So we find ourselves in an awkward spot. No longer can we dogmatically declare that if God commands it, we do it. Nor can we claim that we specifically follow all of the examples given in scripture. Instead, we realize that each of us requires some way to determine the relevance and application today for each command and example.
Let me say up front, I am not binding my way of interpreting scripture on you. I am sharing with you what makes sense to me, and how I arrived at that conclusion. If it is helpful to you, that’s wonderful. If you choose not to give it a fair look, that’s your call. If you give it consideration and in the end can’t agree, that’s ok, too. To our own Master each of us will stand or fall.
What if we let Jesus teach us about interpretation?
Let’s consider His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and 6. I’ll not copy the entire text, but if your Bible isn’t handy, click here.
In verse 17, Jesus begins with a qualifying statement: He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. That is key.
You see, the first accusation typically lobbed when one proposes a different way of interpreting scripture is along the lines of questioning their commitment to the Word or to God – as if they are trying to weasel out of something. Be assured, no one here is trying to abolish God’s commands or examples. Rather, our desire is to fulfill and accomplish their purpose in our lives.
Beginning in verse 21, Jesus begins to deconstruct their view of what it means to keep a command. “Do not murder” speaks to more than just the physical act of murder…it addresses the heart full of anger towards his brother. “Do not commit adultery” speaks to more than just the physical act of adultery…it addresses the lusts of the impure heart.
One by one, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter regarding various commands and examples that they were familiar with from the Old Law and from Israel’s past.
In doing so, I believe He is providing guidelines regarding how to interpret Biblical commands and examples today.
I believe Jesus is teaching us to determine the principle behind the command or example, and commit to follow that principle to the best of our ability in our lives, rather than merely their expression through those specific commands and examples.
I’ve heard a mistaken view of these words of Jesus taught many times. It goes along the lines of suggesting that Jesus was raising the bar – making the Old Law commands more stringent for the New Covenant He was implementing.
Was it not always sinful to be consumed with anger? Was it not always sinful to be full of lust?
Jesus isn’t raising the bar, He’s explaining to a people who thought they were keeping the law by following the precise letter of the command that they have missed the heart – the principle – of the command.
I think we need to hear that today. Too many seem to believe that if they can just replicate every tiny detail of a command or example from the New Testament as close as possible to how they might have done it in the first century, then they have fulfilled the law’s requirements.
I think it’s possible Jesus might say to them, “Your hearts are far from Me.” Because it’s not about keeping the details to a “T”, it’s about the heart of the individual.
We can find numerous examples in the Bible where God overlooked commands and details that weren't followed precisely when the heart of the individual was right. However Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 15 that it doesn't work the other way. Keeping the details doesn't cover for an impure heart.
Man looks at the outward appearance:
Have they killed anyone? Have they committed adultery?
The Lord looks at the heart:
Is their heart full of anger? Is their heart full of lust?
That’s not quite as easy as following a checklist of outer appearances.
It also opens the door for some disagreement on what exactly the principle is and how it is expressed and fulfilled in our lives. But that’s nothing new…it’s not like we haven’t already had disagreement using other methods to interpret scripture. If we're going to disagree, let's disagree while using Jesus' method, shall we?
So, how does this look in real life?