Human beings throughout history have been susceptible to a desire to be freed from the dictates of higher authority. Most people wish to be free to do whatever they choose to do. This attitude runs rampant among the baby-boomers, whose formative years occurred during the 1960s. Expressions that were commonplace at the time included “Do your own thing” and “Let it all hang out.” These simple slogans give profound insight into what was really driving the counterculture forces at that time. Underneath the stated objectives of love, peace, and brotherhood were the actual motives of self-indulgence and freedom from restrictions. This ethical, moral, and spiritual perspective has proliferated, and now dominates the bulk of American civilization.
The Israelites at Mt. Sinai provide a good case study of this. Their unbridled lust manifested itself when they cast aside restraint. Awaiting the return of Moses, they “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6)—“play” being used euphemistically to refer to illicit sex play (cf. Genesis 26:8) [Harris, et al., 1980, 2:763; Clarke, 1:464]. The drinking and dancing (vs. 9) apparently included lewd, even nude, party-like revelry, with the people being “naked” (KJV), “broken loose” (ASV), “unrestrained” (NKJV), or “out of control” (NASV—vs. 25). The “prodigal son” was gripped by this same “party on” mentality. He went to the far country to party, to live it up, and to “let it all hang out.” There he indulged himself in riotous, loose living—totally free and unrestrained in whatever his fleshly appetites urged him to do (Luke 15:13).
Despite all of their high and holy insistence that their actions are divinely approved, and the result of a deep desire to do Christ’s will and save souls, could it possibly be that those within Christendom who seek to relax doctrinal rigidity are, in reality, implementing their agenda of change simply to relieve themselves of Bible restrictions? Is it purely coincidental that the liberal preachers have been eager and willing to accommodate the clamor for “no negative, all positive” preaching? Is it completely accidental and unrelated that many voices are minimizing strict obedience under the guise of “legalism,” “we’re under grace, not law,” “we’re in the grip of grace” (Lucado, 1996), and we are “free to change” (e.g., Hook, 1990)?
No, these circumstances are neither coincidental nor unrelated. They are calculated and conspiratorial. The religious change agents have breathed in the same spirit that has led secular society’s psychological profession to view guilt as destructive while unselfish, personal responsibility is labeled “co-dependency.” They have embraced the same subjective, self-centered rationale that secular society offers for rejecting the plain requirements of Scripture in order to do whatever they desire to do: “God wants me to be happy!”; “It meets my needs!” The spirit of liberalism has taken deep root in the country and in the church (see Chesser, 2001).
FREEDOM IN THE BIBLE: JOHN 8:12-59
The Bible certainly speaks of the wonderful freedom that one may enjoy in Christ. But biblical freedom is a far cry from the release from restriction, restraint, and deserved guilt touted by the antinomian agents of change. With sweeping and precise terminology, Jesus articulated the sum and substance of what it means to be free in Christ. In a context in which He defended the validity of His own testimony (John 8:12-59), He declared the only basis upon which an individual may be His disciple. To be Christ’s disciple, one must “continue” in His word (vs. 31). That is, one must live a life of obedience to the will of Christ (Warren, 1986, pp. 33-37). Genuine discipleship is gauged by one’s persistence in complying with the words of Jesus.
Freedom in Christ is integrally and inseparably linked to this emphasis upon obeying God. While it is ultimately God and Christ who bestow freedom from condemnation upon people, they do so strictly through the medium of the written words of inspiration (vs. 32). The “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) is the law that gives liberty to those who are “doers of the word” (James 1:22). These same words will function as judge at the end of time (John 12:47-48).
It thus becomes extremely essential for people to “know the truth” in order for the truth to make them free (vs. 32). What did Jesus mean by “the truth?” “The truth” is synonymous with (1) the Gospel (Galatians 2:14; Colossians 1:5-6—genitive of apposition or identification), (2) the Word (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 4:2), (3) the Faith (Acts 14:21-22; Ephesians 4:5), and (4) sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10-11). In other words, “the truth” is the content of the Christian religion. It is the New Testament—the doctrines of the one true religion (cf. James 5:19). For a person to “know” the truth, he or she must both understand it and submit to it. Christ’s teachings must become the supreme law of daily life. The servant must both know his master’s will and act in accordance with that will (Luke 12:47).
