July 17, 2021 - How Timeless Is the Bible?

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Today we want to talk about: How much of the Bible is timeless, and how much is time-bound? Why is a ham sandwich OK, but same-sex marriage is not OK? If one of these Biblical prohibitions was just for Israel, why does the other one still apply to us? Why is the command to slaughter the Canaanites not for us today? And is Jesus just for us, or is he Lord of all times and places?

We hear people say: Times have changed. It’s a different world than the world to which the Bible was written. So why not junk the morality and teachings of the Late Bronze Age and the Roman Empire? Why not ditch the whole Bible as a piece of outdated fiction that modern people can no longer believe? Or should we try to salvage what we can from it, or mine it for whatever jewels we can find in it?

Perhaps you’ve heard about claims from a pastor out there who says that we should “unhitch” ourselves from the OT. Yet even the NT has its parts that many of our neighbors find hard to accept as God’s word to us today. My aim today is to help those who already firmly believe in the Bible’s authority to sort out which parts of the Bible are meant to be timeless and universal, and which parts were directly intended only for Israel.

Paul tells believers in Romans 15:4, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” The Hebrew sacrifices and ceremonies were not God’s command to us, but we can still learn from them. And because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross that takes away all sin, sacrifice is no longer necessary for those who accept what Christ has done for us. That’s a clear NT teaching.

Hebrew Bible narratives give us valuable lessons we can learn about God and ourselves. Even the conquest of Canaan is not an example for us to do likewise, but a warning about Canaanite religion, which would glom onto all other religions like mercury, which produced toxic results.

When we criticize the violence that is commanded numerous times in the Quran, we are often reminded that the Hebrew Bible also contains plenty of such violence. But here’s a huge difference: Jesus sets that violence aside. Islam has no equivalent re-set on its teachings. Yes, there are two verses in the Quran that argue for a peaceful approach to unbelievers (Sura 2:256, 50:45), but there is no Islamic source with the clout of a Jesus or a NT to set the Quran’s violence aside.

So why is the ban on sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman still for today, while the ban on ham is just for Israel? A lot of people today lump commands from the Bible together indiscriminately. We hear them say, “Hey, the Bible forbids sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman, but it also forbids wearing mixed fabric, and eating leavened bread during Passover. It’s all a hopeless jumble, useless as any reliable source of ethical guidance.” As we talked about a few weeks ago, lots of folks claim that the Bible teaches no consistent sexual ethic. They claim that it endorses polygamy, concubines, prostitution, and even incest. What they try to do is portray the Bible as wildly and hopelessly diverse, and then conclude that it is useless as a moral or ethical guide. I think they’re wrong. We’ll talk about why.

How do we know which OT laws are only for Israel, and which ones are still God’s word to us today? And how do we sort thru all the moral teachings given to us by the NT writers? Does the NT lead us to believe that all sins are equally dangerous? Or does it warn us that some sins put our souls at higher risk than others? How do we know when the NT is merely lifting us to a higher plane of morality, and when it’s trying to warn us against falling off steep drop-offs?

I would argue that, despite a chorus of different voices in the Bible that sound different notes, there is a consistent Biblical ethic, as I have argued in my book What’s on God’s Sin List for Today? As we read the OT law, we find a category of particularly serious offenses (judging from the penalties on them) that are reaffirmed as valid moral issues by the NT. As we read the NT, we find a number of sin lists where certain behaviors are consistently ruled out of bounds. And as to the question of whether a NT command is outdated or no longer for today, I would say that if our situation is a lot like the world in which God spoke, God’s word to us is the same as God’s word was to them.

Let’s talk about the case where the critic wants to say that the laws against homosexual behavior, wearing mixed fabric, and eating leavened bread during Passover are all equally serious. The problem with this type of argument is that it confuses three types of laws, all of which carry different penalties. The first law carries a death penalty, the second carries no explicit penalty, and the third calls for the offender to be “cut off from his/her people”. Such a wholesale mixture of texts is not a faithful way to handle God’s law, because it ignores distinctions in God’s law that are clearly signaled in the text itself.

The death penalty signals the most serious offenses in the Law of Moses’s system of crimes and punishments. We understand what the death penalty is. But what is this penalty “cut off from (one’s) people,” a penalty declared for 19 separate offenses in God’s law? While the rabbis believed that this penalty was an extermination curse from God that meant premature death, no afterlife, and no descendants, I argued in my doctoral dissertation that “cut off from (one’s) people” is a form of expulsion from the Hebrew community, a penalty less than death.

