From the May/June 2023 Discern issue of Discern Magazine

Jesus the Teacher: How Did Jesus Teach?

Jesus Christ was history’s greatest teacher. As a teacher, He mastered and used a wide variety of teaching methods. What were Jesus’ teaching methods? 

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Shortly after Jesus cleansed the temple, He had a fascinating encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was one of a few religious leaders who were receptive to Christ’s teaching. It’s recorded that he came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God” (John 3:2, emphasis added throughout).

Nicodemus called Jesus “Rabbi” and “teacher.”

Rabbi was a title given to highly respected and distinguished Jewish teachers. It didn’t simply mean teacher, but literally my great one. It described a Jewish teacher who was highly esteemed and credible. Jesus was called Rabbi a dozen times in the four Gospels.

The second word that Nicodemus used was a more general word for a teacher—didaskalos in the Greek text.

Jesus was unequivocally the greatest teacher who ever lived.

One of the most impressive elements of Jesus the Teacher was His incredibly diverse array of teaching styles and strategies. He always employed the most effective method for any particular person, group or situation.

Let’s examine four of His teaching methods.

Teaching method 1: Jesus masterfully captured attention and interest.

To teach you have to capture your students’ attention. If a teacher doesn’t grab their attention quickly, meaningful learning is less likely to occur. Sometimes educators refer to an attention-grabbing device as a hook.

Jesus was a master at this.

His shocking statements were intended to capture the attention of His listeners and get them to think.Consider His conversation with Nicodemus. After Nicodemus’ greeting, Jesus made a startling statement: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus had some understanding of the Kingdom, but never connected it to this concept.

Naturally, Jesus’ statement led Nicodemus to ask a series of legitimate questions. That was by design! Jesus specifically structured His statement to cause Nicodemus to think and then ask questions. Jesus used His answers to teach concepts about the Kingdom of God that Nicodemus needed to learn.

Like most Jews, Nicodemus saw the Kingdom as something strictly physical—a Jewish kingdom over the Holy Land. But Jesus used this teaching opportunity to expand his understanding, showing that the Kingdom is much more than a physical nation, and actually includes a change from flesh to spirit and being born into a new family. (To learn more about this conversation, read “What Does It Mean to Be Born Again?”)

Another example of Jesus using this teaching technique is found in two stunning statements He made in Luke 14. First, He said that to be a true disciple, one had to “hate his father and mother, wife and children . . . yes, and his own life also” (Luke 14:26). He then followed that up by saying: “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (verse 27).

The people listening may have thought: “Is He saying I have to hate my own family? And, on top of that, I need to volunteer to be crucified?”

Of course, Jesus was using two shocking hooks to emphasize the absolute commitment required to follow Him. He was talking about priorities and self-sacrifice, not literally hating one’s family or volunteering to be crucified.

His shocking statements were intended to capture the attention of His listeners and get them to think.

Teaching method 2: Jesus taught through perfectly constructed questions.

Teaching through questions is one of the oldest teaching methods. It’s often called the Socratic method, though it predates the Greek philosopher Socrates.

Questions can be a powerful teaching strategy to stimulate deeper thinking. They can also spark follow-up questions that give the teacher an opportunity to drill even deeper. Questions help engage a student’s mind and force him or her to be an active learner.

The four Gospels show that Jesus asked a lot of questions. This wasn’t because He lacked answers, of course! He used questions as a teaching tool. He strategically designed His questions to nudge people to think more deeply, come to the right answer themselves, or to frame the more direct answer He’d give later.

Consider some of the famous questions He asked:

  • “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).
  • “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am? . . . But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13, 15).
  • “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it?” (Mark 9:50).
  • “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
  • “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” (Luke 10:26).
  • “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” (verse 36).
  • “If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath?” (John 7:23).

Questions are good! Bible students should always be asking questions and diligently studying God’s Word to find the answers.

Teaching method 3: Jesus masterfully used illustrations to drive His lessons home.

Good teachers understand the power of illustration, especially for visual learners. Sometimes the most effective way to teach a concept is not just by verbalizing it, but by demonstrating it visually. This can be done through a picture, a physical demonstration, a well-constructed analogy or a prop.

Jesus often made very effective use of illustrations.

One amazing example is found in Matthew 18. The disciples had just asked Him, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (verse 1). Instead of simply answering the question, He “called a little child to Him [and] set him in the midst of them” (verse 2). Jesus may have allowed the disciples to observe the child’s behavior for a few moments.

Then He used that example to frame His point: “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me” (verses 3-5).

Jesus could have answered the original question simply by saying, “Be converted and humble.” But instead, He masterfully used the child to visually illustrate His point.

In another instance, Jesus used words for different-sized rocks to make a point (Matthew 16:17-18). When He called Simon a petros (a fragment, a stone), is it possible He picked up a small stone to illustrate Peter’s relative smallness? Then perhaps He could have directed their attention to a nearby mountain or boulder when He likened Himself to the petra (a mass of rock).

Peter was like a pebble compared to Him, the massive, immovable foundation upon which His Church would be built.

Teaching method 4: Jesus delivered compelling and dynamic direct instruction.

The previous examples featured teaching strategies Jesus used for individuals or small groups. But He also used the more traditional lecture approach, or direct instruction, when teaching larger groups or in a more formal setting.

His direct instruction sessions included the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the instruction He gave the apostles before sending them out (Matthew 10), His parables to the multitudes (Matthew 13), His discourse on prophecy at the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24-25), and His final words to the disciples before His arrest (John 14-16).

What truly made His teaching sessions unique was how He taught. After Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, “the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).

Jesus didn’t teach in a dry, overly academic manner. Nor did He base His teachings on the varying opinions of long-dead scholars and rabbis. He taught authoritatively, confidently and clearly. His teaching was both profound and practical.

Jesus firmly grounded His teachings on the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. By some counts, the Gospels record Him quoting the Old Testament 78 times. However, His own words also carried absolute authority since He was the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14) and He had a message to give from the Father (John 14:10).

Keep learning from the Master Teacher

Any teacher would be wise to closely study Jesus’ diverse array of teaching methods. But one doesn’t have to be an educator to benefit from His teaching. The primary reason we should study His teaching is to learn what He taught.

This highlights the importance of education in true Christianity. Unlike many modern forms of religion, often centered on emotion or ritual, God’s way is centered on learning and understanding. True Christians must learn and grow in their understanding of the Bible and put those teachings into practice in their daily lives.

Jesus said that someone who builds his or her life on His teachings is like “a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).

So, build your life on the rock of the Master Teacher and . . .

Walk as He walked.

About the Author

Erik Jones

Erik Jones

Erik Jones is a full-time writer and editor at the Life, Hope & Truth offices in McKinney, Texas.

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Discern Article Series

Christ Versus Christianity
Walk as He Walked
Christianity in Progress
Wonders of God's Creation