The freedom that Jesus offers through obedience to His truth is noted in His interchange with the Jews over slavery. Those who sin (i.e., transgress God’s will—1 John 3:4) are slaves who may be set free only by permitting Christ’s words to have free course within them (vs. 34-37). This kind of freedom is the only true freedom. Genuine freedom is achieved by means of “obedience to righteousness” (Romans 6:16). Freedom from sin and spiritual death is possible only by obedience to God’s words (vs. 51).
Nevertheless, these Jews—though they were believers (vs. 30-31)—were unwilling to obey Christ’s will and function in a faithful manner as Abraham had (vs. 39). Consequently, Jesus labeled them children of the devil (vs. 44). They were not “of God” because they were unwilling to “hear” God’s words, i.e., comply with them (vs. 47). Though they believed, they would not obey the truth. “Indignation and wrath” awaits those who will not “obey the truth” (Romans 2:8). J.W. McGarvey summarized the interpenetration of freedom, obedience, and knowing the truth: “Freedom consists in conformity to that which, in the realm of intellect, is called truth, and in the realm of morality, law. The only way in which we know truth is to obey it, and God’s truth gives freedom from sin and death” (n.d., p. 457).
SITUATIONISM AND THE GRAIN FIELD: MATTHEW 12:1-8
“But what about that time when the Pharisees reprimanded Jesus’ disciples for picking grain and eating on the Sabbath? Was not that incident a clear case of Jesus advocating freedom from the ‘letter of the law’ in order to keep the ‘spirit of the law’? Was not Jesus sanctioning occasional violations of law in order to serve the higher good of human need and spiritual freedom?”
A chorus of voices within the church is insisting that the report of Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) does, indeed, advocate Christian “freedom” (i.e., freedom from law) and its priority over rule-keeping (e.g., Clayton, 1991, pp. 21-22; Collier, 1987, pp. 24-28; Lucado, 1989; Woodruff, 1978, pp. 198-200). Abilene Christian University professor David Wray wrote in reference to Jesus: “He healed and allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus then used ‘theological reflection’ to help his followers understand that people take priority over rule keeping and legalism” (1992, p. 1, emp. added). Richard Rogers claimed: “Jesus taught…that people took priority over the rules” (1989, p. 14, emp. added). Compare these statements to the one made by Randy Fenter: “It is not what we follow, but who we follow; not a set of values but a Person. …Are you committed to a set of Christian values, or are you committed to Jesus Christ who died for you?” (1993, p. 1, emp. in orig.). Frank Cox claimed that Jesus had “the power to modify or change the rules of Sabbath observance. Sabbath observance must bend to human needs” (1959, p. 41, emp. added). Another writer insisted that “there are occasions when necessity outweighs precept, as Jesus himself indicated in Matthew 12:1-5” (Scott, 1995, p. 2, emp. added). Still another writer claimed that Jesus was suggesting that “the Sabbath commandment was optional if inconvenient” (Downen, 1988, emp. added).
Interestingly enough, these remarks are insidiously reminiscent of the very ideas promoted by the most theologically liberal sources imaginable. Joseph Fletcher, the “Father of Situation Ethics,” wrote that “Christians, in any case, are commanded to love people, not principles” (1967, p. 239, emp. added). He referred specifically to Matthew 12 when he said that Jesus was “ready to ignore the Sabbath observance” and that He “put his stamp of approval on the translegality of David’s action, in the paradigm of the altar bread” (pp. 15,17, emp. added). Fort Worth First United Methodist Church minister, Barry Bailey, stated: “Instead of putting the Scriptures first we should put God first” (as quoted in Jones, 1988, 1:8). This sort of humanistic inclination constitutes a great threat to the stability of the church and the Christian religion. It undermines the authority of Scripture, and further fosters the shift to emotion, feelings, and subjective perception as the standard for decision-making (see “The Shift to Emotion” in Miller, 1996, pp. 52-63).
