The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teaching

Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teaching (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 203 pages.


I found Stein’s discussion of the kingdom of God (chapter 4) and the ethics of the kingdom (chapter 6) to be the most helpful parts of this book.


  • Chapter 1: Jesus the Teacher
  • Chapter 2: The form of Jesus’ Teaching
  • Chapter 3: The Parables of Jesus
  • Chapter 4: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: The Kingdom of God
  • Chapter 5: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: The Fatherhood of God
  • Chapter 6: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: The Ethics of the Kingdom
  • Chapter 7: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: Christology

Chapter 1: Jesus the Teacher

Jesus is referred to 49 times as a teacher in the Gospels. Teaching was a prominent part of his ministry. He taught as a sage and a prophet. Aramaic was Jesus’ mother tongue, but he could probably speak Greek as well (recall his visit to Sidon & Decapolis, his conversation with Pilate, and his conversation with the woman from Syrian Phoenicia in Mark 7:24-20).

Chapter 2: The Form of Jesus’ Teaching

Jesus was an outstanding teacher—so good that people forgot about their need for food (Mark 6:35-36)!

He had a dynamic personality and spoke with authority. People realized that the voice of prophecy was in Israel again.

He employed many teaching devices:

  • Overstatement – this could be understood literally, but stated in extreme terms for emphasis.
  • Hyperbole – similar to overstatement, but more exaggerated and impossible to take literally.
  • Pun – this happens when like-sounding words have different meanings or when one word has a double meaning. Puns in Aramaic are obscured by translation into Greek.
  • Simile – an explicit comparison between two things that are essentially unlike each other and that are introduced by connective words (“like”, “as”, “than”) or the verb “seems.”
  • Metaphor – a comparison between to unlike things. The two items being compared are equated (“the eye is a lamp for the body”).
  • Proverb – a terse, pithy statement that is stated in memorable way.
  • Riddle – a match of wits in which an individual is challenged to discovered concealed meaning.
  • Paradox – a statement that may appear to be self-contradictory, absurd, or at variance with common sense but that is true when considered more closely.
  • A fortiori – a type of argument where the conclusion follows with even greater certainty that the assumptions you start with. If this is true… how much more is this true?
  • Irony – a subtle use of contrast between what is actually stated and what is wryly suggested. Done rudely in a heavy-handed way, irony becomes sarcasm. The intended meaning is opposite the literal meaning of what is said. Or an outcome that is opposite what you would normally expect (e.g. you can tell that a red-sky means a storm is coming, but you can’t interpret the signs of the times.).
  • Use of questions – At times, Jesus employed something like the Socratic method. He also countered questions with more questions and used rhetorical questions.
  • Parabolic actions – actions designed to illustrate a point.
  • Poetry

“The form or vehicle that Jesus used to convey his message is clearly not the language of twentieth-century science but rather the metaphorical, exaggerating, impressionistic language of a culture that loved to tell stories.” (33)

Chapter 3: The Parables of Jesus

A parable is essentially a comparison, an extended analogy. The word “parable” has a wider range of meaning than just “story.”

Why did Jesus teach in parables?

  • To conceal his message on the kingdom of God from “those outside.”
  • To illustrate/reveal his message to his followers.
  • To disarm his listeners.

Most liberal and conservative scholars take Jesus’ parables as authentic because (1) we have nothing like them in the entire NT or in the writings of the church fathers (2) they have a Palestinian flavor.

Stein surveys how the parables have been interpreted down through history.

Rules for interpreting the parables

  1. Seek the one main point; don’t get distracted details.
  2. Seek to understand what Jesus meant in the original life setting (sitz im Leben).
  3. Seek to understand how the evangelist interpreted the parable for those in his life setting.
  4. Apply the parable today.

Chapter 4: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: The Kingdom of God

>> This chapter provides an excellent summary of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching (Luke 4:42-43).

