02 December 2010

What did Jesus (not) say about... the abiding authority and perspicuity of His teaching (full post)?

by Dan Phillips

"Of course, I don't expect anyone to understand any of this after about 40 years." 
"Of course, I don't expect anyone to understand any of this for about 2000 years."
Everybody who's heard of Him tries to "deal with" Jesus, and there are only two basic ways to do it:
  1. Submit to His Lordship claims; or
  2. Don't
The latter category has many varieties, of which this post hits on three.

There are the airy hand-wavers, who like to dismiss Jesus as a child of His time, merely reflecting current beliefs and speaking only to them. Some will throw in the gem that He wrongly expected the apocalypse within a few years, so He taught with no long-term thoughts or expectations.

It may be a lovely theory to some, but it comes to grief on the facts of history. The only Jesus who actually lived expected His words to be around, and to remain binding, for the duration of history. Note: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matthew 24:35). We're familiar with this assertion, so perhaps we don't feel how counter-intuitive it is. But which is more permanent — words, which are lost in the wind? Or the heavens, and the earth, which have already stood for thousands of years? We'd pick the latter, but in Jesus' case His words are more abiding.

Not only will those words abide, but their force will transcend history: "The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day" (John 12:48). Jesus' words will be present as witnesses on the last day, and will judge those who dismissed them as inconsequential or non-credible. Dismissers will die, then will be raised to judgment, only to find the witness of Jesus' words awaiting them.

Second, there are the wild and wacky cultists. There are the "Mind Science" cults such as Christian Science, Unity School of Christianity, and Religious Science, as well as other New Age cults. They approach Jesus' words almost as if they were floating in mid-air, free to be re-attached to any philosophy or worldview at all.

They forget that Jesus spoke from a knowable and understandable spiritual/intellectual framework. He has a context. Jesus was quite emphatic in His embrace of the literal truth of the entire Old Testament as the Word of God, from its earliest narratives (Matthew 19:4-6) to its latest (Matthew 23:35). He saw the entire Old Testament as a revelation of God, pointing forward to and framing Him and His work (Matthew 26:54; Luke 24:25-26, 44-47). The imagery and phrases and even specific words He used were already familiar to any careful student of the Old Testament.

Finally, there are academic Gnostics, who imply that no one can puzzle out Jesus' meaning unless he has immersed himself in highly-academic, highly-specialized studies.

If the great bulk of Jesus' teachings are comprehensible only to academics, then Jesus was a failure as a teacher. He was less the consummate teacher (as He claimed; Matthew 23:8; Luke 6:46), and more of a verbal graffiti artist, penning images lost on all but a tiny fragment of the initiated.

Regular readers know I'm far from denigrating godly scholarship. However, Jesus' words and images were chosen by vast, limitless, shoreless wisdom, crafted to connect with all sorts of people throughout history until the consummation (again, see Matthew 24:35). It seems that children were never far off (Mathew 18:2), and His audiences were made up of a wide variety of folks (Matthew 14:21). Jesus Himself rejoiced that the academics of His day missed what the "children" were able to grasp (Matthew 11:25).

So we go astray if we look for highly coded or highly specialized language. It's a step back to pre-Reformation Roman tyranny, the Bible reserved only for the Specialists and held off from commoners.

The Bible was meant for commoners. Jesus spoke to commoners.

After all, "the fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4) did not come until Jesus could teach people in a dialect that came to be known as Κοινή.

Which means "common."

Dan Phillips's signature


Robert said...

Great post. I think the reason that we see such a large amount of nominal Christians (or CINO's) is because people don't take the time to read all of the Bible and see how plainly the main things are laid out. The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.

There are many reasons why people don't read all of the Bible...they love the things of the world more than the Word of God, they don't want the conviction/guilt that it brings (thus missing out on forgiveness), they have set up a false god (the god of love, the god who wants me to be wealthy), they don't want to submit to anybody...and those are just a few.

The reason I bring this up is that anybody who takes the time to actually read and study the Bible will clearly see that Jesus taught plainly enough for everybody to understand and that His teaching had/has/will always have authority over all. The same goes for the Bible...that is our source of truth. Anybody who reads the Bible and really searches it out and does not hold it as the authoritative Word of God is just denying the truth (a la Romans 1).

GrammaMack said...

"Jesus' words will be present as witnesses on the last day, and will judge those who dismissed them as inconsequential or non-credible. Dismissers will die, then will be raised to judgment, only to find the witness of Jesus' words awaiting them."

What a heart-gripping truth. Thank you.

Terry Rayburn said...



