top of page

What Jesus Really Said... part 1

“Love your neighbour,” “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” “Turn the other cheek.” These are well known sayings of a Jewish teacher from first century Palestine. Whether or not you know much about the early history of Christianity, or believe the religious claims made for its founder by his followers, Jesus is generally recognised as a moral teacher of influence and a good man. He taught peace and goodwill and that we should be nice to each other. He preached love, not hate, charitable giving rather than selfish accumulation of money. When pressed, even people who make no claim to be religious might acknowledge that Jesus was a historical figure and a good moral teacher. Like Buddha perhaps. Such a pity that he was misunderstood, (and of course his political pretensions got him in trouble with the powers of the day, didn’t they?) and he ended up being killed. But at least he left a fine example of dying for his beliefs...

If that is your opinion of Jesus, if that’s the extent of your knowledge of him, it’s understandable that you could take him or leave him. He’s just another Good Man from history with something worthwhile to say, who may or may not have an impact on some people’s lives, but not for me thanks. But if that is how you see Jesus then it’s a totally mistaken perception, and you have seriously underestimated the impact that he could and should make on your life now and for eternity. The Bible doesn’t claim that Jesus is merely a good moral teacher. In fact, Jesus was not really interested in morality as an end in itself. Because a focus on morality alone is window dressing. It can breed hypocrisy. It says nothing about a person’s heart or their relationship with God. Jesus was surrounded by “moral” people, and they were the ones who came into conflict with him the most. They thought that anyone of moral standing should not hang out with undesirable, “immoral” people. Jesus hung out with “undesirable" people because they knew their need for forgiveness, they were not self-righteous. They were sick people who knew they needed a doctor, not sick people who refused to acknowledge they were sick.

The “moral” people, who were the Jewish leaders and rule makers, thought that morality was all about keeping lots of rules, but whilst rules are necessary for the general guidance and constraint of society, they have little impact on people’s hearts and motivation. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” said Jesus; “For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence... First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:25–27). It’s not enough to look good on the outside, it’s what’s in the heart that matters. Then there were the Romans, who prided themselves on their “piety.” These same Romans later believed (falsely) that the early Christians killed and ate babies and held incestuous banquets — a popular but uninformed rumour in the second century —despite the Romans having no problem with leaving unwanted babies out to die, enjoying orgies and having no problem with crucifying Christians or throwing them to wild beasts for entertainment because of their “stubbornness.”

Morality, when it is based on human tradition and social norms, can be quite relative. Jesus wasn’t just some good moral teacher who offered a new standard of morality, that we in our enlightened modern times might happen to agree with. Firstly, not everyone today would agree with Jesus’ standard of morality or find it easy to keep, because it is actually a very high standard. Secondly, what is unique and supremely good about Jesus’ morality is the authority from which it sprang. This is one of Jesus’ many teachings in the sermon on the mount: “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart’” (Matthew 5:27–28). Adultery was prohibited by the most foundational of God’s laws, the Ten Commandments. So this was no lightweight tradition or local council bylaw that he was commenting on. Two things to note; Jesus takes it further, to the very heart of the problem which leads to the crime. If no one looked at a member of the opposite sex with lust, and a take-what-I-want attitude, there would be no adultery. That’s where sin and crime originate, in people’s sinful hearts. *** Likewise, he said that murder begins with hate, so stop hating.

The second point is that Jesus spoke with authority; "God gave you this law, but I say to you, take it further." Jesus put himself on a level with God. If he hadn’t been able to do that, his opinion wouldn’t count any more than yours or mine. A big problem with moral standards today is determining whose standards we follow. If someone has an extra-marital affair, then presumably at some level they must believe that’s okay. Who is to say their moral stance is better or worse than another’s? That’s why having an independent moral standard makes sense, and who better to provide that standard than the One who made us in the first place? The Manufacturer knows both the capabilities and limitations of his product. If abused outside of the intended limits, the product will break. God made us, he knows the appropriate moral limits, outside of which we break; morally, physically, spiritually, relationally. Jesus spoke with God’s authority, as the Son of God, as God in the flesh. That’s why he is so much more than a good moral teacher. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we read that Jesus likened the person who listened to his teachings and put them into practice to someone who built his house on a rock. When storms and floods came, the house stayed standing. The one who ignores his teaching has built on sand; it will collapse under the storms of life, because it has no foundation. A personal morality built on our own standards is a house built on sand; it has no foundation. No wonder, “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:24–29).

