Education: Credentials or Character?

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Morality

What's education all about? Is it about getting the proper degree, credentials, skills, or information to secure the right job for a strong future? That's what a lot of people would say is its purpose. But others would claim that true education is about character, not credentials.

Let's look at the life of the "The Master Teacher," Jesus, to answer the question. Did Jesus have all the proper academic credentials? What was his formal schooling like? Given that he was a Jewish boy, he took lessons in his local synagogue and was instructed a lot by his mom. He would have learned the necessary scriptures and had his bar-mitzvah when he was twelve.

But that's probably it for his formal, academic schooling. His dad, Joseph, was most likely a carpenter of some sort, making yokes for oxen or building doors. So Jesus would have learned his dad's trade. He did not go through the training to become a credentialed rabbi. Yet a rabbi, or teacher, is what he became -- perhaps the most revolutionary teacher ever.

The fact that he knew so much despite his lack of formal education astounded the Jewish people, especially the rabbis and leaders. At one point during his ministry, Jesus quietly went to the Festival of the Tabernacles, or Booths, at Jerusalem. But it was not until midway through the festival that he went to the Temple and taught. What he said made the people stand up and pay attention. We read about their reaction: "The Jews were impressed, but puzzled: 'How does he know so much without being schooled?'" (The Message, John 7:15).

This was not the first time he had awed the Jews. When he was twelve, he stayed behind (without telling his parents) in Jerusalem after the Passover Festival to learn, to question, and perhaps even to teach. When his concerned parents finally found him, Jesus was in the Temple, "sitting among the religious teachers, listening to them and asking questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:46, 47 NLT). We're told that after this experience, Jesus went home with his parents and was "obedient to them…Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people" (51, 52).

So how did Jesus grow in wisdom? The writer of John tells us that Jesus explained it this way: "My message is not my own; it comes from God who sent me" (John 7:16 NLT). God was his teacher, and Jesus was a phenomenal student. He spent time with God; he listened to God; he learned God; he obeyed God.

He also did his fair share of studying the Scriptures outside of formal education. He knew the Law and the Prophets inside and out and used them when preaching and teaching to point people to God and to confirm his messianic role. Jesus stated, "It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me" (John 6:45 NIV).

What did Jesus want the people to learn? God -- God in a way they hadn't known yet or had forgotten; God as merciful in His great love for all of us, regardless of academic or social status. At one point when the Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for eating with tax collectors and other low-life people (in the common estimation), Jesus responded, "Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners" (Matt 9:13 NRSV).

Credentials were not the yardsticks by which Jesus measured character. He looked at others in the same way Samuel had been instructed to do so many years earlier when he anointed David, Jesus' ancestor. When Samuel looked at Jesse's sons, he was tempted to choose a tall, strong, and handsome son to be king. But God counseled, "… the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Sam 16:7 NSRV).

Jesus looked on the heart, filled with the love and mercy of God. Jesus chose his disciples for their character, not for their position in society or for their amount of schooling. Among the twelve were fishermen and perhaps a tax collector. Jesus took a risk with Judas, but maybe he saw potential in Judas that Judas himself didn't see.

Jesus also proved that no one is outside of God's love. Anyone's life can be transformed by the Christ. Jesus first announced who he was to a Samaritan woman who didn't have a great track record with men, not to a Jewish leader (John 4:7-30). He healed on the Sabbath, irrespective of custom. He showed mercy to the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:4-11). He healed a Roman centurion's servant (Matt 8:5-13). He fed the multitudes. He even chose to dine at the house of the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, whose heart had been touched by Jesus' message enough to change his life from one of taking to one of giving (Luke 19:1-10).

Jesus must have seen something in them that others failed to see. Perhaps he saw faith, purity, trust, a willingness to grow and learn, humility, devotion, the desire to know God, unselfishness. Whatever it was, they gained the Christly character.

Jesus himself was a man of character. He put God first. He included the outcasts. He took care of his own family of disciples. He led the life he wanted us to lead -- a life of selfless giving, dedicated to serving and loving others. He did what he told his disciples to do: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!" (Matt 10:8 NLT).

It was Jesus' character -- defined by his great and unconditional love, his ability to look on the human heart and see the divine nature, his supreme desire to serve humankind, his selfless sacrifice -- (and not any scholarly credential) that transformed the world. May we study to have this same character! May we put more emphasis on educating ourselves spiritually, worry less about a humanly-defined type of educational status, and learn to have the Christly touch!