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Hebrews 5:12-14 - For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
My patience is wearing thin with Christian anti-intellectualism. The church (universal) seems to be willfully stuck at what you could call "Christianity 101." These are the elementary principles from Hebrews in the New Testament identified as "milk and not solid food." Nothing I'm going to write here should be viewed as an attack on the illustrated Bible of our childhood, with pictures depicting Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, etc.
I am saying that this "milk" described in Hebrews is not enough. We need to move into the "solid food" of a truly Christian theology that is based on the relationship between the New Testament and Hebrew scriptures. In fact, most of us need to ask ourselves why we haven't completed this transition long ago, during the first decade(s) of our church attendance.
I have been accused by some of "picking and choosing" my theology because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth lived the perfect life, fulfilled all the laws of the Old Testament completely, and demonstrated both his humanity and divinity through his death and resurrection. To them, Jesus did many awesome things - atonement among them - but our Lord did not re-define our relationship with The Law (all the laws).
Clearly, it is long past time for Christianity 201. Relying heavily on scripture in its entirety, I want us to take Jesus more seriously. I want us to take God more seriously, if that distinction is necessary. And yes, that means taking The Law seriously for what it was.
Jesus refers many times to a wide range of passages in scripture. His emphasis on laws is surprisingly narrow, though.
Deuteronomy 6:5 - You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Leviticus 19:18 - You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.
It's not that Jesus denigrated the hundreds of other rules (in the Torah alone). No, he elevated them to the highest possible status by fulfilling them. Simply put, Jesus tells us in the Sermon On The Mount that he did not come to abolish The Law but to fulfill it and that the all of those rules would remain in place until his work was accomplished (fulfilled, finished, completed).
It's embarrassing to consider this possibility, but one of the differences between a 101-level and 201-level understanding of scripture is the answer to a couple of simple questions. Did Jesus accomplish his mission and fulfill the law? And when?
Matthew 5:17 - "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill."
John 19:30 - Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.
I call the questions I raised embarrassing because they should reflect an elementary level of comprehension. Jesus finished his work on the cross. As Christians, we've -heard and said that phrase countless times. Or, do we somehow doubt that Jesus truly is "Abraham's seed" as specifically described by Paul (and, if you are a Christian, by Moses)?
Galatians 3:15-26 - Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Jesus fulfilled all of The Law. Period. Christianity teaches that we are justified by faith in Christ alone, and not by obedience to laws. One line between heroes of the faith and heretics was drawn on precisely this point. As human leadership perverted this doctrine, reformers throughout history have laid down their lives to restate Biblical truth. Some were hanged. Others were burned at the stake. Shame on us for forgetting or feigning confusion.
I understand. This can seem like a challenging concept. So many believers who have specialized in Christianity 101 - taking the beginner's course over and over again - have learned to rely upon The Law. We erect statues of the Ten Commandments on the public square like graven images, in fact. We're willing to accept that Jesus fulfilled some of the laws. It's no trouble to walk away from dietary restrictions or guidelines about menstruation and participation in worship. We're failing at theology if we claim that Jesus did not fulfill them all.
Does that leave us completely without guidance, facing the fate of reckless anarchy? Of course not. On more than one occasion, Jesus ratified two Torah verses in particular and insisted that we live by them.
Luke 10:25-28 - A lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?" And he answered, "YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." And He said to him, "You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE."
The key difference, though, between Judaism and Christianity is relationship. Jesus preached about relationship. The Holy Spirit empowers us to continue in that relationship between the Christ's resurrection and his ultimate return. That relationship includes the way we relate to one another, not just fellow believers but also unbelievers and outcasts. When Jesus was asked who we should regard as a neighbor, in fact, his specific example was someone Jewish society considered an outcast.
Luke 10:29-37 - But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus replied and said, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.' Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers' hands?" And he said, "The one who showed mercy toward him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do the same."
If I had a sense of humor about this (I don't), I'm sure I'd be amused by the number of times well-meaning Christians have suggested to me that we should commit both to faith and works. Oh, we know the jargon. No orthodox Christian will tell you that "works" or your good deeds will save you. It's not that simple, though. Desire to maintain an imposition of Old Testament rules is a works-based theology. Even things like hard work and diligence can reflect a works-based theology.
One of the key issues in the Protestant Reformation was the line that Martin Luther and others drew between an adherence to following tradition and performing specific rites as a means of salvation and the faith in Christ described throughout the New Testament. It is noteworthy that Luther posted a manifesto on the door of a church where a large number within the congregation were not literate. And perhaps Luther's biggest conflict with Rome was over his desire for every believer to read the Bible for himself (and, anachronistically, herself).
