We are each a display case for God’s glory. We are meant to be a visible image of the invisible God.
This leads to two questions for personal reflection:
1) What sort of case am I?
I always make the mistake of going to the store hungry. I go with five or ten things in mind and leave with a basket full of everything that looked good. I have one dinner plan figured out and intend to buy what I need to make it, but suddenly I have a week of meals planned (and not a few snacks).
Most of the time, I hesitate to try new things. I know what I like and I stick with it.
My wife is a bit more brave.
She’ll come home with a new product and open the package, ready to give it a chance.
And immediately she gets upset.
“Are you kidding me? They needed this huge bag for that little bit? Half the bag is empty! And look at this box! It has three inches of empty space at the top! What did I spend my money on?!”
The outside doesn’t always reflect what’s within.
The gimmick of false advertising is true in other areas of life. Things aren’t always what they seem.
The display case isn’t there to attract attention. It’s meant to reveal what’s inside. But sometimes our ‘displays’ can be calculated to look good, drawing the eyes of the audience to us instead of to God.
Imagine going to a museum for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit. You pay your money, get your tickets in hand, and head inside. When you get to the viewing room, you’re treated to a series of gold-layered, jewel-encrusted, ornately crafted cases. They’re so extravagantly decorated that you can’t even see the contents. Sure, they look great, but what’s the point?
Jesus spoke of the hypocritical Pharisees as whitewashed tombs made to look pretty but full of death and uncleanness. They were cups washed on the outside to look useful but full of spiritual dirt and grime. They did their good deeds for people to see, so that everyone knew how holy they supposedly were.
Sure, they looked great, but they missed the point.
The case can attract attention in another way.
A few years back, we heard about a zoo on Okinawa, and we were excited to take the kids to see the variety of animals. Our kids had not been to any stateside zoos yet, so this was a unique experience for them. We arrived and started the tour through all the various pens and cages, and they were delighted to see living animals they had previously only read about.
But my wife and I were shocked.
The cages were dirty. Most of the animals seemed miserable. The grounds appeared untended. Our kids didn’t know any better, but we had seen well-kept zoos before.
We couldn’t enjoy the sights because the poor condition of the displays stole our attention from the animals we came to see.
Paul wrote about vessels and containers in a house. He said some were made for honor and some for dishonor. Paul encouraged his protégé to live a godly life and thus be recognized as a vessel of honor.
A friend of mine modernized this analogy by talking about porcelain.
“A Lladro figurine is made of porcelain, and so is the toilet. Which would you aspire to be compared to?”
If the display case is covered with filth, or if it’s covered with dust from lack of attention, no one will see what’s within. Inside, there may be great treasure or beauty, but the ugliness on the outside keeps people away.
I think of the many times I have seen people pushed away from the gospel by the hatred, pride, or condescension of the messengers. Similarly, one grave mistake or angry word can ruin our reputation and close the door of opportunity to share the good news.
Sometimes we need to dust off that display case!
We don’t want fake “picture perfect” lives or public good deeds to become a misleading distraction. But we also don’t want people to refuse to look closer based on the mess they see on the outside.
That leads to the second question:
2) What is on display in my life?
Military veterans are often presented a “shadow box” upon retirement. The design and contents of the shadow box tell the whole story of a military career. All the awards and medals the individual won will be displayed. Rank insignia occupy a prominent spot. Unit patches may be shown, and various emblems or badges that identify specialties will also be featured. A folded flag is often the centerpiece.
Imagine a beautiful hand-carved wooden case with a rich varnish that shines in the light. There’s an engraved golden plate on the bottom with rank, name, date of enlistment, and date of retirement. Underneath that is a funny quote selected by friends and peers. The pristine glass window reveals a lush navy blue velvet interior.
And it’s empty.
Or worse yet, the few medals and stripes leave more navy blue empty space than they cover up.
What achievements are in my shadow box, I wonder.
