The teaching of Jesus Christ in the Gospels includes the substance of all Christian doctrine, but it does not bear the character of finality. Never was teaching more natural than his. It was drawn forth by occasions as they arose. It shaped itself to the character, the words, and the acts of those he met in the highway. It borrowed its imagery from the circumstances and scenery of the moment. Such teaching as this would not seem likely to embrace the whole circle of truth. We should expect to find it partial and fragmentary; full in some points deficient in others, according as the occasions for evoking it had or had not arisen.
The manifestation of the Son of God would not be governed by accident, but by a providential appointment and the most perfect conditions in order that he who came from God to speak the words of God might adequately accomplish his mission. So it came to pass that not only in set discourses (which seldom occur), but in transient conversations and sudden replies, in words drawn out in response to needs, by the temptations of enemies or by the errors of disciples, in strong denunciations of the wicked, the mind of Christ has been expressed on all points, and the store of divine sentences is full.
Every doctrine later expanded in the Epistles has its root in some pregnant saying in the Gospels. All the past and all the future teaching of the New Testament are gathered up in the record of that short ministry in the flesh and when we follow the words of the apostles we are still within the compass of the words of the Lord Jesus. The doctrine delivered in the Gospels appears to need, and to promise, further explanations, combinations and developments. The character of that ministry on the whole was introductory. It was so in its form, in its method, and in its substance.
The form of Christ’s teaching
The general teaching of Christ in respect of its form is cast in the mould of parable or proverb. This is especially, although not completely, the case in the first three Gospels as compared with the fourth. These parables and proverbs, complete in themselves, terse and pointed are fitted to arouse reflection and to fix the mind on some principle of thought or conduct. This characteristic of Christ’s teaching does not exist in that of his apostles. It is distinctive and falls in the character of initiation awaiting the germinating fullness.
The essence of proverbial speech is that it detaches itself from particular occasions, that it has a capacity for various applications and a fitness for permanent use, and embraces large meaning within narrow limits. It is therefore well fitted for declaring the great principles of Christian thought, and to leave them among men for all times and all occasions. Yet, this form of teaching belongs to the introduction of knowledge. It seems to set the mind working, and to rouse the spirit of inquiry by partial or disguised discoveries of truth. This was the main form of teaching to the multitudes and to his disciples it was obviously less so. To them “it was given to know the mysteries of the God” yet to them also, through all their time of training, we see that this mode of speech was widely used: “These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father.” (John 16:25) The words remain a sufficient testimony that the form used by Christ was the mark of an introductory stage indicating a pledge that more is to follow.
The method of Christ’s teaching
To a great degree the method seems to be responses to chance occasions as replies were given to individuals and explanations were added to particular acts. It is in these communications, rather than in deliberate discourses, that the higher revelations of his Gospel are for the most part contained. Moral principles were delivered at the set discourses (e.g. Sermon on the Mount) but in private, in response to questions in set circumstances, amongst sighs and sorrows. the mysteries of salvation were given with plain assurance. It would hardly appear likely that such a mode of teaching was intended to be final, rather we should expect it to prove (as in fact it did) the introductory announcement of a coming system of truth in which the several sayings would discover their cohesion and the condensed assertions would expand into their fullness.
The substance of the doctrine
Men fly to the Sermon on the Mount, and linger over parables and discourses which instruct us in the great original truths of the Fatherhood of God, of heartfelt prayer, of love and forgiveness, of lowliness, truth, of obedience and self-sacrifice, of confidence in pardoning mercy, and of faith in him (yet only general and preliminary) whom God has sent.
It is indeed true that in reading the synoptic Gospels we meet with few expressions and definite assertions of the mediatorial work of Christ; and if we exclude those few strong sayings, and are content to take the lowest meaning of every expression that sounds ambiguous, and are resolutely insensitive to his miracles we can perhaps arrive at the Gospel of John with no higher convictions than were expressed by the inquirer whom we find uttering the dubious acknowledgment, “Master we know that thou art a teacher come from God.” (John 3:2)
But having acknowledged this much, we must from this point acknowledge much more. We find that in the Gospel of John collected scattered sayings, in which from time to time, Christ asserts his highest offices and opened the mystery of his work. One after another the great testimonies concerning himself fall on our ears; yet in regard to every one of them, we are made to feel that the intimations given are beyond the apprehensions of the hearers, and this not only on account of the dullness of particular persons, but because the testimonies imply events which have not yet happened, and are fragments of a revelation for which the hour is not yet come. Glance through some of these sayings: 1) “Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19): 2) “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5); 3) “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:15); 4) “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14); 5) “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)
These sayings and many others like them, are spoken to hearers whose perplexity is apparent, and are at the time left unexplained to await the light which they are to receive from future events and later discoveries for as yet Jesus had not yet died nor had there been a resurrection. Instructions in faith, concerning himself must wait their perfecting until the things concerning him have become clear. Instructions in our relations to God have not attained their completion while the grounds for forgiveness and acceptance are in any matter obscure.