Luke 10:38-42 - Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord's feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, "Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me." But the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."
If Martha, from this gospel account, would set aside her work and listen to the good news recorded in the gospels, she would hear something the medieval church strived to conceal. She would hear that salvation does not come from The Law but from Jesus Christ. Not a "Jesus plus..." theology; truly and simply, a Jesus theology.
Well, that's the gospels, but what about the epistles? Christianity 201 identifies this false dichotomy for what it is. Too often, believers and skeptics alike try to pit Paul against Jesus. There are two significant problems with this approach. First, Paul himself acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus. For that reason, any issue that might arise from a higher level of theological study (say, Christianity 301 or 401) would have to admit that Jesus is never contradicted by Paul. In other words, Jesus always wins.
Second, and more importantly, where it matters most on questions of salvation and atonement, Paul reiterates Jesus. This is especially true on questions of the relationship between Old Testament laws and the commandment that Christians should love God and neighbor.
Romans 13:8-10 - Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, "YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET," and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
So, how should we address the legalistic members of the church? Isn't it enough that good people want good things to happen? Wouldn't the world be a better place if Christians joined Jews in a zeal for "God's law" and joined Muslims in a focused commitment to submit to divine authority at all costs?
I don't believe this approach is acceptable under Christianity 101, but it fails completely at the mature understanding required of us in even the basics of Christianity 201. Simply put, legalism is wrong. To the degree that outdated laws are used to separate people from Christ, legalism is evil.
Paul addressed this issue plainly and aggressively in his correspondence with believers in Galatia. He warned them that following the path of legalism - committing themselves to laws, which Jesus already fulfilled - meant that they had fallen from grace. "Christ will be of no benefit to you" was accusing them of betraying their faith and rejecting God's gift of grace.
Galatians 5:1-8 - It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you.
I doubt that any New Testament figure is as misunderstood as Paul. Part of the difficulty is that he was writing specific letters to particular people in communities of faith, and we typically know very little about his audience. We may understand the overall state of affairs in Galatia versus Corinth, but we usually do not know much about people Paul is often rebuking. It can be a mistake to personalize corrective instruction that an apostle is giving to someone else. We should take the lessons from Paul's letters, but any coursework in Christianity 201 would warn us about the dangers of "this is that" logical fallacies.
On the other hand, many Christians dismiss Paul more than they realize and set him aside as "too theological" or dogmatic. Again, letters can either over-emphasize or under-emphasize relationships. Paul's emotional connection to the churches he started and served reflects a passion that might take the casual reader by surprise. He loved as much as he commanded us to love.
Acts 20:25-36 - "And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face. Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have coveted no one's silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all.
Paul admits that he admonished Christians, but he did so with tears and he moved from place to place with a heavy heart for those he left behind.
I suppose it is easier to give James, the brother of Jesus, more credit for being less of a father-figure than Paul. Still, brother James delivered hard words in his letter. Look at the model represented by many "mega churches" in America today, and try to reconcile it with James' warnings.
James 2:1-10 - My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, "You sit here in a good place," and you say to the poor man, "You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF," you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
At times as a Christian, I have been accused of picking and choosing from "chapter and verse" by both believers and non-believers. This offends me. I know the sin of quoting "chapter and verse" to justify a human cause, and I know that I am submitting fully to the authority of scripture.
Part of that is surely obvious. For example, I have now quoted Jesus, Paul, and James in a consensus view that loving god/neighbor is the Christian directive. James reminds us that you can't pick and choose if you want to ignore Jesus and follow the Old Testament instead. Use of blended fabrics, consumption of shellfish, and hundreds of other long-ignored laws will hang over your head. Christianity 201 strongly recommends following the way of Christ instead.
I'm not naïve. The reason so many politically active Christians (the religious right, for example) want to hold onto Old Testament laws with an almost worshipful embrace is fear. Tradition, both in the Jewish and Catholic sense, can be comforting. Can homosexuals love God (as fully as any of us can) and love their neighbors as they love themselves? I won't presume to give an answer because that's probably more advanced coursework based on the current state of anti-intellectualism in the church today. It is a good question, though, based on everything Jesus declined to say about homosexuality in the gospels.
That is only one example of how exhilarating, or dangerous, it can be to truly love as Jesus and all of his apostles instructed.