Are they all based on what I used to be long ago? “I used to lead worship… I went on that missions trip one time… I led a Bible study for a few months…”
Are the contents of my display case even worthy of public viewing?
Think of the peril of public ministry. Far too often, we see the decline and fall of some notable preacher as the secret doors of their ‘display case’ are opened for all to see. It’s easy for me to point a finger and judge. My life isn’t in the public eye.
Yet the world around me is walking past the exhibition of my life every single day. Is there something in that case that tugs at their attention? Is there anything of value, anything of interest? Or do they only see what they’ve seen before?
The display case isn’t made just to hold stuff from years past. It’s not made for great achievements I will do “someday.” And there’s no secret compartment that is completely hidden from the eyes of others.
What sort of case am I setting out for the world to see?
What have I put within it?
I was made to be a visible image of God, an exhibition for the eyes of the world to see His glory.
My daughter’s neighborhood friend asked me this on the way home from church. She recently declared her faith–or perhaps her desire to go everywhere with my daughter, based on other experiences dealing with her.
I’m skeptical about this decision she made. I’d like to know more about what exactly she “accepted” and what she understands.
I’m not overly fond of “Yay, I made a decision and prayed a prayer, now I’m saved forever from hell and I live however I want because Jesus!”
But the question was a good one, regardless of how deep or sincere the faith may be that asked it.
It’s also a trick question, at least as far as Christianity is concerned.
There are a few passages that try to paint an image of God.
And the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire. – Daniel 7:9 NASB
2 Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. 3 And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. – Revelation 4:2-3 NASB
So God is like white snow and surrounded by something like flames giving off light… He is like this gemstone… but like that one… but there’s this rainbow like a different gemstone all around… light and brightness and radiance and…
That’s not very helpful if I wanted to draw a picture of Him.
From the beginning of Scripture, God’s people are routinely commanded that they should make no idol or graven image.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” Exodus 20:4-5 NASB
23 So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the Lord your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the Lord your God has commanded you. – Deuteronomy 4:23 NASB
Other nations had representations of their various gods. They could point to a statue and say, “That’s what Dagon looks like, see how powerful he is?”
The only thing Israel can point to is a testimony of what God has done for them.
They can point to a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud that led them out of Egypt. They can point to signs and wonders performed by Moses. They can point back to provision and blessing through Joseph, through Jacob, through Isaac, through Abraham.
But they can’t point to a picture or an image or a statue and say, “Here’s what God looks like.”
Neither can I when I answer this young lady.
I know why I can’t point to a statue, but I leave it out of my answer to her.
My friends who are not Christians often point to God’s jealousy about idols and ask, “What kind of petty God has to be jealous? Is that really the God you serve?”
The writings of the Prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible often reveal God’s sarcasm and loathing of idols. They help explain a bit of why God is so jealous about this issue.
“I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.”
Isaiah 42:8 NASB
Later, Isaiah writes about the folly of idols. A man works and toils to fashion an image made of metal, and sets it up in his house. Then he falls down to worship the thing he just made, crying out to it for deliverance. Another man cuts down a tree and takes half the log for daily needs – a fire for warmth and for cooking. Then he takes the other half, carves an image, and says, “You are my god!”
That is what frustrates God: taking the created thing and making it into a god that competes for the glory due the Creator.
That’s nice to know, but it doesn’t answer the question of what God looks like.
For thousands of years, Israel goes on believing in a God that they cannot describe in a picture or represent in a figure. They can only point back to acts of God in their history, or moments where they believe God showed up in storming clouds over Mount Sinai, or in a fire from heaven, or in a powerful glory that filled the Most Holy Place in the Temple.
Then along comes Jesus, who says things like:
“I and the Father are one.” John 10:30
“He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” John 14:9 NASB
More than that, Jesus makes it clear that the reason behind His statement is because the people see Jesus doing what the Father directs Him to do. Again, seeing what God looks like is not about the physical representation, but about a testimony of what God did.
