“Why,” asked Jesus of his talmidim (disciples), “do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say? (Luke 6:46).” It is one thing to acknowledge the authority and lordship of Jesus in one’s life. It is quite another to take seriously his moral and ethical teachings and to live by them.
Professor David Flusser, in his landmark book Jesus, has pointed out that despite internal revisions to the accounts of Jesus’ life, “…Jesus’ message has never been lost. It can still be heard today – even if it has not been the focus of belief in Christianity throughout the ages” (p. 177).
Flusser is right; the Christian Church has long focused attention on everything but Jesus’ message and his ethical teachings. The Roman Church points to the Church itself, to Mary, to its liturgy, its sacraments, itsMagisterium, its authority and to its traditions.
The Protestant Church has often emphasized the person of Jesus, and its Christology, at the expense of his teachings. It constantly stresses evangelization while slighting Jesus the Rabbi’s ‘aggadic approach in teaching. It emphasizes a particular interpretation of the apostle Paul as the foundation of its theology.
The cults focus on the personalities and esoteric theologies of their leaders and founders – also at the expense of Jesus’ teaching. I have even heard some dismiss Jesus’ teachings on grounds that they belong to the Old Testament period and not to the New.
Though Jesus primarily addressed the Jews of his day, most of his teachings are both timeless and transcendent. They fit perfectly with God’s Torah (instruction) for non-Jews. In short, Jesus’ teachings, for the most part, are universally relevant. Granted, there are some sayings that apply exclusively to Jews and not to gentiles, but such sayings seem to be in a minority.
Sampling Jesus’ Teachings
The original sayings, acts and ethical teachings of Jesus are preserved most faithfully in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Luke is especially reliable.
Jesus taught in the traditional style of the rabbis of his time. The word “rabbi” means “master” or “teacher.” Most rabbis represented the major sects of Judaism – the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Qumran sect, etc. etc. Jesus and Paul have sometimes been called “proto-rabbis.”
The Sadducees administered the Temple and were in league with the Romans politically speaking. The Pharisees were closest to Jesus in the content and approach of their teachings. Yet there are times when Jesus referred to the teachings of the Qumran sect. In some cases he used their terminology to make his points. In other instances he opposed their teachings, as he did those of the Sadducees.
Jesus was an ‘aggadic, rather an an ‘alachic rabbi. He preferred to make his points through the use of parables, stories and symbols. The ‘alachi rabbis were more inclined to spell out rules and regulations for practice.
Jesus did not teach to hear the sound of his own voice. It was his desire that his followers and listeners would implement his teachings at the practical level. Right after Jesus had asked, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that I say?” he illustrated his point by painting a vivid word picture. Those who keep his teachings were likened to a man who built a house on a solid foundation, anchored in bedrock. Even the most ferocious floods and monsoon rains were unable to dislodge the house from its moorings in the rock.
On the other hand, those who hear Jesus’ words without practicing them are analogous to those who build their houses on shaky, unanchored, foundations. Even a major rainstorm could completely destroy them (Luke 6:47-49). The point is, a Christian faith that is not founded on the rock of Jesus’ teachings will not survive the storms of life.
It is not enough to be familiar with Jesus’ teachings, or even to profoundly understand them. We must live them. The more we live them, the stronger we become spiritually, and the more we will be able to stand when our enemy the devil and the world he influences, come against us. To be a real Christian in this world is to face an enormity of storms. Every trial we face is a test of the character we have built, or have failed to build. Each time we are tested, and we fail, we must return to the teachings of Jesus for greater strength.
For some reason, as Professor Flusser observed, Jesus’ teachings have not been at the core of Christian faith – various interpretations of Paul’s teachings have. Dr. Brad Young writes of this: “As Christians we tend to view Paul as the church’s first theologian. I have become convinced that this approach is theology at its worst. Christianity begins with Jesus. As a faith tradition, moreover, Christian belief must encompass all of the rich cultural and religious heritage of its founder” (Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young, p. xxxiii).
Jesus Wasn’t a Christian
Jesus wasn’t a Christian; he was a Jew. Continues Young: “Although Jesus was Jewish, his theology is sometimes treated as if he were Christian. But Jesus never attended a church. He never celebrated Christmas. He never wore new clothes on Easter Sunday…Jesus worshipped in the synagogue. He celebrated the Passover. He ate kosher food. He offered prayers in the temple in Jerusalem…Jesus must be understood as a Jewish theologian. His theology is Jewish to the core…The attacks of the church against the synagogue have stripped Jesus of his religious heritage. As Christians we have been taught wrong prejudices about Jews and Judaism. Hatred for the Jewish people has erected a barrier separating Jesus from his theology” (Young, p. xxxiv).
Jesus, and his teachings, must be understood against the background of their Jewish setting – or they cannot be understood well at all. Many of Jesus’ teachings have either been ignored or misunderstood. Part of the reason for this is the spirit of anti-Judaism, and later anti-Semitism, that has permeated the Church for centuries, resulting the in the Replacement Doctrine (the false notion that the Church has replaced the Jews in the divine economy). A second reason is that the Church – especially its Protestant wing – has focused attention on the apostle Paul at the expense of Jesus’ teachings. But just as an understanding of the Old Testament is foundational to a grasp of the New, so the teachings of Jesus are foundational for Paul. Understanding is built when the right building blocks are placed in the right order.
Jesus said, “…blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). In context, he was referring to his own teachings as they conveyed the word of God.
My point in this article is to encourage every reader to revisit the teachings of Jesus and ask oneself, “Is this something I truly understand? Is it something by which I should be living, but am not?” Then go from there.