30 November 2010

What did Jesus (not) say about... His teaching? (full post)

by Dan Phillips
"I think ______...."
The truth about menThe wisest, smartest, most educated man who ever lived can never honestly go far beyond "I think" — except insofar as he builds on an authority greater than his own.

Imagine the vast, nearly infinite array of facts and information that exist on any subject; then think of the tiny sliver of a portion of a fragment of that which any of us can directly access. Then factor in human fallibility, and any sense of history (e.g. the absolutely certain "scientific" verities that have had to be thrown out and replaced)... and "I think" is about our highest expectation.

The truth about JesusThen comes Jesus, to tell us about God — a literally infinite subject which, even if we had access to all the facts, we could never surround. What do we read as coming from His lips? How does He frame his teaching? With "I think"?

Jesus' first recorded preaching in Matthew and Mark certainly cannot be characterized as an invitation for open discussion, debate, or joint exploration. Rather, it is a call for unconditional surrender:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17)
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15)
Now, as far as it goes, this echoes John's teaching (Matthew 3:2). But John was a prophet, and a great one (Matthew 11:9). He too could speak with certainty, because he spoke God's word (cf. Exodus 4:12; 7:1). Did Jesus do more?

We see "more," when Matthew presents Jesus' laying out of His platform, known popularly as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Again and again we read His citation of Law or tradition, countered by "But I say to you" (5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). This takes the prophet's "Thus says Yahweh," and raises it by a vast factor.

So it is unsurprising to read, at the sermon's conclusion,  that "when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (7:28-29). And this is characteristic of the whole. Never does Jesus present His teaching about God as the result of speculative reflection, as His best assembly of the facts, as His best stab at a subject that is beyond Him. Never do we sense the least whiff of tentativeness in His doctrine, of uncertainty.

What we have is either the most massive case of unwarranted hubris, ever, or the words of someone with unmatched authority. Where you stand on that divide defines whether or not you are a Christian.

How could Jesus speak with such authority? Because He did not merely hear and tell God's Word — He was God's Word, incarnate (John 1:1, 14), telling truth He knew directly (as only God can know it) of the Father  (John 1:18). He knew God as no mere created being could know Him (John 1:18). So Jesus was simply relaying what He had directly received (John 8:40).

This is why Jesus repeatedly used a phrase found nowhere else: ἀμὴν ἀμὴν, "Amen, amen," "Truly, truly I tell you." (Tobit 8:8 is not a true parallel.) The phrase is found in John's Gospel alone (1:51; 3:3, 4, 11; 5:19, 24-25; 6:26, 32, 47, 53; 8:34, 51, 58; 10:1, 7; 12:24; 13:16, 20-21, 38; 14:12; 16:20, 23; 21:18). It is a very solemn, emphatic insistence that Jesus is telling the absolute, pure, high-grade, industrial strength, unvarnished truth.

How this truth affects us. I see at least three possible effects on two categories of people.

Unbelievers should be awakened and brought to repentance by it. They need to realize that they know nothing whatever with any certainty — except the fact that they can never know anything with any certainty! Their grip on reality is microscopic, evanescent, and baseless. Their greatest teachers are but guessers in a whirlwind; and once they step beyond a small array of facts to claim Certainty, or to expatiate on Meaning, they are 'way out of their depth and self-discredited. They can say nothing authoritative whatever about meaning, value, or significance. Their own premises doom them to walk as blind men in a trackless darkscape.

To them Jesus alone shines as a beacon of light, the Light of the World (John 8:12). His foundation is immovable, His knowledge exhaustive, His authority absolute. He is Lord, and if they are to know anything truly, they must bend the knee and begin knowing on His terms.

Believers should be both emboldened and humbled: emboldened insofar as they echo Jesus' truth, but humbled in the knowledge that their grasp of that truth can only ever be finite.

Christians should never forget that our stance is not and never has been that we are marked off from other men because we are smarter, sharper, wiser, more intelligent. Apart from God's wisdom and grace, we're not an atom better, and may be far worse, than any unbeliever. It is our belief that sheer grace found us dead and blind and obstinate, and sheer grace gave us life and sight and repentance. What we know, we know by divine grant. Our best position is to echo what has been shown us in the Bible, and for that we can take no credit whatever.

And insofar as we are echoing and affirming His word, we should be bold. We aren't standing on our own notions; we're standing on His...if we're doing it right. We aren't preaching ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord. It ill-befits heralds to read their King's words bracketed by "I feel" or "for me." Truth would be truth if I'd never been born, and will still be truth if I die. Jesus is the truth, Jesus speaks truth, and if I affirm His teaching, I am also speaking truth. It should be a trumpet-blast, not a kazoo-toot.

