“All you need is Love” - Jesus: Living the Moral Teaching of Jesus in our Context.

Most people have a view of Jesus as one of, if not the greatest, moral teachers.

Even Mahatma Gandhi reportedly stated, “I have regarded Jesus of Nazareth as one amongst the mighty teachers that the world has had. I shall say to the Hindus that your lives will be incomplete unless you reverently study the teachings of Jesus.”[1]For disciples, however, Jesus is more than just a great moral teacher. He is also Lord. We need to keep in mind the famous quote by C.S. Lewis:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God…But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[2]

Professing that Jesus is Lord, however, comes with the moral imperative of a transformed life. As James reminds us in his letter, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).[3] This idea is developed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as cheap grace whereby, “Faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God.”[4] Therefore, faith in Jesus relates to the fundamental questions about how disciples are to live their lives. A context in which the life, words and deeds of Jesus provide the guide – the play book, rather than rule book – that enables moral choices to be made. For the first disciples and for us, Jesus frames such understanding around “the Kingdom of God.”[5] The resulting question that we must ask is, “How do we live now as members of the Kingdom of God?”

The Jewish Context

The Jewish background to Jesus’ moral teachings is important for our correct interpretation of his teaching. For Jews, the understanding of covenant provided the context of behaviour, with Jewish morality being based on the divinely revealed law of the Bible.[6] This law, contained in the Torah, both obligated and protected Jews. Imitation of God through obedience to the Law was the single most important ethical doctrine defining morality.[7]

Within this societal context, it is now understood that all or most of Jesus’ moral teaching already existed somewhere in the Jewish tradition.[8] As N. T. Wright suggests, the focus of moral behaviour for Jesus was the “renewal of the covenant.”[9] Therefore, the moral teaching that Jesus gave his disciples was a radicalisation of the common Jewish morality of the day. For example, the rabbinic tradition tried to provide a comprehensive set of laws for every aspect of human life, both private and public.[10] In contrast, Jesus appeared more concerned with the principles of his moral teaching rather than their practical implications, and about absolutes rather than the compromises of everyday life. Jesus placed the onus on individuals and communities to apply the principles from his teaching to their particular circumstances and concrete situations.[11] A good example of this is Jesus’ “Woe to you” statements in Matthew 23 which are directed at the scribes and Pharisees for not holding to the heart of the Law such as justice, mercy, and faith.

The four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ moral teachings provide us with a view of Jesus’ words and deeds “from below,” through the filter of the early Christian congregations, each with its own unique emphasis giving us a “mosaic of New Testament approaches.”[12] The theme of Matthew’s Gospel is surpassing righteousness, where the Law of Moses is fulfilled in Jesus. This Gospel is viewed as the most ethical, providing both principles and guidelines and emphasising standards and judgement, typified by the “Sermon on the Mount.”[13] The Gospel of Mark focuses on discipleship, with Jesus stating, “blunt, complex or ambiguous principles,”[14] which the reader may then apply themselves. Luke’s Gospel has a particular concern for the poor and oppressed, where the ethical teaching of Jesus is contained in stories and appears more flexible than the other Synoptic accounts.[15] The Gospel of John on the surface does not appear to contain much in the way of direct ethical teaching, rather it focuses on the quality of life within the Christian community. Here the Christian life is defined by faith not by ethics, and central to this life is the distinctive ethic of life in Christ’s name, a kingdom ethic “formed and informed by love.”[16] All of these accounts provide important perspectives on the moral teaching that Jesus gave his disciples that together become mutually corrective.[17]

The Kingdom of God and the Moral Teachings of Jesus

The centrality of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching can be clearly seen in the words of Jesus recorded in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”[18] This kingdom is the power of God’s reign in human experience, such that God’s eschatological work has begun.[19] For Jesus’ disciples, the kingdom of God was a present reality which could be entered into as well as a future hope.[20] The moral life for the disciples was a response to the divine in-breaking, where joyful turning to God in repentance was the initial step.[21]

The coming of God’s kingdom inaugurated by Jesus also represents the promised time of covenant renewal. Associated with the renewed covenant is the renewal of the heart, so that the inward state leads to outward praxis,[22] fulfilling the words in Jeremiah 31:31–33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (cf. Heb 8:8–12). Jesus’ moral teaching was a “praxis of the kingdom,” providing guidance for the disciples living as citizens of the kingdom of God, among their present age.[23] As N. T. Wright suggests, "When the kingdom comes, the will of YHWH will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”[24]