The implications of this conclusion are huge for Christian ethics. If “cut off from one’s people” is normally a less severe penalty than the death penalty, that helps us separate these two categories of offenses. Laws that carry a death penalty prove to be timeless and universal, and are reaffirmed as valid moral issues for us by the NT. Let’s be clear, it is NOT the death penalty itself that is timeless and universal, it is the laws to which the death penalty is applied. The death penalty is a signal that a particular law is a “Class A felony” with God.

By contrast, laws where the penalty is expulsion are laws that are only intended for Israel. They are not reaffirmed by the NT as laws that are still binding on Christians today. So laws like the requirement to circumcise, or the law against eating leaven during Passover, are penalized by expulsion from the Hebrew community. These laws are only for Israel, while murder, adultery, and other capital crimes in God’s law are still binding moral issues for us today.

Every Hebrew command that carries a death penalty is reaffirmed by the New Testament as a binding moral principle. The NT does not command us to execute incorrigible teenagers, but it does affirm the command, “Honor your father and mother.” Commands in the OT that do not carry a death penalty, like the kosher food laws, are not reaffirmed in the New Testament, and may be taken as commands that are just for Israel.

The ban on pork is part of the kosher food laws (Leviticus 11:1-47 = Deuteronomy 14:3-20). There are no penalties given for breaking these laws. However, eating unkosher food does make you unclean, which carries a severe penalty if you try to enter the Temple in that condition.

The NT sets the kosher food laws aside. Jesus teaches in Mark 7:14-15 that there is nothing we can eat that defiles us. 20 years later, by the time when followers of Jesus are debating whether Gentile believers had to keep kosher, Mark looks back on Jesus’ words and sees an answer to that debate: “Thus he declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19) Paul agrees in Romans 14:14: “I know and am persuaded that nothing is unclean in itself.” He adds in 1Timothy 4:3-4 that God created all foods to be good and to be received with thanksgiving. I am truly thankful that God created ham and pulled pork!

So the NT does a re-set on the kosher food laws. Not so for gay sex. The Law of Moses declares that to be a death penalty crime (Leviticus 20:13), along with numerous other offenses that the NT reaffirms as sin. Jesus sets aside the death penalty for all of these sins in John 8:7, but those penalties serve to mark these commands as timeless moral principles in God’s eyes. If God puts a death penalty on an offense, it must be serious.

In addition, if we can show that God’s word on a subject like this was spoken to a world where the situation was much like ours, then God’s word to us must be the same as God’s word was to them. God’s word through Jesus and his apostles was given in a world with as much sexual freedom as ours, of all kinds, gay and straight. One of my objectives at Biblical Words and World is to prove that the Biblical world was not as backward or unlike ours, as some people claim who try to dismiss the Bible’s teachings as outdated.

So in Mark 7 we have Jesus, our authoritative teacher of God’s law, making 2 radical pronouncements as he reinterprets the Law of Moses for us. First, he sets aside the whole system of clean and unclean that God gave to Moses. Second, according to Mark, he sets aside the kosher food laws. Those are 2 humongous moves for Jesus to make as a teacher of God’s law. These are major trademarks of Judaism. We must ask, If Jesus the rabbi can set aside the cleanliness laws and the kosher food laws, what else is up for grabs? Where do we draw the line? How much of the Law of Moses is still God’s word for us today?

That’s why Jesus gives us this sin list in Mark 7. As soon as he gets done telling us what does not defile the human heart, Jesus gives us a partial list of what does defile the human heart. Jesus gives us some important examples of sins that are still on God’s sin list for us today.

First on Jesus’ list is fornication, porneia, a broad term for all kinds of sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. The 7th Commandment only specifically forbids adultery, but as the Jews encountered the sexual freedom of the Greeks and Romans, they promptly expanded that commandment to mean all sex outside of the lifelong bond of marriage. Jesus puts porneia at the top of his sin list, both to reinforce the moral convictions of his Jewish listeners, and also to help his later Gentile followers, who needed to hear this teaching straight from him, because it contradicted their culture (and ours). Every NT book but James rules porneia out of bounds, particularly 1 Corinthians 6 (“flee from fornication”), Ephesians 5 (fornication “must not even be named among you”), and 1 Thessalonians 4 (“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication”).

