We say Jesus is the son of God, saviour, teacher, miracle worker. But how much notice do we take of his teachings and example?
Here is the first of three important places where I believe we need to take more notice.
Should we follow Jesus’ teachings today?
You’d think it was obvious. Christians believe Jesus is the most complete way God has revealed himself on earth. So his teachings will have supreme authority for his followers. Right?
Well it seems maybe not. Well not totally. For some people, anyway.
The sermon on the mount is pretty hard, if not impossible, to live out. So some people say Jesus never really meant us to. His teachings were just intended to show us how far we fall short of God’s standards, and our need for a saviour. Except Jesus didn’t actually say that. And other teachings (e.g. the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25) suggest he actually meant what he said.
Others say that his teachings were spoken before his death and resurrection, so we have to interpret them in that light. But I haven’t seen anyone explain how that makes a difference. Take Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. I can’t see how his death changes that, especially since he followed that teaching while he was being condemned and executed.
So I’m going to do a radical thing, and assume Jesus meant what he said.
Sure sometimes he used hyperbole to make a point, so let’s take account of that. Let’s also try to recognise the context of first century Judaism, and see if our context makes any difference.
But here’s the first of three things the church might learn from him.
1. Jesus treated people individually
So much of our evangelism and church life today treats all people the same. There’s little individuality in it. Jesus wasn’t like this.
The evangelical gospel is almost a formula, sometimes called the Romans Road. We are all sinners, we deserve to die as punishment, Jesus the perfect son of God lived the life we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved, rose again victoriously, and all we have to do is accept his offer of forgiveness and we can have assurance of going to heaven at the end of our life.
There is lots in that formulation that is true, I believe, but there is quite a lot that is problematic. And it is notable that very little of it comes from Jesus himself.
I can remember as a young christian wanting to put together a list of Bible verses that “proved” that formulation of the gospel. I realised all the verses I found were from Paul, so I started looking for similar teachings from Jesus – and couldn’t find them. I briefly came to the conclusion that “Jesus wasn’t a very good evangelist.”
Of course as soon as I thought it I knew it couldn’t be true. But it was the catalyst for me to try to better understand Jesus.
And one thing I found was not only that Jesus never spoke out the evangelical gospel, but that he challenged each person in a way appropriate to their situation.
- The rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-25) was challenged to give up all his wealth.
- Nicodemus (John 3:1-12) was challenged to be born again.
- A woman with a bad reputation (Luke 7:35-50) was told her sins were forgiven, as was a paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12).
- Another woman accused of adultery (John 8:2-11) was told she wasn’t condemned, but she should leave her life of sin. (I know this story probably wasn’t in the original of John’s gospel, but I believe it is an authentic story nevertheless.)
- Jesus invited himself to a meal with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and we don’t have a record of their conversation, except the end result..
- Jesus asked a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) for water, then told her things that proved to her Jesus was the Messiah.
- Jesus told other people (Mark 1:16-20, Luke 9:59-62 )to leave their jobs, family and obligations and follow him (meaning become a committed disciple).
- And to his disciples, he said that the ones God would approve would be the ones who had cared for the poor, sick and oppressed (Matthew 25:31-46).
If we learn from Jesus, we might adapt our evangelism to people’s situation.
- People feeling guilt need to know of God’s forgiveness through Jesus.
- Those seeking justice or a cause to live by might be invited to join God’s work to renew all things in the kingdom of God.
- Those needing to feel they belong can be invited to be part of the community of God’s people.
- People feeling beaten down by life can be reassured that God loves them and can give their lives direction and purpose.
- And so on.
Of course in the long run, most people need to hear all those messages, but we can be sensitive about which ones we emphasise.
In most Protestant churches, discipleship is done through the services and in small groups. Preaching in services is inevitably “one size fits all” as everyone hears the same sermon regardless of their stage of spiritual growth. (This is one reasoin why sermons are not a good way to grow disciples.)
Small groups allow discipleship to be more tailored to the needs of the people in the group. However many churches, seeking to control what goes on and prevent aberrant teaching, require all groups to study the same material, often based on the sermon. So too often it again becomes “one size fits all”. Of course many groups disregard the straightjacket, but greater adaptation should be more actively encouraged and supported.
Individual mentoring and apprenticing is a better method still. Jesus mentored and apprenticed the twelve, and even more the core group of Peter, James and John. But this approach isn’t employed enough in churches, presumably because ministerial staff don’t have the time. But if they equipped all the congregation for this work (Ephesians 4:11-12), this could form the core of discipleship in our churches.
Let’s learn from Jesus
Let’s work out ways for our churches to treat people more like Jesus did.
- Recognise that God knows us as individuals and works in each of us differently. We walk different paths to a common end.
- The Holy Spirit is able to guide us in how we approach each situation and each person.
- There are better ways to understand and follow Jesus than are commonly taught in evangelical churches (more on this next post).
- If we take the time to understand and love our non-believing colleagues, friends and relatives, we will be more able to share those aspects of our faith most relevant to their situation.
- Mentoring and apprenticing are powerful ways to grow people as disciples of Jesus.
- Our leaders are tasked (Ephesians 4:11-12) with training the rest of us so we can do this work.
Two more things we can learn from Jesus to benefit our churches.