Embracing the New While Cherishing the Past
Newness, Change, Divorce, Culture
Most people love new things. We love the new car smell and we like the way we look in new clothes. We love the challenge of a new job, we look forward to seeing new television shows, and you may even stand in line to get the new books of your favorite authors. Even in the church you will see a bump in attendance when there is a new building. Others are drawn to a church for the new music and new styles of worship.
There is a common danger on concluding that the new is always better than the old. We toss aside some things, people, marriages, and ideas simply because they are old. However, if you have lived for any length of time you know that some of the old (classic) cars have an appeal that surpasses that of a new vehicle. Old furniture (antiques) are often built with greater quality than mass produced furniture. Classic (old) books are often far superior to the shallow drivel that often shows up in bookstores today.
This morning we are going to look at a brief passage that gives interpreters fits. These few verses seem out of place between the story of the Shrewd Manager and the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, we have learned from experience over the years that this text, like every other text we have studied, is here for a reason and given to us by God to help us grow in discipleship.
Something New and Exhilarating
Luke 16:16-18 follows the story of the shrewd manager. In that story Jesus taught us that we should live now in light of Heaven and part of that was using our worldly wealth and resources to invest in eternity.
Then Jesus seems to shift gears very suddenly, like someone who decides to turn right from the left lane of traffic. These religious leaders felt smug and self-righteous. They believed they did not need Jesus. Jesus wanted them to understand God’s true plan and purpose.
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.
The Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) was proclaimed until John the Baptist. The message of the Old Testament was pretty simple: live a holy life (do what God says), repent of sin, offer your sacrifices, and pray for God to be merciful to you. The Old Testament way of salvation was still through faith (in the Promise of a Messiah) but the people were left somewhat uncertain of their status before God.
With the coming of John the Baptist a new page is turned. John announced the coming of the one who had been promised: the Lamb who would take away the sin of the world. Jesus is that Lamb. He revealed His authority in the way He taught, the miracles He performed, and the forgiveness He promised. He paid the penalty of our sin through His death in our place. Jesus invited people to trust and follow Him and promised forgiveness, new life, and life even beyond the grave.
As a result, Jesus observed, those who before felt alienated and excluded clamored to enter this new Kingdom offered by Christ. Picture a big crowd that is pushing to get into a concert or to get the hot Christmas present of the year for their child or the crowd at an “after Christmas sale”. People stand in line and rush in when the doors are open completely unaware of those around them (often with tragic results). All they can see is the benefit that is ahead.
The common people saw the blessing of what Jesus was offering. The Scribes and Pharisees criticized Jesus and resisted his message. Go back to verse 15 and you see that Jesus said “you are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men.” The religious leaders believed they deserved God’s blessing. They felt they had earned Heaven. They didn’t need a Savior.
There are many of these kinds of people today. There is a large segment of our population who believe they can earn salvation; they “justify themselves”. If you ask the majority of people today if they believe they will go to Heaven when they die, they would tell you that they believe they will. If you ask them why they believe this they say: “Because I have lived a pretty good life”. For many, part of the way they “justify themselves is by going to church.
What people don’t understand is that God has not called us to be “better than average”, He calls us to be Holy as He is Holy. We are not free to change His standards (even if the civil courts declare our sin to be “legal” or if we were “having a bad day”). The standard is absolute and unchanging. The only way for a person to feel they have earned salvation and eternal life is to either lower God’s standard (thus minimizing our transgression), or vastly inflate their own goodness.
We’ve had a picture of the gospel message this week. Think of sinful human beings (that’s all of us) like the miners of Chile who were trapped in the coal mine. They could do nothing to get themselves out of the mine; they were totally dependent on their rescuers who provided the means of escape in the form of a tight little car that brought them to the surface. In a sense, as those miners waited for a drill to bore a hole to their location they were like those in the Old Testament. They had hope, but all they could do was wait for their rescuer. The arrival of the “car” is similar to the coming of Jesus. Jesus provides our means of escape from the penalty and life of sin by giving His life as a payment for our sin. Instead of having to get into a tube, we are asked to trust Him, to bet our future on Him.
