Learning from the Master Teacher
Who are you?" is a profound question.
We have no one clear answer. In fact, Jesus was many things to many people. To the paraplegic at the pool of Bethesda, He was a physical therapist (John 5:1-9); to blind Bartimaeus, an ophthalmologist (Mark 10:48-52); to the woman with the issue of blood, a faith healer (Matt. 9:20-22); to more than 5,000 hungry listeners, a miracle working food distributor (Matt. 14:15-21). That goes on indefinitely—attorney, social worker, preacher, prophet or counselor. Yet to all, Jesus was a teacher.
Teacher was the title given to Jesus most often, and one He seems to have valued most. The Greek term used is didaskalos. Of the 90 times Jesus was addressed directly in the gospels, 60 times He was called Teacher. John reports that Jesus referred to Himself as teacher (John 13:13, 14). Following His resurrection Jesus sent His disciples “into all the world” (Mark 16:15) to teach all nations (Matt. 28:19, KJV). Yet James reminds his readers that teaching is tough business that requires the highest preparations and is subject to the strictest scrutiny. I like The Message paraphrase of James 3:1, 2: “Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified.”1
Teachers in the New Testament Church
Although James unmistakably warns against becoming teachers, teachers were prominent in the early church. Paul ranked the gift of teaching very high among the spiritual gifts, and suggested that the Holy Spirit qualifies teachers (Eph. 4:11).2
A teacher, didaskalos, in the New Testament is one who teaches about the things of God and the duties of humanity; one fitted to teach (Heb. 5:12; Rom. 2:20). The noun is based on the Greek verb didáskō, “to teach,” which appears in the New Testament 97 times.3
The book of Acts and New Testament epistles highlight the office and role of teacher. We know of teachers in Antioch (Acts 13:1) and are told that the gift of teaching is a significant part of God’s empowerment of the church (Rom. 12:7; Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 12:28, 29).
Jesus recognized the power of genuine relationships for enhancing teaching and learning.
Given all this, we wonder why James cautioned against teaching. James, likely Jesus’ own brother, certainly a faithful follower of Jesus and a leader in the early church, must have been aware of the value and many authoritative commands to teach. How could he discourage any from becoming teachers?
Jesus’ story of the good shepherd in John 10:1-3 helps to resolve this tension. Perhaps James is directing his warning to false shepherds/leaders/teachers only. As in Jesus’ parable, the true shepherd has valid access to the sheepfold and the sheep, whereas false shepherds are denied access.4 Sheepfolds in first century A.D. Palestine often adjoined a house; therefore the access gate was through the door of the house. In the open countryside sheepfolds were set in natural caves or fieldstone enclosures with an opening at one end just the size for the shepherd to block it with his body while sleeping.5
Scholars agree that a flock of about 100 sheep required an under-shepherd to guard it at night and serve as gatekeeper. A false shepherd’s attempts to gain illegitimate access to the sheep through the gate, door or other means, climbing over a wall or fence, were to be confronted and blocked.6
In Jesus’ parable, the doorkeeper is the shepherd’s undershepherd who represents the disciples of Jesus. Jesus designated His disciples as true teachers who have legitimate access to the sheep and who will be held accountable for the sheep.
High Calling = High Accountability
Paul and Peter both warn against pseudodidaskaloi, that is, insincere, unprepared, false teachers (2 Tim. 4:3; 2 Peter 2:1, 2, 19). Paul emphasizes the requirement of consistency between teaching and lifestyle for teachers (1 Cor. 4:17). Teachers are held to a higher standard of responsibility and maturity (Heb. 5:12). Clearly, teaching in Scripture is not limited to imparting intellectual knowledge. Bible knowledge is never an end in itself! “It is to produce love, faith, and godliness in our lives.”7
In his commentary on the Epistle of James, biblical scholar Douglas Moo suggests that many sought the status of teacher without the necessary moral, and perhaps intellectual, qualifications. Unfit teachers were a major cause of what James characterizes “as the bitter partisan spirit (cf. 3:13-18), quarreling (4:1), and unkind, critical speech (4:11)” that too often typified the Christian community. Since teachers are responsible for the spiritual welfare of those to whom they minister, the Lord will scrutinize them more carefully than others. Teaching as a divine gift requires careful stewardship.8
Paul declares the overarching aims of teaching in Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim Him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ” (NET).9 This must be the aim of every teacher in every Seventh-day Adventist school and university.
Those who teach must understand their responsibilities and terms of their evaluation. God’s expectations and judgments of teachers, to whom He has given much, are greater than those of others.10
James includes himself as a teacher and one prone to the dangers and mistakes of the high office. He exemplifies the spirit of genuine humility that he urges upon others. He demonstrates the wisdom and skill of a true teacher! He reflects Jesus’ model.
We have both corporate and individual responsibilities for all teaching within the church. This is why we hold each other accountable, for one branch can spoil the whole body. My cousin Susy taught me a valuable object lesson in this regard. She developed diabetes and had to have her leg amputated. The whole family was devastated at this prospect. But Susy remained joyful throughout the ordeal. She said that it was far better to cut off the leg and save the life than to save the leg and lose the life. While we affirm our faithful teachers, regardless of differences, we may have to remove some from the sheepfold.
Learning From Jesus
Teaching was central to Jesus’ ministry. According to one commentator, Matthew alone reports at least 226 of His lessons.They are structured in five teaching blocks (Matt. 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 23-25),11 with the Sermon on the Mount the first and longest of these teaching blocks. All the Gospels portray Jesus as the highest quality teacher (e.g., Matt. 8:19; Mark 4:38; Luke 3:12; John 1:38; etc.) who taught with immediate and distant purpose.
