WHAT APPLIES TODAY?
T. PIERCE BROWN
Recently there have been some statements made by those who would try to banish into limbo the teachings of Jesus concerning divorce, denying that what Jesus said in the gospel records applies today. The statement was made that “Nothing that Jesus said in the gospel records is binding unless it was repeated by the Apostles after the death of Christ.” This is, in our judgment, a dangerous doctrine, and needs attention.
One of the things which makes it difficult to deal properly with this insidious and dangerous concept is the fact that, without question, much of the teaching of Jesus does deal with general principles, and not with minute and specific details. If it were otherwise, we could almost say, “The world would not contain the books necessary to theChristian Wayof Life.”
Let us probe the problem a little more deeply, that we might suggest some solid foundational principles to guide those who want to please God. We are convinced that there are those who, through a pernicious effort to find a way to justify their “fuzzy” thinking and/or loose living, try to shade everything to a “light gray” area. It may be true that some of us have made a mistake of trying to view everything with a two-valued orientation — talking and acting as if everything were either black or white, right or wrong, long or short, hot or cold, — when in reality the situation calls for a multi-valued approach. But that does not leave us a right to deny that there is a black and white, just because some things may be gray.
First, let us firmly state that not all of the imperatives of the gospel records or epistles are applicable to us. “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matthew19:21), “Go into the village and find an ass” (Matthew 21:2), “Do your best to come before winter” (2 Timothy4:21) are among dozens of passages that are not for us.
How then, does one determine what is and what is not for us? The starting point is the old rule that we assumed that most serious Bible students have known and emphasized for years: Know the context. Find out who is speaking, to whom, when, and about what. One should automatically know then that “build an ark of gopher wood” or “bring the cloak atTroas” does not apply to us. But the question may become more difficult in other situations.
For example, our charismatic friends read John 14:16, “I will pray to the Father and He will give you another Comforter” and various other related passages, and express amazement and concern that anyone could question that all these promises apply to all of God’s children. They do seem to stagger a little at the command, “Tarry ye inJerusalemuntil ye be endued with power” (Luke 24:49), but that apparently is only a minor matter to them. Many of us have been accused of not believing Mark 16:17-18 — not only accused by “snake handlers” but by others. I personally have not been accused of disbelief by any “poison drinkers,” but have by those who claim to speak in tongues and possess various gifts of a miraculous nature.
However, the problem will not go away by ridiculing some earnest, honest soul who asks about it, so we need to know some ways we can readily ascertain with more certainty what, if anything, applies to us. It seems that almost the ultimate in confusion comes when one concludes that nothing in the gospel records applies to us except some broad, general principles. The logical sequel to that might be: “Nothing in the epistles applies to us either, for they were written to specific churches or individuals, dealing with specific problems in a specific age, so we must simply use them as historical examples (if we can be sure they actually happened at all!) from which we may draw whatever general lessons we see fit.” It is no wonder that those who go in that direction wind up without any anchor, foundation or guideline whatever!
It would be of some value if we would recognize that when the language is plainly that which applied to a Mosaic institution, the specific instruction was only to those in that dispensation. For example, Matthew5:23speaks of offering one’s gift at the altar. We have no way of following that instruction, so the only thing left for us to do is try to discover the principle behind the specific command, and affirming its value, practice that principle.
However, Matthew5:29does not deal with a Mosaic law, and surely applies to us as well as to them. He says, “And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” God never required a man to pluck out his eye or cut off his own hand under any dispensation to prevent him from stumbling, for the simple reason that it was not actually the hand or eye that caused the stumbling. When a hand was cut off under the Law of Moses, it was not done by the man himself to prevent stumbling, but was punitive. Nor did Jesus or the Apostles ever authorize anyone to cut off a hand to prevent stumbling. He simply says, “If it causes you to stumble —” We know of no more forceful way to teach that whatever causes you to stumble, no matter how dear it is, must be removed. For one who says, “It does not really apply,” we reply, “If it ever applied it still does. To the degree that it was literal and specific then, it is literal and specific now, for nothing in the context shows that it was a Mosaic or limited time ordinance.”
