Teaching in the New Testament

Dear Reader,

We recently looked at words for “teach” in the Old Testament; now it is time to move on to the New. My own training is in biblical Hebrew and, though I have taken some Greek, I am pretty rusty at it, so I will be relying a lot more on my concordance for this post. The point of all this, if you will remember, is ultimately to build a reformed Christian theology of education. We are in the beginning stages now where we are collecting evidence and simply answering the question: What does the Bible have to say about education and teaching? I suggest skimming this post on methodology if you yet.

Teaching in the New Testament

While words for “teach” and “learn” occur many times, there is really nothing directly about educating children in the New Testament. But there are a few passages which are worth looking at —

As we saw in the Old Testament, learning and wisdom come from God. In the New Testament all three persons of the Trinity are associated with learning (the Father: John 8:28; the Son: Matt. 11:29; the Spirit: Jn. 14:26; I Cor. 2:13).

Other sources of learning include the apostles (I Cor. 4:6); prophecy (I Cor.: 14:31); for a woman, her husband (I Cor. 14:35); church officers (I Cor. 12:28-29); and older believers (Tit. 2:3-6); or even non-believers (Acts 7:22; 22:3). Teaching is integral to the Church’s ministry (Matt. 28:19-20). One should be careful, however, — not all learning is good and not all teachers are sound (Tit. 1:11; Rev. 2:14, 20).

Nor does all learning come through people. As in the Old Testament, nature is given to us as a source of learning (Matthew 24:32=Mark 13:28; cf. Prov. 6:6; Rom. 1:20). Experience also may be a teacher (Heb. 5:8). Above all, Scripture teaches us:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:14-17; cf. Rom. 15:4; ESV)

Note that Timothy is said to have learned these things “from childhood” and that learning is not mere head knowledge but is to be practical, resulting in good works (cf. Phil. 4:9).

The majority of occurrences of the word “teach” in the New Testament have to do with Jesus teaching His followers, the crowds, and even His adversaries. These are not prescriptive passages for us; they are not given us as a handbook on how to teach. Nonetheless, we may glean some knowledge from them. In another post we will look at Jewish models of education. We will also look at the whole Bible as God’s instruction to His people and ask how the Creator of men teaches them. But for today, let’s confine ourselves to how Jesus taught.

Jesus’ teaching is oral. He often addresses quite large groups that include all kinds of people, men and women, adults and children. Though His class at times numbered in the thousands, Jesus is a caring teacher (Matt. 15:32; Mk. 6:34). When with a smaller group, He does take questions (Matt. 15:15). His teaching is often in response to questions (Lk. 10:25ff), and  He himself, when a child, asked questions of the teachers (Lk. 2:46).  

Jesus teaches often, though not exclusively, through parables (Mk. 4:2). We modern people with years of biblical scholarship behind us, tend to think: “Oh, Jesus taught in stories to make things simple for His audience.”  The opposite seems to be true. Even His closest disciples rarely understood His parables. They had to ask for interpretations (Mt. 13:18; 15:15) and didn’t really get most of what He had been saying until after His death when their minds were opened (Lk. 24:27). Rather than using stories to make learning simple, Jesus tells us that He teaches through parables to make learning hard and inaccessible (Mt. 13:10-13).

Conclusions

What can we draw from all this? Here’s what I see:

  • The focus in the NT is on teaching the things of God. This is no way argues that we don’t need to know other subjects. (In the OT we saw that the law of God more than any other subject was the focus though more practical skills and subjects were taught as well. )
  • As in the Old Testament, God’s teaching is for all ages.
  • Learning comes through other people, the Word of God, Creation, and experience.
  • Learning comes from God. All three Persons of the Trinity are associated with giving knowledge.
  • At least in the realm of spiritual things, people just don’t get it unless God opens their minds and gives them understanding.
  • Learning is practical; it is not just “book knowledge” but is to produce right behavior.

I’d love to say that Jesus shows us that we should teach through stories, but, as we saw, He uses parables intentionally to obscure His meaning. I am not willing to take this as prescriptive for how we should teach.

I have often heard it said that the Hebrew way of teaching was for a teacher (rabbi) to sit in a circle with his disciples and to teach through questioning. At times, this is the picture we get, both of the boy Jesus in the Temple and of Jesus with His disciples. For now we are going to keep this in the back of our minds as a possible model for how we should teach. While it makes a lot more sense to me to build our model of education on the Hebrew mindset than on the (pagan) Greek one, we also need to keep in mind how much has changed between then and now, starting with the availability of books.

Nebby

 

 

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] Of course there was education in some form (see this post on teaching in the Old Testament and this one on the New), but I cannot think of a single reference to organized group education of […]

    Reply

  2. […] and topics related to education, both in the Old and New Testaments (see this post, this one, or this one).  Though I doubt they had red-letter editions of the Bible in Mason’s day, her selection of […]

    Reply

  3. […] His disciples. This is no doubt a good model and we should look at how Jesus taught (as I did in this earlier post), but I am not convinced that the master-disciple model needs to be the defining model of our […]

    Reply

  4. […] Biblical wisdom and knowledge are never merely intellectual subjects but are practical. Romans 12 tells us that our minds should be transformed so that they may “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2; ESV). The ability to discern is one practical outcome. Another is simply to produce right behavior. Our actions should reflect our thoughts.  […]

    Reply

  5. […] Because education is ultimately a work of God, we cannot force children to learn. How knowledge is received, whether it even can be received, will depend upon the character of the recipient and the work of the Holy Spirit. (Teaching in the New Testament) […]

    Reply

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