Sunday, May 24, 2020

Good Applications and Bad Ones

Billy Graham noted that the character of our loved ones, friends, and acquaintances may change. Jesus does not.

TL Osborn says that because Jesus Christ does not change, you can count on being healed from sickness, just as he healed the sick in the first century.

A commenter at Christian Forums says the fact that Jesus Christ never changes means dispensationalism is false teaching.

We all agree that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” However, it is evident we do not all agree about precisely what that means.

The Immutability of God

Now, as often happens when we presume to comment on scripture, one of the above conclusions is observably untrue, a second is eminently contestable, and the third is probably a little off-point, if technically correct.

There are all kinds of implications to the statement that Jesus Christ does not change over time, and plenty of other verses about God which we could draw on to demonstrate that his immutability is critically important both theologically and practically. And if the assertion that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever is a true one, and if our understanding of the sense in which it is true is an accurate one, then it is legitimate to use that truth in other ways and apply it in other circumstances than the original writer did. We cannot get so married to context that we refuse to consider other reasonable applications of a principle plainly taught in the word of God.

Applying a Truism

For example, Habakkuk’s statement that “the righteous shall live by faith” is quoted three times in the New Testament, each time with a slightly different emphasis. In Romans, we are taught that all righteous men and women live by faith, Gentile and Jew alike. In Galatians, the emphasis is on the word “faith”, as opposed to works. In Hebrews, the emphasis is on the word “live”, in contrast to shrinking back and being destroyed. All of these are legitimate uses of a truism first laid out by an Old Testament prophet, but in none of them are the NT writers attempting to interpret Habakkuk for us. We would have to go back to the Prophets to see what Habakkuk meant, and when we do so, we may even begin to suspect that his use of the word “faith” is more along the lines of moral rectitude than belief or trust.

So there is unarguably more to Habakkuk’s statement than Habakkuk ever got out of it, and yet if we were to insist that when Habakkuk said, “the righteous shall live by faith”, he was thinking about Jews and Gentiles, we would be abusing Habakkuk.

The Riches of Divine Wisdom

Moreover, while “the righteous shall live by faith” may be applied in different ways by different people, both within scripture itself and from commenters and preachers today, not every platform or commentary application is necessarily legitimate. That has to be determined on other grounds. As David Gooding puts it:
“No explanation of the New Testament’s interpretation of an Old Testament narrative can be sound if that explanation ignores, or conflicts with, the Old Testament narrative on which the interpretation is based.”
This principle holds true for those who seek to apply New Testament teaching in contexts other than the original one. In The Riches of Divine Wisdom, Gooding goes on to lay out six more principles we can use to distinguish sound interpretation from unsound. Some uses are legit, and some simply are not. Understanding which is which means unpacking the original first. If we do not know what it meant to its writer, we cannot possibly hope to figure out how else it might legitimately be used.

Interpreting Hebrews

So what did the writer to the Hebrews mean by “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”?

Well, he was assuredly not making a statement about the effectiveness of faith healing in the 21st century, and he was absolutely not telling us that dispensationalism is a lie of the devil because “Jesus never changes”. And, notwithstanding the estimable Mr. Graham, he was probably also not thinking about the fickleness of our friends and family or the fact that our society is in flux all around us, causing us to sometimes feel uprooted and unsure. It is true that the immutability of Christ is comforting in such circumstances, but that fact was not on the mind of the writer to the Hebrews, or at least it was not part of his argument.

Hebrews 13:1-19 is a series of twelve major instructions to the writer’s original audience about how to live the Christian life, fortified in many cases by justifications, qualifications and restatements in other words. Summarized as succinctly as possible, they are: (1) love as brothers, v1; (2) be hospitable, v2; (3) remember believers in prison, v3; (4) value marriage, v4; (5) don’t love money, v5-6; (6) imitate your leaders, v7-8; (7) don’t be distracted by doctrinal rabbit trails, v9-12; (8) bear the reproach of Christ, v13-14; (9) praise continually, v15; (10) share, v16; (11) obey and submit to your leaders, v17; and (12) pray for the writer of the book, v18-19.

