When the whirlwind of questions come to you about various hot-button social issues, where do you turn?
If we’re honest, we’re often tempted to strike a deal, blending our biblical conviction with what’s culturally palatable. It’s tempting to try to salute the contemporary zeitgeist while also standing firm on the Bible, but this is a difficult pose for faithful Christians to hold for long.
But there is another response. The gasps, sneers, and eye-rolls may tempt us to soft-pedal the Bible’s teaching, but they can also strengthen our resolve. Instead of temptation, it could be a call to faithfulness, reminding us of the vast gap between what the Scripture teaches and what people often want to hear. I was reminded of this afresh the other day when reading the Scriptures and considering how Jesus responded to a pressure-packed question.
In Matthew 18:3, the Pharisees come to Jesus to ask him some questions: “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’”
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how the question was asked because we are unable to hear the inflection or observe the body language of the inquirer. But Matthew includes some keys so that we can understand. We read that they came up to him and tested him. When we think of testing we might think they are playing a game of Bible trivia or are offering innocent inquiries into theological ethics. The Pharisees, after all, love to read and quote the Bible, and Jesus obviously really likes the Bible, too. Is this innocent testing of one’s understanding and application of the Word?
I don’t think so. The word translated test here also conveys the concepts of scrutinizing and tempting. One lexicon describes it being used to try and trap someone in a mistake. It’s used in Matthew 16:1 in this sense as well. I think we are on solid ground to conclude, in light of the Pharisee’s relentless anger, bitter, and calculated malevolence towards Jesus, that this question has ill motives. They are trying to catch him saying something wrong in front of the crowd.
Another reason we can gauge the temperature of the conversation is the cultural debate at the time. The topic of divorce was controversial in Jesus’s day and there were two main schools of thought that dominated religious leaders at the time. And, as you might imagine, one was more conservative and the other more liberal. We know by the way they asked the question, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” that they were trying to stir things up.
The more conservative rabbis permitted divorce only in the case of sexual immorality while the more liberal leaders granted permission for a man to divorce his wife for almost any reason imaginable. And, to make the point, there was even provision made for a man to divorce his wife if she was not a good cook. Can you imagine that? Divorce for overcooking the meatloaf? So, there is a wide gulf between the two main sides. And the Pharisees are inviting Jesus to alienate a side and cause a public controversy.
What’s interesting here is Jesus does not directly answer their questions about divorce. Instead, he teaches about marriage.
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. – Matthew 19:4-6
Notice that Jesus directs them to the authority on the matter. Amid the swirling debate about divorce in the community around them, Jesus cuts through the fog and points to the Word of God. Jesus pointed people to the Bible, not because the cultural voices did not exist, but because they were inferior. Jesus understands the authority of the Scriptures can settle matters of debate. He doesn’t salute the wisdom of the age; he dusts off the wisdom of God.
This is a good practice for us to develop also. When the swirling cultural debates are kicking up dust around us, we don’t answer the question from the standpoint of what the experts (even the religious experts) are saying. We are not thinking about sexuality, gender, marriage, and issues of life based upon what the editorial pages or headlines news says. Instead, we follow Jesus’s pattern and direct our attention back to the Word of God. This is our authority as Christians. It’s the ultimate authority.
Sadly, our reflexes are often off. As I consider my heart, I think it has more to do with currying the favor of man, rather than the approval of God. How shameful. Please don’t misunderstand, there’s certainly wisdom in trying to be tactful, gracious, persuasive, and kind. But I’m more concerned with the source of authority and the first reflex. I think the biblical model has a secondary concern for others that is born out of a primary concern for God and his glory. A reflex that reflects Jesus is a reflex forged in the training room of the spiritual disciplines. Through the daily intake of the Word through reading and meditation, and the regular heavenward calibration of the heart through prayer, the believer’s spiritual fast-twitch muscles are conditioned for bursts of faithfulness when the questions arise.
In the end, if we want to be like Jesus, we need to love the Bible like Jesus does.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at Erik's blog, The Ordinary Pastor, and is used with permission.