Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will leave you wondering


Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will leave you wondering.

Those are not the words our Lord spoke in Revelation 3:16, but it’s what he practiced in his ministry. That’s the surprising finding of the analysis I just completed on Jesus’ method of teaching.

I had noticed a stark contrast between Jesus’ methods and most Bible teaching today. Jesus didn’t always explain himself clearly. Unlike most teachers today, he didn’t always resolve the questions he raised. He didn’t always try to wrap up all the loose ends. How many sermons have you heard that were left unclear and unresolved at the end? How often has your pastor intentionally left loose ends?

We’ve been led to believe that good teaching is always clear teaching, but history’s most influential teacher did not seem to believe that was the case. (Neither did history’s next most influential teachers, who I believe were probably Socrates and Gautama Buddha.) In Jesus’ case, I found an interesting pattern that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015 11 08 at 4 59 28 PM

(Click for a larger version. Opens in new tab or window.)

The bar charts indicate how often Jesus (1) explained his point clearly with various audiences, how often he (2) explained parabolically (with parables), how often he (3) explained clearly enough to resolve most or all questions, and how often he (4) left most or all questions unresolved for his hearers.

The audiences are (a) Individuals he met along the way, (b) Followers of Jesus, (c) The Crowds, and (d) Religious Leaders (who were almost always hostile to Jesus). Sometimes more than one audience was present, in which case I coded the incident into each category that applied.

Results overview

The chart reveals that Jesus gave clear explanations with approximately equal frequency to Individuals and to Followers, less often to Religious Leaders, and even less often to the Crowds. This is the data point from which I drew the title to this blog post. Followers were the “hot,” Religious Leaders the “cold,” and the Crowds the “lukewarm.”

He used parables more often with the Crowds. He resolved all questions far more often with his Followers than with others. He left questions unresolved most often with Religious Leaders, even though he explained things clearly to them more often than he did to the Crowds. The explanation for that is found in passages where Jesus spoke plainly and critically, and the Religious Leaders rejected his teaching.

So what’s going on with the crowds?

The Religious Leaders are a special case in view of their hostility. The others had at least some disposition toward following Jesus. And Jesus, the great master teacher, knew what they needed. His Followers and many Individuals along the way were ready for real answers. They seriously wanted to know the way. The Crowds were more curiosity-seekers. Jesus gave answers freely to those who really knew they needed those answers, but offered far less explanation to others. That included the Crowds at almost all times, and the Religious Leaders when they came to him with questions intended to test him.

Does your pastor ever leave you wondering?

Compare this to the typical sermon strategy today. We answer questions our congregations aren’t asking. We try to satisfy spiritual needs before people fully come to grips with the fact that they have such needs.

I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong to teach or to give answers. I’m not saying no one in our congregations recognizes their spiritual needs. Far from it! God has a way of bringing us to a point where we have to face our spiritual weakness and dependence on him. I’ve had many experiences of a sermon meeting me right where I was.

Still on the other hand, I find it interesting that I can’t think of even one single sermon I’ve heard in my life that followed Jesus’ frequent example of leaving his listeners asking, “Now, what did he really mean by that?” or more importantly, “Now, what am I supposed to do with that?” It seems as if I would have heard a Jesus-like message of that sort at least once by now.

Why did Jesus teach this way?

But I still haven’t addressed the key question: Why didn’t Jesus explain himself fully with everyone? Is there some good reason to leave questions unanswered sometimes? There must be, if we’re going to accept Jesus as the master teacher. I’ve got a pretty good idea what that reason might be.

And I’m going to leave it unexplained here. I’m going to let you see what explanations you can offer. I could be wrong, and I might learn a better answer from you that way. Here’s a hint to my own explanation, though: as you consider the question, consider all that’s going on inside you at the same time.

I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

Update 11/10/15: An important followup post

I did this analysis as an individual with an hypothesis in mind, whereas the better way to do it would be to have several raters code the analysis without knowing the research question or hypothesis. I’ve intentionally excluded the numeric scale on the left side of the chart because it would imply greater reliability to the analysis than I can claim. I am confident the general shape of the results would hold up under more careful methodologies.

The instances analyzed here were derived from a Harmony of the Gospels, to cover the entire range of Jesus’ ministry and teaching and to exclude parallel-passage duplicates. I used the Holman Christian Standard Bible: Harmony of the Gospels. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers; in Logos 6 Bible Software.

5 Responses

  1. Andrew W says:

    To what extent is this coloured by being pre-crucifixion? There are several promises along the lines of “when the Spirit comes, He will make things clear”, and editorial comments in the Gospels that “the disciples didn’t understand this until Jesus had been resurrected”.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    Great question! You’ve anticipated my next post. More on this tomorrow or the next day.

  3. JAD says:

    Perhaps Jesus had pedagogic or didactic reason for leaving some of his teaching with loose ends. It forced his disciple, if they were paying attention, curious and listening, to think about it, discuss it among themselves and to ask questions (Mark 7:10.) I think there are psychological studies which show that we learn better that way but my memory is very vague about that.

  4. BillT says:

    5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? Matthew 9:5

    When this lesson is taught at my church my pastor, in answer to this, shrugs his shoulders. But there is a lesson in not being able to answer this as well.

    Also, when taking communion a question surrounds,

    19And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

    20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. Luke 22:19-21

    Is it really “his body”? It certainly wasn’t when he said it but then he did say those words so…(insert shoulder shrug).

    There is a lot of “The Mystery of the Faith” in Christian theology. We do need to embrace that considering the whole “free will in a universe with a sovereign God” thing.

  5. Raj says:

    ~ I cannot recall a pastor who has left me wondering. I think it is because as a pastor you are expected to speak with authority and confessing that you do not know a why or a what may not look good from the point of view of authority.

    I can think of at least two reasons why Jesus did not give answers.

    One comes from Doug Wilson’s book on writing. Wilson (and other writing advice givers) will tell you that good writing involves concealing things. You don’t just simply explain everything. Why? I don’t remember what he said if he did, but I think it was in part, to get people thinking, really wondering.

    A second is this. Sometimes if you have to explain something, it may be that the only way to do it is to sit down and explain things for a real long whiles.

    For example, Jesus tells us to ask, seek and knock and it sounds so simple and magnanimous. It is almost as if he offers us a blank check. Yet the reality is that we have entire Philip Yancey books on unanswered prayer. If Jesus explained the asking, seeking and knocking, it would involve all sorts of qualifiers and actually discourage prayer. We do need to understand the qualifiers no doubt, but the context has to be perhaps a sit down and read context or some other.

    ~ One other thing that might be of interest to you. Many years ago, someone from the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton came and gave a sermon on evangelism at my church. He seemed to have done similar research. These are the stats I jotted down from him:

    – Jesus was asked 183 questions.
    – Jesus asked 307 questions.
    – Jesus answered 3 questions.

    In Him,
    ~ Raj

%d bloggers like this: