The Christian Bible Reference Site

Ethics and Morality

Introduction

Ethics are principles that govern a person's actions. Ethics define right and wrong conduct. The words "ethics," "morals" and "morality" may be applied in different contexts, but they have essentially the same meaning.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) was the standard of conduct in Old Testament times. Jesus did not abolish the moral and ethical laws that had been in effect from the time of Moses. He affirmed and expanded on those principles, but what matters most to God is our inner lives (attitudes and motives) rather than any outward show of holiness. Jesus taught that we should live by two great principles: 1) humble obedience to God above all else and 2) sincere respect and kindness for all people of the world (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28, John 13:34-35).

Not only must we not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14), we should avoid entertaining even the thought of it (Matthew 5:27-28). Not only must we not steal (Exodus 20:15) and not envy what others have (Exodus 20:17), we should focus our lives on God, not on earthly possessions (Matthew 6:19-21). Not only must we not give false testimony (Exodus 20:16), we should even avoid evil thoughts and speech (Matthew 12:35-37). Not only must we be considerate to the poor and outcasts of the world (Deuteronomy 15:7-11), we should treat them as we would treat Jesus Himself! (Matthew 25:31-46).

The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain

Jesus gave many examples of how to apply His ethical teachings in His "Sermon of the Mount" (Matthew Chapters 5-7) and the shorter "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:20-49). These are the highlights:

The Beatitudes

3 “Blessed are those who are spiritually needy. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
4
Blessed are those who are sad. They will be comforted.
5
Blessed are those who are free of pride. They will be given the earth.
6
Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for what is right. They will be filled.
7
Blessed are those who show mercy. They will be shown mercy.
8
Blessed are those whose hearts are pure. They will see God.
9
Blessed are those who make peace. They will be called sons of God.
10
Blessed are those who suffer for doing what is right. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them. (NIrV, Matthew 5:3–10)

The Beatitudes describe the values of the kingdom of God. At the same time, they describe the "blessed" results of keeping God's commandments and being part of that kingdom.

Anger

21 “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. (NLT, Matthew 5:21–22)

Anger is an emotion we all feel sometimes, but the anger here (Greek orgizo) implies extreme anger, perhaps a brooding anger that could lead to hostile words or acts of revenge. We must forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15) and not hold onto the anger that spoils our relationship with God and other people.

Adultery

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (NIV, Matthew 5:27–28)

Jesus affirmed the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments against adultery (Exodus 20:14), and covetousness (Exodus 20:17). We must not commit adultery, but we must also avoid the evil desires (lust or covetousness) that may cloud judgment and lead to an actual act of adultery.

Divorce and Remarriage

6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” (NIV, Mark 10:6–12)

Many people marry for love. But when love fades, they divorce and marry another. However, Jesus taught that marriage should be a sacred bond forever. Each spouse must love and honor the other and not give up on the marriage when troubles arise.

For more details: What Does the Bible Say About Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage?

Truthfulness and Honesty

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: ... 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (NIV, Matthew 5:33–34, 37)

At the time of Jesus, people often made vows or took oaths to convince someone of their sincerity. But instead of making vows, we must be known for our complete honesty so that our simple "yes" or "no" will be believed as truth.

Retaliation and Revenge

38 “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. ... 43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. ... 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (NLT, Matthew 5:38–39, 43–48)

At the time of Abraham, unlimited revenge for a wrong done was considered normal and proper (Genesis 34:1-2, 25-29). Later, the Law of Moses limited revenge to an equal injury for any injury done, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Leviticus 24:18-20). But Jesus said we should not take any revenge at all. We must extend our Christian love (Greek agape = kindness, respect, benevolence) to all people, even enemies.

Forgiveness

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT, Matthew 6:14–15)

Just as God is merciful and forgives our sins, we, too, must be merciful and forgive those who do us harm. Holding a grudge separates us from God's love and robs all joy from life.

For more details: What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness of Sins?

Money and Wealth

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ... 24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (NIV, Matthew 6:19–21, 24)

Lust for more wealth or possessions than we really need is the cause of all kinds of evils (1 Timothy 6:10). Greed is one of the most frequently mentioned sins in the Bible. Those of us who are blessed with more wealth than we need are obligated to share generously with those in need.

For more details: What Does the Bible Say About Using Time, Talents and Wealth?, What Does the Bible Say About Generosity and Duty to the Poor?

