Did Jesus Destroy the Law?

If you asked most Christians to list their relationship to the laws of the Old Testament the way they do on social media, some might fall under the category “In a relationship.” Others might describe the relationship as “Separated.” But the most accurate—even if it’s the most uncomfortable—would have to be “It’s complicated.”

Many Christians imagine that Jesus offers complete freedom from the restrictive laws of Old Testament faith, and that’s true to some extent. Jesus broke the religious laws of his day over and over again. He allowed his hungry disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. He didn’t observe the ritual hand washing that the Law required. He healed on the Sabbath, even though that was against the Law.

So it comes as a surprise to many of us when Jesus doubles down on the Law, saying “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Why does Jesus sound less like a rebel and more like a rule follower? Why is Jesus warning us that not one letter, not even one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law?

One of the most helpful things we can do when we try to answer big questions like this is to consider the context of these words. We have to remember that Jesus was a first century Jewish Rabbi speaking to first century Jews living in first century Palestine. So when we hear the expression “the Law,” it helps to understand Jesus’ words in their original context before we apply them in ours. When a first century Jewish teacher like Jesus used the expression “the Law,” it could mean a few different things: the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the first five books of the Bible (Torah), the 613 commandments (mitzvot) found in the Torah, the Law and the Prophets (the Christian Old Testament), or the scribal law. This last understanding of the Law was an added layer of interpretation, application and clarification from later generations of Rabbis.

The oral tradition of scribal law was still being composed in Jesus’ day, and he is weighing in on a heated debate between religious and legal scholars. Some say all of the Law is binding, including the scribal law, while others want to go back to basics. Jesus falls into the radical center, the extremely moderate position that respects the Law and faithfully tries to discern when it is and is not binding on the believer.

Faithful Christians then and now have struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ words. They have tried to figure out what it means that he fulfilled the Law, and many times they are looking for a checklist or a recipe for salvation. But Jesus offers something more difficult, but also more rewarding. He says, “It’s complicated.”

A pastor for the early church named Augustine summarized the Law this way: “Love God, and do what you like.” Far from granting permission to do anything and everything, his words instruct Christ’s followers to follow God’s will. Because when we love God with all that we are, then what we like to do will be in line with God’s law, God’s will and God’s instruction.

The Law is ultimately a call to love. In saying that he has fulfilled the Law, Jesus hands each of his followers a blank sheet of paper and asks us a few simple questions. He asks if we will reject evil and repent of our sins. He asks if we will accept the freedom and power from God to resist evil, injustice and oppression. And he asks if we will confess Jesus as our Savior and follow him as our Lord. Listen to the sermon, “Did Jesus Destroy the Law?”

Pastor Matt Potter

Love My Enemies?

Love My Enemies?

In his famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7), Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and to not resist an evil person.  While Jesus is certainly calling us to a high standard in human relationships, we wonder about how literal to take his words of instruction.  It sounds almost as if Jesus is encouraging us to become silent victims of abuse.  Are we supposed to become a doormat and let people walk all over us?  Are there any situations where it might be appropriate to set reasonable boundaries so that dysfunctional people cannot harm us or harm those we love? Isn’t there a difference between being kind and being weak?  

We should remember that Jesus sometimes uses hyperbole when he teaches us.  Hyperbole is a literary style that involves making an extreme statement, perhaps exaggerating, in order to foster reflection and deeper thought.  When Jesus uses hyperbole he intends for us to take him seriously, but not necessarily literally.   Jesus is not encouraging us to endure physical abuse or to have no reasonable boundaries regarding how other people treat us.  Jesus is reminding us that in our everyday relationships with ordinary people, sometimes we will be slighted, disrespected, and perhaps not appreciated.  We need to choose to be bigger people and resist the natural desire to retaliate.  Listen to the sermon, “Turn the Other Cheek and Love My Enemies?”

There are two basic rules of human relationships.  One is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  The other is the Reciprocity Rule: Do unto others as they have done unto you.  Jesus is pointing out that the problem with the Reciprocity Rule (“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) is that we are always looking to even the score and pay someone back for any slight or harm they might have done to us, intentional or otherwise.  It is better to live by the Golden Rule as much as possible, because the goal of our lives is to be instruments of God’s grace and goodness in a broken world.

Jesus is not saying we can’t defend ourselves when we are truly in danger.  He is saying that it’s better not to respond to a jerk by being a jerk yourself.  This is similar to the wisdom many of us have heard growing up: “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Human relationships are going to be a challenge because we are imperfect people.  But living by the Golden Rule puts us in a better position to have a positive influence upon others, and that is always the goal for our lives.

Pastor Mark Miller

I’m Not Supposed to Judge?

Nobody wants to be a “holier than thou, judgmental hypocrite.”  And most of the time we aren’t.  I often read of surveys where atheists and agnostics suggest that most Christians are “judgmental” and “hateful towards those with different beliefs.”  And I know that there are times when some Christians might demonstrate those traits, but most of the Christians I come across are not that way.   In fact, I find that sometimes, those who accuse Christians of being judgmental are actually more judgmental than the Christians they are accusing.  Still, judgmental-ism is an unattractive quality that we should try to avoid.  But life requires us to make judgments all the time.  So how can we be “discerning” and make wise judgments without being “judgmental?” 

We can cultivate two qualities that Jesus often demonstrated. 

