READ : Matthew 13:53-58
One of the arresting testimonies of Jesus’ contemporaries to his unique personality was this: “No one ever spoke like this man.” Let’s find out why.
Had he done nothing else in all his public life but speak, Jesus would still be remembered as one of the most famous men of history. He would be the greatest preacher of all time. Again and again in the New Testament we read of the astonished reaction of the crowds who thronged to listen to Jesus speak. “They were amazed at him,” the gospel writer Mark reports. “The large crowd listened to him with delight” (Mark 12:17, 37). Adds Matthew, “The crowds were amazed at his teaching” (Matthew 7:29). Of course, Jesus’ powerful public preaching and teaching also earned him the enmity of some. The Jerusalem authorities were envious of his popularity. But even they indirectly attest to his greatness. On one occasion the chief priests sent out their armed security force with orders to seize Jesus as he was teaching in the Temple. The guards returned empty-handed, and when asked to explain their failure to arrest a single, unarmed man in a public place, they said simply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46).
Or consider this incident from early in Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus first came to public attention in Galilee, he moved to the city of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This became his base of operations as he crisscrossed the region spreading his teaching throughout the towns and villages of Galilee (see Matthew 4:23; 9:35). But one day, when he decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth, this is what happened.
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”
And they took offense at him.
But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”
And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
What amazed the people of Nazareth was not just the miracles Jesus did, though they were certainly astonished by the power he demonstrated. But the first thing they mentioned was his wisdom. All these residents of Nazareth would have known Jesus since he was a boy. They knew his family, his parents, brothers and sisters. And the thing they found overwhelming was the fact that Jesus spoke with such eloquence, insight and authority. It left them simply astonished and incredulous. Jesus was one of them, they had watched him grow up, he had gone to the local synagogue and school. He had probably spent years – in fact, until just recently – working quietly in his father’s carpenter shop. Where in the world had he learned to talk like that, to teach such profound truth in such an arresting manner?
JESUS’ ASTONISHING WISDOM
Before we try to answer that question, let’s stop and look at what made Jesus’ teaching so special. Three elements made Jesus’ wisdom remarkable. First, his teaching was profound in content, but simple in style. Jesus had a special gift of putting the deepest truths in the plainest way – that’s why common, ordinary people listened to him so eagerly. Unlike most philosophers or theologians, Jesus didn’t need to use big words and convoluted sentences to express his thoughts. A while ago I was reading about a theology professor from the University of Chicago who wrote a new book which was supposed to be the latest thing in religious philosophy. When one of his colleagues on the divinity school faculty was asked about it he said, “I’ve read the book but I must confess I don’t know what he’s talking about.” You never have that problem when you’re listening to Jesus.
The second element which makes Jesus’ wisdom remarkable is his gift for expressing abstract truths in concrete images. He not only made truth understandable; he made it memorable. He drove home his message with vivid, unforgettable word pictures. On the need to react to personal insults with patience and humility, Jesus said this: “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him.” When urging his followers to be agents for preserving and enhancing the good of their societies, Jesus told them they were to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He was also famous for his true-to-life stories, which we call the parables. Jesus had the knack of sketching a scenario in a few brief sentences that taught lessons we still have not fully comprehended two thousand years later. Once Jesus was asked what a person’s most important moral duty was. “Love God,” he replied, “and love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself.” “But who is my neighbor,” the questioner persisted. He wanted to have a philosophical discussion on the limits of human responsibility, but Jesus answered him with a story. It was all about a Good Samaritan who went out of his way to help a wounded enemy. Imagine what the world would look like if we just followed Jesus’ teaching on this one simple point. And he told dozens of stories like that. No wonder his contemporaries were amazed by what he said. Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the most prominent and successful British journalists of the 20th century. His assessment of Jesus’ teaching and speaking skills qualifies as the testimony of an expert witness. Muggeridge said this, “As a communicator Jesus was supremely effective.”
The third element that makes Jesus’ wisdom remarkable is its substance, its content. It wasn’t just how well he spoke but what he said that really astonished people. Jesus was not all thunder and lightning when he stood up before an audience. He was never flamboyant; he never tried to be a dramatic showman like some preachers tend to do. In reading his words today after two millennia, it’s still easy to picture the scene as Jesus spoke to the crowds, and you get the impression that he never tried for an effect on his audience, he never used rhetorical tricks to get laughs or draw tears. It was always the message, always the content, that most impressed itself upon his listeners. Again and again they marveled at his wisdom, the depth of his understanding of the nature of God and of human life. That was what was so amazing about Jesus – his understanding of spiritual truth. He clearly demonstrated that even as a child when he visited the temple with his family. The first people to be amazed by Jesus’ teaching were the priests in Jerusalem, who listened to the twelve-year-old Jesus speak to them about God.
