Karnu Van Heerden

How to Argue Like Jesus: A Study of Matthew 22

Karnu Van Heerden | 8 June 2020 | 10 min read

At first glance, the title of this article might cause a degree of confusion for some. Jesus, arguing? Didn’t Jesus just love people? Indeed, Jesus showed mercy, compassion and grace to many. However, this was only a single aspect of His wide sphere of ministry. A cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that He utilized many different tools, which included logical argumentation.

“Jesus had demonstrated the truth of His message and His identity over and over again using nearly every method at His disposal, including miracle, prophecy, a godly style of life, authoritative teaching, and reasoned argumentation.”[1]

A Sculpture of Jesus Christ

Matthew 22:15-46 provides one of the clearest examples of the way Jesus engages in debate and reasoning with those around Him. Jesus not only responds to the questions and objections that are presented to Him, but also challenges the beliefs of those who are listening. This passage contains four questions, three that are posed to Jesus, and one posed by Jesus to His audience.

We will now do a brief analysis of Matthew 22:15-45. By paying close attention to the manner in which Jesus engages in effective logical argumentation, we can learn some essential principles which we can apply to our own conversations and dialogues.

Dialogue 1: Jesus Refutes the Pharisees (verse 15-22)

In this first dialogue the Pharisees and the Herodians approach Jesus and ask Him whether or not taxes should indeed be paid to the Romans. This is an extremely loaded question. Either answer will cause major controversy. The controversies are represented by the two groups that approach Jesus; the Pharisees who do not support the occupation of Rome over Judea, and the Herodians who are loyalists to the Roman Empire. They are in effect trying to trap Jesus with a difficult dilemma.

If Jesus answers yes, we should pay taxes, then He will be seen as a betrayer of the Jewish people thus causing potential controversy among the Jews. If Jesus says no, we shouldn’t pay taxes, then Jesus will be seen as an insurrectionist against Roman rule and as is well known the Romans did not react too kindly to insurrection.

So what does Jesus do? He seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place… or not. Jesus sees exactly what they are trying to achieve, and points out that this is a false dilemma. Jesus takes the denarii (a coin) to give a visible example that one ought to give to Caesar, who’s face is on the coin, that which belongs to him and give to God that which belongs to Him, the life and soul of the person. Jesus has demonstrated that one can be obedient to the civil government and God at the same time as long as each receives their due.

Dialogue 2: Jesus Refutes the Sadducees (verse 23-33)

In the second dialogue Jesus is approached by another group, the Sadducees. Where the previous dialogue was more political in nature, this one is more theological. The Sadducees challenge Jesus’ view on the resurrection of the dead.[2] They propose a reductio ad absurdum[3] argument to refute the resurrection of the dead. They use the hypothetical scenario of a woman who remarries seven times after every one of her husbands die before she conceives any children. Next, the Sadducees ask Jesus to whom she will be married in the afterlife, since she had so many husbands during her life.

The Sadducees argue as follows:

  • Premise 1: If we believe the Torah’s teaching on Levirate marriage, then we have to deny the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
  • Premise 2: The Torah’s teaching on Levirate marriage is unquestionable.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead must be denied.

The Sadducees are convinced that they have caught Jesus in a dilemma. Jesus has to choose to uphold the model of marriage set forward in the Torah, and deny the resurrection of the dead, or affirm the resurrection and be guilty of promoting polyamory. However, as with the Pharisees before them, Jesus recognizes their fallacy and proceeds to demonstrate that it is a false dilemma.

Jesus strikingly points out three errors in their argument: They have a mistaken view of the life of those who rise from the dead. People will be like the angels; they will not enter into marriage. Jesus effectively refutes the false dilemma, by pointing out that there is another option on the table.

Jesus also points out that they do not know the power of God. If God exists and He is the Creator of the universe, why would it be absurd for Him to be able to raise someone from the dead?

Jesus shows that they do not know the Word of God. If they did, they would accept His teaching. The Sadducees only hold to the authority of the Torah and it is from this authority that Jesus corrects them.[4] Jesus quotes from Exodus 3:6 where God speaks to Moses and identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Despite the fact that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) are dead, when God speaks to Moses, He was indicates that He is still their God. For God to be their God, they must be alive. God is not the God of the dead but of the living.

