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Ethics of Jesus
ETHICS OF JESUS. Widely lauded, and variously interpreted, the ethics of Jesus constitute not only a standing reproach of human sin and moral weakness but also a vivid picture of the kind of people His followers should and can be.
Major schools of thought
A number of interpreters have understood the ethics of Jesus in ways that have emphasized the absolute nature of its demands. Though their ideas vary, they have in common that they take the teaching with the utmost seriousness. Yet, for the most part, they fail to relate it in its rigor to life here and now.
The following summary may be noted: (1) The view characteristic of Lutheran orthodoxy is that the ethical teaching is intended not so much as a guide to life but as a means of bringing us to repentance for our failure to live up to it. (2) The interim-ethic view put forward by J. Weiss and A. Schweitzer is that the rigor of Jesus’ ethics was conditioned by His conviction that the eschatological coming of the kingdom was imminent. The severity of His teaching is explained by the theory that it was intended only as “emergency regulations” for the brief interim period prior to its coming. (3) The extreme dispensationalist interpretation insists that the, at least, is the ethics of the future kingdom of God, which is to be established on earth subsequent to the Second Advent (though it is conceived as having a secondary application to the Christian here and now). (4) Superficially similar to the foregoing is the view held by Dibelius and others that the teaching is a declaration of the divine will, unconditioned by any consideration of expediency. As such, however, it is designed to shock people into action. (5) Bultmann, in his view, asserts that the stark demands of Jesus constitute an existential call for decision. (6) Finally, there is the view expounded by scholars such as Windisch and more recently by J. Knox, that the teaching was intended to be rigorous, and that its severity should be taken seriously. It must be interpreted faithfully, and applied absolutely and universally. Of those who have attempted to practice it in its full rigor, the most celebrated is Tolstoi.
Other interpretations have, in one way or another, modified the ethical teaching of Jesus.
Early in the history of the Church, the idea of the “double standard” was applied to Jesus’ ethics. According to this view, whereas the basic commands apply universally, the advice given over and above these commands is relevant only to those who voluntarily apply them to themselves. Less is therefore expected of the rank and file than of those who, for example, embrace the “religious” vocation.
Luther, although strenuously repudiating the idea of a double standard, nevertheless argued strongly for the idea of “two realms,” in only one of which the rigorous teaching applies—the spiritual realm, by which he understood the sphere of personal relationships. In the temporal realm, that of the Christian-in-relation, special guidance is not needed. The law of the land and the natural law provide all the guidance that is needed.
In other ways the ethical teaching has been toned down. Some have so emphasized the fig., and esp. the hyperbolic nature of the language in which the teaching was given, as to modify it more or less drastically. Others have interpreted it in the light of the general tenor of Scripture, and have thereby reduced its severity. Some have simply toned it down to make it more practicable.
Remaining to be considered are methods of interpretation that view the teaching in a wider light than that cast by the words themselves.
Some regard Jesus’ teaching as commanding or forbidding not merely the particular acts specified, but also any other action of a similar kind. This application of the teaching in terms of acts tends to focus attention on the external side of morality.
Others see the particular acts commanded or forbidden as representing the outworking of inner attitudes. These, it is held, should be embodied, not only in the acts specified but also in others. This view has a similar effect to the previous one, but focuses attention on the inner attitude rather than the outer act.
Principal factors involved.
It is impossible to abstract the ethical teaching of Jesus from its total setting without seriously distorting it. T. W. Manson has shown that the idea of ethics as an autonomous discipline of thought is unbiblical. It is important therefore to give attention to some aspects of the religious setting of the ethics of Jesus—law, eschatology, and gospel.
a. In relation to the law. Jesus came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it (
In the light of the insistence of the prophets on the worthlessness of ceremony apart from obedience to the moral law, and indeed on the primacy of the latter over the former, this is not altogether novel. But attention has been drawn by J. I. Packer in Our Lord’s Understanding of the Law of God (9ff.) to the new “depth of exposition” and “stress in application” in the ethical teaching of Jesus. The former—seen in the obligation to love enemies and to forgive and love others as oneself—arises from the fuller revelation of the character of God in the person of Jesus Himself. The latter—seen in the stress on qualities of character such as humility, meekness, and generosity, rather than on externally correct behavior alone—reflects the positive functions of the new covenant that Jesus had come to establish, in contrast to the largely negative functions of the old covenant.
