May 21 - Grace And Truth: A Critical Balance

Grace And Truth: a Critical Balance

May 21, 2017

 

GRACE AND TRUTH: A Critical Balance

May 21st, 2017

 

Last week, pointed out that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners.  He hung out with them, he ate and drank in their homes.  And one of the concluding thoughts was that Christians and churches need to be intentional about being open and inviting and authentic to the unchurched. 

 

Today I want us to think about the balancing act, or perhaps the tension, in Jesus’ life between grace and truth and what the implications are for those who call themselves as followers of Jesus or believers in Jesus. 

 

The term “Christian” was a term coined by non-Christians in a town called Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:26; cf. Acts 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16). Because of shifting borders, Antioch was a town that is now in south-central Turkey, today called Antakya.[1]

 

Christian is the term that literally meant someone or a group of people who belong to Christ, or who follow Christ.   

 

Today people may identify themselves as Christian because they have a Christian background or heritage.  Maybe their grandparents or great-grandparents were quite devout.  Maybe they were baptized as infants.  Maybe they were taken to Sunday school when they were very young. 

 

They may call themselves Christian, but they really know very little about Christ, about the person of Jesus ... what he taught, what he did ... in fact, they may not have any personal beliefs about Jesus’ identity. 

 

Others define themselves as Christian by default.  They believe in God’s existence but don’t consider themselves Muslim or Jewish.    

 

But even if you go all the way back to the time when Jesus’ followers were first called Christians, there were a lot of controversies and tensions about what that term implied.

 

Back in those days almost all Christians were Jewish.  And they identified themselves as Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed Saviour for the nation of Israel.

 

And we’re told in the book of Acts that they were zealous for the Mosaic Law (Acts 21:20). In other words, they lived in accordance with the commandments as found in Mosaic Law and thought that this was absolutely required of them and other Christians at that time. 

 

These Christian Jews in Jerusalem still sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem, they circumcised their sons, they kept the Sabbath and the Jewish feast days and festivals.  And they were adamant that all Jewish Christians had to hold to them as well.  To them that embodied the truth of how God wanted them to live their lives.  They saw themselves as still part of the Old Covenant.  So what was the Old Covenant?

 

  1. Old Covenant:  A Relationship Based on a Contract

 

This contract was very similar to ancient treaties between a larger kingdom and a smaller kingdom. These treaties basically outlined that the more powerful kingdom would protect the less powerful kingdom and, in return, the smaller kingdom would pay tribute to the larger kingdom. 

 

In the contract, there were the positive consequences for the smaller power should they continue to pay tribute.  The larger power will come to its aid should it be attacked.  The larger power will ensure peace and prosperity. 

 

But also included in the contract were the negative consequences should the weaker power not fulfill its contractual obligations. Not only will the larger power not protect, the consequences may include the destruction of the smaller kingdom. 

 

So it’s really a contract that included cause and effect.  And that’s reflected in the Old Covenant of Moses as well.

 

  1. The relationship between God and the nation is based on cause and effect.

 

The blessings included prosperity and peace in the land. 

 

The curses was either invasion and oppression from non-Jewish people groups, and ultimately the loss of the land - exile from the land ... moving into captivity.

 

So this was God’s legal arrangement, his contract, with the nation of Israel.  And the earliest Christians still saw themselves as part of this legal arrangement. 

 

  1. Old Covenant - relationship between God and a nation based on obedience to the commandments

 

So in the earliest church (by the first Christians), the old covenant was blended with belief in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, and a personal relationship with God was equated to the national relationship between God and Israel. 

 

Jewish Christians thought of themselves much like Non-Christian Jews thought of themselves.  Everything has to do with obedience and keeping a clear conscience so that the relationship between God and human, Creator and creation, can be maintained.  The conclusion was obvious:

 

As long as I do what God wants me to, I’m cool with him.  As long as I keep the rules, he’s pleased with me.  I can go to bed at night and feel good and know that God hears my prayers.  I can go to church without feeling like a hypocrite. 

