I stopped listening to Professor Miller’s answers to students’ 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 he was incapable of coming down to our level with his explanations.
Fortunately, Jesus never had that problem. He set the standard for teaching with stories and object lessons that 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.
Jesus Spoke 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.
My college professor could have used a simple example worked out for us on the blackboard. Or apples and oranges or anything visual to help the struggling students in his classes. Students, whether old or young, need a depiction of something they use or see in their everyday lives in order to make an application.
Jesus Taught from Observation
When he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” in Matthew 9:37, Jesus was likely looking across a field of golden yellow wheat. When he told the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-8, he may have been watching a farmer scatter seed. Jesus spoke about a fig tree putting forth leaves in Matthew 24:32-35, quite possibly standing beside a fig tree. When he talked about the judgment day using the image of sheep and goats in Matthew 25:32, 33, was he watching shepherds sort out their flocks? The people listening to him would have followed Jesus’ gaze and understood.
We who teach need to stop texting and start observing. See that young person in the department store with green, spiked hair? Perhaps an illustration of how we need to accept people 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.
Jesus Made It Personal
There were times when 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 barns. When an expert in the law asked Jesus who his neighbor was, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (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 Sunday school class. I have talked about my own struggle with depression in order to help students deal with it in their lives. I’ve talked about a coworker who came to work with difficult questions to show how the Holy Spirit provides answers. I’ve referred to the loving care Brother Ray gave to his wife of 62 years during her illness as an example of God’s faithful love. Personal examples provide relevance and are easily understood.
Jesus Spoke 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 of 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.
Neither did Jesus pull punches when talking about the scribes and Pharisees. He declared seven woes upon them in Matthew 23, then provided two word pictures. Jesus said the religious leaders were like cups that were washed on the outside, but filthy on the inside (vv. 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. 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 listeners into a relationship with Christ.
Perhaps there have been occasions when the confused looks on your students’ faces let you know they weren’t comprehending the point of your lesson. Even Jesus found that his down-to-earth parables weren’t always understood. It’s important to remember that people understand as they are able, and not everyone will “get it” every time. Think about Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew 13. As we read it today, the parable itself takes up six verses, while the explanation he gave to his disciples covers 13 verses. 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 somehow make the abstract concept of unshakeable faith clear to girls under the age of 9. After some thought, I issued a challenge 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.
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.
Joyann Dwire is a freelance writer living and serving in Toccoa, Georgia. She has written for A Cup of Comfort for Women and Pennsylvania Magazine and is also a children’s book author.