I stopped listening to Professor Miller’s answers to student questions after only a few days in his class. He had two PhDs and could intelligently discuss any topic under the sun, but he somehow managed to make basic college math unintelligible. He repeated the same complex answers over and over, as though the repetition was enough to knock the concept into our heads. He meant well, but the professor couldn’t come down to our level with his explanations.
Fortunately, Jesus never had that problem. He set the standard for teaching with stories or object lessons that always connected to His audience in at least four ways:
- He taught with images His listeners knew well.
- He looked around and instructed from His observations.
- He saw individual needs and addressed them.
- Most of all, He spoke the truth, even when it hurt.
We all serve as teachers at times. Perhaps officially in Sabbath school or church, or perhaps as parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles influencing the children in our lives. However we teach, we can learn much from the way Jesus taught His followers.
Speaking in pictures
Jesus used metaphors to describe Himself: “I am the light of the world.” “I am the bread of life.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” He gave a whole series of analogies to illustrate the kingdom of heaven: a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a lost coin, a treasure. Even the poorest, most illiterate Jewish listener of Jesus’ day could have visualized any of these images.
Dr. Miller could have used a simple example worked out for us on the blackboard, or apples and oranges or anything visual to help the math illiterate in his class. Students, old or young, need a depiction of something they use or see in their everyday lives in order to make an application.
Teaching from observation
When He said, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few” in Matthew 9:37, Jesus was likely looking across a field of golden wheat. When He gave His parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-8, He may have been watching a boy scatter seed. As He spoke of a fig tree putting forth leaves in Matthew 24:32-35, Jesus was possibly standing near a fig tree. When He talked about the judgment day in Matthew 25:32, 33, using the image of sheep and goats, He may have been watching shepherds sort out their flocks. The people listening to Jesus would have followed His gaze and understood.
As teachers, we need to stop texting and start observing. See that young person in the department store with green spiked hair? Perhaps an illustration of people coming in all sorts of “packages” and our need to accept them as they are. The mockingbird that chased a squirrel away from its nest? A picture of the way God protects His children. The lessons are all around us, just waiting to be noticed.
Making it personal
At times Jesus addressed the needs of a specific individual with His parables. In Luke 12:13-21, when a young man expressed concern about his family inheritance, Jesus told the story of a rich man who pulled down his old barns and built bigger, better ones. When an expert in the law asked Jesus who his neighbor was, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In both cases, He addressed the deeper need of each man’s heart.
As teachers of God’s Word, we also need to look for ways to make our points personal. Each week I look for examples I can use in my adult class. I have talked about my own struggle with depression in order to help the class members deal with it in their lives. I’ve talked about a co-worker, who came to work with difficult questions, in order to show how the Holy Spirit provides answers. I’ve referred to the loving care Brother Ray gave to his wife of sixty-two years during her illness as an example of God’s faithful love. Personal examples provide relevance and are easily understood.
Speaking the truth
Perhaps the most important element of Jesus’ teaching is that He spoke the truth, even when it was uncomfortable. When the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-24 walked away dejected, unwilling to give up his riches, Jesus told His disciples it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus also didn’t pull any punches when talking about the scribes and Pharisees. He said they were like cups that were washed on the outside but were filthy on the inside (23:25, 26), and He called them whitewashed tombs (v. 27). These were vivid images. No one wants to drink out of a filthy cup. And no matter how much you whitewash a tomb, what’s on the inside is still dead. Jesus’ audience got the message, even though the Pharisees didn’t.
Jesus was blunt in His condemnation of the religious leaders of His day because their hypocrisy was sin. And in spite of modern society’s insistence to the contrary, sin is still sin. As teachers of God’s Word, we need to speak the truth — truth that is always tempered with love — in order to draw students into a relationship with Christ (Ephesians 4:15).
Even though you may use these methods, on some occasions the confused looks on your students’ faces will let you know they didn’t comprehend your message. Even Jesus found that His down-to-earth parables weren’t always understood, though He was ready to explain them for those who were motivated to ask. It’s important to remember that people understand as they are able, and not everyone will “get it” every time. When we give an illustration, we need to be sure to draw it into our lesson and make the application so our students can take home a challenge for their lives.
My task for my children’s class one Wednesday night was to make the abstract concept of unshakable faith clear to girls under the age of nine. After some thought, I asked them to build marshmallow towers. I watched and waited as the towers went up.
Then I shook the table.
After the screams subsided, the girls began again, and once more I shook the table. Several attempts later, all five girls understood what it meant to be shakable, and from there it was easy to explain the opposite.
Learning from Jesus
We fail our students if our only desire is to impress them with our knowledge of theological terms and flowery language. Jesus didn’t want to sound smarter than the religious leaders (although He was), and He didn’t want people to follow Him just to see miracles. He wanted the people to hear and understand kingdom principles.
As teachers, we need to follow the example Jesus set for us. We need to be His students and learn from His parables and illustrations so we can teach our students. Paint that picture your listeners know so well. Observe the things around you that young and old alike will recognize. Make your images personal. Most of all, always speak the truth, even when it’s not popular.