At the same time, we must remain humbled, knowing that while we live, we have more to learn, revise, revisit. Our text will never change, but our grasp of it should grow. Virtually every one of us will attest that what we were saved with is not what we were saved to. Many of us were some kinds of Arminians, but were awakened to the Biblical vision of the sovereign Lord. Many of us were some kinds of Charismatics, but had our eyes opened to the sufficiency of the Word. It would be silly to think that, having learned that one lesson, we can close our notebooks and sit still, awaiting our wings and halos.

Above all, when we get into the pulpit to preach (if that is our gift and responsibility), we should be sure that we speak the Word as purely, clearly, and fittingly as God enables us to do. What possible place is there for lengthy guessing and speculation and meandering, when we have barely begun to scratch the surface of revealed truth?

As this post has barely begun to scratch the surface of the significance of the fact that Jesus never prefaced His teaching about God with "I think."

Dan Phillips's signature


Robert said...

The fact that Jesus is the Word incarnate just backs up the point you make at the end. When we are preaching or teaching, we must humble ourselves before the Word and realize that He is working through us. If we are ever working on our own, we should not believe that the teaching will have any real authority...that comes from the Word of God. That is why we shouldn't get caught up in trying to work out subjective feelings or signs. Scripture is our authority...it is the only place where we can truly see/hear the One Who speaks with authority.

donsands said...

"Our text will never change, but our grasp of it should grow."

Good word.

Thanks for the excellent post. Our Lord and Savior is truly magnified in this lesson. Thanks.

Made me think of John chapter 8.

"I know him [God the Father]. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word."-our Lord Jesus

Strong Tower said...

If we speak with unclear tones how then will someone add their amen.

The flip side.

Hearing is a gift truly remarkable. As you have shown here, there is a more sure word of testimony, the Son, and a challenge of how then shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? Are we no held to account for what we hear? You see, we cannot respond with "I think he said..." either, because of the weight of the authority of "I say to you..." It is, "God commands men everywhere to repent." No, "Yeah, but, what-abouts."

James White has an excellent sermon posted on Incarnational Faith. That concept is woefully lacking in evangelicalism and what for the most part is the result of a civil religion that borrows types but fills them with whatever meaning suits them.

Thanks for the reminder that there is an Amen.

Unknown said...

Boldness and humility, that perfectly defines the issue. Too often we lack the former when addressing issues clearly addressed in scripture and lack the latter when addressing issues which are not. I grew up in a church that thought they had clear biblical mandates on how long your hair should be and women wearing slacks. I recently had a misguided brother berate me for saying “I think” in the context of what music is useful for personal edification. He felt we should speak with authority on an issue which is clearly subjective. We have to be judicious in our use of “Thus saith the Lord…” and limit it to when He clearly speaks. And, as Dan points out, even then we have to approach it humbly since our understanding is a work in process.

Scot said...

I have nothing to add except let us close in prayer before the benediction....

I love the ending of the Sermon on the Mount. "As one having authority..." should smack all of us in the face.

JackW said...

Dan, this is a terrific post and I, and probably many others, would love to tell you what we think, but …

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...
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DJP said...

Check the rules in the sidebar, bring the vocabulary to an American "G" rating, and have another go.

Unknown said...

The universe is so infinitely grand, we humans are so tragically incapable of grasping even the magnitude of our ignorance. I like how you begin this post - its sad and aspirational, and almost songlike. But then, here's a guy, who says he's god, and doesn't trip up (he says "I say unto you" a bunch of times, and all that.)

So here he is! Jesus - A GOD - in his first presentation with us: his ignorant, limited children. On this occasion - maybe top 5 most meaningful moment in human history - what was the content of his grand first sermon? With what epoch-changing information did he enlighten that crowd?

I looked it up, because I've long forgotten. Thats not a slam - his teachings have been "the teachings" all children with christian parents hear from birth, so its possible I'd already heard it before.

He told the crowd to be meek; to treat each other like they'd like to be treated. He also said some preposterously obvious things that apparently aren't: ostentatious prayer is bad, acts without soul are bad, etc. All very nice, but...

I'm sorry - I'll leave it there I think. Your post is very thoughtful, I enjoyed reading it. But if Jesus was god, he brought NOTHING with him to get anything done. He brought one thing: that magical gift of 'hope'. There's nothing quite like it in the world - and all it takes is good presentation skills to master the selling of it.

The incongruity between the wisdom a god could bring us, his children, and what that nice man Jesus actually said, on the hill there, in his little sermon... I personally find it terribly sad - like a lost opportunity... But its as good an indictment as could be found, that this guy was not a god.

Theology, semantics, hermeneutics, christian science (a name right out of a monty python sketch btw), they're all just exotic incestuous enterprises, with self-sustenance as their only output - kinda like cancer.