But the basis of Jesus’ moral teachings go way down into bedrock. He did not provide a disconnected series of feel-good advice. The bedrock is the Gospel, the good news of the saving work he came to do. Jesus’ death and resurrection dealt with the cause of all moral failures; human sin. He restored our broken relationship with God, which in turn heals all other relationships and enables us to begin to live in the right way. When he taught, “love your neighbour,” he was teaching this as an extension of God’s love. *** Jesus had been asked what was the greatest, most fundamental law of God was. 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” (Luke 10:27 ). First comes love for God, because God first loved us. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). While we were still sinners and enemies of God, he did this for us. Because of God’s love in Jesus, we can be fully and freely forgiven by God’s grace. *** The most appropriate response, if we feel any gratitude whatsoever, is to pay it forward, by showing love to others. We naturally enjoy doing things to help people we like; our family and friends, or people we admire. But because God did so much for us, and has given us full forgiveness, even though we did nothing to deserve it, we need to be prepared to love others regardless of whether we like them, or they like us, without expecting anything in return. Hence the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

But Jesus went further. The one who asked him the question was a bit uneasy about the loving-your-neighbour bit. He wanted to define the boundaries. Surely, as a Jew, he wasn’t expected to love, say, the Romans? Or their despised neighbours the Samaritans? Jesus replied with the story of the good Samaritan. A Jewish bloke got ambushed by robbers; a lawyer and a priest walked past, not wanting to get involved, but a Samaritan stopped to help and even paid for his medical care. In its original setting this would have been as astounding as an Israeli soldier helping a Hezbollah guerrilla or vice versa. Like a Klu Klux Klan member helping a Black Lives Matter activist, or vice versa. ISIS helping Americans or vice versa. It was an extraordinarily radical way for Jesus to say, “actually mate, everyone is your neighbour, including your enemies.” Which is exactly what Jesus did say, also in the Sermon on the Mount;

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43–48).

Let’s unpack this. “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy” is not one of God’s laws, but it’s what a lot of people feel is their patriotic duty. But Jesus never told his followers to be patriotic; their first allegiance is to God’s kingdom (which in turn meant they would be good citizens on earth). We have no right to hate our enemies, because God did not hate us when we were his enemies. Jesus took away the enmity which we in our sin had put between ourselves and God. In comparison to that, the most intransigent enmity between people in earth is a foolish, self-aggrandizing, revengeful squabble. It’s no big deal to love those who love you, even the most evil person can do that. (For “tax collector” in our context, don’t think of the guy at the ATO, but the lowest criminal. For “Gentile” read “loathed foreigner”). Jesus calls us to radical love even of our enemies because God shows indiscriminate love to all people. How much more, as recipients of God’s love, should we respond with indiscriminate love for others? Even those whom it would be “natural” to hate?

Then Jesus goes even further still. Enemies are not just distant concepts, people we might comfortably hate from a distance, like some terrorist we read about, or “enemies of our country.” We are to love those that actually display enmity toward us. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5:38–41)

“An eye for an eye” was actually one of the laws God gave to the ancient people of Israel. It is wrongly understood as a command to retaliate in kind. In the Ancient Near East context in which it was given, people would kill each other over eyes and teeth, or theft or even insult. That still goes on today in some places. It happened to our convict ancestors who got transported for stealing bread to feed their families. God’s law actually set the limits as to the reparation one could extract for theft or bodily harm. Jesus once again is taking it further, with his God-given authority. It would be better to not demand the eye for the eye at all. In fact, if someone harms or inconveniences you, don’t just avoid retaliation, do extra good to that person. Give him or her more. Bless those who persecute you. Pray for them. Show them the gracious, undeserving love that God showed to his enemies — us. This doesn’t mean condoning evil. God never condones evil. He dealt with our sin justly in putting it to death on the cross of Jesus. Those who reject his forgiveness will one day face his ultimate, entirely just, judgement. Jesus didn’t say to the tax collectors, “It’s okay, God loves you, you can keep on extorting people,” or to the prostitutes, “God loves you, so that’s an acceptable career.” Rather, he said, “Your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.” He calls us to the highest standard; perfection.

Jesus was not just a good moral teacher. He taught with divine authority, the greatest moral authority, the ultimate moral authority. His moral teachings reach deep into our hearts and address the sin within. He restores our relationship with God, stirring us and enabling us to dare to treat others, even our enemies, with the love God shows to us.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page