What was the central message of Jesus of Nazareth?

What was the central message of Jesus of Nazareth?

All good teachers know that, if they want to impress something upon their students, telling them only once is not enough.  In order to drive home important ideas, teachers (and parents!) not only repeat themselves, but find different ways of communicating the same ideas.

Rather frequently Jesus was called a teacher, both by follower and foe alike (11x in Mark; actually, 14x, if we include the term “rabbi”, which more or less means teacher–so John 1.38).  And on occasion Jesus referred to himself as a teacher (e.g., Mark 14.14; Matthew 10.24; 23.8, 10).

While the concept of a “teacher” in 1st-century Judea doesn’t correspond fully to our 21st-century North American concept, the two meaningfully overlap.  In our culture teachers primarily serve a cognitive function:  teachers impart information.  In the first-century world teachers served to bring about a deeper, more comprehensive behavioral formation.  If today’s teachers are about informing, teachers then were about forming.  Such a deeper formation, however, is not lost on us today, since teachers are regularly cited as significantly impacting people’s lives.  We see the formative and exemplary nature of the role of the teacher in the following words from Jesus:

“A student is not above their teacher, nor a servant above their master. It is enough for students to be like their teacher, and servants like their master.” (Mt. 10.24-25)

(It’s worth noting that the Greek word that most English versions usually translate “disciple” can also be translated “student” or “apprentice” and appears 46x in Mark’s gospel.)

So as a teacher, what did Jesus emphasize?  Did he have a central message that he repeated and communicated in different ways? 

One could make a very good case that he did.  Consider the following survey of statements from Jesus:

1. “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”  (Mk. 8.35; Luke 9.24; in Mt. 16.25, losing one’s life leads not to “saving” it but “finding” it.)

2. “Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted.”  (Mt. 23.12; twice in Luke, 14.11; 18.14)

3. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10.43-44; Mt. 20.26-27); similarly,

3a. “Let the greatest among you be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Lk. 22.26); also,

3b. “The one who is the least among you–this one is the greatest.”  (Lk. 9.48)

4. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last and servant of all.” (Mk. 9.35)

5. “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”  (Mk. 10.31; twice in Matthew, 19.30; 20.16; Luke 13.30)

We will unpack and synthesize these statements in a moment, but let’s add a few more first.  Above we said that being a teacher means not only communicating wisdom but exemplifying, or embodying, that wisdom.  If this is true, then one would expect to find that, as a teacher, Jesus would speak of himself in ways similar to the statements above.  And this is indeed what we find.

In fact, in close proximity to several of the statements above we find Jesus relating his teaching to his own life.  For example, just after Mark 10.43-44 (#3 above), Jesus says, “For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In John’s gospel we read another statement of his teaching, in which he again make reference to himself:

6.  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” (12:23-26)

Here we recognize a variation of #1 above:  instead of “losing” unto “saving/finding” one’s life, there is the language of “hating” unto “keeping” one’s life; but here Jesus connects it to his imminent death–or “glorification” as John (paradoxically) calls it.  In short, Jesus will practice what he preaches.

But the other gospels even more explicitly record that Jesus taught this about himself regularly:

7.  Mark states that Jesus “began to teach them [i.e., the disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8.31).  Mark later states that Jesus “was teaching disciples…” this same thing.

Began to teach”; “was teaching”; this is clearly an ongoing lesson.

Indeed, Mark, Matthew, and Luke each have Jesus foretelling his dying and rising three different times.  In each gospel, the final ‘foretelling’ is the most telling:  “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)

The Son of man, Jesus says, will lose his life, only to receive it back three days later.

To summarize, we find in the gospels Jesus giving more or less the same message in (at least) seven distinct ways.

So now for some synthesis:  just what was this message?

Simply this:  all must “lose” (or “hate”) their “life” / “humble themselves” / “die” / “be rejected” / “become last” / “become a servant,” if they are to “gain” (or “keep”) their “life” / “be exalted” / “live” / “become great “/ “be one who rules.”  And Jesus himself will lead the way.  He will go first.

But just what does all this mean?  The idea of “losing one’s life” could be (and has been) interpreted in different ways, but its immediate context indicates that it fits with the other ideas of “humbling oneself,” “becoming a servant / being last”:  it concerns one’s status in the eyes of the world.  How so?

The language of ‘losing one’s life’ comes in the context of Jesus insisting that his followers must “take up their cross.”  The cross was the most powerful way–in both Jewish and Roman cultures–of publically declaring that a person’s values and allegiances were dangerously and irreconcilably at odds with those of their society.  As such, the cross was an act of public humiliation and exclusion.