Stein offers reasons why “kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew) and “kingdom of God” (Luke) are synonymous in the Gospels.

Four main schools on the kingdom of God (KOG):

  1. Political school: KOG refers to establishment of political kingdom on earth. But if Jesus was a zealot, why did he hang with tax gatherers?
  2. Noneschatological school: The disciples misunderstood Jesus and mistakenly added the eschatological element of the KOG. The KOG refers to the present reign of Christ in the believer's heart. This view is espoused by Harnack.
  3. Consistent eschatological school: KOG refers to a future reign of God that Jesus believed was to be inaugurated in the near future. This is Schweitzer’s view.
  4. Realized eschatological school: The kingdom of God had completely come in Jesus’ ministry. There was not a future unfulfilled dimension still to come.

The Biblical data indicates:

  • The KOG is a present reality.
  • The KOG is a future reality.
  • The KOG is a dynamic idea and refers to the reign of God.

Two errors to avoid:

  1. Seeing the KOG Jesus inaugurated and the OT covenant as different. The KOG is the fulfillment of the OT covenant.
  2. Overemphasizing “already now” or “not yet.”
    • “A danger lies in placing a one-sided emphasis either on the ‘already now’ or on the ‘not yet’ aspects of the kingdom. In the former instance, the emphasis on miracles, healings, spiritual victories, gifts that God has given to the church, and so forth, are accompanied with the ignoring of the ‘not yet.’ Such an approach tends to lead to an optimistic triumphalism that is doomed to disillusionment. Sin, depravity, and evil still dwell both within and without the believer. The perishable still awaits and longs for the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:53). Faith has not yet turned to sight (1 Cor. 13:12)! On the other hand, a one-sided emphasis on the ‘not yet’ also leads to error, for it ignores the benefits and firstfruits of the kingdom of God already possessed. This may result in despair and discouragement, and a denigration of the joy of the ‘already now.’ Even now God’s reign has begun. Already because of the promised Holy Spirit, we have died to sin and been raised up in newness of life (Rom 6:24). Personal defeats cannot negate the fact that Satan has been defeated (Luke 10:18) and redemption accomplished.  It is ‘finished’ (John 19:30).”
    • "Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.’” – Matthew 6:9-10.

Chapter 5: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: The Fatherhood of God

Jesus taught that God was a person. He was unusual in that he directly addressed God as his father. In the OT, God is called father 15 times, but never in prayer.

“Father is not just a way that Jesus chose to address God. It was the way he chose, and it was the way he taught his disciples to address God.” – p. 84

“Father” does not directly equate to “daddy.” It is best understood as a reference by young or old to their “father.”

“Father” was a term reserved for God because he alone is to have that place of intimacy and honor in the life of the believer.

Jesus did not teach the universal fatherhood of God. “Father” was an address to God that only believers could legitimately utter. (Matthew 11:25-27)

Chapter 6: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: The Ethics of the Kingdom

Problems that students find in Jesus’ ethical teachings:

  1. His ethics are incomplete—whole areas of ethics (economics, culture, education, etc.) are never discussed.
  2. His teachings seem contradictory in places.
  3. It is impossible to attain to the high standards in his ethical teaching.
  4. He had a strange standards—he made impossible demands yet welcomed tax collectors and sinners into the kingdom of God.
  5. Can his ethics be made universal, or do they only apply to certain people? Does what applied there and then still apply here and now?
  6. Should he be understood literally or figuratively?
  7. Are his ethics required for entrance into his kingdom or as guidelines for members of his kingdom?