 

But exactly what are those rules and regulations?  The medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135 – 1204 AD) listed 613 commandments (mitzvoth), both positive (248) and negative (365), in the Torah, the Law.[2]

 

If I asked you to list any of them, you could probably come up with a few, maybe a couple of those found in what’s called the 10 Words in the Torah, we know them as the 10 commandments (Ex 20; Deut 5)..

 

Most people can maybe come up with three:

Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder and don’t commit adultery.

 

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (WORDS)

Regarding God (vertical)

Regarding others (horizontal)

1. Don’t venerate other gods

5. Honour parents

2. Don’t make idols

6. Don’t murder

3. Respect God’s name

7. Remain faithful to your spouse

4. Keep the Sabbath

8. Don’t steal

 

9. Don’t lie in court

 

10. Don’t desire for yourself what belongs to others

 

That last one is really about desiring to take for oneself something that belongs to another. 

 

But of course, that is just one possible list of what it means to follow God’s commandments.  If you grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, you may remember the 7 deadly sins, less likely the 7 virtues consisting of the 4 cardinal virtues and the 3 theological virtues.

 

Seven Virtues

Seven Deadly Sins

Justice (Fairness)

Gluttony

Wisdom

(Sexual) Lust

Endurance (Patience)

Greed

Self-control (Temperance)

Pride (Vanity)

Faith

Anger

Hope

Envy

Love (Charity)

Laziness (Apathy)

 

Different denominations may have different lists.  Not too long ago, Baptists had a list that included not working or playing sports on Sundays, women wearing hats in church, don’t play cards, don’t dance, don’t drink alcohol, don’t go to the movies, don’t listen to secular music, just to mention a few.

 

If someone holds to a set of rules or a list of commandments, then the question becomes:  If I do this, am I contravening some law? Is God okay with what I’m doing?  Is he happy with me? 

 

So the Jewish Christians of the first church thought they had to keep to the old covenant.  But some of them were somewhat conflicted.  Because they also knew that Jesus’ teaching and his life may point to another reality. 

 

In fact, every time they got together and celebrated communion, they remembered and recited Jesus’ words at the first Lord’s supper:

 

This cup, which will be poured out for you, is the new covenant in my blood.                                       Luke 22:20[3]

 

Jesus was using a term found in the OT prophets who looked forward to a new way that a relationship with God is maintained.  So Jesus is saying that his death would inaugurate this new order, this new covenant.  And that implies that this covenant is in some way different from the old covenant.

 

Jesus also seem to think in terms of the Mosaic Law a bit different than the average Jew.  For example, he spoke of two of the Mosaic Laws as incorporating all of the rest. 

 

When asked which commandments were the most important, he clearly stated that those in Deut 6:4-5, loving God with heart, soul and mind, and Lev 19:18, loving others as yourself, were the two most important commandments in the Law of Moses (Mark 12:31) and that all of the other commandments in the Law (and the Prophets) are simply based on these two (Matt 22:40).   

 

At another time, Jesus reduced the Mosaic Law even further to just one principle. He said that all the commandments found in the Law (and Prophets) can be summarized in this one thing ... treating others as we want to be treated (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31),

 

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and Prophets.   Matthew 7:12

 

So the commandments in the Mosaic Law about not oppressing the weak, making sure the orphans and widows and foreigners had food to eat, about not bearing a grudge, not hurting someone verbally, or overcharging them, not abusing slaves, providing wives with the necessities of life, not standing by idly when someone’s life is in danger, helping to unload a fallen beast of burden, paying workers on time, and so on, would all be done if people just treated people as they themselves would want to be treated if the shoe was on the other foot

 

The apostle Paul was familiar with this teaching of Jesus and repeated the same thing a number of times in his letters.

