The Old Testament asserted the principle of retaliation (Exodus 21. 24; Leviticus 24. 19, 20; Deuteronomy 19. 21); he swept this aside and proclaimed the sole law of love. He puts aside the Mosaic law of divorce (Mark 10. 2-12, as against Deuteronomy 24. 1). The Old Testament made provision for oaths; he forbade them (Matthew 5. 34). Most significant is what Jesus said when they accused his disciples of eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7. 14-23). First he showed how the Pharisees were defeating the law by their rules. Then he went further and laid down the principle: what comes out of a man defiles him, not what goes in. His meaning is perfectly clear. A man is not made evil by material things, whether by the food he eats or the objects he touches. It is only moral things that make him evil, the things within his own heart. It is not merely the rules of the scribes that Jesus corrects here, but all that Levitical law which makes defilement a physical instead of a moral matter (Leviticus 11 to 15).

The Ground Of Jesus' Authority

A Unique Relation.—How is it that Jesus assumes such authority? There are two reasons, though at bottom these are one. First, Jesus is conscious of a unique relation to his Father. "AH things have been delivered unto me of my Father: and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him" (Matthew 11. 27). He was not one Teacher among others; he was the Teacher, the Master (Matthew 23. 8, 10). He was one among many brethren, and yet he was the Son in a special sense. God speaks to him through the Old Testament, but he is not dependent upon this. The Father speaks to him; the Father's Spirit and the Father's will are in his own heart. He does not ask, therefore, what others have taught or what is written. He speaks directly out of his own heart; and so sure is he that he even challenges at times those sacred writings of his people in which he himself had been reared. But what he says thus from his own heart goes straight with conviction to the hearts of others.

A Unique Mission.—Second, Jesus is conscious of a special mission in the world. He is the Messiah; he is the beginning of a new day, the founder of the Kingdom. That does not mean that Jesus thought of himself as a revolutionary. He says of himself that he is a fulfiller, not a destroyer (Matthew 5. 17). He recognizes God's work in all that has gone before. But the new cannot be hampered and held by the old. It may keep the old truth, but it must make its own forms. The old wine skins will no longer do; you cannot use the new cloth simply to patch up the old clothes (Matthew 9. 16, 17). Long ago the prophet had looked forward to a new day, when religion should be an inner spirit and power in men's lives, and not a set of laws above them (Jeremiah 31. 31-34). Jesus knew that he had brought that day and that covenant (Luke 22. 20). The new religion of the spirit could not be bound by the old form or the old letter. And so Jesus puts them aside. What Jesus here asserted Paul fought for later on when he denounced those who insisted that Christians must keep the old forms like circumcision, and the old days like the Jewish Sabbath (Galatians 5. 6; Colossians 2. 16,17).

Directions For Study

Scripture references: Mark 4. 1-9; Matthew 7. 28, 29; Mark 12. 26, 29-31; 10. 2-12; Matthew 5. 38, 39; Mark 7. 14-23; 2.18-22.

Review in your own mind the life of Christ, and make a list of all the scenes that you can recall in which Jesus appears as teacher. Follow this by reading the first sections of this chapter.

Read "The Teacher's Creed" and the parable of Mark 4. 1-9. Consider the emphasis which Luther, Wesley, and other great leaders have placed upon teaching and preaching. What does this parable mean for the student?

Read the sections on Jesus' originality and his attitude toward the Old Testament, looking up all the references.

Discuss the Christian use of the Old Testament as suggested by this chapter.