So the answer to the young lady’s question becomes, “Jesus!”
Typically, in Sunday School as a child, if you didn’t know the answer to a question, ‘Jesus’ was a safe bet.
Colossians 1:15 bears this out. “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God.”
John 1:18 adds, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He [Jesus] has explained Him.”
Sweet, so now we know that God looks like Jesus.
Problem: where do I find Jesus?
Seriously, if Jesus is what God looks like, that still doesn’t give me a present-day answer to the question. It’s not like He’s walking around today in Jerusalem. In fact, if you DO hear that He’s walking around offering Kool-Aid or inviting you to His church in Waco, Texas, run away.
We assume we can find Him in the Scriptures; we can learn what He said and read about what He did. In so doing, we get something of a picture for ourselves of what God looks like.
Jesus attests to this in His rebuke of the Pharisees:
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. – John 5:39-40 NASB
But that’s very personal. That’s an internal concept of what God looks like.
What do we point to if someone else wants to see God?
For that, I would say:
Look in the mirror.
If Christ is in you, then you are-practically speaking-the visible image of the invisible God.
I have to caveat that in multiple ways, because religion leaves so much room for mis-communication. I’m not suggesting that everyone automatically reflects Christ. I’m not suggesting that every Christian automatically reflects Christ. I’m not downplaying the evil men do in the name of religion, nor am I attributing the blame for the terrible choices of men to a holy and just God.
Consider what these verses have to say:
No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.
1John 4:12 NASB
18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 NASB
6 For God, who said, “ Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 NASB
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 NASB
The ideal, the intended result of your salvation is that you become a display case. You become a “vessel of honor” that is designed not for its own glory but to carry something worthy of worship.
You have been called, chosen, redeemed at a great price.
This was done for a purpose.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:9
If ever you doubt your value, go look in the mirror and remember that God chose and crafted you and sent His Son to die for you, so that you could be His visible image for the world today.
15 And the evil spirit answered and said to them, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?” (Acts 19:13,15 NASB)
There’s this whole “Wawagate” thing going on in the news lately…
Well, in some news outlets, I guess.
A reporter on MSNBC showed a video of Mitt Romney giving a speech. In it, he talked about this “amazing” experience of going to a restaurant, tapping a few buttons on a touch screen, and like magic, your sandwich is being made. The video was very reminiscent of the old story of President George H. W. Bush seeming to express surprise at a checkout cashier’s scanner in a grocery store. The implication the reporter made was similar. “Mitt Romney is out of touch. He’s a wealthy politician who is far removed from the average person’s experience.”
Turns out the video was heavily edited, going from about three minutes to about 30 seconds.
In the unedited video, the candidate makes a completely different point. He’s not talking about how amazing it is to order food off a touch screen. He’s comparing the technological efficiency of the private sector to the paperwork bureaucracy and inefficiency of government.
It’s quite a different video if you don’t cut out 80 percent of it.
Some of my co-workers and friends like to discuss religion, and one of those discussions prompted a few questions that need answers.
Did Jesus really command obedience to the 613 rules found in the Law of Moses?
Did Jesus mean it when He said our righteousness had to exceed that of the Pharisees in order to get to Heaven?
Was Paul completely wrong about all he wrote concerning the Law and the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Does modern Christianity claim the writings of Paul trump the teachings of our Savior?
I’ve been addressing some of the differences and similarities between Paul and Jesus in this series, and now I’d like to answer the remaining questions from the introduction:
Are we terrible Christians who don’t even follow the faith we claim? Aren’t we failing to obey God, and thus damning ourselves to hell?
And aren’t we simply picking and choosing parts of the Bible we like while ignoring parts we don’t?
“Paul isn’t Jesus, so if Jesus says one thing and Paul another, Paul loses.”
I was not impressed by MSNBC’s video editing skills. I admit, the video looked pretty clear-cut. It was all in order, and the way it was edited, the story made sense.
But it was still a gross misrepresentation of what actually happened.
That’s why I don’t like the way these questions view Paul and Jesus.
The Apostle Paul stood before the Twelve in Acts 14 and explained what he had been teaching to the Gentiles. Paul ran his ministry by the guys who had spent three years in direct contact with Jesus Christ. He did this to ensure that his teaching lined up with the Apostles, and to make sure they knew exactly what God was doing in and through him.
No, Paul wasn’t Jesus. But using that as an excuse to ignore everything Paul wrote is the same as editing away 80 percent of a video and calling it accurate news reporting.
Paul’s epistles have been a part of Christianity ever since the first century. His teaching was foundational in the early church. His opinions and doctrine were evaluated by those who knew best what sounded like Jesus and what didn’t measure up.
And if you have faith, Paul’s understanding came from revelation given directly by God.
What sort of Christians would we be if we blew all of that off simply because Paul wasn’t Jesus?
As best as we understand it, Jesus didn’t write down His teaching in a neat and tidy Gospel for us. (Well, again, unless you have faith to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, Jesus didn’t do this.)
So what we have in the Gospels are accounts written by witnesses or by writers interviewing witnesses. I suppose since Luke and John aren’t Jesus, we should also throw out anything they have to say, by the same logic as what’s been presented to me.
I find that faulty.
Throwing Paul out is unnecessary. As I’ve tried to point out in the previous posts, it’s better to understand how his teachings and the words of Jesus align. They’re saying essentially the same core message. It’s just that the timing and audiences require two vastly different approaches.
Despite what my friends might think, we are not horrible Christians as a result of our adherence to the whole Bible and our willingness to reconcile the different messages. On the contrary, we would be horrible Christians if we ignored what Paul wrote. His teachings are central to the Christian faith, tying the Old Testament promises to the New Testament fulfillment and making all of the work of Christ abundantly clear.
And since it is also clear that Jesus didn’t really mean for us to follow the example of the Pharisees, or to follow a Law that He came to fulfill, we are not damning ourselves to hell by supposedly ignoring our Savior’s words on the subject.
And neither do we pick and choose which words of Jesus apply, whether they come from one of the Gospel writers or from Paul’s letters.
Jesus says a lot that we would do well to pay attention to.
We do not have license to sin wherever, however, whenever we want. Jesus reminds those to whom He ministers, “Go and sin no more.” More than that, His parables show us how we ought to live. He tells us that we’ll be known by what we do, no matter how much we say “Lord, Lord!” And He reminds us that what matters most is how we treat “the least of these,” those who most need love and care.
Paul likewise argues with those who would claim we have freedom to do whatever we please. He wrote that we should use our freedom to go do good, and not to return to a bondage to sin. Paul encourages us to set aside all the best the world has to offer and to ignore the worst the world throws at us, all for the purpose of knowing Christ. “Everything is permissible, but I will not be mastered by anything. Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.”
You can have recording and editing software. Just be sure to use it in support of the truth, not to cut something up and make it what it was never intended to be.
Paul vs. Jesus is a contrived conflict; it’s the edited video missing most of the important parts. It sells well to a particular crowd, sure. You can watch and believe it, if that’s the reality if you want.
Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. — Jesus Christ (Matt 5:20 NASB)
Justin, my seven-year-old son, is often frustrated by the freedom his older siblings enjoy. Being the middle child is notoriously difficult. He wants to know why Deborah (13) and Jonathan (11) get to go outside by themselves, or stay home by themselves. He wants to know why Deborah can have a cell-phone. Why does she get to go to a special weekly church activity for girls her age, but he has to stay home? (That one’s easy. There’s no activity for his age group that night.)
He’s like the kid at the carnival who’s too short for the biggest ride. It’s easy to look at that roller coaster you can’t ride and forget all the other activities you’re free to enjoy.