It never seems to dawn on those who promulgate the “love Jesus vs. love law” antithesis that they are striking directly against the Bible’s own emphasis. Their contrast is not only unbiblical, but borders on blasphemy. Was the psalmist “legalistic” when he declared to God, “Oh, how I love Your law!” (Psalm 119:97)? Was he “idolatrous” or guilty of “bibliolatry” (book-worshipping) when he declared: “How sweet are Your words to my taste; sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103)? Over and over again, he affirmed his love for God’s Word: “…Your commandments, which I love” (vss. 47-48); “I love Your law” (vs. 113); “I love Your testimonies” (vs. 119); “I love Your commandments more than gold” (vs. 127); “Your word is very pure; therefore Your servant loves it” (vs. 140); “I love Your precepts” (vs. 159); “I love Your law” (vs. 163); “Great peace have those who love Your law” (vs. 165); “I love them exceedingly” (vs. 167). He claimed that God’s words were his delight (vss. 24,35,70,77,92,143,174), his hope (vss. 43,49,74,81,114,147,166), and his life (vs. 50). He even stated: “I opened my mouth and panted for, I longed for Your commandments” (vs. 131; cf. vss. 20,40).
The fact of the matter is one cannot love God or Jesus without loving and being devoted to Their teachings. That is why Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me” (John 14:21). “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:23). “He who does not love Me does not keep My words” (John 14:24). John echoed his Savior when he said: “[W]hoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him” (1 John 2:5), and “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3). How ludicrous and contrary to the essence of deity to place in contrast—to pit against each other—God and God’s laws. This is a bogus, unscriptural juxtaposition. It is not a matter of either/or; it is both/and. To minimize one is to minimize the other. Those who do so are surely in the same category as those of whom Paul spoke: “…they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10, emp. added).
It likewise does not seem to dawn on those who espouse the “rules must bend to human necessity” philosophy that they are insulting the God of heaven—He Who authored the rules. Does it even remotely begin to make sense that God would author a law, tell humans they are obligated to obey that law, but then “take it back” and tell them they do not have to obey that law if it is “inconvenient,” or if it is in conflict with “human need,” or if necessity requires it? And who, precisely, is to make the determination as to whether God’s law in a particular instance is “inconvenient”? Surely not man—since “it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). And which people in all of human history ever found conformity to God’s laws “convenient”? “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2, emp. added; cf. 16:2).
Imagine parents telling their children that it is the will of those parents that the children obey the following instructions: “Do not steal, cheat, or lie.” Then imagine those same parents additionally stating: “But kids, if any of these requirements are inconvenient, or if your friends ask you to go help them steal a car, or if you feel you must cheat on a test to insure graduation, hey, ‘people take priority over rules,’ so if you must, feel free to ignore these requirements.” Those parents who take this approach to parenting inevitably produce lawless, undisciplined, unruly, irresponsible children. In fact, those parents eventually find that their children do not love them!
THE MEANING OF MATTHEW 12:1-8
Many commentators automatically assume that the charge leveled against Jesus’ disciples by the Pharisees was a scripturally valid charge. However, when the disciples picked and consumed a few heads of grain from a neighbor’s field, they were doing that which was perfectly lawful (Deuteronomy 23:25). Working would have been a violation of the Sabbath law. If they had pulled out a sickle and begun harvesting the grain, they would have been violating the Sabbath law. However, they were picking strictly for the purpose of eating immediately—an action that was in complete harmony with Mosaic legislation (“but that which everyone must eat”—Exodus 12:16). The Pharisees’ charge that the disciples were doing something “not lawful” on the Sabbath was simply an erroneous charge (cf. Matthew 15:2).
Jesus commenced to counter their accusation with masterful, penetrating logic, advancing successive rebuttals. Before He presented specific scriptural refutation of their charge, He first employed a rational device designated by logicians as argumentum ad hominem (literally “argument to the man”). He used the “circumstantial” form of this argument which enabled Him to “point out a contrast between the opponent’s lifestyle and his expressed opinions, thereby suggesting that the opponent and his statements can be dismissed as hypocritical” (Baum, 1975, p. 470, emp. added). This variety of argumentation spotlights the opponent’s inconsistency, and “charges the adversary with being so prejudiced that his alleged reasons are mere rationalizations of conclusions dictated by self-interest” (Copi, 1972, p. 76).
