Tuesday, March 14, 2017

UNDERSTANDING JESUS' TEACHINGS





Jesus’ teachings are difficult. Consequently, we often avoid them. For one thing, Jesus taught in parables. Here’s why:

·       And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" He answered and said to them, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matthew 13:

If people have hardened their hearts and minds to the light of truth (John 3:19-20), Jesus was not going to pour out His pearls of wisdom before swine (Matthew 7:6). They would only twist it for their own purposes. They do this anyway. One disbeliever charged:

·       You Christians love to tell others how they’re messing up, but you too refuse to follow Jesus!

I asked “Bob” what he meant. He explained, “Jesus taught you to turn the other cheek, but you want to bomb the snot out of ISIS. Jesus taught you to give to anyone who asks, but you won’t give me a miserable $20!”

This is a serious charge. If Bob is right, then we are hypocrites, telling others to follow Jesus, while we refuse to follow him.

I wanted to explain to Bob that it depends on our interpretation of Jesus, but I knew that the answer would not be satisfying. It required more than a single verse rebuttal. Besides, Luke did write:

  • "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Luke 6:27-30)

Admittedly, this is a difficult set of verses to interpret. One reason is because it seems to contradict many other verses. Paul had instructed that us to not give to everyone who asks. If someone refuses to work, we would be doing wrongly to support him (2 Thess. 3:10).

However, even Jesus taught that there are occasions when we shouldn’t give. We shouldn’t waste our pearls of wisdom on those who will turn against us (Matthew 7:6). Even Jesus did not give to all who ask. James and John requested Jesus to make them His co-regents once He’d set up His kingdom. However, He turned them down!

Is this a contradiction, or is there a way to resolve it? Yes! Jesus spoke in parables, often using hyperbole (exaggerated language) and our attempts to understand Him have to take this into account:

  • And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:30)

No one takes this literally. If we did, the church would be filled with handless people. Likewise, no one takes Jesus’ command to “pluck out your eye” literally. However, His hyperbolic language makes a powerful point: “If cutting of your hand could keep you from sin and hell, then it would be a small price to pay!”

For years, I had struggled with Jesus’ elusive teachings. Should I turn my cheek (Matthew 5:39) when my students were misbehaving, even to the point of threatening other students? Fortunately, I decided against this kind of “turning the other cheek.” It would have brought utter disrespect upon me and upon my faith.

It eventually became apparent to me that if I took Jesus literally, I would violate other biblical commands. If my friend asked to borrow my gun so that he could shoot his wife, such giving would violate the law against murder. If I gave him money to buy street drugs, I would be contributing to a possible overdose and criminality. Perhaps a ridiculous-looking interpretation is ridiculous and wrong-headed.

I began to ask, “Does the context of this teaching give me the justification to take Jesus’ teaching hyperbolically.” (I dreaded the idea of misapplying His teaching.) However, I did find grounds for a less literal understanding in the following verses:

  • “Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:31-36)

Often, Jesus gives us the key to unlock the interpretation. It seems that He had in this case. I had to be merciful as the “Father is merciful.” When I began to see His teaching on giving in the light of this over-arching principle, it began to make sense. The Father wouldn’t give us something that would destroy us or others. Instead, He would give according to His will:

·       And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)

God does not give indiscriminately; never should we! If giving isn’t in the best interests of the other person, then I shouldn’t give. I had to learn the difference between destructive, disempowering, indulgent giving and giving that would bless. Paul had argued against the church supporting certain widows because this would enable them to sin. Instead, he argued that the younger widows should marry and that the widow’s family should support her where necessary (1 Tim. 5:3-8).

Jesus argued that our mercy should reflect the wisdom of God’s mercy (Luke 6:36). What does that look like? It looks like what’s been written in the Hebrew Scriptures, what else! There, we find giving accompanied by accountability. God displayed a major interest in the welfare of the poor and needy but in a loving way. He wouldn’t de-motivate them with handouts but instead required that the fields be available to the poor to glean the remains. 

We have a weighty responsibility for the poor, but it must be exercised wisely, lovingly, and scripturally. Also, seen from the point of view of God’s entire revelation, “turning the other cheek” was not a command to fire every policeman and tear down every jail. Instead, it was a warning against taking the law into our own hands to seek revenge. (Watch out, ISIS!) Instead, it reflects the Bible’s emphasis on the civil magistrate who would avenge wrongdoing (Romans 13:1-4) as opposed to vigilantism.

Bob would not have sat still for this explanation, but at least I could assure myself that I am not a hypocrite.

