The Bible can be such a confusing book!
Just consider how much David valued the Law of Moses:
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me.
I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.
(Psalm 119:97-102 NIV).
Jesus also valued the Law of Moses and insisted that his followers must obey the Law of Moses and teach others to obey it:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 NIV).
However, in the same Bible, the Apostle Paul sharply rebuked those followers of Jesus who valued the Law of Moses. To Paul, the Law of Moses was “a different gospel” from what he taught these followers of Jesus during his first journey to the Roman province of Galatia:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-9 NIV).
The Apostle Paul taught followers of Jesus that they were not “obligated to obey the whole law” and if they tried to obey the law, then they were no longer following Jesus:
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:2-6 NIV).
So, David taught us to value the Law of Moses.
Jesus taught us to value the Law of Moses.
But the Apostle Paul taught us to avoid the Law of Moses!
Wow! The Bible can be such a confusing book!
May I introduce another filter that clarifies this confusion for me? I call this filter the “stages of life” filter. For this filter to work, imagine all of biblical history as an infant growing and maturing through four “stages of life” into adulthood:
Infant/Toddler = Garden of Eden/Patriarchs
Elementary age = Israel under the Law of Moses
Adolescent = Church age
Adult = Millennium
The Infant/Toddler “stage of life”
My daughter has grown into a beautiful wife and mother with two children in the elementary grades. When she was a small child – still crawling, but not standing – my wife and I placed potted plants here and there around the floor of our home. We intended to teach the “look, but don’t touch” lesson. If our beautiful, innocent daughter grabbed a leaf, then we would lightly tap her “offending” hand. Great sadness would follow with enough tears to fill a tea cup. We would hold her close and all would be well. This routine became a ritual.
Then THAT day come. THAT day? Yes, THAT day!!
The day when my beautiful, innocent daughter crawled on her hands and knees to the big plant on the dining room floor. She stopped next to the plant and sat up. Next, my beautiful, innocent daughter placed her fingers around a leaf and made eye contact with me. Then, she grabbed the leaf!!
I was stunned beyond action because I had just witnessed original sin. Original sin was something that I had read about in seminary. We discussed original sin in class. But on THAT day I saw “Garden of Eden” stuff. My beautiful, innocent daughter had just challenged her loving authority figure. Wow!
From THAT day forward, I entertained the idea that Adam and Eve acted very much like my beautiful, innocent daughter. Clear boundaries had been carefully communicated by a loving authority figure. Nonetheless, Adam and Eve (or more accurately, Eve and Adam) chose to disregard God’s clearly defined boundary when they ate fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Likewise, my beautiful, innocent daughter chose to disregard my clearly defined boundary when she grabbed that leaf.
Elementary age “stage of life”
Years later I used the book, Assertive Discipline by Lee and Marlene Canter, as a textbook for a course in Christian education that I taught at North Central University. The Canters advocated a “classroom discipline plan” that consisted of three parts:
- Rules that students must follow at all times.
- Supportive feedback students will constantly receive for following the rules.
- Corrective actions the teacher will use consistently when students choose not to follow the rules.
This “classroom discipline plan” strongly reminded me of the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy chapter 28!! In this chapter, Moses used the “80/20 rule” to warn God’s people about the consequences for both following the rules and disregarding the rules:
Blessings = 374 words or 20.5% of Deuteronomy 28:1-14 (NIV).
Curses = 1454 words or 79.5% of Deuteronomy 28:15-68 (NIV).
Moses promised supportive feedback (blessings) the ancient Hebrews will constantly receive for following the rules. And Moses spoke of corrective actions (curses) God will use consistently when the ancient Hebrews choose not to follow the rules. Did Moses allocate too much emphasis on “corrective actions” for not following the rules? Even the most casual reading from Exodus 14 to the end of Malachi proves that Moses made the right call – putting 80% emphasis on the curses for disobedience.
As I taught about classroom management in this Christian education course at North Central, I noticed another theme about elementary children and rules. In a video entitled, “Catch ’Em Being Good,” Dr. Robert F. Biggers said, “Kids love rules!” Even though his observation has been echoed many times, popular thought would say that kids HATE rules.
“Kids hate rules. At least, that’s what they say. But deep down, kids love rules. They crave the security created by reasonable rules that are consistently maintained. Those kinds of rules show them what to expect from others and how to behave themselves. No matter how often kids say they hate rules, their church (or their classroom, or their family) experience will feel safer and be more fun if the rules are clearly stated and enforced.” From Every Child Welcome: A Ministry Handbook for Including Kids with Special Needs by Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015), page 58.
Why would children want to live in a world populated by rules? Rules provide an atmosphere of orderliness, structure and safety. Values and morality flow out from rules. Children need rules so that they become ready for the adult world.
However, in a word of caution, Dr. Robert Biggers also taught that “rules without relationships breed rebellion.” Rules stop disruption in the elementary classroom. But do rules contribute toward change in behavior? Rules can bring about change in unruly students when positive reinforcement comes from a caring teacher. However, any attempt at behavior modification without this positive relationship cultivates cynicism. Therefore, the rule is not the change agent, but the caring teacher is. The rule simply provides the teacher with an opportunity to act redemptively.
And this fits the spirit of David when he sings,
“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.”
