Jesus Cared About Doctrine


There are few things that make me grumpier than a false dichotomy. They put a queasy feeling in my stomach; they make me groan with vexation. Examples of cringe-worthy false dichotomies are all too often tolerated in evangelical circles: Should we revel in the grace of Christ or pursue personal holiness? Should we tell the truth or practice compassion? Are pastors called to feed the sheep or fend off wolves? Should pastors teach on biblical headship in marriage or protect the abused in their flocks?

We could, of course, go on, but I shall spare you the assault of a longer list, lest I trigger you with the same spiritual indigestion these examples give me. There is, however, one particular false dichotomy I wish to address, and it is by far one of the worst. Of all the examples to make my countenance fall, none have the potential to ruin my day like this old chestnut: should we care about doctrine or should we simply follow Christ? Another way to put this silly false choice—and, sadly, one that has the veneer of scholarly respectability—is: should we base our Christianity around Christ and the Gospels or Paul and the epistles?

The assumption behind this choice feeds on a kind of Hegelian view of historical evolution: the Gospels present a simple Christ, who taught a simple message, who led a simple band of simple disciples. At some point, the water was muddied by Paul, who complicated an elementary way of living with heady doctrine and polluted a pure religion with philosophical hair-splitting. Paul, so the myth goes, turned a street-smart carpenter into God. And while this narrative is rightly rejected on its nose by most evangelicals, some still assume a lite version of it when they pit the theology of Paul against the practical instructions of Jesus.

The problem, of course, is that such a conception is false on both accounts; Paul is imminently practical, and the words of Christ are doctrinally deep to a breath-taking degree. It is the latter point that I pick up here. And while it’s tempting to simply say, “Every word of Scripture is a red-letter word in the sense that Christ speaks to his Bride—and reveals the glory of the Trinity—through the Spirit-inspired words of Scripture, including Paul,” and rest my case there, I shall assume nothing and will gladly pick up the challenge. If we restrict ourselves simply to the words and actions of Christ found in the Gospels, do we see the Lord Jesus enforcing a concern for doctrine?

The answer is yes. Now let me explain.


That Jesus most certainly did concern himself with sound doctrine is well evidenced by the many times we see him instructing the doctrinally ignorant and correcting the doctrinally misled. Consider, for example, Christ’s teaching in the Gospel of John. With his many “truly, truly” statements, Christ reveals that he is the divine doctrinal instructor (Jn. 1:51; 3:3–5; 3:11; 5:19, 24; 6:26, 32, 47, 53; 8:34, 51; 10:1, 7; 12:24; 13:16, 20–21, 38; 14:12; 16:20, 23; 21:18). Perhaps the most iconic example of Jesus in this role is found in Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1–21. Whatever you make of this conversation, one of the striking details is found in Jesus’s exasperated question, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:10) Admittedly, it may not have been easy doctrinal work for Nicodemus to connect the dots between Israel’s Scriptures (specifically, Ezekiel 36:25–27) and all this talk of the new birth, but then again, if anyone could have been expected to pick up on Jesus’s teaching here, surely it would have been “ the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus himself. And yet here we see Nicodemus, the teacher, being taught. Were we to accept the assumption that Jesus cared little for doctrinal instruction, we would have to insist on the same for Nicodemus—whose vocation was, I hasten to remind you, doctrinal instruction.

When we turn to the next page of John’s Gospel, we see Jesus still instructing the doctrinally ignorant. In this case, the student is the Samaritan woman at the well, and the topic is, among other things, fitting worship. He says, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Many contemporary expositors take Jesus to be speaking purely about the internal disposition of the worshiper and the epochal change that was taking place. The Samaritans and the Jews were disputing over the proper location of worship, and Jesus comes as the presence of God. The time of restricting worship to geographical location was forever changed when the Word tabernacled with man (cf., Jn. 1:14), and so now the time has come wherein worshipers worship in “spirit and truth”—or, in sincerity and knowledge. On the surface, I think this is right, and is by itself doctrinal instruction. But even here, the witness of the great tradition of Christianity would call us to hear in Jesus’s words an invitation to even deeper dogmatic contemplation. After all, “Spirit” and “Truth” are both names Scripture elsewhere (indeed, even in this very same Gospel) attributes to the second and third persons of the Trinity. Basil the Great writes,