Observe carefully the technical sophistication inherent in Jesus’ strategy. He called attention to the case of David (vss. 3-4). When David was in exile, literally running for his life to escape the jealous, irrational rage of Saul, he and his companions arrived in Nob, tired and hungry (1 Samuel 21). He lied to the priest and conned him into giving them the showbread, or “bread of the Presence” (twelve flat cakes arranged in two rows on the table within the Tabernacle [Exodus 25:23-30; Leviticus 24:5-6]), to his traveling companions—bread that legally was reserved only for the priests (Leviticus 24:8-9; cf. Exodus 29:31-34; Leviticus 8:31; 22:10ff.). David clearly violated the law. Did the Pharisees condemn him? Absolutely not! They revered David. They held him in high regard. In fact, nearly a thousand years after his passing, his tomb was still being tended (Acts 2:29; cf. 1 Kings 2:10; Nehemiah 3:16; Josephus, 1974a, 13.8.4; 16.7.1; Josephus, 1974b, 1.2.5). On the one hand, they condemned the disciples of Jesus, who were innocent, but on the other hand, they upheld and revered David, who was guilty. Their inconsistency betrayed both their insincerity as well as their ineligibility to bring a charge against the disciples.
After exposing their hypocrisy and inconsistency, Jesus next turned to answer the charge pertaining to violating the Sabbath. He called their attention to the priests who worked in the temple on the Sabbath (12:5; e.g., Numbers 28:9-10). The priests were “blameless”—not guilty—of violating the Sabbath law because their work was authorized to be performed on that day. After all, the Sabbath law did not imply that everyone was to sit down and do nothing. The Law gave the right, even the obligation, to engage in several activities that did not constitute violation of the Sabbath regulation. Examples of such authorization included eating, temple service, circumcision (John 7:22), tending to the care of animals (Exodus 23:4-5; Deuteronomy 22:1-4; Matthew 12:11; Luke 13:15), and extending kindness or assistance to the needy (Matthew 12:12; Luke 13:16; 14:1-6; John 5:5-9; 7:23). The divinely authorized Sabbath activity of the priests proved that the accusation of the Pharisees brought against Jesus’ disciples was false. [The term “profane” (vs. 5) is an example of the figure of speech known as metonymy of the adjunct in which “things are spoken of according to appearance, opinions formed respecting them, or the claims made for them” (Dungan, 1888, p. 295, emp. added). By this figure, Leah was said to be the “mother” of Joseph (Genesis 37:10), Joseph was said to be the “father” of Jesus (Luke 2:48; John 6:42), God’s preached message was said to be “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21), and angels were said to be “men” (e.g., Genesis 18:16; 19:10). Priestly activity on the Sabbath gave the appearance of violation when, in fact, it was not. Coincidentally, Bullinger classified the allusion to “profane” in this verse as an instance of catachresis, or incongruity, stating that “it expresses what was true according to the mistaken notion of the Pharisees as to manual works performed on the Sabbath” (p. 676, emp. added)].
After pointing out the obvious legality of priestly effort expended on the Sabbath, Jesus stated: “But I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple” (12:6). The underlying Greek text actually has “something” instead of “One.” If priests could carry on tabernacle/temple service on the Sabbath, surely Jesus’ own disciples were authorized to engage in service in the presence of the Son of God! After all, service directed to the person of Jesus certainly is greater than the pre-Christianity temple service conducted by Old Testament priests.
For all practical purposes, the discussion was over. Jesus had disproved the claim of the Pharisees. But He did not stop there. He took His methodical confrontation to yet another level. He penetrated beneath the surface argument that the Pharisees had posited and focused on their hearts: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7). In this verse, Jesus quoted from an Old Testament context (Hosea 6:6) in which the prophet of old struck a blow against the mere external, superficial, ritualistic observance of some laws to the neglect of heartfelt, sincere, humble attention to other laws while treating people properly. The comparison is evident. The Pharisees who confronted Jesus’ disciples were not truly interested in obeying God’s law. They were masquerading under that pretense (cf. Matthew 15:1-9; 23:3). But their problem did not lie in an attitude of desiring careful compliance with God’s law. Rather, their zest for law keeping was hypocritical and unaccompanied by their own obedience and concern for others. They possessed critical hearts and were more concerned with scrutinizing and blasting people than with honest, genuine applications of God’s directives for the good of mankind.
They had neutralized the true intent of divine regulations, making void the word of God (Matthew 15:6). They had ignored and skipped over the significant laws that enjoined justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). Consequently, though their attention to legal detail was laudable, their misapplication of it, as well as their neglect and rejection of some aspects of it, made them inappropriate and unqualified promulgators of God’s laws. Indeed, they simply did not fathom the teaching of Hosea 6:6 (cf. Micah 6:6-8). “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” is a Hebraism (cf. Matthew 9:13) [McGarvey, 1875, pp. 82-83]. God was not saying that He did not want sacrifices offered under the Old Testament economy (notice the use of “more” in Hosea 6:6). Rather, He was saying that He did not want sacrifice alone. He wanted mercy with sacrifice. Internal motive and attitude are just as important to God as the external compliance with specifics.