Because of his close relationship with the God of Israel, David “bought into” the law completely – understanding the need for and the value of the Law of Moses. And when he transgressed the law through his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, David wrote this song:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge (Psalm 51:1-4 NIV).
For David, the seventh of the Ten Commandments was not the change agent, but the “Caring Teacher” was. The seventh Commandment simply provided the “Teacher” with an opportunity to act redemptively.
When I read much of the Old Testament, especially Leviticus and Psalm 119, I read the text with this elementary age “stage of life” filter. I identify with the Old Testament saints as though I remember my own years of life as a child in first grade. And so I read in Leviticus 19 that I must not defraud my neighbor or rob my neighbor (vs. 13). Right! Good rule to live by! Then I read in the same chapter that I must not cut the hair at the sides of my head or clip off the edges of my beard (vs. 27). Hmmm. Feels like I outgrew the need for that rule.
The Adolescent “stage of life”
The adolescent stage of life manifests the hunger for freedom — especially freedom from rules that no longer work. Yet because the adolescent stage of life also reveals the immaturity and the irresponsibility inherent in childhood, the need for some rules still persists! Thus, the push and pull of rules seems to dominate the adolescent stage of life.
And this sounds very similar to what the church has experienced since the death and resurrection of Jesus — freedom from rules that no longer work, yet the need for rules when we act irresponsibly.
In his book Get Out of My Life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), Anthony Wolf wrote about two main forces of the adolescent years: the onset of sexuality and the need to turn away from childhood and parents (page 26).
“All kinds of changes, physical and intellectual, mark adolescence. But the hallmark of adolescence — the transformation that defines this period of life — is a psychological change. It is the adolescent mandate. A new and powerful voice rises inside of children. They must obey this voice and, in doing so, their lives change forever.
“Simply put, the mandate tells the adolescent to turn away from childhood and childish feelings. Since childhood is marked by the domination by parents, it follows that adolescents must turn away from their parents” (Wolf, pages 14-16).
This turning away from parents causes the adolescent to reexamine the underlying assumptions that worked during childhood, including the relevance of certain rules. In third grade, bedtime for me was about 8 PM (However, I would read books under my covers with a lamp much later than 8 PM!). Just a few years later, in high school, I would finish with football practice and then jump on the farm tractor to work a field until almost midnight! Were my parents inconsistent — that they would change a rule about bedtime? Or did I just grow up and outgrow the need for that rule?
On the other hand, I needed some guidance and some rules during my high school years. And so date night included a curfew. “Parental authority to construct and enforce rules that govern adolescent activities may not in of itself be viewed by adolescents as an unjust imposition they must resist” (Authoritative Parenting ed. by Robert Larzelere, Amanda Morris and Amanda Harrist, Washington, D. D.: American Psychological Association, 2013, page 148). With freedom comes responsibility, but maybe a few rules would help.
All of this sounds very similar to what we read in Paul’s epistles.
After “abiding” by the Law of Moses for centuries, it became increasingly obvious to the early church that the law contained no power to change people. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote about a righteousness apart from the Law:
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28 NIV).
“Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11 NIV).
How did the early church and Paul the Apostle come to view the Law of Moses in this manner? And,
What gave them the authority to dismiss clear Old Testament revelation that was reinforced by Jesus?
Within two years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin for advocating freedom from the Law of Moses. But before the death of Stephen, Luke clearly recorded that followers of Jesus hotly debated the future of Mosaic Law in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-9). The logic behind this debate centered around the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. These followers of Jesus were asking the right question, “What does this mean for us now?” In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus explained to his disciples how the “Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:45-46 NIV).
Wait a minute! Wait just a minute!!!! Can you hear these disciples (and Stephen) talking about the implications of these things? They were saying something like this, “Repentance and forgiveness had been offered through the sacrificial system as detailed by the Law of Moses. But now, through Jesus, we have repentance and forgiveness of sins. What becomes of the Law of Moses? And Why do we need the temple, if the entire sacrificial system is now obsolete?”
Those debating with Stephen in Acts chapter 6 accused him of speaking against the temple and against the Law of Moses! “For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:14 NIV). And it was Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul the Apostle) who was probably in charge of Stephen’s execution by stoning (Acts 7:57 to 8:1). These two passages convince me
- that Stephen and Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) debated each other in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Tarsus was a city in the province of Cilicia),
- that Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) could not stand up against Stephen’s wisdom or against the Spirit by which Stephen spoke (Acts 6:10 NIV),
- that on the road to Damascus all of this came crashing into Saul’s (Paul’s) mind (Acts 9:5),
- that Saul (Paul) immediately understood the implications of his debates with Stephen so that within days of his conversion “he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20 NIV), and
- that this is Paul’s gospel (Romans 2:16 and 16:25 and II Timothy 2:8).
Almost half of the New Testament is devoted to Paul’s gospel — that the temple is no longer necessary for our salvation and that the Law of Moses is no longer binding on followers of Jesus! (Click here for the details)
In Part 2 of “Filters and the Big Picture View of Scripture” I hope to continue with Paul’s gospel and show how my “stages of life” filter helps me understand Paul’s gospel in light of the Old Testament. And then I intend to conclude with the “adult stage of life” and why this stage reminds me of the Millennium.