Whenever I engage religious people, it comes across as offensive, for which i sincerely apologize - its difficult seperating an attack on faith/religion/related enterprises/pushers thereof/etc, from the person believing. But I do draw the distinction. I loathe your religions, like i would loathe a deadly disease; but despite their shallow, mystical arguments that always require faith in order to understand faith, I respect believers, who are frail, biased, fearful, and just as prone to falling in love with ideas as me. peace.

TAR said...

Excellent, thank you !!

DJP said...

It's interesting, VM, that your first sentence wistfully notes human ignorance... then you're content with a brief glance at one sermon by Jesus, followed by an airy dismissal. Whereas His hearers, more in tune than you with what He was saying, were thunderstruck.

Odds that you're missing something crucial? To say the least?

Stefan Ewing said...


If you think there's nothing surprising or revolutionary about what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, then you haven't lived a long time, and/or gotten out much, and/or taken a very careful look at the society in which we live, or just basic human nature.

The idea that the meek (and not the strong) shall inherit the earth; or that even so much as looking lustfully at a woman is the same as committing adultery; or that people should love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them; or that we should not boast in our charitable givings; or that we should not worry about what we're going to eat or wear; or that we should not judge others, lest we be judged; or that the Christian way is hard, not easy...

These are not the beliefs of society at large: no more so now than 2000 years ago! (And, I will concede, that these are all challenges to Christians as well.)

Mike Westfall said...

"But if Jesus was god, he brought NOTHING with him to get anything done. He brought one thing: that magical gift of 'hope'."

Kinda like the current president of the USA, huh?

But to disagree, He brought much more than just hope. He brought, in himself, the only perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of us, who are completely unable to offer any thing in our own defense.

Thomas Louw said...

Jesus brought much more than hope.
None of us with hundreds words carefully picked and arranged will convince you of what Christ did or who He is.
My plea to you is to investigate further the claims that he made. Maybe go visit Lee Strobel site, read A Case for Christ. His books only skim the surface. Check out the resources he uses and read them for more in-depth study.
Who knows maybe you will stop thinking and start knowing.
I think.

Nice post dan

Robert said...


I hope that you will go read Scripture and then examine your own heart and the world around you. Jesus didn't bring some idle "hope" that we just blindly follow. He is our hope...an active hope that is a secure hope...not a wishful hope that we are accustomed to in this world.

"Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:25-27, emphasis mine)

This hope is a promise. We (Christians) know that we will be glorified when God gives us our glorified resurrection bodies at the end of the world. I am sad that you do not have this hope, but will be praying for God to open your eyes and your mind to the truth of Scripture so that you can experience the true hope of christ in you.

Rachael Starke said...

I'm glad I waited until today to reread this post and say thanks for it. The older I get, the more I marvel at previous seasons in my life when I was either monumentally wrong about things I was utterly confident I was right about,

or just generally wandering around in a blithe state of mild uncertainty and aimlessness.

I didn't know that all I needed to know what that everything Jesus says is true, and that everything He said and says is the key to joy, peace and (yes, VM) certain hope for the future. I don't need to look to Obama, Santa Claus, Oprah, my inner compass, or anything/one else.

And the only reason I know that now is, as you said, because God graciously opened my blind eyes to see it.

Thanks for the reminder Dan. And VM, I'll pray God does the same thing for you that He did for me - you'll keep seeing things the way you see them now unless He does.

Unknown said...

I've met two kinds of 'believers' in my life: the excluders, and the lovers. the excluders hold their heaven ticket so tight and look at everyone with a feeling that falls somewhere in the range between glee and bloodthirst - TOTALLY happy to be surrounded by nonbelievers, as their god strokes their hair and whispers the methods of torture that will be visited upon those naughties. Excluders don't debate, they don't think. They have a TICKET TO HEAVEN and a front row seat to my eternal agony! And they expect entry. period.

The ones in love are the ones I sympathise with, and – for some reason – have FAITH in, that they can find their way out of the huggy mist, and experience the true independence, the true walk in the wilderness that comes with ACTUAL humility: we're all alone, and only temporary. If your god existed, and was as awesome as you say – don't you think he'd expect you to grow during the time you have here? Don't you think he'd find it tedious – these "he's real/he's not real" debates with nobody having any convincing evidence either way?

And I will lay this accusation at the end, which colors my opinion of a lot of you: most believers are not pure of heart – and I don't mean that they are sinners. Everyone is able to say "I'm a sinner", that’s easy. But very few of you will ever specify your darkest sins as loudly as you proudly proclaim your humility. Faith is just a word to these people, like "sin" – its so CLEAN. You're humans, you're jerks, you're secretive, obsessive, jealous creatures with acceptable and unacceptable urges. Same as everyone else. You're in it for that ticket.

DJP said...

VM, looks like the first part of your long, two part comment didn't go through. Sorry, that's Blogger.

But I've read it all.

