What kind of teacher was Jesus?

By Kim Michaels


There is no shortage of opinions about who Jesus was and why he came to Earth. Yet as we have seen, part of his purpose was to teach, to give us the truth that will set us free.

Already, this demonstrates why it is no straightforward matter to decode the hidden message of Christ. For what does it really mean to teach? Surely, we have a greater knowledge today than people had 2,000 years ago, and this gives us an opportunity to uncover a deeper meaning behind Jesus’ message. Yet we cannot uncover the hidden meaning if we uncritically impose modern concepts upon Jesus’ words. We need to be alert to the possibility that the way we define words and concepts today might actually obscure the hidden meaning in Jesus’ teachings.

In this modern age, most people have been brought up with a specific concept of what teaching is and how it should be done. It is often seen as a highly intellectual activity, where a teacher is passing on knowledge to a group of students. Teaching often means passing on factual knowledge, information that applies to practical aspects of life or a specific field of academic study. The modern definition of teaching seems based on the paradigm that the student’s mind is a container, and the teacher’s role is to pour factual information into that container, until it is sufficiently full for the student to pass an exam and perform specific tasks in the world. The basic assumption seems to be that factual information can teach us everything we need to know.

Yet did Jesus teach like today’s college professors or did he have a very different definition of teaching? Did Jesus aim to pour factual knowledge into the container of the student’s mind? Or did he perhaps aim to expand the container beyond what most people  – even today – think is possible? Did Jesus aim to fill people’s minds with finite knowledge, or did he seek to open their minds to something infinite?

Let us look at the historical situation in which Jesus appeared. Israel had a well-established teaching tradition, namely the religious establishment, mentioned in the New Testament as scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin and the lawyers. Although these people clearly taught in a religious context, their approach to teaching was quite similar to the approach found in many modern institutions of learning. The religious teachers based their teaching on the Torah (what Christians know as the Old Testament), and they had defined very specific interpretations of it. This is quite similar to how modern teachers have a specific curriculum, often defined by a central authority. 

Certainly, the information taught by ancient institutions was different from what is taught in modern universities, but the method is largely the same. The learning institution fulfills its goal by giving people concrete information. The ancient teachers passed on what they defined as factual knowledge to their students—they taught according to a pre-defined curriculum. Thus, they took the approach that a person’s mind is a container that needs to be filled with the right kind of knowledge.

Since Jesus came to teach, one might expect that he should have fit into the existing teaching environment, even that he would have been welcomed by its members. In reality, Jesus was in constant conflict with the established teachers. They obviously saw him as a threat to their power over the people—even such a severe a threat that it needed to be eliminated by all means available. And Jesus didn’t go out of his way to ingratiate himself to the establishment. Here is just two among many examples of how he challenged the establishment:

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. (Matthew 23:13)

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27)

One might conclude from this that Jesus did not approve of the teaching methods used by the educational establishment of his time. Yet what exactly was Jesus’ main objection? Let us look at another quote:

Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered. (Luke 11:52)

Here is a clear sign of a hidden message in Jesus’ words, for what is this mysterious “key of knowledge?” Is it simply specific, factual knowledge—perhaps a secret formula for salvation? Or could it be an approach to knowledge that empowers you to go beyond outer, factual knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of the spiritual side of life? 

It seems clear that Jesus wanted his followers to have this key of knowledge—otherwise, why blame the lawyers for having removed it? In coming chapters we will explore what the key of knowledge might be, but let us first take a closer look at Jesus’ approach to knowledge.

Jesus is clearly saying that the key of knowledge is needed in order to enter into something, but what might that something be? What is the real source of the conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees? Jesus is repeatedly declaring that the scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites because they present themselves as the shepherds of the people, but according to Jesus they are not living up to their responsibility. To understand this, let us take a look at one of Jesus’ most amazing statements, but let us first consider the context in which it was given.

The society of Jesus’ time had a very rigid view of life. The goal of life was to be saved, which meant gaining access to the kingdom of God. The scribes and Pharisees were firmly convinced that they had already secured their access to the kingdom and that they were qualified to tell everyone else how to get there. They based this on their knowledge of the outer law and their zeal in following all of the outer rules defined by their interpretation of the scriptures. Most people at the time thought only righteous people gained access to the kingdom, and many were convinced that they were righteous—based on the outer definition of righteousness established by the religious leaders. Thus, many people probably felt greatly provoked when Jesus said:

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

This would be equivalent to the reaction that modern protestants would have if Luther was proven to be a fraud. Or imagine the reaction from scientists if it was definitively proven that Darwin was wrong when developing the theory of evolution.

Yet the deeper message in Jesus’ words is that one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven by taking the same approach as the scribes and Pharisees. Since the lawyers were a specialized group of Pharisees, this would include taking the same approach to knowledge as the lawyers. 

Thus, the “key of knowledge” that the lawyers had taken away was a specific approach to acquiring knowledge. When one adopts this hidden approach, one can enter the kingdom of God; when one does not, one cannot enter. And this approach to knowledge clearly is not the outer, factual, intellectual approach taken by the lawyers. 

It is something deeper, something that those who take the outer approach to knowledge are refusing to use. Yet such people are not content with keeping themselves outside the kingdom—according to Jesus they are also seeking to keep everyone else from finding and applying the key of knowledge. This leads to one of the choices that spring from the Presence of Christ in this world: 

  • Will you cling to your present approach to religion and spirituality, even cling to your present image of Christ? 
  • Or are you willing to look beyond your current mental box and reach for the key of knowledge?

As one more reason to adopt the inner approach, consider the following remark:

But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples. (Mark 4:34)

This statement makes it clear that Jesus taught at two distinct levels. He had a general teaching that was aimed at the multitudes, and it was expressed in parables. He then had a more sophisticated teaching that was aimed at those who were more advanced, more spiritually mature. This is similar to how many spiritual teachers throughout the ages have taught, and even in modern education we have different levels of teaching in elementary school, high school and college.

Is it possible that at Jesus’ time most people were not able to grasp the fullness of his message, which is why his public teachings were veiled in parables? Is it possible that we now have a deeper understanding of life and that this makes it possible for many more people to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ message? Again we see a choice: 

  • Are you satisfied with mainstream Christianity, which is based on the public teachings, the teaching in parables? 
  • Or are you willing to read between the lines in order to decode the hidden message reserved for the true disciples of Christ? Would you like to become a direct disciple of Christ?



Copyright © 2009 Kim Michaels