Updated: Nov 26, 2020
I think most Christians believe the God of the Old Testament was fearsome. He spoke from Mount Sinai words that terrified the Israelites. He gave them hundreds of laws and commanded harsh penalties for disobedience. He actually killed 25,000 Israelites once for disobeying his command to not intermarry with other nations.
To be fair, God also declared his love for his people time and time again, but disobedience wasn’t an option. He was a God to be both loved and feared.
Then along came Jesus. “Meek and Mild” Jesus. The forgiver of the woman caught in adultery and of Peter who denied him. He even asked the Father to forgive the soldiers nailing him to the cross. It’s easy to think of Jesus as being soft on sin – a kinder, more gentle version of the Old Testament God. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Jesus was unbelievably forgiving and kind, almost every moral law God gave Israel in the Old Testament, rather than softening, he doubled down on! Jesus sets the tone with this from the Sermon on the Mount.
“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. For truly I tell you, 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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
Then Jesus actually moves beyond the Old Testament law, making clear that God had more in mind than the simple outward act of a particular sin, to include sins of the heart. In these “but I tell you” passages he actually expands the definition of sin.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:21, 22
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27, 28
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31, 32
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Matthew 5:43
The Pharisees had to have been shocked. Here was Jesus making their life tougher – calling them to an even higher standard! For centuries they’d been working at softening the law.
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.’” Matthew 23:1-4
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Matthew 23:23
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.” Matthew 23:29
Then Jesus gives an actual example of how the religion leaders have softened God’s teaching, for thee own advantage in this from Mark 7.
“And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” Mark 7:9-13
A few months ago, I blogged on “Red Letter Christians.” These are Christians who believe the most important teachings in the Bible are Jesus actual words. That enables them to not have to deal with many of the Old Testament laws or Paul’s teachings. Be careful what you wish for. Jesus set a higher standard both for love and holiness than anyone else in the Bible.
How following Jesus works in real life.
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