Jesus said “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am” (John 13:13, NKJV). In the approximately three years of Jesus’ active ministry, He led by instruction and example. Though He could have saved man without teaching him, His perfect plan included education and training that would equip His disciples to reach the world with the gospel. This paper will examine the pedagogy of Jesus with specific attention to those attributes which enabled His teaching effectiveness, namely, His mission, His character, His methods and His message. In addition, this paper will consider both the timeliness and timelessness of His teaching with a specific emphasis on its modern relevance. Jesus Christ lived to glorify the Father and with His deeds and words, taught mankind how to do likewise.
The Mission of Jesus
Unlike philosophers and teachers whose rhetoric was academic or theoretical, Jesus was outcome focused and goal oriented. He sought to redeem man and “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, NKJV) and His ministry years were also purposed to train His disciples to be “fishers of men” (Luke 5:10, NKJV). Jesus understood His missionary work to be on-going after His resurrection and He began his ministry by recruiting the men who would carry it forward. His teaching of these men was therefore purposeful in utility and He sought to accomplish their enlistment early on. As R.E. Coleman wrote “The initial objective of Jesus’ plan was to enlist men who could bear witness to His life and carry on His work after He returned to the Father.”
The missional foundation of His pedagogy shaped the formation of His core disciples, and rather than focus on building a homogeneous cohort based on a standardized profile of prerequisite indoctrinations, He instead called men whose minds were at once singular in devotion and pliable in assimilation. Knowing their hearts, His mission to reach the world informed His selection and created an environment that would mirror God’s progressive revelation of Himself to mankind. Irenaeus wrote of this gradual accommodation as a “divine pedagogy” wherein God gradually instructs man in His ways by building on an unwavering relationship.
Jesus’ mission to restore mankind to its relationship with God was the macro framework for His tactics as well. The aim of His selection of disciples and their subsequent spiritual formation was predicated on their spiritual docility. Likewise the goal of all Christian education must be focused on relational restoration with God. As Jesus looked beyond the individual attributes of His apostle’s gifts and skills to shaping them in a holistic context, so likewise must Christian education be inclusive to all aspects of life. As Walter Squires wrote “In Christian education every great question of science, and ethics, and philosophy, and theology is involved.”
The Character of Jesus
The New Testament employs over forty separate epithets describing the person of Jesus. The designation “Teacher” is used forty-five times and “Rabbi” is used fourteen. Jesus’ character was by definition instructive as His life always reflected obedience to God. He said “I always do those things that please Him” (John 8:29, NKJV). His effectiveness as a teacher was a natural extension of His perfect life. His Person uniquely qualified Him to reveal God because “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (1 John 1:18, NKJV). The unified character of Jesus with the Father demonstrated infinite knowledge based solely on His character. Paul wrote of “the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3, NKJV).
Jesus embodied God on earth and the fullness of His deity revolutionized His teaching. As Ronald Allen wrote “Jesus is the great Rabbi, the Master Teacher of the ages who came to explain God.” When Nicodemus, himself an advanced scholar and teacher, sought Jesus for deeper inquiry, the conversation began by a statement of essence: “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2, NKJV). Harrell Horne wrote of the intrinsic link connecting the essence of Jesus with His authority to represent God’s truth as instructive and authoritative. “There”, as Horne said, “the teacher met the Teacher” and the difference was solely that of essence.
Luke 2:52 says that Jesus grew “in wisdom and stature” indicating a mysterious dichotomy wherein He at once was born “Immanuel” or “God with us” (Matt 1:23) and yet fully in possession of man’s essence as well. As such, though He was capable of astonishing learned scholars with his teaching at age twelve (Luke 2:41-52), He nonetheless further matured to deeper wisdom. The Bible gives no insight to His earthly academic education, nor does it attempt to credential Him with such. Though it might be inferred that He was taught theology, He never (like Paul) attempted to validate Himself with academic self-reference (see Acts 22:3). His pedagogy was of essence, characteristic.
The Method of Jesus
While much has be written of the content of Jesus’ teaching, significantly less has been offered of His methodologies. “Perhaps” as Horne said “it is because of the feeling that reverence for Jesus as divine was inconsistent with the studies of His methods as a human teacher.” It was in fact His divinity that informed His methods. John 2:24-25 says “…He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for he knew what was in man.” As One who understood His mission to be the redemption of the lost, His surgical teaching techniques were employed to pierce man’s sin-clouded mind to reach his heart. This was the Creator addressing His creation. This was God reaching the Imago Dei.