Judgment and Self-righteousness

1 “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. (NLT, Matthew 7:1–2)
Jesus taught by word and example not to be self-righteous or shun those we consider to be "sinners" (Matthew 9:10-13, Luke 7:36-48) because we are all sinners in our own ways (Romans 3:21-24, 5:12, 1 John 1:8).

The Bible's moral and ethical teachings are intended to help us live according to God's will. They are not intended to be used to criticize or condemn other people. We are never to take upon ourselves the task of judgment that belongs to God alone (Matthew 22:37-40, Hebrews 10:30, Romans 14:10-13, 1 Corinthians 4:5). Jesus said that if we judge other people harshly, we will, in turn, be judged harshly.

The Golden Rule

12 “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (NLT, Matthew 7:12)

The Golden Rule is a one-sentence summary of all of Jesus' ethical teachings. In all aspects of life, we must treat others as we would like to be treated – never taking advantage or holding a grudge or doing harm; always being kind, compassionate and helpful when needed.

Do I Really have to Obey All of Jesus' Ethical Teachings? Are there Exceptions?

Jesus sets a very high standard of conduct for both private and public life. Some people feel that that these high ethical standards are too difficult or even unrealistic, and there have been many attempts to soften His teachings or limit their scope.

Did Jesus Intend His Teachings only for His Disciples?

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was directed primarily to His disciples (Matthew 5:1-2, Luke 6:20). But the crowds of people were also present and listening (Matthew 7:28-29, Luke 7:1), and the language of His teachings implies that they apply to all people (Matthew 5:19, 5:32, 6:24, 7:13-14, 7:24-27). It was always Jesus' plan for His disciples to spread His teachings to the rest of the world (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 3:14, Mark 16:14-15).

Do Jesus' Teachings Apply to our Relations with all People?

Some say that Jesus' teachings only apply to personal relationships with family and friends, not to relations with people of other religions, races, nationalities, ways of life, etc. However, Jesus never spoke of any such exceptions. In His Parable of the Good Samaritan, He made it clear that we must extend our "Christian love" to people of all races, religions and nationalities. He also said,
43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (NLT, Matthew 5:43–48)

Do Jesus' Teaching Apply to all Situations?

Some say that Jesus' teachings only apply to private life, not to public life, business or politics. However, Jesus did not make any such exceptions. Jesus presented these principles as applying to all people belonging to the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:9, 5:46-48, 6:24, 20:25-28, 21:12-13, Mark 12:38-40, Luke 12:33-34).
12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (NIV, Matthew 7:12)

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (NIV, Matthew 6:24)

Do Jesus' Teachings Apply Here and Now?

Some argue that Jesus' ethical teachings are unrealistic ideals just intended to show us how sinful we are, not commandments we must obey. Still others say Jesus was describing the ethics of the kingdom of God of the future rather than a code to live by in this life. However, Jesus presented His ethical teachings as God's commandments for here and now, and He never spoke of any exceptions. As people who aspire to belong to the kingdom of God, we must be "in the world, but not of the world" (John 17:11-14).

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (NIV, Matthew 7:21–23)

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NIV, Matthew 5:48)

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (NRSV, Luke 6:46–49)

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (NRSV, Matthew 7:13–14)

17 “Why ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. But to answer your question—if you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments.” (NLT, Matthew 19:17)

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (NRSV, John 14:15)

What if We Fail to Keep Jesus' Commandments?

We are all imperfect humans, and we are all sinners in our own ways (Romans 3:21-24, 5:12, 1 John 1:8). We will never be able to completely comply with the high ethical standards Jesus set. But that is hardly an excuse for not trying our very best! (Matthew 25:24-30, Romans 2:1-4)  When we do fail, we can take comfort in knowing that God is merciful and is always willing to give us another chance when we sincerely repent.

Related article: What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness of Sins?

Conclusion

Old Testament ethics were based on following hundreds of rules based on scripture as interpreted by the professional scribes. But Jesus taught a higher standard of conduct and a better way to determine what is right and what is wrong. The examples Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount do not cover all possible situations, but His "Golden Rule" and "Greatest Commandment" are the principles we should  use to decide any ethical question:
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (NRSV, Mark 12:28–31)

Jesus' ethical teachings show us the way God wishes for all people to live together in peace (1 John 4:16-21), and they serve as a guide for all we say and do.

Related articles: The Greatest Commandment and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, What Does the Bible Say About Christian Values and Christian Life?, What Does the Bible Say About Love?

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