Jesus “did” ethics from four angles: Ethics from Above, Ethics from Beyond, Ethics from Below, and then setting each of these into the context of Jesus’ messianic ethics designed for the messianic community in the power of the Spirit.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 8.
Ethics from Above
Jesus spoke with the authority of God himself. Unlike Moses, who received the Law from God, Jesus speaks of his own authority. Over and over, he says, “I tell you” or “But I say to you” — as though his words carry an authority far above that of the rabbis and scribes.
Jesus compels obedience, not based on his philosophy of life or pragmatism, but based on his own authority. He has not yet announced himself as the Messiah, but he nonetheless speaks as a king.
Ethics from Beyond: The Prophets
But social-contract, progressive, and ecological theories run ot of steam just where Jesus began: his ethical posture toward the present was robustly shaped by a certain knowledge of God’s future. Jesus’ ethics flowed directly from God’s kingdom; they are kingdom ethics.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 10.
Ethics are about how to live today in light of the likely consequences of our decisions. Well, a prophet has a certain advantage in knowing consequences! Jesus sees clearly where the world is headed, and so he knows what the world needs.
But it’s a deeper than even that. Jesus was calling on his hearers to live as though the Kingdom were already fully realized. If the Kingdom in its fullness is God’s ultimate goal for us — life abundant, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven — then why not begin living that way in the here and now? Why wait?
Over and over again in the Sermon and in Jesus’ teaching, the future impinges on the present in such a way that a new day is already arriving in Jesus. Thus, “these are not ordinary ethics, nor are they merely an extension of intensification of Jewish ethics . . . They are the ethics of the kingdom.”
The utilitarian, consequentialist ethic of Mill is a dry bone when compared to Israel’s prophets and Jesus, for their consequentialism is not just a better world or even personal happiness, but ultimately the glory of God when God establishes his kingdom in this world. And a virtue ethic with no eschatology, which is what Aristotle offered to the world, can’t be compared to the virtue ethic that one finds in Jesus.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 11.
Ethics from Below: Wisdom
Wisdom, then, is how to live in God’s world in God’s way, but this kind of wisdom can only be acquired by those who are humbly receptive to the wisdom of society’s sages. As well, a wisdom culture trusts human observation and through intuition discerns God’s intentions for this world.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 12.
The reason I assign Webb and Wells to an Ethics from Below is because they singularly focus on learning to discern, in wisdom, how to live out the Bible in our world in a way that breaches the script in order to advance a Christian ethic into new territory. Any use of the Sermon on the Mount that does not extend it into our world by plowing new ground converts into a mere Ethics from Above and fails to embrace that Jesus himself “did” Ethics from Below.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 13.
In other words, these aren’t mere positive commands to be obeyed as tests of our faith and obedience. We are to internalize the principles behind them and extend them into new circumstances. As the world changes and we meet new challenges, we must still return over and over to the SOTM to find answers — not in a cold, legalistic way, but as teaching a kind of wisdom that will provide answers beyond the words.
The SOTM provides not so much a list of rules as a window into the mind of God. As we better grasp God’s thinking, we’ll better know what to do in circumstances that couldn’t even be imagined by Jesus’ original listeners.
Jesus’ Ethical Theory
I want to propose, then, that Jesus’ ethic is a combination of an Ethics from Above, Beyond, and Below — the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom Literature. But there’s more because those three elements for his ethics are tied to his messianic vocation, his conviction that an ethic can only be lived out in community (the kingdom manifestation in the church) and through the power of the Spirit now at work.
The above, beyond, and below are each reshaped because it is Jesus’ ethic, because this ethic is for his followers, and because the Spirit has been unleashed. …
Only in association or relationship with Jesus does the Sermon make sense. Jesus does not offer abstract principles or simply his version of the Torah for a new society. Instead, he offers himself to his disciples, or, put differently, he summons them to himself and in participation with Jesus and his vision the disciples are transformed into the fullness of a kingdom moral vision.
Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 13-14.
We just have to get away from a legalistic perspective — rules to be obeyed as tests — and find the heart of God behind Jesus’ words. Jesus is seeking more than obedience. He wants us to see the world as he sees the world.