Jesus and Social Ethics

©David Peterson (2010)[1]

It was H. J. Cadbury who warned his generation about the danger of quoting Jesus as the ally and prophet of contemporary social programs and reforms:

There may be reasons for a modem Christian to espouse prohibition, pacifism, socialism or communism as so many liberal Christians do. But to claim Jesus as holding in any explicit, literal or conscious way such modern philosophies is the grossest anachronism.[2]

Nevertheless, allowing for the fact that Jesus’ teaching may be inappropriately applied, it is still valid to ask whether it provides the ground for a social ethic, and then to investigate the shape which such an ethic might take.

Strictly speaking, social ethics is concerned with the responsibility of a group in relation to its own internal structure and life, or in relation to another group, or in relation to an individual. However, in the literature concerning Jesus’ ethical teaching, the focus is often on the social responsibility of the individual Christian and the Christian group.

Many today are also asking about the socio-political implications of Jesus’ teaching for the structures of human society more generally. The burning issue for evangelicals is the relationship between evangelism and what may be loosely termed ‘social responsibility’.

A number of writers in this field have shown the importance of investigating Jesus’ eschatological teaching and exploring the connections with his ethical teaching. In the first part of this essay, a brief analysis of representative positions shows that the way in which Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God has been understood by scholars has determined the way in which his ethical teaching has been formulated.

The position taken by Ladd, Ridderbos, Schnackenburg and others is endorsed as being most faithful to the evidence from the Gospels. Its implications for understanding Jesus’ ethic are then discussed in the following section, with special reference to the Sermon on the Mount. A critical review of the work of Yoder provides the opportunity for linking together some of the preceding discussion and offering some conclusions

Eschatology and Ethics

Several key figures in this debate have evaluated the ethical teaching of Jesus in the light of the eschatology they presume to have been governing his thinking.

Ethics without eschatology

Adolf von Harnack argued that although Jesus thought of the kingdom of God as future and imminent, he also thought of it as present and immanent. Indeed, Jesus began the process of demythologising the eschatological views of his contemporaries, a process which modern interpreters are bound to continue. Since the kingdom was present for Jesus as God’s reign in the hearts or souls of individuals, Harnack regarded it primarily as a phenomenon of religious experience.

Harnack is not properly categorised as a proponent of the ‘social gospel’, but he frequently included love of neighbour as a defining mark of the presence of the kingdom of God. He visualised ethics as consisting mainly in the application of the ideas, values and principles of Jesus, and stated quite emphatically that Jesus was no social reformer and laid down no social program:

What Jesus really opposes is service of mammon, Godless anxiety, and uncompassionate self-seeking, but not the present social conditions, and what he wishes to accomplish is the rule of God in the heart, not a new social program.[3]

The gospel of Jesus is profoundly individualistic but becomes ‘socialistic’ at the point where one’s neighbour comes into view. Harnack advocated study of ‘the social organism’, but not in order to change that organism, rather only to see which of its ills were inevitable and which might be remedied by self- sacrifice. Since Jesus did not advocate social reform, the modern Christian and the churches should not do so either.

The imminent kingdom and interim ethics

Albert Schweitzer argued that Jesus fully shared the eschatological views of his contemporaries, but differed in regarding the coming of the Son of Man and the kingdom of God to earth as imminent. Against Harnack and others, he proposed that Jesus did not begin the process of demythologising and that his ‘ethical teaching’ was not laid down as timeless truths for countless generations. It was an ethic for the interim between his preaching and the coming of the kingdom.

The Beatitudes and parables all have the same theme: by repentance, meaning moral renewal or transformation, one must now prepare for the one thing that matters—the coming of the kingdom of God.’[4] There is for Jesus no ethic of the kingdom,

for in the Kingdom of God all natural relationships . . . are abolished. Temptation and sin no longer exist. To serve, to humble oneself, to incur persecution and death, belong to the ‘ethic of the interim’,  just as much as does penitence.[5]

According to Schweitzer, Jesus’ eschatological expectations proved to be wrong. But the ‘personality’, ‘Spirit’ or ‘will’ of the historical Jesus continues to speak to us, unfettered by his eschatological view. The eternally valid content of Jesus’ message is the call to serve the kingdom of God—to create it by ethical work as the nineteenth-century liberals proposed. Jesus taught active self-devotion to others, the philosophy and ethic of reverence for life, and the ethic or religion of love. Christians are now free to develop in their own terms the true and abiding significance of what was once obscured because of its connection with Jesus eschatological expectation.

Radical obedience: ethics as eschatology

Rudolf Bultmann agreed with Schweitzer and other advocates of the futuristic interpretation of Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom of God. He rejected as ‘escape reasoning’ the theory of realised eschatology. The message that the kingdom is at hand constrains people to ‘decision’ or ‘repentance’:

He teaches men to see themselves as called to decision—decision between good and evil, decision for God’s will or for their own will … His ethic is an ethic of obedience . . . Obedience is radically conceived and involves man’s whole being. This means that the whole man is under the necessity of decision; there is no neutrality for him, he has to decide between the only two possibilities which there are for his life, between good and evil.[6]

The demand for decision or obedience is expressed in respect to one’s neighbour through the commandment of love: ‘I can love my neighbour only when I surrender my will completely to God’s will, so I can love God only while I will what he wills, while I really love my neighbour.’[7] Love, or obedience, is a formal demand, containing no norms or guidance as to what is to be done.

Bultmann suggests that renunciation of one’s own claim is the only principle of conduct that is needed. However, ‘decision is not dice-throwing; its character becomes plainer the more clearly the empirical possibilities are understood.’[8] Bultmann does not develop the implication that the Christian is obliged to study society to become acquainted with the relevant facts and empirical possibilities when decisions are to be made. Christians will know directly from the immediate situation what to do!

Bultmann rejected Hamack’s idea that Jesus understood the kingdom to be an inward, spiritual experience and Schweitzer’s view of an interim ethic, though he may have exaggerated the difference between his own position and that of Schweitzer.[9] He sought to demythologise the preaching of Jesus to disclose the existential meaning of the eschatological symbols at its heart. Thus, the kingdom of God has no relevance for history, only for myself as an individual within history.

For Bultmann, ethics are primarily conceived as a response to the message of Jesus. Jesus’ words are not timeless,

but at least implicitly, Jesus’ understanding that each man is confronted with a recurrent now, that his existence is a continual crisis of decision, is timeless, i.e. still valid.[10]

Each person is confronted again and again by God in encounter with his or her neighbour. Like Harnack, Bultmann was aware that Jesus had presented no social program, but argued that Christians are not thereby exempted from concerning themselves with social needs. The love commandment of Jesus has far-reaching implications for national and social life.

