You can read this through, since often one taught point leads on to another than qualifies it. But for an overview, see the list of what God has taught and for the context in which he taught each thing, see the beginnings and the history. Click here for home page.
Perhaps, however, one of the most subtle surprises was perhaps that what he brought, did and portrayed was not in replacement or nullification of what had gone before, but in fulfilment of it. The surprise was that his surprises should have been unsurprising. The Messiah once said "I did not come to do away with the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them and give them their true meaning." It seems that he sought to make the most of his short time with us (3 years of ministry in a 33 year human life), by focusing his teaching on those things that people of his day had not properly learned or realised.
Some commentators down through the ages, perhaps from pure motives but sometime because they want to ride their hobby horses, have suggested that this Messiah brought in something completely at odds with what we see in the Old Testament. But he didn't. Rather, the supposed difference we see is one of deliberate emphasis, not one of contradiction. So, of the lessons and communications that follow, they are to be seen as completing and correcting the picture, enriching and fulfilling it. Many can be detected quite clearly in the Old Testament, but had become submerged or confused. But Messiah brought them back into clarity.
There are perhaps half a dozen of these, that he taught during his life. But then we come to what is probably the greatest lesson, communication and greatest news of all: God pays. That is the lesson that is most surprising to people all over the world, the one that raises most spontaneous praise, thanks and worship, and the one that gives the world hope. It fulfils the original hope given right at the start.
The Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth. There are four biographical versions of his life, which we know today as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Taking these together, we can see some wonderful revelations in the person of the Messiah:
We look at the first two aspects next, then show how the Messiah was no soft touch, and then come back to the comfort, and that leads to what is perhaps the supreme factor the Messiah carried out: God pays.
==== More to come.
Not only so, but he used the little people, people of no reputation - working men. Hebrew
anawim. This had been seen throughout history, but the starkest demonstration was Jesus' choice of followers. James pointed out that most members of the early church were poor and of no reputation. And he still does that today. A famous example is Gladys Aylward, a serving wench who went to China at God's call and was used to bring God's message to many just before the Communists took over.
Linked with this, God has deep compassion for those who suffer. The Messiah's life was full of doing things for those who suffer, whether physically, by demonic oppression, in their dignity or by bereavement. All suffering is the same to the compassionate heart. Those who have followed him since then have found God's blessing on them as they too cared for the suffering - and God withholding blessing when they refused to care.
Not only does God respect 'little people' and have compassion for the sufferers, but he has what has been called a 'bias to the poor'. Now, this does not mean that justice in the court must be distorted in favour of the poor; God explicitly said this must not be done. But it does mean that God takes notice of the poor, those who are oppressed by others, those of little power and who are taken advantage of because of their lack of power. His ear is ever open to their cry for help. As Mary exclaimed under the influence of the Holy Spirit,
" ... He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away with empty hands. ... "
This has relevance for us. Those of us who wish to take God seriously should do as he wishes, and those of us who think we are people of God, should have the same attitude of 'bias to the poor' as he has. Do we? So seldom!
Not only do we seldom have a 'bias to the poor', but we actually assume the very opposite of God's way. We give importance to those who have power - whether it is political power, financial muscle, power of words and media, or any other kind of power. We assume that the way to get things done is via the powerful people, the effective people. This is actually quite logical if God is not central in the equation; if we human beings are left to our own devices.
However, it would seem that throughout Scripture that God is central, even in the equation of earthly things. And that, in the long term, relying on the powerful and effective is counterproductive. Whatever power (without God) does is only for the short term, and it turns to dust in the long term. The Messiah commented on this to his followers when he pointed out to them how, though the rich were putting a lot into the temple treasury for God's work, the impoverished widow "put in the offering box more than all the others", even though it was only two tiny copper coins. He explained, "The others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had - she gave all she had to live on."