In contrast to the interpretation of Torah by others in Jewish society such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes who sought to make the law fit into the conditions of the world, Jesus emphasised reliance on God, which may have meant breaking with the customs of the day.[25] For Jesus, the priority was to seek God’s kingdom, and so he challenged the standards of society with the standards of the kingdom.[26] This can be seen in the ultimate reward for the loving response of following Jesus, which is the presence of God both in this life as a disciple of Jesus (John 13:34–35 and 14:15–17) and in the life to come (Matthew 5:8).[27] Furthermore, the kingdom praxis unfolded by Jesus did not only reflect individual change but also demanded communal transformation.[28] By gathering into communities, the early disciples understood and developed Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, so that they could “even contribute to the wellbeing of those who [were] commonly thought of as enemies.”[29]

All You Need is Love: A Praxis of the Kingdom

Central to the Christian moral vision is the role of the Bible in providing moral authority as the normative self–revelation of God in Jesus Christ,[30] and in providing the appropriate ways to respond to Christ. Of all Jesus’ moral teaching centred on the kingdom of God, love has been described as the common command at the moral centre of Jesus’ teachings, and was the identifying mark of early Christian communities.[31] Importantly, the New Testament provides the narrative example of Jesus who is the exemplar of self-sacrificial love,[32] where the type of love taught and modelled by Jesus reflects God’s love for humanity. In following Jesus’ example, we love each other as fellow humans being made in the image of God.[33] To be unloving is primarily to cause offense against God in whose image the other is made. As Paul expresses in Galatians 3:28, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ.”

In the Synoptic Gospels, love is expressed in the “double love command” (Matthew 22:35–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28), summarising the Torah, where Jesus commanded his followers to first love God as expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4–9, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Second, he urged them to love their neighbours as themselves – a command also recorded in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”[34] John’s Gospel focuses on the community aspect with the command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, 17). However, the horizon of this love is clearly global,[35] as identified in the beginning chapters of John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (John 3:16). The life and death of Jesus is the greatest call to love since the ultimate demonstration of love is to lay down your life for a friend (John 15:13). In the Gospels of Mark and Luke especially, the disciples were called to follow and imitate Jesus and therefore display this type of love.[36]

As already mentioned, the concepts of loving God and neighbour were well established in Jewish society. However, a specific feature of love as taught by Jesus is the non-reciprocal expression of love, in that love does not give up when it fails to elicit a response from the receiver. Therefore, Jesus’ teachings contrast with the reciprocal standard found in Jewish society, moving Jesus’ disciples “beyond the letter of the Law”[37] by radically reinterpreting their understanding of “neighbour” away from one based on identity. The most famous example is the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37), where Jesus explained that the term “neighbour” is not defined by nationalistic boundaries and the letter of the law. Instead, Jesus’ question in Luke 10:36, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” was looking for an answer based on loving action, hence the reply from the expert in the law, “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). The loving action of showing mercy to all was the defining feature of loving your neighbour as yourself – a loving response to be lived out by all of Jesus’ disciples.

The normal reciprocal definition of “loving those who love you,” did not reflect God’s intent for his disciples. As Jesus states in Luke 6:32, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”[38] However, Jesus did not stop there. His reinterpretation of neighbour went even further to include the love of enemies. For example, in Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27–35, we have Jesus telling his disciples to, “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” As Schrage suggests, “love implies that we bring others with us before God,”[39] so that love of one’s enemies fulfils the intent of the Law.

Love was not just expressed between individuals but found its fullest expression in communities whose attitudes were not determined by the patriarchalism of the day.[40] This can be clearly seen in Luke’s Gospel which emphasises the inclusion of the poor, the oppressed, women, and foreigners.[41] Jesus’ moral teaching on love also empowered the other aspects of Christian discipleship which he taught. As the first disciples found, to respond in neighbourly love to the love of God required a life within a community of love, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In this context, love was “service to neighbour not a loss to self,”[42] forming communities of solidarity and mutual care. By loving God, neighbours, and enemies, and displaying love in community, the disciples were called to concrete action towards others as an expression of their relationship with God, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.[43]

Kingdom Love in our Context

Today we face the same question as the first disciples: “How do we live as members of the Kingdom of God in our context?” Answering this question requires an interpretive process, whereby we examine and interpret the questions from the eyewitness accounts of the Gospels in the context of the issues we face today.

