In the previous post we began looking at how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures. Obviously, since Jesus is God in the flesh and he came to show us the Father, he is the best interpreter of Scripture ever to live. While people fuss about which approach works best there is one fool proof way to study and understand God’s word and that is to follow Jesus. He declared that not one jot or tittle of the law would pass until all are fulfilled. But he immediately turned in Matthew 5:20 to describe how we must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees or we couldn’t even get into the kingdom of God. These scribes and Pharisees were the elite among the religious folks of the day. They were the spiritual authorities. Yet Jesus said we had to do better than they did to even get into the kingdom. They thought they were right and that they were deeply committed to following the Lord in everything. Imagine the shock they felt when Jesus called to him the rank sinners of the day and brought spiritual healing to them as well as the the upper crust.
Jesus explanation was that we had to exceed them with regard to their interpretation of the law that tried to make it as much about actions and little about motives as one could. He pointed out that laws like don’t murder involved more than just not taking the life of another person. They touched the heart of hate and anger that led to murder.
In Matthew 9:9 Jesus called a tax collector, named Matthew or Levi to leave the tax business to follow him. Matthew left his old way of life and became one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. When Matthew left everything, he threw a party and invited all his old tax collector friends to come for a visit at which he was to explain why he had given up his business to become a disciple Jesus. Jesus and the other disciples came to the party and were visiting with these tax collectors. He evidently felt right at home with them. To the religious leaders, these tax collectors were traitors to their country and ought not to be friends with a true teacher of the word of God. When Jesus learned of their criticism he said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In this statement Jesus was changing the whole perspective of how to look at other people and how to understand the Scriptures. They had seen Scripture as a way of excluding other people that didn’t fit the mold they had developed. Jesus saw Scripture as a way of including people. Instead of another religious ceremony he was looking for mercy that reached out to the hurting with healing. When the church begins to really see the heart of Jesus and strives to have the same attitude we will stop looking for who we can eliminate and look for those we can bring into the body. Matthew may well have been rejected by his nation and people but the Lord saw a godly man in him who wanted to live right. God looks for mercy. I fear far too often the church of the Lord is still looking for a sacrifice to make to please God when He is looking for the down and out to show them mercy and love.
Immediately after this evening with Matthew some of John’s disciples came to Jesus asking about why his disciples didn’t fast since they did and the Pharisees did fast. Jesus response is another of those key passages that help us to see his method of interpreting the Scriptures and that we must learn to apply ourselves. “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is still with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Is there anything wrong with fasting? No it is certainly part of what Jesus taught would be part of our lives as Christians in the Sermon on the Mount. But the old restrictions of the law with regard to fasting no longer apply in this New Testament era. Fasting isn’t appropriate at all times. A wedding feast isn’t a good time for fasting. It is a time for rejoicing. But notice how Jesus applies the whole point. Trying to take some Old Testament law or teaching and simply transplant it into the New Testament covenant is like putting new wine into old wineskins or a new piece of cloth into an old garment which when washed will shrink and fully destroy the garment. While many Old Testament principles become part of the New Covenant, many did not and none of the Old Laws were simply taken as first given and placed into the New. They took on new challenges, new applications and absolutely new meanings in the New.
At least part of what Jesus had in mind when he said to the scribes in John 5:39 relates to this point. “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.” It wasn’t a lack of Bible study that hindered the Scribes or the Pharisees. It wasn’t a lack of devotion and commitment to follow the teachings of the law that hindered them. It was that they missed the point of the law. In it they saw laws, regulations and ways to condemn everyone that didn’t agree with them. The very point of the Scriptures to tell us the Messiah is coming into the world to offer salvation for all had completely alluded them. The problem is we can do exactly the same thing with the New Testament. We can read it and learn that the best way to treat people is to follow the golden rule and miss the whole point of our being lost and in need of a salvation that is offered through Jesus to all people, by faith.
One of the best illustrations of the principle Jesus here taught is found in a story Luke tells in Luke 7:36-49 when a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner with him and Jesus went. As they were reclining at table, there was a sinful woman, perhaps a prostitute from the city who came into the courtyard where they were and took an alabaster jar of perfume. “As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” Jesus responded with a story about two people who owed a moneylender sums of money. One owed a 100 denarii and the other 50. Neither was able to pay and the money lender forgave them both. Which will love him more? The Pharisee answered correctly that the one who was forgiven more. Jesus explained to the man that when he arrived to his house he received no special greeting, no kiss, and not even water to wash his feet, much less a servant to do so. But this woman washed his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. She has many sins and they are forgiven. She had shown how much she appreciated being forgiven. It really wasn’t that her sins were worse than his, but that she knew her sins were awful and he didn’t think his were.
Jesus looked for a way to show mercy and forgiveness to the woman. His bond was with her the known sinner, not with the religious professional who looked at sinners and felt they were of a separate culture than him. I wonder how often we as Christians or churches are more like the Pharisee in our attitude toward the lost than we are like Jesus. He looks for mercy, not another sacrifice. He demands we stop trying to sew the Old Testament law into the New Covenant of grace and mercy. He demands we stop pouring the new wine of the New Covenant into the old wineskins of the Law or even the understanding they had of the law. When we interpret Scripture correctly it will always be through the eyes of mercy.