2nd in the Series: “Living with the Hard Texts of Scripture”
2nd Corinthians 3:1-18
We are talking about the Hard Texts of Scripture. My purpose is not to tear down Scripture, but to establish the Moravian position regarding its proper relationship to Jesus Christ, the Word of God Made Flesh. I do this so you will be able to better explain the hard texts of scripture, as a part of your witness to your friends.
Last week we contrasted “weakness,” in Moses and Jesus and his followers, especially in the person and work of St. Paul. We saw that the text from Leviticus 21:16-24 was both pre-Christ and sub-Christ. Moses thought that a physical weakness or blemish disqualified a man from service at the altar. St. Paul understood that “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2nd Corinthians 12:7-10) Let me give you another example of a hard text that does not measure up to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. In Deuteronomy 23:2 we read:
“No bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”
This is another of those texts that is both pre-Christ and sub-Christ. Can you imagine Jesus Christ saying:
“Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, except those of you born out of wedlock, or those of you who happen to be the child, or grandchild, or great grandchild, or great-great great great great great great, etc. grandchild of one born our of wedlock, and I will give you rest.”
I will say it again. This text is pre-Christ and sub-Christ. Indeed, we might even say that is is sub-Ezekiel, for in Ezekiel 18:20 we read that “…the son shall not suffer for the sin of the father.”
Regardless of what some Radio preachers and popular authors might say, the Bible itself clearly teaches that God’s Revelation is progressive, and that Jesus Christ is the apex of that revelation, and that every text of scripture must ultimately measure up to Him.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus dealt with some of the hard texts of scripture directly.
In John 8:3-11 the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery to him saying, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” The author of the 4th Gospel writes that they said this to test Jesus, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up (Jesus looked-up to her not down upon her!) and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Jesus deals with some of the hard texts of scripture directly, and he deals with some of the hard texts of scripture indirectly. Thus in Matthew 7:12 he says:
12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
And in Matthew 22:36-40 Jesus responds to the question of a Pharisee about which is the great commandment of the Law.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Scholars tell us that Jesus used the phrase, “the Law and the Prophets,” to refer not just to the Law of Moses, and the books of the Major and Minor Prophets, but to the whole Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Thus Jesus says that everything in the Hebrew Bible is based upon just two commandments: The commandment to Love God, and the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I think it pretty clear that he interprets all the hard texts of the scripture—-including those he set aside, in light of these two powerful commandments, just as we interpret the hard texts of scripture in light of him.
Because of Jesus Christ, we see all of scripture in a different light. This is what St. Paul was getting at the text before us this morning. He says that Moses was a part of what he calls “the dispensation of death” and “the dispensation of condemnation.” Paul speaks of the dispensation of the Law in negative terms for, as he says in Romans 3:20 “no human being will be justified by works of the Law.” The Law can condemn us—-it makes us aware of sin, but the Law cannot forgive us our sins and give us life. Only Jesus can do that. Still, the dispensation of the Law had a certain glory. Paul says that when Moses went before God, his face shone with the glory of God, until it faded away. Paul says, and admittedly he is reading much out of or into the text of Exodus 34, that in order to keep the people from seeing his fading splendor Moses put on a veil. Paul says that this same veil still lies over the minds of the Jewish people when they read the Law. Only when someone comes to Christ is the veil taken away. Because the Spirit of Christ takes the veil away, and because with unveiled faces we are beholding the glory of the LORD in the face of Christ Jesus, we read scripture very differently than our Jewish brothers and sisters.
There are many examples of this. In Isaiah 53 we read:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief… he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed…as a lamb led to the slaughter, or a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth, in his humiliation justice was denied him… (selections)
A Jew reads that text and he applies it to the prophet, or perhaps to the whole nation of Israel, as did Rabbi Abraham Henschel. Certainly these two truths were a part of its original meaning. Never the less, looking back through the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ, a Christian reads this text and knows immediately that it is a perfect description of Jesus Christ and what he did for us on his cross. In Acts 8 the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading from Isaiah 53 when the Holy Spirit urges Philip to join him in his chariot. The Ethiopian asked, “Pray sir, about whom does the prophet speak, about himself or another.” And the text declares that “beginning with this scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus Christ.”
Let me give you a few other examples of things that the New Testament says have changed for us because we know Jesus Christ.
