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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Weights and Mirrors

In two previous posts, I’ve tried to distinguish between: (1) historical narrative in scripture, and (2) the commands of God — basically, between description and prescription.

Why? Well, because people frequently crack open “holy books” in search of answers to questions that are very personal, and reading historical narrative as if it is God’s direction for your life can lead to considerable confusion — like the atheist who thinks the Bible says ritual castration will get you into heaven. I suspect the Lord would prefer that we not experience that sort of muddled thinking. My advice is to read commands as commands, and history as history.

But let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and point out a fly in my own ointment, if you will.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

I have suggested that while we can learn important lessons from what people did in the historical passages of scripture (and indeed, this is why they were given to us), in the absence of explicit editorial comments from the Lord Jesus or the writers of the New Testament, we are unwise to assume the lessons we have deduced from that history are in any way authoritative.

Fine so far. But we must acknowledge the fact that on at least one occasion, the Lord Jesus cited the actions of an Old Testament saint as authoritative. Here it is not simply that he made a prescriptive pronouncement based on a historical narrative — something that happens all the time in scripture — but that he seems to have expected the Pharisees to have done the same.

David and the Bread of the Presence

See what you think:
“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.’ ”
Now, there’s a whole lot to this story about David that I won’t get into. And we take it as read that the Lord Jesus, being the Word of God made flesh, was fully entitled to take the words of God and use them any way he pleased. Who would understand them better?

The difficulty is more personal: Can you and I do the same sort of thing? Should we be expected to get moral direction for our own lives from what Old Testament characters did or didn’t do?

Heavy Burdens, Hard to Bear

The fly in the ointment is that the Lord seems to suggest that an honest reading of the Old Testament should have led the Pharisees to the same conclusion he confidently drew from David’s story: that those who violate the letter of the law in certain sorts of extremity and for godly reasons may not only be excused, but considered “guiltless” by God. He says, “Have you not read?” as if what he is telling the Pharisees should be obvious to them.

In the days of the Lord Jesus, what the Pharisees did with the prescriptive portions of the Old Testament — the Law of Moses — was absolutely horrendous. I can’t even imagine the sorts of legalistic weirdness they might have inferred from historical narratives. Speaking of the way the Pharisees handled the law, the Lord said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”

It was this sort of burden the Pharisees wished to impose on the disciples when they observed them plucking heads of grain to fill their hungry stomachs. The Law of Moses commanded that the Sabbath be set apart to God, and that no work be done on it under penalty of death. But the Pharisees had their own rather more expansive definition of “work” that went well beyond the instructions given to Israel by Moses, allowing for no exigent circumstances at all.

Working Up An Appetite

To call scarfing down a handful of grain while walking through someone else’s field “work” is a joke. To put someone to death for “working” in such a manner would have been a travesty, assuming the Pharisees had been in a position to administer the punishment. But such concerns were irrelevant: the Law of Moses no longer had any teeth.

Centuries of national violation of God’s laws had led to Jewish subjugation to the Roman Empire, and Roman law forbade the Jews from putting anyone to death. This is why Jesus was eventually taken to Pilate rather than summarily executed at the command of the High Priest.

If you like, we can argue about whether deferring to Roman law in this area constituted obedience to God or just plain old cowardice on the part of the Jews. But either way, when the Pharisees confronted the Lord Jesus about his disciples, they were blowing hot air: they were citing a massively distorted provision of an entirely unenforceable law.

However God may have intended his word to be used, this was most emphatically not it.

Liberty and Law

When tempted by Satan, the Lord responded to a misapplied Psalm with correctly applied law. Here he responds to a contrived misuse of law with a lesson from Old Testament history, and his use of historical narrative is liberating rather than confining. Far from putting weights and burdens on people, the Lord uses David’s example as a means of lifting a legal burden wrongly imposed by hardened hearts.

To top it off, the Lord Jesus adds that even the law itself requires some people work on the Sabbath. If the priests in the temple made the Sabbath common by “working” in the service of God, how is it that those who were aiding the Lord in his service to his Father were now accused of breaking the law?

Looking back from a Western mindset twenty centuries later, I admit it’s not how I might have argued the point. Actually, it was way more effective.

Faces in the Mirror

How does a righteous person use the word of God? James draws this comparison:
“If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
The righteous person looks into the law of liberty and perseveres; he or she never forgets what they were once like. That’s great advice. As the Lord Jesus taught, before we take the speck from our brother’s eye, we are wise to remove the plank from our own. For us, the word of God is not a weight, a burden or a bludgeon: it is a mirror. We are meant to use it first and foremost on ourselves.

Heads of Grain on the Sabbath

But let’s get back to the issue of applying scriptural history in our own lives. Does any of this help us with the question of how to use the descriptive portions of the Bible?

I think it does.

There are plenty of plain, clear commands in both Old and New Testaments. Personally, I have enough to do just learning to live by what God has already prescribed to last me the rest of this lifetime. I am reluctant to draw too many additional conclusions from the historical narratives of the Bible, particularly when their implications are so open to misunderstanding and misuse. To major on this sort of thing is like playing Pharisee with the scripture, obsessing about a few heads of grain on the Sabbath.

At any rate, if I am going to insist on drawing implications about Christian conduct from Bible history, I had better be very sure I try out my conclusions on myself first.

1 comment :

  1. Really good, Tom. A very insightful take on an issue that a thoughtful studier of the Bible will be bound to have to consider.

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