The next 4 sins on Jesus’ list are straight from the 10 Commandments: theft, murder, adultery, and greed. These commandments are still for us today. Jesus does not set them aside. God cares just as much as ever about property rights, the sanctity of life, and the economic heartache caused by the unbridled desire for more. 1 Timothy 6:10 says the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Proverbs 28:21 says, “For a piece of bread, a person will do wrong.” Economic motives (money, or lack thereof) will lead us to break any law of God, with the excuse, “I can’t afford to do the right thing.” “I can’t afford to have this child, we can’t afford to wait until marriage, I can’t afford to tell the truth on my tax return.”

Another sin on Jesus’ sin list is “deceit.” In Matthew’s version of this list, he takes Jesus to mean “false witness,” the specific breaking of the 9th commandment, but Mark uses a broader word that refers to all kinds of deceptiveness, including lies, treachery, and hypocrisy (living a lie). We know that Jesus couldn’t stand phonies. Jesus valued those who said what they meant and meant what they said.

The next word on Jesus’ sin list is a word that is usually translated “licentiousness” or “lasciviousness.” It’s a word for shocking behavior that goes way over the line. Jews always used this word to refer to sexual offenses. I have published evidence that Jesus and other Jews in his day used this word as a synonym for what they considered the most shocking sexual offenses named in the Torah, offenses beyond mere fornication or adultery. (Check this out on my website: biblicalethic.org.) But we’ve gotta remember: Whatever Jesus says on this list, he says in love. God’s command to love our neighbors is timeless; it has not gone out the window.

The last 4 sins on Jesus’ list that defile the human heart are “an evil eye” (a standard Jewish term for envy), blasphemy (or slander), pride, and foolishness. While coveting wants to obtain our neighbor’s possessions, envy is anger at our neighbor for assets such as beauty, talent, and other advantages that we cannot take for ourselves.

The NT has a number of other sin lists where we find echoes of Jesus’ teaching on this list. In Galatians 5, Paul gives us a list of the “works of the flesh,” which includes everything on Jesus’ list, plus it includes “witchcraft,” “drunkenness,” and “idolatry.” 1 Corinthians 6 has a similar list that specifically mentions same-sex behavior. Both of these lists say that persons who continue to practice such behaviors “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

And there are other lists in the NT. The NT sin lists supplement one another. They fill in each other’s gaps. We never find them disagreeing. We never find one list saying “X is bad” and another list saying “X is good.” These lists give us an authoritative consensus from Jesus and his apostles as to what is sin.

Jesus says that all of these vices come from within, from the human heart, and they are what defile a person. Jesus takes the issue of defilement to a higher level than external do’s and don’ts such as “wash this” or “don’t touch this” or “don’t eat that.” None of these sources of defilement sinks down into the heart. Jesus emphasizes internal moral purity over external. And all of the vices that Jesus names on his list are actually symptoms of a heart that is alienated from God.

We cannot use Jesus’ list, or any of the other lists in the New Testament, as a checklist of sins to avoid if we want to go to heaven. These lists do give us valuable advice to avoid heartache in this life. They do give us insight into what God thinks is sin. But these lists cannot make us better than the next person, and they cannot show us how to get right with God. We can’t just use the Bible’s lists of sins and say, “There! I don’t do this, I don’t do that. I’m finally good enough for God to accept me. I’m a good person now.” It doesn’t work that way. We can’t reach God by any program of do’s and don’ts. That means if you’re one of those persons who knows you can never measure up to the standards found in our New Testament sin lists, there is as much hope for you as there is for every one of us. Let me explain.

Jesus has a lot more to say about sin than what we find on this list. If we read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or his command “Love one another, as I have loved you,” we find that Jesus sets the standard so sky-high that none of us can reach it. If all Jesus came to do was tell us or show us how to live, we would all be toast. We can’t do it! That’s why the Good News is not what Jesus said, but what he did. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died. He did for us, what we never could have done for ourselves. None of us can earn our way to God. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself the eternal pain of hell for every one of us, so that we could be put right with God forever. Jesus can make us just as if we’ve never sinned. By placing our faith in Christ, by saying Yes to what Jesus has done to take away all of our sin, we can have the assurance of everlasting life and peace with God.

As we have seen, Jesus says it’s not what goes into our mouths, but what comes out of us, that defiles the human heart. So does God care about what we eat or drink? Is tobacco or alcohol a sin? Or what does God think about recreational drugs? We’ll talk about these questions next time on Biblical Words and World.