 

The whole Law is fulfilled in one word: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”                         Galatians 5:14

 

Love does nothing bad to one’s neighbour, therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.                Romans 13:10

 

So Jesus spoke of a new covenant. When it came to God’s will with regard to human relationships he spoke of reducing it down to loving others or treating others with the kind of compassion we want to be treated with.  This is pointing to a new structure, a new ethic, a new way of looking at what it means to be in relationship with God.

 

AND, on top of all that, Jesus spoke of a new commandment, obedience to which was to be THE hallmark of his followers, the ONE THING that was to be true of each and every one of them. 

 

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.                                                                             John 13:35; 15:12

 

It’s not the fish bumper sticker, not a gold cross around the neck, not church attendance, not baptism, not any of those things that are to identify Jesus’ followers.

 

Jesus’ followers were to love each other as he loved them. And while this was to be their primary identifier, it really wasn’t meant to say that this principle should not be applied to family, friends, the needy, and even those who don’t like them or wish them harm. 

 

Pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44).

Wish good upon those who wish evil upon you (Luke 6:28 - bless those who curse you)

Do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27)

 

All of this pointed to a shift, a new way to live with God’s will in mind, a new way to be in relationship with God. Focus on a single rule as the primary directive.  Reducing all of those commandments in the Mosaic Law pertaining to how to treat others into one single command and then apply this to any and all situations.

 

To the Jewish Christians of the earliest church in Jerusalem, the Law was still the most important thing.  But that would eventually be replace by the knowledge that love took the place of Law

 

The believers had figured out that Jesus’ teaching and example and death on the cross, in essence set aside the old, nationalistic, covenant of 613 commandments, and replaced it with one commandment that was to mark the relationship with God for all people, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity.

 

The apostle Paul points this out with the most Jewish of all commandments in the Mosaic Law, the commandment of circumcision.

 

For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love.  

Galatians 5:6

 

It doesn't matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation.                   Galatians 6:15

 

The new creation is in fact belief and trust in Jesus being expressed in loving actions toward others.

 

Old Covenant

New Covenant

Relationship with God based on obedience to the commandments of the Mosaic Law

Relationship with God based on belief and trust in Jesus’ work (which would lead to  obedience to the commandment of Jesus)

Keeping Rules

Loving Others

Temple Sacrifices

Jesus’ death and resurrection

Law of Moses

Law of Christ

Trust in one’s own goodness

Trust in Jesus’ goodness

Works

Faith

God’s will external

God’s will internalized

 

What I want you to catch here is that under the New Covenant, the vertical relationship with God is measured the horizontal relationship with others.  At issue is no longer obedience to an external set of rules, but an internal change or reformation that leads to a new way of relating to others. 

 

Why would we not be OK with God if we don’t love others?  God forbid, but let’s say, that I purposefully mistreat your loved one, your favourite niece, your son, your sister, your dad.  Things would not be OK between us, would they?  Because when I mistreat someone you love, I’m mistreating you.  The same is true of God and us.  When we mistreat or disregard someone, we are in fact mistreating or disregarding God.

 

If you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize that, to a point, loving others is not a complicated concept.  Obeying Jesus’ command may not be easy, but it’s not really complicated.  When I do something good for another, when I do act in the best interest of others, when I am thinking about them and not just about myself, putting them first,when I make sacrifices for others, then I am keeping Jesus’ command.

 

Husbands, treat your wives as you would your own body. What it means to love.

 

So sin got real easy.  It it’s not good for another person, it’s a sin.  If it harms another in any way, it’s a sin.  If it undermines another person’s wellbeing, it’s sin. If it’s taking advantage of another person to gratify oneself, it’s sin.

 

Or, inactivity could be sin. If it’s in our power to do something to help and we know we should, even if it’s no more than a smile or an encouraging word, and we purposefully chose not to, it’s sin.  If we don’t care, it’s sin.  If we refuse to do good because it may cost us something, it’s sin.  If we don’t do what’s in the best interest of the other person, it’s sin.