The ethics of realised eschatology

C. H. Dodd saw all the events of traditional Jewish eschatology present in Jesus’ ministry—parousia, kingdom and judgment—but acknowledged that

there remains a residue of eschatology which is not exhausted in the ‘realised eschatology’ of the Gospel, namely the element of sheer finality.[11]

Like Harnack, Dodd sometimes treated the kingdom as a phenomenon of religious experience and maintained that

Jesus’ eschatological language is to be taken as symbolic of spiritual and timeless, rather than tangible and future, realities.[12]

The revelation of eternal issues in the crisis of Jesus’ ministry calls us to a decision.

In The Parables of the Kingdom, Dodd has no place for a future judgment: people pass judgment on themselves by their attitude to Jesus and his appeal. Jesus’ moral teaching is the ethic for those who live already in the presence of the kingdom. It has modern relevance by way of an analogy, as we perceive the similarity between our own situation and that of Jesus’ hearers.

Jesus’ precepts were not intended as laws, but examples, though Dodd refers to these standards as ‘the law of Christ’, which may be stated in the form of his own ‘new commandment’.[13]

Jesus’ ethical teaching has a twofold function in the Christian life for Dodd.

It first provides the material for an intelligent act of repentance in that it discloses the ‘absolute standards’ of the kingdom. We cannot fulfil these standards, yet ‘since God is here in his kingdom, these standards are obligatory’: they expose our need and throw us back on the grace of God that ‘places us within his kingdom’.

Secondly, once people are ‘within the kingdom’, Jesus’ ethical precepts become

not only the standards by which our conduct is judged, but guideposts on the way we must travel in seeking the true ends of our being under the kingdom of God.[14]

In effect, Dodd interprets Jesus’ teaching as ‘situation ethics’, but in a given situation, one is informed by the ‘guideposts’ of Jesus’ precepts. Dodd  ‘does not insist as forcefully as Bultmann that in each situation Jesus’ demand confronts man with an Either-Or, a decision to obey God or else become disobedient. Dodd emphasises the possibility of some limited obedience more than the demand for radical, unlimited obedience.’[15]

However, because of his theory of realised eschatology, it is easier for Dodd to show the relevance of Jesus’ ethical teaching to the situation of the modern Christian.

Eschatology as a dimension of the present situation

R. H. Hiers maintains that Jesus did not intend his message for later generations but expected an immediate end. Indeed, Jesus was mistaken in believing that the ambiguities of historical existence were about to be resolved in ultimate judgment and redemption. However, this does not mean that his message can have no meaning for us.

With Dodd, he asserts that in Jesus’ sayings and parables we can see examples or ‘dramatic pictures of action in concrete situations’, arising out of a ‘consistent understanding of God, man, and the world’, which ‘appeal to the conscience by way of imagination’.[16] Since we do not share Jesus’ (and the early church’s) expectation that the arrival of the kingdom and Messiah are imminent,

the radical sayings of Jesus about selling all and giving to the poor, or taking no thought for the morrow, however ‘sublime’, cannot be followed responsibly, even if he meant them to be obeyed literally.[17]

However, following Bultmann, Hiers argues that Jesus summoned his hearers to

turn from their self-centered concerns and toward God, to cease taking themselves with absolute seriousness and to begin to take God seriously as the One who has always manifested his sovereignty in nature and soon would assert it in history.[18]

The ethic of radical obedience or conversion involves the recognition and affirmation of value in the neighbour, and from this point Hiers seeks to develop an ethic of love. In this context he argues that there are at least two features of Jesus’ eschatological teaching that are relevant for our moral situations.


as in the case of Jesus’ hearers, so for us also, time is short. Not only does our own life come to an end soon . . . but also the lifetime of others is similarly limited. We do not have an infinity of time in which to respond to our neighbour who now needs our help.


if history is to be redeemed, it will be as in the case of our own little individual histories: a miracle of his grace.[19]

Hiers has attempted to combine some of the best insights from the realised eschatology position and the position of those who stress the futurity of God’s kingdom for Jesus. However, he has done so on the basis of the common assumption that Jesus was mistaken about the future. This presupposition leads to a distortion of the Gospel material, evidenced in a selective approach to the teaching of Jesus.

Fulfilment without consummation

In my judgment, none of the foregoing assessments of Jesus’ ethic is valid because of the inadequacy of the various formulations of his eschatological teaching. Without argument, I want to endorse the stance of writers like G. E. Ladd, H. N. Ridderbos and R Schnackenburg, who basically agree in proposing that the kingdom of God has two ‘moments’ in the teaching of Jesus: a fulfilment of Old Testament promises in his historical mission and a consummation at the end of the age, inaugurating the age to come.

The novel element in Jesus’ proclamation, not found in Judaism, is the assertion that before the apocalyptic consummation at the end of history a fulfilment of the prophetic hope has occurred within history (e.g. Lk. 17:20-37). Thus, in Matthew 12:28-29 ‘the essential theology of the kingdom’ is revealed:

In the present age, God’s Kingdom is unexpectedly manifesting itself among men in [Jesus] own person. God’s Kingdom has come, not to usher in the new age, but to work in an unexpected way within history. The reign of God, which will indeed one day establish the new age, has become redemptively active among men in this age. God has taken the initiative.[20]

This divine inbreaking occurs in history, not merely in individual experience. The new order stands in continuity with the old order, in that it is always viewed as earthly existence, yet there is also discontinuity in that the new order involves a transformation of the old and the emergence of something that has never existed before.

If this is the best way to view Jesus’ eschatology, what are the implications for his ethic? In a chapter on the ethics of the kingdom, Ladd first discusses Jesus relationship to the law of Moses. The note of fulfilment means that a new era has been inaugurated which requires a new definition of the role of the law. No longer is the relationship between God and his people to be mediated through the law but ‘through the person of Jesus himself and the Kingdom of God breaking through in him.’[21]

The Sermon on the Mount presupposes Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom: God’s gift precedes his demand. Those who have experienced the present rule of God in Jesus will enter into the eschatological consummation by his grace. If the Sermon is legislation to determine admission into the future kingdom, then all are excluded! However, it portrays the ideal of the person in whose life the reign of God is absolutely realized. Those who are truly the children of the kingdom will manifest the sort of heart-righteousness of which the Sermon speaks (Mt. 5:20), and this will be expressed in the sort of active righteousness which the sermon commends.

Since the Sermon on the Mount figures so prominently in any assessment of Jesus’ ethic, it will be discussed in some detail in the exegetical section that follows.

