A New Moral Standard

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,” he continued, “prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Luke 4:16–30Happy New Year!!

In 2013 we are going to be taking time each week to take a purposeful look at the actual teachings of Jesus with determined focus. And we are going to kick off this year of focusing on an event that took place right at the beginning of Jesus’s teaching ministry, according to Luke.

First, let’s look at some history surrounding the context of this event Luke records. Deuteronomy records some pretty stringent rules regarding placing boundaries between people based on the behavior of certain groups:

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:3–8)

We then see a movement, originated by God, away from these old laws (for whatever reason they were originally enacted) already beginning in the time of Isaiah before the Babylonian captivity: “For my house will be called a house of prayer for ALL NATIONS” (Isaiah 56:7).

But after the captivity we see in Nehemiah a fascinating, conscientious, and meticulous return to the old laws. To give Nehemiah the benefit of the doubt, I do see a sincere desire to do what is right. But without understanding the “why” behind those original laws, his fidelity becomes zeal without knowledge. He misses entirely the trajectory we find in the prophet Isaiah away from some of those old laws. Change is always scary, and Nehemiah, to be fair, was preoccupied with doing whatever it took to make sure the events of the Babylonian captivity would never happen again. But fear often clouds clear judgment. We begin to see an opposite trajectory being set for a nation than we find in Isaiah. This new trajectory toward a strict observance of laws God always intended to be temporary grew to a deep-seated racism among the Hebrew people by the time Jesus showed up.

It is not by random whim that Jesus begins by quoting Isaiah. Jesus begins by taking up the trajectory of Isaiah. It has been commented by many that a possible reason Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, left off the final statement, “the day of vengeance of our God,” was because those listening that day at the synagogue would immediately interpret that phrase as directed against anyone not of Hebrew nationality—in other words, Gentiles. But Jesus goes on to make sure his point is not missed. The deliverance he has come to bring is not the deliverance of one race (Hebrews) from another (Romans/Gentiles). No, no: Jesus has come to deliver all races, as God’s children, from their real enemy, the Accuser. (See the last eSight, as well as John 12:31 and Ephesians 6:12, Colossians 2.14-15, Revelation 12.10.)

Jesus mentions the widow in Zarephath and Namaan (Gentiles) as being the recipients of God’s favor in the days of Israel’s rebellion. These were people whom the Law condemned, but whom God favored. Paul also picked up on this point later:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [Jew and Gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh THE LAW with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself ONE NEW HUMANITY out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death THEIR hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we BOTH [Jew and Gentile] have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:14-18)

People whom the Law condemned, Jesus looked at not as transgressors in need of punishment, but as victims who had been deceived and taken captive by an enemy and were in need of a Savior. We find this pattern over and over again within the Jesus story. In John 8 we find a woman caught in adultery whom the law condemned to be stoned. Jesus did not follow the law’s strict command here. We find this with the woman at the well in John 4, and the woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8. In all these stories we see the same trajectory away from certain old laws by Jesus. He understood their original reason and that these specific rules were always intended to be temporary. It would do us well to remember, though, that Jesus was crucified as a lawbreaker.

But this radical new way of looking at others, even Gentiles, was a game changer for Paul. His name was Saul when he was Pharisee, but he took up his Gentile/Romans name “Paul” once he met Jesus. He went on to write how Jesus changed everything for him: “So from now on we look at no one from a carnal point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16).

The distinctions he had been trained to categorize people with he came to see as carnal, fleshly, and “anti”-Jesus’s kingdom. Was this a transgression of previous laws? Without a doubt, yes, but notice Paul’s justification for it (within the same context of the last verse): “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin [transgression of the law; see 1 John 3:4 and Ephesians 2:15] for us [both and Jew and Gentile], so that in him we [both Jew and Gentile] might become the justification of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

I know this juxtaposition between the old laws and Jesus is disconcerting for some. But I want to clarify: following Jesus does not equate to lawlessness, but being under a new law. What it means is that Jesus has become our new standard of morality. He is now what defines morality for us. Though we are no longer under the law, we still joyfully follow the “law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21). For those who are wrestling to get their head around this, I want to encourage them to read the book of James. It was for this very reason that James wrote his letter. The new followers of Jesus were being accused of doing away with the old laws, of living lawless lives. James is quick to point out that though there were parts of the Mosaic law they were in violation of, they were not “lawless” but following a higher law, the law of Christ. When reading James, make sure you take note of James’s use of Abraham and Hagar. James mentions both of these cases (Abraham’s attempted murder and Hagar’s false testimony) precisely because under the moral code of Moses, both would be strictly condemned (Exodus 20:13,16), but under the law of Christ, which had always been, these two were heroes! Did this rattle the cages of those who were heavily invested in the old laws? Absolutely! When Jesus first introduced this concept, they wanted to throw him off a cliff … literally! And ultimately, it was this very paradigm shift that got Jesus crucified. (And it has for every generation since where sincere people genuinely desired to follow Jesus and only Jesus. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is this juxtaposition more pronounced than between the violence commanded in the Old Testament and the nonviolence of Jesus. Yet that was the exact point of the mount of Transfiguration in Luke 9 as well. But I digress. We’ll get to Luke 9 soon enough in this series.)

Paul understood this, and he was hounded for it all his days. But he understood. If God is like Jesus, then Jesus changes everything (Galatians 2:20, 6:14-15). The Jesus story itself had become Paul’s new moral compass. His only goal: to be like Jesus.

What does this all mean to us today?

Let me ask you this question: Who is it in your life that you come in contact with daily that the “law” condemns?

Is it someone else? Is it you? Regardless, whoever it is, as a follower of Jesus, Jesus is calling you, dear reader, even if the old laws condemn this person, to look at him or her not as a transgressor in need of punishment, but as a victim in need of a Savior. Whatever the list of people groups, categories, and labels our society (religious or secular) has made, we are called to ignore it all and love as indiscriminately as the sun shines and the rain falls (Matthew 5:44–45).

Jesus came as Savior, giving his life as a ransom for all. We too are to follow the lamb, wherever he goes, taking up his cross, living our lives not to judge, marginalize, or condemn, but to save, redeem, and restore.

Who is it in your life that, this week, God is asking YOU to be Jesus to?

Again, Happy New Year to each of you.

Keep living in love, loving like Christ.

Now go enlarge the Kingdom!

I love you guys.

We’ll see you next week,

Herb