The newness of the teaching of Jesus should not be overstated. Even the antitheses of
Deeply rooted in the law and the prophets, the ethical teaching of Jesus consists of authoritative pronouncements that draw out the deepest implications of the law of God in the light of a fuller revelation of the character of God. As such, they constitute a moral demand of the highest order, even though—as will be noted later—they are not to be thought of merely in terms of legal requirements.
b. In relation to eschatology. (1) Consistent. The theory of consistent eschatology, associated with Weiss and Schweitzer, marked a vigorous reaction against the depreciation of the eschatological element in the teaching of Jesus that was prevalent at the beginning of the 20th cent. In sharp contrast to the Ritschlian view of scholars such as Harnack who maintained that the eschatological element was merely formal, the shell within which lay the kernel of the moral teaching, it was asserted that “the whole of ethics lies under the concept of repentance—penitence for the past and the determination to live henceforward liberated from everything earthly in expectation of the Messianic kingdom” (Schweitzer). A rigorist ethic, such as Jesus taught, could only be relevant for the short interim period of life to be lived under “emergency regulations” before the apocalyptic coming of the kingdom.
This theory, as Dean Inge pointed out, “makes Christ a psychological monster and His character an insoluble enigma.” The Early Church did not so understand His teaching, doubtless remembering His parting words (
(2) Realized. This reaction against consistent eschatology is based upon those statements and parables in the gospels that indicate that the kingdom of God has come in the person and work of Jesus. The ethical teaching is therefore set in the context not of the interim period prior to the coming of the kingdom, but of the kingdom itself.
This view is a necessary corrective to consistent eschatology, avoiding much of the naivety of the Ritschlian presentation of the ethics of Jesus. For it asserts that divine initiative has been put forward in the coming of Jesus that has fulfilled the scriptural prophecies. Nevertheless, it fails to do adequate justice to the evidence presented in the gospels that shows that Jesus spoke in terms of the Second Advent. Not even the modification of this view indicated by the revision of the term “realized eschatology” to “inaugurated eschatology” can deflect the cutting edge of this criticism.
(3) Futurist. The view of some dispensationalists that the ethical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, if not the ethical teaching of Jesus as a whole, is related to the future millennial kingdom to be set up on earth after the Second Advent, would seem to indicate another presentation that fails to do justice to the scriptural data. Only strained exegesis can deny the force of
(4) Suggested approach. Though none of the above-mentioned views commends itself as adequate, each contains some element of truth. Taken together, these point the way to an understanding of the relation between the ethics of Jesus and the kingdom of God.
There is surely a sense in which the ethic is rooted in the idea of the kingdom as an eternal fact, independent of all earthly contingencies—nothing less than the sovereignty of God. This explains its absoluteness and the magnitude of its demand: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (
At the same time, “realized eschatology” has some contribution to make to the understanding of the teaching. It is evident that it was given for action here and now. Attested by significant signs, the presence of the King was a sure indication that the kingdom of God had come. As the teacher par excellence, Jesus expounded with the full weight of His divine authority the moral principles of the kingdom to those who recognized Him for what He was.
It is equally clear that the consummation of the kingdom was—and is—still future. Present in the world and dynamically active among men, the kingdom has not yet filled the sphere of human society, and there are inadequate grounds for believing that it will do so, apart from direct divine intervention.
Therefore, Jesus’ ethics can best be interpreted in terms of the dynamic concept of God’s rule that has already manifested itself in His person, but will come to its consummation only as a result of new eschatological action (see G. E. Ladd).
c. In relation to the Gospel. There are many who see the ethical teaching of Jesus as the heart, if not the sum and substance of the Christian message. This has been particularly true of liberal Protestantism, as exemplified in A. von Harnack and the exponents of the “social gospel.”
A necessary corrective to this has been provided by the distinction drawn by C. H. Dodd between κήρυγμα, G3060, and διδαχή, G1439, &--;even if the distinction has been overdrawn at times. Religion and ethics, though closely linked, are not to be confused, still less identified. Just as OT ethics had a religious basis and law was a function of covenant; so in the NT ethics and religion are not to be confused, for teaching followed preaching of the Gospel. Does the teaching of Jesus bear out the contention—which needs to be raised not only against liberal Protestantism but also against the New Morality adherents—that Christian ethics is essentially ethics for disciples? There are clear indications that it does.
Attention must be drawn, in the first place, to the fact that the ethical teaching of Jesus is essentially personalistic. He taught on the basis of His own authority (“I say to you”); called men to follow Him; and evoked a response on the basis not of compulsion nor even of compliance with legal requirements, but of loving and glad obedience to Himself (
Furthermore, in His ethical teaching, Jesus called for a radical transformation of character. “Repent and believe in the Gospel” was His first command, and response to it was, and is, the essential prerequisite. Since He taught that the heart of man is the source of moral defilement (
The ethical teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is clearly set in a context of grace. Addressed to disciples, the ethical demands are preceded by the beatitudes that, far from being rewards promised for virtuous behavior, are compelling expressions of divine grace. True, the form critics see this context as the work of the Early Church; Jeremias, for example, regards the sermon as an early Christian catechism in which scattered sayings of Jesus were gathered together in what he agrees is a context of grace. Such a setting is, however, in perfect harmony with the general setting of the ethical teaching, which—as the ethics of the kingdom—is the ethics of the new covenant, the way of life of the people of God, and the ethics of the new heart and the new spirit. Only those who have repented and committed themselves to discipleship, those who are the followers of Jesus—as T. W. Manson points out in Ethics and the Gospel—are the proper objects of His teaching.