If you think carefully about what Jesus says, you can’t help but noticing he is so much more profound, so much closer to the heart of religion and morality and faith than anyone else. Read through the gospels, and just listen to him. Jesus never makes a mistake. He’s never embarrassed, never stumped for an answer. There’s never an occasion when he sticks his foot in his mouth and has to apologize or eat his words. It’s such a contrast with other people. Think, for example, of politicians – say a presidential candidate – who under the glaring publicity of a campaign and the hounding pressure of reporters ends up saying something wrong or stupid or contradictory several times a week. Jesus faced that very same kind of intense scrutiny and hostile questioning for three years and never once stumbled. Time and again his enemies thought they had trapped him with an unanswerable question. “Tell us, should we pay Roman taxes or not?” they demanded. Now they had him! If Jesus said yes, he would forfeit the allegiance of the anti-Roman crowd. If he said no, he would be liable to arrest as a political agitator. In response, Jesus calmly asked someone to show him a coin. “Whose inscription is that?” he asked. “Caesar’s.” “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” And the crowd shook their heads in astonishment.
But the most astonishing thing of all was the specific message Jesus proclaimed. He talked most about the kingdom of God – that was the burden of his preaching. His teaching was all about kingdom living and kingdom values, about how things would be under God’s rule, and how God’s way of thinking about everything needs to invade our lives and replace our way of thinking about everything. How perplexing, how paradoxical it all seemed to his hearers – and still does! Jesus’ wisdom often strikes us as outrageous. He so regularly turns accepted ideas on their heads. “Blessed are the poor” – true, they don’t have anything, but they’re actually the best off of all, he says, because they will receive the kingdom. “Blessed are the meek.” They never win anything, they always finish last, they’re constantly oppressed and despised, but guess what – they get to inherit the whole earth. And speaking of the last and the least, they’re going to be first. And the first will be last. All the most important people, the famous people, they’re actually least important in God’s eyes. If you really want to be great, become a slave. If you want to be a leader, head to the bottom.
Those are the sorts of things Jesus said constantly. It does sound slightly crazy when you gather it all together like that, doesn’t it? No wonder his teaching brought people up short. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Christian philosopher, once made up his own modern parable to try to explain what Jesus’ teaching was like. Imagine vandals breaking into a department store one night but not stealing anything. Instead, they just go around rearranging all the price tags. The next day everything is in an uproar as customers arrive to find diamond necklaces on sale for pennies and junk with price tags in the thousands. Jesus’ wisdom is just like that. It creates an upheaval in our lives as it overturns our values. What we think important he dismisses as trivial. What we despise he prizes. What we hold precious he counts worthless. What we call a failure he judges success. Those we admire he condemns, people whom we scorn he lifts up and honors. Everything is turned upside down when our values stop being the world’s values and become the kingdom’s values. But it shouldn’t really surprise us. After all, doesn’t the Bible tell us that God’s ways are not our ways?
THE CARPENTER’S SON?
So back to the original question. Where did all this wisdom come from? How did Jesus acquire it? “Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?” scoffed the people of Nazareth. In their case, familiarity bred contempt. They couldn’t believe, they refused to accept, that there was anything special about Jesus, so they rejected the evidence of their own eyes and ears. How tragic to be so familiar with Jesus Christ that you don’t notice who he actually is.
A lot of people still live in Nazareth, I think. “What’s all the fuss about,” they ask. “Oh, it’s just Jesus. Christianity again? Yes, we know all about that. You needn’t bother with it. Isn’t Jesus just a nice person, a good example? Didn’t we learn all there is to know about him in Sunday school? After all, we wouldn’t want to become fanatics or anything.”
But that doesn’t really answer the question. Where did his amazing wisdom come from? Look at it again, in all its astonishing beauty and power. What is the source of this unearthly teaching? The Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, the Prodigal Son, the Lord’s Prayer. No one ever spoke like this man did. Where did he learn it all? Go even farther. “Before Abraham was, I am.” “I and the Father are one.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me has eternal life.” “I am the Way . . . no one comes to the Father except through me.” Where did all that come from? If Jesus is telling the truth – and if he isn’t, then he is mentally ill – it could only have come from one place: heaven.
So you answer the question. Who is this Teacher who can say such things and billions of people in every corner of the earth believe him? Where did he come from? How do you explain him? What do you – not anyone else, you – make of him? What will you do about him? You can dismiss him. But if he is telling the truth, then you need to do something else. How you respond to Jesus Christ will determine just how much wisdom you have.