Various views of Jesus’ ethics:

  • Catholic view
    • Two levels:
      • Praecepta – rules for all Christians living in society.
      • Consilia – rules for those who seek a higher righteousness to earn rewards and merit.
    • Protestants make similar distinctions
      • Wesleyan: “the justified” vs. “the perfect.”
      • Pentecostal: “the saved” vs. “those baptized by the HS.”
      • Keswick: “normal Christians” vs. “Christians living the victorious Christian Life.”
    • Stein’s response: There is no two-level ethic in the Gospels. “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it.” – Matthew 10:37-39
  • The Utopian view
    • This view calls for literal adherence to Jesus’ teachings by all Christians.
      e.g. St. Francis of Assisi; the Albigenses; the Waldenses; the Mennonites; Amish; Moravians; Quakers
    • Different groups emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ ethics.
    • Stein’s response: This view correctly teaches that Jesus’ ethics were for all Christians. But it incorrectly underestimates the intensity of our sin and extent of human depravity. Verses like Matthew 5:48 (“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) do not demand sinless perfection, but rather being like God in mercy and graciousness toward other people.
  • The Lutheran view
    • Luther rejected the two-fold catholic view and saw Matt. 5:48 as impossible to attain. Moreover, unattainable ethical demands produce guilt which leads to repentance and faith.
    • Stein’s response: Jesus’ ethics were preached to people who have already experienced God’s grace. “Even as Romans 12-15 presupposes Romans 1-8, the ethical teachings of Jesus presuppose repentance and faith.” (96) >> This is not always true. In many cases Jesus was teaching people who incorrectly assumed they were already justified (e.g. Luke 10:29 ff. – the parable of the Good Samaritan).
  • The Liberal view
    • “The essence of Jesus’ ethic lies in the inculcating of principles that involve the attitudes and inward disposition of the individual. It is an ethic of attitude, ethos and consciousness rather than of actions.” The actions Jesus commanded are no longer valid (husk); the attitudes are still relevant (kernel).
    • Stein’s response: Some of the actions Jesus called for are also timeless.
  • The “Interim Ethic” view
    • Jesus’ ethics were temporary emergency commands for the brief interim period before the kingdom.
    • Stein’s response: Jesus’ ethics are really tied to God’s character, the activity of God in creation, and the will of God.
  • The Existentialist view
    • Jesus ethics should not be seen as a system of rules. They are, instead, an existential call for a decision… the specific action required will become self evident. Jesus teachings can be understood as a radical call for obedience.
    • Stein’s response: The teachings of Jesus do call for a decision, but… they go on to spell out specific ways to act on that decision.

The Biblical data

Many of Jesus’ decisions presume and build upon a new relationship between the individual and God.

His ethical instructions are addressed primarily to a people who had experienced God’s grace and were participants in a New Covenant. << It seems like many in Jesus’ audience thought their works merited God’s approval and stubbornly clung to the Old Covenant.

Jesus’ challenges to “deny self” “take up your cross” “lose one’s life” etc… are “different aspects of the same radical demand for a decision and unconditional commitment to God.” (100)

Jesus placed high importance on the attitude of the individual:

  1. Heart attitude matters most.
  2. We get a good heart attitude by remembering that God loved us.
  3. Good actions flow from a heart changed by grace.

The love command

  • The greatest commandment is to love.
  • You can’t love God without loving your neighbor (everyone).
  • Love is not just empathy or a feeling.
  • Love is expressed in actions (see Luke 6:27-28).

The place of the Law

  • Sometimes Jesus suggests that the Law contains the basic norms of the will of God and has permanent validity.
  • Jesus himself is seen keeping the law, not just the moral stuff, but the civil and ceremonial laws too.
  • Yet Jesus also rejects parts of the Law. Recall his repetition of the phrase, “You have heard… but I say to you…” in Matthew 5.
  • How can this contraction be resolved? Jesus rejected the oral tradition that the scribes and Pharisees added, not the written OT law. Jesus also taught that certain OT laws were no longer binding (Mark 10:2-12; Matt 5:38-39, etc.).

