This is something I wrote Spring 2004. Please forward as you think
appropriate. -John B. Hodges.
The Ethics of Jesus.
I set out to do the following: Search the four Gospels for everything
Jesus says about what we should DO. Skip the miracle stories, the
biography, the travelogue; collect only the ethical teachings. Once they
are collected, step back and see what we've got.
I recommend this exercise. If anybody thinks my presentation of Jesus'
teaching is inaccurate, I urge you to do the same exercise, and see for
I've come to conclusions, some of which which I will reveal up front.
First, the "synoptic" gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are strongly
similar to each other, and the fourth gospel, John, is very different.
Essentially all of the ethical teachings are in the first three. What
little ethics there IS in John is remarkable more for what it does NOT
say. The first three have a lot of common quotations and stories, John
has no quotations in common with the others. For this reason I am first
going to cover the ethics taught in the first three gospels, and then
Second, The ethics of Jesus, as presented in the synoptic gospels, is
very difficult, very challenging. But there is an underlying logic to
it: the ethics of Jesus are apocalyptic.
Jesus is reported to have believed and taught that the world as people
then knew it was coming to an end; he was an apocalyptic preacher.
Matthew chapter 24, Mark chapter 13, Luke chapter 21, all speak of an
apocalyptic end time, with earthquakes, famines, wars, with false
prophets and religious persecutions, with mass deaths and turmoil. He
stresses that no one knows when this will happen, so we should keep
ourselves ready at all times. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke he says "This
generation will not pass away till all these things take place." Though
he says no one knows the day and hour, he apparently thinks it will be
"soon", within the lifetime of those hearing him speak. In Matthew 10:23
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say
to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before
the Son of man comes.
Given that he thought the world was ending, the Day of Judgement was
coming when all would be sorted into the saved and the damned, going to
Heaven or Hell respectively (Matt. 25:31-46), it makes perfect sense
that his ethics were utterly unworldly, radically unworldly. He put no
value on earthly wealth, fame, power, or family. He urged his followers
to forsake all of these to focus entirely on purifying their own
character, doing good works, and spreading the gospel. You are not
seeking to have a pleasant or successful life on Earth, you are applying
to get into Heaven when the Earth is destroyed.
In Matthew chapter 16 for example he says
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let
him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever
would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake
will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole
world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his
life? 27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of
his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. 28
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste
death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."
This passage is repeated in Mark chapter 8.
An even more clearly unworldly teaching is Luke 14:26-33,
26 "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother
and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own
life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross
and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring
to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he
has enough to complete it? ... 33 So therefore, whoever of you does not
renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Regarding wealth, for example, he says not to accumulate any. (Matt. 6)
19 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust
consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for
yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and
where thieves do not break in and steal.
24 "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and
love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon. 25 "Therefore I tell you, do not be
anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor
about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and
the body more than clothing?
If you have already accumulated some wealth, Jesus says to get rid of
it. In Luke chapter 18 (and Matt. 19, and Mark 10) a rich man asks Jesus:
18 And a ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit
eternal life?" 19 And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No
one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: `Do not commit
adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor
your father and mother.'" 21 And he said, "All these I have observed
from my youth." 22 And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, "One thing
you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and
you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 23 But when he
heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looking at him
said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of
God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
In Matthew 13:44-46 he again talks of selling all that you have; the
kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, or like a pearl
of great price, and the wise man sells all that he has to buy it.
In Matthew 5 and Luke 6 he says to give extra to those who steal from
you, give to all who beg from you, lend without expecting repayment. In
Luke 12 he says to beware all covetousness, "sell your possessions and
give alms", to provide yourself with treasure in Heaven. In Luke 14,
"when you give a feast, do not invite the rich, lest they invite you in
return, and you be repaid. But invite the poor, the maimed, the blind,
and you will be blessed, for they cannot repay you. You will be repaid
at the resurrection of the just."
