Jesus, Paul, and Ethics

by Andrea J. Graham

The question has been raised, in essence, “Is what Jesus teaches and does the same as what Paul taught?” This is asking if whether the two major sources for Christian ethics are telling the same story. My faith declaration is an automatic, “Well, of course!” But that isn’t enough for an academic paper, so I will have to prove my point. However, there are a few side issues that need to be dealt with first in order to understand the issue.

First, the bible is either the infallible word of God, or it is just a collection of old stories written by men in different cultures over the centuries. If it is the latter, then obviously there is no point in writing this paper. And yes, I realize either or statements are generally considered a fallacy. But there are generally few choices when the issue involves God.

The reasoning is simple. God is good, omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent and eminent. More importantly, God cannot contradict himself. If the bible is the Word of God, then it cannot contradict itself either, and accordingly, neither can Jesus and Paul. This is not to say that it can not be interpreted incorrectly, as that happens all the time.

Another important note to be made comes from the following scripture: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-2, 14). Jesus is known as the Living Word of God, the fullest revelation of the Father. Being one with God, Jesus also shares his qualities.

This goes to say, Jesus is sinless, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21. This is important to keep in mind when discussing Jesus’ attitude towards the law, that the Pharisees allegations of his sinfulness we hold to be false. If he had sinned, then he would no longer be the pure spotless lamb that was sacrificed to save us for our sins. While Jesus may have violated the precious traditions of the Pharisees, he most certainly did not break God’s law. As well meaning as the Pharisees may have been, indeed they were the “religious right” of their day so to speak, to say they have gotten a bum rap is to accuse Jesus of being over critical of them.

Jesus did defend his actions on several occasions, for instance, Matthew records:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, `Honor your father and mother’ and `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to `honor his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “`These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ “” (Mt. 15:1-9)

When accused of breaking the traditions, Jesus responds by pulling them back to the problem they should be concerned about: nullifying the word of God for the sake of their traditions. I would also like to add, however, that it is quite laughable to think Man expects God to play by Man’s rules, but that is precisely what we do! Hence, it is quite hypocritical of us to come down on the Pharisees for doing the things we ourselves do, so this is where the wisdom in the warnings not to be quick to judge the Pharisees harshly lies. While Jesus was in the position to judge them, we are not. What is most important is that here Jesus is explaining why he doesn’t keep their traditions, because, “their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

People, like the Pharisees, often question why Jesus had to cure ailments on the Sabbath that were not going to kill the person within the next twenty-four hours. Of course, who are we to question God’s perfect timing, but there is also a more legal answer for it: Proverbs 3:28, which counsels, “Do not say to your neighbor, “Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow”–when you now have it with you.” If Jesus had said to the ailing person, “Come back after the Sabbath, I’ll heal you then” when he was capable of healing them at that very moment, he would have broken the spirit of this law.

On a side note, Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act,” which not only reinforces what is said in 3:28, it also has a serious implications for those who emphasize avoiding what is wrong to the point of deemphasizing sins of omission concerning what’s right.

That said, this moving to the spirit of the law is highly related to the virtue theory nature of Jesus’ ethics. Jesus often, in the Sermon on the Mount especially, took the law and moved from the letter of the law to the spirit (virtue) behind the law.

Some say this sermon is merely a list of unattainable ethical ideals meant only to show us how sinful we are and that any attempts to actually do them would be foolish. While one of its functions is certainly to show us just how sinful we really are, the high standard it sets does not mean we are free to ignore it. Instead, we should be striving to obtain (especially by making room in our lives for the Holy Sprit to endow us with) the virtues that the Sermon preaches and to rid ourselves as much as we can of the vices it warns of.

For the moment, let’s return to the comment I made earlier that “While Jesus was in the position to judge them, we are not.” This statement actually comes from the passage where the Leaders try to trap him by bringing an adulteress woman to him and saying, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:4-5) It is here that Jesus says the famous, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7). Of course, everyone leaves and Jesus doesn’t condemn her, though people using this in their arguments have a tendency to ignore the fact that he also commanded her to leave her life of sin.

This has two significant things to note that have to do with Jesus’ ethics. First, while Jesus does not cast the first stone and condemn the adulterous woman who is meek and lowly (i.e., oppressed and humble), he is not at all hesitant to verbally cast the first stone at the Pharisees for their hypocritical questioning, such as how his ethics works. This is just Jesus practicing what he preaches.

This leads to the second significant note. Jesus said elsewhere, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save it,” and he lives this out with both the adulterous woman and the Pharisees. This will come as a surprise, as thus far we have only looked at this statement out of context. In length, it is much more interesting:

Then Jesus cried out, “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (John 12:44-50)

This is actually a key passage in scripture. For one, it affirms both Christ’s divinity and the authority of his word, which is only vaguely of importance to us at the moment. For another, it contains Christ’s mission statement. He said he came not to judge (nor condemn) but to save, while contending that these same words will condemn those who reject him (and they, the bible tells us, will be cast into the Lake of Fire after the final judgment). This is also, as I said, the very thing he practiced in the situations mentioned before.

Before I’ve rattled on for ten pages, lets move on to juxtaposing this with Paul.

Paul is tied into Jesus initially by his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, in which Jesus speaks to him from a bright light. This is the primary evidence he has for his status as an apostle.

The teachings of Paul and Jesus have many key commonalties. The Sermon on the Mount’s function as revealing the depths of human sin (which is so deep that the standards God sets for us often seems impossible to grasp to us) is easily juxtaposed to Paul’s statement, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3:23).

Neither are their positions on the law contradictory. Despite not once preaching on the subject, Jesus through out his life made it clear through his teachings that it is impossible to earn salvation through our own righteousness. One particular place is where he says: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20), and the rest of the sermon on the mount only takes the stake even higher.

If ever there was a command in the sermon on the mount that our sin condition makes it impossible to fulfill, it is this one: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (vs. 48) You don’t need to have read Paul’s writings to know that you will never be good enough to deserve Heaven on your own no matter what you do.

Jesus and Paul also have similar positions in this regard: Jesus taught the importance of humility, Paul chastised his readers time and time again not to boast about how righteous they are (not even about how righteous God has made them to be).

Paul is in fact analyzing Jesus’ teachings, the Jewish Law, the sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross and the following resurrection and then concluding what this all means for us. And this is what he concluded: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Ro. 3:23-24) Having drawn his conclusion from his understanding of Jesus, how then can Paul’s position be in disharmony with Jesus’?

Furthermore, as I began our discourse, even if apparent contradictions were found, then either 1) The bible isn’t the word of God—since God cannot contradict himself—and our faith means nothing, 2) Paul’s writings are in fact not actually not true scripture but rather ancient commentary (which would prove nearly as disastrous) or 3) There is some way to reconcile the apparent contradiction that our limited minds are having trouble grasping, or perhaps the problem can be resolved by taking the elements in the context of the bible as a whole.

Copyright 2000, All Rights Reserved. You may not copy this article in its entirety for any reason whatsoever. Plagarism is not only illegal and could earn you a big fat F, it is also a sin. If you wish to quote this article I highly encourage you to find a more authoritative source. If you insist, you can contact me for permission.