In God's economy and work, resources are not the key issue (though we should not neglect them). This is because to God belong all the resources of the whole Creation, so he has little need of our offerings. What he seeks is people with the right attitude - those who are 'little people' at heart. Think of some of the real movers and shakers, those whose movings and shakings are still felt, and felt for general good. John Wesley, Francis of Assissi, and Jesus himself. All 'little' ordinary people, but in league with an extraordinary God. As someone has said,
"One, with God, is a majority."
The essence of God using little people has four parts.
The last three points are all to do with the issue: all people are the same. They are an expansion of the earlier theme No Heroes, nor Villians, and the last two are mainly relevant to those who have turned to God and become part of his people, though he still can make use of those who are not his people. It has become big in our thinking today, with racism, sexism, ageism, etc. and also Marxist ideas of class. What do we mean by all people being the same, and what is God's perspective on it - the perspective that is true?
Leon Morris (1960, IVP), Spirit of the Living God "God expects all his people to experience to the full all that the indwelling of the Spirit [see later] can mean. He has not chosen out a few favoured saints who may enjoy the power of the Spirit as a special enabling, granted to them as an exceptional priviledge,. He makes the gift of the Spirit available to all."
What it means is that all people are of equal standing before God, and have exactly the same opportunity to respond to him and to experience his filling by return. This cuts across all differences of race, class, sexuality, intelligence, state of economic development, education, etc. There is a positive and negative side to this, and also a side that many of us find extremely negative.
We saw that the Messiah affirmed 'little people'. He also healed all kinds of people, from the demon-possessed outcast to daughters of rulers. He was willing to teach all kinds of people. In Mark's account, chapter 11-12, we find he tried to stimulate all kinds of people to think in new ways.
But, on the negative side, we have seen how Moses, probably the most significant human being before the Messiah, was ticked off by God for getting annoyed. Even the most privileged of God's people are subject to his reproof. All are the same.
The thing that has often annoyed me about this, however, is that it can seem unfair. Jesus told of workers who were in need of a day's wage, hired, by prior agreement on rates of pay, at the start of the day, the middle, in the afternoon, and one hour before the end of the working day. They were all paid the same, those who had worked a single hour getting as much as those who had worked twelve. This goes against my sense of fairness. But that's only because I make wrong assumptions about what fairness and equal standing are. As Jesus showed in this story, God looks on the innate needs and dignity of a person, while I look only on what a person has done. (This does, of course, align with God using unworthy people.)
Nor are all people treated the same always. God does treat each person as that person requires. We see this in the incident in Mark 11-12, where the Messiah he responded to questions from different people in different ways. To those who stood on authority, he first determined whether they were serious in wanting an answer and, finding they would not be, refused to give one. To those who wanted to trap him, he did not just bypass the trap by not answering their question directly, he gave them something positive: a principle by which they could find the answer to their own question if they wished (namely, give to each his due, including God). To sneering skeptics, who wanted to rubbish the idea of resurrection, he told them how wrong they were, and why - and then gave them an indication of the reality of resurrection from sources that he knew they would accept. The one direct answer he gave was to the person whom he discerned as being "not far from the kingdom of God", a teacher of law who sought consensus and truth and sought to find good in Jesus.
We can learn a lot from this, if we consider how we would have responded to each. To those who stood on authority and challenged our rights, we would have tried to argue our rights and authority; Jesus did not. To those who try to trap us, we would either have tried to argue the finer points and squirm out of the trap, or we would have just refused to give anything at all; Jesus gave them a principle. To the sneering skeptics, we would often have tried arguments from our own standpoint rather than theirs. We would have said "The Bible says ...", ignoring the fact that they would not trust the Bible as authority, and of course would not have stimulated them in the slightest.
He does not just say it once (as he did when he told us that the main commandment was to love God), he said it many times, and in many different ways. Here are some of the passages in which he says this:
Now, the precise interpretation of these passages can be a matter for debate, and each holds a different specific message. But they all point in the same general direction: there will be a division of humanity into those whom God welcomes into his final kingdom or presence, and those who are rejected. And the division will be final and utter.
We would do well to take it more seriously than many of us do. For ourselves, more than for others. Will we be caught out in the end, while those we secretly despise pass us by and enter?
