When I became a believer, my Christian friends encouraged me to read one of the gospels. They told me to start with the words of Jesus because the Apostle Paul is too difficult to understand. Jesus, on the other hand, was a beautiful and simple teacher. I picked the Gospel of Mark.
After reading the gospel of Mark, I felt like an idiot. The words of Jesus made no sense to me. In fact, in most of his disputes with the Pharisees, I found myself sympathetic to the Pharisees. The words of Jesus were baffling, at least at first glance.
Thankfully, over my years of Bible study, I’ve grown to understand and treasure the words of Jesus. I have reached two conclusions about how to understand the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus speaks cryptically
First, Jesus speaks cryptically on purpose. His meaning was not immediately obvious, even to his closet disciples. When the disciples got Jesus alone, they would ask him to explain his public teaching (e.g. Matthew 13:36; Mark 4:34; Mark 10:10; Luke 8:9).
Consider a phrase like “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). The phrase can have many possible meanings. Jesus did not stop his sermon to explain. He intentionally spoke in parables, riddles, hyperbole and metaphor, requiring his listeners to stop and reflect on his meaning.
As Bible students, write down your first guess, but keep thinking and reflecting on the statements in context.
Jesus uses hyperbole
Second, Jesus makes many categorical, black and white statements that imply a strict dividing line. For example, if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15). You cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). Everyone who looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28).
These categorical statements describe the end result of a long process of discipleship, growth, and maturity in the faith. When you become a believer, these statements do not immediately become true of you. Rather they become true of you over time as God grows your faith and maturity.
Consider the Apostle Peter. Jesus gave a straightforward dividing line that he will confess before the Father everyone who confesses him, and he will deny before the Father everyone who denies him (Matthew 10:32-33). That’s an either/or choice.
In a crucial moment of history, the Apostle Peter crossed that line. Jesus had been betrayed, arrested and hauled before a Jewish court. Jesus was about to be sentenced to death. Peter, in fear of his own life, denied even knowing Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75). Peter did exactly what Jesus said ‘if you do that, I will deny you before the father.’
And yet, Jesus did not deny Peter before the Father. After the resurrection, Jesus forgave Peter and commissioned him to carry the gospel message to the world (John 21:15-19).
Peter’s denial was evidence that at that point on his journey of faith, Peter was fearful, weak and sinful. But it was only a step on the road. Ultimately, Peter was willing to be jailed and beaten and eventually martyred rather than deny Jesus (Origen in Eusebius, Church History III.1).
If Peter had responded with arrogance (“Wow, I was right to deny Jesus. It’s just not worth getting killed over this stuff”), that would show Peter was on a different path. And if he had stayed on that path, ultimately Jesus would have denied him. But after his denial, Peter wept over his failure (Matthew 26:75). Peter’s despair over his sin showed he was on the journey of faith, because believers ultimately repent of their sins.
The Christian life is a journey toward maturity. Believers are NOT perfectly, consistently, and courageously obedient. However, if we love God, we will ultimately repent of our sins and choose to follow Jesus. Like Peter, our lives will show it.
Through these categorical statements, Jesus is teaching us the kind of issues we will confront as we follow him. Are we going to be forgiving? Are we going to pursue lust? Will we seek money, fame and glory over everything else? Are we going to stand up and be counted as a follower of Jesus or not? Ultimately, over time, if we are genuine children of God, our choices will be increasingly characterized by a desire for the things of God and our lifestyles will reflect that.
These categorical statements are one of the fundamental ways Jesus teaches his disciples the lessons we need to learn to enter into eternal life. But Jesus is not describing a “one strike and you’re out” set of rules. He is describing mature faith.
- Jesus often makes concise provocative statements that we must think about to understand.
- Jesus makes strong categorical, black and white statements that ultimately reflect the end of process of growth and maturity.