How did Jesus teach?

By Kim Michaels


We have seen that Jesus did not approve of the approach to knowledge taken by the scribes and Pharisees. Thus, he could not have been teaching the same way they did—by passing on factual, intellectual knowledge, which to the scribes and Pharisees meant their fixed interpretation of the scriptures. This is underscored by the following remark:

And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)

The scribes were constantly quoting scripture and their own tradition, much like today’s scientists quote other scientists. Thus, they were basing their teaching on a specific – outer, linear, intellectual, literal – interpretation of the existing scriptures. Jesus obviously used scripture, but he was also willing to go beyond and speak from a higher authority, an authority that is beyond the outer scriptures.

In fact, one might say that Jesus always sought to help people see beyond a literal interpretation of the scriptures, so they could see a deeper meaning. Here is but one example:

15. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all. 

16. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. 

17. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, 

18. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, 

19. To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. 

20. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. 

21. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. 

How did Jesus want his students to approach scripture? We can find an important clue in the following remark, where he is – again – speaking to the scribes and Pharisees:

 7. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,

 8. This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.

 9. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (Matthew, 15)

What is Jesus actually saying here? The scribes and Pharisees were very knowledgeable of the law and the scriptures. So when they taught, they were constantly referring to the scriptures, using passages to defend their interpretations—or give them an aura of authority. Yet Jesus is saying that this mouthing of scripture quotes is not what he is looking for in his disciples. 

Jesus does not want his students to draw nigh unto him with their mouth or honor him with their lips. He wants something more profound—he wants them to draw near to him in their hearts. What does this mean? Take a look at this passage:

 17. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?

 18. But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

 19. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:

 20. These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man. (Matthew 15)

Jesus is not satisfied with those who can recite the scriptures based on intellectual knowledge alone. He wants a deeper internalization that changes your “heart,” which we in today’s world might describe as a transformation of your state of consciousness. Anyone can learn how to recite a religious scripture, but that is not the same as truly understanding it and allowing it to transform one’s outlook on life. 

To illustrate the difference, consider a dishonest politician who knows how to say what people want to hear, but who is ready to compromises his or her promises whenever it is expedient. Then consider the many people throughout history who have not been willing to compromise their principles. Some have been willing to die for their principles, as was Jesus himself. The reason is that the principles had become part of these people’s sense of identity, and it was unthinkable for them to degrade their sense of self in order to gain a temporary advantage.


When Jesus taught, he did not seek to pass on merely intellectual knowledge, not even an intellectual understanding of the law of God. He wanted people to go beyond intellectual knowledge and attain a deeper understanding. What are the conditions for attaining this?

The first one is the willingness to look beyond one’s current view of the world, one’s mental box. To understand why this is important, consider that many modern Christians seem to believe that if they had been around 2,000 years ago, they would have instantly recognized Jesus. Many have been brought up to picture Jesus as a man with neatly trimmed beard, clean clothing and a halo around his head, making him instantly recognizable. Yet consider the fact that most people at the time did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In other words, Jesus wasn’t mainstream, and in today’s vernacular, the leaders of mainstream religions would probably have labeled him a dangerous New Age cult leader.

Jesus had no recognition from the authorities, so in order to accept Jesus, one had to be willing to look beyond the mental box defined by mainstream religion. People who based their approach to religion on outer authority, and an intellectual interpretation of scripture, would have rejected Jesus. In order to be an early follower of Jesus, you simply could not be mainstream—you had to take an unorthodox approach to religion. Since a substantial portion of today’s Christians take the “outer” approach to religion, it is valid to ask how many of them would have rejected Jesus?

How did the early followers of Jesus recognize him as being different from the many other self-styled preachers who were roaming the hills and villages of ancient Israel? Again, many Christians see Jesus as the only preacher of his time, but in reality he was one among many. His early followers could not have recognized him through the intellect, so they must have been willing to follow their hearts. They must have sensed an inner resonance with his teachings or his Presence.

Again, this points to a choice. Today, Christianity has become mainstream and it has created a particular view of Jesus and his teachings, a particular mental box. Those who cling to that box obviously cannot discover an understanding of Jesus’ message that is beyond what is defined by the box. So in order to find such a deeper understanding, one has to be willing to look beyond the borders of one’s current mental box. Perhaps this is indeed one of the main purposes for why the Christ appears on Earth—to give people the opportunity to look beyond their mental boxes, and to challenge them to do so?

We see many examples in the scriptures of how Jesus deliberately challenged the mental box of the religious authorities by either doing something that was defined as unacceptable or by challenging their interpretations of the scriptures. Several have already been quoted, but here is one more: 

6. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. 

7. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread. 

11. How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? 

12. Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. (Matthew 16)

So how did Jesus teach? He challenged people to think beyond their traditional mental boxes, yet this could not be accomplished through intellectual analysis. Jesus was after a deeper experience, which can be better understood today than at his own time. 

We now know that after Jesus’ time, a distinct form of Buddhism developed, called Zen. One of the primary goals of Zen teachers is precisely to give the student an experience of reaching beyond his or her mental box. The goal is to produce what we today call an intuitive experience, a breakthrough experience or an Aha experience. This is an experience that is beyond the linear form of thinking characteristic of the intellect. It is more spherical and focused on the big picture. It is focused on seeing the forest rather than a few individual trees.

We also have a greater knowledge of human physiology, so we know that our brains have two halves. The left side of the brain is the seat of intellectual or linear thinking, whereas the right brain is associated with intuitive, non-linear thinking. It seems clear that Jesus was a forerunner for the Zen masters and already taught by seeking to give his students intuitive experiences. 

Zen masters are known to use koans, which are short, seemingly contradictory statements that are designed to confound the intellect and thus open the student’s mind to an intuitive experience. Yet Jesus was a master at using such statements, long before Zen Buddhism emerged. 

Consider how he neutralized an angry crowd that was ready to stone a woman caught in adultery. He did this by making one short statement: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7). Yet there are numerous examples of “Jesus Koans,” and here is just one:

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 16:25)

How can the intellect possibly resolve the seeming contradiction that you have to lose something in order to find it? This leads to the recognition that Jesus taught primarily for the purpose of producing intuitive experiences. Such experiences help you internalize a concept, which is more profound than understanding it intellectually. Thus, it leads to a total transformation of consciousness.

As some modern psychologists have proven, one can have a good intellectual understanding of psychology without being able to control one’s own behavior. Yet as other psychologists have proven, when one intuitively understands how the psyche works, one can indeed achieve a more harmonious state of mind. It seems clear that Jesus wanted to produce an internalization that did not simply lead to a change in outer behavior but a foundational change in people’s state of mind. Again, the choice is clear: 

  • Are you satisfied with having outer, intellectual knowledge about Jesus based on mainstream interpretations of scripture? 
  • Or do you want more? If so, are you willing to reach for an inner experience? Why do you think Jesus so often talked about those who have eyes to see and ears to hear?



Copyright © 2009 Kim Michaels