I’d like to do something dangerous.
We understand, as astute Bible students, that bringing an extra-biblical background to the Scriptures is fraught with potential problems. We ought not, we are told, make assumptions about the things we see in the Bible. We should instead approach the Scriptures with an empty mind, free of presuppositions, hewing strictly to what the text gives to us and no more. This technique will enable us to avoid error. It is part of “correctly handling” (or “rightly dividing”) the Word. What we want is “exegesis” (drawing meaning from the text) rather than the dreaded “eisegesis” (using the text to support a meaning we already possess).
But of course, none of us do this. Let’s be honest. We come to the Bible with a whole panoply of presuppositions, of cultural assumptions (wrong or rights), of biases and prejudices. Most often these presuppositions are tacit, unacknowledged by us. This is why it is so vital to understand cultural contexts, and especially to listen to Bible teachers who come from outside our own cultural milieu, so that we can have the benefit of their different insights – that is, their own tacit biases might be a good foil for our own. Rather than deny that we have these unspoken biases, we should admit that we in fact do have them, and then expose our minds to other perspectives.
Today I took up and read Matthew’s account of 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. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As I pondered this familiar passage, something jumped out at me. Notice that Jesus says “Do not think” (or “do not suppose”), as though anticipating the expectations of the crowd. Why would he mention this? Why express it in this way? And if he is perceiving their expectations, where did they develop those expectations? “I have not come to abolish them.” He focuses on what he has not come to do, as though refuting a false notion. “You may have heard X, but X is not true.”
It’s a strange way of speaking. It suggests there must be what Hollywood calls a “backstory” – something happening prior to the scene that sets it up. In fact, it seems as if, in gangster-movie parlance, somebody got to him. Perhaps he is saying this because he was warned about saying otherwise. Here I am venturing into the dangerous territory of inventing a backstory. But I do this with my eyes open, aware that whatever I may bring to the text is mere scaffolding – a temporary, provisional construct to be used for a time while we work on the text.
Cautiously, then, we proceed.
Recall the secret meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, described for us by the apostle John:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus is not speaking for himself alone. Significantly he uses the first person plural (“we know”). He is no mere fan-boy, or an interested semi-follower. He has been sent to Jesus by the ruling council. Ruling councils being what they are, they rarely send a messenger simply to gather information out of curiosity. They dictate. They rule. They have sent a powerful man, under cover of darkness, to speak to this novel Galilean preacher. Flattering words notwithstanding, Nicodemus carries a veiled threat from the council. This is their attempt to get a situation under control. It is a sort of first salvo in what will eventually become full-on opposition.
What was Nicodemus sent to say? The text goes silent on this point. Jesus’ discourse that follows (“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”) seems to come as a rude interruption of Nicodemus’ prefatory remarks. Nicodemus seems to lose his footing a bit, puzzled by Jesus’ unexpected spiritual diatribe (“How can this be?”). John’s account never has Nicodemus returning to his original purpose, if there was one. Jesus pre-empted that purpose.
But I would guess that at some point, then or later, the conversation between Jesus and Nick went something like this:
Nicodemus: “Now, as to the reason I asked to see you: Many of the council members are disturbed by reports of your teaching. It is said that you incite the people against the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Some have become zealous against their leaders, and against the Law of Moses. This should not be. Now, Jesus, you must know that there are some of us on the council who want to believe in you. We see you as a teacher who has come from God. We know that you do not teach falsely, but only what is in accordance with the Law, given to our people for all time.”
Jesus: “I speak only the words the Father gives me.” (John 8:28, 12:49)
Nicodemus: “Yes, I understand. But I am concerned for you, Jesus of Nazareth; this kind of teaching could land you in a great deal of trouble. Think about John. Already the council is determined not to protect him, if he continues to preach as he does against Herod and against us. He could be imprisoned any day.”
Jesus: “What would you have me say, then?”
Nicodemus: “Only this: When you speak publicly, make it clear that you have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. Say this to the people, so that they will not be carried away by a spirit of rebellion. Then we will know for certain that you are from God and teaching what is right.”
