Our culture, our political system, and even our western Christian/church system and culture is becoming more and more polarized. Last week we began exploring what a third way to follow Jesus would look like, and if that is even possible. We have been seeking to find a way that goes beyond conservative or progressive labels and means of following Jesus. That cuts a third way, neither right or left, conservative or progressive.
So last week we kicked off this series by looking at the Bible and how a third way of following Jesus would approach the Bible. Having a high view of it, which means not just about knowledge but of actually applying it to our lives.
So today we are going to talk a little bit more about the Bible, but specifically about the importance of the New Testament, and an emphasis on it, and why we should emphasize the New Testament.
So let’s turn to two Scriptures and see what they might have to say to us toward about the importance of the New Testament and in following Jesus. The first one that we’ll look at together is Matthew 5:17-20 and the second is John 5:39-40.
Matthew 5:17-20 says this, “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.”
I want to focus on just the first verse that says, “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.” Jesus was seeking and trying to show the Jews of his day that the movement that he was starting and living out was really the fulfillment of everything and all that Israel had believed and was longing for and working towards. Jesus wasn’t interested in abandoning the law and the prophets. Israel’s whole story, commands, promises and the book that we call the Old Testament were all pointing towards and were going to come true in Jesus. A third way of following Jesus believes that since Christ is God’s supreme revelation, that we make a clear functional distinction between the equally inspired Old and New Testaments. A Third way of following Jesus sees the old and new covenant. We read the old from the perspective of the new and see the new as a fulfillment of the old. Where the two differ, the new prevails and thus third way ethics are derived primarily from the New Testament, especially the gospels, which tell the story of the supreme revelation of God, Jesus. The New Testament is the culmination of, fulfillment of and serves as the interpretative key to the Old Testament. New Testament takes precedence over the Old. The New Testament teaching trumps Old Testament teaching and the Old Testament points forward to Christ. Jesus is the climax of God’s story which runs all the way from Genesis to Revelation.
One of the interesting things about this text is the context in which Jesus is saying it. He is saying that he came not to abolish the law but fulfill it in the middle of his most famous teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. Basically what he is saying in the rest of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, is answering the what does it look like when the law and the prophets come to fulfillment question. First, and obviously, it looks like Jesus. But then this is what it looks like to fulfill the law and the prophets. For Israel to be the Israel that God had been calling them to be since Abraham was told that his nation was to be blessed so that they could be a blessing. For them to be Israel, to be a blessing, and live out the rule and reign of Jesus in this world, the thing that Jesus calls, in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.
A theologian from the 1500’s put this third way focus on the New Testament and on Jesus fulfilling the law and prophets this way, “All the Scriptures point us to the spirit, gospel, example and ordinances of Christ.” A third way faith means that we focus on the New Testament, and particularly the life and teachings of Jesus. This is not to say that the OT isn’t important or needed. The entirety of Scripture is inspired by God, but that everything in the Old Testament is a signpost to Jesus. We should read the book and approach it in a Christo-centric way…signposts pointing to Jesus, the crux of the matter. The climax of the story. The main point of all that is written. What I mean by Christo-centric is this, Jesus is the lens through which all Scripture is read.
Last week I mentioned that far too often Christians read the Bible as a flat book or a flat text. What this means is that a flat reading of the text assumes that the words of God as understood by, say Moses, in the Old Testament, holds the same “weight” and “authority” as the words of Jesus in the New Testament. When we read the Bible as a flat text we read the right book in the wrong way. The Bible is not a flat book but is an unfolding of God’s purposes with the New Testament providing the normative guidelines for ethics and church life. All too often when we use and interpret the Bible as a flat book, we can illegitimately use OT passages to set aside clear New Testament teaching. All we have to do to see that happening is to look back into church history and see how the Old Testament was used to explain and defend actions that actually goes against clear New Testament ethics and especially the life, ministry, mission and teachings of Jesus. I mentioned last week the white european settlers reading the Joshua conquest stories in the Old Testament as their story, and their “God given” call to cross the “Jordan River” (Atlantic Ocean) and to claim the promised land from those “heathen” tribes.
