Jesus neither wrote books nor taught any systematic theology, but that fact does not mean he hadn’t thought things through for himself. It is evident that he had. The task he set for himself, however, was a direct communication of the truth, and he went about it differently from what we might today.
Basically, his task was to speak the truth to those who already knew the answers, but in such a way that truth would become evident to them. They had heard it so many times that it had lost its urgency and power in their lives. In order to accomplish that, Jesus chose to use simple and direct language that cut to the heart of the matter. He used analogies, parables, and other imagery to bring truth to life. Jesus’ teaching was never abstract; no one was ever in doubt about the point he was making. Sometimes he used paradoxical or highly graphic language to wake up his hearers. He said such things as “The last shall be first,” or “Let the dead bury their dead,” or “If one would save his life he must lose it.” Occasionally he used hyperbole to shock his hearers into self-examination, as when he said that to enter into life we must cut off our hand if it offends us. All of that was calculated to press home a personal choice on those who heard. It was impossible to remain neutral; either one pursued the truth to the core and was saved, or set it aside as foolishness. Jesus’ words were designed to penetrate to people’s hearts and force a decision for or against God.
Jesus’ View of God
Central to Jesus’ teaching is the existence of God. He nowhere argued for the fact that God exists; it is too obvious. Everywhere one looks there is evidence of the reality of God, whether in history, in the words of the prophets, in nature, in our social lives, or in ourselves. God confronts us everywhere, at all times, and without ceasing.
But who is God? For Jesus, what was traditionally said about God in the Scriptures was unquestionably true. He is love, spirit, holy, good, all-powerful, glorious, righteous, all knowing, almighty, the wise ruler, the revealer of truth, and true. Supremely, God is our heavenly Father. He lovingly cares for us, knows and meets our needs, is merciful to us, is willing to forgive us our sins, gives good gifts to his children, and delights in our prayers. Because God is Father to us we need not live in anxiety but in confidence of his attention and concern. There is no need to worry because God knows what he is doing and is looking out for our good. Granted there are times when this is not obvious, but it is true, nonetheless.
Jesus’ View of Himself
Jesus was a human being. Neither his virgin birth nor his sinlessness detracted from that. He had the same physical needs as anyone else. He got tired, hungry, thirsty; possessed five senses like everyone else; experienced pain; suffered; and ultimately died. He had emotions. There were times when he was sorrowful, angry, zealous, distressed, upset, filled with yearning, loving, lonely, joyful, calm, patient, exasperated. He possessed a mind like ours. He was intelligent, witty, creative, imaginative; had common sense; was logical and consistent. Finally he had a moral and spiritual nature like other human beings. He was nonjudgmental, affirmative, courageous, determined, moral, trustworthy, truthful, committed to the truth, and conscious of God’s presence.
But Jesus was more than just a human being. He possessed a consciousness that he was unique. He claimed equality with God, spoke with God’s authority, accepted prayer and praise (due to God alone), and challenged anyone to find any fault in him. He claimed final authority over other human beings saying that their eternal destiny depended on how they related to him. He claimed power over all human life and promised peace to those who sought it in him. Using many metaphors, he said he was the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the door to enter the sheepfold, the true vine, the way, the truth, the life and one from above.
Jesus never tried to explain how his human and divine natures were combined in himself; he simply lived out that reality. The church has not tried to explain it rationally either. It has been content to say that Jesus was “fully God and fully man.”
Jesus’ View of Humanity & Sin
Jesus presented no abstract teaching about human nature. He never discussed such questions as how our will relates to our mind or other such theoretical matters. Jesus’ concern was practical. He viewed each human being as existing in relation to God, others, and himself. Looked at in this way, Jesus was able to define what human life consisted of, not abstractly, but concretely. Negatively, human life does not consist of what we possess, our status, our pious acts, our human efforts, or our self-fulfillment. Positively, it does consist of loving God; loving our neighbor; possessing the spiritual qualities of meekness, purity, compassion, righteousness, and mercy; participating in the kingdom of God; and being committed to doing God’s will. A powerful negative force works against all that, and that force is sin. Jesus never preached a sermon on sin as such, but he noted that its effects were everywhere to be seen. Sin is what keeps us from finding God and thus life. But, Jesus did not stress the destructive power of sin (that was evident enough); rather, his emphasis was that God was able to save us from the consequences of our sins. The solution to our problem lies in submitting to God’s will as it is made known in the Scriptures.