Jesus used a variety of methods to teach. A.T. Robertson said “He knew how to attract attention, to hold it, to clinch His point, to reach the will, to stir the conscience.” His pedagogy was always focused on the ends but there were masterful lessons in the means. His discernment of man was both holistic and tactical, and was causative to His selection of both recognizing and creating teachable moments. Byron DeMent wrote that it was the discernment of Jesus that facilitated “real learning” and that the word itself “suggests a sound psychological basis for good pedagogy.”
Circumstantially, the Bible does not record a specific instance of Jesus teaching children, though many were certainly in the crowds. Pedagogy by definition means “teacher of children” and Malcolm Knowles suggested that it should be distinguished from andragogy, or “teaching adults.” He wrote that the maturation of the mind should inform the teacher as to methodology and specifically that “the value of andragogy is that it helps to focus and clarify one’s assumptions” regarding the optimal teaching approach. While the distinction clearly has technical merit, it risks a greater loss of insight. The Gospel of Matthew records an instance during a teaching session when Jesus brought a young boy to His hearers as an object lesson. He “set him in the midst of them and said “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 18:2-3, NKJV). Jesus’ methods likewise did not employ the sophisticated rhetorical techniques that would have been familiar to his Hellenistic audiences. He spoke in simple language that was at once accessible to all yet precluded from the philosophically arrogant.
The life of Jesus was entirely focused on glorifying God and redeeming His people. As such He employed a full arsenal of “resources of interpersonal communication, such as word, silence, metaphor, image and many diverse signs.” Jesus conveyed a significant amount of content in his teaching, but His aim was not to create a warehouse of knowledge, but rather a transformed life. He often employed the Socratic technique of questioning the listener to facilitate real-time examination. He sought to draw out the deepest introspective considerations, and thereby gave positive affirmation to His expectation of reaching the Imago Dei in his hearers. His teaching called them to their truest self, and was training as much as teaching for He always sought their worship rather than their mental acquiescence. It was never about winning an argument. He taught them to follow Him.
Jesus progressed His hearers through gradient stages of instruction based on their devotion rather than their content attainment. As people responded to the Gospel message, His teaching became plainer and more mission focused. The apostles were His inner-most circle and to them he provided both lesson and commentary, explaining to them in private what He taught the crowds in public (Matt 13:36). It was all based on worship. After Peter affirmed that He was “the Christ”, the Bible says “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly.” (Mark 8:31-32, NKJV). In this sense, He affirmed that the highest goal of wisdom was subjectivity to His Lordship.
The Message of Jesus
Writing in A History of Religious Educators, Donald Guthrie said “Although He may be regarded as an Illuminator of the mind, His mission was more basic. His preeminence rests in the fact that the practicality and relevance of His teaching depend of His work of atonement.” The pedagogy of Jesus was in one sense narrow. Though he employed many methodologies and techniques, His message was always that he was God and He had come to redeem His people. He at once taught that the Father should be glorified and that He and the Father are One (John 10:30). There was never a misunderstanding about what He meant and He presented no option for ambivalence to the point. The message of His deity was clearly presented with acceptance or rejection as the only options.
The teaching of Jesus was filled with authority. Unlike scores of teachers to which the people were accustomed, Jesus consistently startled them “as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the Law” (Matt 7:29, NKJV). As Howard Hendricks said “He had authority; they quoted authorities.” As God, His teaching singularly called his listeners back from the rebelliousness of sin to a heart of obedience. His lessons were not only motivational; they were commandments. He said that love for Him would be demonstrated by obedience (John 14:15) and He likewise told His apostles to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20, NKJV).
Jesus’ authoritative message would have been valid and complete had He simply commanded worship, but He revolutionized our understanding of both God and ourselves by His servant’s heart. In His message of obedience He taught a symbiotic reality: Loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is like loving God with one’s entire being (Matt 22:39). At the end of His ministry, Jesus employed a lesson of metaphorical example when He washed His disciple’s feet (John 13:1-7). Afterwards he said “You call me Teacher and Lord and you say well for so I am. If I then, your Teacher and Lord have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13-14, NKJV). The inextricable link between Teacher and Lord is likewise inextricably bound to worshipful servant emulation.