  1. Curiosity.  Curiosity allows me to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions about people and circumstances.  Rather than making assumptions based on limited evidence, we ask questions and seek clarity.  Rather than hurling an insult at someone who has a different political persuasion than me, I choose to ask clarifying questions to try and understand this person’s point of view.  I may end up disagreeing with an opinion, but I don’t have to assume the worst about the person who holds that opinion. I often talk about the importance of turning our frustration into fascination. When I am frustrated, I tend to get judgmental.  When I am fascinated, I tend to get curious.  If I get frustrated with a person, I start to lash out and attack.  But if I will get fascinated, I will seek to understand a person’s story and perspective, which typically helps me respond in a more patient and loving way.  Curiosity about people and perspectives can help us avoid the tendency toward judgmentalism.
  2.  Humility.  Humility isn’t a quality where we beat myself up and tell ourselves how awful we are, but humility does acknowledge our own faults and frailties.  Knowing that I have received God’s grace in spite of my own sinfulness, I can see others through a more gracious perspective.  This is the real beauty of Christianity.  We don’t assume an attitude of arrogance or superiority, we assume an attitude of humble gratitude that recognizes our need for God’s love in our lives.  We then become instruments of God’s love in the lives of others.

When Jesus tells us that we are not to judge, he is not suggesting that we should not make decisions or stand up for what we believe in or stand against evil and injustice.  He is telling us to go through life with a curiosity and a humility that helps us avoid the tendency to become arrogant and assume the worst about others.  Let’s work hard to become discerning, but avoid becoming judgmental.

Pastor Mark Miller

Is Divorce and Re-Marriage Adultery?

One of the most difficult teachings of Jesus has to do with divorce and re-marriage.  Jesus is clear and consistent. Divorce should not occur for any reason other than adultery, and if a person gets divorced for some other reason and then decides to re-marry someone new, that person is committing adultery (See Matthew 19:3-9Matthew 5:32-32).

The reason why this teaching seems extreme to our modern ears is that we do not understand what life was like for women in first-century Palestine.  In that patriarchal culture, women were considered inferior to men and did not have the same rights as men.  A husband could divorce his wife, but a wife could not divorce her husband.  Additionally, there was a growing trend of “easy divorce” where men could divorce their wives for any reason, including such offenses as talking back, not preparing a meal well enough, or even not being attractive.  The lack of economic resources for women combined with trivial grounds for divorce put women in serious danger and threatened to undermine families and communities, so Jesus makes it clear that marriage is intended to be a lifelong covenant of faithfulness and mutual support.

We can and should embrace Jesus’ standard for marriage, but we must also face the reality that divorce happens today for a variety of reasons.  In such cases we should always seek for justice and fairness in the division of economic resources.  We should also demonstrate compassion, kindness and love toward those who are dealing with the pain and brokenness caused by divorce.

But most of all, we should do our best to equip couples with the resources, encouragement and skills they need to build happy, healthy and holy marriages that can go the distance and last a lifetime.  The Church should always embrace the high standards of Jesus, help people work toward that standard, but always offer grace and support when we fall short of that standard. That’s not being “soft on sin,” that’s being “strong in grace.” Listen to the sermon, “If You Divorce and Re-Marry, You Commit Adultery?”

Pastor Mark Miller

Circle of Friends

Circle of Friends

I attended a friend’s fiftieth birthday party a few months ago and watched as the birthday girl entered a room filled with the people she loved best.  Long after the initial surprise had worn off, we chatted about the diverse array of people in attendance, neighbors, work colleagues, parents of her children’s friends, fellow Navy families, folks from her church, and her closest friends.  These were people she saw all the time, but she had never seen them all in the same place at the same time before.  Her circles had collided, and it brought her great joy. 

It got me thinking about a time not so long ago when my own circles collided.  Those of you who know me know that two years ago I found myself facing a dire prognosis after being diagnosed with stage IV endometrial cancer.  It was a frightening time where I found myself feeling very alone and vulnerable, and had it not been for my circles of friends, many of them from this church, I don’t know that I would have made it.  But God was at work, even before I knew what was happening to me.  As I was transferred from the ER at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital to Virginia Beach General, I was met by church friends who sat with me and offered support to my family while I underwent procedures.  As I was moved to the Oncology unit, I was met by the charge nurse, my kids’ former youth counselor and my dear friend and Emmaus sponsor, who made sure I had the best nursing care available.  Awaiting surgery the next morning, a church staff member came to sit with me and was surprised to see that the anesthesiologist was also a member of Virginia Beach United Methodist.  Friends and family filled my hospital room, many them the faces I saw at Virginia Beach United Methodist on Sunday mornings and throughout the year.  And so it continued over days and months with phone calls, visits, meals, offers for rides, gift cards, and text messages of support.  My family and I were overwhelmed at the sheer army of people, my colleagues at work, members of my life group, orchestra members, fellow mission volunteers, neighbors, family, folks I had served on church committees with, and friends I had met through Bible study, who were there for us through the initial hospitalization and the ensuing year of biopsies, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.  In facing this terrifying medical crisis, my circles collided in an explosion of love and support that allowed my family and me to feel that peace of God that surpasses all understanding.

The crisis is over and I am a year into remission, but all I have to do is ask prior to a routine scan or exam, and my circles collide again to remind me that I am and have been covered in prayer every step of the way.  My cup runneth over.

-Karen Millman