Grace and reward

Faithful service will bring reward (Matt 6:2-4; Luke 14:12-14). But we don’t merit reward. Our reward is given out of God’s grace… not out of his debt to us for what we have done. “What believers receive from God for faithful service is therefore not merited pay but the gracious blessing of their heavenly Father which is meant to encourage them in their pilgrimage.” (109)

A Summary of the Ethical Teachings of Jesus

Jesus’ ethics must be understood in the light of the “already-not yet” kingdom. “It is evident that his ethic is not one of regulation in which a legalistic system of commandments is put forward. On the contrary, the ethic of Jesus is an ethic of relationship in which the nucleus is provided by the love commandment.” (111)
“One does not need a specific rule to know what one should do for a man who has fallen among thieves. Love knows.” (111)
“For the average follower of Jesus, the love command, working in the above context, reveals the will of God in the vast majority of instances, and Jesus had confidence that in those rare unusual situations in which believers possessed no teaching or principle to guide them, God would reveal this to them through his Spirit (cf. Mark 13:11).” (111)

Jesus’ ethical teaching was truly unique in …

  1. His wise selection of key moral commands.
  2. His removal of parasitic traditions that undermined the moral teaching of the OT.
  3. His intensification of the law (Matt. 5) and emphasis on the need for a new heart.
  4. His revolutionary emphasis on accepting outcasts.
  5. His ethic of gratitude for God’s grace vs. an ethic of achievement typical in rabbinic literature.
  6. His positive emphasis: not just refraining from evil but doing good.
  7. His embodiment of the ethics he called on his followers to observe.

Chapter 7: The Content of Jesus’ Teaching: Christology

Jesus words and actions revealed how he viewed himself.

The actions of Jesus

Jesus had the authority to cleanse the temple, cast out demons, and heal (even on the Sabbath). He assumed divine prerogatives, like forgiving someone for their sin. Jesus actions were God’s actions.

The words of Jesus

  • Jesus claimed to supercede the Law: “you may have heard… but I say to you.”
  • His use of “amen” was completely new and unparalleled in Jewish literature. It implies a finality and authority that transcends other leaders.
  • Jesus made totalitarian claims, suggesting that the entire world revolves around him and that the fate of humans depends on whether they receive or reject him (Matt. 10:32 ff, 11:6; Mark 8:34 ff).
  • He describes himself as greater than all of the OT saints: Jonah, Solomon, Moses, Jacob, etc.

The titles of Jesus

  • Messiah: Jesus accepted this title, but preferred to call himself the “son of man” because (1) public declaration of messiahship might cause and uprising and (2) the function and work of the Messiah had to be accomplished before the title could be claimed.
  • Son of God: He used this term to describe himself in Mark 13:32; Mark 12:1-9; Matt 11:25ff
  • Son of Man: This was Jesus’ favorite self-designation. No other title so clearly reveals his messianic self-consciousness as this one. Jewish sources that use this title include Ethiopian Enoch and 2 Esdras (a.k.a. 4 Ezra). The book of Enoch is pre-Christian and used the title Son of Man frequently.
  • Stein enters into a technical discussion of whether “Son of Man” was a messianic title in Jesus day (the Aramaic version of “Son of Man” doesn’t read like a title). Those who say that the church bestowed the title Son of Man on Jesus and that he never used the title himself can’t explain why Son of Man is never used to refer to Jesus in the New Testament epistles. Arguments that Son of Man was used in a general or generic sense render Jesus’ son of man statements nonsensical. There are good reasons for believing that Son of Man was understood as a title for an individual. See Stein’s summary on p. 146, paragraph 2, and the bottom paragraph on p. 150/top paragraph on p. 151 for a good explanation of why Jesus used Son of Man as a title.
  • Are the Son of Man sayings authentic to Jesus? Yes because (1) they meet the criterion of dissimilarity – we don’t see widespread use of this term before or after Jesus’ ministry and (2) the title “Son of Man” is found in texts that make a good claim to authenticity.

The amazing claims Jesus made about himself force us to accept him as Lord or deny him.