Kingdom ethics

The ethics of Jesus, then, are kingdom ethics. They are relevant only for those who have experienced the reign of God. It is impossible to detach them from the total context of Jesus’ message and mission, since,

the unique element in Jesus’ teaching is that in his person the Kingdom of God has invaded human history, and men are not only placed under the ethical demand of the reign of God, but by virtue of this very experience of God’s reign are also enabled to realise a new measure of righteousness.[22]

Jesus ethic is designed for this world, where persecution, lust and hatred are continuing realities. However, it embodies a righteousness which can be perfectly attained only in the age to come, where there will be no evil. Thus, his disciples are to live as representatives of the new world within the old age, displaying the character of their heavenly Father (Mt. 5:43-8). It is an ‘interim ethic’ for the period before the consummation, but the sanction for this ethic is not the brevity of the time, as Schweitzer thought; rather, it is the absolute will of God.

At this point, Ladd’s theory needs some clarification and exposition, since he is seeking to combine two apparently contradictory eschatological (and therefore ethical) stances. In my view, it is not helpful to use the expression ‘interim ethic’ because of its particular association with Schweitzer’s position. However, I totally agree with the conclusion that, for Jesus, ‘ethics are eschatological, for life must be lived in this age with a view to the eschatological consummation.’[23]

Ladd observes that there is little explicit teaching on social ethics in the Gospels:

The reason for this need not be that Jesus had such a shortened view of the future that he was not concerned about such questions. It may rather be due to the fact that social ethics must be an outworking of a properly grounded personal ethics.[24]

Schnackenburg similarly notes:

Jesus is not concerned with a social revolution or with a progressive advance towards some earthly realm of peace but with a transformation of man himself, in order that he may have a share in the future kingdom of God.[25]

Towards a social ethic

Ladd believes that his dynamic concept of the kingdom suggests several principles that can issue in a biblical social ethic.

  1. If the kingdom belongs to the age to come, we are never to expect that this age will see the full realisation of God’s rule. The attainment of the ideal social order is not the work of man but the result of the eschatological coming of God’s kingdom.
  2. However, since the kingdom has invaded this world in the person and work of Jesus, the powers of evil have been attacked and defeated. God’s reign has entered into dynamic conflict with the realm of Satan, and is manifesting its powers in history through the church. The world is meant to feel the influence of God’s kingdom through the disciples of Jesus (Mt. 5:13-14).
  3. The presence of God’s kingdom in Jesus was concerned not only with the spiritual welfare of people but also with their physical well-being. The consummation will involve the resurrection of the body and a transformed natural and social order. Since the kingdom involves the conquest of evil in whatever form it manifests itself, this sets an agenda for God’s people here and now as they live in the light of Christ’s victory and look forward to the perfection of the new creation.[26]

Ladd’s first principle follows from giving due weight to the futurist element in Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom. It sounds the death knell to any proposal for establishing the kingdom in this present era by socio-political means and emphasises the need for God’s sovereign grace to transform the whole order of human existence.

Ladd’s second and third principles follow from giving due weight to the realised element in Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom. They focus on the need for disciples to testify in word and deed to the dynamic conflict between the reign of God and the realm of Satan, as demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus and ultimately to be consummated in the new creation.

Thus, the impetus for Christian behaviour is not simply love, but a desire to live out the implications of the gospel of Jesus with its focus on God’s victory over the powers of evil.

Ronald Sider misunderstands Ladd when he quotes him in support of the view that ‘the kingdom comes wherever Jesus overcomes the power of evil.’[27] Ladd’s principles cannot be taken to mean that every conquest of evil is a manifestation of the kingdom in history since his focus is on the victory of Christ already accomplished in the earthly ministry of Jesus and on the final demonstration of God’s victory over the powers of evil in the new creation, when he returns.

Gospel proclamation is necessary to point unbelievers to this perspective on history, which comes only from divine revelation. Indeed, without the gospel, Christian opposition to evil may not appear to be any different from the opposition of others in the community. However, Ladd’s point is that belief in the gospel commits Christians between Calvary and the Eschaton to oppose evil in whatever form it manifests itself, even though the same gospel indicates to us that ‘the attainment of the ideal social order is not the work of man by the result of the eschatological coming of God’s kingdom.’

Gospel and Law in the Teaching of Jesus

The discourse on righteousness in Matthew 5-7 has been at the centre of much of the debate about Jesus’ ethic, and it is therefore essential to make some exegetical observations at this point, especially about chapter 5. Any history of the interpretation of the so-called Sermon on the Mount will illustrate the complex array of approaches that have been taken over the centuries.[28] The following discussion views the passage in the light of the eschatological stance taken above and focuses on the covenantal dimension of the discourse.

The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount

The discourse in Matthew 5-7 is preceded by Jesus’ eschatological preaching (4:17) and his call to discipleship (4:18-22). The editorial summary in 4:23-5 then refers to the sort of activity described in the following chapters: Jesus’ ‘teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom’ is illustrated in Matthew 5-7 and his ‘healing every disease and every infirmity among the people’ is illustrated in Matthew 8-9, where a similar editorial note in 9:35 indicates an inclusion.

The Sermon shows that we are not to make too fine a distinction between Jesus’ teaching (διδαχή) and his preaching (κήρυγμα). Ηis ethical teaching is intimately connected with his proclamation of the kingdom.

As a backdrop to the discourse that follows, Matthew records the gathering of crowds from all over the nation (4:25). Although the parallelism with Sinai should not be pressed too far, a representative group of Israelites assemble before this ‘mountain’ to receive further revelation.[29] Of course, as 5:1-2 shows, the discourse is for disciples (those who ‘came to him’ on the mountain). But the crowd is also on the periphery, marvelling at the authority with which this new Rabbi teaches (7:28-29). When Jesus speaks to disciples about their privileges and responsibilities, there is an implied challenge to those standing by to respond to Jesus’ preaching and join this group. This challenge is made explicit as the Sermon draws to a close (7:13-27).

The Beatitudes

Since this is often regarded as a composite discourse, the logic and flow of the argument from segment to segment is not always observed. The opening Beatitudes are declarations about the fortunate state of the disciples, identifying them as the true Israel, destined to inherit the kingdom of God.[30] They are not conditions for entering the kingdom, but a word of grace. The Old Testament equivalent for μακάριος (אַשְׁרֵי) calls attention to a state of blessing that already exists and recommends it.[31]

The blessings proclaimed all relate to different Old Testament promises about the coming kingdom and the age of salvation—being comforted, inheriting the land, being satisfied, obtaining mercy, seeing God, being called sons of God. It is noteworthy that although the future tense is used in verses 4-9 with regard to the enjoyment of these blessings, verses 3 and 10 indicate that the kingdom is in some sense the present possession of those delineated.