Q. How do you (especially as a Greek guy) relate that to a preference for more-or-less word-for-word translation vs. dynamic equivalence translation?

Pros & cons.

DJP said...

I think they're both useful, but my strong preference leans in the "formal" (word-for-word) direction. The problem with doing it is it just isn't consistently doable; the problems with not doing it is (A) one misses repeated uses of same words hidden behind varying renderings (or the reverse, as in the multiple words translated "fool" in Proverbs); and (B) the direction of "dynamic" is the same direction as "commentary."

So a useful thing might be to have a word-for-word as one's main Bible, and a conservative dynamic as a semi-commentary. Reading it with that knowledge.

Deb said...

No need to find a nominal or liberal Christian to affirm this thought: "There are the airy hand-wavers, who like to dismiss Jesus as a child of His time, merely reflecting current beliefs and speaking only to them. "

I've heard this same teaching from Northpoint and Saddleback (really any of the "Leadership" gurus influencing pastors and preaching). I've read articles by reformed, evangelicals who claim things like the need to stop using sheep and shepherd metaphors, because people today cannot relate or understand what Jesus meant.

I always like to draw their attention in the same passage in verse 6 where the scripture plainly answers such a fallacious objection to his words: "Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them."
So, even at the literal time that Jesus spoke to his hearers, some did not understand. Thought that might be interesting.

Anonymous said...

Jesus' words were the koin(e) of his time and he is timeless.

Why should a fool have money in his hand to buy wisdom
when he has no cents?

Stefan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan said...

Well, Dan, this post too presents us with a lot of food for thought. It's good to see a clear, simple, analysis and refutation of the false assumptions underlying these ideas.

Over the years before I was saved, I was exposed to variations of all three of these schools. And if you go to the "spirituality" (yech) section of any big-box bookstore, you're likely to see examples of all three schools of "thought."

And each new book as marketed as the "latest," "shocking" "revelation" about the "real" Jesus Christ—even though it's the same rehashed stuff that's been spit up and repackaged for the last 200 years!

But of all the things you wrote, I most liked the very last bit about koine meaning "common," reinforcing the the good news that the Good News is for everyday people!

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Wow. This was a really good post and it's only garnered 8 comments so far. Whereas yesterday's post which admittedly had nothing got 110 comments.

Oh well.

Thomas Louw said...

I like this phrase form Robert's comment “The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.”
It’s lovely to know that God has made His revelation in common language and clear enough for all to understand. In the Old- Testament many times it says that the children should be instructed in scripture. So clearly the Bible gives the idée that even small kids can understand scripture.
My son is now 5 years old and sometimes I’m amazed at his insight.
That said I think God has also given us things in scripture hard to understand and some above human understanding.
He made the ‘main things plain” for instance the Gospel. He gave some difficult things, like the writings of Paul to keep us thinking. He gave things like the trinity, sovereignty of God and responsibility of man to remind us that, He is far above us and that we His creatures will never know Him fully.
There is much to add but, this is not my blog:)

Steve B said...

Jesus (and the Apostles) spoke in the language of their time, using culturally appropriate references so that those who were listening could relate and understand. This doesn't mean that the teachings were ONLY for that time, or those people simply because of the language used.

It helps us immensely to study and understand the context, the culture, and the people of Biblical times, so that we can correctly interpret Jesus words and apply them effectively to ours.

Too many want to suggest that Jesus' teachings aren't "relevant" to our times because they were presented in archaic or "ancient" terms. A lot of the same folks want to apply the same standard to our Constitution.

Or, they go the next step and say that we need to "rework" the teachings to be culturally relevant.

The words help us to understand the principles. The principles are immutable and timeless. We shouldn't "cook the books" and selectively re-interpret Jesus' words so that we can gerrymander the principles to be more palatable to the modern (im)moral palate.

I love your binary approach. It is, or it isn't. He was, or he wasn't. Nothing in between. Truth, or lie.

DJP said...

Steve, I think my earliest encounter with that was a co-worker in the '70s who said that the concept of Hell wouldn't "sell" to an Eskimo, because fire means warmth, and that's a good thing.

I thought (and think I said), "Stick his hand in a fire, and I think he'll get the point."

It really isn't that difficult to translate virtually all the imagery, I think, to virtually any circumstance. Including some city boy who's never seen a sheep in the flesh and wool.

JackW said...

Thomas, the “Main things, plain things” Robert referred to is actually a quote of Alistair Begg. Check him out, you’ll find his refreshing preaching is anchored by that perspicuity of Scripture thought.