How then do we understand Jesus if He spoke in parables? We understand Him by understanding the Scriptures that He had embraced, and He had embraced them all, the entire Jewish canon (Matthew 5:17-19), every Word that came from God:

·       But he answered [the devil], “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

He demonstrated this principle in many ways. He continually quoted or alluded to Scripture, as if to say, “If the Scripture says it, that settles it.” He was even so imbued with Scriptural and its form that He often expressed Himself according to the poetic forms of the Hebrew Scriptures.

We have another indication that He never contradicted the Hebrew Scriptures. Had He done so, the religious leaders would have quickly brought Him up on charges of “blaspheme,” something that they were never able to do.

Consequently, we have to view Jesus through the lens of the Scriptures. For example, “turn the other cheek” has often been invoked to argue that Jesus had been teaching absolute non-violence and had done away with capital punishment. However, Jesus might have had in mind the verses that equated the “striking of the cheek” with insults (Job 16:10; Lamentations 3:30) rather literal blows. In the case of “turn the other cheek,” this would have meant to endure insult rather than to physically retaliate.

Jesus also seems to have endorsed the Hebrew Scripture’s teachings about capital punishment. When the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for not following the “traditions of the elders,” Jesus retorted:

·       “For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” (Matthew 15:4-6)

For Jesus, making “void the Word of God” was a serious offense.

Others claim that Jesus never taught in favor of self-defense, but this is not true:

·       Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” (Matthew 24:42-43)

Clearly, Jesus approved of a father defending his family from an intruder. Besides, Jesus had forcefully driven the money-changers from the Temple (John 2). So much for the idea of a passive, non-violent Jesus!

When we understand Jesus’ teachings in light of the Hebrew Scriptures, they begin to make sense. These Scriptures made a strong distinction between the behavior of individuals and government. Individuals were to love their enemies:

·       If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him. (Exodus 23)

In light of these kinds of teachings, Jesus didn’t invent a revelation of love apart from Scripture. Instead, He merely brought the Israelites back to the true meaning of Scripture. Even the “righteous” Pharisees had lost touch with Scripture’s teachings on love. Therefore Jesus corrected them:

·       “You have heard that it was said [by the Pharisees], ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)

The Pharisees could not argue against this, since it reflected the very teachings of their Scriptures:

·       The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:9)

Likewise, we also have to understand “turn the other cheek” from Jesus’ perspective, the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures. Without doing so, it might seem that Jesus had been replacing what seems to have been a barbaric OT teaching of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”:

·       "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

“An eye for an eye” did seem barbaric to me. Besides, it seemed that Jesus had replaced this archaic principle with the law of absolute non-retaliation. Perhaps if I just loved my students enough and refused to “retaliate” against their wrong, I would see miracles. Jesus would correct them supernaturally.

However, I also became convinced that such an interpretation would also violate Jesus' intent. I first had to decide whether or not Jesus' teaching was meant to correct the Mosaic Covenant or the current understanding of this Covenant. For one thing, when Jesus cited “an eye for an eye,” He did not say, “It is written,” but “You have heard that it was said.” This spoke volumes to me. Jesus wasn’t taking issue with Mosaic Law but with the way that it had been misappropriated to justify revenge and vigilantism.

Then, I found that the principle of an "eye for an eye" wasn't at all barbaric. Instead, this judicial principle required that the penalties had to match the crimes:

·       “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.” (Exodus 21:24-27)

Instead of the slave-master losing his eye, something more in line with justice and compassion was demanded. The master would have to set free his slave to his great loss.

I eventually perceived that Jesus never criticized the Old Testament (Matthew 5:16-19). Instead, He always quoted it affirmatively. Consequently, it became obvious that the Sermon on the Mount was not an indictment of the Mosaic legal system but of our personal abuses of it.

It seems likely that Jesus was taking aim at those who invoked an "eye for an eye" to justify taking personal revenge. If this is so, then Jesus was teaching:

·       It is better to allow yourself to be defrauded and insulted rather than to take revenge.

However, Jesus would also say many perplexing things – things that didn’t seem to accord with the Scriptures:

·       "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

This teaching even seemed to contradict His request for prayer that couldn’t be done in a closet, like when He commanded His Apostles to pray for Him in the Garden of Gethsemane or even when He prayed publicly. How then are we to understand His command to pray in secret in a closet? We need to understand the immediate context where we find that Jesus' concern is about our motivation to be seen and approved by men rather than God:

·       “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)

We tend to be quite self-righteous and demand the approval of man to sustain our inflated and insatiable egos. This cancer permeates all areas of our spiritual lives, even our prayers and must be exposed. But how? Just try praying in private! Do we find that we are less motivated to do so? It might be because we too want to be seen by men and less-so by God. Consequently, we can understand His command to pray in the closet as an exercise in self-discovery.

