Discerning right and wrong: Jesus and the Old Testament
One of my favorite memories from college was standing the dorm hallways discussing life's great and grand ideas: politics, religion, and (of course) sports. One of the questions that always seemed to arise when people would ask me about my beliefs was how I could believe in absolute right and wrong when there were so many concepts of right and wrong in the first place. Some would add, "even in the Bible."
Though I would try valiantly, I often fell far short of "be[ing] ready to make [my] defense" to those who would "demand" "an account of the Hope that is in me" (1 Peter 3:15). Indeed, though it is parenthetical for the purposes of the present post, some of my friends from those halcyon days could give more than a few anecdotes about my inability to adequately express myself.
More to the point, there are plenty of pastors in pulpits today who are ready to make just such a defense, and in doing so, encourage believers while challenging those who don't yet call Christ Lord. One of those pastors is the Rev. Dr. John W. Yates II, rector of The Falls Church (Anglican) in Falls Church, Va. On June 17, 2007, the Rev. Dr. Yates preached a sermon called "Discerning right and wrong" as a part of his series on Jesus and the Old Testament.
It's a fairly long read, but it's extremely encouraging, informative, and challenging. To make it a little more manageable in blog format, I've added some headings into the text.
I invite you to print out a version of it from my blog; or, if you prefer, The Falls Church website has made this PDF file version available (perfect for printing). Open your mind and your heart, and hear God speak through his servant.
by the Rev. Dr. John W. Yates II
Rector, The Falls Church, Falls Church, Va.
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2007
One of the mothers in our church sent me an email not too long ago and asked me a question. She said that she had been talking to her college-age son, and he was questioning why it is that in the church we seem to pay particular attention to certain rules of behavior in the Bible and disregard others. Particularly in the Old Testament, why do we lift out some Old Testament guidelines and say we have to be obedient to these, and yet there are others we ignore. Well, that’s a good question. And it is a question that has come to me many, many times, especially in this current time of disagreement in the church around the world. I want to try to respond to that this morning by telling you a story.
Imagine two young girls growing up in a southern town: best friends, same age, same social set. Both sets of parents were self-identified as Christians, conservative in their morals, liberal in their politics. Both sets of parents were connected with churches. One was deeply involved in church; the other were Christmas and Easter folks.
Now these girls were disciplined, good young women. They finished high school. They went their separate ways to college. They both embraced college with enthusiasm. The one with parents deeply involved in church met some appealing, dedicated, born-again college students, and in time she made a decision to give her life to Christ. Her southern grandmother rejoiced and shared with the girl that she had long prayed for this, though her parents were taken a bit aback. Hadn’t she already known God?
The other young woman didn’t have a praying grandmother, and her parents weren’t particularly interested in her faith. She connected with a wilder bunch in college, espousing drugs and sexual expression, which she rejected initially but had no real answers as to why there was anything wrong with this lifestyle. Her parents had lived respectable lives mostly because that was the accepted way in a southern town, but the girl had no intellectual or spiritual moral framework for decision-making particularly, and so she drifted. Eventually she moved in with a man, lived with him for years. Education and environment became her passion. After several years they eventually married and they had a child who they raised without much Christian input. They raised her to make her own moral decisions as best she knew. The child grew up and she now works in the area of public policy.
The first young woman deepened in her faith, she read widely, became a thoughtful, articulate Christian whose children learned through the model and training of the parents to love the Lord. Deep involvement in a good church helped them grow.
Now they too are adults, and they’re involved in education, law, business, and politics. It remains to be seen how their children—the next generation—will fare. These two women remained friends, but their worlds were farther and farther apart, not just because they lived in different regions but because they have dramatically opposing world views. The first believes that we’re created to love and trust and serve the Lord. The second rejects this. The one believes that human beings were created to be theonomous, subject to the law of God. The other believes that human beings are autonomous, free to be a law unto themselves, to live as one wants. Two very similar young women, two very different pathways.
It’s been said, looking back over the last century, that a hundred years ago people knew what was right and what was wrong, and people knew why. People like my grandparents. Then in my parents’ generation, all those things were still known to be right and wrong, but many people were no longer exactly sure why. In my generation, people grew up believing things were still right and wrong, but in the 60s began to radically disagree with their parents about just what was right and what was wrong.
Now, people say you can’t really say what’s right or wrong. What’s right for you may not be right for me. There are very few absolutes now, and parents are having a tough time sorting this out with their kids as they grow up. ...
