I have returned, from time to time, to the question of what the preacher can learn from the greatest teacher of them all.
Mark Stibbe explores this in his chapter ‘Learning from Jesus’ in Preach the Word! (ed Greg Haslam, 2006, pp87-97).
Stibbe identifies ten characteristics of Jesus’ preaching. Here’s a summary.
1. Revelatory in content
Notwithstanding some formal similarities with rabbinic teaching, in content Jesus’ message was completely original. It came from the Father.
Jn 12:49f – “I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. Thus the things I say, I say just as the Father has told me.”
Of course, we are not only-begotten sons of the Father, as Jesus was. But we are adopted as his children. And our messages should arise from our intimate communion with the Father. Let us spend much time in his presence, in personal Bible reading, prayer, and praise. We want to speak, not only from head to head, but from heart to heart.
The Father taught Jesus not only what to say, but how to say it (be it parable, story, pithy saying, and so on).
2. Anointed by the Spirit
In his very first recorded sermon, Jesus quoted from Isa 61:
Lk 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”
Thus anointed by the Spirit, Jesus preached in both word and deed. And we must do the same.
3. Biblical in its source
Mt 5:17f “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.”
Of course, our relationship in Christ with the ceremonial law is different from that with the moral law. But it is clear that Jesus stood by every word of the Scriptures, and so should we.
4. Always relevant
Of course, the message of Jesus is relevant to everyone. But he showed its relevance. To the woman at the well, he talked about water. To fishermen, he talked about fishing. To the taxman, he talked about money.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches about: anger, sex, divorce, swearing, revenge, giving, prayer, fasting, money, anxiety, criticism, hygiene, and much more.
In order to show the relevance of Jesus we need to spend time with people. What work do they do? What are their hobbies and interests? What of their family life? What hopes and fears to they have?
We can show the relevance of our own preaching by making sure we give enough time and space to application (50%), and making the main points of the sermon applicatory, rather than expository.
5. Compassionate in its motivation
It is evident that Jesus really cared about the people to whom he ministered. Do we care about peoples’ marriage difficulties, children’s health, work tensions, and so on? Only then have we earned the right to be heard.
Jesus’ heart was full of compassion for those who were struggling. Yes, he did sometimes get angry – but it was never with those who knew they were wrong, but only with those who thought they were always in the right.
Let us have the same motivation as our Lord:
Mk 6:34 ‘As Jesus came ashore he saw the large crowd and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he taught them many things.
6. Visual in its appeal
Jesus was constantly painting word pictures. It has long be recognised that we must turn our hearers’ ears into eyes if we want to capture and keep their attention.
Then it will be said of us, too, that ‘the large crowd [listened] to him with delight’ (Mk 12:37).
Jesus’ parables are highly visual. In Matthew’s Gospel he draws word-pictures of salt, light, gates, roads, trees, houses, foxes, birds, brides and bridegrooms, wine, farmers, weeds, seeds, bread, treasure, fishing, plants, pits, dogs, weather, rocks, mountains, sheep, vineyards, and lamps.
7. Varied in its approach
Preaching today is in danger of becoming predictable and formulaic. But Jesus used a wide range of teaching techniques, including parables, stories, proverbs (Mt 19:24), aphorisms, paradoxes (Mt 23:12), riddles (Mt 11:7), and word plays (Jn 3:8).
8. Practical in its application
Jesus’ teaching was based on real needs. See,
Lk 11:1f ‘Now Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he stopped, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” So he said to them, “When you pray, say…’
He got his disciples involved in healing ministry by sending them out in twos to put into practice what he had taught them (Lk 10).
9. Courageous in its directness
A teacher need courage, if he is to offer a diet more nutritious than soothing platitudes and pointless banalities.
Jesus’ courage was recognised even by his opponents:
Mt 22:15f ‘Then the Pharisees went out and planned together to entrap him with his own words. They sent to him their disciples along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You do not court anyone’s favor because you show no partiality.’
His fearlessness can be traced back to his awareness of Sonship. He cared little about what people thought of him because he care to much about what his Father thought of him:
Jn 8:28f “I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak just what the Father taught me. And the one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do those things that please him.”
10. Potent in its impact
The teaching of Jesus was, and is, life-changing. More lives have been affected for good than other person, be it a philosopher, poet, artist, or stateman.
He is, quite simply, the greatest teacher who ever lived.