Those to whom the blessings apply are first described in terms recalling Isaiah 61. There, a kingly-prophetic figure, anointed with God’s Spirit, proclaims to ‘the poor’ (עְַנָוִים, ‘afflicted’) that the longed-for comfort, security and restoration of Israel are at hand. These poor are then defined by a whole series of parallel expressions. Against those who have suggested that the focus of Jesus’ ministry was the socio-economic poor, David Seccombe has argued that the Isaianic background to Jesus’ teaching gives a broader perspective (cf. Luke 4:18; 6:20; 7:22).

Isaiah uses the term ‘poor’ to characterise Israel, captive to the nations and oppressed by her enemies. Jesus portrays the coming of the kingdom of God ‘in classical Jewish terms as the intervention of God to rescue “his poor” from all the evil forces which afflicted them’.[32] As the one who announces this salvation, Jesus presents himself as the one who will effect it for them. However, since in the main Israel turns its back on the offer of salvation, the inheritance of ‘the poor’ falls finally to the faithful remnant, who are identified as the disciples of Jesus.

The first four Beatitudes appear to define the nature of the relationship that discipleship involves, and the second four the conduct that the relationship displays.

The discourse moves from an identification of the disciples as the true Israel and an explanation of their nature and function (5:3-12) to a statement of their corporate significance for the world (5:13-16).

The salt metaphor has behind it a rich growth of allusion, and most commentators take it to mean that Christians have a preservative function in the midst of the decay and corruption of the world: they are to be ‘a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non-existent’ .[33] However, this interpretation does not take into account the special function of Jesus’ disciples in relation to national Israel.

In Matthew 5, the use of salt as a symbol of the durability of the covenant (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19; 2 Chr. 13:5) may be most prominent. As ‘salt’ the disciples are a guarantee of the continuation of Israel’s vocation to be ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles.’[34] At all events, with the imagery of the ‘city set upon the hill’, Jesus certainly describes the small community of the disciples assuming the eschatological function of Israel/Mt. Zion (Is. 2:1-4, cf Is. 4:2-6).

The imagery of these verses suggests that they are to function as the servant community of the Old Testament did: to be ‘a light to the nations’, so that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is. 49:6; cf Is. 42:1-7). Note again that this is a corporate role, not simply an individual one. Although evangelism quite naturally springs to mind as the means by which God’s light shines forth, the immediate context suggests that it will be as people see the ‘good works’ of disciples that they will glorify God.

The eschatological role of the law

The sermon logically progresses to a discussion of the role of the law in the eschatological community. As the righteousness demanded by Jesus is reflected in the Christian community, the nations of the world will be drawn to it as the bearer of God’s torah or light. Although Jesus mentions ‘the law and the prophets’ in verse 17, the real focus of his attention in the following verses is on ‘the law’.

The declaration that he came to fulfil the law and the prophets suggests an endorsement of the role of the law as prophetic eschatology conceived it to function in the last days. The verb πληρόω in Matthew predominantly means ‘bringing to fulfilment a prior scriptural pronouncement or body of teaching, by giving to it full validity.’[35] Thus, Jesus brings ‘the final revelation, the complete eschatological measure of the law.’[36] Jesus presents himself as ‘the eschatological goal of the Old Testament, and thereby its sole authoritative interpreter, the one through whom alone the Old Testament finds its valid continuity and significance.’[37] The ‘I am come’ of verse 17 suggests that this task of fulfilling the law is central to his mission.

The essence of discipleship in verse 20 is the pursuit of righteousness, and this may be considered the key verse in the whole discourse (note that δικαιοσύνη occurs at strategic points in the argument again at 6:1, 33). In the immediate context, 5:20 forms a heading for 5:21-48. δικαιοσύνη in these chapters means human conduct in accordance with the will of God and specifically faithfulness and obedience to the teaching of Jesus. In 5:10-11 persecution ‘for righteousness’ sake’ means persecution ‘on my account’, and clearly in 7:24-27 it is Jesus’ teaching that is to be the basis of discipleship.[38] The greater righteousness demanded in 5:20 is illustrated in 5:21-47 and is summed up with the call to perfection in 5:48. Disciples are to reflect in their own lives the ‘completeness’ of God’s own character.[39]

Whatever is said about Jesus’ attitude to the law in 5:17-20 must be tested in the light of the interpretative examples given in 5:21-48. Was he simply expounding the law’s true intent or was he radicalising the law beyond its original meaning? Does Jesus at any point abrogate the law? In a careful analysis of this section, D. J. Moo argues that none of the usual characterisations of Jesus’ handling of the Old Testament is sufficient to embrace all the evidence:

‘Exposition’ can in no manner account for the situation in the final four antitheses, although it cannot be ruled out as a description of the first two. Besides the inadequacy of the term to do justice to the evidence, it is highly questionable whether the antithetical formula would have been chosen had simple exegesis been Jesus’ goal. Likewise, the process observed in the first two antitheses might be best described by the terms ‘deepening’ or ‘radicalisation’, but the latter four cannot be understood in this way. What is the dominant note, hinted at in the emphatic ‘I say to you’, testified to by the crowds at the conclusion of the Sermon and observed in all the antitheses, is the independent, authoritative teaching of Jesus, which is neither derived from nor explicitly related to the Old Testament.[40]

Moo concludes that,

in his direct statements about the law Jesus upholds the continuing validity of the entire Old Testament Scriptures, but also asserts that this validity must be understood in the light of its fulfillment . . . The change in redemptive ‘eras’ brings with it a change in the locus of authority for the people of God, but it does not bring a liberation from authority as such.[41]

It is frequently asserted that Jesus established love for others as a principle on the basis of which the meaning and applicability of Old Testament commands could be evaluated. The ‘Great Commandment’ pericope (Mt. 22:34 40; Mk. 12:28-34; cf Lk. 10:25-8) is central to this debate, as is the so-called ‘Golden Rule’ (Mt. 7:12), which is often considered a decisive summary of Jesus’ demands in the Sermon on the Mount. However, Moo argues persuasively that, far from representing a radical new principle for the evaluation of the law, Jesus’ emphasis is entirely in keeping with segments of the prophetic tradition:

For Jesus, it is not a question of the ‘priority of love over law’ but of the priority of love within the law. Love is the greatest commandment, but it is not the only one; and the validity and applicability of other commandments cannot be decided by appeal to its paramount demand.[42]

In short, Jesus’ commandments include both general principles and some detailed demands; much more than the bare requirement of love is involved.