This is a repeating theme, that you should do good works without
expecting any return, in fact you should take care to avoid getting any
return. If you receive any reward here on Earth, you will not receive
reward in Heaven. This is apparently HOW you lay up treasures in Heaven:
do things worthy of reward, and DO NOT TAKE THE REWARD HERE ON
EARTH. A just God will see that you get what you deserve; if you haven't
gotten any reward on Earth, he will reward you in Heaven.
Regarding fame, In Matthew 6 for example he says "beware of practicing
your piety before men in order to be seen by them, for then you will
have no reward from your father who is in Heaven." He says to give alms
in secret, pray in secret, fast in secret. If you let yourself be seen,
so that men praise you for your piety, you have an earthly reward and
will not get a heavenly one. He condemns the scribes and Pharisees for
seeking honor among men, for making their piety a means of gaining
earthly status. He says: "Truly, I say to you, they have received their
Regarding power, he says not to seek it, but instead seek to be of
service. In Matthew 20 and Mark 10:
42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those
who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their
great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among
you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and
whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
In Matthew 18,
3 and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like
children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles
himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
In Matthew 23,
10 Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. 11 He
who is greatest among you shall be your servant; 12 whoever exalts
himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Besides not seeking power, remember Matthew 5,
39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one
strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if
any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as
well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
It would be very hard to maintain earthly power if you did not resist
those who attacked you. In Luke 6,
27 "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who
hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29
To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him
who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
In short, if someone robs you or enslaves you or even kills you, that is
their problem, not yours. You keep your eyes on the prize, which is
Heaven. Do not let yourself be tempted into fighting for some piece of
Regarding family, he says that your earthly family is to be abandoned.
Your true family is your fellow believers. Matthew chapter 8:
21 Another of the disciples said to him, "Lord, let me first go and bury
my father." 22 But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and leave the dead to
bury their own dead."
A very similar passage is Luke Chapter 9
59 To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go
and bury my father." 60 But he said to him, "Leave the dead to bury
their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." 61
Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to
those at my home." 62 Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to
the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Matthew Chapter 10:
34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not
come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man
against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a
daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man's foes will be
those of his own household. 37 He who loves father or mother more than
me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is
not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is
not worthy of me.
Matthew Chapter 12: (also Mark chapter 3, and Luke chapter 8)
46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his
brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 47 But he replied to the
man who told him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" 48 And
stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my
mother and my brothers! 49 For whoever does the will of my Father in
heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."
Matthew Chapter 19: (also Mark chapter 10)
29 And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father
or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a
hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.
A possible exception to this is your spouse, if you already have one. In
Mark and Luke, Jesus does not allow divorce and remarriage for any
reason, ever. In Matthew 19 he allows divorce only for "unchastity". It
is not stated whether you can divorce without remarrying, or abandon
your spouse without divorce. His disciples say "if such is the case, it
is not expedient to marry", and Jesus tells them that those who are able
to make themselves eunuchs should do so. "He who is able to receive
this, let him receive it."
Making yourself a eunuch sounds extreme, but Jesus says you should do
whatever it takes to live a sinless life, even cut off body parts that
tempt you to sin. Matthew 5:
27 "You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' 28
But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has
already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye
causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you
lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it
away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your
whole body go into hell.
There is one member in particular that might tempt you to sin, but it
would be vulgar to mention it in a speech, so Jesus speaks instead of
the eye and hand. But he seems to really mean it, when he speaks of
making yourself a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven's sake.
Living a sinless life involves, among other things, following the entire
Law of Moses. In Matthew chapter 5 he says:
17 "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I
have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to
you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass
from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of
the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called
least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them
shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you,
unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you
will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In Luke chapter 16 he says:
16 "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news
of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently. 17
But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of
the law to become void.
In fact he goes further; we should not only follow the Law, we should
overfulfill it, seeking to follow the spirit of it as well as the
letter. Matthew chapter 5 explains this clearly. We should not only
abstain from adultery but also from lust. We should not only abstain
from killing but also from anger. We should practice forgiveness, mercy,
reconciliation, and peacemaking. We should not only abstain from
swearing false oaths, we should abstain from swearing oaths at all. The
law says "an eye for an eye", but Jesus says to abstain from
retaliation; do not resist evil, turn the other cheek, do good to those
that hate you.
