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Teacher or Savior?

If you have to choose between a savior and a teacher, the savior wins, hands down. At least that is the Christian view, where Jesus as Savior appears to overshadow Jesus as Teacher. The great religions of the world all provide teachers of profound ethical wisdom. Only Christianity announces a Savior who dies in the repentant sinner’s place.

In one encounter, a prominent teacher in Israel honors Jesus as a fellow teacher, as a colleague, and more—a “teacher sent from God.” Jesus instantly warns him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Obviously, from this and the rest of Jesus’ speech, Nicodemus needed a Savior, not a teacher. He, and those he represented, needed to be born from above, to be baptized by water and the Spirit. Otherwise, Jesus’ words originating from above must remain an enigma.1

But it is too facile to simply dismiss Jesus the Teacher of Wisdom, in favor of Jesus the Savior. According to John 2:24–3:2, Nicodemus was a prime example of those who trusted in Jesus but who could not be trusted by Jesus. This inadequate belief by those who could not be trusted was based on the “signs” Jesus did, the miracles he performed, not on his teachings. Nicodemus pointed to the miracles: “No one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (John 3:2). But in the Gospel of John, it was as a teacher that Jesus revealed the truth about his heavenly origin, as well as the truth that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” In the Gospel of John, alleged by some to be empty of ethical instruction, Jesus teaches his followers about their urgent need for a deep mutual love measured against the unity and love of the Godhead that led Jesus to the cross. Jesus promised the teaching ministry of his successor, the Spirit who would guide the believers into all truth.

Beware of those who would dispense with Jesus the Teacher out of a misguided loyalty to Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Savior. Admittedly, the epistles of Paul show little interest in quoting the earthly Jesus. Instead, Paul draws out from Jesus’ death and resurrection a way of life for those who are “in Christ Jesus.” But any conflict between Paul and the Gospels is more apparent than real. Paul’s ethics for those who are “in Christ Jesus” turns out to be consistent with the ethics taught by the earthly Jesus on his way to the cross, as the Gospel of Mark makes abundantly clear. This shouldn’t surprise us, since the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven were taught by the King who died on the cross.

Jesus intended that his teachings be given prominence and put into practice. The great teaching Gospel, Matthew, ends with Jesus commanding his disciples to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them to keep all that he had commanded them (Matt. 28:19, 20). Surely the content of this teaching was centered in Jesus’ programmatic Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. To follow Jesus means to hear these particular words of Jesus and to do them, to put them into practice. To do otherwise is to risk hearing Jesus declare, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of iniquity” (Matt. 7:23). The wise listener hears the words of Jesus and does them; the fool disregards them to his eternal loss (Matt. 7:24–27).

There is a remarkable consistency regarding the teachings of Jesus throughout the New Testament. The Beatitudes of Jesus given at the beginning of his teaching career can be matched point for point by the exhortations of Paul, the apostle of the Cross. Wherever we look—whether in the Sermon on the Mount or the parable stories or the epistles of various apostles or even the book of Revelation, the principles of the kingdom emerge—an assertive and even creative love; a humility that looks out for the interests of others; forgiveness extended for real wrongs; a rejoicing in the accomplishments of others; a life of integrity, faithfulness, and mercy; and above and beneath all, an abiding gratitude for the extraordinary kindness of God, supremely evident in Christ Jesus.

The Gospels and Paul agree not only on the standards of conduct of the believer. They also agree on the basis of salvation in grace apart from human achievements. Take a close look at the foundations of the Sermon of the Mount to see that Jesus did not impose a works based salvation, in contrast to the grace and faith based message of Paul’s gospel. There Jesus invites entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven through the gateway of repentance (4:17). To show us more clearly the contours of that vital repentance and to nail down its relationship to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Teacher offers the Beatitudes, which begin with a clear statement of grace: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—those who acknowledge their spiritual poverty—“for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Jesus taught that inclusion in the Kingdom of Heaven is based on a humble honesty in the presence of a gracious God, not on the basis of heroic religious or ethical accomplishments, whether present or future.

Later, in a story recalled by Luke, the Teacher spoke of two men seeking God’s favor—one claiming strenuous and pious deeds to his credit, the other with nothing but a desperate need. Only the repentant one who cried out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” went home in a saved and saving relationship with God (Luke 18:13). The Kingdom of Heaven could be entrusted to the sinful tax collector but not to the pious Pharisee, whose self-righteousness led him to look with scorn on lesser mortals.

On the cross, the Teacher laid down his life as the Savior of sinners. All great teachers enact their instruction. The greatest Teacher was no exception. The death of the Teacher on behalf of his disciples has become the guiding star of Christian ethics. Jesus taught in advance of the action, “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also come not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Notes and References

1. The “you” in “You must be born again” (John 3:7) is plural in the Greek, as are the second person pronouns in vs. 11b and 12.

Ernie Bursey teaches religion at the Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences, in Orlando, Florida.

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