Ever since the beginning of mankind there have been rules. For the vast majority of time people have broken those rules. How people view the rules, people who break the rules, and their own violation of the rules looms large in religious discourse today as it always has. The New Testament gives Christians three different models: the Pharisees, the Gnostics, and Jesus.
The Pharisees are famous for their high valuation of the Law God gave to Moses; they were very much fans of the rules (Matthew 23:1-2). They sought to add a hedge around God’s laws, the Torah, to make it even more difficult to violate the rules; they sought to observe many rules with exact precision (Matthew 23:23). Yet in their zeal for the Law they set God’s people at naught. They condemned masses of people as unwashed sinners inferior to them in standing before God, since they had come to learn of the rules of holiness and sanctity (cf. John 9:34). They had difficulties separating out the rules from their interpretation and understanding of how the rules should work, and in the process condemned good, right, and holy deeds as somehow contrary to God’s purposes (e.g. Luke 13:10-17). They proved blind to their own hypocrisy: they commanded others to do mighty things they themselves would not do, violated commands on account of all the traditions and “hedges” they had built, and in their emphasis on little things missed the weightier matters of justice, faithfulness, and mercy (Matthew 15:1-9, 23:1-3, 23-24).
The Pharisees proved extremely zealous for God’s rules; in the process, however, they prioritized God’s rules over God’s people, and missed His important exhortation: God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). A major aspect of God’s rules involved loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18). Beyond all this, what if God privileged His rules over His people? All of His people would be condemned as transgressors (Romans 3:1-20)! Jesus rightly chastised and condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and judgmentalism (Matthew 23:1-36).
Towards the end of the New Testament period a heresy developed that would later be known as Gnosticism. Gnostics tended to cast aspersions on the goodness of the creation, suggesting it was really a cosmic mistake, and envisioned salvation as freedom from the constraints and corruptions of the physical realm. Gnostics thus aspired to develop and cultivate the pure soul: some were moved to asceticism, denying all bodily desires (cf. Colossians 2:20-23), while others, believing the works of the flesh had nothing to do with the soul, committed whatever sensual acts they desired. John, Peter, and Jude have explicit condemnation for these latter types who would turn the grace of God into lasciviousness, acting as if sin was not really a thing or at least was not a thing that affected the select few (cf. 1 John 1:7-10, 3:1-4:6, 2 Peter 2:1-22, Jude 1:3-16). These Gnostics, therefore, were quite the opposite of the Pharisees: to them there was no real sin, no real law. They could do what they want without consequences. And the Apostles, in the name of Jesus, condemned them for such ungodliness and lasciviousness, affirming that Jesus did indeed live in the body and died to save us from sin, and anyone who would deny they had sin was self-deceived (1 John 1:7-10).
To this day there are some who wish to minimize or subvert God’s rules in order to justify sinful and ungodly behaviors; many others either tolerate or even enable them in these pursuits. The Apostles rightly sounded the alarm regarding such people: Christians are called to faithfulness in Jesus, avoiding sin and manifesting righteousness, and the ways of the flesh need no justification or rationalization (cf. 1 John 2:1-17). The Gnostics and their ilk were rightly condemned for their lawlessness, attempting to use Christian liberty to justify feelings and behaviors which ultimately prove unhealthy and damaging to people and are rightly condemned by God in Christ.
Jesus of Nazareth embodied God’s valuations of rules, people, and judgment. Jesus continually upheld and embodied the Law in His life, death, and resurrection (Matthew 4:1-11, 5:17-20, Luke 24:44). Yet Jesus married the letter of the Law with its spirit in purpose as established by God: God’s rules were made for and given to His people, not the other way around (cf. Mark 2:27). Rules came about because people proved sinful and needed guidelines; Jesus came as the ultimate display of God’s love, grace, and mercy, and through Him everyone has the opportunity to obtain forgiveness of sin and standing before God (Romans 3:23-27, Galatians 3:1-27, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, 1 John 4:7-21).
Contrary to the opinion of many, Jesus did affirm the impending judgment of God on account of sin, declaring the condemnation of Jerusalem and warning regarding the final judgment of everyone (Matthew 23:37-25:46). Everyone will be judged by what Jesus has said (John 12:48). And yet Jesus did not come to condemn sinful man, but to save him (Matthew 9:13): Jesus entrusted God with judgment and went about doing good for sinners (1 Peter 2:18-25). In all of time no one has been as righteous or as holy as Jesus of Nazareth (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-8), and that very Jesus proved willing to eat and drink with sinners, to be touched by the unclean, and to extend hope for salvation to everyone, rich and poor, male and female, master and slave (Matthew 11:19, Mark 5:28-34, Luke 7:36-50, 19:1-10). Jesus’ love for sinners did not involve justifying their sin or enabling them to continue to wallow in transgression; He interacted with them to draw them near to Him and to the work of God accomplished in Him (Matthew 21:28-32).
Christians are called to follow the way of Jesus and avoid the temptations of the ways of the Pharisees and the Gnostics. Christians are called upon to uphold the integrity of what God has made known in Christ and in Scripture, and to contend for the faith delivered to them (1 Peter 3:15-16, Jude 1:3); Christians must strive to follow Jesus and live as He lived (1 John 2:3-6). And yet Christians must display love, grace, and mercy toward one another and their fellow man, recognizing the image of God in everyone, always cognizant of how their standing before God is not deserved but itself a free gift of grace and mercy from God (Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 2:1-10, 4:1-5:21, Titus 3:3-8). Christians must entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing good, knowing God will judge on the final day (1 Corinthians 5:13, James 4:11-12, 1 Peter 4:19). Christians thus recognize their fellow man as deceived by the Evil One and the powers and principalities over this present darkness, and thus strive to see him or her as human beings made in God’s image, corrupted by sin, but able to find redemption in Jesus (Ephesians 6:12, 1 Timothy 1:12-17). Christians must love people as God loves people; Christians must uphold God’s standards while confessing their own transgression and sinfulness; Christians must give space for God to render final judgment, and in the meantime find ways to try to save people and not condemn them. May we embody Jesus’ character in terms of God’s rules, people, and judgment, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry