What About the Hard Parts of the Bible? (Matthew 5:17-20)
Big Idea: If we take Jesus seriously, we need to take the whole Bible seriously.
We had a great question in the Question and Response section of our service a few weeks ago. The question was about some of the hard parts of the Bible. If you have read the Bible — or even if you haven’t — you may be aware that there are some really difficult parts of the Bible that rub us the wrong way. The question was what to do with these parts. It went a bit farther than that, and asked why we should treat the Bible as authoritative when it some of its sections seem so hard to swallow.
Because this is such an important question, I wanted to return to it today. I want to keep this really simple, so I’m going to stick to two main points.
First, I want to argue that we should take the Bible seriously — all of the Bible — because Jesus took it seriously.
Second, I want to look at some of the difficult parts of the Bible, and how we can wrestle with them honestly.
Why We Need to Take the Whole Bible Seriously
There are a lot of reasons to take the Bible seriously. In our confession of faith later in the service, we’ll be confessing some of these reasons why. The confession mentions things like:
- The heavenliness of its contents
- the efficacy of its doctrine
- the majesty of its style
- the agreement between all its parts from first to last
- the fact that throughout it gives all glory to God
- the full revelation it gives of the only way of salvation
All of these are important and true, but that’s not primarily what I want to look at today. I want to look at what is perhaps the most compelling reason to take the entire Bible seriously, and it’s this: because Jesus took it seriously.
In the passage that we just read, Jesus said:
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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
You know those parts of the Bible that we find hard to accept and understand? Jesus gave them his seal of approval. It wasn’t a tepid seal of approval either. In this passage, Jesus makes one overriding statement: that he hasn’t come to abolish, but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets is what we would call the Old Testament. Jesus says that the Old Testament points to him and is fulfilled in him.
That’s the main point that Jesus makes. But then he backs it up on the basis of two statements about the Old Testament:
The ongoing relevance of the Law — Jesus says that, as long as this world exists, not a jot or dot from the Law will pass away. Jesus is talking about the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and a small stroke that was used to separate letters. Jesus says that even the smallest part of the Law will continue as long as this earth is around.
The importance of the Law — Not only is the Law still relevant, but it’s also still important. Jesus says that if we relax or minimize the least of these commands, we’re least in the kingdom of heaven. If we do them and teach them, we will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
In other words, Jesus says that the Old Testament Law, including the parts we don’t like, are still relevant today, and that if we minimize even the smallest part of the Law, we do so at great danger to our spiritual health.
Jesus believed that the Scriptures were perfect in every detail. The point I’m trying to make was expressed perfectly by the outstanding scholar H. C. G. Moule: Jesus “absolutely trusted the Bible; and though there are in it things inexplicable and intricate that have puzzled me so much, I am going, not in a blind sense, but reverently, to trust the Book because of Him.”
I like how one recent book puts it:
If you are a Christian, by definition you ought to believe what Jesus teaches … And if you are not a Christian, I imagine you still value what Jesus said …
Jesus believed in the inspiration of Scripture— all of it. He accepted the chronology, the miracles, and the authorial ascriptions as giving the straightforward facts of history. He believed in keeping the spirit of the law without ever minimizing the letter of the law. He affirmed the human authorship of Scripture while at the same time bearing witness to the ultimate divine authorship of the Scriptures. He treated the Bible as a necessary word, a sufficient word, a clear word, and the final word. It was never acceptable in his mind to contradict Scripture or stand above Scripture.
He believed the Bible was all true, all edifying, all important, and all about him. He believed absolutely that the Bible was from God and was absolutely free from error. What Scripture says, God says; and what God said was recorded infallibly in Scripture … It is impossible to revere the Scriptures more deeply or affirm them more completely than Jesus did. (Kevin DeYoung, Taking God At His Word)
This doesn’t answer all the questions we have about individual passages. We’re going to get into that in a minute. But it means that we must take the Bible seriously, including the parts that we find hard to read and the parts with which we disagree. It means that we need to read all of the Bible and study all of the Bible. It’s dangerous to think that we know better than Jesus, and Jesus had the highest possible view of all of Scripture.
So What About the Hard Parts?
That leaves us with a question, though. What about the hard parts?
To keep things simple, I want to give you three general principles, and then we’ll actually look at some hard Scriptures.
So here are the three principles:
First: Make sure you’re actually talking about something specific.
I learned this from Greg Koukl in his excellent book Tactics. He says, “Many challenges to Christianity thrive on vague generalities and forceful but vacuous slogans.” So when someone makes a general statement, like science contradicts the Bible, or that the Bible is full of contradictions, then it’s good to move beyond vague generalities to specifics. At what point does science contradict the Bible? Or, could you give me an example of a contradiction? Don’t settle for generalities.
Really understand the passage.
Second, really understand the passage. Work to understand its genre, context, and conventions. It’s amazing how often this solves apparent difficulties. It’s not enough to just quote a passage. We need to understand it.
Consider the possibility that we, not the Bible, may need to be corrected.
Tim Keller talks about the movie Stepford Wives, in which husbands turn their wives into robots who never contradict them. He says:
If you don’t trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you…
Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.
Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.
So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.