AUTONOMY & THEONOMY
We live in a time where the air the young people breathe is filled with the spirit of autonomy. There’s a great hesitation among young adults today to say that such and such behavior is wrong for someone else if the someone else doesn’t think it’s wrong. Our culture is becoming more and more hesitant to draw moral boundaries.
Even young people who follow Christ are hesitant to draw moral conclusions about others because they’ve grown up in a society that says do you own thing, find your own way, question authority. And so the college student who challenged his mom, the college students who challenge their parents’ interpretation of biblical teaching about sexual morality now, it’s not unusual.
And, Christians who just quote the Bible in support of this or that moral position are often accused of either insensitivity or backwardness or of selecting out those passages that fit their own predilections and ignoring others. That’s the setting that we’re living in today.
Now, the question is, how do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? And another question is how do we make wise moral decisions? Well, we’re here at Church because we follow Christ. We believe he’s the Son of God who came among us to reveal God, to teach God to us, to teach us the way of God. And so we follow Christ to know right and wrong. We believe he’s entrusted to us the scriptures as a reliable, true, authoritative guide in right thinking and right living.
Jesus told us to trust and to heed the Old Testament, and he established the New Testament through the apostles who he promised to guide into the truth as they proclaimed the word. And so the church has always believed what the apostles wrote in 2 Timothy 3. You know the words: "All scripture is inspired or breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God [or the woman] may be competent, equipped for every good work."
The fundamental reason why the Anglican Communion, and other churches and communions as well, is being pulled apart is that there’s no longer agreement as to what scriptural authority means. Church people are now accepting and approving ideas and behaviors that the church has consistently seen over the centuries as contrary to biblical teaching: the deity of Christ, the atoning death of Christ, the historical reliability of the resurrection, our responsibility to proclaim Christ to all people, and of course certain standards of moral behavior. All this and more is being questioned and even discouraged by many church people, and so we’re divided over these things, painfully divided.
How do we read our Bible to discern what is right and what is wrong? We’re about to enter into a series of talks on Sundays in the summer on the Ten Commandments -— God’s moral foundation for all civilization -— because we forget how basic and how helpful the Ten Commandments are and what they teach us. They never go out of date. We’ll try to pitch this in a way that the kids will appreciate it as well as adults.
But before we get to that today, I want to help you think clearly about how we view the Bible as a whole in its moral teaching.
It’s true -— as some people accuse us -- that we do accept some passages of Leviticus, for instance, as still binding, and others we reject. Why do we do that? Are we just subjective -— that’s what we’re accused of -— or is there more to it?
Let me remind you first of four simple truths about living the way God desires us to live, summarized in four names, four men who taught us how to live a life in harmony with God: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul (and the other apostles).
First, Abraham. We learned through Abraham that God prizes most of all what? What quality? Faith. The man who trusts, the woman who trusts and lives in humble dependence upon the one true God may be considered by God a good person. In Genesis 15:6 is that foundational verse in the Old Testament. “Abraham believed God, and God credited it to Abraham as righteousness.” He became the father of the Jewish people, and of course Islam looks to him as well. So faith in God comes first. It’s not morality that leads us to God. It’s faith in him.
Second, Moses. He walked in the footsteps of Abraham. God gave ten words to Israel through Moses, and this formed the essential moral, spiritual core of the covenant between God and Israel. The first four deal with our relationship with God, the last six deal with our relationship with one another. The Ten Commandments. Only the Decalogue is inscribed in stone by the finger of God. But Moses also established a thorough system of laws for the Jewish people, for the Jewish nation regarding everything from diet to their civil life together, their religious worship life.
Moses developed with God’s guidance detailed laws and punishments for when those laws were not obeyed. And then later on, God raised up the prophets who called people to obedience and faith in God. And they explained to the people how it’s the character of God that guides us in shaping our own moral characters, to be people of integrity and justice and mercy. And the prophets also told us, you remember, that a new age was coming when a Messiah would come, and he would usher in a whole new way of living with God—life in the Spirit when God’s laws would be written on our hearts and it would be our delight to walk in God’s way. Islam honors Moses and the prophets as well.
Next came Jesus, God’s only unique son who summarized all the Old Testament law in the great two commandments: to love God; to love your neighbor. He explained and he deepened the meaning of the Old Testament law, and he reapplied it in a new age: life in “the kingdom of God” where the Savior reigns as our king. Now Jesus took issue with many of the Jewish traditions that had become binding upon the people, and he explained that some of Israel’s laws, which Moses had established, were temporary and would no longer apply in the new kingdom that he was ushering in.
So, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and finally the apostle Paul and the other apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they worked in the young church, they worked out what it meant to live in the Spirit under the moral guidance of God and how Gentiles—non-Jews—were to live as a part of God’s family. The moral laws didn’t change, but Jesus had taught them that the political laws of Israel—the laws about ceremonial purity and diet and sacrifice—had been temporary, preparation for life in the Holy Spirit.
So the church, led by the Holy Spirit, realized that circumcision, kosher food, dress styles, certain hygienic requirements need not be maintained, but the moral laws did. A person couldn’t gain a right relationship with God by keeping God’s laws. He could only come to God in faith trusting in Christ as his Savior.
And so, for instance, a few years down the road, around 45-50 AD when the apostles were seeing all sorts of non-Jews come into the Church -— Greeks, Romans -— in places like Antioch and elsewhere, they had to get together and decide which of the Old Testament laws applied. You can read all about it in Acts 15, where it says that they decided that basically these new non-Jewish believers mustn’t have any contact with idols and idolatry and they must be careful to maintain sexual purity. The other Jewish requirements were dropped.
During the days of the apostles, the New Testament was completed and then the church expanded tremendously for centuries, but one of the biggest problems was that the Christians didn’t have their own copies of the word of God. They didn’t have Bibles to read. Their only source of authority was the church, which as time went by became too dependent upon tradition and closed in upon itself.
I’ve often thought how tragic it is that Mohammed, for instance, did not effectively encounter vital, mature, biblical Christian faith in his lifetime. He might never have established Islam. He might have become a Christian leader instead. Think how that would have changed history. He honored Christ as a prophet, but he really didn’t understand Christ as Savior and Lord.
So, time went by and eventually two things happened. Around the 14th or the 15th century, we know that the church “rediscovered” the Bible and translated it into the common, everyday language of the people. And then the printing press enabled people to read the Bible for themselves, to have their own copy of the Bible. Soon the Reformers established exciting new forms of church, especially in Europe, and they had to help Christians understand how to read the Bible.
OLD & NEW
Now back to the question of how to understand the Bible in matters of right and wrong. In England, for instance, the Reformers prepared an outline of the Christian faith. It’s called the Thirty-Nine Articles, and it’s found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer.
Article Seven explained the Reformers' understanding of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament in moral decision-making. Here’s what it says. It says, "The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and the New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ as the only mediator between God and man, being both God and man. . . . Although the law, given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet not withstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from obedience of the Commandments which are called moral."
In other words, we don’t throw the Old Testament out. We love it. We read it in light of the New Testament. So, clear, eternal, foundational moral principles that under gird the universe began in the Old Testament. Principles like truth, faithfulness, justice, family, mercy, honoring God first.
Remember those two women I told you about a few minutes ago? Today, as I said, their children are grown and are moving into influential decision-making positions. But they’re approaching matters of ethics in very different ways.
The one who grew up in the secular home rejects any sort of biblical approach to morality, but the others who were raised in a Christian home represent many of us here today. We’re trying to understand how to make moral decisions and help our children make choices that will be pleasing to God and honoring of Christ. And sometimes, even for us, the Bible seems confusing. So, many approach it differently. It’s not easy to make wise, moral choices. There are so many competing world views, and I want to help you with that.
Therefore, as I said, we’re going to take a thoughtful, unhurried look at the moral core of the Bible, the Ten Commandments. We’re going to see how the tender loving heart of God has provided us these Commandments and why we’re grateful to him for doing that in his love and wisdom. But before we begin that next week, there’s a principle I want to be sure that you have a hold of that will help you understand how to interpret the Bible in matters of moral decision-making.
Frankly, I’m not sure many Christians really get this. If you become a serious student of the Bible, you will grapple with problems of how to interpret the New Testament in relationship with the Old Testament. That principle is addressed by Jesus in many, many places and particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount —- Matthew 5-7 or Luke 6 -— is a radical statement by Jesus of the life that he calls us to, the kind of attitudes that we’re to have, and the way we’re to act in relationship with others.
SERMON ON THE MOUNT
The first time I read the Sermon on the Mount as an adult -— I was about 20, and I read it with adult eyes and with a listening heart for the first time -— the Sermon on the Mount absolutely blew me away. It thrilled me and frightened me at the same time because in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to the highest possible moral standards. He gives examples of how people in his day had misinterpreted or misunderstood or even replaced Old Testament moral law with traditions. He calls us back to see what God really intended, and he makes it clear that he’s our king and he’s calling us to the highest standards in every area of life.