Conclusions about Matthew 5

  1. Jesus’ ethical teaching is intimately connected with his proclamation that ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’.
  2. The basis of that teaching is the gracious promise that the kingdom is even now in some sense possessed by those designated in the Beatitudes and their inheritance of the blessings of that kingdom is guaranteed.
  3. The discourse indicates that those so designated are the disciples of Jesus, who are identified as the nucleus of the true Israel, the ones in whom the Old Testament promises about the servant community find fulfilment.
  4. As such they are given a prophetic-type role with respect to national Israel—‘to restore the tribes of Jacob’ (Is. 49:6), as well as being ‘a light to the nations’.
  5. This eschatological community of the people of God will be the means of drawing others into the blessings of the kingdom, as the light of God’s law shines in their lives and as they reflect the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The law as fulfilled in the teaching of Jesus the Messiah is the righteousness disciples are to pursue, but clearly this is to be a response to the word of grace that he brings, and not a means of winning God’s acceptance. A series of general ethical principles as well as some detailed demands from Jesus are given by way of example in the rest of Matthew 5.

The final scene in the Gospel is of this little community of Jewish disciples being commissioned by Jesus to ‘make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (28:19-20). In Matthew’s presentation, this cannot simply mean proclaiming the bare fact that the kingdom of heaven is at hand but must include living out the teaching they call others to observe in Christ’s name.

The role of the Servant community is both to live and to teach the commands of Christ and in this way to bring his light to the world. Christians today, who have been drawn into the fellowship of the original disciples through their testimony to Jesus, share in the privileges and responsibilities of that servant community.

A social ethic?

To what extent, then, can the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount be described as a social ethic? Jesus is not simply concerned with person-to-person encounters, but with a pattern of community life among the people of God, as seen particularly in the application of some of the principles of Matthew 5 in Matthew 18. There we discover that the care of disciples for one another and the quality of their relationships will reflect the fact that they are truly children of God and inheritors of his kingdom.

J. H. Yoder argues that the personhood which Jesus proclaims as ‘a healing, forgiving call to all is integrated into the social novelty of the healing community.’[43] He goes on to assert that ‘the primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community.’ Jesus intends that his people refuse to live by the values of this old age but embody and reflect the values and lifestyle of the new age.

In Matthew 5:38-48 it appears that relationships with opponents and persecutors, who are presumably outside the Christian community, are at the heart of Jesus’ social ethic. The wording of 5:11-12 makes it clear that disciples collectively will be persecuted and the exhortations at the end of the chapter can certainly be applied to disciples as the believing community in confrontation with the unbelieving community. Although the second person singular is used in the illustrations of non-resistance in 5:39-42, the principle of foregoing rights can be extended to the situation where a group of Christians is being ill-treated.

However, it would be illegitimate to take this principle and apply it as a law for community relationships generally, since it is a word for those who have come under the rule of the age to come and, by implication, are being renewed through the Spirit of Christ. In the matter of not retaliating or resorting to legal action against opponents, Christians individually and collectively are called to live in a way that challenges the standards and values of the world. In this way they are to testify to the fact that the kingdom of God is at hand and that its benefits are already being realised for them.

The description of disciples as ‘peacemakers’ at the beginning of the sermon can also be related to the teaching of 5:38-48. Although this saying may have reference to the establishment of right relationships among believers (cf. 5:21-6; 18:15-35), it must also have a wider application to the role of believers in a world characterised by rivalry, hatred, selfish ambition and conflict. ‘God is the supreme peacemaker (cf. Eph. 2:14-18; Col. 1:20) and this quality marks disciples out as his sons, for the son shares the characteristics of the father.’[44]

Christians should express the redemptive, reconciling love of God to all. The most important aspect of the peacemaker’s role will be the declaration of the peace with God which is available only through the gospel and which will culminate in the perfect relationships and transformed environment of the age to come. However, once again it can be said that the way in which Christians relate to one another and to those outside their fellowship should confirm the message of reconciliation and hope they proclaim. No limitation can be placed on the extent to which Christians must seek to be agents of reconciliation and peace in the world. Nevertheless, it would be naive and contrary to the teaching of Jesus to suppose that a true and lasting peace could be found apart from a genuine reconciliation with God.

It thus appears that the social ethic implied in the Sermon on the Mount is an ethic for the community of believers in their relationships with one another and with unbelievers. Jesus does not provide a pattern for directly transforming the society of those who remain in rebellion against God. The lifestyle of Christians individually and corporately is meant to be a judgment on the world and its values and to point to the possibility of renewal and change under the rule of God. This does not preclude speaking out on social issues, though the method of the prophets of Israel should be our guide: in condemning specific social aberrations they spoke about the fundamental cause, namely the neglect of a relationship with God.[45]

In this connection it is interesting to note the discussion that has taken place about the so-called parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt. 25:31-46). Many interpreters understand ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ (vv. 40,45) to refer to all who are hungry, distressed or needy, and argue that people are accepted into the kingdom on the basis of deeds of mercy and compassion[46] This interpretation suggests a social ethic for believers and unbelievers alike. Although it speaks about responding to the unknown Christ in the needy individual, in reality it sees no need for the grace of God in salvation.

However, it is more in line with Jesus’ use of the word ‘brothers’ for disciples (12:48-9; 28:10; cf. 23:8), and with the sort of teaching examined above, to suggest that the issue in Matthew 25:31-46 is specifically deeds done to his followers—those charged with spreading the gospel in the face of hunger, thirst, illness and imprisonment. Acts of compassion towards these representatives of Christ reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and thus to Jesus himself. ‘Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself (cf. 10:40-2).’[47]

As a radical expression of the disciples’ unselfish concern for others, Jesus commands a costly generosity in Matthew 5:42 (cf Lk. 12:324). This is followed by the exhortation to love as God loves, for ‘he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Mt. 5:43-5). As with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37), the teaching here is that no limit is to be placed on the love that disciples individually and collectively display, even to ‘enemies’. There is a sweeping universality in the love Jesus demands which has no parallel in Jewish literature.[48]

Once again the challenge is to be ‘sons’ of God (Mt. 5:9), in this case reflecting his caring commitment to everyone without discrimination in the maintenance of creation and its blessings. Thus, at the beginning and end of this chapter Christians are called to express God’s love, because they are in a special relationship with him as the disciples of Christ (cf. Mt. 11:27).

The Challenge of Jesus’ Ministry

Against those who have insisted that Jesus was simply concerned with the face-to-face-model of social relations, Yoder has argued ‘that his deeds show a coherent, conscious social-political character and direction, and that his words are inseparable therefrom.’[49]In my judgment, there are some serious exegetical fallacies in Yoder’s book and yet, at the same time, he provides a helpful and challenging perspective on the life and teaching of Jesus.