I try to remind him that he has far more freedom than Judah (1.5 years old). Judah has to be watched constantly. Judah needs a car seat. Judah has to hold our hands while walking just about anywhere. Judah doesn’t get to go play outside with his friends unless we go with him.
The rules change depending on the both the situation and the child in said situation.
The question was raised: Do Paul’s statements about the Law conflict with Jesus’ teachings?
The verse at the top is early on in the most famous sermon Jesus ever preached, the “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew 5-7.
Jesus is preaching to His disciples, but there are multitudes of listeners present, and these listeners are Jews. They’ve been brought up to follow the Law of Moses. They’ve been instructed in the Law by the scribes and the Pharisees. Their entire culture was based on their status as God’s special chosen people, and part of that deal was that they were given 613 commandments to follow. These ranged from the common no-brainers we often hear today:
(Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery)
to some stranger rules for obscure situations that seem like nit-picking to modern eyes:
(Do not sew clothes with two kinds of fabrics, do not mix crops in your field, do not permit people with a wide range of physical conditions into the place of worship)
Remember that the Law was given to Moses, thousands of years prior to Christ’s birth. People were to be cast out from the community or even killed for breaking a variety of commandments. This was serious business, and the rest of the Old Testament shows a people who go back and forth, straying from God’s commandments, then repenting and returning to obedience, lather, rinse, repeat.
Along the way, the religious leaders developed interpretations of exactly how the Law applied. They turned these into traditions and created additional standards that weren’t “God’s Word” per se, but were treated as authoritative. The traditions as taught by the religious leaders became a sort of cushion… as long as you didn’t break the tradition, you weren’t breaking the Law, and you’d be considered “righteous” or right with God.
The Pharisees and scribes were quite good at “righteous” living, and they didn’t mind letting you know where you were going wrong.
They set up a sign: “You must be this obedient to be righteous.”
So along comes Jesus, and He tells this audience that He’s not getting rid of the Law. Instead, He’s there to fulfill it. And not one tiny letter will change in the Law until the end of the world. Oh, and by the way, you need to do better than those Pharisees, or you’re screwed.
Yet the Old Testament makes it clear that “no one is righteous, not even one.” The Prophets remind us that “we all have gone astray like sheep, each of us going our own way.” Even the good deeds we do are considered like “filthy rags” compared to the righteous standard God expects.
But by the time Jesus was preaching, the people were being told that yes, you actually COULD be righteous, and not everyone goes astray, and some people’s good deeds were good enough to earn them God’s acceptance. If you followed the strict tradition and the standards of the scribes and Pharisees, then you’re deemed pure and righteous… at least by the scribes and Pharisees.
Paul says this about his early life as a Pharisee.
4 If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh (in the good deeds he or she has done), I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6 NASB)
By all religious accounts, Paul had it all together.
But he says he equates all of that to poop compared to knowing Christ and being found ” in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” (v. 9)
The religious righteousness of the Pharisees, the right-standing with God based on following the Law–that meant nothing. It was of no value.
So, wait, is Jesus wrong?
No, not at all. Jesus said pretty much the same thing Himself.
How did Jesus define the righteousness of the Pharisees?
In Matthew 23, Jesus points out that “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” (v.2-3 NASB)
They’ve taken a position of authority, so they have to be obeyed. But Jesus hardly points to them as an example of righteousness. Note what He says about them immediately after this:
They do not enter the kingdom of God, and they keep others out.
They make new converts “sons of hell” just like they are themselves.
They make traditions more important than the sacred.
They focus on the letter of the law (tithing even their herbs and spices) instead of the spirit (justice, mercy, faithfulness) –straining a gnat and swallowing a camel.
They are clean on the outside and full of selfishness on the inside.
On the outside they look righteous. On the inside they are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
He ends by saying to them that they are serpents, a brood of vipers, and He asks how they think they will escape judgment.