To be crucified was to become “the last”–i.e., the least.  Hence, to “lose one’s life” is to lose one’s reputation in the courts of one’s culture, to fail to meet the status criteria set forth by human civilization, and so be a pariah.

Luke’s Jesus most explicitly sets the values and allegiances of the world (with all their status implications) and those of Israel’s God in strongest opposition:  “What is highly valued among men,” says Jesus, “is detestable in the sight of God.”

In the immediate context, “what is highly valued” is wealth (Luke 16.14-15), but the status-enhancing values of the world, which vary in some measure from culture to culture, include the following:  physical appearance (including one’s physique and fashion), education, social connections, brawn (e.g., athletic prowess), pedigree (in all its various forms, including nationality, ethnicity, race), acquired competencies and capacities of all sorts (e.g., eloquence or musical aptitude), personality (e.g., wit or gregariousness), age (whether old age or, as in our own culture, youth), etc., etc.

Jesus’ central teaching, then, demands that all abandon (“die” to) these default values of humanity, which determine human status (or ‘greatness’) in ways utterly antithetical to the values of the future worldwide reign of Israel’s God.  But this teaching also promises that, in exchange for present humiliation and rejection, there will be future exaltation and vindication.  He more or less claimed that he would prove all this in Jerusalem.

If this was in fact Jesus’ central teaching, it raises an interesting question:  how did his student-disciples respond?  The answer is as amazing as it is disturbing.

The gospels record that, prior to his death, Jesus’ disciples never really got it.  That’s right.

We recall from above that “Jesus began to teach” his disciples these things.  That is, there is a point in his ministry when Jesus begins and continues in earnest to communicate his central teaching.  When?  Just after his disciples conclude that he, Jesus, is the Messiah (or “Christ”)–i.e., God’s agent to bring about His reign in the world, the one whose destiny will determine the destiny of Israel’s faithful–indeed, of any who would bow their knee in allegiance to him.

Once the disciples conclude this, only then does Jesus “begin to teach” them.  He will indeed bring about God’s reign, but it will be through his universal rejection and public humiliation.  Famously, Peter’s (quite probably representative) response constitutes an allergic reaction:  he rebukes Jesus (“Never, Lord!”).  Surely, Jesus, the answer to Israel’s plight, will be celebrated by Israel, for what she values and what he values are so…similar, right?

In response, Jesus first rebukes Peter, whose words possibly recall Satan’s invitation to receive “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” without having to endure any humiliation from the world of men–hence, Jesus’ words, “Get behind me, Satan; you do not have in mind the things [i.e., the values, concerns, agendas] of God but the things [the values, concerns, and agendas] of men.”

Jesus then states plainly that yes, faithful Israelites, will indeed share in the destiny of their Messiah, but that destiny first involves being rejected by the world along with the Messiah, with the assurance of sharing in his future vindication and reign “when he comes in his Father’s glory.”

So the disciples’ initial reaction to Jesus’ central teaching is allergic.  His teaching is utterly foreign, nearly incomprehensible to them.  And it remains so until the end.  He again foretells his death and resurrection, and their response is bewilderment and fear (Mark 9.32).

In response to subsequent narratives the reader does not know whether to laugh or to cry at the simultaneously comic and tragic inability of the disciples to learn their teacher’s central lesson:  they argue amongst themselves over who is the greatest; they turn away children (i.e., those of little/no status), brought to Jesus for blessing; they are astonished that a rich person (i.e., one of high status) stands almost no chance of entering the kingdom; James and John work the angle to sit at Jesus’ right and left “in his glory”–having the gall to address him as “Teacher”; indeed, on the night of his betrayal, as they are celebrating the Passover / last supper with their Lord, Luke states that once again “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.”  They still don’t get it.  Against the backdrop of their insistence that they would die with Jesus before disowning him, their collective abandonment (and Peter’s repeated denial) betrays that Jesus’ central lesson is the hardest lesson to learn.

But they do learn it.  And, when they do, the world is never the same again.

Luke, the same author who records the disciples’ two petty disputes over “greatness”, goes on tell how these very same disciples publically defy–and die at the hands of–the very same authorities who murdered Jesus.  Just as their Teacher had spoken in a bold, matter-of-fact manner of his own rejection (Mark 8.32–“He spoke plainly about this”), so now his student-disciples were speaking in the same bold, matter-of-fact manner (see Acts 4.13, 29, 31; for Paul and others, 9.27-28; 13.46; 14.3; 18.26; 19.8; 26.26; climactically at 28.31).  Clearly, the formerly Jesus-denying, now w0rld-defying disciples weren’t “playing the rules” any more.