I regard Jesus as the ultimate Doctor of the soul. He wanted His followers to understand the depths of their self-righteous cancer. Therefore, some of His commands were superficially perplexing:

·       “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3)

Literally, this is absurd. Hands know nothing, and we cannot hide from ourselves our giving. Instead, Jesus wants us to understand why we are giving. Is it for the approval of men or of God? Try giving in absolute secrecy. If we rebel against such a practice, it probably means that we want to look good, and we need to understand this about ourselves and learn through this exercise that we are unworthy of God. Consequently, our hope will be based on God alone.

To strengthen His point, Jesus would often use hyperbole (exaggeration). Jesus commanded us to cut off our hands and to pluck out our eyes rather than sin and enter hell:

·       “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30)

Can we stop sinning if we pluck out our eyes (or even pray only in private)? No! Sin arises out of the heart not out of our hands or our eyes, as Jesus taught elsewhere (Matthew 15:19). Then why pluck out our eyes? I think that Jesus was hyperbolically teaching that, because of the overriding worth of going to heaven, if plucking out our eyes would insure heaven, such a sacrifice would be well worth it.

How do we know that Jesus was using hyperbole? Because even if we did pluck out our eyes, it wouldn’t prevent us from sinning! Recently, I read about a blind professional who left his wife for his secretary. Clearly, blindness is no cure for sin.

Parallel verses give us another way to detect hyperbole. Some verses are very perplexing until we take into account how Jesus expressed the same thought elsewhere, for example:

·       "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

On the surface, this verse to contradicts a lot of biblical principles like honoring our parents. However, this problem is easily resolved when we observe a parallel teaching from Matthew:

·       “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)

It is a matter of our priorities. Jesus must be our highest priority, even above ourselves and our family.

Here is another example of the same principle:

·       “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

One skeptic tried to use this verse to prove that Jesus was teaching insurrection. However, we can easily counteract this claim when we look at a parallel verse:

·       “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)

From these verse we understand that Jesus used the image of the sword to connote spiritual division and not warfare.

Ultimately, context is king. It must determine how we understand any one passage. This same principle pertains to the interpretation of all literature, not just the Bible, as if we are making a special allowance for it.  Likewise, to apply any one law, the lawyer has to understand how it has been applied in many different circumstances, and they are not all listed in one place.

Similarly, if we remove any one verse from the context of the rest of the Bible, we will encounter interpretive problems. For example, the Ten Commandments reads, “Thou shall not kill.” In this context, it doesn’t give us the many exceptions. However, we find that there are many exceptions throughout the Bible. There is self-defense, warfare, and even capital punishment. However, we did not see these exceptions by reading one verse or chapter.

This same principle – “Scripture interprets Scripture” – pertains throughout the Bible. Here is one verse that has been cited as a “clear contradiction”:

·       Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matthew 24:33-34)

For Bible critic and agnostic Bart D. Ehrman, this verse proves Jesus wrong:

·       Jesus fully expected that the history of the world as we know it (as well as how he knew it) was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity…Moreover, Jesus expected this cataclysmic end of history would come in his own generation, at least during the lifetime of his disciples. (Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999) x)

However, in order to make his case, Ehrman had to ignore key elements. For one thing, Jesus had stated right afterwards that He didn’t know the time of His return (Mat. 24:36). More significantly, Ehrman closed his eyes to other elements within the immediate context, which argue in favor of an extended period of time prior to His second coming. Jesus prophesied:

·       You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other… And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:6-14)

These verses point to a distant coming, following the death of the Apostles, a great falling away, and the Gospel having been preached throughout the “whole world.” What then could Jesus possibly have meant when He stated that “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Mat. 24:34)? Here are two possibilities:

1.    “Generation” might also pertain to the Jewish “race” (Isaiah 53:8, “descendants”) meaning that there would still be Jews at the time of Jesus’ return.

2.    Jesus’ return, to which Jesus referred, might not have been His second coming, but rather a “coming” in judgment against Jerusalem (70 AD) during the lifetime of many of His disciples.

There might even be a better third possibility. However, here is what is clear – Ehrman’s facile conclusion that Jesus was wrong ignores much of what is germane in order to manufacture a “contradiction” where none exists.

Interpreting Jesus is a lengthy subject. I would like to close it here, but there is one more aspect that I want to address in the next chapter. Many claim that Jesus had given us a “blank check” to receive anything that we pray for, but I want to argue that this represents a misguided interpretation of His promises.

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