The first step, as James Gustafson suggests, is to understand the religious and social context of Jesus’ teachings to interpret them correctly.[44] An example is found in our previous discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The moral teaching of Jesus thus forms the paradigm that provides scenarios for action.[45]

The second step is to extend the paradigm to new situations and discern the correct pattern of behaviour, so that “when we know how to act, what to do may become clearer.”[46] In doing so, “Scripture is freed up to offer signposts in areas not on the original map.”[47] We use paradigms in an analogous sense, by behaving in an analogous way to that indicated in the Bible.[48] A key aspect of using the Bible in an analogous way is the use of imagination, where the life and teachings of Jesus create a new vision in new situations which can be lived out in reality. This takes place not just in the lives of individuals but also in the context of community,[49] where ethics shapes the praxis of the Christian community as an embodiment of the biblical text.[50] Richard B. Hays suggests that biblical ethics require “imaginative analogies” that allow the biblical stories to speak into our historical context. Therefore, the use of the Bible is a process of “metaphor making” in which imaginative links can be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Importantly, metaphors enable the juxtaposition of our world and that of the text, leading to “metaphorical conjunctions” where the two contrary images are brought together in a process of imaginary connection that re-orientates perceptions and reconstructs meaning. The results of this process are “imaginative correlations,” where the right action can be lived out as a kingdom ethic both individually and communally.[51] In this way, the narrative framework of the New Testament provides the means to interpret present experience when imaginative analogies for action are discerned under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.[52]

What are the situations in our society that require a Christian voice centred on the moral teaching of Jesus? The answer to this question will change over time, however, in our fast-changing world there are an increasing number of challenges that are re-shaping how society shows love. Such challenges include: becoming both more individualised and more nationalistic; facing issues around migration and refugees that are changing population and religious dynamics; loneliness, anxiety and depression are becoming common-place. This is to say nothing of issues of identity and gender diversity that are at the forefront of our culture, while we also wrestle with how we should care for the vulnerable at the beginning and end of life. The question still remains, “How might we live as disciples of Jesus in the new contexts we find ourselves in?”

In line with the interpretive process proposed by Hays, Glen Stassen and David Gushee suggest that even though a gap exists between Jesus’ context and our own, “the theological basic-convictions dimension remain unchanged” since the basic biblical narrative and the transformative nature of the Gospel is still true. Therefore, the basic theological understanding of the Christian faith is still applicable in the context of new ethical situations as followers of Jesus respond in obedience to God. Jesus then remains the exemplar of the Christian life in relation to the norms of justice and love that are applicable in all situations.[53] Although society is constantly changing, the call to serve our neighbour in love is just as relevant as it was for Jesus’ first disciples.

Case Study: Assisted Suicide/Euthanasia

A brief case-study will help to illustrate this approach. An issue facing New Zealand currently is the question of physician assisted-suicide/euthanasia (PAS/E). Before considering how to develop a kingdom ethic in response to PAS/E, it is important to clearly define what is meant by PAS/E. These terms refer to a deliberate intervention specifically intended to end a person’s life for the purpose of relieving distress; either bya medical professional prescribing drugs which the patient takes (assisted suicide), or where the doctor administers a lethal dose of drugs directly (euthanasia). These scenarios need to be distinguished from the relief of suffering through the withholding or withdrawal of treatment or the administration of appropriate treatment, scenarios in which death is allowed to occur naturally as a result of the underlying condition – this is not defined as assisted suicide or euthanasia and is legal. There are many ethical issues relating to the practice of assisted suicide/euthanasia such as autonomy and rights,[54] but for the purposes of this article, I will simply ask one question: “Is it loving to end someone’s life through assisted suicide/euthanasia?”[55]

First, of all the parables told by Jesus, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a good example to consider in forming imaginative analogies. The basis of the parable is an example of offering loving care to someone who is hurt and vulnerable. In my earlier discussion of this parable, I showed that this action was not determined by the identity of the one suffering, but was instead located in the generosity of action by the one who helped – the neighbour was “the one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). The loving action of showing mercy to all is the defining feature of loving your neighbour as yourself – a loving response to be lived out by all of Jesus’ disciples irrespective of the recipient of mercy. This loving response is also in line with the other commands about love to both God and neighbour. This forms the basis for our imaginative analogies.