a. Literary. There is no evidence to suggest that the ethical teaching of Jesus was delivered systematically. Certainly in its recorded form it bears the character of scattered sayings; even the Sermon on the Mount is not an ethical treatise. Furthermore, since the sayings were often given in response to questions on particular issues, or in the context of situations in life, they express “with dazzling finality one aspect only of eternal truth, and that the aspect which on the particular occasion needed to be emphasized” (S. Cave, The Christian Way, p. 45). It is patently obvious that the teaching thus given was frequently expressed in fig. language. Metaphor and hyperbole, together with simile, parable and paradox, were used with great effect to give force to the teaching. One may attempt to rationalize a camel going through the eye of a needle, but the speck and the log, the gnat and the camel are not easily interpreted literally. Nor is the command to cut off the offending hand or foot, or to pluck out the eye that causes sin.
It is a cardinal principle of literary interpretation, Biblical as well as secular, that due attention should be paid to the literary form employed. This is not to say that the meaning is to be toned down, but that it should be understood in accordance with the mode in which it is expressed. It is therefore necessary to recognize metaphor, hyperbole, and the rest, and to interpret accordingly, without in any way lessening the intended force of the teaching. Not always is it easy, esp. for occidentals, to recognize oriental use of fig. language. L. Dewar’s suggestion, that the teaching should be interpreted metaphorically when to understand it literally involves a reductio ad absurdum, remains a subjective criterion. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, it is clear that, just as “seventy times seven” is not to be understood mathematically, so the command to pray in secret is not to be understood so as to forbid public prayer.
b. Didactic. Not only the literary form of the teaching needs to be taken into account, what might be called the didactic form must also be recognized. The suggestion made by Anderson Scott that the ethical injunctions fall into different categories is worthy of serious consideration.
Not only formally expressed but also underlying the ethical teaching as a whole, Anderson Scott discerned a single commandment—love to God and neighbor. Alongside this mandate are numerous examples that serve to illustrate specific ways in which love may come to expression. The sayings about turning the other cheek, giving the cloak as well as the coat, going the second mile, and giving to all who ask, are therefore illustrations of the length to which love is prepared to go in typical situations. It would clearly run contrary to the general tenor of the teaching of Jesus to interpret such sayings merely as legal requirements to be interpreted literally and obeyed formally. Rather, they would seem to be examples of the kind of response that those obedient to the command to love will be prepared to give in provoking circumstances. The guidance provided by such examples, must, however, be balanced by other guidance given. For example, it can hardly be disputed that there are circumstances in which we are expected not to “give” (cf.
In addition to the mandate and examples, Anderson Scott finds consilia that he regards as sayings giving urgent advice to particular people in particular circumstances. They are, therefore, not to be taken as necessarily incumbent upon everyone. Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give all to the poor was addressed to him personally in the light of his particular spiritual condition and is not to be generalized.
This distinction should not be confused with the distinction between basic commands incumbent upon all and additional advice that is voluntary. The latter has served only to produce a double standard with its concomitant, the acquisition of merit for going beyond obedience to the commands laid upon all. The former is an aid to seeing more clearly the central thrust of Jesus’ ethical teaching and the kind of practical application that may be given to it.
The emphasis upon love as the central and governing factor in Jesus’ ethics is sharply distinct from the view maintained by exponents of the New Morality who advocate that “love” is the guide to moral decisions. For the love of Jesus’ teaching is the love of the Father, which demands religious expression as well as ethical activism; there is no religionless ethic in the gospels.
Pointers to proper interpretation.
The ethical teaching of Jesus was clearly intended to be taken seriously. With all the weight of His messianic and divine authority, Jesus reasserted the fundamental moral principles of the OT law and prophets. In doing so He focused OT imperatives with a new intensity, showing that these extended to thought as well as act, to motive as well as deed. With striking clarity, He revealed the moral demands of the kingdom of God that was now active in His person, and He portrayed with bold strokes the character as well as the conduct appropriate to His followers. Couched in pictorial and vivid language of the Orient, its interpretation calls for a proper understanding of its literary and didactic form. Furthermore, the Christian who reads it in the gospels as part of the completed revelation of Scripture is duty bound to interpret it in the light of the overall teaching of Scripture.
The ethics of Jesus includes His forthright denunciation of evil. The call to repent (
By comparison with the teaching of Paul, little is said in condemnation of sexual sins. This was undoubtedly because of the relatively high standard of teaching and practice among the Jews. Nevertheless, enough is said to show that Jesus regarded as fundamentally evil such things as fornication, adultery, and licentiousness (
Theft, murder (including the angry thought or word of
Some of the sins denounced by Jesus can only be described as sins of a religious complexion. Religious observances undertaken in such a way as to foster pride received His condemnation (
In His summary of the law, Jesus provided also a summary of His positive ethical teaching. This is found in the command to love God and neighbor (
Love to God is a command that is absolute and unqualified. It involves all the heart, soul, and mind. Such a love overrides all other claims, and demands the subordination of every lesser love. By comparison, therefore, love for father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, is hatred (
Love for neighbor is inseparably linked with love for God, though it is no substitute for it.