Samuel addressed this same attitude shown by Saul: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). Samuel was not minimizing the essentiality of sacrifice as required by God. Rather, he was convicting Saul of the pretense of using one aspect of God’s requirements, i.e., alleged “sacrifice” of the best animals (1 Samuel 15:15), as a smoke screen for violating God’s instructions, i.e., failing to destroy all the animals (1 Samuel 15:3). If the Pharisees had understood these things, they would not have accused the disciples of breaking the law when the disciples, in fact, had not done so. They “would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7, emp. added).
While the disciples were guilty of violating an injunction that the Pharisees had made up (supposing the injunction to be a genuine implication of the Sabbath regulation), the disciples were not guilty of a technical violation of Sabbath law. The Pharisees’ propensity for enjoining their uninspired and erroneous interpretations of Sabbath law upon others was the direct result of cold, unmerciful hearts that found a kind of sadistic glee in binding burdens upon people for burdens’ sake rather than in encouraging people to obey God genuinely.
Jesus placed closure on His exchange with the Pharisees on this occasion by asserting the accuracy of His handling of this entire affair: “For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (vs. 8). In other words, Jesus affirmed His deity and, therefore, His credentials and authoritative credibility for making accurate application of the Law of Moses to the issue at hand. One can trust Jesus’ exegesis and application of Sabbath law; after all, He wrote it!
Matthew 12 does not teach that Jesus sanctions occasional violation of His laws under extenuating circumstances. His laws are never optional, relative, or situational—even though people often find God’s will inconvenient and difficult (e.g., John 6:60; Matthew 11:6; 15:12; 19:22; Mark 6:3; 1 Corinthians 1:23). The truth of the matter is that if the heart is receptive to God’s will, His will is “easy” (Matthew 11:30), “not too hard” (Deuteronomy 30:11), nor “burdensome” (1 John 5:3). If, on the other hand, the heart resists His will and does not desire to conform to it, then God’s words are “offensive” (Matthew 15:12), “hard,” (John 6:60), “narrow” (Matthew 7:14), and like a hammer that breaks in pieces and grinds the resister into powder (Jeremiah 23:29; Matthew 21:44).
The mindset of today’s situationist is not new. We humans do not generally regard rules and regulations as positive phenomena. We usually perceive them as infringements on our freedom—deliberate attempts to restrict our behavior and interfere with our “happiness.” Like children, we may have a tendency to display resentment and a rebellious spirit when faced with spiritual requirements. We may feel that God is being arbitrary and merely burdening our lives with haphazard, insignificant strictures. But God would never do that. He has never placed upon anyone any requirement that was inappropriate, unnecessary, or unfair. As the Israelites were engaged in their final encampment on the plains of Moab prior to entrance into Canaan, Moses articulated a most important principle: “[T]he Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes…for our good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24, emp. added; cf. 10:13). God would never ask us to do anything that is harmful to us. He does not restrict us or exert His authority over us in order to make us unhappy. Quite the opposite! Only God knows what, in fact, will make us happy. Compliance with His wishes will make a person happy (John 13:17; James 1:25), exalted (James 4:10), righteous (Romans 6:16; 1 John 3:7), and wise (Matthew 24:45-46; 7:24).
Those who wish to relieve themselves of restriction will continue to invent ways to circumvent the intent of Scripture. They will continue to “twist” (2 Peter 3:16) and “handle the word of God deceitfully” (2 Corinthians 4:2). They will exert pressure on everyone else to “lighten up,” loosen up, and embrace a more tolerant understanding of ethical conduct. But the “honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15) will “take heed how [he] hears” (vs.18). The good heart is the one who “reads…hears…and keeps those things which are written therein” (Revelation 1:3, emp. added). After all, no matter how negative they may appear to humans, no matter how difficult they may be to obey, they are given “for our good.”
The Bible simply does not countenance situation ethics. Jesus always admonished people to “keep the commandments” (e.g., Matthew 19:17). He did so Himself—perfectly (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26). And He is “the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9, emp. added).
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