Beginning with the opening chapters of Luke, he reminds us that,

the pious hopes which awaited Jesus were those in which the suffering of Israel was discerned in all its social and political reality, and the work of the Awaited One was to be of the same stuff.[50]

John the Baptist’s ministry had a pronounced political character (Lk. 3:7-20), and to some extent Jesus continued this. Seeking to define more precisely what he means by ‘political’, Yoder asserts:

To say that any position is ‘apolitical’ is to deny the powerful (sometimes conservative, sometimes revolutionary) impact on society of the creation of an alternative social group, and to overrate both the power and the manageability of those particular social structures identified as ‘political’. . . [Jesus] refused to concede that the men in power represent an ideal, a logically proper, or even an empirically acceptable definition of what it means to be political. He did not say (as some sectarian pacificists, or some pietists might), ‘you can have your politics and I shall do something else more important’: he said ‘your definition of polis, of the social, of the wholeness of man in his socialness is perverted’.[51]

In our attempts to highlight the eschatological and spiritual dimensions to the ministry of Jesus, we may easily ignore the extent to which he challenged the existing leadership, values, and standards of the society in which he lived. He did this by means of direct teaching (e.g. Mt. 21:33-46; 23:1-39), by identifying his disciples as the true Israel and calling upon them to live in a way that condemned the unfaithfulness and hypocrisy of national Israel, and by certain symbolic actions such as his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Lk. 19:37-40) and the ‘takeover’ of the temple precincts for his own purposes (Lk. 19:45-8).

Every pericope in the teaching segment that follows in Luke 19:47-22:2 reflects in some way the confrontation of two social systems and Jesus’ rejection of the status quo. Of course, Jesus’ challenge to the authorities in Israel has to be viewed within the context of the special covenant relationship between God and that nation. Yet, to all intents and purposes, apostate Israel represents the world and its values. In the final analysis, Jerusalem and Rome are intimately linked in their opposition to Jesus and all that he represents.

Yoder follows André Trocmé in arguing from Luke 4:14-21 that Jesus’ concept of the coming kingdom was borrowed extensively from the prophetic understanding of the jubilee year. By proclaiming a literal jubilee, Jesus intended to accomplish what the prophets had promised—the liberation of the oppressed in Israel. We may have great difficulty in knowing in what sense this event came to pass or could have come to pass, but what the event was supposed to be is clear. It is a visible, socio-political, economic, restructuring of relations among the people of God, achieved by his intervention in the person of Jesus as the one anointed and endued with the Spirit.[52]

Yoder goes on to argue for the implementation of a regular jubilee in our own time:

Such a redistribution of capital, accomplished every fifty years by faithfulness to the righteous will of God and in the expectation of the kingdom, would today be nothing utopian. Many bloody revolutions would have been avoided if the Christian church had shown herself more respectful than Israel was of the jubilee dispositions in the law of Moses.[53]

Without denying that some ‘socio-political, economic restructuring of relations among the people of God’ may have been intended by Jesus, I would argue from the following context in Luke 4:31-7:23 that the Evangelist’s understanding of Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth was otherwise. In that section of his Gospel, Luke shows how Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61:1-2 is to be understood, for he provides examples of Jesus’ preaching the gospel of the kingdom with great authority and at the same time releasing those captive to Satan’s power, healing the sick, and raising the dead.

These activities bring a variety of reactions, the most exalted of which are found in Luke 7:16 (‘a great prophet has appeared among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people’). When the captive John the Baptist sends his question to Jesus (7:18-20), the reply summarises all that has transpired since 4:16-27, using the terminology of Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1. The mighty works of Jesus are the sign that he is the Spirit-anointed prophet who announces and actually makes available the end-time blessings promised to Israel. Any implicit reference to a jubilee year in Isaiah 61 is metaphorical and eschatological, and Luke’s Gospel suggests a similar intention on the part of Jesus in his use of that text.[54]

In his discussion of the so-called Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49), Yoder contrasts this passage with Matthew 5:

The blessing is for the poor, not only the poor in spirit; for the hungry, not only those who hunger for justice. The examples drawn from the sexual realm (Mt. 5:27-32) are missing; only personal and economic conflict are chosen as specimens of the New Way, in which seized property is not reclaimed and the delinquent loan is forgiven. As in the jubilee, and as in the Lord’s Prayer, debt is seen as the paradigmatic social evil. In short, the announcement of the synagogue is being repeated and spelled out in detail, this time with a structured social base.[55]

But is there really an idealisation of poverty in Luke’s Gospel or a general demand for the renunciation of possessions?

As noted earlier, Seccombe has shown that ‘the poor’ is a traditional characterisation of Israel understood in terms of its suffering and humiliation at the hands of the nations and as a result of its own disordered life. In the preaching of Jesus, the poor are Israel and the answer to their poverty is the messianic kingdom. Since national Israel turns its back on this salvation because of the unacceptability of the one who offers it, the inheritance of the poor falls finally to the disciples of Jesus.

Because the rest will not follow Jesus, preferring the present order to the salvation Jesus proclaims, they are characterised as rich and satisfied and laughing, though in socio-economic terms they may not have been wealthy.[56]

The blessings and woes of Luke 6 are a challenge to all—to disciples and to the crowds—‘to stand with the suffering Son of man, and so to be a part of the true suffering Israel which will inherit the Kingdom.’[57] Seccombe finds no idealisation of poverty in the teaching of Jesus, but an insistence that disciples

live as sons of the Kingdom, behaving now in a manner which reflects the contours of their final hope. This will mean employing possessions in a total and unreserved manner to help the needy, and to create structures and relationships which embody the values and anticipate the blessings of the new age, and which can therefore be commended to God as ‘profit’.[58]

Yoder sees Jesus resisting from the beginning any temptation to seize power in a worldly sense: ‘it belongs to the nature of the new order that, though it condemns and displaces the old, it does not do so with the arms of the old.’[59]

In the final analysis,

both Jewish and Roman authorities were defending themselves against a real threat. That the threat was not one of armed, violent revolt, and that it nonetheless bothered them to the point of their resorting to illegal procedures to counter it, is a proof of the political relevance of nonviolent tactics, not a proof that Pilate and Caiaphas were exceptionally dull or dishonourable men.[60]

The crucifixion of Jesus is seen to be the fulfilment of the kingdom promise:

Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e. promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share.[61]

The New Testament epistle writers rightly develop the notion found in the teaching of Jesus that we are called to imitate Christ in his suffering for the sake of the kingdom. At this point there are certain similarities in Yoder to the arguments of Seccombe. However, Yoder’s realised eschatology leaves little place for a future transformation of all things by the gracious act of God, at the return of the Son of Man. For him,

The kingdom of God is a social order and not a hidden one. It is not a universal catastrophe independent of the will of men; it is that concrete jubilary obedience, in pardon and repentance, the possibility of which is proclaimed beginning right now, opening up the real accessibility of a new order in which grace and justice are linked, which men have only to accept. It does not assume time will end tomorrow; it reveals why it is meaningful that history should go on at al1.[62]

Given the sort of limitations outlined above, Yoder’s book challenges us to think again about the socio-political implications of Christian discipleship. We may take issue with the adequacy of his interpretation of the cross as ‘the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.’[63] However, his language must surely move us to consider again the radical nature of the new community and its lifestyle and its purpose in the teaching of Jesus.