One manifestation of love esp. emphasized by Jesus is readiness to forgive others their trespasses (
A forgiving spirit combines with the attitudes of humility, meekness, and service as characteristic of the true disciple of Jesus. The meek who inherit the earth (
That there is little explicit social teaching in the gospels is not necessarily because Jesus had a foreshortened view of the future. It does indicate that Jesus was more concerned with the fundamental matter of personal ethics than with the construction of a blueprint or even the enunciation of principles designed to lead to the transformation of society. This is not surprising if He did not come to establish the kingdom in its fullness and if its consummation still awaits His second coming. It is not without significance that attempts to give full form to the kingdom of God on earth have unfailingly ended in disillusionment.
At the same time, since the kingdom is at work in the world, its presence must make itself felt, even as the presence of salt and light cannot be hid (
a. Duty to the state. The question raised by the Pharisees and Herodians regarding the payment of taxes was clearly designed as a trap to ensnare Jesus (
b. Marriage and divorce. Another testing question prompted the teaching of Jesus on this subject (
Some scholars, usually anxious to preserve the absolute indissolubility of marriage, deny the dominical authority of the Matthaean exception—but without any objective evidence. Those who accept its genuineness differ in their interpretation of the meaning of πορνεία, G4518. Some regard it in the light of its use elsewhere in the NT (
If this seems to be a striking conclusion, so too is the recognition of the equal rights of the sexes (
Jesus indicated in reply to the disciples’ further question, three categories of those who are exempt from the divine plan for men and women (
The ethical teaching of Jesus is far more than good advice. It is authoritative to the highest degree, and its authority involves sanctions. The most striking of these is the appeal to rewards and penalties of an eschatological nature.
It has often been pointed out that all this serves to underline the gravity of moral choices, and some have asserted that the rewards offered by Jesus are the inevitable issue of goodness, just as victory is the reward for success in battle. The prominence given by Jesus to the theme of reward still seems reminiscent of Judaism, with its tendency to think of virtue as meritorious.
The problem is eased when it is noted that Jesus promised rewards only to those who were prepared to follow Him from some other motive. The righteous will be astonished by their reward (
The eschatological element is prominent in the sanctions of Jesus’ ethics, and it will not do to regard this as purely formal, as Wilder does. Since Jesus’ ethic is that of the kingdom of God that awaits its final consummation, the life of the disciple is to be lived in the light not only of His first advent but also of His second. The “futurist” eschatology of the gospels, as well as the “realized” element, is ethical through and through. The Olivet Discourse has as its primary object the exhortation to spiritual and moral watchfulness (
T. Walker, Theand the Jewish Teaching of His Age (1923); C. A. Anderson Scott, Ethics (1930), 1-72; K. E. Kirk, The Vision of God (1931), 140-146; T. W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (1931); W. Manson, Jesus the Messiah (1943); L. H. Marshall, The Challenge of New Testament Ethics (1947), 1-215; L. Dewar, An Outline of New Testament Ethics (1949), 1-121; S. Cave, The Christian Way (1949); A. N. Wilder, Eschatology and Ethics in the Teaching of Jesus rev. ed. (1950); C. H. Dodd, Gospel and Law (1951); H. Windisch, The Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, Eng. tr. (1951); P. Ramsey, Basic (1952); A. M. Hunter, Design for Life (1953); C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (1957); T. W. Manson, Ethics and the Gospel (1960); J. Jeremias, (1961); H. K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (1961); W. Lillie, Studies in New Testament Ethics (1961); J. Knox, The Ethic of Jesus in the Teaching of the Church (1962); J. I. Packer, Our Lord’s Understanding of the Law of God (1962); J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (1963), 110-121; W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964); G. E. Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom (1964), 274-300.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
Contents I. IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
1. The Blessings of the Kingdom (1) Nature of the Kingdom (2) Blessedness of the Kingdom (3) Righteousness--Its Contrasts (4) Apocalyptic Theories
2. The Character of the Subjects of the Kingdom (1) Condition of Entrance (2) Christ’s Attitude to Sin (3) Attainment of Righteousness (a) Repentance (b) Faith "Coming" to Christ (c) Imitation of Christ--Service Example of Jesus
3. Commandments of the King The Great Commandments (a) Love to God God’s Worship, etc. The Church (b) Duty to Man Exemplified in Christ The New Motives
II. IN THE FOURTH GOSPEL
1.2. Its Source in God 3. Through the Son 4. Need of New Birth 5. Nature of Faith 6. Fruits of Union with Christ LITERATURE
I. In the Synoptic Gospels.
If, following the custom prevalent at present, we adopt, as the general name for the teaching of Jesus in the Synoptists, the, then the divisions of His ethical teaching will be (1) the Blessings of the Kingdom, (2) the Character of the Subjects, (3) the Commandments of the King.