1 John 4:15-21 - Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.
Notice how John describes the danger of fear. Fear is all about punishment, which fits tidily into a law-based theology. On the other hand, this fear separates us from God's love. We fail when we lash out in fear, and most of the reliance on The Law among misguided Christians comes from a reaction to fear ... a desire for the good old days when everyone felt societal pressure to attend church on Sunday and "those people" (whomever they may be) knew their place and didn't dare expect respect.
In Matthew 25:31-45, Jesus raised the stakes higher than most Christians tend to acknowledge. He tells us we will be judged by how we relate to "the least of these." If you long to embrace outdated laws because those rules condemn a select set of sinners that you also want to condemn, then you have identified "the least" in your worldview. Heaven help you if you fail to love those people as Christ loved you. That's Christianity 201 in a nutshell.
Matthew 25:31-45 - "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'
"Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'"
It's amazing the lengths some Christians will go in order to avoid the simple mandate that we reach out in faith and love others. Occasionally, I've been told that neither the Matthew nor 1 John passages apply to non-believers. "They aren't 'the least of these' and we haven't necessarily been commanded to love them" because they aren't really our brothers-in-faith.
Wow! To start, that reads the word "brethren" a touch too specifically. The devotion to legalism can be so strong that even the vocabulary of some Christians has become legalistic. The bigger issue is that it presumes believers rather than the king have the final say in who will join his eternal family. If the Holy Spirit touches the heart of someone you don't consider your brother and that person commits his life to Christ, then that person is precisely the one Jesus describes in Matthew 25. A wiser Christian would assume that all people have a potential "road to Damascus" in our walks through this life, and therefore anyone could one day join you in fellowship.
John 10:14-18 - I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father."
I know the chief argument against this plainly Biblical perspective will be that both the Old and New Testaments are "the Bible." How can I presume to pit one against the other?
I'm not. The Old Testament is valid and valuable. God gave us those hundreds of commandments (not just ten) so we would recognize the messiah when we saw him. Some did; others didn't. From the perspective of Christianity 201, I'm going to set aside my worries for those who didn't identify Jesus for who he was and is. I'm much more worried about those who saw the change in relationship that God presented to us and somehow got confused about whether this change made a permanent difference.
Look at it this way. At the beginning of the movie Men In Black 2, are we surprised that everyone refers to Will Smith's character as Agent J rather than James Darrel Edwards III? Do we expect to find him working for the New York Police Department as a detective who doesn't believe there are aliens from other planets living in New York City and elsewhere? In The Matrix Reloaded, are we surprised that Neo understands how the matrix works and does not believe that he is living inside that artificial world?
Of course not! As those stories advanced, so did the characters. Their relationships changed, and their place in the story developed. It's not that Agent J was never an NYPD detective; he just isn't now. There is no contradiction in reconciling Neo's understanding of the matrix from one film to the next. Likewise, as Christians, our relationship with Hebrew laws and faith in Christ are only confusing and inconsistent if we forget who Jesus is and what he did. He changed everything.
Matthew 28:18-20 - And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Finally, Christianity 201 comes with a calling. When we were too immature to consume anything but the basic milk and honey of theology, it was enough that our mission was continuing to learn. Christianity 101 is all about growing in our faith and equipping ourselves. That's what we do in Sunday School, Bible studies, and to some degree in worship.
Equipping ourselves for what? Well, Christianity 201 reminds us (truly, it is more reminding than teaching) that we have been sent to reach others and share with them all that Jesus commanded. What are his commands? Chiefly, the rules are that we should love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and strengths and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
We are not alone in this endeavor. Jesus has promised that he is with us, always. We just need to love him more than any fearful devotion to a primitive theological construct that he replaced by his own sacrifice, once and for all time shedding innocent blood as an atonement for sin.
John 15:13 - Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
Is there a Christianity 301? Certainly. Not only is it easy to conceive of senior-level undergraduate studies in Christianity, the learning process never ends. Still, Christianity 201 is the Biblical foundation upon which any such advanced education must rest.
How do we interact with other faiths? What about neo-faiths, some of them new as in "new age" and others as old as earth-worship? Why didn't I answer the question raised earlier about sexual orientation? Hasn't that become just one of many "pressing social issues" that misguided Christians have responded to with legalistic proclamations?
Clearly, Christianity 201 is not the end of scholarship about what Jesus taught and did and how to interpret the Bible without betraying Christ. It's a start. More likely than not, the next step is to prayerfully consider these passages and answer questions and challenges from those who find more comfort in The Law than in the Lord.
All Bible references are from New American Standard Bible (1995 translation)