The Lord’s personal teaching of forgiveness contained no mention of any intercessor, no hint of sacrifice or other atonement e.g.“forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37); “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much” (Luke 7:47); “I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me” (Matthew 18:32); “ (He) smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:13-14). Yet at other times he is seen as the channel of forgiveness: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6); “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). These sayings give a momentary insight into the depths of the subject, and disclose something of the means by which forgiveness has been procured, and through which, when once revealed, it must be sought. It is evident that such a revelation cannot remain as a mere associated idea but that it must become fundamental. In a future stage of divine teaching we find the hope of forgiveness is placed forever on its true basis of faith in Christ: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7)
How earnest and how strong are Christ’s declarations on the subject of prayer; giving assurances that through earnestness, importunity and simplicity, worshippers who have a general faith in the Father, will be given good things to those who ask Him. We might even be ready to go simply to God as the Father yet, he who has taught us up to this stage adds something more: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” and “If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:6, 14) When fully comprehended this accession of revelation gives the characteristics to the whole Christian doctrine and to the whole Christian habit of prayer. The consequences of this divine teaching intimates a further stage in instruction in which the access to the Father by the Son shall be recognised as the true grounds of the full assurance of faith for him who draws near to God in prayer.
The argument then stands that the doctrine of the Gospel includes special revelation which must from their nature become the foundations of moral and spiritual life. But in the doctrine of the Gospels they are not so treated, nor could they be, since the revelations themselves are chiefly anticipatory allusions to facts which have not yet taken place. The doctrine does not therefore bear the character of finality. We expect another stage in which these special revelations shall not only be cleared and combined, but shall hold that fundamental place in the whole system of instruction, we are only in the initiatory stage of divine teaching.
The personal teaching of Christ is a visibly progressive system
If you place side by side the first discourse of Christ’s teaching in the Gospel of Matthew alongside the last found in John you will see that the teaching of Jesus is a visibly progressive system. The Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of the ministry, and the address in the upper room delivered at its close are separated from each other, not only by a difference of circumstance and feeling, but as implying on the part of the hearers wholly different stages in the knowledge of truth.
The first discourse is the voice of a minister of circumcision confirming the teaching of the Law and Prophets. Blessings, laws and promises are all alike founded on the Old Testament language which the speaker at the same time adopts and interprets. He keeps in line with the past, while he makes a clear step in advance. He gives, not so much a new code as a new edition of the old one. As plainly as the first discourse links itself to the past, so plainly does the last discourse reach on to the future. Now, in John, it is a relationship of Christ to the spiritual life of his people: “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me”; “Abide in me and I in you.” How foreign would such words have been in the Sermon on the Mount! By the time we come to John all subjects have assumed their distinctively Christian character; faith fixes itself on Christ, and on the Father through him; prayer is in his name (14:14); love is a response to His love; (15:9); service is the fruit of union with Him (15:13-21); hope is to be where He is (14:2); to abide in Him is the secret of life, safety, fruitfulness and joy (15:1-8); and the guiding power in this new state is not the explanation of a law, but the gift of the Holy Spirit. Compare these ideas with the those which characterize the first Gospel teaching, and see how far you have been carried from the point at which you started. You see how much must have intervened in the gradual revelation of Christ, and in the gradual advance of his teaching before such a stage of doctrine could be reached.
And much had intervened. To show how much, it would be necessary to trace through all the Gospel record the unfolding of salvation. It is enough to recall that, through all the works of mercy, the correction of error, and the instructions in righteousness, a deeper lesson yet is sinking into the minds of his hearers in the growing sense of a profound and ineffable relation borne by him to the human race and to every soul. Now he stands before men as the one object on which faith must fasten, as the one who has power on earth to forgive sins, who is come to seek and save that which is lost, who gives rest to the heavy laden, as the giver of eternal life, as the quickener of the dead, as the bread of life which came down from heaven that a man may eat thereof and not die, as giving his flesh for the life of the world, his life a ransom for many, his blood as the blood of the new covenant shed for many for the remission of sins. Testimonies like this gather as we advance; and while Christ in his ordinary teaching fulfills his mission as the expounder of the laws, and the example of character, and the prophet of the destinies of the Kingdom of God, he discloses at the same time by these scattered sayings a far deeper and more fundamental relation to that kingdom and to all its several members. Yet, while these disclosures are yet in progress they are suddenly cut off. The ministry must end; the hour is come. We enter the upper room and attend the last discourse, which is the close and the consummation of the teaching of the Lord on earth.
The completion of the cross and the resurrection and reflection on them would not be sufficient. While he was with them in body a spiritual union with him was hard to conceive. Jesus, himself introduced the need for a new teacher who would bring remembrance of what he taught (John14:26). The guidance shall be in the area of glorifying Christ. He would explain the great and central nature and work of Christ – “he shall testify of me.” They could not comprehend redemption through his blood, mediatorial relations; the church; but they would be shown these things. In the apostolic writings we find the fulfillment of an expectation which the gospels raise and fulfillment of a promise given. Without this new stage the gospels would still be an enigma. The epistles are not Petrine, Pauline or Alexandrian versions of the substance of the life of Christ but the subsequent witness of the Holy Spirit. No longer is the speaking in parables and proverbs but plain language.
The unity of the New Testament
The unity of the New Testament lies in this, that it is the teaching of one mind, the mind of Christ which comes from his own lips in the days of his flesh. Firstly we have the facts and then the interpretation. We need all the facts for the doctrine cannot be understood until the crucifixion and the resurrection have happened. The life of Christ is the basis for meeting the needs of those who received the New Testament letters. It is only through knowledge of his life that we understand we have been reconciled by his death and understand we are saved by his life. From the work and life of Christ we find the source of our rules and motive of conduct.