Matthew 4:23-24 gives the shape of Jesus’s early ministry:
Jesus was going all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. Then the news about Him spread throughout Syria. So they brought to Him all those who were afflicted, those suffering from various diseases and intense pains, the demon-possessed, the epileptics, and the paralytics. And He healed them.
Jesus taught, preached, and healed, and these three things flowed into and out of one another and all together offered people the kingdom of God.
Today I think we are more comfortable with Jesus the preacher and Jesus the healer than we are with Jesus the teacher. That’s ironic on several levels: while the world wants to dismiss Jesus as just another teacher, the church doesn’t like him to be a teacher at all.
As a teacher he blurs the lines between “faith” and “works” to an uncomfortable degree; he makes demands on our lives; he insists we see and do things differently.
CONNECTING WITH THE SEEKERS OF GOD
There’s a myth abroad that Jesus had no use for “religious people”; that if he were here, he probably wouldn’t darken the door of a church. Actually, the local “churches” of the day were the synagogues, and that’s where Jesus launched his ministry.
Why not, after all? If you were in a synagogue, to some degree you identified yourself as a seeker of God, as someone desirous of connection with God. Jesus went straight to those people to establish the connection they wanted.
(So did Paul, if you look. Paul went first to the Jewish synagogues and then to already God-fearing Gentiles. But I digress.)
Jesus came to people seeking God and taught them “with authority.” He spoke from his own experience, he spoke with deep understanding, he spoke with power. His teaching was life-changing.
The entire Bible presents God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–as one who is eager to teach. He is eager and even longing to share the wonders of the universe and of his own heart with the people he created.
Paul expressed his desire for the churches in Laodicea:
“I want their hearts to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Him.” (Colossians 2:2-3)
Everything about relationship with God is an invitation into knowledge: into the secrets of creation and into the kind of holistic knowledge that, lived out, constitutes righteousness.
Righteousness is more than a moral code: it is right-relatedness to everything.
THE HEART OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
There is a kind of “righteousness” that is rigid and legalistic, and if you’ve been around at all, you know it brings oppression, heaviness, and hardship. It doesn’t do nuance or compassion. Rather than setting people free, it breaks up families, causes unnecessary hurt and offense, shuts down personality, and traps people in unhealthy cycles and habits.
It lacks wisdom and is therefore not really righteousness at all: it’s a sham, a satanic substitute.
Jesus is the one who is “wiser than Solomon,” and Solomon’s heart for people, expressed in the opening chapters of Proverbs, lies behind Jesus’s teaching as well:
My son, don’t forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commands;
for they will bring you
many days, a full life, and well-being . . .
Happy is a man who finds wisdom
and who acquires understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver,
and her revenue is better than gold . . .
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left, riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant,
and all her paths, peaceful.
She is a tree of life to those who embrace her,
and those who hold on to her are happy . . .
Maintain your competence and discretion.
My son, don’t lose sight of them.
They will be life for you,
and adornment for your neck.
Then you will go safely on your way;
your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
you will lie down, and your sleep will be pleasant.
(Proverbs 3:1-4, 13-24)
Dallas Willard, in his marvelous book The Divine Conspiracy, takes issue with the way we relate to Jesus as our teacher:
It is the failure to understand Jesus and his words as reality and vital information about life that explains why, today, we do not routinely teach those who profess allegiance to him how to do what he said was best. We lead them to profess allegiance to him, or we expect them to, and leave them there . . . True, you will find few scholars and or leaders in Christian circles who deny that we are supposed to do all things that Jesus said … Jesus’ instructions on this matter are, after all, starkly clear. We just don’t do what he said.
If we want to really know Jesus, and if we want to really live in the reality of the kingdom of God which he ushered in, we have to take him seriously as a teacher. We have to become seekers, learners, disciples. We need to hunger and thirst for righteousness and be consumed with the desire to know and to live out the truth.
The wisdom of God, given to us in Jesus’s teachings and the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, is one of his greatest gifts to us.
LEARNING HOW TO LIVE
When we see “the gospel” as primarily a message of forgiveness so we can have a happy afterlife, we may miss the reality of the kingdom now. Access to Jesus’s teaching is one of the central benefits of the kingdom come: we can learn how to live, how to think, and how to relate to reality from the Son of God himself.
When Jesus’s teachings are lived out–with wisdom and not just in a rigid legalism that is far from the way he modeled his own teachings–they impact the world in astounding ways because they impact US in astounding ways.
If you’re reading through Matthew with me, you know we’re about to dive into the Sermon on the Mount, which is widely considered the greatest and most influential moral teaching ever delivered. In it I hear the echoes of Solomon as Jesus calls us to listen:
My child, don’t forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commands;
for they will bring you many days, a full life, and well-being.
“Your righteousness,” Jesus told the crowds early in the sermon, “must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.” If it doesn’t, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5:20).
Jesus calls his followers to a higher righteousness, a higher way of relating, a way that lines up with the invisible kingdom and the rule of God. Rather than bringing judgment and death, this kind of righteousness brings freedom and life.
Today, fellow children of God, let’s believe Jesus when he says his ways lead to life. Let’s listen to him, not just as a Savior but as our Teacher–the one who can actually help us figure this human thing out. He knows what he is talking about. We just need to open our ears and listen.
(This is Part 19 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)