Moral Teaching in the Gospels
The Law held for Matthew’s ethics of a surpassing righteousness but which finds its fulfillment in Christ. The teachers of the law, according to 23:16, 17, 19, 24, 26 were described as blind guides. They were blind to the real will of God in the law has been made explicit in Jesus’ sermon. Through the passages already cited and many others, the ethics of Matthew has been seen as righteousness and not work ethics like the teachers of the law and Pharisees.
The Gospel of Mark
Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus opened with the call of discipleship (1:16-20). Throughout the gospel discipleship stands out as the central theme of his ethics. Howard Marshall, commenting on Mark 1:16-20, affirmed this statement when he said, ‘ it was no accident that the summary of the gospel message is followed by the story of the call of the first disciple of Jesus. It is thereby made crystal clear that to repent and believe in the gospel is nothing other than to follow Jesus…if he is the preacher of the gospel, he is equally the content of the gospel and one cannot believe in the gospel in any other way than by making a personal commitment of oneself to him’. Mark emphasized the ethics of discipleship throughout his gospel, giving many practical examples of what is required of Christ’s disciples. The key verse to his discipleship ethics is 8:34, ‘…if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me…’ According to Mark, to be Christ’s disciple, one must and be ready to suffer and even to die with him (8:35; 10:38-39). For this reason Mark did not fail to present the story of Christ as one who was rejected, betrayed, denied, deserted and mocked – but also chosen and vindicated by God.
Mark’s ethics was not just of discipleship in general, but was also made specific in some areas. He talked about watchful discipleship (13:33-37). His ethics of ‘watchful discipleship’ was applied not just in respect of suffering and the coming Messiah. He points to the fact that discipleship is not just a matter of observance to any law or code; it is a matter of freedom and integrity. Citing, for example fasting (2:18-22) and Sabbath observance (2:234-4:6), he said they do not belong to the community oriented to the coming of the son of man, but the past. He considered the final norm to be the lord and his word rather than the precepts of Moses (8:38).
In Chapter 10:1-5, he addressed the issue of marriage, children, possession and power, but not on the basis of the law. Rather, he dealt with them on the basis of God’s intention at creation (10:14-15), the coming kingdom of God (10:14-15), the cost of discipleship (10:21) and the integrity of one’s identification with Christ (10:39, 43-45). Mark’s ethics was predominantly and ethics of discipleship.
David J. Atkinson observed, ‘the memory of Jesus nurtured Luke’s concern for the poor and oppressed, and that concern shaped the story of Jesus that Luke told.’ This can be confirmed by what he included in his account: (a) Mary’s song at the beginning of his story celebrated God’s action on behalf of the humiliated, hungry and poor (1:46-55); the infant Jesus was visited by shepherds in a manager (2:8-16); he also included the portion Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah at the start of his ministry – ‘the spirit of the lord is up me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.’ As John Stott observed, Luke enforces his teachings with unforgettable parables, which illustrated the love of God for sinners (e.g., the prodigal son); the publican); the love which we ought to have for each other (e.g., the Good Samaritan); and the way God’s word is received and His kingdom grows (e.g., the Sower and the mustered seed).1
Luke did not legislate any law or gave a social program. He made it clear that to acknowledge Jesus, as the Christ, was to care for the poor and powerless. The story of Zaccaehus also indicates that to welcome Jesus gladly was to do justice and to practice kindness. In the same way, Luke presented the story of the early church as sharing all they had with the needy person among them. By this action Luke’s ethics revealed that when community and character fits the good news to the poor, then Christ has been acknowledged as lord. Luke’s ethics is that of concern and care.
The Gospel of John
John’s gospel differs from the synoptic gospels in a number of ways and his ethics is also distinct. Although Moses was still a guide to the Jewish Christians to whom John wrote, his focus was not the law but life in Christ’s name (20:31). Life in Christ’s name was a life formed and informed by love. Christ is the great revelation of God’s love for the world (3:16). The father loves the son and the son abides in the father’s love and does his commandments. Jesus loves his own and instruct them to abide in his love and to keep his commandments. His commandment however is for believers to love one another as he loves them.
The reality of this love as John presents it was secured at the cross. The challenge in John’s ethical teaching is that, the mission of God’s love seeks a response – an answering love, and where it finds it there is life in Christ’s name.
Using the Sermon on the Mount as the basis of gospels ethics, the ethics of the four gospels as presented by the various writers were discussed. Matthew presented a righteous ethics. True righteousness is conformity of character and conduct to the will of God. Mark presented an ethics of discipleship-total commitment of oneself in obedience to the Savior. Luke presented an ethics of concern and care for the poor and destitute. Finally, John presented an ethics of love. God’s love for the world was seen in Christ’s death on the cross. Responding to that love means life for the individual.