But was he more than that?
Let’s analyze some key verses.
If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
Literally meaning (in the singular) “my master,” this title applied to teachers and other revered positions; it is used fifteen times in the Gospels. Luke never used it, probably because of his Greek Gentile readers would not know what it meant. He preferred epistatēs (pronounced eh-pea-stah-tayss), which meant “master” or “teacher” and used it six times and always by the disciples. At the time of Jesus, the term Rabbi applied more narrowly to an expert in the Torah, but not necessarily to an office (the office of Rabbi developed much later). In the Gospels, it is equivalent to “teacher” (didaskolos–pronounced dee-dah-skah-loss) (Matt. 23:7-8; John 1:38; 3:2) or “master” or “sir.” Even John the Baptist was called Rabbi (John 3:26). Next, Rabboni is about equivalent to Rabbi, but with heightened and more personal emphasis (Mark 10:51; John 20:16),
So, Jesus is called Rabbi or Rabboni or didaskolos or epistatēs, but never a “scribe” or “expert in the law” or “teacher of the law” (see those terms in this post).This indicates that Jesus stood apart from and saw them as outside of God’s favor and opponents to his Messiahship, while the other four terms were not politically and religiously charged with negative connotations, but more acceptable to him and to the ordinary people whom he was reaching.
Here are the different classes of people who use this title as they address Christ.
Ordinary people: Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:51); crowds (John 6:25)
The disciples: Judas (Matt. 26:25, 26:49; Mark 14:45); Peter (Mark 9:5, 11:21); Andrew and another disciple (John 1:38); Nathanael (John 1:49); twelve disciples without specifying which ones (John 4:31, 9:2, 11:8); Mary, who says “Rabboni” or “my Teacher” according to John’s explanatory note (John 20:16).
One time John the Baptist’s disciples use it of John (John 3:26)
Religious leader: Nicodemus (John 3:2)
How Jesus uses the title:
In one context, Jesus exhorts his disciples to see themselves as equals and not to grab for titles like Rabbi to exalt themselves above each other (Matt. 23:7). He says that they really have one didaskalos or “teacher”—himself. “And you are all brothers” (v. 8). In Matt. 23:10, he uses still another term besides “Rabbi”: kathêgêtês. All of these terms are likely synonyms for Rabbi, so we should not make too much of this. (More research into the different words may yield some interesting nuances.)
Be that as it may, the context indicates that Jesus was never in search of titles as such. Rather, he is building a community of equals with himself as their leader.
In all cases, Jesus accepts the title “Rabbi” from people in public or private because he understands that they were accustomed to it. He was adapting to his culture. When people looked at this devout Jew who taught them, they correctly saw a Rabbi—the Rabbi.
But this title does not reflect his divine nature in its fullest sense as the Son of God or the “I am” does, as we shall in other article in this series. After all, for many years the title “Rabbi” was applied to so many humans without a divine nature, how could the title by itself speak about the divine nature of Jesus?
This is one of Jesus’ role, which he willingly takes on himself. “Teacher” also overlaps with “Rabbi” according to the New Testament. This title is used a little over 40 times in the Four Gospels. Here are the classes of people who use it as they address Christ.
Ordinary people: men from Jairus’ house (Mark 5:35; Luke 8:49); men from the crowd (Mark 9:17; Luke 9:38, 12:13); tax collectors (Matt. 17:24); small crowd about to stone an adulteress (John 8:4)
A rich young ruler: (Mark 10:17; Matt. 19:16; Luke 18:18)
The disciples: as a group without specifying which disciple is speaking (Mark 4:38, 13:1; Luke 21:7); John (Mark 9:38); James and John (Mark 10:35); Andrew and another disciple (John 1:38); Martha (John 11:28); Mary (John 20:16)
Religious and political leaders: teachers of the law (Matt. 8:19; Luke 11:45); Pharisees (Matt. 9:11, 22:36; Mark 12:32; Luke 10:25, 7:40, 19:39); Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians (Mark 12:14; Matt. 22:15-16; Luke 20:21); Pharisees and teachers of the law (Matt. 12:38); Sadducees (Mark 12:19; Luke 20:28-39); Nicodemus (John 3:2); spies to trap Jesus (Mark 12:14; Matt. 22:15-22; Luke 20:21)
How Jesus uses the title:
(A) He tells the disciples to inform an unnamed man that the “Teacher” needs his house for the Passover (Mark 14:14; Matt. 26:18; Luke 22:11).
(B) He tells his disciples not to be ambitious and pursue the title “Teacher,” because they have one Teacher (a possible translation of the Greek word), the Christ (Matt. 23:10). The reason for this exhortation has been explained in the previous section “Rabbi,” and Jesus’ use of the term, above. He is creating a community of equals with him as their Leader, Master, or Teacher.
(C) In the context of washing his disciples’ feet, in a moving scene of humility, Jesus says that it is right that they call him Teacher and Lord (John 13:1-17). He now sets the example of how a Teacher and Lord is supposed to act. If he has served them by washing their feet in preparation for Passover, then how much more must they serve each other in humility?
To sum up this section, in the vast majority of times that the word teacher appears in the Four Gospels, people other than Jesus use it, comparatively speaking. When Jesus is resurrected from the dead and ascends into heaven, he will no longer be called teacher, but the Lord.
In fact, in no instance outside of the Four Gospels do any disciples or New Testament authors refer to Jesus as teacher—in the Book of Acts, the Epistles, or the Revelation. This means that the title no longer carries as much weight after his resurrection and ascension. But while on earth, he taught, and he gladly did this ministry.
So how do I come to know Jesus more intimately?
Jesus was the God-man, perfectly God and perfectly human. This post focused on his humanity.
He is the Rabbi and Teacher. But the title by itself does not reveal his divine nature that he always has, since the title was applied to so many non-divine humans for so many years.
When the people of Israel—the land that produced the Bible and engendered the special vocabulary—saw their fellow Jew teach with authority, they used these three titles naturally: Rabbi and Teacher. And Jesus accepts them as accurate. However, in the total number of times that the three titles (Rabbi, Teacher and Prophet) appear in the Four Gospels (about 55 times), Jesus rarely uses them about himself, comparatively speaking. One possible reason concerns point of view.
As the people looked at Jesus, they correctly saw the human titles, and the people honored him with them. He fulfilled these roles perfectly. His not using them as often as the people used them does not indicate that he secretly rejected the titles.
But as Jesus looked at the people and understood his divine nature that he always has, he realized that these three titles did not represent the end of the story as the be-all of his divine glory and nature. After all, they had been attached to so many humans for many years, so how could they by themselves reveal the divine nature of Jesus?
He came down from heaven as the eternal Son of God. Thus, he has much more to reveal to them—and most people do not enjoy the opportunity to receive this privileged knowledge. This is why after the resurrection and ascension, the disciples have to go out along the dusty roads and preach this message.
You can know Jesus more intimately by understanding his humanity.
ARTICLES IN THE “TITLES OF JESUS” SERIES
1. Titles of Jesus: Rabbi and Teacher