I was afraid of this. You drop in, clearly barely glance at the post, barely glance at the Sermon on the Mount (which was not the topic of the post), and drop about 400 words about yourself, and whether Jesus measures up to your ideas of what a good God should be and do.

A few responses later, we have hundreds of more words about you and your feelings.

This actually was about Jesus, though. Not you, not me. You could hardly have missed the point more drastically.

So if you want to convince everyone that your cred is vastly superior and more persuasive than that of Someone whose life was miracle from before His birth to after His death, you've made a poor start of it.

I wish you'd read the post again, look up the verses, think about it, and maybe have another on-topic go.

Unknown said...

Yeah, well. thats life i guess. I've said everything I aimed to. I realize your investment is far too large to be affected by some stranger on a comment board; and - as always - I've found nothing compelling here.

Stefan Ewing said...

Well, VM, for myself, I can say only say that I, too, at one time thought that what Jesus taught was ho-hum, nothing new, and unsurprising. I also thought I was basically a good person, a nice guy, who believed in God, and respected Jesus as a great moral teacher.

I can only recognize how truly radical Jesus' preaching is now, because God has laid bare the dark corners of my heart, and reveals to me enough sin in my own "basically good" heart (on an ongoing basis) to know that what He taught is not the way of the world...just as what He teaches goes against my own inclinations.

As for those who are self-righteous, you'll need to discern for yourself whether a given person is really self-righteous, or only appears that way to you. And don't worry: if they're really self-righteous—even if they call themselves a Chritian—they'll get their rebuke, because Jesus Christ didn't give His life for those who think they're good enough to get to heaven by their own steam: only those who realize they can never get to heaven on their own, according to God's own standard.

(But realize that you and I risk becoming self-righteous ourselves, in judging others as self-righteous!)

Unknown said...

I can't help myself: the link you sent me summarized is as follows:

since I can't understand almost everything, it is not possible for it to exist, except if god made it, therefore god exists.


DJP said...

That's full of sad irony, VM. Your locked into a self-referential faith position, from which you feel secure to judge Jesus as not measuring up to your standards.

The irony? First words in the sermon you blithely wave aside:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."


DJP said...

You read every word of that essay, thought it over carefully, and came up with that? Interesting.

Unknown said...

In the end, if you live good lives - in spite of your need for faith, or because of it, then it doesn't matter at all.

With respect, Robert, you shouldn't use that argument anymore. Refuting my claim that all Jesus brought was hope by stating he brought a secure hope and not a wishful hope, and that hope is a promise… and that you KNOW you will be glorified… the first part is a nearly clinical proof of what I said... and the second part stinks of that particular brand of bloodthirsty glee wrapped in pious concern – very specific to christians…

DJP, thank you very much for the recommendation to read more scripture. And since we've reached the dismissive part of this conversation, the god represented in most of that book is a horrible, merciless HUMAN - indistinguishable in tone and content from all the other humans in that book. I admit I can't refute that we're made in his image - or vice versa as a comedian might point out.

There is not one thing said in there, that is attributed to god, that sounds in the least godly. All the poetry and beauty is just the amplified yearnings of the readers, and the selling by the "invested interpreters", i.e. priests.

You of course all know this, but have found a way to rationalize away that dissonance.

What I would recommend, is to stop all this self-love and embrace dissonance!

It's a wierd feeling, knowing that we both look at the other, dumbfounded that they just don't get it! Everything else aside, isn't that kind of extraordinary? We might as well be arguing with the wind for all the good it will do.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry, i'm a rude guest. You seem nice and haven't been unfair. I won't disturb your peace any more.

trogdor said...

Great post.

As an added bonus, I was just talking with someone about the faux-humility rampant in atheist/emerg*** circles. You know the type - how they begin with a big show about how little we know, then everything they say reeks of "I'm actually omniscient, anything that doesn't fit my ideas/desires is obviously wrong, and whoever believes it is an imbecile compared to my greatness." What better example could I have axed for?

The 'lordship' tag is certainly appropriate, because it all comes down to this. When God and I disagree, one of us is wrong. The key question we all must account for is, which one? We've seen the tragic path VM has chosen - and once were we all. Praise God if He's saved you from such self-destructive folly.

Mark Lussier said...

Admittedly, if I had to face life alone and make decisions based solely on my feelings and or experience, I most certainly would crash and burn. It's not just because I don't have all the answers, or that there is something inherently wrong with me, although those things in and of themselves contribute significantly to my difficulties. There is also a spiritual force that has my destruction as its primary occupation. Ephesians chapter 6 says it this way:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
I am going to the Throne of Grace now, to find grace to help in time of need. My house (my life) is being built upon 'The Rock' and I have work to do!

Anonymous said...

Amazing post! I know I am late to this party but better late than never! Thanks Dan!