What are the criteria for entry? Many are indicated, but they all have one theme. The passages above include:
Through all these runs the importance of attitude, to God and others, and personal application of God's teachings. Let us look at them in more detail, because the Messiah gave us plenty of information about theme.
This means that we should always subject ourselves to self-critique, always reckon that we have something wrong, even when we are standing valiant for truth.
The reason they got things so wrong? because they saw things in a distorted way (a world view) that meant they made assumptions about God and what was most important to him based on their own interpretations. It was not that they were wrong, so much as limited and distorted. e.g. being very careful to obey even the smallest part of the law, tithing even the herbs grown in their gardens: Jesus said, not that tithing herbs was wrong or unnecessary, but that they had got it out of proportion because they could not see the importance of justice.
Application: We should be firm in our beliefs, but we should always take it for granted that we might indeed have a wrong take on it, and need to be opened to another whole area that currently we ignore. Always be ready to "be transformed by the renewal of your mind [Greek: way of seeing things]" [Rom. 12:2].
Up till that point, the Jews had thought that it was visible actions that mattered. They (at least those who took God seriously) sought to keep God's laws, and "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was a well known principle (set out in Exodus 21 [?====] that at least prevented feuds escalating. But it was meant to be a legal principle, not one about personal attitude.
There was (and still is) a certain logic about focusing on visible actions, especially when handling a situation from a legal point of view. Attitudes are internal, not visible, and it can be extremely difficult to gauge a person's attitude in a way that will 'stand up in court'. Visible actions are all we have to go on, and even those it is difficult to prove.
But the legal side was only part of God's truth; another part was about personal attitude. Attitude cannot be easily written about; it has to be shown by example. So only when God entered humanity was it the appropriate time to reveal it. So we find Jesus' teaching was full of it. "The meek shall inherit the earth," he told us.
In retrospect, because Jesus highlighted the importance of attitude, we can see it throughout Scripture. James, the brother of Jesus, looked back to Proverbs where it tells us God rejects the proud and helps the humble. Many of the prophets were against pride and arrogance. Ezekiel (16:49) tells us what God really thought was the sin of Sodom; it was not so much the acts for which they are famous, but their attitude that caused their judgement and destruction. And, in fact, the central importance of pride was clear since early Israel.
Attitude of heart is the root of our actions, and from them spring our actions, even if sometimes we can cover them up.
However, we should not blame the people of that time for falling foul of Jesus' teaching on attitude. There had been very little teaching to that date about attitude; only what could be deduced from the Scriptures then available and from common human experience. However, we do have this teaching. And it well known in Western culture, even among those who are not Christians. So how much worse it will be for us than for them, if we do not take it seriously. And many of us in the Christian church down through the ages stand condemned because of that.
One place where we have too often failed in this is when arguing a case or fighting for the purity of doctrine.
"Do to others as you would that they should do to you."
He expanded it by tell the people around them
"And then you will truly be sons of your heavenly Father. He is like this; he sends good things (e.g. rain) on good and bad alike."
What is at root here, that was new teaching, or at least teaching that clarified something that had not before been clear, was that what God says relates to each individual, not just to groups. He did not want a just society; he wanted just individuals. And the nature of what he wanted from individuals was made clear in Jesus' teaching.
In many cultures that have not been touched with this teaching - including, of course, the one that Jesus was in - it is acceptable for a person to say one thing and do another, as many of the Jews of Jesus' day seemed to do. This is often taken to mean that the powerful can do whatever they wish, while imposing restrictions on those less powerful - which is injustice, and as we have seen above God hates that.
But let us not be too hard on the Jews of Jesus' day. It is likely that many of who were guilty of hypocrisy were not quite so unjust; they were hypocrites for other reasons, reasons that maybe have some validity. Their culture was of having learned the hard way (via national destruction and exile) that God makes demands. As we saw above, this made many of their leaders of opinion very, very careful about keeping the laws. They had absorbed into their national psyche the (partly true) idea that God imposed laws and demanded that we keep theme. They built an extra fence of human law to try to lower the probability that people would transgress God's laws. It was so important to keep God's laws that much of national life revolved around this.