I will start with an easy example, one that most of you give thanks for at least several times each week: The Dietary Laws. In Acts 10:12-16 Peter has a vision in which a sheet is let down by its four corners upon the earth, and in it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And a voice came to him saying, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and at last Peter knew that the dietary laws of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament no longer apply to us. Several weeks ago I ate a sandwich at Calabash that Moses called “an abomination before the LORD.” I did not loose any sleep over it; indeed I gained a little. I am allergic to seafood, and took two Benadryl tablets for safety’s sake, and very near slept the afternoon away!
Let me give you a little harder example: The commandments and ordinances of the Law. Moses used the law of commandments and ordinances to make Israel stand out from the nations that surrounded her. Jews wore odd clothes, and Jewish men did not “round the corners of their head,” so that they had dreadlocks dangling down and framing their faces; and they ate only special foods, specially prepared, and one day a week they refused to do work, or anything that resembled work, even when a little work would have made their lives much easier. .These “ commandments and ordinances” of the Law were a real hardship on the people of Israel, but they made the people of Israel powerful witnesses. The peoples who surrounded Israel may not have believed in the Lord God of Israel, but they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the people of Israel believed, for no one would make the sacrifices the Jews made without great faith.
The “commandments and ordinances” of the Law no longer apply to us. I can prove that from Scripture. In Ephesians 2 the apostle writes that there were two kinds of “men” in the world, or two people groups, the Jew, the circumcision, and the Gentile, lacking circumcision. The Jew stood close to God, for he is the recipient of God’s promises and the covenants. By contrast the Gentile stood far off, “without God and without hope in the world.” The temple in Jerusalem was a visual reminder of the distance between the two men. A wall separated the outer, Gentile court of the temple from the inner courts of the temple which were reserved for the Jews. There was a sign on the wall that read: “Whoever is captured (beyond this wall) will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.”
In Ephesians 2 the apostle announces the good news that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles:
15 abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 (that) he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.
As Christians, we are no longer bound by the law of commandments and ordinances; but we are bound by the deeper truth of the cross, and that separates us from the world in the same way that the law of commandments and ordinances separates Jews from the world. We worship a God whose weakness is stronger than the strength of men. In the person of his Son, God allows himself to be driven out of the world onto a cross. And the Son of God told us that we cannot follow him unless we are willing to take up a cross of our own. In this we are even odder than the Jews. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians:1-22-24:
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God
Let me give you one more example: Male Circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant just as Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. It is commanded in the Hebrew Bible, and that command is taken seriously. In Exodus 4, we read that when Moses did not circumcise his own son, God almost killed him. Yet in Romans 2:28-29 St. Paul says:
28 For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.
In Acts 15 we read that at the First Apostolic Council that was held in Antioch the apostles decided that Gentiles did not have to become Jews before becoming Christians. They published this decision saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” This is a clear example of Jesus keeping his promise of John 16, wherein he says that the Holy Spirit would lead us, members of his body the church, into all truth. It is a good thing they were sensitive to the Holy Spirit, despite the literal letter of the Law. Today there are 20 million Jews in the world and 2 billion Christians, one million times more Christians than Jews. I wonder if the church would have fared so well had the First Apostolic Council insisted we become Jews before we become Christians?
Let me sum up. The late E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary and evangelist. He wrote that when he first went to India he found himself defending a long line that stretched from Genesis to Revelation to the history of the Christian Church, to Western Civilization, and beyond. He said spent all his time bouncing up and down behind the line defending this and defending that. He said most of the time the non-Christian world drew the line at something in the Old Testament, or, perhaps, at something in Western Civilization. He felt the heart of the gospel was being left out. He knew that there were many points of question about Scripture and our faith, but only one point of decision. We don’t really decide anything when we decide what we believe about some point of question. God decided those things long ago. We make a real decision when we decide about Jesus Christ, a decision that affects us in time and eternity. So Stanley Jones decided to shorten the line and take his stand at Jesus Christ. When a non-Christian objected to something, he would always ask them to view that thing in light of Jesus Christ. Where he had been a failure, broken in body and in spirit, he became a success. He went on to become one of the most successful evangelists of the 20th Century. Jones’ method is still valid today. When we are forced to defend our faith before the non-Christian world, we must bring everything, including the hard texts ofscripture, to Jesus Christ. This does not make us weaker and less effective in faith; but stronger and more effective. There are many hard texts in scripture, but the splendor of those texts have long since faded like the face that Moses hid behind a veil. Today many of them no longer bind us; but they still serve to highlight the unfading glory that God has revealed in Jesus Christ. If the dispensation of death, came with splendor, the dispensation of life comes with much more splendor, and we are invited to share in it. As the apostle writes:
18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 RSV