Those who have had stained lives, those who had been tossed aside by the world, those who are caught in the grip of their own addictions, those who are tired of pretending they are something they know they are not . . . these people were/are coming to Christ for salvation and new life. It is the only way out.
Something Old and Stabilizing
When the message of grace is proclaimed it is often misunderstood. Some believe grace means that the Old Testament Laws are now irrelevant. They would say we are not only delivered from the curse or penalty of the Law (for sin), but they believe we are freed from the Law entirely. Jesus corrected this notion,
17 It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.
There is a group of believers today who call themselves “Red Letter Christians”. They put most of their focus on the words of Jesus in the Gospels (which are often printed in red). They would say that because Jesus graciously received tax-collectors and sinners He would welcome homosexuals, substance abusers, and people living immorally today. They conclude that we should no longer call such behaviors wrong or worse, sinful because it is unloving.
Jesus certainly did receive all kinds of broken people and He does the same today. HOWEVER, Jesus never told these people that what they were doing was “OK”. He told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more”. He told the tax-collectors to begin to live honest lives. Jesus did not replace the Old Testament law, He fulfilled it!
We no longer need to offer the sacrifices and offerings prescribed in the Old Testament (because the perfect sacrifice of Jesus has been made on our behalf), but the moral Law is unchanged because God’s character has not changed. We cannot and will not be saved by keeping that law (because we can’t do so), but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t still the behavior that God wants for us and the behavior that is best for us.
So to those who ask, “Why should I read the Old Testament?” we answer,
- First, the Old Testament sets the stage for the Gospel message. The Old Testament is the context for the New Testament. Apart from the Old Testament we don’t know how to define sin, we don’t understand the penalty that sin incurs, and we would have no frame of reference for the cross of Jesus. To ignore the Old Testament is like seeing with only one eye. You may still be able to get around, but you have blind spots and you lose any depth perception.
- Second, the Old Testament graphically reveals the heart of our unchanging God. In the Old Testament we see a God who lovingly created us but who also requires that we respect Him and honor Him as our Creator. We see a God who writes the laws on our hearts and who takes violations of those laws seriously. God has not changed. We see the character of God expressed through thousands of years of history.
- Third, the Old Testament gives us direction for life. The Ten Commandments still summarize God’s moral requirements. The book of Genesis explains our origins and how things came to be. The books of poetry reveals God in an emotional and personal way. The book of Proverbs gives us wonderfully practical wisdom for daily living. The prophets remind us that God will judge sin.
If you read and understand the Old Testament, the New Testament can be understood in a new and deeper way. The Bible is God’s revealed truth. Reading and understanding the Bible in its totality is essential.
Think about the Bible as a unit.
- The Old Testament Prepared the Way for God’s Salvation
- The Gospels Reveal the Way of Salvation
- The Epistles Explain and Apply the Way of Salvation
The Bible in its entirety is God’s unchanging revelation of His heart and His expectations. We are to live by these standards not only because God says so (which should be reason enough) but we should live this way because it honors God, it is the proper response to grace, and it is the best way to live. The Psalmist said,
How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word’ Psalm (119:9)
Several times Jesus told us that those who have His commands and keep them are the ones who truly love Him.
Jesus concludes with verse 18
18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Again, it feels like we’ve taken a sudden turn. Why does Jesus talk about divorce here? It is because He is illustrating the unchanging nature of God’s law. If you look at Matthew 5:18,19 we see a parallel account. Jesus said,
I 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. 19 Anyone 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.
What follows in Matthew are six illustrations of how the Law not only still applies, but is actually expanded by Jesus. Each illustration begins with the words “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you . . . “. He then illustrates using murder, adultery, divorce, the taking of oaths, the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye” and the command to love our neighbor. These illustrations show that Jesus does not negate these laws but shows they continue to apply. This is the same thing we see in Luke but there is only one illustration; that of divorce.