I want to look just at one statement in the Sermon on the Mount before we close, because it helps us see how Jesus made his own moral decisions and how he viewed the Old Testament even while he was establishing the New.
I want us to read these few verses together, Matthew 5:17-20: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Jesus is our king, he’s our master. How did he view the moral laws of the Old Testament? He had been immersed in the Old Testament since his childhood. It was the story of God, the story of his people. In the Old Testament, Jesus saw God’s truth revealed. In the Old Testament, he found his own guidance for his own life, for his ministry, for his mission, for the message the God had called him to as our Messiah. He loved the Old Testament. He submitted to the Old Testament personally, but people accused him of ignoring it or even disobeying parts of it. Now, look. He says here he was not abolishing the Old Testament. He was not annulling it—not anything in the Old Testament. No, he said he had come to “fulfill” the Old Testament. “The law and the prophets.” That’s a phrase for the Old Testament. He said he came to fulfill it. What did he mean by that?
First, by fulfilling the prophets, he meant that in his life, death, and resurrection he fulfilled the great statements -— the prophesies -— that had been made about him in the Old Testament. Then, two, by fulfilling the law, he meant that he kept the Old Testament law fully himself. No one else had, fully, perfectly. Three, by fulfilling the law, he meant also that he satisfied all the demands of the law on our behalf for the sake of those who would believe in him. He kept the laws perfectly himself and then died on a cross in place of those who could not keep God’s laws so, therefore, through him we could meet the standards of God. Four, he meant that he was filling in, filling out the fuller meaning of the law. He was amplifying the Old Testament. By the way he lived and taught us, he demonstrated the way God really calls us to live, what it really looks like to be a son and daughter of God.
And then finally, by fulfilling the law, he meant that the Old Covenant had come to an end. It was over, and now he was establishing a New Covenant, a new kingdom on earth. And that he was offering forgiveness of sins, new life, grace, and acceptance to all people, not just to Israel. In the New Covenant, we wouldn’t be required any longer to keep the particular laws of the Jewish nation dealing with diet and temple worship, ceremonial purity, sacrifice, and Jewish civil law.
So, God’s moral laws are eternal, and Jesus simply raised the standard in interpreting what God demands of us. For instance, in verse 43 of Matthew 5, he says, “Now you have heard that it was said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but look, I’m saying to you, love your enemies.” He’s just ramping up our whole understanding of what it means to obey God. But at the same time he says very clearly that keeping God’s laws is not how we enter God’s family.
We become God’s children by faith in him, repentance and beginning to live in the strength of the Holy Spirit. And we live out this new life seeking his guidance and following the scriptures’ moral teaching.
RIGHT & WRONG
We really need to know how God wants us to decide right and wrong in the moral choices we must make in our life, and I just want to finish by summing up how we go about doing that. It’s not complicated, but it’s not easy. You will have to make many moral choices in your life. You already have. When you make a difficult ethical decision, whether it deals with relationships with others, or money, or matters of fairness, or your job, or public policy, or whatever here that confronts you, here’s what you do. When you have to make a moral decision, you obey Christ. It’s as simple as that. You just obey Christ. And if you aren’t willing to do that, don’t call yourself a Christian.
Some of you may say, "Yes, I will obey Christ, but how do I know the mind of Christ?" It’s the process of a life time. You study the scriptures; you study the Bible to understand God’s unchanging moral demands. You learn how Christ lived out those moral demands and how he taught them and how his apostles taught and applied these things in the young church. And then you make your decisions based upon what the Lord approves, and you work against those things that he disapproves.
If you want everyone to love you, don’t follow Christ. If you want to go along with whatever the popular mood of the day is, don’t follow Christ. But if you want to live a truly good life and you want to have an impact for good in this world, then follow Christ. You’ll fail. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll be frustrated. You won’t get it right all the time, and you’ll keep coming back to God on your knees asking his forgiveness.
But every time we fail, we learn and we grow. And as time goes by you find life with Christ. He’s our gracious Lord. He’ll take you by the hand. He will truly show you the way to go.
Lord God, we thank you that you love us enough to care how we live our lives. We thank you that you’ve given us unchanging eternal moral laws. We thank you that one has gone before us who has met your standards, and that by following him in faith we receive his righteousness. We pray that you will help us to deepen and mature in our understanding of what things you love. We pray these things in the name of Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
LISTENING TO: Office bustling