If we say that worship offered in the Son (the truth) is worship offered in the Father’s image, we can say the same about worship offered in the Spirit since the Spirit in himself reveals the divinity of the Lord. The Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship. If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in him you cannot separate him from God. Light cannot be separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you. [1]

If there is anything to Basil’s insights here, then what Jesus offers in John 4 is more than doctrinal instructions to a Samaritan woman regarding the proper location of worship. He also offers all of us doctrinal instructions about communion with the Trinity and the Trinity’s inseparable operations.

Another favorite example of Christ’s doctrinal correction is when Jesus utters to the Sadducees the Pauline-like blunt verdict: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Now, throughout the Gospels we see Jesus identifying many problems with the Sadducees, but at least one major problem was doctrinal. The context of this rebuke has everything to do with an intermural intellectual debate between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. If we accept the false dichotomy of caring about doctrine or following the teachings of Jesus, we would expect our Lord to sidestep the hypothetical question the Sadducees ask about marriage and the resurrection, and simply offer some sort of “practical” advice. But instead, he tells them in no uncertain terms that they are doctrinally misled, and he situates his teaching about the resurrection within the overarching, heavily loaded dogmatic confession: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).

Even Christ’s ethical injunctions are laced through with significant doctrinal instruction. Consider, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. It is, of course, fitting to go to Matthew 5–7 to glean instructions on right practice, but such instructions must never be abstracted from their theological context. What we find here is a description of Kingdom-living, uttered by Israel’s King who was in the process of inaugurating his Kingdom. These ethical instructions are couched within one massive doctrinal instruction about Jesus himself: he is founding Yahweh’s kingdom on earth. Those of us who struggle to see this imposing subtext suffer from deficient imaginations; that we can read Christ’s words in Matthew 5:11–12 and not be struck by wonder bespeaks a dullness we would do well to shake ourselves from. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before.” Just who is this one for whom we suffer persecution? Jesus’s answer is: “the same person for whom the prophets suffered persecution—me.”

“On my account,” says Jesus, “you will be persecuted, and on my account, so were the prophets.” Yet were we to travel back in time and ask the prophets themselves, “on whose account do you suffer persecution?” they would undoubtedly answer, “Yahweh; the one God over heaven and earth.” Do we really think Jesus expects for us to unroll this logic a-doctrinally? Right from the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ offers significant doctrinal instruction regarding Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament prophets: Yahweh has assumed flesh and now speaks authoritatively in the beatitudes.

The doctrinal instruction in the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t stop there. Jesus goes on to assure his listeners that he came not to “abolish the Law or the Prophets” but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17–20), and this creates an inseparable bond between Israel’s Scriptures and the life and ministry of Christ. To create such a bond without commenting on a doctrine of special revelation is quite impossible—God began to speak through the Law and the Prophets, and according to Jesus, that very same message is completed in him (cf., Heb. 1:1–2). Jesus is also making an explicit Christological claim here: if Yahweh makes a promise, and Christ takes it upon himself to keep that promise, he cannot but be claiming the divine name for himself.

And this is just a tiny sampling of the doctrinal instruction spilling out of the Sermon on the Mount, to say nothing of the theology proper we learn from taking God the Son’s speech as our own to address “our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13), or Christ’s lesson on God’s exhaustive providence—even over the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Matt. 6:25–34)—or his lesson on the Father’s paternal character to delight to give good gifts to his children (Matt.7:7-11), or his lesson on cosmic judgment (Matt. 7:15–20)—which apparently hinges on Christ himself knowing or not knowing individuals (Matt. 7:21–23). I could keep going. But make no mistake: Jesus does not shy away from instructing his people on doctrinal matters.