When God contradicts us, consider the possibility that it may not be God who has the problem.
It’s time, then, to look at a few specifics. I find that most people seem to have a problem in a few areas: violence, seemingly inhumane teaching, and laws that don’t seem to make sense. Let’s look at an example of each of these.
What do we do with the violent parts of the Bible? For instance, consider 1 Samuel 15:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:2-3 ESV)
There are many other passages like this. This leads some people to conclude that the Old Testament God is a violent bully.
So what do you do with this?
There are so many things we can say, but let me just say a few.
First, we have to see each part of the Bible in the context of its larger story. The story of the Bible is God’s desire to reconcile all of creation to himself. We meet the same God in 1 Samuel as we do in 1 John 4:8, which says that God is love. They’re not contradictory. As someone put it:
Imagine only listening to the bass instruments in Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Of course the music would sound strong and powerful, but such a hearing would still be deficient. Listening to part of the score, or only some of the instruments, inevitably distorts the overall force and beauty of the full symphony. If we listen to the music of “holy wars” without the full symphony of Scripture, we will likely distort both.
You also have to see the story in its larger context. The Amalekites were wicked and warlike. They were the first to attack Israel after God brought them out of Egypt. They deliberately attacked and murdered the weak and elderly who lagged behind the rest of the nation as they traveled (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). We read in Judges that they continuously allied themselves with nations that tried to commit genocide against Israel. And yet God chose not to destroy them for 400 years. You could actually read this passage in light of God’s patience and mercy as well as God’s judgment.
We also have to see that God is God. God has absolute ownership over everything that he has made, and is just and righteous in all that he does, even when we don’t understand it. We are in dangerous territory when we think we’re in a position to judge God.
We have to remind ourselves that we all deserve God’s judgment, and the fact that he gives mercy to any of us shows that God is more patient and merciful than any of us deserve. We cannot put God on trial for being unjust; if we did, the wrong person would be the defendant. God could put all of us on trial, and treat us as he did the Amalekites, and he would be just. The fact that he shows mercy to any of us is far more than we deserve.
Seemingly Inhumane Teaching
The second area that seems to give people problems is seemingly inhumane teaching. For instance, there are laws that govern slavery in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are also commands like this:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
What can you say about these passages?
One of the problems with understanding slavery is that we think of the slavery of Civil War times. In the Israel, slavery was something different. The slave trade was forbidden under penalty of death (Exodus 21:16). Someone could become a slave, but usually because of poverty (Leviticus 25:39) or to repay something they’d stolen (Exodus 22:3). The maximum time that you could be a slave was six years (Exodus 21:2). One person says, “In short, the protections given to Israelite slaves were so good that this was not slavery in the ordinary sense, but a total revamping of the institution of slavery.”
What about the death penalty for rebellious sons and adulterous men and women?We need to remember a few things. First, this was the maximum penalty for crime, not the mandatory one. Sentences were handed down only after a trial, so there was due process. The Hebrew law was less subjective, variable, sexist, and harsh than that of the surrounding cultures. It was more progressive. Also, these laws weren’t given as a model for every society, but a theocracy in which God is ruler. A general rule in Scripture is that the closer someone is to God, the more severe the penalties.
Again, it depends on how you look at things. We tend to think that God is too harsh for judging sin. The reality is that all of our sin deserves death. These law reveal the high standards required by God. He requires nothing less than our complete holiness.
Instead of condemning us all to death, God instead sent his Son to pay the penalty. Things change in the New Testament, not because God changes his mind about sin, but because Jesus has already been put to death for every act of sin. Never minimize the judgment of God, because if you do, you’ll also minimize what Jesus did for us at the cross. God is just in condemning us to death; he is gracious because Jesus willingly died in our place.
Laws That Don’t Seem to Make Sense
The final category that we’ll cover quickly are the laws that don’t seem to make sense. Two quick examples, one answer, and then we’re done. First: that we shouldn’t eat shellfish, according to Leviticus 11:9-12. Second: that we shouldn’t wear mixed fabrics, according to Leviticus 19:19. People use these laws to imply that all of God’s laws were arbitrary, and therefore we can dismiss them.
There are a lot of theories about why God gave these laws. They weren’t given as arbitrary, but to separate Israel as God’s holy people, distinct from the practices of the nations around them. While we don’t understand all of the laws, we understand their intent: to show us God’s holiness; to set God’s people apart as his holy people; and to show us our need for Jesus. These laws no longer apply today, but the underlying principle still applies: we are still called to be holy, and to shape our whole lives and character around who god is and who he wants us to be.
There’s a difference between not understanding a command and disobeying it. I once worked for a guy who pulled over and told me to start lifting sod from a property just off Highway 410. I refused. He looked at me and was clearly surprised. “I’m not going to steal sod from this place,” I said. I had made an assumption. I didn’t understand his command, and so I dismissed it.
It turns out that he had a good reason for what he said. They managed that property. Sometimes we think we’re in the place to make a judgment, but we’re not.
If we take Jesus seriously, we need to take the Bible seriously. That includes the parts that we find harsh or strange. They help us understand God’s standards for holiness, and what Jesus did for us at the cross. All Scripture is fulfilled in him.