Dialogue 3: Jesus Answers an Honest Question (verse 34-40)

In the third dialogue, after seeing that Jesus had answered the Sadducees, a teacher of the law approaches Jesus and asks which law is the most important. When one looks at the parallel account in Mark 12:28-34, we see that this man has seen how Jesus has dealt with the two previous groups who sough to challenge Him. Impressed by Jesus’ answers he asks an honest question: “What law is the greatest?” Jesus answers with the famous statement that you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus adds that this law “sums up the law and the prophets.” In Mark’s account this man agrees with Jesus to which Jesus then responds: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Dialogue 4: Jesus Asks a Question (verse 41-46)

After answering multiple questions from those around him, Jesus now turns the tables by asking a question to His listeners. Jesus is involving the audience by engaging their minds. He inquires after their thoughts on the Christ or the Messiah. To His question “whose Son is he?” they reply that the Messiah is the son of David.[5] Then Jesus challenges their answer by referring to Psalm 110:1, in which David calls the Messiah Lord[6], and asks a follow-up question: “If then David calls him Lord, how can He be his son?”[7]

Through His question, Jesus poses a logical problem to the Pharisees that cannot be solved within their vision of a purely earthly Messiah. How can the Messiah be David’s Lord, yet at the same time, also David’s son at the time which David is speaking the words of Psalm 110?

The argument that Jesus makes may be presented as follows:

  • Premise 1: If the Messiah is merely the human descendant of David, David could not have called him “Lord.”
  • Premise 2: David did call the Christ “Lord” in Psalm 110:1.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the Messiah is not merely the human descendant of David but also divine Lord.[8]

After this the people were silent, all their questions were answered, their arguments refuted, and they did not have a reply to Jesus’ own argument.

Conclusion: So What Have We Learned?

Matthew 22 illustrates clearly that Jesus is the example of apologetic discourse. Douglas Groothuis describes it well:

“He did not hesitate to call to account popular opinion if it was wrong. He spoke often and passionately about the value of truth and the dangers of error, and He articulated arguments to support truth and oppose error.”[9]

Here are key principles which Christians can learn from Jesus when it comes to logical argumentation and dialogues:

  • Jesus showed familiarity with His opponents’ views. This is a fundamental aspect of apologetic dialogue, evangelism and basic discourse in general. Having some knowledge of what one’s opponent believes will prevent misunderstanding and also help to better articulate one’s own, differing position.
  • Jesus appealed to common ground – texts which He and his opponents both accepted. Common ground is an essential anchor for effective conversation. Even in the most diametrically opposed conversations both parties share the common ground of the basic principles of logic and communication. Which bring us to the next point…
  • Jesus utilized the laws of logic to deconstruct his opponents’ arguments and refute them effectively. This shows that even a basic knowledge and practice of logic is a great tool for apologetics and evangelism. When applying the principles of logic one gains a better understanding of what the other person is saying and it also allows one to deal more effectively with their central thesis. Therefore, opposing arguments, like obstacles, may be swept away to make way for the presentation of the Gospel.
  • Jesus presented well-constructed positive arguments to his opponents. It’s not just enough to address an opposing argument, you need to make your own as well. This principle connects with the previous on the importance of logic as it shows that even in the presentation of the Gospel as a positive argument, logic is still essential.
  • Jesus modeled what it means to love God with your mind. If we seek to be more like Christ, we must follow His full example in which we not only love the Lord with our entire hearts and souls, but also with our minds.
  • Jesus was sensitive to the context in which he was speaking. In his dialogue with the Pharisees and the Herodians, Jesus was mindful of how He should answer their questions. The wrong answer could have had dire ramifications in this politically charged context. Always be aware of the situation that you are entering and of the people you will be speaking to.
  • Jesus knew how to specifically address each of his various audience members. When dealing with the skeptical Sadducees, Jesus answered their argument and focused on their beliefs about the resurrection. When dealing with the expert in the law, Jesus answered his honest questions, and even commended him for seeing an essential truth. Not every single situation is a full-on logical discourse… Remember, the end goal is the presentation of the Gospel. Sometimes people don’t need an argument, they just need to hear the Gospel and at other times people might have obstacles in the form of questions and objections that need to be cleared for the presentation of the Gospel.
  • Jesus was well aware of the true nature of people’s unbelief.[10] Christianity affirms that the seat of unbelief lies in the corrupted will of humanity and its refusal to submit to the will of God as a result of the fall, described in Genesis 3.[11] Ultimately, Christianity does not entail a set of abstract truths but it is a way of being, living, acting, and doing in union with, and in submission to God. Now, the question may be raised, if this is the nature of unbelief, of what use is it to engage in argument, persuasion, and apologetic dialogue? Clearly, Christians should not be dissuaded to engage people. Despite the reality of sin, Jesus still engages people’s reasoning and argues with them in order to guide them to truth. Whether the unbelieving nature of their will is ultimately changed, is a matter of the Holy Spirit. However, the Spirit uses the apologetic discourse to remove the various barriers and excuses which are used to suppress the truth and justify unbelief and keep people from the task of commending the truth of Christianity.