Sometimes those who take the position that none of the commands of Jesus as given in the gospel records are binding because they were all uttered in the Mosaic dispensation would look for passages like Matthew 6:6 which says, “When you pray, enter into your inner chamber —” and then use it to emphasize the fact that practically none of us believe that we have to obey that commandment every time we pray. So their conclusion is: The commandments of Jesus do not apply to us today! We repeat a point previously made: To the degree that it ever applied, it applies now. If Jesus ever meant that every prayer must be in the inner chamber with the doors shut, He still means it. Surely no serious Bible student, and most certainly none of the Apostles, assumed that Jesus meant this as a command that all prayers had to be in the inner chamber and in secret, either under the Mosaic dispensation or any other. This would eliminate the commendation of the publican (Luke18:14) and prevent them from following the examples of Jesus himself in Luke3:21and many other occasions.
One key to understanding whether it applies to us is not simply in asking, “Was it spoken before the death of Christ,” but “How was it understood and applied in the case of Jesus himself and His Apostles?” For example, Matthew5:39says, “Resist not him that is evil, but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Surely Jesus practiced what He preached, but there is no indication that He literally turned the other cheek or invited them to hit him again. When He was reviled, He reviled not again. He humbly submitted, and did good for evil. We can imagine a man who is trying to obviate the teachings of the Lord taking one or more of these three positions: 1. He hit me on the left cheek. I have no obligation to turn the other, but will now knock him down. 2. He struck me on the right cheek. I will turn the other, then I will knock him down. 3. Jesus was merely talking to those who surrounded him, but this command has no application after the cross. We see no justification in the scriptures, or in any logical approach to understanding His word, for us to take as valid any of those conclusions or attitudes. Whatever He meant then, He still means now. If He meant that is never right to oppose evil in any form then, He still means it now. We know He did not mean that, for He and His Apostles opposed evil on many occasions.
When in Matthew 5:42, He says, “Give to him that asketh thee,” if He meant then that anyone who asks for anything at any time should be given the thing for which he asks, He still means the same now. But neither God, Jesus, nor anyone else ever practiced or commanded, “Give to him that asks you” in an unlimited sense.
The solution to the problem does not come by assuming that those in His immediate presence were to obey those commands in a specific way, but that they do not so apply to us. We can pretend that they are general principles and ignore them. We contend that Christians today are required to do them in the same degree and sense those disciples were required to, and that there is no scripture, rule of logic, grammar, or interpretation that would indicate otherwise.
The question of what applies to us must therefore be settled in other ways. Some of the questions we must ask in order to ascertain that are: 1. Does the context, language, circumstance, etc. show that it was a law, rule or commandment dealing with a situation under the Law of Moses? (For example, “Go, show thyself to the priest,” Luke5:14).
2. Do the circumstances show that the command was only to one group or person? (Rich young ruler, Mark10:21; limited commission, Luke 9:3).
3. Do the subsequent actions of Jesus and His Apostles indicate that He is using bold, striking or figurative language in order to make a point or set forth a principle that neither He nor they ever literally did? (Mark11: 32).
Unless it is shown to be limited by the nature of the case (such as those suggested above), the teachings of Jesus to His Apostles in laying the foundation of the kingdom are to be carried over into, perpetuated by, and enjoined upon the citizens of Christ’s kingdom today. This is the meaning of Matthew 28:20, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you.” He did not say, “Teaching them to feel a general obligation to the principles I have expounded.” Of course, where He set forth principles, and did not deal in specific ways with the application of them, we are left free to apply them in any way in harmony with the rest of His teachings.
If a person takes the position of the modernist that the gospel record is full of “jars and clashes and contradictions,” he would just as logically be able to take the position that we are not only under no obligation to obey any of the specific commands of Jesus related in the gospels, we would not really know if even the general principles set forth were ever stated, or could be applied!