Your teenage daughter comes to you one afternoon with fear and trembling. She is only seventeen years old—not quite an adult—making decisions about her future, including college. All of that comes to a screeching halt when she tells you she is pregnant. You have a choice to make: how will you respond? You do not want to condone the activity that led her to this place. Yet, you do not want to say or do anything that will make matters worse. How will you respond? Or, better yet, when you face this decision, where do you turn for guidance?
A new law is passed by the federal government. This new law is designed to help the poorest members of the nation and of your community. The problem is that it will cost a lot of money, and it may cost you some money. This new law is shrouded in a lot of controversy. Some are adamantly for it. Others are adamantly against it. Rallies and petitions have been planned and created for both sides. You’ve been invited to help—by both sides. It is a difficult decision. You empathize with both sides. You understand the difficulties associated with both options. You have a choice to make: How will you respond? Or, better yet, when you face this decision, where do you turn for guidance?
Hypothetically speaking, the nation is trying to decide how to respond to an international refugee crisis. Over one million Syrian refugees are fleeing their country because of the violence. They are poor; they are homeless; many of them are Muslim. Some advocate opening the doors of America to allow these people a place to live. Others fear that opening up our borders to people coming from these specific regions of the world would lead to terrorist attacks. Both sides make convincing arguments. Both sides are passionate. You have a choice to make: How will you respond? Or, better yet when you face this decision, where do you turn for guidance?
We are tempted, aren’t we, to say that we turn to God or we turn to Scripture for guidance when we have choices like these. But do we, really? Even though we want to be the kinds of people who consult the Word of God for Truth in matters like these, is that really the first place we go?
- Do we not instead consult our friends?
- Our family?
- Our favorite politician?
- Our favorite news station?
- Our own past experiences?
Many Christians reflect their cultural and ideological captivity by failing to consider distinctive Christian sources of authority or by proving unable to reflect on either those or general sources of authority with eyes able to see and ears able to hear. Many carry the name Christian and yet habitually fail to live their lives within the moral horizon actually established by Christian faith." (Glen Stassen & David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics)Do you understand what they are saying? Many of us in a room like this say we go to God first. We may even believe we go to God first in our discernment processes. But in actuality, many of us (in practice) do not.
Most of the time, we do not intend to leave God out. Consider the case of the German Christians of the mid-twentieth century. As it became more and more clear what was happening under the Nazi regime, German Christians had to decide how to respond.
- “Should we support the state?”
- “Should we revolt?”
- “Should we just keep quiet?”
- “Should we hide Jews in our home?”
- “Should we join efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler?”
The reason I bring this up: In many ways, those Christians in Germany were a lot like us. They were not necessarily bad people. Many of them went to church every time the doors were open. They read the Bible to their children. But when they came face to face with those very important moral choices, many of them (like us) failed to fix their eyes on Jesus.
And speaking of fixing our eyes on Jesus … that is what this series is all about!
If we are serious about following Jesus, we need to ask these questions in light of His life. So, when faced with difficult moral choices, where did Jesus go in His process of discernment? Almost every single time, when Jesus was asked a tough question about life, He went to Scripture for His answer. Which is really ironic, because He was often accused of ignoring the Law. Listen to what Jesus said about this in His Sermon on the Mount.
READ MATTHEW 5:17–20 CEB
For Jesus, the Bible served as the premier source of authority. So, why is it that He was accused of ignoring Scripture by so many of His contemporaries? Over and over again, the Pharisees and the scribes accused Jesus of breaking the Law or ignoring the Law. Listen, this is important to understand. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were not malicious people. I know our movies try to fit them into that mold. They didn’t walk around with scowls on their faces. They didn’t intentionally disobey God. Most of them probably thought they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do. They had, many of them, dedicated their lives to studying the Bible!
This brings us an important truth we need to be aware of. It is possible to go to Scripture to make your decisions and still completely miss the point. It is possible that someone’s Bible could be worn out, pages smeared, highlighted and underlined, binding coming apart, because they spend so much time in the Bible. It’s possible for someone like that to still completely miss the point. This is what made Jesus so “problematic” for the religious people of His day. They shared His love for Scripture. Do you understand that? The Pharisees loved the Word of God! But they interpreted Scripture much differently than Jesus did.
It is possible to believe Scripture is authoritative and at the same time to use Scripture in inappropriate ways. The German Christians—many of them—believed they were following the Bible when they supported the Nazis. Some of them actually used Scripture to prove that God was punishing the Jews for killing Jesus! They were Bible people! The defenders of American slavery used the Bible to support their positions. The Christian crusaders in the 10th century used the Bible to justify going to war against Muslims. Going to the Bible to make our decisions is important, but we need to understand that how we interpret the Bible is just as important!
Just like the religious leaders of His day, Jesus loved Scripture. They both went to the Bible to make their decisions. They both believed the Word of God was the first (and sometimes the last) place to go in their discernment processes. What got Jesus in trouble was the way He interpreted the Bible. Now, if we are going to fix our eyes on Jesus, if we are going to make every effort to be more like Him, if we want to experience the deliverance offered to us in the new kind of Kingdom Jesus talked about, we need to know how Jesus read and understood the Bible.
The easiest way to describe the way Jesus read the Bible is to say it this way: Jesus read the Bible like the prophets read the Bible. And that was radically different than the way the people of His generation were reading the Bible.
By the time Jesus lived, people read Scripture purely as “law,” as we might understand law. Scripture was a long list of dos and don’ts. People read the Bible with a focus on ritual purity. They wanted to know what they had to do to worship right. What did they need to do to stay ritually clean? They wanted to stay in God’s good graces, and they believed Scripture was the key to unlocking that mystery.
We could also say, the people of Jesus’ day were afraid of God. They viewed God as a Deity that was all about judgment. They were unholy; God was holy. If they followed Scripture to the letter, they would purify themselves and be able to be in God’s presence.
So, the passage I just read from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount could lead you to believe that Jesus meant for the people to be even more legalistic!
I didn’t come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it.So, what does this mean? Does this mean we need to be even more stringent in our following—even more than the Pharisees? No, it meant that the Pharisees and Scribes were interpreting Scripture wrongly. Whereas they put the emphasis on ritual purity and staying clean, Jesus put the emphasis on people. Righteousness for Jesus did not consist of worshiping correctly or in staying clean. Righteousness, for Jesus, consisted of doing deeds of love, mercy, and justice. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 22 that loving God and neighbor is more important than whole burnt offerings. In our language, that means loving God and neighbor is more important than anything else! Jesus’ way of reading Scripture was similar to the prophet Amos:
I tell you not one letter or even the smallest pen stroke will be erased from the law.
Your righteousness needs to surpass the Pharisees and legal experts.
READ AMOS 5:21–24 The Message
God loves this world, and from the very beginning God has been trying to bless this world. Scripture is God’s gift to this world. It shows us the character and nature of God. It reveals to us the story of God’s love for this world! Out of love, God rescued His people from slavery in Egypt. Out of love, God gave His people, Israel, the Law—to show them a better way to live. Out of love, God sent the prophets to focus the people once again on justice and mercy and peace. And no matter how many times God attempts to redirect His people back to love, to mercy, to grace, we still focus on the rules and the laws, and every time we do that, we miss the point entirely!
There are many people in the world who claim to be people of the Bible. The Pharisees were people of the Bible. Church, the way we interpret the Bible matters. It changes everything! Over the next several weeks, throughout this Sermon, we are going to be paying close attention to how Jesus interpreted the Bible. That is important for us. In fact, fewer things are more important! If we are going to be people like Jesus, we need to read like He read. We need to use Scripture like He used Scripture.