When Jesus gave his followers their final marching orders (what we often call “The Great Commission” in Matthew 28:16-20) he said, “Make disciples of all nations…baptizing and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
An important thing to realize is that when we read the rest of the New Testament, the story that unfolds is the story of followers of Jesus doing the work of “making disciples.” People in different cities were introduced to Jesus, God saves them, baptisms occur, the Holy Spirit leads, and the church expands. Infrastructure is developed, teaching persists, more people get saved, and the story continues.
When we read the letters of the New Testament another factor is evident. Teaching people “to obey everything I (Jesus) have commanded” turns out to not only take the form of positive affirmation, but also corrective instruction. The NT letters are chock-full of instruction from God that comes through Paul, Peter, John, James, and others, to specific churches facing numerous issues. We must understand that when we read these letters, we’re not reading random opinions from the human authors, but we’re reading instruction that came from Jesus which is being passed on through these authors to their recipients (including us). As the original disciples made disciples, the teaching of Jesus was passed on, developed, and applied to specific situations. This teaching wasn’t simply commands and prohibitions, but also about following the Spirit of Christ in each situation, the Holy Spirit with which his followers are equipped.
Perhaps like me you have heard people who attempt to pit the “teachings of Jesus” against other teaching that comes from the New Testament. “Let’s just focus on what Jesus taught” as they say. “I just want to follow Jesus’ teachings, not the dogma taught by others” is their mantra. The problem with this mindset is that it creates a false dichotomy when reading the New Testament that Jesus himself would have warned us against. Additionally, it operates in complete ignorance of the authorship, chronology, and theological development of the New Testament.
If we are going to trust the words that are attributed to Jesus in the gospels, we would be foolish to neglect the rest of the New Testament. Paul himself wrote his letters years before the gospel accounts were put together. So, when we’re reading Paul, we’re reading the teachings of Jesus that have been passed down through his followers in the decades after his death, resurrection, and ascension.
It is all God’s word. We can’t separate it into preferential categories of convenience depending upon what we want to obey as compared to what we want to neglect. We must submit to the authority of the Bible completely, or neglect it outright. Taken at face value, it doesn’t give us another option.