As we do today, the Jews believed that education was vital if people were to obey God's laws. Not only did this involve (AFAIK) a system of education of children, but it was seen as important to uphold standards in public, even if it was transgressed in private. Even if individuals failed, this was no reason to lower standards - as we so often do today. Therefore many failings were hushed up, and sometimes for semi-good reasons of public education and maintenance of standards. The result was that it became quite common for people with some standing in the community to say one thing even if they did another.
But this hypocrisy, while more understandable that we have come to believe, was not the answer, for two very important reasons. First, even if it were valid, it could so easily slide into a more pernicious form of hypocrisy in which the covering up was not just to maintain public standards but so that the perpetrator of evil could avoid its consequences such as social stigmata and loss of reputation. And, it could take the pagan form mentioned above, in which the powerful and influential could pronounce laws that restricted the less powerful yet they themselves did not feel constrained by theme. This injustice would make a God of Loving-Justice immensely angry.
The second reason was more subtle yet more important. The Jews thought that the most important thing to God was obedience of his Law. Wrong! Though obedience is more important than religious activity, as we saw above, transgression of the law was not the ultimate problem. The ultimate problem, as should have been clear from Israel's own history, was the deceitfulness of the human heart in its turning away from God. Now, the way back to God was not via obedience but via recognising our evil and repenting of it. To recognise our (my) evil requires that it be clear to me in such a way that I cannot explain it away. I have to come face to face with it. But hypocrisy, even of the less invalid form, resulted in hiding the sin, and making it easier to explain away or to ignore. So it was less likely to be faced up to.
So, when Jesus came he found a culture in which evil was effectively overlooked and seldom faced up to and a culture in which many injustices were rife, and both due in no small measure to hypocrisy. No wonder he laid such emphasis against it.
(====this needs rewriting. However, interestingly, avoidance of so-called hypocrisy has been used to justify many other evils in cultures since then, and seldom less than today. In the area of sexual activity especially it is considered a great evil to pretend sexual wrong does not happen. In fact, it seems held as a great evil to suggest that not everyone participates in extra-marital sexual intercourse!)
Another culture in which personal application was sometimes low was mediaeval Europe. The act of confession, with penances and indulgences, became an easy, religious way of avoiding the penalty of sin, so it seemed. (The consequences of sin were assumed to be unimportant, because the secular was deemed to have no real meaning in itself in those days.) So it did not matter much whether we applied the teachings or not; if we didn't, we merely said a confession, carried out some penance, and the matter was forgotten. By the Church at least. But not by God.
He made this clear again and again. ==== various verses.
Such demands are outstanding, and an affront to human pride. We might be led to think he was being arrogant and dictatorial, and take one of two pagan ways out. One is to say, "Well, he didn't really mean it." The other is to say, "Well, he is Sovereign, so he has every right to make such demands." Both hold some truth, but both are wrong.
Jesus made these demands because he was God, and because God, as king, demands total surrender, commitment, worship, etc. However, as we have seen elsewhere, God is humble by nature (Jesus claimed to be "meek and lowly in heart and you shall find rest for your souls"). His demands are not made out of arrogance, but because the whole of creation should be centred on God in loving dependence for the twin reasons that it leads to the greatest good, and it is part and parcel of love. We humans taste some of this when two people are 'in love' - each makes the other the centre of their lives, affections, attentions, and each would give their all for the other. Since God is love, since he loves us, and since he desires our love, such total demands are to be expected.
God is no easy pushover; he demands our all. But not in a religious sense.
Due to the exile, the Jews had been stunned into taking their religious duty to God much more seriously - they had been cured of 'Babylon'. And so they, quite naturally, believed in the importance of religious observance. But they did not realise what the limits were, and took it far too far.
God's concern was not so much for right ritual or prayers, but to cure the deep illness in the human heart. So when Jesus encountered this mistaken view, he had to correct it. But because he found resistance from those with religious power, he had to use very sharp words, calling them snakes, graces, etc.
