"Make it your practice this month, as you encounter familiar teachings of Jesus, to try to hear them afresh, in their original context, without our contemporary cultural baggage."
During the month of August we immersed ourselves in the ministry of Jesus, considering particularly his mission, his signs and his actions. But Jesus’ activities during his public ministry require explanation and interpretation— information that Jesus alone can supply.
That is why Jesus’ teaching and preaching ministry is so important. His mighty and amazing works only make sense alongside his teaching ministry. And so for the month of September, we want to sit at Jesus’ feet as he teaches his disciples the ways of the kingdom of God. So many of Jesus’ sayings have become assimilated into our culture: “the salt of the earth”, “love your neighbour as yourself,” “take the log out of your own eye first,” and many more besides.
Consequently, one the challenges we face when it comes to the teachings of Jesus is that we tend to place them within our own culture and context– and thereby inoculate ourselves against their original bite, their challenge, and their power. Make it your practice this month, as you encounter familiar teachings of Jesus, to try to hear them afresh, in their original context, without our contemporary cultural baggage. Work at hearing them through the ears of Jesus’ first disciples.
Work at noticing Jesus’ intent and at his particular focus as he teaches. month’s passages— which may be very familiar to you— try to see what the gospel writers are showing about Jesus, more than merely telling. Each gospel writer is prompting the same basic question, “Who is Jesus?” See if you can enrich your understanding of Jesus, particularly given the Old Testament background you have been immersed in over the previous months.
The Parables of Jesus
Jesus’ public teaching is characterised as being ‘always in parables’ (Mk 4:2, 34). Although not the first teacher to use pithy and surprising stories to make their point, Jesus used parables a way entirely opposite to our modern expectations.
He did not speak in parables to make a spiritual concepts easy to understand for the crowds. Quite the opposite, Jesus’ parables were short stories or sayings with a hidden truth intended to provoke self-reflection. He actually told his disciples that the concealment of the God’s truth within the parable was intentional. Only those given ‘ears to hear’ would understand the meaning of his parables.
As you read Mark 4, notice that these parables— and indeed most of Jesus’ parables— are intended to describe the Kingdom of God. What conclusions might we draw about the Kingdom of God from Mark 4?
A significant portion of Luke’s gospel is dedicated to Jesus’ calling, teaching and training of his disciples. This unit, at an apparent turning point of Jesus’ own ministry, challenges disciples with: (i) the identify of Jesus as Messiah, (ii) the immediate call to self-denial, (iii) the heavenly glory of Jesus, (iv) the necessity of carrying out the mission of Jesus, and (v) journeying with Jesus all the way to the cross. ∙What do you think would happen if every person considering becoming a Christian for the first time was invited to first consider Luke 9? ∙Is there any reason that those considering following Christ should not first be helped to understand Jesus’ teaching in this passage?
The series of parables in Luke 15-19 form part of Jesus’ disciples on-the-job training, as they journey with him to Jerusalem. These parables seem to divide those who hear them. Some bring a critique of the Pharisees, Teachers of the Law, and the religiously self-satisfied, while others open the kingdom to tax-collectors, sinners and the poor.
The underlying message is that God has compassion on the repentant while rejecting the self-righteous. As you read this series of parables, reflect on your own responses to this series of challenges. Do you find yourself looking for ‘qualifications and loopholes,’ or do you find yourself with feelings of unworthiness, or something else? What might your response reveal about your relationship with God?
The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most well-known and least understood collection of Jesus’ teachings. Introduced by the Beatitudes—a description of the blessedness of the most unfortunate ones-- Jesus’ sermon moves on to expound the application of the Law of Moses.
Rather than ‘softening’ the rigours of obedience to these foundational commandments, Jesus seems to raise the moral bar even higher such that obedience to the Law seems impossible.
How might Matthew 5:17-20 inform Jesus’ application of the Law which follows? What difference does it make that Jesus has come to fulfill the Law?
Mark’s gospel presents Jesus’ final week of ministry as a series of controversies, ultimately leading to Jesus’ condemnation of the temple system and the announcement of God’s impending judgment against it. As Jesus climactically arrives at the temple (Mark 11:15-17), it is sometimes said that his actions constitute some kind of cleansing.
What do you make of the proposition that Jesus is not cleansing the temple but condemning it?
How might Jesus’ framing this event with the enacted parable of the cursing of the fig tree (a symbol of Israel) impact our understanding of Jesus’ view of the temple system?
Mark 11:27 – 12:44 describes a sequence of disputes with Jerusalem’s religious elite, set against the backdrop of the Temple. Each faction of religious power takes turns attempting to entrap Jesus, until all are refuted and shamed into withdrawal. In their absence, Jesus is free to teach ‘true religion’ to those with ‘ears to hear’.
Imagine yourself in the crowd observing and listening to Jesus. What might you think about the temple and those charged with overseeing worship there? How might your view of the system of temple worship be challenged? How might you weigh up your own ‘worship’ practices, considering them afresh from God’s perspective?
Mark 13 is a very complex unit of Jesus’ teaching— focussing on the fate of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., when it was destroyed by the Romans. It does also have something to say about the end of history as we know it–- but only by extrapolation; only in a secondary way. Notice in Mark 13:1-3 that the condemnation of Temple is still the subject matter. Jesus responds to his disciples two questions in Mark 13:4, but in reverse order. The answer to the second question is in Mark 13:5-23, as Jesus describes the signs leading up to the destruction of the temple. And then, in verses 24-27, he describes three things that happen with the destruction of the temple— explaining its significance. And then finally, in Mark 13:28-32, Jesus answers the disciples first question— ‘When will all these things happen?’
Jesus’ signs and controversies
Jesus’ teaching ministry turns out to be the essential preparation for understanding the significance of his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his ascension back to heaven. Central to all this is the identity of Jesus. Who is this man, really? Where does his authority come from? John’s gospel explores these questions as a series of controversies that arise from his signs (works of power that point beyond themselves to something of greater significance).
In each of the passages below, consider the point that Jesus is making about his identity, his authority, and consequently, the significance of his death and resurrection. Working with the Father – John 5:1-47 The New Moses – John 6:1-59 The Light of the World – John 8:12-30 The Blind and the Seeing – John 9:1-41