He recognized that a teacher must learn from the past, yet also prepare for the future. George Knight asserts, “The Christian church may be seen as both a conservative social force and an agent of social change. It is conservative in the sense that it seeks to transmit the unchanging truths of Christianity across time, but it is reforming in that it sees itself as the agent of a righteous God in a world of sin.”12 Teaching then should be for transformation, metamorphoses for individuals and, through them, their societies.13
So what did Jesus teach about teaching? Jesus focused His content on the identity of God, the character of God, and the duty of humankind to God and to others. This must be the foundation from which all disciplines of study emerge.
The instructional methods Jesus modeled matched the content and the learners’ styles. Jesus recognized and responded to what we now know as multiple intelligences, or different ways of perceiving, knowing, and learning.
Howard Gardner’s 1983 theory of multiple intelligences suggests that the traditional notion of intelligence, based on IQ, is far too limited. People learn in different ways and, thus, should be taught in different ways in alignment with their unique, dominant learning styles. Educators should recognize several intelligence styles (also known as types of smart). These include: (1) linguistic intelligence (“word smart”); (2) logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”); (3) spatial intelligence (“picture smart”); (4) bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”); (5) musical intelligence (“music smart”); (6) interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”); (7) intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”); and (8) naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”).14
A ninth, “existential intelligence,” is sensitivity and capacity to tackle existential questions, dealing with the meaning of life, why we die, and how we got here.15 Beyond these is “spiritual intelligence.”
The Power of Spiritual Intelligence
Spiritual intelligence includes self-awareness, spontaneity, living vision- and value-led lives, a wholistic attitude to life, compassion, the celebration of diversity, the ability to stand on one’s convictions, humility, the ability to ask deep questions and consider the why of things, the capability to reframe and see the big picture, the positive use of adversity, and a sense of vocation and calling.16
Ellen White undoubtedly understood spiritual intelligence. She observed, “If there were more praying among us, more exercise of a living faith, and less dependence upon someone else to have an experience for us, we would be far in advance of where we are today in spiritual intelligence. What we need is a deep, individual heart and soul experience.”17
Jesus’ teaching methods were designed and employed to reach all types of learners, and seemed to focus on spiritual intelligence as both their origin and aim for all ways of knowing. These included His use of stories, parables, and object lessons. While the use of parables was widespread in His time, Jesus’ parables differed from those of others in a number of significant ways. Jesus used everyday incidents and common objects as fundamentals for teaching essential practical lessons along with deep theological truths.
His parables and devices were vivid and employed provocative and attention-grabbing concepts, such as the story of the good Samaritan, which was a foreign concept to His hearers.18 He also used real-life narratives tailored to the students’ situations and needs. Remember the woman at the well of John 4, and how Jesus approached her, got her attention, questioned her, and finally zeroed in on her life history and circumstances, leading her to recognize His identity and become His disciple.
Jesus often used questions as teaching tools for cultivating analytical reasoning and developing spiritual intelligence. He asked questions at decisive points in a teaching episode (John 1:50) and cued His learners to alertness for important lessons (John 3:12).
Perhaps above all, Jesus recognized the power of genuine relationships for enhancing teaching and learning. He always sought to build relationships with His students. Jesus initiating a relationship with Zacchaeus is classic.
Jesus’ method, writes Philip Saaman, “is a true expression of Christ’s character. Transcending time, culture, race, religion, and geography, it has universal appeal. It is indeed Christ’s boundless and dependable way of finding a path to the human heart.”19
Beyond didaskalos, Scripture includes many terms denoting teaching. The variety and extent of this biblical vocabulary make it clear that teaching is at the heart of God’s plan for redemption.
The measure of effective teaching—that is, what Jesus taught about teaching—is not about how much a person knows, but who he/she is as a teacher and how well he/she lives the gospel message, the heart of all education. It is grounded in the love, faith, and godliness of the teacher’s life. It links truth with life. It is the kind of teaching that has as its product loving, trusting, and godly men and women.20 The development of body, mind, and soul to restore human beings to the image of their Creator is the work of redemption and the object of education, the great object of life.21 This is the highest of callings for which God endows with the highest of gifts.
- From The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
- Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 148-152. Cf. also 1 Cor. 12:28; Acts 13:1; and Rom. 12:7.
- H. R. Balz and G. Schneider, eds., Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), vol. 1, p. 317.
- A. T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 293, 294.
- Andrews Study Bible Notes (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2010), p. 1396.
- Lawrence Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1987), p. 967.
- Scripture quotations marked NET are from the NET Bible, copyright 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, LLC. http://netbible.com. All rights reserved.
- J. R. Blue, “James,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed.J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1985), vol. 2, p. 827.
- “Listening to the Teachings of Jesus Christ,” http://onediscipletoanother.org/id4.html.
- George R. Knight, Philosophy and Education: An Introduction in Christian Perspective, 4th ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2006), pp. 249-257.
- Thomas Armstrong, Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 3rd ed. (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2009).
- D. Zohar, Rewiring the Corporate Brain (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1997).
- Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 531.
- Andrews Study Bible Notes, p. 1267.
- Philip G. Samaan, Christ’s Method Alone: Christ’s Way of Relational Witnessing (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2012), p. 36.
- Richards, pp. 966, 967.
- Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), pp. 15, 16.
A lifelong educator, Ella Smith Simmons serves as a vice president at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.