[Part 7 in our series on Hermeneutics]
This past Monday in this series we talked about hinges and how Jesus is the central “hinge” of history and therefore interpretation of scripture. As a Christian, coming in with a posture of faith, committed to the whole story, Jesus is the center of our interpretive method. This means that Jesus is the rule by which we interpret all things. The question WWJD (“what would Jesus do?”) is actually a pretty solid hermeneutic.
Jesus is the Word of God. Listen to the Gospel of John:
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it… 14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)
What do we learn here? Jesus is the Living Word. The written word is a reflection and revelation of the Living Word. The author is the interpreter of His written word. We understand the written word through the Living Word — not the other way around.
Jesus talks about himself in relation to the written word often throughout the Gospels. One of the primary tensions in the Gospels is between Jesus and the Pharisees. A central component of this conflict is between literal reading and interpretation of the scriptures (Pharisees) and interpreting the scriptures through the heart of the Father and the over-arching story (Jesus).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this:
17“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. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
There are a number of implications of this teaching. First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. Second, Jesus is not a new law-giver (as some contemporary Christians seem to think). Third, the standard Jesus sets for meeting the merits of the law is perfection in following the law. Fourth, to fulfill the law is to “satisfy” the requirements of the law. To satisfy the requirements of the law requires either perfect adherence to the law or alternatively “paying the fine” for law violation. In the Old Testament, animal sacrifice fulfills the law (that is, satisfies the requirements of the law); in the New Testament, Jesus satisfies the law — once and for all — with his death and resurrection. This is what Paul teaches in Romans when he talks about Jesus being the “second Adam”. It is worth reading all of Romans 5 to get a sense of Paul’s argument. Here is one part of it:
6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us… 18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:6-8, 18-19)
Paul makes the same argument in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 —
21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
All of this points to the idea that Jesus not only created the law but also fulfills it for us. This is what justification is all about.
Given all of this, it is fair to ask, “well then, what are we supposed to do practically?” — or in other words, “which is the greatest commandment?” This is the question that a Pharisee asks Jesus —
34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
A couple of noteworthy things about Jesus’ answer…
First, he answers by quoting the sh’ma — the most foundational prayer in Jewish life, found in Deuteronomy 6. Theologian Scot McKnight has called this the Jesus Creed.
Second, Jesus is asked to “what is the one thing” and he answers with “here are two”. Did he misunderstand the question? I don’t think so. The sh’ma is the obvious answer. Love God with everything you’ve got. But how? I think the second statement is not a second command, but an explanation and application of the Greatest Commandment. In other words, simply put, the whole of the law is summarized as LOVE GOD, LOVE OTHERS. Everything else is commentary.
In fact, much of Jesus’ teachings are commentary on this teaching — the Good Samaritan (“who do I really have to love?”), the lost parables (“Am I loveable? Do I have to care about lost people?”), etc.
One of the most powerful teaching sections of the Gospels comes in the latter half of John’s Gospel — especially John 13-17. This is Jesus’ last teaching the the disciples before his passion and death. In many respects, this represents the most important teaching of Jesus… that which he needed to tell them before he left. Here is what he says:
34“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34)
And then, by way of application and commentary:
15“If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
22Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”
23Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
28“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. 30I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, 31but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me. (John 14:15-31)
And the New Testament confirms this basic teaching. John writes in one of his epistles:
16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
21Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:16-24)
– Jesus is The Word and is the center of all faith and life (and interpretation of the scriptures).
– Jesus is not a “new law giver” but the fulfiller of the law.
– Jesus summarizes all his teaching and commands in the Great Commandment: Love God, Love Others.
– Therefore, everything in the Bible must be interpreted through this lense: Loving God and Loving Others.
So in one sense, interpretation is not that difficult. Love is the central ethic of the Bible and Jesus commands us to love God and love others. So in every case we must interpret passages — and apply them — in light of that rule, that standard.
The challenge, though, is knowing what is the loving thing to do?
The love of Jesus is always a Holy Love.
Love without holiness is mere sentimentalism. Holiness without love is soul-killing legalism. Jesus models and calls us to holy love.
So this is the interpretive challenge: the achievement of holy love.