Hardly the picture of “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Jesus confronted the religious leaders before, and challenged their understanding and passion for the Law. He told them they missed the point. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40 NASB)
Life and righteousness don’t come from following the Law. That wasn’t the point of the Law. The point of it was to testify about Christ.
Paul agrees with this and expounds on it. “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law… 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:21, 24-25 NASB)
Jesus, speaking to a Jewish audience under the authority of the Law of Moses, told His listeners that no part of the Law was going away. He also told them that He had come to fulfill or complete that Law.
When He died on the cross, His final cry was “tetelestai” in Greek — “It is finished!”
“The debt is paid.”
“It is fulfilled.”
Paul, with the benefit of hindsight, looks at what Christ accomplished and thus is able to explain more clearly the point of the Law. The Law was not given as a system by which we could attain righteousness. It was given to point us to our inability, so that we would be willing to come to Christ and find life.
Our righteousness is not based on the deeds we do. Our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness imparted to us. Paul explains to us that Jesus doesn’t hold up a new sign with a much higher arrow for us to measure up to. “No really, you must be THIS obedient to be righteous.”
That’s what the Law did. That’s what the Pharisees tried to do.
That’s not what Jesus does.
He smashes the sign and extends the offer to “whosoever will come.”
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
So begins the Declaration of Independence.
On July 4th, 1776, the document was signed by 56 representatives from the American colonies, to explain to the King of England and indeed the world why exactly English rule was no longer acceptable.The Declaration lists all the grievances of the Colonists with their government, and tells the reader why independence from England was the chosen course of action. While this might be informative for the people living in the colonies, the intended audience is the rest of the world.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The U.S. Constitution is a much different document. Written to delineate the powers and roles of the new government, it starts out with “We the People” and speaks of “ourselves and our Posterity.” Although it might be informative for the rest of the world, the intended audience is the populace of the United States.
The intended audience matters, and changes how we talk about a given subject.
The question was raised: Did Jesus change or get rid of the Law of Moses?
Are Christians free from following all 613 of its commandments?
Doesn’t Jesus clearly command obedience of the Law?
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 NASB)
First, consider the audience and the timing here. Jesus is speaking to a crowd of Jews who have been taught the Law all their lives. He is talking to people who live under the authority of the Law. And He is talking prior to finishing the work He came to do–fulfilling the Law.
This is very different from Paul addressing Gentiles and Jewish believers after the cross and the resurrection of Christ. Just like the Declaration and the Constitution are written to address different groups of people for very different reasons, Jesus and Paul are addressing people in very different conditions.
Early on in His most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to make it very clear that the Law is meant for us to follow. It has a purpose, and not a single bit of that Law is going away until the purpose is accomplished.
But then Jesus goes on to explain what that means. He begins a series of statements in this formula:
“You’ve heard that it is written X, but I say to you Y.”
And Y is always more stringent than X. And Y is always an internal issue of the heart, not just an external action.
“Do not commit murder” becomes do not be angry or hate your brother because that will send you to hell.
“Do not commit adultery” becomes do not lust, because lust will send you to hell.
“A certificate of divorce makes divorce ok” changes so that it’s only acceptable if a spouse commits adultery–not just for any reason, like tradition had taught.
“Make no false vows, and fulfill your oaths to the Lord” becomes “don’t make oaths; tell the truth all the time.”
The “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” standard of justice and repayment becomes “accept harm and allow yourself to be wronged; be generous.”
“Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” changes to “love your enemy.”
And at the end of this, Jesus tells them, “Be perfect as your Father is perfect.”
It’s a tall order. It’s impossible, in fact.
And that’s the point.
Several times, we see Jesus ignoring the mandate of the Law and instead preaching something different.
For example, He encounters a woman in John 4 and engages in a religious discussion. That in itself is a violation of social norms, and given the sort of woman she is, she is unclean under the Law.
She is a Samaritan, and they believe that a particular mountain is the “right” place of worship instead of the Temple in Jerusalem. Note that the Temple is a necessary location for the Jews, as many of the mandated sacrifices and ceremonies in the Law can only be conducted by having either the Temple or the Tabernacle available.