 

Caveat:  We cannot emotionally “love” everyone.  We cannot do good to everyone - limited resources, emotional, financial, time, ...

 

If love for others is the main indication that I’m in relationship with God, that I am a follower of Jesus, and I don’t love, there is a problem, isn’t there?

 

If we say that we’re OK with God, that we believe in Jesus, that we’ve said a prayer, that we’ve been baptized, ... but we have a hard heart toward others we remain cold and uncaring, something’s wrong.

 

 If we focus on right theology but remain selfish and self-centered, something’s wrong. 

If we mistreat others, ignore them, then that’s a likely indication that we’re disconnected from God.

 

So anyone who shows unconcern, who rejects others, considers them unimportant, who disregards others or is dismissive of the m, who ignores people in need, who doesn’t care about others ... is not in right relationship with God no matter how many times they have attended church, how many worship songs they know, how often they read their Bible, how many sermons they preached, how much money they tithed, how much theological education they have.

 

A person may work in the church, may have a doctorate in theology, may even work for a missionary organization, but be so unconcerned about others, that they’re still in the darkness.  

 

However, if we get the love thing right, then it’s a sign that what we believe is right and that we’re right with God, because we are reflecting Jesus’ image, we are doing what he did.   

 

The writer of James points this out.  The writer of 1 John points this out.

 

We know that we have come to know him [Jesus] if we keep his commandments.  Whoever says, “I know him”, but does not do what he commands is a liar and the truth is not in that person.                           1 John 2:3-4

 

We know we’re OK with God not just because of what Jesus did, but because our faith will lead us to obeying Jesus’ commandments (plural here is probably in reference to loving God as well). 

 

  Love God a Obey Jesus

Obey Jesus a love people

(therefore)

Love God = love people

 

We are not to gauge our relationship with God on some set of rules, but on how we treat others.  While it is less complicated than the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses, it is also far more demanding because it should be applied to all of life.  It’s a lot harder to apply, because it is so easy to ignore.

 

But if in fact it is applied, it has the potential to change my world, the world of those around me, and when applied by a lot of believers, it has the potential to change the world.   

 

So Christian don’t just tack on love to what they believe when they feel like it.  Love IS at the very center of their faith.  It is the most critical thing, even though it may be the hardest to do.

 

And Jesus is to be our example of what that should look like.

 

But if anyone obeys his word, the love for God (or God’s love) is truly made complete in them.  This is how we know that we are in him:  whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.                             1 John 2:5-6

 

Loving as Jesus loved may not be as straightforward as we would like.  When we look at the way Jesus loved, there is a tension there.  Because at times he seems inordinately open and forgiven and kind and compassionate.  But at other times, particularly when it came to the religious teachers of the day, he seemed inordinately harsh and accusatory and unkind and condemning. 

 

In fact, this tension between grace and truth is often palpable in Jesus’ teaching - on the one hand, he points to God’s unconditional love even for the worst of people, he speaks of God’s kingdom being open to any and all, he points to God’s grace and compassion and forgiveness. 

 

But on the other hand, Jesus clearly points out that people are accountable, they still are required to love others, they still needed to repent.  “Repent for the kingdom of God is near.” 

 

Have you ever looked closely at Jesus' teaching about divorce and remarriage?  At face value it seems pretty harsh. Even his own disciples thought that it’s probably better not to get married. 

 

Because of this, some churches will completely ignore Jesus’ words – it’s as if he never said it.  Subsequently, divorce and remarriage for any reason whatsoever is accepted.  Marriage relationships become like shoes, you don’t like the colour, you discard them, walk away and buy new ones.  God will forgive.  Grace is everything.

 

But based on Jesus’ teaching, other churches will take the exact opposite tack. They will take Jesus’ teaching out of its historical context, ignore the exception clauses found in Jesus and Paul when it comes to divorce and remarriage, don’t take into consideration the teaching of the OT, and apply Jesus’ words without considering potential mitigating circumstances.  You stay married, no matter what.  No grace, whatsoever.  

