“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The Bibles teaches ethics through commandments, lists, proverbs, parables, prophecies, colorful stories, and admonitions, which renders any summary incomplete. Some of the more important lessons can, however, be subtle.
Be a Good Example
Consider the admonition Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount, right after presenting the Beatitudes:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)
This admonition alludes to: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) We are to model God’s own behavior for the benefit of those around us. This makes perfect sense because we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27), but for whose benefit are we doing this? As an inducement to live a holy life, keeping one eye on God and the other eye on how we appear to other people is a great motivator—if nothing more was said about behaving ethically, this is a great starting point.
Balance is a Virtue
The Ten Commandments are frequently a starting point for discussing community ethics, as they should be. But after giving Moses a second set of stone tables, after he broke the first set, we read:
“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34:6-7)
Here God instructs Moses on how to interpret the Ten Commandments in view of God’s own character—God is merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and faithful. So if two commandments come in conflict, remember who God is and how he would deal with this conflict—one list (the commandments) is balanced by admonitions of a second list (the character traits). Another way to look at these two lists is that the commandments speak to the mind, while the character traits talk about the heart.
Start with the Heart
Jesus’ teaching also balances the heart and the mind. Consider this passage from 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.” (Matt 5:27-28)
Actually, Jesus places priority on the desires of the heart as the source of sin. In other words, do not consider yourself righteous simply because you have not yet had the opportunity to sin—manage your desires.
Dealing with Temptation
After his baptism but before he began his ministry, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert where the Devil tempted him as recorded in the synoptic gospels.1 Much like Adam and Eve are tempted with food, the devil starts by goading a hungry Jesus into turning a stone into bread. The devil tempts Jesus three times. Jesus cites scripture in response to each temptation. In the final temptation, the Devil’s temptation starts by misquoting scripture, but Jesus corrects the deception and resists the temptation.
Each temptation Jesus faces is a challenge facing all Christians, particularly leaders. Nouwen (2002, 7–8) summarizes these leadership challenges as the temptation to be relevant (provide food), to be spectacular (show your divinity), and to be powerful (take charge).
One of the defining characteristics of the Christian faith is honoring each individual regardless of age as being created in the image of God. The Apostle Paul’s writing is particularly clear on this point. He writes:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
No ethic group is better than any other; no economic class is better than any other; and no gender is better than any other. But Paul goes further in his household codes:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:1-4)
He is essentially saying that because we are all created in the image of God, no age group is better than any other. Neither a new born nor a senior standing at the gates of heaven is better than one another. Christians are to value life stages equally, honor the stage you are in, and not cling to any particular stage as if it were intrinsically preferred.
In this sense, Christianity is a holistic faith that values maturity and embraces each stage of life with equal joy. This makes particular sense in a Christian context because our faith is rooted in history. Creation is the beginning and the second coming of Christ will be its end. Knowing the end is in Christ, we can journey through life in Christ.
The ethical example of family life in Christ is especially important because the family is the model for ethical behavior in the church. We are all brothers and sisters under one father, Jesus Christ.
1 Mark 1:12-13 gives a brief overview while Matt 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 are longer. The Luke version has the most detail. The second and third questions posed by Satan appear in different order in Matthew and Luke.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Tradeoffs, Desires, and Temptations
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.