What happened?  How did the penny finally drop?

To answer that question, we must return to Jesus’ central message itself. The observant reader will notice that Jesus communicated it in several distinct (but inseparable) rhetorical forms–what we will call (1) an exhortation and (2) an inevitability.  Here’s an example of each:

Exhortation:  “Let the one who rules become like the one who serves.”

Inevitability:  “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted” or “The last will be first.”

This is, if you will, a classic conception of the ethics of ancient Israel:  “what to do” is rooted in “what will come true.”  Or, to state it in one-dollar words, ethics is rooted in eschatology.  (There is a third, correlative rhetorical form–viz., the ultimatum:  “Unless you change and become like little children [i.e., persons of little/no status in the world], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”)

This distinction between “exhortation” and “inevitability” (or ethics and eschatology), in my estimation, provides a central explanation for both the ongoing inability of the disciples to “learn” their Teacher’s central lesson and their radical embrace and execution of it.  It is simply this:  the (supposed) future inevitability became an undeniable present reality through Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

That is, in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the last and least had become first and foremost; the one who had utterly humbled himself had been utterly vindicated; the one who had lost (and “hated”) his own life for others had gained it forever.

In Jesus’ resurrection the Creator had once and for all decisively spoken, condemning humanity’s default criteria for determining human significance and status and commending the primary criterion for ‘greatness’ in His coming reign–namely, service, the expending of one’s resources for the good of another.

Into this self-humiliation and service Jesus went alone.  Herein lies the reason that I marvel at Jesus and consider him worthy of my sole allegiance:  he defied the world’s deeply elitist and exploitative values and status criteria all by himself; he went down serving alone–why?–because he trusted Israel’s God:  “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And in so doing he demonstrated to the world the Father’s faithfulness:  inevitability had given way to reality.  But in so doing he also demonstrated to the world the Father’s forgiveness.  While Jesus called out his disciples, insisting, “Follow me” into taking up their cross and being rejected by the world’s deeply disordered and “detestable” values, he took up His own cross alone:  having been unjustly forsaken by his disciples and by the world, he would be unfairly forsaken by his Father–why?–because the world, including the leading influencers among his fellow Israelites, had inexcusably forsaken the Creator’s duly ordered and delightful values–i.e., “the weightier matters of the law:  justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (see Jer. 9.24; Matt. 23.23).

And so, when the disciples beheld Jesus, risen and ascending, inevitability became reality.  Once filled with his Spirit, they boldly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection-vindication and exaltation to the Father’s right hand:  “Let all Israel be assured of this:  God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah,” says an emboldened Peter at Pentecost.

So Jesus’ central message:  turn from the chronically disordered and detestable values of the world that we ourselves have embraced and follow Him into losing your life by serving the world and being rejected by it, so that we might be vindicated and exalted by His and our Father, who has forgiven us because has forsaken His Son.

Four brief observations:

First, Jesus’ teaching authorizes greatness:  Jesus was not an egalitarian; rather than denying our (God-given) thirst for status (see Gen. 1; Ps. 8), Jesus redeems that thirst by redirecting it:  pursue greatness through selflessness.

Second, Jesus’ teaching democratizes (or universalizes) greatness:  whereas the world’s values and status criteria are elitist–only a few can occasionally actually meet these criteria, according to Jesus’ kingdom-standards, all–great and small, black and white, rich or poor, etc.–can serve.  This democratization is embodied in the climactic narrative of the widow’s offering:  she gave more than all the others.

Third, Jesus’ teaching eternalizes greatness:  Jesus redefined greatness forever, thereby damning all other definitions and the values underlying them.  There is, then, a sobering “dark side” to the “inevitability” of Jesus’ message:  “those who exalt themselves will be humiliated”; “the first will be last”; “whoever saves and loves their life will lose it.”  We must, says Jesus, heed the above ultimatum:  “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom.”

Finally, Jesus’ teaching empowers greatness:  it liberates us to live extraordinary lives, enabling our own broken lives to begin to take the same wondrous shape as Jesus’ own–humiliation unto exaltation; it frees us to lose our lives, something we all can do.  It gives us permission to let go of what we cannot hold onto anyway.

This was–and, according to disciples, still is–the central message of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is hope. It is wisdom. It is peace. It is freedom. It is eternal life.

Jesus says to you, to me, and to the world:  “Come, follow me.”

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