GLEANINGS FROM THE SCRIPTURES
METHODS OF TEACHING USED BY JESUS
By Keith L. Estes
The method of teaching for which Jesus is best known is the parable. A parable is an extended metaphor, the description of some common action or object as an illustration of spiritual truth. It is unlike an allegory because the latter may be purely fictitious, whereas the parable is always connected with ordinary, though perhaps unidentified, occurrences. Jesus? parables of the new and old wineskins (Mk. 2:22), the seed that fell in different kinds of soil (4:2-8), the salt (Matt. 5:13), the good and bad fruit trees (7:16-20), the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13), and the unfaithful steward (Lk. 16:1-8) are excellent examples of this type of teaching. Each narrative was simply told with a minimum of detail. The point of the parable was clear and was sometimes stated in a concluding sentence, as in the parable of the ten virgins: “Watch therefore, for you know not the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13).
The parable as a medium of teaching served several purposes. The average hearer would readily understand it because he would instantly recognize its relation to his daily life. Jesus may have taken some of his parables from current affairs so that his audience thought they could recognize the person of whom he spoke. The parables could easily be remembered, for they were neither lengthy nor abstract. Their spiritual application was always relevant to the hearer?s need. Occasionally parables were given in sequence in order to present different aspects of the same subject, like those of Matthew 13 on the kingdom of heaven or like those of Luke 15 concerning God?s reclamation of sinners.
A second method that Jesus used was the epigram-a terse, pungent statement that would stick in the mind of his hearer like a barbed arrow. In this category belong the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12), or the statement “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (10:39). Many of these epigrams contain paradoxes that make them all the more striking.
Occasionally Jesus employed argument in his teaching; but when he did so, he usually argued on the basis of scripture rather than from abstract premises or assumptions. In this regard he differed from the Greek philosophers, who usually tried to establish some axiomatic truth by common agreement and then developed its implications into a system. Matthew 22:15-45 records debates that Jesus conducted with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In each case his opponents introduced the argument; when he finally posed a question of his own, the argument was founded on a biblical statement. Jesus did not argue for argument?s sake. When he did engage in debate, his logic was irresistible.
Question and Answer
Another of the Master?s favorite methods was that of question and answer. His questions were never trivial, but they were generally related to the deepest human problems. Sometimes they were startling: “For which is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven; or to say, Arise, and walk?” (Matt. (9:5). “For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?” (16:26). Questions make men think, whether they are direct or rhetorical. The questions of Jesus always brought his hearers to an alternative especially those that concerned himself, such as “Who do men say that I am?..But who say ye that I am?” (Mark 8:27,29). Jesus also encouraged his disciples to ask questions. His teaching involved free discussion (John 13:31-14:24), in which they posed their problems and he answered them.
On some occasions Jesus used object lessons. He took a little child to illustrate humility (Matt 18: 1-6), and from the action of the widow who was contributing to the treasury he drew a lesson in giving (Luke 21: 1-4). All the parables were implied object lessons, though the material of which Jesus spoke was not always present when he made the comparisons.
These samples of Jesus? method illustrate its variety and its success. He created the parable as a means of teaching, although approximations to it can be found in the Old Testament (Judges 9:7-15; Isa. 5: 1-7), and although the rabbis now and then employed the same general technique. He knew how to make the truth simple and cogent; his parables have lived when the others have been forgotten.
Reference: New Testament Survey by Merrill C. Tenney, Eerdmans Pub. Co. Inter Varsity Press.