1. The Blessings of the Kingdom:
(1) Nature of the Kingdom.
"The Kingdom of God" was not a phrase invented by Jesus. It was used before Him by the Baptist. Its proximate source, for both Jesus and John, was the prophet Daniel, who uses it in very striking passages (2:44,45; 7:13,14). The idea of a kingdom of God goes back to the very commencement of the monarchy in Israel, when the prophet Samuel told those who demanded a king that Yahweh was their king, and that they should desire no other. Through all the subsequent history of the monarchy, which was, on the whole, so disappointing to patriotic and pious minds, the conviction lingered that, if God Himself were king, all would be well; and, when at length the Hebrew state was destroyed and the people were carried into captivity, the prophets still believed that for their country there was a future and a hope, if only Yahweh would take to Himself His great power and reign. In the period between theand the such sentiments so greatly prevailed that Schurer has compiled, from the apocryphal literature, a kind of Messianic creed, embracing no fewer than eleven articles, which he supposes to have prevailed before the Advent. It may be doubtful how far such beliefs had taken possession of the general mind. Many of the Sadducees were too satisfied with things as they were to concern themselves about such dreams. But the Pharisees undoubtedly gave a large place in their minds to Messianic expectations, and for these the Zealots were ready to fight. It is, however, to the prosdechomenoi, as they are called, because they were "waiting for the consolation of Israel," that we must look for the purest expression of this heritage derived from the piety of the past. In the hymns at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with which the birth of Jesus was greeted, we encounter an intense and lofty conception of the kingdom of God; and, as the earthly home in which Jesus grew up belonged to this select section of the population, there is little doubt that it was here He imbibed both His Messianic ideas and the phraseology in which these were expressed. His use of the term, the kingdom of God, has sometimes been spoken of as an accommodation to the beliefs and language of His fellow-countrymen. But it was native to Himself; and it is not unlikely that the very commonness of it in the circle in which He grew up rendered Him unconscious of the difference between His own conception and that which prevailed outside of this circle. For, as soon as He began to preach and to make known the sentiments which He included within this phrase, it became manifest that He and His contemporaries, under a common name, were thinking of entirely different things.
They emphasized the first half of the phrase--"the kingdom"; He the second--"of God." They were thinking of the external attributes of a kingdom--political emancipation, an army, a court, subject provinces; He of the doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. Even He had felt, at one stage, the glamor of their point of view, as is manifest from the account of the Temptation in the Wilderness; but He had decisively rejected it, resolving not to commence with an external framework on a large scale, to be subsequently filled with character, but to begin with the individual, and trust to time and Providence for visible success. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem proves that He never abandoned the claim to be the fulfiller of all the Old Testament predictions about the kingdom of God; but His enemies not unnaturally interpreted the failure of that attempt as a final demonstration that their own view had been the correct one all along. Still, God was not mocked, and Jesus was not mocked. When, at the end of a generation, the Jewish state sank into ruin and the city by which Jesus was martyred had been destroyed, there were springing up, all over the world, communities the members of which were bound more closely to one another than the members of any other kingdom, obeyed the same laws and enjoyed the same benefits, which they traced up to a King ruling in the heavens, who would appear again on the great white throne, to be the Judge of quick and dead.
(2) Blessedness of the Kingdom.
The enemies of Jesus may be said to have carried out to the bitter end their conception of the kingdom of God, when they nailed Him to a tree; but, in the face of opposition, He carried out His own conception of it too, and He never abandoned the practice of employing this phrase as a comprehensive term for all the blessings brought by Him to mankind. He used, however, other nomenclature for the same objects, such as Gospel, Peace, Rest, Life, Eternal Life, Blessedness. His exposition of the last of these, at the commencement of the, is highly instructive. Seldom, indeed, has the structure of the Beatitudes been clearly understood. Each of them is an equation, in which "blessed" stands on the one side and on the other two magnitudes--the one contained in the subject of the sentence, such as "the poor in spirit," "the meek," and so on; and the other contained in a qualifying clause introduced by "for." Sometimes one of these magnitudes may be a minus quantity, as in "they that mourn"; but the other is so large a positive magnitude that the two together represent a handsome plus, which thoroughly justifies the predicate "blessed." It is remarkable that the first and the eighth of the reasons introduced by "for" are the same: "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," justifying the statement that this is Christ’s own name for the blessedness brought by Him to the world; and the sentences between these, introduced in the same way, may be looked upon as epexegetic of this great phrase. They embrace such great conceptions as comfort, mercy, the inheritance of the earth, the vision of God and sonship, which are all certainly blessings of the kingdom; and the list does not finish without mentioning a great reward in heaven--an immortal hope, which is the greatest blessing of all.