Jesus: “Very well.”
Nicodemus returns to the council, armed with what sounds like a concession from the Galilean. “Excellent,” they reply. “We shall watch the Galilean now, to be sure our message was heard.”
Now, we return to the mount from which Jesus gives his famous sermon. The crowds have gathered. Mostly peasants, they are dressed in ragged, soiled brown and tan fabrics. The women and the children are with them. His disciples sit close by, hanging on his words. Over to one side, dressed in white and blue priestly robes, stand a group of religious leaders. Their beards are long. Their expressions are grim and serious. The people murmur about their presence — are they here to spy on this teacher? Are they here because they see him as the Messiah? Or because they wish to shut him down? The presence of the blue-and-white crew casts an uneasy pall over the gathering.
Their purpose, however, is neither to accept nor challenge the words of the Galilean. They want only the satisfaction of knowing that his words will not be outside the bounds of normal Jewish teaching. They want to be sure that Nicodemus did his job and delivered their message. If not, then more drastic measures will be in order.
So they listen closely to the message. Before too long, Jesus utters the words they are waiting for:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.”
“See?” says Nicodemus to his colleagues, relieved. “See, this is no rebel. He is a true teacher of Israel.” The other leaders nod gravely. Jesus continues:
“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. “
“Hear, hear,” offers one of the councilmen, tapping his staff on the ground in tribute. “The Torah is forever!” They exchange glances; they are pleased. Nicodemus’ words have reached their mark.
Then, suddenly, Jesus cracks a bullwhip in their faces:
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The leaders exchange harsh glares. “Did he just say ‘surpasses’?”
“I think he means ‘equals,’ yes?”
“Perhaps ‘approaches’ would have been a better choice of words.”
The crowds are merely surprised by this teaching, maybe a little startled by its severe moral implications. But the Pharisees and scribes and lawyers in their white robes are scandalized. This cuts like a knife. Jesus implies – no, he directly states – that Pharisees and teachers of the law possess insufficient righteousness to merit the kingdom of heaven. They cannot enter. If you wish to enter, you will have to be more righteous than they are.
“What sort of teaching is this?” they mutter. The councilmen turn to Nicodemus. “What did you say to him?”
“I told him exactly what we agreed to,” he insists. “And truthfully, he said exactly what I asked him to say!”
There are grunts and harumphs. “Maybe so,” they say. “But we will not stand here and be humiliated like this.” And they leave the scene indignantly, as Jesus begins to delineate the difference between living by the law (“you have heard that it was said…”) and living a Kingdom lifestyle (“…but I tell you”). One by one he trots out various teachings of the Jewish leaders and contrasts them with new commands.
The Pharisees and their counterparts in every religious tradition want to defend their turf. They have created a system of rules to be applied to everyone under their leadership. Even the great Law of Moses, given by God Himself with great glory, was co-opted by the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time as an instrument of pride. Intended to point out the need of Man for redemption, the Law was instead presented as a vehicle of redemption. When Jesus disrupted this false notion of human ability with that shocking word “surpasses,” it blew a fatal hole in the side of the ship. “I have not come to abolish the Law,” he said. True, but the one who looks to mere obedience of the written commandments will certainly not reach the Kingdom. The Law stands; it does not pass away. The Torah is forever. But it exists to point the way, not to BE the way. It cannot save. It cannot impart new life. It cannot produce righteousness. What the Law points to is Christ himself:
[I]f a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Other translations render “guardian” as “schoolmaster” – the idea being an adult who takes responsibility for a child’s education and development until he reaches adulthood and can function in the world without supervision. This, brothers and sisters, is where we stand as Christian believers. We can choose to live a life governed by the Law. Doing so, we will become prideful, domineering, moralizing misanthropes. The alternative available to us is to live a life of grace: grateful for God’s forgiveness through Christ, and confident in his righteousness being counted as our own. As one ex-Pharisee poignantly wrote,
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.
Stand in his righteousness, brothers and sisters, and do not trouble yourselves with false ideas of personal righteousness earned through works.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.