Thought Flow in Hebrews 13

It is important to note that the passage is not a series of isolated proverb-style observations. Every statement made in those verses relates to one of these twelve major instructions in some way. Thus, when we read that Jesus Christ does not change, it is not some independent idea which has popped up into the writer’s mind out of nowhere and leads nowhere in particular — or, as we might conclude from the multitude of ways it is freely repurposed online, almost anywhere at all. Rather, it is in there to buttress one or more of these instructions.

It is also useful to notice that the twelve major instructions all follow a pattern: first, they are plainly stated; then, assuming they require amplification, clarification or evidentiary support, these are provided afterward. This is consistent with the structure of Hebrews generally, which is extremely orderly and logical. While I have read commentators who relate “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” to instruction #7 of the twelve, given the thought flow of the passage, I believe the statement really belongs with instruction #6. It is the theological backbone for the instruction to:
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Here, I think the writer’s point is that the Divine Object of the faith of the saints of years past is not malleable. The faith of men who “spoke to you the word of God” can be trusted because time doesn’t affect the person in whom they believed. That faith can safely be imitated because to trust Christ today is as solid a proposition as trusting him in times past. Nothing about Christ’s character has been modified in any way. If the faith of the saints of years past held them up; if it transformed their lives; if it resulted in the salvation of souls; if the words they spoke to you proved true in your own life ... these things being the case, then you can safely carry on taking the same sorts of risks they did and pursuing the goals they taught you to pursue. The Object of their faith proved trustworthy in their lifetimes; he will most assuredly prove trustworthy in yours.

Nature, Tactics and Strategy

Note that we are talking about a sameness of character, an unchangeableness of person and nature. We are not discussing either tactics or strategy. The writer is not arguing that Jesus Christ always operates exactly the same way, or that he uses precisely the same tool kit down through the ages in his dealings with mankind. That is manifestly not the case.

At one point he offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross. We can be sure he will never do so again. At one point he said he had not come to judge the world. Next time around he will surely judge it; the day is already appointed. At one point he insisted, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Later, he sent Paul to represent him to “Gentiles and kings”. At one time he was offered to bear the sins of many. His second appearance will be “not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him”. At one point he was “despised and rejected of men”. Today he is glorified and seated at the Father’s right hand, awaiting a time when all his enemies will be put under his feet.

These things are not “the same”. Not at all.

So when the writer to the Hebrews says Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, he is not discussing technique or methodology. He is not discussing mission or purpose or role or the reaction he produces. He is making a statement about the unchanging character of Christ. If he was trustworthy then, he is trustworthy now. If he successfully guided others, he will guide us too. If his words were true then, they are true today. If he showed love and care for those who taught you, he will show you the same love and care if you follow in their footsteps.

Recognizing and Rejected False Applications

Now that we understand what the writer to the Hebrews is actually saying, we are in a position to apply his truism more broadly, and to recognize and reject applications of the truism that are not consonant with its original meaning, as Gooding wisely advises.

Is it true that the character of Jesus does not change over time, while the character of our friends and family do? Certainly. It’s not what the writer to the Hebrews was saying, but Billy Graham’s application is quite legitimate. It is comforting to observe and reassuring to remember.

Is it true that we can count on Jesus to heal all sick people today if they exercise sufficient faith? Not necessarily. The writer to the Hebrews was not talking about the scope, purpose or duration of the Lord’s physical healing ministry when he said he is “the same”. To make such a claim is to say quite a bit more than Hebrews says, and to ignore significant evidence to the contrary over a period of almost 2,000 years.

And is dispensationalism to be rejected because Jesus is always “the same”? Of course not. We have already demonstrated that his “sameness” is not of that sort. It is perfectly in keeping with the established character of Christ to deal with his servants according to his sovereign will, and not be bound by human scruples about fairness and consistency. God’s ways are higher than ours, and we cannot expect to be able to pass judgment on his choices.

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