We have to peer deeper, however, because it is not simply that Christ instructs his disciples on the importance of doctrinal instruction. Astonishingly, it is also the case that Christ himself is the content of this doctrinal instruction! He is the Word made flesh. When the “Word became flesh,” he assumed the role of “exegete of the Father.” Jesus was not speaking hyperbolically insisting to Philip that to see Christ is to see the Father (Jn. 14:9). Gregory of Nazianzus makes this point when he describes the “Word” as the “definition” of the Father:

He is “Word,” because he is related to the Father as word is to mind, not only by reason of the undisturbed character of his birth, but also through the connection and declaratory function involved in the relationship. One could say too, perhaps, that his relationship is that of definition to term defined, since “word” has the meaning in Greek of “definition.” He who has known the Son (“seen” means “known” in that context) has known the Father. [2]

Importantly, the entire event of the incarnation—from Christ’s Spiritual conception to his ascension—is revelatory. This point is often missed when Christ’s divine and human natures are pitted against one another. But the point of Christ’s human nature and his role as revealer of the divine nature are not incommensurate. We ought to insist on the entire unity of Christ’s person and work “in the flesh” as a revelation of divine glory. It is not simply the case that Christ revealed the glory of God when he performed the miraculous. The entirety of his enfleshed state was doctrinal revelation. This is a point that Christ himself makes.

When the disciples wrote about Christ with doctrinal precision throughout the New Testament, they did nothing else but follow Christ’s lead. It was Christ himself who insisted that rendering honor to the Father and rendering honor to the Son were inseparably tied (Jn. 5:22–23). It was Christ himself who plunged his listeners—and later, John’s readers—into an ocean of theological contemplation regarding the doctrine of eternal generation when he made the breathtaking claim, “For as the Father has lifein himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (Jn. 5:26).

The notion that Christ is the theological content of Holy Scripture was not the invention of overactive imaginations in the apostles or anyone else. Christ himself makes this claim in no uncertain terms (Lk. 24:27; Jn. 5:39). It was not for nothing that the Jews attempted to stone Jesus for claiming equality with God; they understood him perfectly well when he claimed the divine name of Yahweh (Jn. 8:58), or when he said in stark fashion, “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). Throughout his discourse in John 14–16, Jesus offers unparalleled theological instruction regarding the Triune relations of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And then, if this weren’t enough, he allows his disciples to eavesdrop on an inter-trinitarian dialogue, wherein he reveals, among other things, that the man Christ Jesus, by virtue of his divine nature, shares an eternal glory with the Father, a glory which predates the world (Jn. 17:24).


The doctrine we read about later in the New Testament is an elaboration on the doctrine Jesus teaches (and the doctrine Jesus is) in the Gospels. He is their content, in a way that is completely harmonious with him being his own content during his earthly ministry. That is, the doctrinal emphasis in the rest of the New Testament is an unfolding of what Christ himself promises in John 16:4b–15. Here, he promises the arrival of the Holy Spirit, who will “guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn. 16:13). The Spirit will glorify Jesus when he takes what is Jesus’s and declares it to his disciples (Jn. 16:14).

So, what is this content of Christ’s that the Spirit will declare? What makes up this Christ-glorifying information that the Spirit will communicate upon his arrival? What exactly is Christ’s “mine” here? Answer: “all that the Father has” (Jn. 16:15). Any attempt to make sense of such loaded statements without doctrine is a fool’s errand. Jesus wants us to think hard about the divine essence he shares with the Father and the Spirit here in this passage and elsewhere. He wants us to be a doctrinal people.

When the Spirit inspired the apostles to write their many Christ-exalting, doctrinally-heavy epistles, Christ was making good on this very promise in John 16. This means that when we pit doctrine against devotion to Christ, we pit Christ against himself. Any contrast we see between the “simple” teachings of Jesus and the doctrinal teachings of Paul is more imagined than real. In truth, the teachings of Christ cannot but eventuate in the teachings of Paul, and the teachings of Paul are nothing without the teachings of Christ. What God has joined together, let not man separate.

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit, 26.64.

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus, Orations 30.20.

Samuel Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theology Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Pastor of Teaching and Liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City, MO. He is the author Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Congregational Worship Through Song (Rainer Publishing, 2019) and Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E Publishing, 2022).

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