Once again we may see that an overemphasis on the realised aspect of the eschatology of the Gospels gives an unbalanced perspective on the ethic of Jesus. Yoder fails to emphasise sufficiently the role of Christians in word and deed to testify to the coming regeneration of all things in the new creation. However, with a dramatic use of language, and with an unusual focus on the socio-political implications of the ministry of Jesus, he highlights some important aspects of the social role of Christian disciples.


Writers in the field of ethics have had great difficulty in dealing adequately with the eschatology of the Gospels. Where the futurist element has been downplayed (so Harnack and Dodd), the ethical teaching of Jesus has been portrayed as timeless truths for countless generations. Where the futurist element has been taken seriously, Jesus is said to have propounded an interim ethic, which must now be radically re-interpreted because Jesus’ expectations were wrong (so Schweitzer), or a decision ethic is proposed on the basis of a demythologisation of Jesus’ eschatology (so Bultmann).

None of these approaches, nor the sort of compromise attempted by Hiers, interprets the New Testament data appropriately. Jesus taught that his disciples were to live in this age in the light of the fulfilment of Old Testament kingdom expectations in his person and work, but also with the expectation of the imminent consummation of all things with his return. This eschatological perspective gives rise to an ethic that is a response to God’s saving grace and an expression of faith in Jesus and his promises. The Christian ethic is not simply following the timeless principles of the teacher from Nazareth, but relating life in each new situation to his teaching about the kingdom of God, present and yet to come.

It is not merely a decision ethic or a situation ethic, since Jesus’ teaching involved both general principles and some detailed demands. It is an ethic for the community of disciples, called to live for Jesus in a special relationship with one another and with a hostile world, holding forth to the world the message of the kingdom and living out the values and attitudes of that kingdom in anticipation of its consummation by God at the end of human history. Jesus does not provide the pattern for transforming society per se, but intends that the lifestyle of disciples individually and collectively should be both a judgment on fallen humanity and a pointer to the possibility of renewal and change under the rule of God.

[1] This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in B. G. Webb (ed.), Explorations 3 Christians in Society (Homebush West: Lancer, 1988).


[2] H. J. Cadbury, The Peril of Modernising Jesus (New York: MacMillan, 1937), 112. He argued that Jesus was concerned with the being of the individual addressed, as with the one who was supposed to be a neighbour (Luke 10), and not with ‘the recipient of social service’ (110).

[3] A. von Harnack, ‘Das UrChristentum and die socialen Fragen’ [1908] in Aus Wissenschaft and Leben (Giessen: Topelmann, 1911) II, 257.

[4] R. H. Hiers, Jesus and Ethics: Four Interpretations (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), 41.

[5] A. Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, translated by W. Montgomery & F. C. Burkitt (London: Black, 1952), 364.

[6] R. Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, translated by L. P. Smith & E. H. Lantero (London: Scribner’s, 1934), 83-4, 78.

[7] Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 115.

[8] Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, 88.

[9] Hiers, Jesus and Ethics, 99-100. J. T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (London: SCM, 1975), 14, concludes that Bultmann’s explanation of the validity of Jesus’ ethical teaching encounters the same problem faced by Schweitzer: ‘Jesus’ eschatological orientation is so related to his ethical imperative that the two cannot be separated, even by demythologizing.’

[10] Hiers, Jesus and Ethics, 95.

[11] C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (London: Hodder, 1963), 93. J. Jeremias, The Parables of the Kingdom [ET 3rd ed., London: SCM, 1972], 230, indicates the closeness of his position to that of Dodd when he writes of ‘an eschatology that is in the process of realisation’. Jesus regarded his resurrection, parousia, and the consummation of the kingdom as a single event in which the triumph of God would be manifested. In the resurrection appearances, the disciples experienced Jesus’ parousia and only after Easter separated the parousia from Easter (Cf. J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, Vol I [ET London: SCM, 1971], 285-6, 310).

[12] Hiers, Jesus and Ethics, 122.

[13] Cf. C .H. Dodd, The Gospel and the Law of Christ (London: Longmans, 1947), 16-17.

[14] Dodd, Gospel and Law, 59-62 (my emphasis).

[15] Hiers, Jesus and Ethics, 129.

[16] Dodd, Gospel and Law, 55, 61,76

[17] Hiers, Jesus and Ethics, 151.

[18] Hiers, Jesus and Ethics, 156.

[19] Hiers, Jesus and Ethics, 165-6. But J. T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament: Change and Development (London: SCM, 1975), 22-23, comments in regard to the similar argument of J. M. Robinson that it is ‘the continued pressure of the continuous existence of the world and its problems that finally breaks apart the existentialist attempt to render Jesus’ ethics valid.’

[20] G. E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 145. Cf. H. N. Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, translated by H. de Jungste and R. O. Zorn (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962); R. Schnackenburg, God’s Rule and Kingdom, translated by J. Murray (Edinburgh/London: Nelson, 1963). Ladd offers a good defence of his position against the criticisms of Norman Perrin in G. E. Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 58-63.

[21] Ladd, Presence of the Future, 284.

[22] Ladd, Presence of the Future, 290.

[23] Ladd, Presence of the Future, 296. The corollary is that ‘eschatology is ethical, for it will see the perfect accomplishment of the pure will of God’.

[24] Ladd, Presence of the Future, 303.

[25] Schnackenburg, God’s Rule, 108. Nevertheless, ‘the intention of Jesus is not to release his disciples from the world and their surroundings but from a worldly way of thought and life (Mark 10:42-44 par.)’ (p. 109).

[26] This is a summary of Ladd, Presence of the Future, 303-4.

