Sunday, October 01, 2017

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

Six times in Matthew 5 (v21, 27, 31, 33, 38 and 43), the Lord Jesus refers to things his audience had heard said. Some of these things are the direct commands of God through Moses in something very close to their original wording. Others appear to be rabbinical interpretations that expand on the originals.

In all cases, the conventional rabbinical readings are inadequate. So instead, the Lord infers from the Law of Moses principles of conduct and modes of thought by which his listeners might strive to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

Hearsay, it appears, was not good enough.

(That’s hearsay, not heresy. It should be fairly obvious heresy doesn’t produce righteousness.)

Hearsay in the Early Church

A similar problem plagued the early church. Unless the Lord had specifically contradicted or corrected their understanding of scripture in a certain area, the things the apostles had ‘heard said’ tended to govern their behaviour. Peter ran into this issue when he flip-flopped on the matter of eating with Gentiles:
“While there is no direct injunction in the Mosaic law forbidding the Israelite to eat with the Gentile, a rabbinic deduction to that effect was rigidly observed by the stricter Jews of the sect of the Pharisees.”
— Hogg and Vine, The Epistle to the Galatians
We can see how easily derived principles (or at least the ones that are convenient) can develop the force of law. Here, a “rabbinic deduction” from the Old Testament had given rise to a practice so common among the Jews that even the apostle Peter feared the consequences of being seen to violate it.

But the principle deduced by the clever rabbi was wrong.

Muzzling the Ox

That doesn’t mean that all principles derived from scripture are bad things, nor does it mean that we only come to know the will of God through the literal interpretation of commandments. In fact, certain principles derived from the Law of Moses actually have greater spiritual importance than the commands that informed them. For example:
“For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.”
Now of course oxen are not meaningless to God. Proverbs connects righteousness with “regard for the life” of domesticated beasts. Under the Law of Moses, oxen were supposed to get the Sabbath day off just like everyone else. The Lord sent the prophet Jonah to preach repentance in Nineveh not just to save 120,000 of its clueless citizens from the judgment of God, but also because of its many cattle. So Paul is not saying animals don’t matter to God, but that his servants matter more.

The principle is greater than the literal command.

Principles vs. Commands

Again, the Lord’s teaching about divorce does not derive its authority from any specific command (the Pharisees would definitely have preferred that) but rather from the “one flesh” principle Jesus inferred from Genesis. (It’s also instructive that what they call a “command” the Lord refers to as permission.)

In this case, a principle turns out to trump a “command” that seems to contradict it.

One more: Jesus’ disciples are condemned by the Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath because they have scarfed down a few handfuls of grain. The Lord shuts down the Pharisees with this:
“Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?”
Again here, a principle trumps a hyper-literal interpretation of the law.

The Validity of Derived Principles

That said, it should also be evident that not all principles are equal (the rabbinic deduction about eating with Gentiles wasn’t). Derived principles are only as valid as the accuracy of interpretation of the scriptures on which they are based, which means the words of God that have given rise to any particular principle need to be revisited regularly in order to confirm them to the individual conscience. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”, and faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes via the word of Christ. It’s axiomatic that faith does not come from uncritical acceptance of second-hand principles derived from scripture by other men.

How could it? Blind obedience might. Faith doesn’t.

It’s instructive that when the Lord Jesus trumps the Law of Moses with a principle, he reminds his audience that they need to do precisely that: go back and revisit the foundational scriptures themselves. “Have you not read?” “Have you not read?

So let’s go read. Otherwise we’re just building our lives on … hearsay. That seems a shaky foundation to me.


  1. This may not stop you but perhaps cause you to reconsider a bit. Most people do not have the time, interest and/or inclination (or pedantry ^_~ ) to do what you are suggesting here. Scramble, scramble, what the heck was that principle again that could trump and replace what I am about to consider doing? Is it on page 8475 or page 634 of the Old Testament and am I getting this right? And, oh my goodness, last week I accidentally deleted the copy of the Bible I had on my cell phone. So, what I was taught (and continue to practice) is doing a nightly ( or at least a couple of times a week) examination of conscience. Hopefully that is based on the current status of your knowledge concerning items and issues you have to deal with in your life and disposes you to do the necessary tweaking.

  2. You're right: it may not stop me. ;)

  3. I think people always have time for what's most important to them. In fact, that's ALL they ever really make time for. The less important stuff, well, that just gets shunted aside by the stuff they consider really important.

    So what, to them, is "important"? Taking care of their own bodily needs, getting enough sleep, getting to work, making money, some time with the kids, vacations, Netflix, sports, Facebook updates, tweeting, reading the newspaper online, etc...for all those things, they always have more than enough time. They do them every day.

    Basically, that says that people who don't read their Bibles and think carefully about the guidance it gives them, and what it implies, really think that they can get along fine without doing that, and all this other stuff is just more important to them.

    And I think that's what they actually believe. They're wrong, of course, but I don't doubt that that is what they believe. "By their fruits you shall know them."

    1. True, IC, that other stuff is important to them (and to me and you of course as well). But how people (I as well) compartmentalize their lives is of course dependent on numerous factors that are mostly related to your background and interests in life as well as gifts (talents), abilities, temperament, genetics, etc.. By no means can one infer that if a person believing in Christ has a divergent approach from yours in assimilating and dealing with information that they are doing it deliberately or ignorantly to "produce bad fruit". More likely, they have different scales of importance because of all these differences that exist between peoples. So, they do not surround themselves with Greek dictionaries and texts to explore early biblical writings and their various nuances and interpretations. Rather, they have discovered that there are interested people who don't mind doing that and who share the fruits of their labor (for free :-) and from whom you can actually learn something. Most likely they then distill what is useful to them and go on with their lives without fretting too much about the fine nuances. This does not mean that they do not understand the important headlines concerning what direction their lives should take to ensure their eternal satisfaction and happiness. They just may use a different type of comb not as fine toothed as others do. In other words there will always be some who live more in a trailer or various other environments instead of in an ivory tower and who would not consider themselves off worst for that and will still think of themselves as abiding in the truth.

    2. What I had in mind in writing the piece (and what I think the Lord had in mind when he said "Have you not read") is not so much Greek dictionaries and commentaries but simply familiarity with the scriptures. I don't think it's a stretch for Christians today to make regular reading of the Bible a part of their daily walk with Christ.