(3) Righteousness--Its Contrasts.
If the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was to expound at length any one of these bright conceptions, it might have been expected to be the kingdom of God itself; and this we should have desired. But the one to which this honor fell has still to be mentioned. It is "righteousness." In one of the Beatitudes the speaker had promised that to be filled with this should be part of the blessedness which He was expounding; and, when He had finished the Beatitudes, He turned back to this conception and devoted the rest of His discourse to its interpretation. Nowhere else, in the reports of His preaching which have come down to us, is there to be found an exposition so sustained and thorough. There is no better way of describing a new thing, with which those who listen are unfamiliar, than to contrast it with something with which they are perfectly acquainted; and this was the method adopted by Jesus. He contrasted the righteousness with which the subjects of the kingdom were to be blessed with the figure of the righteous man familiar to them, first, in the discourses of the scribes, to which they were wont to listen in the synagogue, and secondly, in the example of the Pharisees, to whom they were wont to look up as the patterns of righteousness. It is well known what ample opportunities He found, by means of this felicitous disposition, for probing to the very depths of morality, as well as for covering His opponents with ridicule and exploding the honor in which they stood with the masses. The whole of this scheme is, however, exhausted long before the Sermon comes to a close; and the question is, whether, in the latter half of the Sermon, He still keeps up the exposition of righteousness by contrasting it with the ordinary course of the world. I am inclined to think that this is the case, and that the key to the latter half of the discourse is the contrast between righteousness and worldliness. The doctrine, at all events, which issues from the whole discussion is that the righteousness promised is distinguished by three characteristics--inwardness, as distinguished from the externality of those who believed morality to extend to outward words and deeds alone, and not to the secret thoughts of the heart; secrecy, as distinguished from the ostentation of those who blew a trumpet before them when they were doing their alms; and naturalness, like that of the flower or the fruit, which grows spontaneously from a healthy root, without forcing.
(4) Apocalyptic Theories. This substitution of righteousness for the kingdom in the greatest public discourse which has come down to us is a significant indication of the direction in which the mind of Jesus was tending, as He drew away from the notions and hopes of contemporary Judaism. It is evident that He was filling the idea of the kingdom more and more with religious and moral contents, and emptying it of political and material elements. There are scholars, indeed, at the present day, who maintain that His conception of the kingdom was futuristic, and that He was waiting all the time for an apocalyptic manifestation, which never came. He was, they think, expecting the heavens to open and the kingdom to descend ready made to the earth, like thein the Apocalypse. But this is to assume toward Jesus exactly the attitude taken up toward Him in His own day by Pharisees and high priests, and it degrades Him to the level of an apocalyptic dreamer. It ignores many sayings of His, of which the parable of the Mustard Seed may be taken as an example, which prove that He anticipated for Christianity a long development such as it has actually passed through; and it fails to do justice to many passages in His teaching where He speaks of the kingdom as already come. Of the latter the most remarkable is where He says, "The kingdom of God is within you"--a statement preceded by a distinct rejection of the notion of an apocalyptic manifestation; for the word "observation," which He employs in describing the way in which the kingdom is not to come, is an astronomical term, describing precisely such a phenomenon as He is supposed by such scholars as John Weiss and Schweitzer to have been expecting. The more it became evident that He was not to command the homage of the nation, the more did He devote Himself to the education of the Twelve, that they might form the nucleus of His kingdom upon earth; and it was certainly not with apocalyptic visions that He fed their receptive minds.
2. The Character of the Subjects of the Kingdom:
(1) Conditions of Entrance.
The righteousness described so comprehensively in the Sermon on the Mount is not infrequently spoken of as the condition of entrance to the kingdom of God; but this is altogether to misunderstand the mind of Jesus. The righteousness described by Him is the gift of God to those who are already inside the kingdom; for it is the supreme blessing for the sake of which the kingdom is to be sought; and the condition imposed on those who are outside is not the possession of righteousness, but rather a bottomless sense of the want of it. The more utterly they feel their own lack of righteousness, the more ready are they for entrance into the kingdom. They must "hunger and thirst after righteousness." It has been remarked already that the description, in the Beatitudes, of the character of the candidates for the kingdom is sometimes of a negative character; and indeed, this is the account in the teaching of Jesus generally of those whom He attracts to Himself. They are drawn by a sense of boundless need in themselves and by the apprehension of an equivalent fullness in Him; He calls those "that labor and are heavy laden," that He may give them rest.
(2) Christ’s Attitude to Sin.
The first word of the prophetic message in the Old Testament was always the denunciation of sin; and only after this had done its work did the vision of a good time coming rise on the horizon. The same was repeated in the message of
(3) Attainment of Righteousness.
