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Jesus prophetic teaching through short sayings

Jesus prophetic teaching through short sayings

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Jesus taught in a prophetic manner. This does not mean proclaiming prophecies about the future. Unlike systematic teaching, as we give in schools and colleges, prophetic teaching consists of short vibrant sayings which a Master utters as occasion demands.

Perhaps I should explain this through an example. Apprentices in the building construction will nowadays receive systematic instruction on many aspects of, say, masonry. They will study the strengths and weaknesses of materials (stone, brick, concrete, steel, wood). They will consider the functions of walls, supports, beams, trusses, and so on. They will learn a wide choice of laying bricks. The information will be available in methodical manuals that present the subject matter in an orderly fashion.

Years ago that was not the way apprentices learnt their skill. They would assist a master builder who would teach them from moment to moment as suggested by the job in hand. Now suppose there had been an excellent master whose teachings were so much appreciated that they led to the formation of a whole new school of masonry. Now suppose again that some early disciples who had known the master had, on the master's advice, taken snapshots of the work while the master was teaching. These snapshots might have recorded some striking samples of work:

  • an unusual way of fixing a beam, perhaps;
  • an intriguing combination of wood and concrete blocks;
  • an eye- catching patterning of bricks;
  • and so on.

If various disciples had preserved albums with such snapshots, we would have a good idea of what the master had been teaching. And by comparing various photographs we could somehow reconstruct his original genius.

The Synoptic Gospels are somewhat like that. They contain collections of `snapshots' of Jesus' actions and words. The `snapshots' have been arranged in a coherent presentation, as we shall see later, but they are still recognisable as originally separate units. To obtain a good idea of Jesus' way of teaching, we have to look at these original `snapshots'.

Compare these two texts taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. To show where they match, I will print them in parallel columns.

Matthew 7,13-14

Luke 13,23-24


Someone asked him: ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?

‘Enter through the narrow gate

He answered:
‘Make sure you enter through the narrow gate

for wide is the door and spacious the way that leads to perdition and many enter through it; but narrow the gate and hard the road that leads to life, and those who find it are few.


for many people, I tell you, will try to enter but cannot.’

It is obvious that both Matthew and Luke report the same saying of Jesus.

See: W.RORDORF, `Un chapitre d'éthique judéo-chrétienne: les deux voies', Révue des Sciences Réligieuses 60 (1972) pp. 109-128; M.J.SUGGS, `The Christian Two Ways Tradition' in Studies in the New Testament, Leiden 1972, pp. 60-72; A.J.MATTILL, `The Way of Tribulation', Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979) pp. 531-546.

Jesus’ saying could be summed up as a warning. ‘Don't enter by a particular gate because it is wide and looks attractive; or because many others go that way. Enter by the right gate, even if it is narrow and few people join you.’

Why did Jesus give this warning? Luke tells us. The occasion, he says, was a question from the audience. We know that Jewish teachers in Jesus' days expected that only a small number of people would be saved. Had the prophet Isaiah not spoken of salvation for no more than a remnant? (Isaiah 1,9; 10,20-22; 37,32). When someone asked Jesus' opinion about this, he refused to enter into speculation. Rather, he made the questioner face the implication. ‘Make sure you belong to the chosen few. That's what matters!’

Regarding rabbinical teaching, see for instance: `The Almighty has created this world for many people, but the future world only for a few' 4 Ezra 8,1; cf. 7,20.47; 9,15.22; Apocalypse of Baruch 44,15; 48,33 (Syr). See more texts in P.FIEBIG, Jesu Bergpredigt, Göttingen 1924, p.145.

This reconstruction takes us back to a small incident in Jesus' ministry. A discussion took place. A question was raised. Jesus formulated a terse reply. In the Gospel it has been retained as a unit of teaching, one coherent passage. Such an original unit is sometimes called a pericope. The passage contains two parts: the occasion and the word Jesus spoke.

We can also learn from this passage how Jesus taught. He did not follow a syllabus. He did not present a systematic course of lectures. No, he preached the Kingdom of his Father as the moment demanded. He might draw examples from people's everyday life (the parables). He would show his Father's love in action (the healings). He would explain, argue or question in response to whatever situation arose. We call this kind of teaching `prophetic'; to distinguish it from the systematic disciplines we are used to in our schools.

Sayings belong to clusters

However, Jesus’ prophetic teaching through short sayings, though it was not systematic in its presentation, was highly coherent and consistent by its revolving around the same kernel themes. The `narrow gate' passage reminds us of the camel: a heavily loaded camel cannot pass through the ‘eye of a needle’ = a narrow gate of Jerusalem? (Matthew 19,23-24; Mark 10,23-25; Luke 18,24-25). It belongs to Jesus' recurrent insistence on the conditions for entering the Kingdom.

See: H.WINDISCH, `Die Sprüche vom Eingehen in das Reich Gottes', Zeitschrift für die neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft 27 (1928) pp. 163-192.

We cannot enter God's Kingdom , Jesus taught, unless

  • our holiness exceeds that of Pharisees (Matthew 5,20);
  • we do the will of the Father (Matthew 7,21);
  • we become like children (Matthew 18,3; Luke 18,17);
  • we are prepared the receive the Bridegroom (Matthew 25,1-12);
  • we are born of water and the Holy Spirit (John 3,5).

The ‘entering the Kingdom theme’ is expressed in a cluster of passages that were spoken on different occasions but internally linked through their revolving round the same theme.

John Wijngaards

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