 

Or, do you remember hearing about the time when Jesus was traveling through Samaria and met a Samaritan woman at a well? 

 

She had come all by herself from the nearby town of Siccar (Sycar) in order to get water.  Jesus strikes up a conversation with her, with someone no self-respecting Jew would have anything to do.  And she’s amazed at this Jewish man actually interacting with her. And so he engages her in a dialogue about God and the Messiah. That’s grace. 

 

But then, Jesus reaches into the most painful and shameful part of her life. “Go back into the town of and bring back your husband.”  And she evades the question a bit. “Oh, I don’t have a husband,” she says. But Jesus continues: “You have had five failed marriages.  And the man you’re living with right now, you’re not married to him.” 

 

If you know anything about the culture of that day, Jewish or Samaritan, that was a massive “fail” for any woman. She would have been considered a complete pariah in her village.  That is the very reason why she is all alone at the well.  The other women of the village would always come out as a group.  But she would not have been welcome.  So Jesus’ words were harsh.  He did not overlook her lifestyle.

 

Or think of the two men Jesus was crucified between. 

 

These weren’t simple thieves, they were hardened criminals who would have killed others in order to rob them of their possessions.  And one of them mocks Jesus, “You were supposed to be the Messiah, so get off the cross and save us.”  The one on the other side says, “Hey shut up.  We deserve what we’re getting but he’s innocent.[4]  Jesus didn’t contradict him, “Oh, don’t say that.  You’ve got a good heart.  You’re a good man.  You don’t deserve this.”  That’s truth.

 

But when that same man told Jesus that he believe that Jesus would come back to inaugurate the messianic kingdom, Jesus said, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  If I was the apostle John standing watching this, I might have thought, “Wait a minute Jesus.  We had to give up everything to follow you for three years and this good-for-nothing criminal just has to say a few words before he dies ... how fair is that?”  I mean, it’s not like he can reform his life.  He can’t go on and do any better.  And here’s Jesus telling him “you and me, we’ll be in the same place.”  That’s grace. 

 

Then there is the story of the woman who was caught committing adultery. 

 

The story was added to the gospel of John some time after the actual gospel was completed.  We find it at the beginning of chapter 8 (John 7:53-8:11).  So while we don’t know for sure if this is a historical account, it sure fits in with everything we know about the person and character of Jesus. 

 

The Law of Moses commands that a married woman who was unfaithful to her husband, along with the man who slept with her, were both to be put to death (Lev 20:10). Those who drag the woman in front of Jesus say that the Law of Moses commands execution by stoning which was an untruth, the form of execution is never mentioned.[5]   

 

Also strange is that the woman is brought on her own.  I mean, where the man is who slept with her. It takes two to tango, so why wasn’t he hauled along to be executed as well?

 

The question to Jesus about what they should do was really a method of trying to trick Jesus.  If Jesus told them to go ahead and stone the woman, then they could accuse him of telling them disobey the rules of the Roman occupiers, because Jews were not permitted to execute capital punishment.  But if he told them not to stone the woman, then he can be accused of telling them to ignore the Mosaic Law

 

So Jesus tells them to go ahead and stone her, but he puts in the stipulation that the one who throws the first stone has to be perfectly sinless. So go ahead and throw the first stone if you’ve never lusted, never had an immoral thought, never thought about adultery.   

And, one by one, the accusers left until only Jesus and the woman are left.  And what did he say to her?  “Is no one left to condemn you? Well, I don’t condemn you either.”  Now that’s grace. 

 

But Jesus also told her, “from now on, sin no more.”  In other words, “from this point forward, be faithful to your husband.”  That’s truth. 

 

So there’s this tension about what it means to love other people in the way that Jesus loved.  On the one hand there is unconditional love and forgiveness and acceptance.  There is grace.  And grace is the only way back home to God.

