Sometimes you will hear people make a statement to the effect that when Jesus began teaching, He taught things that had never been taught before. We need to realize that this is not true. What Jesus taught was the truth, but it was not unrevealed truth. Most of the teachings of Jesus have a direct parallel somewhere in the Old Testament: God’s word which had been given to God’s people hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Jesus in the flesh.
Take for instance Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commandment was to love God and that the second commandment was to love one’s neighbor. Jesus was, of course, right in His declaration, but we should acknowledge that He was not alone. Others, having studiously studied and meditated upon God’s law had arrived at the same conclusion. If you doubt this, read or reread the opening scene to Jesus’ delivery of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment was, and Jesus in turn asked him for his opinion on the matter first, asking, “how do you read it.” It was the lawyer who answered that the great commandment was to love God. Jesus then agreed with the lawyer, stating that the lawyer had answered correctly (cf. Luke 10:25-28). Likewise, at a later date, in a similar conversation, another scribe asked Jesus the very same question, and this time Jesus supplied the answer. But after hearing what Jesus had said, the scribe agreed with Jesus and proceeded to explain to all why the Lord’s answer was correct. Further, after the scribe laid out his thinking on the issue, Jesus praised him for what he had said (cf. Mark 12:28-34).
All of which is to say that, prior to the preaching of Jesus, there were already Scribes and Pharisees teaching some of the same things Jesus was to teach. Which makes some sense, as all parties involved were teaching from the very same book.
What made the teaching of Jesus different then was not primarily substance. Rather there were two other qualities possessed by Jesus which made His doctrines notable. The first was the authority with which He taught (cf. Matthew 7:28-29). Rather then appealing to the authority of others in order to buttress His points, Jesus merely said, “I am telling you,” and left it at that.
The other thing that made Jesus particularly noteworthy, and that one thin g was His willingness and ability to live according to what He taught, and His expectations that others do the same. The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was not primarily one of ignorance. It was a problem of application. This is why Jesus condemned them as hypocrites. He told His followers: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. (Matthew 23:1-4; ESV) Going back to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, after the scribe correctly supplied his awareness of what the great commandment was, he immediately tried to find justification for why he was not doing what he knew he ought to be doing (cf. Luke 10:29).
Knowing the truth only has value if one is also willing to live according to the truth.
Understanding this, we can perhaps better understand the New Commandment that Jesus did deliver to us. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35; ESV)”
Loving one another was not a new commandment. God had always taught His people that they should be loving. The “new” part of the commandment was to observe the life of Jesus in our attempt at understanding how to love. The love of Jesus was not a matter of mouthing the right
platitudes, but was instead shown through consistently and constantly living the way that God had taught His people He wanted them to live. . Elsewhere we read the command, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18; ESV).” Anybody can say the words. It is something differently entirely to live according to the words. The example of Jesus is one of teaching the truth while at the same time living according to the truth.
Granted, Jesus sets a high bar, but it is one He fully expected us to try and meet. “By this will men know you are my disciples,” Jesus said… not by the words we mouth, but rather by the manner in which we strive to live according to those words.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.