It’s the center of worship under the Law.
And Jesus doesn’t seem to care.
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”
Not worshiping in Jerusalem at the Temple means not fulfilling the Law. Yet that’s what Jesus says here.
Elsewhere, a “sinful” woman comes to Jesus weeping. She washes His feet with tears and dries them with her hair. The religious leaders present judge Him for allowing an unclean woman to touch Him in such an unacceptable manner. And He praises her act of worship instead.
Later, in Matthew 12, Jesus’ disciples are strolling along behind him on the Sabbath day of rest, and they decide to grab some grain to eat as they walk. The religious leaders jump on this as a violation of God’s Law, and Jesus confronts them about the purpose of the Sabbath. “Was the Sabbath made for man, or man for the Sabbath?” He asks. He also points out violations of the Law in the Old Testament and shows that God was less concerned about the rule and more concerned about the heart.
Immediately after this, He finds a man who has a deformed hand, and He pushes the issue again. “It’s unlawful to work on the Sabbath,” the Pharisees would say. And yet Jesus heals the man, in defiance of the religious anger of the Pharisees.
Jesus went about preaching that His followers should eat His flesh and drink His blood in John 6. Of course, most Protestants call this symbolic, and Catholics believe it is literal, and this leads to debate about the Eucharist. But that’s beside the point of this discussion. The key point right now is to note that cannibalism is portrayed in the Law as a horrible barbarism, a potential consequence of disobedience.
The story at the beginning of John 8 is not found in the earliest New Testament manuscripts available, but it matches up with the compassion and grace Jesus becomes known for. When a woman is caught in the act of adultery, the religious leaders know that the penalty under the Law is death. But they hope to trap Jesus, and so they ask, “What do you think we should do?”
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
In spite of what the Law clearly stipulated, Jesus chose to focus on forgiveness and mercy.
He did not strictly follow the Law, so it’s hard to believe that His intention was to teach that we should strictly follow the Law.
We see a few places where He distills the message of the Law and the Prophets into vague but powerful standards:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Matthew 7:12)
Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:36-40)
He says that these “fulfill the Law and Prophets.”
That’s a lot different than a list of 613 rules.
And Jesus’ disciples bear witness to this lack of emphasis on the Law. In Acts 10 and 11, we see the Apostle Peter experiencing a vision from God, in which Peter is told that all manner of creatures are acceptable as food. Peter counters, “No, I’ve never eaten anything unclean.” In other words, I haven’t violated the Law.
And he is told, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.”
Shortly after that, Peter finds himself sharing the message of Jesus with a bunch of Gentiles–pretty much all those NOT-Jews in the world. And not long after that, Paul goes out preaching to the Gentiles throughout the known world.
After Paul’s first missionary journey, a dispute comes up in the early church about just how much of the Law should the Gentiles follow:
Acts 15:5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
The apostles go off to discuss this. Keep in mind that this is the collection of guys who walked with Jesus and learned directly from Him for three years. One might hope that they would know pretty well what Jesus meant by some of His comments about the Law.
Peter concludes that enforcing the Law of Moses on the Gentiles is a mistake:
10 Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Discussion continues, and instead of 613 rules, the apostles come up with a few essentials to pass on to the Gentile believers:
28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; [p]if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
The guys who lived night-and-day with Jesus somehow got the point that Jesus was not requiring absolute obedience to every stipulation of the Law of Moses. It’s hard to believe that we have a better insight into what Jesus taught than they had.
Not surprisingly, Paul agrees that the focus needs to be taken off of external actions like circumcision and obedience to the Law.
6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love… 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:6, 14 NASB)
10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “ Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” 12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “ He who practices them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “ Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Just as the Constitution lays out powers and responsibilities of government, the Law of Moses lays out a list of commands and expectations placed upon God’s people, the Jews. Jesus naturally referred to this often while addressing the Jews who were under that system.