To all serious students of the Sermon on the Mount it is well known that the popular notion of it, as containing a simple religion and an easy-going morality, is utterly mistaken; on the contrary, the righteousness sketched by the Preacher is far loftier than that ever conceived by any other religious teacher whatever. Not only, however, does He thus propose to conduct human beings to a platform of attainment higher than any attempted before, but He, at the same time, recognizes that He must begin with men lower than almost any others have allowed. It is here that the ethics of Jesus differ from those of the philosophers. He takes the task much more seriously; and, as the ascent from the one extreme to the other is much longer, so the means of reaching the goal are much more difficult. Philosophers, assuming that man is equal to his own destiny, lay the demands of the moral law before him at once, taking it for granted that he is able to fulfill them; but the path adopted by Jesus is more remote and humbling. There are in it steps or stages which, in His teaching, it is easy to discern.
The first of these is repentance. This was a watchword of all the prophets: after sin had been denounced, penitence was called for; and no hope of improvement was held out until this had been experienced. In the message of John the Baptist it held the same place; and, in one of the Gospels, it is expressly stated that Jesus began His ministry by repeating this watchword of His predecessor. Not a few of the most touching scenes of His earthly ministry exhibit penitents at His feet, the most moving of them all being that of the woman who was "a sinner"; and, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we have a full-length picture of the process of repentance.
The second step is faith--a word of constant recurrence in the teaching Of Jesus. In many cases it is connected with His healing ministry; but this was a parable of a more interior ministry for the soul. In many cases it formed a school of preparation for the other, as in the case of the man borne of four, who was brought to Christ for the healing of his body, but was presented, in addition, with the gift of the forgiveness of his sins. In healing him Jesus expressly claimed the power of forgiving sins; and, in His great saying at the institution of the, He showed the connection which this was to have with His own death.
(c) Imitation of Christ--Service:
Instead of speaking of faith and of believing, Jesus frequently spoke of "coming" to Himself; and then followed the invitation to "follow" Him, which, accordingly, is the third stage. Following Him meant, in many cases, literally leaving home and occupation, in order to accompany Him from place to place, as He journeyed through the land; and, as this involved sacrifice and self-denial, He frequently combined with "following" the invitation to take up "the cross." But by degrees this literal meaning dropped away from the invitation, or at least became secondary to that of imitation, which must be the only meaning when Paul, adopting the language of his Master, calls upon men and women to be "followers" of him, as he was of Christ. It is seldom that Jesus, in so many words, calls upon others to imitate Himself; indeed, He does so less frequently than Paul; but it is implied in following Him, if not literally expressed; and it was a direct consequence of keeping company with Him and coming under the influence of His example. It is highly characteristic that, in the only place where He directly calls upon others to "learn" from Him, the virtue to which He draws attention is meekness--"Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart." The same quality was often emphasized by Him, when He was describing the character which He wished to see exhibited by others, "For every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (
This reminds us that, while the character of the subjects of the kingdom is to be learned from the words of Jesus, it may be also derived from His example. That which He demanded from others He fulfilled in His own conduct; and thus the dry precepts of the moral law were invested with the charm of a living personality. Brief as the records of His life are, they are wonderfully rich in instruction of this kind; and it is possible, by going through them with study and care, to form a clear image of how He bore Himself in all the departments of human life--in the home, in the state, in the church, as a friend, in society, as a man of prayer, as a student of Scripture, as a worker, as a sufferer, as a philanthropist, as a winner of souls, as a preacher, as a teacher, as a controversialist, and so on. This is the modern imitation of Christ-- that of the details of His earthly existence--the Imitation of a Kempis was an imitation of the cosmical history of the, as He moves on His Divine mission from heaven to the cross and back to the throne of the universe. See the writer’s Imago Christi.
3. Commandments of the King:
The Great Commandments.
In accordance with Scriptural usage, Jesus called by the name of "commandments" those actions which we call "duties"; and He has made this part of our subject easy by reducing the commandments to two: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (
(a) Love to God:
It has been denied by some writers on Christian ethics that there can be any such thing as duties to God, and by writers on philosophical ethics love to God is not generally regarded as coming within the scope of their science. But the duty of man is concerned with all the objects, and especially all the beings, he is related to; and to Jesus the outflow of man’s heart toward Him who is the author of his being and the source of all his blessings seemed the most natural of actions. "I love Yahweh" was a sentiment to which mankind had risen even in the Old Testament (
Love to God involves, however, love to what may be called the Things of God, toward which Jesus always manifested tenderness and honor. Those who are not themselves ecclesiastically minded have, indeed, taken it for granted that Jesus
indifferent, if not hostile, to the objects and actions by which the Almighty is honored; and it is often said that the only service of God which mattered in His eyes was the service of man. But, although, like the prophets before Him, Jesus exposed with withering rebuke the hypocrisy of those who put ritual in the place of righteousness, it requires no more than a glance at His sayings, and the other records of His life, to perceive that His mind was occupied no less with duties to God than with duties to men; indeed, the former bulk more largely in His teaching. The only arrangement of religion with which He seems out of sympathy is the Sabbath; but this was due to a peculiarity of the times; and it is quite conceivable that in other circumstances He might have been a strenuous supporter of Sabbath observance. If there had been in His day a Sadducean attempt to rob the people of the day of rest, He would have opposed it as strenuously as He did the Pharisaic attempt to make it a burden and a weariness to the common man. By declaring the Sabbath to have been made for man (
Nothing is commoner than the statement that Jesus had nothing to do with the founding of the church or the arrangement of its polity; but this is a subjective prejudice, blind to the facts of the case. Jesus realized that the worship of the Old Testament was passing away, but He was Himself to replace it by a better order. He did not merely breathe into the air a spirit of sweetness and light; if this had been all He did, Christianity would soon have vanished from the earth; but He provided channels in which, after His departure, His influence should flow to subsequent generations. Not only did He found the church, but He appointed the most important details of its organization, such as preaching and the sacraments; and He left the Twelve behind Him not only as teachers, but as those who were able to instruct other teachers also. There may be ecclesiastical arrangements which are worked in a spirit far removed from the love of God; and such are of course contrary to the mind of Christ; but the love of God, if it is strong, inevitably overflows into the things of God, and cannot, in fact, permanently exist without them.