The metaphor of vulnerability is also important in this context. In the parable, maximum effort is displayed in caring for the vulnerable person. In the face of suffering, the Christian and humane response is to maximise care/compassion for those in most need. Killing (or in the case of the parable, leaving to die) is not seen as a compassionate option toward the dying – the ends do not justify the means. Neither would it be compassionate to keep someone alive when there is no hope of recovery. In this instance, the loving response is not to shorten life, but to maximise efforts to ensure comfort and a peaceful death while not prolonging the process of dying. To do so wewalk alongside the other, so they do not die alone. For those experiencing suffering, this includes greater availability of palliative care, further research into palliative medicine, and valuing the input of those who speak for the ‘disabled’ so that there is “nothing about us without us.”[56]

The stories of Jesus have both an individual and communal focus, and so the Parable of the Good Samaritan is both an individual ethic and a social ethic, in that it took a community to enable the victim’s healing. By extension, the metaphor of community identifies that our personal freedom is always held alongside the rights of others. From a Christian perspective, our personal rights must be considered alongside our responsibilities to others, as a way of truly loving our neighbour. Compassion is a societal value, where care and compassion contained within the view of unconditional love is about doing good without doing harm. This identifies the intrinsic value and dignity to human life regardless of identity, abilities or situation. Compassion is exercised in relationship with others, so the distress of an individual does not happen in isolation, nor does the treatment, or the choices an individual may wish to make. Therefore, the argument of individual rights in PAS/E does not hold for a community ethic where the rights of some place others who are more vulnerable in danger, such as the disabled and the elderly.

These brief reflections suggest that physician assisted-suicide/euthanasia cannot be seen as a loving response to the needs of those who are facing death, are in situations of distress, or are the vulnerable in our society. Maximum effort means seeking other means of compassion, such as support services and hospice care, so that we offer to the dying “not a deadly poison, but rather neighbourly love and the hope of eternal life,”[57] and give to those in distress the support they need.


Through the lens of the four Gospel writers, we have a record of the moral teaching that Jesus gave his first disciples, teaching that centred on the kingdom of God. In contrast to the contemporary Jewish understanding that emphasised the Law, Jesus focussed on renewing the covenant through inner transformation of the heart. This transformation provides the kingdom praxis by which disciples are to live, as seen in Jesus’ teaching on love. The moral teaching of Jesus is still of importance for us today as Jesus’ disciples. Through the use of analogy and imagination, we can interpret Jesus’ teaching and apply it to the situations we face now. This task is not easy, requiring both faith and a community basis. However, as Hart observes:

The standards of ethics set by Jesus according (especially) to Matthew is very demanding, and no one will succeed in living up to them all the time, but I am not convinced that they are so far out of reach as to be an impossible target, nor that committed disciples cannot reasonably expect some success in achieving them.[58]

Graham O’Brien has a Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology (Canterbury University, New Zealand), and a Masters Degree in Theology (Laidlaw College). He is currently the Ministry Education Coordinator for the Nelson Diocese and a Lecturer at Bishopdale Theological College. Graham is also member of the InterChurch Bioethics Council (, representing the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches of Aotearoa, New Zealand on issues relating to bioethics.

[1] Mahatma Gandi, "The Message of Jesus Christ."

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 7 ed., (London: Collins, 2012), 52.

[3] All Bible verses taken from Michael D. Coogan ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 3rd ed., (New York, Oxford University Press, 2001).

[4] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 14; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 3 ed. (London: SCM Press, 2001), 22–25.

[5] Colin Hart, The Ethics of Jesus, vol. 107, Grove Ethical Studies (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1997), 12; L. D. Hurst, “Ethics of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 212–14; Ronald Preston, "Christian Ethics," in A Companion to Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 94–95.

[6] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 281; Moshe Sokol, "Jewish Ethics," in Encyclopedia of Ethics, eds. Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 650.