Many of the Pharisees of the day had developed ways to get an easy divorce. A man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. They may have been following the civil law but Jesus pointed out that they were violating God’s Law. God’s design is for marriage to be a commitment between a man and a woman that lasts a lifetime. He expects us to fulfill the promises we make on our wedding day. Grace does not eliminate the need for obedience.
We know that divorce sometimes happens. People who go through a divorce are often haunted by words like these. Is Jesus condemning remarriage in every case? Two things to notice: First, the Greek construction of the passage may indicate that Jesus is referring to someone who is getting divorced so they can marry someone else. This is clearly condemned by the Lord. To divorce your spouse because you have “fallen in love with someone else” is adultery in God’s eyes even if it is legal in the eyes of the state.
Second, we need to remember that this passage isn’t trying to give a comprehensive teaching on divorce, it is teaching us about the continuing value of the law. As we look in other places in the Bible one can conclude that those who have been divorced for Biblical reasons, or were divorced before they were believers, or even those who have truly repented of their sin, may remarry. Though God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), God also shows grace and mercy to those who have been divorced.
So what should we do with this passage? First, the passage should lead us to take a look at our hope of salvation. Are you like the Pharisees? Do you think you have earned Heaven by the “good life” you have lived? Do you think you deserve Heaven because you go to church? Or are you one who has run to the open arms of Jesus?
Jesus offers us a salvation that we cannot earn and do not deserve. He offers us this salvation not as a wage, but as a gift. To receive the gift we must admit our need and embrace His promise and the life that He offers. You can become a part of His family today. However, before you say, “Yes, Lord, I want to be your follower and receive the grace that You offer”, you need to understand that being part of His family means that even though you are forgiven your sin, God still expects you to trust Him enough to live by His rules and follow Him, rather than the crowd, in the way you live your life. If you will do this you can be part of His family right now. Call out to Jesus in your own heart. Humbly come to Him as your Savior and as your King and leader in life.
The second thing we should do with this text is use it as a reminder that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16) We need to read the whole Bible! It is not enough to read favorite passages over and over . . . we must see the whole picture. The Bible is our life manual; our instruction book. Sadly we are living in a time of growing Biblical illiteracy. A number of years ago already George Barna discovered these sad facts,
* Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels.
* Many professing Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples.
* 60 percent of Americans cannot name even five of the Ten Commandments.
* 82 percent of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
* Six out of ten Americans reject the existence of Satan.
* Four out of ten Americans believe that when Jesus Christ was on earth He committed sins.
* Five out of ten believe that anyone who is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in Heaven.
* Four out of ten believe that the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths.
* Seven out of ten born again Christians said they do not believe in moral absolutes.
These are old statistics and I suspect things have gotten much worse since this survey. We need to be “people of the Book”. If we do not know what is in the Bible then we can’t possibly help others. We need to become familiar with both the Old and New Testaments in the Bible.
So, are you systematically reading your Bible? Are you reading it with the same kind of interest you would a love letter from someone you cared about? If not, get started. If you have never read any of the Bible before start with the Gospel of Matthew and read to the end of the New Testament. Once you have become familiar with Jesus, start over at Genesis and read to the end. You might find a Study Bible helpful because of the helpful notes that are at the bottom of the page. Set a particular time and place every day when you will read a chapter or more. Some books are harder to read than others . . . don’t give up.
I encourage you to get involved in a study group that actually studies the Scriptures. Join a Bible Study, get involved in a Sunday School class, listen to Bible teachers on the radio, read books that teach the Bible. You might even volunteer to teach a Sunday School class….teachers always learn more than students. The most important thing is to get started.
There are lots of great new things in the world. Many of these new things are fun, good, and can greatly enrich our lives. But something new isn’t always something better. God’s Word has been around for thousands of years and has changed billions of lives. It was correct when He gave it to us the first time so even though it can be re-translated and repackaged, it cannot be improved upon. God’s Word is un-equalled in its ability to give us perspective, roots, wisdom and a life with God that will continue on through eternity.
New things are fascinating and can add to life but none of them can do what God alone can do through His matchless Word.