(b) Duty to Man:
As has been hinted above, the sayings of our Lord about the details of duty to man are less numerous than might have been expected, but what may be lacking in numbers is made up for in originality and comprehensiveness. Many single sayings, like the Golden Rule (
Besides such directions as to the behavior of man to man, there are also among the words of Jesus memorable maxims about the conduct of life in the family, in the state, and in society; and here again He taught even more by example than by precept. As son, brother and friend, He fulfilled all righteousness; but He also, as teacher, determined what righteousness was. Thus He opposed the laxity as to divorce prevalent in His time, pointing back to the pure ideal of Paradise. His conception of womanhood and His tenderness toward childhood have altered entirely the conceptions of men about these two conditions. He was a patriot, glorying in the beauty of His native Galilee and weeping over Jerusalem; and though, from birth to death, He was exposed to constant persecution from the constituted authorities, He not only obeyed these Himself but commanded all others to do the same. Nothing moved Him more than the sight of talents unused, and, therefore, it lay deep in His system of thought to call upon everyone to contribute his part to the service of the body politic; but no less did He recognize the right of those who have done their part of the general task to share in the fruits of industry; "for the laborer is worthy of his hire" (
Priceless, however, as are the commandments of Jesus in regard to the things of man, as well as in regard to the things of God, it is not in these that we have to seek His ethical originality, but in the new motive brought into play by Him for doing the Divine will, when once it has been ascertained. As He made it easy to love God by revealing God’s love, so did He make it easy to love man by revealing the greatness of man, as an immortal creature, who has come from God and is going to God. Whatever is done to man, good or evil, Jesus esteems as done to Himself; for the great saying to this effect, in the account of the
II. In the Fourth Gospel.
1. Eternal Life:
In the Fourth Gospel Eternal Life takes the same place as the kingdom of God in the other three. The author is not, indeed, unaware that Jesus employed the latter phrase for the sum of the blessings brought by Him to the world; and it has already been remarked that the Synoptists occasionally employ "life" as an equivalent for the phrase they usually make use of. The reason of John’s preference for his own phrase may have lain in some personal idiosyncrasy, or it may have been due to the Gentileenvironment in which he wrote. But the phrase is one suggestive and instructive in itself in the highest degree. It had already entered deeply into the language of religion before the time of Christ; indeed, in every part of Holy Writ the idea is common that separation from God is death, but that union with Him is life.
2. Its Source in God:
In the teaching of Jesus, as this is found in John, the world lies in death, because it has become separated from God, and the children of men are in danger of perishing everlastingly as the punishment of their sin; but "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life" (
3. Through the Son:
This life is, first, in God, who abides in everlasting blessedness; but it is not, even in Him, at rest, but agitated with an impulse to communicate itself. Then, it is in the Son--"For as the Father hath life in himself, even so gave he to the Son also to have life in himself" (
4. Need of New Birth:
The world lying dead in sin, a new birth is required for those who are to enter into life; and this is necessary even for so fine a character as Nicodemus (
5. Nature of Faith:
Since faith is thus the means whereby the eternal life becomes a personal possession, it is the one thing needful and the sum of all the commandments--"This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (
6. Fruits of Union with Christ:
Character and conduct are, even for the disciples of Christ, "commandments," as, indeed, Jesus does not disdain to speak of the various parts of His own vocation by the same humble name, implying the necessity of moral effort and the temptation to failure (
Monographs on the ethics of Jesus in German by Grimm and in English by King; compare also Peabody,and the Social Question, and Jesus Christ and the Christian Character; relevant portions works of larger scope, such as Jacoby, New Testament Ethik, Wendt, The , and the handbooks of New Testament theology by Weiss, Holtzmann, Schlatter, Feine, Weinel, Stevens. Very ample references to literature in Stalker, The Ethic of Jesus.