[7] Sokol, "Jewish Ethics,,” 649; Menachem Kellner, "Ethics of Judaism," in The Encyclopedia of Judaism, ed. Jacob Neuser, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green (New York: Continuum, 1999), 252.

[8] Hart, The Ethics of Jesus, 10.

[9] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 280.

[10] Sokol, "Jewish Ethics," 650.

[11] Hart, The Ethics of Jesus, 11 and 23.

[12] Colin Hart, The Ethics of the Gospels, vol. 111, Grove Ethical Studies (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1998), 23.

[13] Hart, The Ethics of the Gospels, 22; A. D. Verhey, "New Testament Ethics," in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, ed. David J. Atkinson and Donald H. Field (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 59. See Matthew 5:7. All Bible verses taken from Michael D. Coogan ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 3rd ed., (New York, Oxford University Press, 2001).

[14] Hart, The Ethics of the Gospels, 22; also Verhey, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 58. See Mark 8:34.

[15] Hart, The Ethics of the Gospels, 23; also Verhey, "New Testament Ethics," 59. See Luke 4:18.

[16] Hart, The Ethics of the Gospels, 22–23. Quote from Verhey, "New Testament Ethics," 60. See John 20:31.

[17] William C. Spohn, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," Theological Studies 56 (1995): 107.

[18] Also see Matthew 4:17.

[19] Pheme Perkins, "Ethics: New Testament," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, et al., (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 657.

[20] Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Kingdom and Cross: Christian Moral Community and the Problem of Suffering," Interpretation 50, no. 2 (1996): 160; Pheme Perkins, "Jesus and Ethics," Theology Today 52 (1995): 54.

[21] Spohn, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 99; Verhey, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 56.

[22] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 283,286.

[23] Hart, The Ethics of Jesus, 15; Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 281–82.

[24] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 283.

[25] Perkins, "Ethics: New Testament," 658.

[26] Hart, The Ethics of Jesus, 16; James Gustafson, "Jesus," in Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), 646; Preston, "Christian Ethics," 97. See Matthew 6:33 and Luke 12:31.

[27] Preston, "Christian Ethics," 96; Hurst, “Ethics of Jesus,” 216.

[28] Cahill, "Kingdom and Cross," 160.

[29] Perkins, "Jesus and Ethics," 64–65.

[30] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 309.

[31] Perkins, "Jesus and Ethics," 55.

[32] William C. Spohn, “Christian Spirituality and Theological Ethics,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. Arthur Holder (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 269.

[33] Preston, "Christian Ethics," 97–98; Spohn, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 105.

[34] Verhey, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 58.

[35] Ibid., 60.

[36] Hart, The Ethics of Jesus, 17.

[37] Gustafson, "Jesus," 646.

[38] Also see Matthew 5:46–47.

[39] As quoted in Perkins, "Jesus and Ethics," 55.

[40] Verhey, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 59.

[41] Hart, The Ethics of the Gospels, 17. Verhey, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 59.

[42] Preston, "Christian Ethics," 98.

[43] Perkins, "Jesus and Ethics," 55, 64.

[44] Gustafson, "Jesus," 645–46.

[45] Spohn, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 104.

[46] Ibid., 105.

[47] I. Howard Marshall, "New Occasions Teach New Duties? 2. The Use of the New Testament in Christian Ethics," Expository Times 105 (1993): 136.

[48] Cahill, "Kingdom and Cross," 157; Marshall, "New Occasions Teach New Duties," 135.

[49] Perkins, "Jesus and Ethics," 57; Spohn, "Jesus and Christian Ethics," 106.

[50] Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 304–305. Interpretation of the text is also a communal activity.

[51] Ibid., 298–306.

[52] Ibid., 303–304.

[53] Glenn H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002), 253–54.

[54] See

[55] Some of the ethical points I have taken from the submission of the InterChurch Bioethics Council to the parliamentary Justice Select Committee that I helped to write. See InterChurch Bioethics Council, Submission to the Justice Select Committee: On the End of Life Choice Bill,

[56] Margaret Somerville, The Importance of Stories in the Euthanasia Debate: the risks and harms to vulnerable people outweigh any possible benefits.

[57] John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today, 3 ed, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 201.

[58] Hart, The Ethics of Jesus, 18.