The Timeliness and Timelessness of Jesus
The Bible says the Jesus came “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4, NKJV). Specifically, His injection into humanity was exactly timed for His redemptive mission. The material tangibility of Jesus’ life resonates now as then. Had Jesus only addressed the circumstantial religious and geo-political environment of His day, He certainly would have been more widely received, but His focus and mission was eternal.
Jesus was no theoretician. When He taught about brotherly love over humanly prejudice, His example was of kindness to a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). When He taught about citizenship, His example was Caesar (Mark 12:17). When He taught fishermen about the abundance of God’s provision, He provided a catch that almost sank their boat (John 21:6). Then, as now His lessons resonated with contemporary relevance.
There is no indication that Jesus ever wrote a letter or a book. His lessons were entirely based on human contact and the pedagogical underpinnings of “an active response to actual environment.” His goals were transformational, and likewise He placed little value on cognitive recall. The rich young ruler He encountered in the synoptics passed the intellectual portion of Jesus’ inquiry but ultimately failed due to his unwillingness to act in accordance with Jesus’ Lordship (Mark 10:17-27). As Ted Ward wrote “The teachings of Christ suggest relatively little emphasis on testing of knowledge. He screens people not on what they know but on what they do.”
Jesus’ active learning based model of pedagogy changed with the codification of the canon. After firm establishment of the Bible, the church fathers employed “transmissive, theory-to-practice pedagogies, which stressed verbal knowledge of doctrine, exemplified in the memorization of catechisms and Scripture.” This paradigm remained largely intact until the late twentieth century with the merging of traditional educational systems of memorization with a hybrid model more closely associated with Jesus’ methods. These “experiential or democratic pedagogies develop content in collaboration with the needs and activities of the learners” and more closely resemble Jesus’ focus on regenerative outcomes.
The pedagogy of Jesus is the pedagogy of salvation. 1 John 5:20 proclaims our highest attainment of knowledge: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true.” The ultimate quest of knowledge is truth and He himself is “the way the truth and the life” (John 14:16, NKJV). John Butler said “the learning has been accepted. The response to the learning has been salvation. ‘That we may know him’ refers to the aim of the astuteness. It is given that men might come to know Christ as Savior.”
In Jesus, God left heaven to retrieve that which was His. Beyond a goal of redeeming man from the wages of sin, He sought to restore the fullness of life for which man was created. Jesus taught how that is accomplished by directing man to Himself. His goal was that man would be like Him (Luke 6:40). Collinson said “In rabbinic schools the primary task was to learn the Torah. For Jesus’ disciples the primary task was to learn him.” The pedagogy of Jesus was entirely therefore relational as He was the embodiment of truth.
Jesus’ difficulties with the Pharisees was a cautionary tale for all who seek intimacy with God through devotion to learning. Theological education that seeks primarily to build cognitive knowledge alone is worse than insufficient. As David Clark wrote, it is a “seductive temptation…for religious professionals generally to think they are mature in Christ because they are knowledgeable about theology or skilled in ministry.”
There is much to be gained by a technical study of Jesus’ teaching techniques and methodologies and gains made in the last one hundred years have furthered the enablement of disciple-making as it pertains to facilitating Christ-likeness in His followers. That said, the imperative remains the same today as when spoken by Jesus. All pedagogy stops at the line of individual accountability of the individual to Christ. Education yields to the quickening power of the Holy Spirit.
Grace and peace
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Elmer L. Towns, A History of Religious Educators (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 15.
Kenneth O. Gangel and Howard G. Hendricks, The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Teaching, 20.
Patterson Du Bois, The Point of Contact in Teaching, 4th ed. (New York,: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1900), 46.
Ted Warren Ward, et al., With an Eye on the Future : Development and Mission in the 21st Century : Essays in Honor of Ted W. Ward (Monrovia, Calif.: MARC, 1996), 40.
Clarence Herbert Benson, The Christian Teacher (Chicago: Moody Press, 1950), 113.
Michael J. Anthony, et al., Evangelical Dictionary of Christian Education (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 528.
John G. Butler, Hebrews to Revelation, Analytical Bible Expositor, 14 (Clinton, Iowa: LBC Publications, 2010), 319.
Sylvia Wilkey Collinson, Making Disciples : The Significance of Jesus’ Educational Methods for Today’s Church, Paternoster Theological Monographs (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004), 48.
David K. Clark and John S. Feinberg, To Know and Love God : Method for Theology (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003), 239.