Some years ago I was invited to speak to a political science class at Emory University located in Decatur, Georgia. The Christian Right was in the news at that time, and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was getting a lot of negative press. I was asked to shed some light on the controversy. The students were genuinely interested in the subject and asked some good questions. I remember one student in particular telling me that she believed in following the law of Christ over against laws found in the Old Testament. She was a “Red-Letter Christian” before the method had a name. Her view was not and is not unusual. I suspect that many Christians hold a similar position, believing that Jesus came to establish a new system of morality.
In the time that I had, I made two quick points. First, I asked her the source of the following verse: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Her response was immediate: “Jesus.” I asked her if she knew what Jesus used as a source for the “love your neighbor” comment. She was puzzled, thinking it was unique to Jesus since He was the new law giver. She was surprised when I told her that Jesus was quoting part of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I can’t say that she was shocked when I pointed out that the moral precept had a long history found in the Old Testament, but she certainly looked perplexed. Many Christians would be stunned to learn that what is ostensibly viewed as a New Testament moral standard (Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8) is an Old Testament moral standard, and that from the book of Leviticus where the prohibition of homosexuality is found (Lev. 18:22; 20:13).
To drive home the first two points, I found one of the most difficult Old Testament laws and showed her that Jesus used it approvingly in His discussions with the scribes and Pharisees (Mark 7:10): “If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his bloodguiltiness is upon him” (Lev. 20:9). On this one, she was shocked and did not have an answer. Some might argue that Jesus was still operating under the obligations of the Old Covenant. Of course, if this interpretive approach is taken, then Jesus can’t be used as the champion of a New Testament ethic since He was morally bound by the Old Covenant and lived within its moral strictures.
So after recovering from her initial distress that Jesus would cite such an archaic and politically incorrect and anti-modern law, I asked her to notice that Jesus was not applying the law to infants or even adolescents. Jesus was addressing grownups who were twisting, adding to, and perverting the law so they could find some legal loophole that would exempt them from caring for their parents. Jesus accuses them of “invalidating the word of God by [their] tradition” (Mark 7:13). He didn’t condemn them because they were stubbornly holding on to a biblical legal tradition that was outmoded since He condemned them by using an Old Covenant biblical law. James B. Jordan puts Jesus’ encounters with the Scribes and Pharisees in perspective:
We are used to thinking of the scribes and Pharisees as meticulous men who carefully observed the jots and tittles [of God’s law]. This is not the portrait found in the Gospels. The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus encountered were grossly, obviously, and flagrantly breaking the Mosaic law, while keeping all kinds of man-made traditions. Jesus’ condemnation of them in Matthew 23 certainly makes this clear, as does a famous story in John 8. There we read that the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman taken “in the very act” of adultery (John 8:1–11). How did they know where to find her? Where was the man who was caught with her? Apparently he was one of their cronies. Also, when Jesus asked for anyone “without sin” (that is, not guilty of the same crime) to cast the first stone, they all went away, because they were all adulterers.1
There is a way to apply these difficult laws, as Jesus demonstrates, even if we don’t know how to do it at this moment in time, but we are not given the option to dismiss them as part of an antiquated way of looking at the world.
- James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988), 267. [↩]