Robert said...

Yeah...I can't take credit for that one. I've heard it from a few different people, but thank you, Jack, for filling me in on the original source. I just like the simplicity of it...rather fitting, don't ya think?

JackW said...

Absolutely fitting! It’s been helpful to me numerous times.

Sir Aaron said...

We should NEVER retranslate the Bible to use modern parables/allegories/metaphors. Better to translate and explain what it means.

HSAT, there's nothing that says we can't use modern metaphors and illustrations when teaching (given the aforementioned proviso).

Somehow we've made it so there is this false dichotomy between the two. And often times we use language that is neither necessarily Scriptural or modern because that's become part of a Christian's traditional vocabulary.

Deb said...

Dan, just to be clear, I agree with you and loved the article. I hope it was understood that the point I was trying to make about the John 10 and sheep and shepherd was that some people just won't ever get it. Like you said, I agree, even a city boy can understand the imagery used in the sheep and shepherd metaphor.

lol: Word verification: shearer :)

Rachael Starke said...

I read this post just before taking a car full of fourth graders to San Juan Bautista Mission for California History. There was a mass ending in the church as I took my kids through, and this post made a helpful backdrop to my answers to questions like "why all the candles" and "what's that guy doing? Why does he do all that stuff? Why is that Bible in Latin when everyone here spoke Spanish or Native American?" So, thanks. One small set of impressionable yoots were helped, along with me.

DJP said...


I'm all about da yoots.


Thomas Louw said...

Thanks I have listened to some of Alistair Begg's stuff. I can just hear that phrase rollng of his tongue.

romans923 said...

Dear Sir,

Do you guys do requests? No problem if you don't. Love the blog and have been reading for a couple of years now. Won't stop reading if you say "no". You guys have taught me much about Biblical (right) reasoning.

Swedenborg might fall into your category of those that thought the Scriptures needed to be entirely rethought with his correspondence theory. I searched your site, but didn't find that you had tackled the General Church of the New Jerusalem yet. Can you look at his view of the Trinity? It isn't pure modalism, which I learned about from your site when I was looking up T.D. Jakes. You linked to a post at your blog. Thanks for that one, because I encounter a lot of people who love him.

Also, can you guys do a piece on Brennan Manning and Joyce Meyer sometime? You have their names in a few comments of posts, but nothing where you break down their ministries. A pastor handed me Ragamuffin Gospel the other day. Something seemed way off with it. I usually come to your site first to check stuff. You had a few mentions in posts, but nothing where you tackle it. The book was dangerous. And I meet a ton of people who are excited about Joyce Meyer, but not sure what to think. Find mixed stuff out there on the web. Wanted to get the scoop from a site I trust.

"You do not have because you do not ask." I am asking because if I don't, I will never know if the requests will be declined. I know you guys are swamped with your ministries, but if you can tackle these, it would be extremely helpful. Besides, this might give Mr. Turk a few new topics to work through. Seems to have hit a dry spell.


DJP said...

For my part I welcome requests, but none of the people you mention is one on which I know enough to write.

Perhaps Phil or Frank?

In the future (and for all), email is a good venue for requests. All of our addresses are a click away on our profiles.

Sir Aaron said...

Phil also has a bunch of recorded sermons. http://www.thegracelifepulpit.com/philsermons.htm

The GTY site might help as well.

Strong Tower said...

"...Mr. Turk a few new topics to work through. Seems to have hit a dry spell."

A well watered garden never minds the draught. I am just waiting to see what he will inundate us with when he notices our leaves are whithering. Take heart, he persists until the tomatoes are ripe, and I am sure he rejoices when God gives the increase for the sauce that can be made.

I am still surprised, Dan, that this esselent post hasn't gathered at least a flock of dohdohs to challenge the clear and unequivocal. I think I know the reason, though. People might be engaged if you argued the essential historicity of Christ or textual reliability. But that is not what is really the finger in the dike. It is the fact that somethings Christ said are self-evident. Even, "Repent and believe." While it may be possible to argue what it means, it cannot be argued that it doesn't say what it says.

I think you have fairly well said that what is said is not a matter of academy or alchemy, or other misdirections from the Great Distractor. The fact remains, what is written must be faced, individually, face to face.

Leaving the meaning behind for the time being, it doesn't matter what it means to you or me. Rather, that it does mean something and that cannot be changed by agents outside it. It is like taking a wood rasp to the heart, it makes the heathen rage for the unmovable reality is that the Word is Eternal, infinite and irreducible.

Anonymous said...

That's drought, you draughty towered gnome...

