Frequently Misused Verses: “not in the Gospels”

Today we’re throwing this series a little curve ball.  Instead of dealing with a particular quote or verse from the Bible that is frequently misused, we’re looking at an anti-verse, so to speak.  Especially in recent times, people have made appeals to the claim “Jesus never said anything about ___ therefore it isn’t that important.”  This pits one part of the Bible against the others, namely exalting the Gospel books above all the others.  And although the four Gospels do hold a special and exalted place unique before the other books (at least in liturgical traditions) the current popular misuse is a reduction of divine revelation to the “red letter Bible” – that is, the words actually attributed to Jesus during his life on earth.

Let’s start with an example.

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We’ve got a bonus round here, too, as someone has supplemented the meme with an actual attempt to explain the reasoning behind it.  Both are problematic misuses of Scripture, and I shall address these one bit at a time.

Point #1: the whole Bible is the Word of God

Highlighting the Gospel books, or even the “words of Christ” within the Gospel books, is a style of argument that inevitably denies the divinely inspired authority of the rest of the Bible to some degree.  If all that mattered in Christian teaching was what Jesus directly said in person, then we wouldn’t keep Paul’s and James’ and Peter’s letters, John’s letters and Revelation, the history of the Acts, or any of the Old Testament, in the Bible; all we’d have is a “collection of sayings.”  Interestingly, the early Gnostics made the same sort of appeal, claiming to have “lost” or “secret” sayings of Jesus that contradict the elaborations of the Apostles after His ascension into heaven.  We do not pit one part of God’s Word against another; that is a basic interpretive fallacy.

Point #2: who is Jesus again?

Let’s revisit the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity: who or what is God?  God is Trinity: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  God the Son, known on earth as Jesus, is also known as the Word of God.  Through God’s Word and God’s Spirit, the human race has received God’s self-revelation to us.  And although God is three persons, God is one Being.  So what the Spirit said through the Prophets of old is just as divine as what the Son said when among us on earth.  And if we account the whole of Scripture as God’s Word (as the Church always has done), then it makes no difference whether its earthly source is the mouth of Jesus or the mouth of a Prophet – we receive both as from the same Divine author.  Granted, the way in which we understand those words may vary, but even then, it’s not so much because of who spoke it on earth, but because of the style in which the word was recorded.  A poem (like Psalms) must be read differently than an historical account (like Acts).

Now, to deal with the errors in the commentary below the meme.

Paragraph #1: the purpose of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible

The Law of Moses was set forth to deal with sin, as the commenter correctly begins, but to say that the Law atoned for sin and “got people into heaven” is inaccurate.  The New Testament highlights that the old Law was unable to carry out that hope.  Galatians 3:21-22 says:

if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

So the Law actually just condemned people of their sins.  The sacrificial system of the Old Covenant was an active lived-out reminder that sin is beyond our capacity to bear, let alone remove.  It therefore also functioned as a placeholder until the real sacrifice to atone for sins took place: the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross once for all.

Paragraph #2: freedom in Christ

The commenter starts out well, identifying the Cross as a central part of Jesus’ ministry in the world.  But then a fatal error jumps in when she says that we enter into heaven by “acting in His image.”  We do not join ourselves to Christ and His image by our actions.  That is the heresy of Palagianism (or something much like it) which teaches that we’re good enough to save ourselves if we just imitate the Good Example of Jesus.  Rather, we are made into Christ’s image through Baptism, faith, and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:3-11, John 3:16-17, Titus 3:3-7).

The commenter goes on to note that because of Christ’s sacrifice we are no longer bound to the old Law of Moses.  Or at least, that’s the corrected wording of what she tries to describe.  We no longer have to perform circumcision or wear our hair in prescribed ways or sacrifice animals, correct.  But to say we don’t have to follow “any of the other laws in Leviticus” is misleading.  We are freed from the old law, not bound to the old covenant, but we are bound into the New Covenant, which repeats the exact same basic demand: “be holy as I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45, 1 Peter 1:16).  How do we know what holiness is?  The law of the Old Testament, especially as we see it repeated in brief highlights in the New Testament, give us that picture of holiness.

Does this mean we have to “pick and choose” our way Leviticus to understand holiness?  No, it does not.  The Old Testament Law, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, is surprisingly clear if you actually read through it attentively.  There are different types of laws throughout.  Some are civil laws, like the laws about land inheritance and not moving your neighbor’s boundary markers.  Some are religious laws, like the laws about hairstyle and sacrifice and not boiling goats in their mother’s milk.  And some are ethical laws, like not murdering, fornicating, or stealing.  The civil laws belong to the civic – ancient Israel and Judah, long past in history.  The religious laws belong to the religion – ancient Judaism centered around the Ark of the Covenant.  The ethical laws belong to the ethical standards of the deity – the God of Israel.  Since Christians profess the God of Israel to be the same God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, the ethical laws remain as lessons in godly holiness.

Paragraph #3: do Christians need ethics?

The final paragraph of our intrepid commentator is the most disastrous, as it moves from false teaching to false exhortation.  While absolutely yes, we do look to the sacrifice of our Great High Priest, Jesus of Nazareth, upon the Cross, as the sole source of our life and our salvation, that does not mean we have no need of any law.  First of all, Jesus spoke quite a bit of law from his own mouth, the “sermon on the mount” in Matthew 5-7 being one of the better-known examples.  Secondly, as I already noted, the call to “be holy” like God is repeated throughout the New Testament (not only in 1 Peter 1 but also in Matthew 5, for example).

We do not follow the ethical teachings of Jesus in order to earn, catch up to, or supplant the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

Rather, we follow the ethical teachings of Jesus in order to follow, honor, and respond to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.

This is really basic to Christian living and really important to understand.  In the beginning of Romans chapter 6, we see the retort from St. Paul:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

He asks a similar question shortly thereafter:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

The explanation is simple:

you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

and

if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

Long story short…

It is a frequent issue for people these days to fail to see the connection between the Old Testament laws and New Testament living.  Simplistic appeals to “what Jesus said” are not the solution.  Instead, we’ve got to do the hard work of actually reading and learning how the Bible is meant to be understood, and how the Old Testament stands as God’s Word for Christians.

Two of the best places to start are Romans 6 and Galatians 3.

Once you’ve got those chapters sorted out, go ahead and read the whole epistle to the Galatians.

Then go and read Romans chapters 1 through 8.

The epistle to the Hebrews is also a valuable book linking the Old Testament and New, though its focus is more on the priesthood, sacrifice, and liturgy, rather than on the Law.

Finally, allow me to remind you of the famous verses in the Bible about the Bible, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  Remember that St. Paul is really talking about the Old Testament!  It’s true for the New as well, but let that sink in: the Old Testament is inspired by God and profitable for all those good things so that Christians may be prepared for good works.

Thanks be to God!

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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