The chapters in this section establish the biblical and methodological framework for our treatment of Christian ethics in this book. The embodied drama of the contested reign of God lies at the heart of the biblical record. Jesus came preaching and incarnating the long-promised and desperately awaited kingdom of God, originally and still the hope of Israel, and through Israel the hope of the world. For his trouble he was welcomed and scorned, adored and executed. We have chosen to ground our discussion of the Christian moral life right here, in God’s reign, as Jesus proclaimed and embodied it, but against the entire background of Jewish eschatological hope. This is not an uncontroversial choice. Our first chapter offers careful discussion of Jesus’s proclamation of the reign of God and teases out implications for Christian ethics.
This kingdom focus opens up new vistas on a number of methodological themes and issues in Christian ethics. In the remainder of this section, we offer chapters on character, scriptural authority, the nature of moral obligation, the Sermon on the Mount and its signature transforming initiatives, and the cardinal ethical norms of love, justice, and the sacredness of life. The last chapter in this section offers a revision and expansive discussion of a schematic diagram developed long ago by Glen related to how moral decision-making occurs; I now believe this grid can function both diagnostically and prescriptively for Christian ethics, and hope to show that here. During the course of these nine methodological chapters, twelve “key method elements” (KMEs) for Christian ethics will be identified. These will then surface again and again in the second half of the book, in which moral issues are discussed. Notice that Scripture, especially the Sermon on the Mount, grounds the entirety of our presentation. That, at least, is our intention.
Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” . . .
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” . . . “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”
Luke 4:16–19, 21, 43
cholars agree with what any of us can see in the Gospels: Jesus came announcing that the kingdom of God
was at hand (Mt 4:12–17; Mk 1:2–3, 14–15; Lk 4:14–21, 43). As New Testament scholar Gordon Fee says, “The universal witness of the Synoptic tradition is that the absolutely central theme of Jesus’ mission and message was ‘the good news of the kingdom of God’ ” (“Kingdom of God,” 8). And it is not only the Synoptic writers who make the
kingdom of God central; the theme echoes throughout the New Testament, even in varying formulations and emphases in writers as diverse as Paul and John. But scholars as well as everyday Christians have been puzzled about what Jesus meant when he spoke of the kingdom, and it has often played little real role in Christian life. What exactly did Jesus himself understand by the reign of God? What did this language mean to Jesus’s hearers in the first century? What frame of reference would they have had when they heard him say these words?
We believe this is where Christian theology and ethics must begin their work.
The Meaning of the Kingdom for Jesus’s Hearers
Jesus comes preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. But curiously, the term “kingdom of God” is seldom used in the literature that has survived from the first century, except for the New Testament. Hence it is not easy to establish its meaning for people in Jesus’s day. Surely, if he wished to be understood, Jesus would have used a term that made sense to his hearers in first-century Palestine. Yet “in none of the kingdom material collected by J[oachim] Jeremias from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha [important Jewish intertestamental literature] . . . is the kingdom announced” (Chilton, God in Strength, 277n). So where does this language come from?
The Centrality of Isaiah for Jesus’s Kingdom Vision
We argue that seven clues point us to the Old Testament book Isaiah as the primary place, though not the only place, to look for the background of Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom.
1. Jesus and the Jewish Hope for Salvation.
The New Testament scholar W. D. Davies has provided the first clue. Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God “is to be understood, as is made evident in the rest of the N[ew] T[estament], in the light of the expectations expressed in the [Old Testament], and in Judaism, that, at some future date, God would act for the salvation of his people. . . . The ethical aspirations of the [Old Testament] and Judaism, the Law and the Prophets, are not annulled; they are fulfilled (Mt 5:17–18). This means that Jesus consciously accepted the ethical tradition of his people. . . . E.g., it has been possible to claim that in the figure of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) Jesus could have found the most profound emphases of his ethical teaching” (Setting of the Sermon,
167–68). Contrary to some who situate Jesus mainly in a first-century Greek (Hellenistic) context, we believe it is critical to root Jesus in his own Jewish context (Spohn, Go and Do Likewise,
20–23). The kingdom of God is a
Jewish idea, through and through, rooted in the embodied drama of Israel and God’s relationship with Israel. It is certainly not Greek or Roman — which is one of the reasons why it has often been submerged in eras in which Christians did not want to be reminded of the Jewish roots of our faith. This suggests that if we really want to understand what Jesus himself was saying when he used kingdom language, we need to study the Hebrew Bible (a version of which became our Christian Old Testament) for passages and themes that might help us understand. But which parts of that vast collection of Jewish sacred texts?
2. The Kingdom and Isaiah. In the specific New Testament passages where Jesus announced the kingdom of God, he seems to have used terms that come particularly from the prophet Isaiah. Bruce Chilton writes that in each of the passages “which substantively record Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God,” Jesus referred to the prophet Isaiah in Aramaic translation/paraphrase. “In each case, . . . Isaiah has been seen to be of especial importance as preserving material which seems to have been a formative influence on the thought and language of [Jesus’s] announcements” (God in Strength, 277; see also, Chilton, Galilean Rabbi, 129–30, 277). The New Testament passages are Matthew 8:11; Mark 1:15; 9:1; Luke 4:18, 19, 21; and 16:16. Chilton finds words and phrases in Jesu...