But does this mean that law is a hindrance, a bad thing? Not so! Jesus said something very interesting: "Not one iota will be removed from the Law." Whether he was exaggerating or not in saying this does not matter here; what is clear is that he still saw Law as important. But what, precisely what that importance? He did not say in any clear terms. Instead, it was left to one of his later followers to struggle with what the purpose of law is.
In particular, why did he use parables, when they can so easily be misunderstood? Surely God would want us all to have as clear an understanding as possible, and yet parables seem to go against this. When asked Jesus said it was because the people's hearts were hardened against him, and they were always looking and looking but never able to understand. Indeed parables, it seemed, were to prevent them understanding. For years I assumed that this was because Jesus was getting exasperated with them - but it seemed to me a bit unfair.
But it dawned upon me gradually that it was because he did want them to understand, but he knew that, because of their hardness of heart, a direct teaching would simply be rejected. So, instead, he taught them in a way that would stand a chance of being accepted by such people - where they would come across the message by themselves, in private. Some might ponder it and suddenly find themselves thinking "I wonder if X is what he meant. Hm. Maybe what I held to before is not quite right." And so some, at least, might move towards the truth. Even, they would think that they themselves had thought of it, and so they would gain a bit of psychological ownership of the message that would at first have seemed contrary to what they held onto before.
So it seems that the style in which God's messages are couched depends on the characteristics of the recipients. It is not just that he uses different media (shouts, verbals, etc.) but that he adapts to the hearers. Once we see this, we find examples throughout Scripture. Sometimes God seems harsh, sometimes gentle. The Psalmist recognised this when he said,
"You are pure to those who are pure,
But hostile to those who are wicked.
You save those who are humble
But you humble those who are proud." <18:26-27)
From one point of view it would seem obvious that God would communicate differently to different people - but from another point of view we would not expect this at all. In Protestant Christianity, and in Orthodox Judaism, we have treated the sacred writings as a kind of legal textbook. Some Muslims do so even more. It has been made worse, in the West in recent centuries, by infection from rationalism that treats language as a sequence of precise utterances. We treat each sentence and each phrase in Scripture as though it had the same meaning to all people in all situations throughout all time. And we think that if one sentence seems to contradict another then that is a problem.
Scripture's own testimony of itself, via the example of Jesus, is that this is not so. It is not that the message of God is contradictory or false; but it is that the words which are used to embody it depend on the hearers and their circumstances. And which he chooses usually depends on his love and his desire that the greatest number of people shall properly understand, rather than on any other motive. Thus with the parables.
But it also throws some light on what seem troublesome discrepancies between the Old Testament Law and the teachings of Jesus, Messiah. For example:
Does this allow us to interpret Scripture just as we wish - by appealing to differences between our situation and that in which the Scripture was written? No! But the 'No!' is not based on language ("Thus saith the Lord .."), but rather on other things that God has clearly shown. In particular, it is based on the principle that attitude is important: is our attitude one of loving dependence on God, or one of refusal to believe? As the Psalmist suggested, to the complacent, proud, arrogant and lazy God gives harsh warnings, in the hope that they will take him more seriously and repent. But to the concerned, the attentive, who humbly try to please him - and yet find they keep stumbling - God gives messages of comfort.
At this point we change pitch and direction. For several sections up to this one, we have focused on the stern warnings that the Messiah gave, and the demands he imposed. But now we turn to his comfort.
Jesus, the Messiah from God, who knew God's true nature better than anyone else, had to change this attitude. God was still to be taken very seriously, yet God has a father's heart, not a tyrant's heart. Jesus emphasised this. He would speak of "Your heavenly father", and he would show a father's concern himself. He would forgive those who stood in need of it, and he would teach those who were outcasts. He would touch lepers, not just administer healing. He promised that the Spirit of God who was to come would not only be Holy and convicting, but also a comforter. And he would say to the weary crowds,
"Come to me, you who are weary and heavy-laden. And I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek and lowly in heart - and you shall find rest unto your souls." (Matthew 11:28 slightly altered)
But, of all his comfortable words and deeds, there is one that caps all. And it is one that is so huge that it is the reason the Messiah came into the world in the first place. In fact, over the last 2000 years, it is the one thing that has set Christianity apart from all other religions and caused millions of people, from all cultures, to respond to God in love and worship and self-giving. It is that God pays.