And just as the Declaration of Independence served to point out to the world everything that was wrong with England’s governance over the colonies, Paul’s epistles go into great detail explaining the role of the Law- especially everything the Law couldn’t do – in order to express our liberty and freedom from the Law as a result of all Christ accomplished.
The two documents in American history do not contradict each other; they just serve different purposes. Likewise, the two perspectives presented by Jesus and Paul are complementary even if they appear quite different at a glance.
Peanut butter is different from jelly, too. But no one complains.
You put them together, make a sandwich, and are satisfied.
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “ The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe. (Matt 23:1-3 NASB)
One of the challenges of military life is that you must follow those in positions of authority over you, whether they are great leaders, horrible tyrants, or complete incompetents.
Naturally, following a good leader is easy.
Less so in dealing with the power-hungry or the clueless imbeciles.
For the Air Force, the rank of Chief Master Sergeant is a good example of this (and I expect the same is true in other service branches).
A “Chief” usually earns that rank through years of dedication, service, and commitment not just to the Air Force but to the people under the Chief’s command. Usually, a Chief Master Sergeant has earned a great deal of honor; even if you don’t get along with the individual on a personal level, you can respect what they have achieved to reach that rank.
But there are a few who are so incompetent, abrasive, or self-serving that use of the term “Chief” pays disrespect to all those others who have earned that position. For these select few, many enlisted simply refer to their pay grade. “I work for E-9 So-and-so, and I can’t wait to get out of the service.”
Still, E-9 So-and-so wears the rank insignia of Chief Master Sergeant on his or her sleeve, and so the rest of us have to follow the lawful orders we’re given, regardless of how ridiculous they seem. All they tell you, do and observe.
Christians often point to various Bible verses as an explanation for why we hold particular moral stances. Our opponents (rightly) wonder why we might quote one verse and say it applies, then declare that another verse is “not for today.”
A perfect example of this is the question of the Bible’s stance on homosexuality. Some Christians quote Leviticus or other passages to say that homosexuality is a sin. People on the other side of that debate then look at everything else that Leviticus instructs its audience to follow, and rightly ask why in the world we ignore so many other commandments.
What commandments apply?
What commandments don’t?
What commandments are Christians supposed to follow?
(Note that “commandments” does not refer to a nice list of ten of them. It refers to the whole Law of Moses, the 613 rules given to Israel to follow in the first five books of the Bible.)
Maybe Jesus has something to say about this. The religion is named after His title as “the Anointed One,” so we probably should pay attention to Him.
17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matt 5:17-20 NASB
This passage, the quoted passage from Matthew 23 above, and several others raise a series of compelling questions for modern Christianity.
First and foremost, does the Law of Moses apply to Christians today? Are we expected to follow all those commandments? This overarching question leads to others, which are the point of this series.
Did Jesus tell us to keep all of the Law? Did His teaching and ministry do nothing to change it?
We often look at Paul’s epistles and the other books of the New Testament to justify our position on this matter, so another question is raised:
Does Paul’s “gospel” conflict with what Jesus taught? Is Paul mistaken?
And some ask, aren’t we simply picking and choosing what parts of the Bible we want to follow and ignoring the parts we don’t?
Doesn’t that make us terrible Christians who don’t even follow the faith we claim? Doesn’t that failure to obey the commandments mean we’re condemned to the same hell and damnation we preach?
Answering may take a while, but these questions do deserve answers.
Because if the answers are “yes,” then Christians really need to course-correct our faith and shut our mouths until we get our story straight.
So… on the one side we have Jesus, ostensibly the Messiah, the promised Savior of the world, the Son of God revealed to mankind. And He says:
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.
On the other side we have Paul, one of those oft-maligned Pharisees, a shining star among the religious leaders of his day, a learned teacher of the Law of Moses and an unlikely follower of Jesus Christ. And Paul says:
But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.