From Jesus’ example one may learn the importance of logically constructing and deconstructing arguments. At the same time Christians have a good example of how to articulate themselves wisely, sensitively, and specifically to meet people where they are, and not where we would like them to be.

Suggested Readings

Carter, Joe. & Coleman, John. How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009.

Geisler, David & Geisler, Norman. Conversational Evangelism: Connecting with People to Share Jesus. Updated expanded edition. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest house publishers, 2014.

Guinness, Os. Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Koukl, Gregory. Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing your Christian Convictions. 10th Anniversary edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2019.

Kreeft, Peter. Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles. Edition 3.1. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.

[1] C.J. Hazen. Defending the Defence of the Faith (In Beckwith F.J. & Craig W.L. & Moreland J.P., ed. To everyone an answer: A case for the Christian Worldview [Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic], 39).

[2] The Sadducees, in contrast to groups like the Pharisees, denied the resurrection. See Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18 & Acts 23:7-8. Furthermore, they only accepted the Torah as authoritative. As we shall see, Jesus will utilize this point of contact.

[3] This is a form of argument that seeks to demonstrate that if one logically follows the premises of the argument, it will necessarily lead to an absurd conclusion which no one would want to accept.

[4] There are many other verses in the Old Testament Jesus could have referred to, like Daniel 12:2, Psalm 16:9-11 or Job 19:25-27 which speak of resurrection. However, utilizing common ground with the Sadducees, their own Scriptures, He proceeds to correct them from Exodus 3:6.

[5] The answer would be obvious to a Jew for it was common knowledge that the Messiah would come from the lineage of David (see passages like 2 Samuel 7:12-13, Psalm 89:4 & Jeremiah 23:5).

[6] Amongst other things, this figure at the right hand of Yahweh will rule, execute judgement, and is a priest after the order of Melchizedek.

[7] The apostles understood and utilized Psalm 110 as a demonstration that Jesus is both divine Lord and Messiah as seen in Acts 2:33-36, 1 Corinthians 15:25, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, 1:13; 5:6, 8:1, 10:13 & 12:2. Jesus Himself also alluded again to this passage in Matthew 26:64.

[8] Jesus is both the son of David and the Lord of David. This is the reality of the Incarnation. As fully human, Jesus is descended from the line of David while He is fully God being the Person of the Son in the Holy Trinity. Romans 1:2-6 also depicts Jesus as David’s Son and David’s Lord.

[9] Groothuis D. 2002. Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist. Christian Research Journal, 25(2): 30.

[10] Proverbs 15:11, Jeremiah 20:12, John 2:24, Luke 16:15 & Acts 15:8.

[11] Exodus 3:19, Job 21:14-15, Psalm 14:1-3, Jeremiah 17:9, Ezekiel 28:2, Luke 7:28-30, John 5:39-44, Acts 7:51-53, Romans 1:18, Romans 3:23 & Romans 11:23.



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