And yet God himself pays.
What does he pay? The harm is so enormous, especially when we take into account its repercussions down through millennia, that the only rightful penalty is death. But God knows that we cannot pay this. So he himself takes the initiative and pays the price: God's Messiah suffered and then died. Nobody expected this to happen. But, once we started to see that this is possibly what happened we could start to see that it is just what we would expect from God's humility, and we found that God had mentioned it ahead of time, with prophecies such as:
I won't try to expound this theme, that God himself took the initiative to save us, to pay, rather than leaving it to us. It is so amazing that it deserves all the space in all the books in the world and all the Internet space to discuss it. As I have noted elsewhere, using some words from George Melly, this idea is not found in any other religion this world has known: See shit.html.
That the Messiah is fully God (as well as fully human) - requires some discussion, not least because it had been the source of contention and division for 2000 years. It is much more than a creed or piece of theology, because it has enormous consequences; it is based on much more than a few picked texts, and it may be that of all things communicated to us this is the one for which a broad-sweep approach makes it most clear, compared with a detailed study of texts. Maybe that is why the Messiah himself did not publicise the fact widely?
There are surprisingly few texts in Scripture that state categorically that Jesus of Nazareth was God. Only once is it recorded that he directly claimed to be the (Son of) God, to Western ears at least. Several times he made the claim obliquely, such as when he took to himself the divine name 'I Am' and when he called God 'Father'. But he seemed surprisingly reluctant to claim God-ship for himself. Further, the writers of the rest of the New Testament did not often claim or argue in explicit words that he was God. So it is possible for those who do not wish to believe in the divinity of Jesus to find ways of escape.
Why is this? One answer is that he was not truly God, but that it is just that the early Christians distorted the story to try to show he was. (To me, however, that reasoning is flawed because if that had been the case I would have expected them to do a far better job of distorting the story than they have done so.) A more realistic answer is ties in with God being humble. An early writer recognised this when he wrote to the Philippian Christians:
"Who, being in very nature God
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And, being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death -
even death on a cross!"
Jesus did not wish to bring attention to his divine status, because that was not his style or desire. He was secure in the fact of his status, and did not need to prove it. Rather - and this is another possible reason why he did not wish to - he wanted people to come to the conclusion for themselves. To him it was a matter of fact, not of dogma, that he was divine, and he did not wish people to believe he was divine just because they had been told so. He would much prefer them to believe it because they had worked it out for themselves.
What a shame that the Christian church, for 1900 years at least, has made it a dogma, an article of belief, that they have told us and expected us to believe rather than to find out for ourselves. Ah well, God seems to cope with his people going wrong.
But, back to the broad sweep view. Does it show clearly that Jesus is God? As the broad view does not show anything categorically, nor does it show this categorically, but I believe that it strongly suggests so, for the following reasons:
That the Messiah should be God himself is marvellous, wonderful. Of course, in retrospect, as we have just seen, it makes infinite and exquisite sense that this should be so. But nobody, it seems, had an inkling beforehand that it would be so. It is just like God to exceed our expectations to such a high degree!
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2000. Comments and queries are very welcome.
Last updated: 2 July 2000: revamped God's context-bound message, and wrote God Pays, and a few other touches. 16 July 2000 corrected links. 23 July 2000 widow's mite in little.people; filled out all.same, adding treat.diffntly. 15 October 2000 added re. legalism, and rewrote religiosity. 5 November 2000 added Immanuel. 10 December 2000 Messiah-Surprises. 7 April 2001 this ending. 17 February 2002 God cares for the suffering; link error corrected; link from attitude to israel#rift.pride. 11 April 2004 misunderstand. 3 February 2007 unet.