But if the Bible isn’t a flat book, then what is it? Let’s see what Jesus might say to us through John 5:39-40. John 5:39-40 says, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Obviously when Jesus is referring to the Scriptures here, he is referring to the Old Testament, since the New Testament hadn’t been written or put together. And so he is saying that the Old Testament itself points to Jesus. And that the religious leaders, who had studied the text much of their life, totally missed the point. He is saying that one can know everything about the “Jewish hope for the Messiah” and not to know the Messiah that the Old Testament is a signpost to. The ones who knew the text the most, missed it the most. The Old Testament is a preparatory document, preparing the way for the Christ. Preparing the way so that people would be ready and be able to interpret the signposts that pointed to the Christ, the long awaited Messiah.
Now what Jesus is also saying here in this text to the religious leaders of his day, is that they were coming to the Old Testament Scriptures in order to have eternal life but life, true life was found in him. We can be in danger of the same exact thing, studying both the Old and New Testament and placing our hope in the Bible itself. The Bible itself, whether the Old or New Testament is not the point, but it does point to the one who gives life, life to the fullest and life everlasting, Jesus the Christ. We don’t worship the Bible, as I mentioned last week, that would be bibliolatry. No, we worship Jesus, the one that both the Old and the New point to. We don’t worship the New Testament, even though it is the record of God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus the Christ. And because of that it has authority over what precedes it. Christians are called to follow Jesus not the Bible. We emphasize the New Testament because the New Testament scriptures are the trustworthy written witness and record of Jesus, and because of that they are of supreme importance. But as we’ll talk about next week, Jesus rules over all of those things including the New Testament itself.
So what exactly does it look like to have a third way of following Jesus, or a third way faith, if you will, in regards to emphasizing the New Testament? What difference does it make in the right here and the right now?
First of all, as I mentioned before, to emphasis the New Testament especially the gospels which are the record of the life, teaching, mission, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, gives us an interpretive framework under which we can seek to understand the entirety of Scripture. An emphasis in the New Testament gives the church a rule of life to live by, and an ethic to live out in the world. It will help us and allow us to interpret all Scripture from a ethical Christ-centered point of view. When we read the Old Testament and come up with an application we can hold it up to the teachings of Jesus and see if they square. If not, then we need to take another look at the interoperation. Andwhen the interpretation or ethic that we derive from other parts of the Scriptures, do square with the teachings and life of Jesus, then we know that we are free to apply those things to our lives, our ethics, our beliefs, and our actions.
Secondly, as mentioned last week in my message about the Bible, a third way faith regrading the emphasis on the New Testament means that we center our lives on discipleship and the following of Jesus. That when we read the teachings of Jesus and his call for his followers to follow him, to live like him, to love like him, to be like him, we are to actually do them, with God’s enabling grace and the help of the Holy Spirit. When we focus on either the Old Testament or even parts of the New, we can actually nullify the teachings of Jesus. In fact, some Christians believe that Christ’s teachings are unattainable in the present. In fact, some who interpret the Bible this way postpone the validity of Jesus' teachings to some future time. God's mercy and forgiveness is emphasized in this system rather than careful obedience. One such place within the New Testament that some people actually interpret for another time is the Sermon on the Mount. People believe that these teachings are beyond our ability so we have to come up with some way to explain it away. The dispensationalist (Dispensationalism is a product of a Bible and prophetic conference movement in the nineteenth century which divided history into a number of time periods, or dispensations, in which God dealt with humanity on a different basis in each period.) are ones who would seek to explain away the clear teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the call to actually live them out. A quote from the Scofield Reference Bible, “The Sermon on the Mount has a twofold application: (1) Literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution. . . . In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is pure law. . . . For these reasons the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles.” So basically what that is saying is that the Kingdom is another time, and that in that other time the Sermon on the Mount will be the way it works, but for now the church isn’t held responsible for living according to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. I obviously would disagree with that understanding. The third way of faith is about discipleship and obedience to the teachings of Jesus. And not just “knowledge” about the Scriptures and the New Testament.
So let’s get into smaller groups and dialogue around this third way emphasis on the New Testament. What thoughts, questions, push back, insights, etc.. do you have? Share stories where you have seen people apply the teachings of Scripture that actually run contrary to the teachings and life of Jesus. And let’s talk about what God might be saying to us through the Scriptures and our discussion on emphasizing the New Testament in this third way of following Jesus.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, push back, etc.. do you have regarding the Scriptures and/or the message?
2. Share a story or two where you have seen people apply something from the Bible that actually ran counter to the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus.
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What do you think God might be saying to us as a community and what should we do about it?