Note to self, take meds, call call me in the morning.

InAwe said...

Looking for the "flock of dohdohs?" In Touch on TV tonight has Andy Stanely standing in for Charles Stanely. Here are a few of the quotes that were posted on the web from his sermon:

"Parables are nothing but made up stories to make a point"
"We have to get the emotion of the story to get the point and not the details of the story."

Here's my favorite: "Jesus was God in a bod."

And "We see the story itself is not important, but emotion is what matters."

That seems like a direct challenge to the clear teaching of Jesus.

Jim Pemberton said...

Godly wisdom is not contingent on intellect. One of the best preachers I've ever heard was in a Methodist church, of all places. Tom Edison (his real name) was a most elderly man and the congregational leader of this small country church I had been hired to serve as church pianist for a time about 14 years ago. He only had a 6th grade education and had made a simple life sharpening knives and scissors. At some point in his life, he knew he needed to know the Bible because circumstances were such that he needed to step up to some leadership in the church. But he knew the task to be difficult with no more education than he had. So he sat down with the Bible and a notebook and prayed to God to give him the understanding he needed. Years later and several notebooks later, during the time I was assisting his church, the pastor woke up ill on a Sunday morning and called Tom. Tom arrived at church, took the podium with no particular sermon preparation, and preached an amazing sermon from the notes of the previous day's Bible study.

Mel said...

—"Of course, I don't expect anyone to understand any of this for about 2000 years."

In light of this tongue-in-cheek quote, can you comment on how dispensationalism should be excluded from this "scorn"?

Specifically, if dispensationalists are correct then how did the rest of the church including the Apostolic Fathers and other "early churchers" (not to mention the Reformers) miss the boat on their eschatology?

I'm not trying to be snarky, I truly would like to know. When I read this quote, it sounds similar to anti-dispensationalist arguments regarding it's age.

In full disclosure, I grew up dispensationalist, and have recently "converted" to more of an amillenial viewpoint. I am always eager to hear more on how others view the end-times.

DJP said...

Simple. Dispensationalists simply point back to the text and suggest we should take it to mean what it says. Thinking "Israel" means "Israel" is hardly revolutionary stuff - or shouldn't be. That anyone ever thought otherwise says something about the commentator, not the perspicuity of the text. Quite the opposite.

You asked a question, there's your answer. If you want to argue about dispensationalism, this isn't the place. But it does come up at my blog.

one busy mom said...

Everybody who's heard of Him tries to "deal with" Jesus, and there are only two basic ways to do it:Submit to His Lordship claims; or Don't

with one statement you've summed up 2000 yrs of church history!

great post.

Curtis said...

Dear Christian Brother –
A website for serving the Word should stay on-message and not denounce Christian Science. Jesus said, “Forbid him not…for he that is not against us is on our part,” (Mark 9.) And your effort to promote the Word has the support of us Christian Scientists. It is true that we tend to find more than a static meaning in the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1.) I’m a voracious Bible student and get new insights everyday that help me better honor the Word with my life. And as we all do this, we may find ourselves approaching things a bit differently from each other. But may we follow Jesus’ counsel and “Judge not,” (Matthew 7.) Let’s do as the disciples in Acts 15 and not rank ourselves but bid one another, “Fare ye well.” As Paul admonishes in II Corinthians, “But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth.”

DJP said...

So, you're saying it's wrong for me to say that it's wrong for Christian Scientists to say what they say? But saying that is, itself, right? Do you judge it wrong to judge that wrong is wrong? Interesting; but I'm very familiar with the thinking of Christian Science, having been a Religious Scientist for years. It involves many such intellectual and spiritual dead-ends.

It is true that Jesus said not to hinder a man who taught truth in His name but wasn't walking with the apostles. But do we have evidence that the man was denying fundamental truths that Jesus affirmed, such as the reality of Creation as distinct from the Creator, the reality of sin (not as a disharmonious state of mind, but as a moral/spiritual offense against God), the objective reality of God's wrath against sin and sinners, the need for atonement by blood sacrifice, and Jesus' being Son of God in a way that none ever would or could be? Yet Christian Science denies all these. The Jesus who said what we see in Matthew 23 was not slow to denounce error, and Christian Science teaches damning error.

But then I'm also aware that one of the most debilitating traits of Christian Science and other "New Thought" cults (such as the one I was in) is the erosion of the ability to think and reason and deal with such propositions. It was a real turning-point for me to realize that what Jesus taught, and what I as a "New Age" believer thought, were at odds with each other.

You can, if you like, read more about that journey starting here.