Jesus’ Big Ideas

Jesus’ Big Ideas August 31, 2017

Sea of GalilleeIn Jonathan Pennington’s virtue-ethics-based approach to the Sermon on the Mount, the finest example I have seen of a virtue-ethics approach (see The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing), seven big ideas in the Sermon are sketched. (These in addition to “blessing” and “perfection.”) These amount to Seven Big Ideas of Jesus, especially if one approaches Jesus through the lens of the Synoptic Gospels (with an emphasis on Matthew!)

This is a good discussion of the Sermon’s “lexicon” or “dictionary.”


In light of an overall reading of Matthew as well as the emphasis of the Sermon on human flourishing, it makes best sense to interpret dikaiosyne in Matthew not as imputed nor as something only God does, but in its natural ethical sense of what is expected of Jesus’s disciples. In short, it is “doing the will of God” (7:21, 24; 12:50; cf. 6:10; 7:12; 18:14; 26:39, 42), that which is required to enter the kingdom of heaven (5:19-20; 7:21). …

Yet at the same time, as Lee Irons rightly notes, while Matthew is not talking about Pauline justification, his ethical construal of “righteousness” is a “righteousness that rests upon the redemptive-historical and eschatological reality of the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus. This is what makes it the higher righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. In the words of Roland Deines, it is ‘Jesus-righteousness’ (90).

In sum, I define “righteousness” in Matthew as whole-person behavior that accords with God’s nature, will, and coming kingdom. 90


In common parlance, a hypocrite is one who lives a double life, contrasting actions and words, such as a politician taking bribes while running a campaign against corruption. This is not the sense of “hypocrite” in Matthew, however. Doubleness is a good way to describe hypocrisy in Matthew, but it is a doubleness of actions and the inner person or heart, not of words and actions. 92

On this term, the nuance of David Garland’s work shows that “hypocrite” has the connotation of false teacher as well.


Unlike in common English parlance, where “heart” becomes a metaphor for the seat of emotions, kardia in biblical usage refers more broadly to “human life in its totality. … Matthew puts great emphasis on the heart as the true inner person.  93


I suggest that the solution to this puzzle comes from a broader reading of Matthew that recognizes the major theological emphasis in the First Gospel on the redefinition of the people of God as based on faith-response to Jesus rather than ethnicity. 95

That is, in a subtle but powerful way “gentile” has come to mean any Jewish person or (ethnic) gentile who does not follow Christ; the Jew-gentile distinction still exists, but the lines are now eschatologically drawn based on a faith-response to Jesus rather than ethnicity. Any people outside the church can be said to be gentiles in need of evangelism and discipleship. 96

SMcK: I find this suggestion impossible to maintain. “Gentile” does not include Jews who do not believe in Jesus.

Father in Heaven

His earlier studies showed that “heaven” was a contrasting term: God’s ways vs. human ways. Father then is drawn into that orbit, and it marks the people of Jesus off as those with a relationship to God.

Kingdom of God/Heaven

Again, his earlier studies showed that “heaven” was a contrasting term: God’s ways vs. human ways. His discussion here is a bit less pressed into precise definition — something I find characteristic of many discussions of kingdom — and it lacks the recent discussion of the territorial dimension of kingdom in Allison, but in the main I like the direction of Pennington’s orientation. Unlike this discussion of blessing and perfection, which were rooted in careful studies of Jewish and Greco-Roman texts, this one does not probe the Hebrew Bible, the LXX or Josephus, in which texts kingdom and people are inseparable. He has a clear eschatological emphasis: “Rather, these references to the kingdom of heaven set Jesus’s teaching into the context of the Jewish story of God’s reign and particularly the Jewish expectation of its eschatological consummation,53 its coming from heaven to earth” (101). He also ties it to ethics, that is, to human flourishing. I like this: “The references to the kingdom of heaven here make clear that the issue at hand is whether one enters into the kingdom and is a part of God’s people” (101).


This one is tricky for Protestants and grace-shaped theology, but Pennington is unflinching in letting the Bible say what it says. He makes two points: (1) The theme of reward/recompense comes from the wisdom/virtue context; (2) there is no Kantian altruism. On this one a discussion of Gary Anderson’s book (Sin: A History) would have set up his conclusions even more.

This is my sketch of Pennington’s study: this lexicon of terms is a very useful sketch of Seven Big Ideas of Jesus. No one can discuss Jesus’ moral vision without these terms forming the core.

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