Jesus’ View of the Kingdom of God
The heart of what Jesus said about the relation of God to the world is contained in the expression “kingdom of God (or heaven),” which occurs about 75 times in the Gospels. Essentially the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality or realm where the will of God is recognized as being supreme and where God exercises his sovereign right to rule. Because it is a spiritual reality and not a material place–like the land of Palestine or the Roman empire–it may exist anywhere and at all times. Because God is always God, his rule will never cease and we are invited to participate in it. In one sense of the word, everyone and everything is in the kingdom of God. God works in all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). That trust is the foundation for statements like the apostle Paul’s “In every thing give thanks” (I Thess. 5:18). In another sense everyone is not in the kingdom, but only those who choose to enter. Jesus said that the kingdom of God had drawn near; to enter we must repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:14). At another time Jesus said we must be born again (or from above) to enter the kingdom (John 3:3,5). A complete turnabout is required. We must set aside false confidence in ourselves and instead have complete trust in God. When we do that, we experience the benefits of living in the kingdom: fellowship with God, eternal life, freedom from anxiety, and possession of life’s necessities. To enter the kingdom is the most important thing a person can do. We should be willing to lose all that we have to obtain it, even our lives if need be, because nothing can compare with knowing God now and eternally.
The Kingdom has a present and a future aspect. We may enter it now as a present reality, but its fullness will not exist until God is all in all. In the Lord’s Prayer we are told to include a petition for that day to arrive: “Thy kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). For Jesus, salvation meant life in the kingdom. When we are God’s we are free from the destructive powers that dominate this world and are free to be ourselves in God’s will. God as heavenly Father knows what we are and what we need, so we are never in ultimate want. For those who have eyes to see, the whole world is theirs. But just as the kingdom has a present and future aspect, so does salvation. In the future we may expect eternal life, resurrection, a new heaven and earth, and eternity with God in unending blessedness.
Jesus’ View of the Christian Life
The foundation for what Jesus said about Christian living is threefold. First, he tied his ethical commands to our relationship to him. Not everyone who says to him “Lord, Lord,” but those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom. Hearing Jesus’ words and building on them is like building your house on rock. To neglect Jesus’ words is to build on sand (Matt. 7:21-27).
Second, the Christian life is lived in the light of God’s love for sinners. We do not need to be righteous to enter into life; entrance into life opens the door for us to become righteous. God knows that we are sinful human beings yet he loves us anyway. We are not to shrink back from him, but embrace him in the knowledge that God controls all things. God made all things, has a purpose for all things, cares for all his creatures, and works for the eternal good of what he has made. Never once has he done anything hurtful or mean. Human beings may do that, but not God. The mystery of this is that God can weave his good purposes into the hurtful and mean things that humans do, thus overcoming our evil intents.
Living the Christian life is not following a set of rules, but living according to the principle of love. All the commands of God are covered in two statements. We are to love God with all our hearts. We are to love our neighbors (i.e. others) as ourselves.
When we love God and neighbor we recognize the value of persons, ourselves, and all that God has created. We can recognize that sin is not the essence of a person; sin is what is chipping away or destroying that essence. We are to call people back to what God intended: to be themselves in God’s grace and favor. God values us as individuals so we must value individuals as well.
We must also recognize that to love God and neighbor implies that salvation has a social dimension. Government, rulers, laws, human welfare, care for the helpless–all of these are included. Jesus went so far as to say that what will separate those who are his from those who are not (“the sheep from the goats”) is how they have treated their fellow human beings. Do we visit the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome strangers? (Matt. 25:31-46).
Finally, love of God and neighbor carries with it a stress on the wholeness of salvation. Our whole life, both now and forever, is included. Our talents, interests, desires, needs, dreams, plans and values are included. Nothing is left out. When we lose our life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s, we find it in a new and comprehensive way.
The teachings of Jesus are the most important words in the human language. To hear and obey them is to find the “pearl of great price,” he said. The testimony of countless people is that they have found God by simple trust in what Jesus taught.