 

But, on the other hand, there is truth.  And truth cannot be ignored.  There is a right way and a wrong way to conduct one’s life.     

 

Parents are constantly facing the tension between truth and grace. And in that struggle, one parent may err on the side of grace:  Do whatever you want to do.  If you mess up, it’s OK.  If you get yourself into trouble, I’ll be here to pick up the pieces and shield you from the consequences.

 

Another parent may err on the side of truth.  And I’m not talking here about a parent who is a control freak or overtly mean, but a parent who sets too many boundaries. - Here are the rules, don’t break them.  If you make a mess, you clean it up.  Take responsibility and live with the consequences, which I will make sure will not be nice.  And my love for you is somewhat conditional upon whether or not you’re going to do everything I say. 

 

But most of us would have preferred the grace parent, wouldn’t we?  “I love you just the way you are, no need to change.  You can do whatever you want.”  ,

 

But looking back on it now, some of you who had all grace, may have wished that there was a bit more truth, some boundaries, because setting boundaries is also a form of love - the desire to protect someone from undue harm, and from messing up over and over again. 

 

And so your parents may have argued behind closed doors about how much grace and how much truth to apply.  Where’s the right balance?  And will it be the same balance with each child? 

 

When it comes to God, a lot of people want to lean either completely into God’s grace or completely into God’s truth. I think both are mistakes. 

 

Other people stress truth when it comes to others but grace when it comes to themselves.

 

So Christians and churches are caught in that tension between grace and truth.  Some gay people likely notice that in churches where it’s super safe to be gay, in other words, where the gay agenda is encouraged and promoted based on “love”, that the Scripture as a whole are no longer of real importance.  On the other hand, they likely also notice that in churches where it’s not safe to be gay, in other words, where gay people are not welcomed or loved that there is a great stress on rules and laws.

 

And if we are intentional about being a church that welcomes and embraces the unchurched, the balance between grace and truth is something that we sometimes don’t get right - just as parents don’t get this right all the time when it comes to their own children, just as Christians who have been deeply hurt don’t always get this right when it comes to dealing with those who hurt them.   

 

The church is at its best when it embraces both grace and truth, lives in the tension, and refuses to let go of either.

 

Manage this tension to God’s glory. 

 

DO I KNOW THAT I AM OK WITH GOD BECAUSE I AM GOOD AT KEEPING RULES … OR BECAUSE I AM LOVING AND CARING?

 

IN THE TENSION BETWEEN GRACE AND TRUTH, HAVE I IGNORED ONE SIDE OR THE OTHER?

 

To this day I don’t know if I have all of my theological ducks in a row.  But I should know whether or not I care for others by my willingness to step out of my comfortable selfish zone and be engaged for the good of others. 

May the unchurched recognize us as followers of Christ by our kindness, compassion, concern, helpfulness, … and so glorify our Father who is in heaven.

 

 

[1] Acts 26:28 “would you persuade me to become a Christian?”; 1 Pet 4:16 “when you suffer as a Christian”

[2] Maimonides listed them - for his list see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/613_commandments#Maimonides.27_list. Note that some of the commandments only had to do with priests, judges (or courts), Nazirite, or kings, and so weren’t applicable to the average Jew.  The vast majority have to do with the ceremonial law (sacrifices, food laws, Sabbath keeping).  I couldn’t find any that dealt with showing compassion to or not taking advantage of widows, orphans and foreigners in that list (cf. Ex 22:21-22), except the reference not to oppress the weak.  Love is limited to other Jews and converts to Judaism.

[3] Paul, in 1 Cor 11:25, omits the reference to the cup being poured out (as he omits the reference to the body as “given”).

[4] Only in Luke’s account (Luke 23:39-43).  In Mark 15:32; Matt 27:44 both robbers are said to mock Jesus. 

[5] Stoning was ordered in close proximity to the passage for male homosexual practice - Lev 20:13 - so it may have been inferred by the Rabbis.