He sums up the spirit of the law with the famous Two Greatest
Commandments. Matthew 22:36
36 "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" 37 And he said
to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with
all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first
commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as
yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."
This is repeated in Luke chapter 10:
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying,
"Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him,
"What is written in the law? How do you read?" 27 And he answered, "You
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your
neighbor as yourself." 28 And he said to him, "You have answered right;
do this, and you will live."
Having also read a lot of the law of Moses, I think Jesus is mistaken
about the spirit of it, but that is beside the point here. Jesus
continues his theme of overfulfilling the law in Matthew 5:43-48:
(repeated in Luke 6:32-36)
43 "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and
hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for
those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who
is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and
sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who
love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the
same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing
than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore,
must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Nevertheless, he does say the letter is to be observed as well. Matthew 23:
1 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 "The scribes and
the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever
they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.
22 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint
and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the
law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without
neglecting the others.
The major exception seems to be the dietary laws, which Jesus says to
ignore. Mark 7:
15 there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile
him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him." 16 And
when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked
him about the parable. 17 And he said to them, "Then are you also
without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from
outside cannot defile him, 18 since it enters, not his heart but his
stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 19 And
he said, "What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. 20 For from
within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft,
murder, adultery, 21 coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy,
slander, pride, foolishness. 22 All these evil things come from within,
and they defile a man."
This story is also in Matthew 15. It could be argued that this is a
contradiction; he says not one iota of the law will ever become void,
but he also says not to bother with ritual cleanliness of your food. I'm
not concerned with that here; I'm not trying to criticize Jesus' ethics
here, just trying to see what they are.
According to the Jesus described in the Gospels, our concern with the
law of Moses is supposed to be with obeying it ourselves, not with
enforcing it on others. We should be concerned with purifying our own
character, to perfection. Matthew 7:
1 "Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you
pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the
measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's
eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you
say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there
is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of
your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of
your brother's eye.
20 Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother
sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" 21 Jesus
said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
These are repeated in Luke 6 and 17.
Summing up so far: Abandon all your Earthly ambitions. Forsake your
Earthly family and give your loyalty to God and your fellow believers.
Sell everything you own and use the money to do good works. Avoid
getting any Earthly reward for your good works. Follow the Law of Moses,
both the letter and the spirit of it. Abstain from all sin, inside and
out; abstain from covetousness, abstain from anger, abstain from lust.
Do WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO to abstain from lust. Practice strict
nonviolent pacifism; do not resist evil, do not strike back, do good to
those who hate you. Practice mercy and forgiveness and peacemaking. Do
not judge others, that is not your job, Judgement Day will come soon
enough. Seek to purify your own character, strive to "be perfect, even
as your father in Heaven is perfect."
This is asking a lot. Is all of this necessary? In Matthew chapter 7,
Jesus says that admission to Heaven is very selective.
13 "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy,
that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For
the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those
who find it are few.
21 "Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom
of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On
that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your
name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in
your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart
from me, you evildoers.'
In Luke Chapter 13:
23 And some one said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?"
And he said to them, 24 "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I
tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.
What might disqualify you? What would keep you OUT of Heaven? To start
with, failing to follow Jesus' teachings. Matthew Chapter 7: (also Luke
24 "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be
like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; 25 and the rain fell,
and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it
did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And every one
who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a
foolish man who built his house upon the sand; 27 and the rain fell, and
the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it
fell; and great was the fall of it."
In the history of Christianity there was a long debate over whether we
were saved by faith or by works. The first three gospels come down
squarely on the side of works. What will get you into Heaven, or keep
you out, is what you DO, not what you believe.
Being rich will make it very hard to enter Heaven. Not following the
Mosaic Law will keep you out; "unless your righteousness exceeds that of
the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven."