[27] R. J. Sider, Evangelism, Salvation and Social Justice (Bramcote, Grove, 1977), 9. He goes on to say that this happens ‘most visibly in the church. But it also happens in society at large because Jesus is Lord of the world as well as the church’. However, he rightly argues that sin is far too rampant to justify the use of redemptive language in connection with ‘the tragically imperfect human attempts to introduce social justice in the interim between Calvary and the Eschaton’ (p. 11).

[28] E.g. W. S. Kissinger, The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1975), or C. Bauman, The Sermon on the Mount: The Modern Quest for Its Meaning (Macon: Mercer, 1985).

[29] W. J. Dumbrell, The Logic of the Role of the Law in Matthew V.1-20’, Novum Testamentum 23 (1981), 5-6, describes it as a covenant renewal situation or covenant recall situation, ‘whereby disciples, collectively, function at this point analogously to the way in which Old Testament prophets did.’

[30] ‘The disciples who in Galilee had been drawn to the messianic light have now become, and are designated in Matthew v.3 as such, the nucleus of the kingdom. Theirs is now the kingdom for in the person of Jesus the kingdom stands as present’ (Dumbrell, ‘Role of the Law’, 9). Even though the second person plural is not used until verse 11, it is clear from the context that the disciples are being directly addressed. Cf Lk. 6:20-1.

[31] Cf W. Janzen, ‘אַשְׁרֵי in the Old Testament’, Harvard Theological Review 58 (1965), 215-26 and R A Guelich, ‘The Matthean Beatitudes: “Entrance Requirements” or Eschatoligical Blessings?’, Journal of Biblical Literature 95 (1976), 415-34.

[32] D. P. Seccombe, Possessions and the Poor in Luke-Acts, SNTU Series B, Band 6 (Linz, 1983), 137. However, in a chapter entitled ‘Possessions and the Christian Life’, he shows how Jesus’ message of the kingdom demands a radically different use of money and possessions. This will be developed below in the discussion about the work of J. H. Yoder on Luke.

[33] R .V. G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St Matthew (TNTC; London: Tyndale, 1961), 63. J. R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: the Message of the Sermon on the Mount (BST; Leicester: IVP, 1978), 65, puts it this way: ‘Christian salt has no business to remain snugly in elegant little ecclesiastical salt cellars; our place is to be rubbed into the secular community, as salt is rubbed into meat, to stop it going bad.’

[34] Dumbrell, ‘Role of the Law’, 11-13, argues that ‘durability and fidelity to an established arrangement lie behind the use of the salt figure in covenant contexts in the Old Testament’

[35] Dumbrell, ‘Role of the Law’, 19. He concludes that ‘the law finds its prophetic centre in Jesus but not necessarily its end.’

[36] B. L. Martin, ‘Matthew on Christ and the Law, Theological Studies, 44 (1983), 67. He discusses six possible interpretations of πληρόω. In a similar discussion of alternatives, D. J. Moo, ‘Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 20 (1984), 24-6, following R. J. Banks, suggests that ‘as Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies in his activity so he “fulfilled” the Old Testament law in his teaching.’

[37] D. A. Carson, ‘Matthew’, in F. E. Gaebelein (ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 144.

[38] Cf B. Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought, SNTS Monograph 41 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1980). He exaggerates the legal dimension to Jesus’ teaching here when he defines it as ‘representative of an extremely meticulous observance that is based on an interpretation reminiscent of the principle of making a fence around the Torah’ (p. 83).

[39] Τέλειος is wider than moral perfection and indicates ‘wholeness’ or ‘completeness’ (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; Phil. 3:15; Heb. 5:14). In this context it means a life totally integrated into the will of God, and yet it is not to be understood as a call to sinless perfectionism. It echoes the challenge of Leviticus 11:44-5; 19:2; 20:26 (‘You shall be holy for I am holy’).

[40] Moo, ’Mosaic Law’, 22-3 (see the whole section pp. 14-23). He argues that if the antitheses bring new demands only indirectly related to the Old Testament commands which are cited, then ‘the law can perhaps be best viewed as an anticipation of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus fulfills the law by proclaiming those demands to which it looked forward’ (p. 26).

[41] Moo, ’Mosaic Law’, 28, 30. He agrees with Ridderbos that every Mosaic law must be ‘placed under the condition of its fulfillment’ (Moo, p. 29).

[42] Moo, ’Mosaic Law’, 11. ‘The whole law came to culmination in Christ. As the sole ultimate authority of the Messianic community, he takes up the law into himself and enunciates what is enduring in its contents’ (p. 29).

[43] J. H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 113, 157.

[44] R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew (TNTC; Leicester: IVP; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 111.

[45] Cf. W. J. Dumbrell, ‘The Biblical Basis for Social Judgements’, Interchange 27 (1980), 16-24. He argues that ‘Mankind stands within the most general relationship, in a covenant bond, by virtue of creation, to God. Implicit in this relationship is a morality expected to demonstrate it, the relationship being the ethic, or the basis from which the conduct must proceed’ (p. 23)

[46] Cf .D. R. Catchpole, ‘The Poor on Earth and the Son of Man in Heaven: a Re- Appraisal of Matthew xxv 31-46’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 61 (1978-9), 355-97.

[47] Carson, ‘Matthew’, 520. He provides a helpful critique of a variety of interpretations of this passage.

[48] R. J. Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition, SNTS Monograph 28 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1975), 200-1.

[49] Yoder, Politics, 115.

[50] Yoder, Politics, 28. Cf. Lk. 1:46-55; 1:68-79.

[51] Yoder, Politics, 111-13.

[52] Yoder, Politics, 39. Cf. A. Trocmé, Jésus-Christ et la revolution non-violente (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1961). A section of the latter translated into English is included as chapter 3 of Yoder’s book. Seccombe, Possessions and the Poor, 54-6, argues against this position. The jubilee motif in Jesus’ sermon is ‘part of the traditional imagery of the eschaton such as is encountered in 11Q Melch. And probably Ps. Sol. 11.’

[53] Yoder, Politics, 76-7.

[54] Cf. M. Rodgers, ‘Luke 4:16-30 – A Call for a Jubilee Year?’, Reformed Theological Review 40 (1981), 72-82.

[55] Yoder, Politics, 41.

[56] Seccombe, Possessions and the Poor, 95-6. His whole chapter ‘The Poor and the Salvation of Israel’ (pp. 23-96) is persuasive.

[57] Seccombe, Possessions and the Poor, 92.

[58] Seccombe, Possessions and the Poor, 195.

[59] Yoder, Politics, 52.

[60] Yoder, Politics, 59.

[61] Yoder, Politics, 62-3.

[62] Yoder, Politics, 108.

[63] Yoder, Politics, 63.


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