Holding grudges, refusing to forgive, will definitely keep you out. Sins
of any kind will count against you. Denying that you are a follower of
Jesus will keep you out. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will keep you
out. Pride will keep you out. "Unless you turn and become like little
children, you will never enter the kingdon of Heaven. Whoever humbles
himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven."
Most graphically, failure to do good works will keep you out. In Matthew
31 "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered
all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a
shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the
sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King
will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me
drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you
clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came
to me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see
thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when
did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?
39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' 40 And
the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of
the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say
to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal
fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you
gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a
stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will
answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or
naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?' 45 Then he
will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the
least of these, you did it not to me.' 46 And they will go away into
eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
I've read that Bible scholars generally agree that Mark was the earliest
gospel written, Matthew and Luke were based partly on Mark and partly
on other material, and John was the last one written, no earlier than
So far I have been describing the ethical teachings of the Jesus
described in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Jesus
described in the gospel of John is very different.
In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks of a fiery Hell and eternal
punishment; in John he makes no mention of either. If all you had read
was John, you could think that those not saved would simply die. In the
Synoptics, Jesus often "casts out demons", to cure the many ailments
caused by demon possession; in John he never does this, and never
says anything that would imply he believes in the existence of demons.
In each of the first three gospels there is an apocalyptic chapter, where
Jesus warns of the end of the world, with disasters and wars and mass
death and turmoil, followed by Judgment Day, coming soon. There is no
apocalyptic chapter in John. At the end of John he speaks of his own
future "coming", apparently the "second coming", but gives no apocalyptic
warnings or descriptions. There is no hint that the second coming will be
If you go through the gospel of John and collect only the ethical
teachings, skipping everything else, you will find that there are very
few. The Jesus described in John never says to help the poor, much less
does he say anything about selling your possessions. The only time he
mentions the poor, he says "the poor you always have with you." He never
says to follow the Law of Moses, never says to abstain from all sin and be
perfect, never says to cut off body parts that tempt you to sin. He
never says to be humble.
What DOES he say? He says three things over and over. "Believe in me",
he who believes will get into heaven. "Eat my body and blood", those who
take communion will have eternal life. And "Obey me, keep my
commandments." Those who do not believe and do not obey will be
condemned. But there are only two commandments mentioned in the entire
book. He does say to practice forgiveness; In chapter 8 there is the
story of the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus says "let him who is
without sin cast the first stone." Other than that, the only commandment
he gives is to "love one another". In other words, love other
Christians. John 13:
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I
have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will
know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
In the first three gospels he was described as saying that to love those
who loved you was nothing remarkable, gained you no real credit; even
the gentiles, even the tax collectors do the same. There, he said to go
beyond this and love your enemies. In John, there is no word about
loving your enemies.
That is all: "believe in me", "eat my body and blood", and "love one
another". Do that and you get into Heaven. The Jesus described in John
is not an ethical teacher, he is a sacrificial lamb. We are not saved by
his teachings, we are saved by his blood. We don't have to renounce
anything of our Earthly life, all we have to do is believe, take
communion, and be nice to other believers. There is nothing hard in the
gospel of John; the gate is wide and the way is easy.
Personally, I think that the gospel of John was written by church
leaders who found the existing gospels to be inconvenient. It was at
least 70 years after the time of Jesus, and the apocalypse had not come;
it had become an embarrassment. They wanted to have large congregations,
they wanted a gospel that would have mass appeal. So they did an
apocalypsectomy. They took out the apocalyptic prophecies, then had to
take out most of the ethics also, because the ethics make no sense
without the apocalypse.
Put plainly, I think the gospel of John was a late forgery, a
revisionist theology that praised Jesus to the skies while burying what
he taught. I think the gospel of John bears as much resemblance to the
historical Jesus as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" bears to the
historical Nicholas. Legends about Jesus grew until the historical
figure was eclipsed by the legend, and his drastic, demanding,
apocalyptic teachings were ignored. May he rest in peace.
John B. Hodges, jbhodges7@ @verizon.net
Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Be Irreverent