One of the main reasons that many Christians fall short who are earnestly seeking to live Biblical lives is their refusal to see legitimate analogies between issues of controversy in the time of the Bible’s stories and our lives today. Most Christians completely miss the significance of three important social teachings in the New Testament because they deal with issues that were a huge deal in their day but are completely uncontroversial now: Sabbath healing, circumcision, and unclean food. No one is going to criticize a doctor whose on-call pager goes off in church on a Sunday morning so he can save a patient’s life; neither will anyone tell the parents of a boy whom they elected not to circumcise as a baby that they are not welcome in worship; neither could we imagine telling anyone that eating meat from a grocery store owned by a Muslim or Buddhist is an offense against God. So we don’t allow these three major New Testament controversies to teach us anything, because we’re unwilling to recognize the deeper principles they teach and apply these to the actual controversies of the faith in our day about which many Christians are every bit as tight-fisted and hard-hearted as the 1st century religious leaders who crucified Jesus and persecuted Paul.
I. Sabbath healings
One of the most poignant healings that Jesus performed is represented by the icon I used as an accompanying graphic for this post. The story comes from Mark 3:1-6, which I used as my sermon text a couple weeks ago for asking the question “What makes God mad?”:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart. I’m not going to name the issues of today about which Christians are hard-hearted; I’ll let you make your own analogies. But let’s think about what’s going on in this scene. There is nothing unclear within the Torah: the Sabbath is not a day to do work; it is a day to turn your attention exclusively to God. Jesus may say that he expects his followers not to violate a single jot and tittle from the Law (Matthew 5:18), but that statement has to be interpreted in some way other than face value, because Jesus doesn’t just do work on the Sabbath; he does it as the centerpiece of the synagogue worship gathering! How could he possibly have thrown an explicit violation of Torah more in the faces of the Pharisees?
In Luke 13:14, the leader of a synagogue where Jesus is healing exhorts the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Is that an unreasonable request? Jesus later responds in Luke 14:5 by making an analogy: ““If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” But is that really a fair analogy? Not a single person that Jesus healed in any of his Sabbath healings had a life-threatening condition that required immediate attention and could not wait till one of the six days on which work ought to be done.
But Jesus’ Sabbath healings have a more critical teaching point. He says in Mark 2:27: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” That is a tremendously revolutionary statement that calls out one of the most pious-sounding things that Christians always say about worship and life in general: It’s not about you; it’s about God’s glory. Nope, the Sabbath is made for humankind, not for God’s glory. We absolutely have the need to spend the day losing ourselves in God’s glory; furthermore we love ourselves the best by forgetting ourselves and enjoying God’s glory in every minute of our lives; but this is done in order to fulfill our own therapeutic needs, which Jesus has declared it legitimate to own and recognize.
So the next time you’re getting annoyed when an emotionally needy and perhaps immature person spends too much time talking during the prayer concern time in your worship service, let Jesus remind you that the Sabbath was made for him or her to be healed, not for you to make it all about your insistence that it’s supposed to be all about God (which is to say that you actually make it all about yourself the more that you need others to know that you only care about glorifying God!). I consider the larger implication of Jesus’ radical statement to be that God does not prescribe any laws for the pure sake of His glory, but all of His commands are analogous to the command to glorify Him through the Sabbath, which is done for the sake of human flourishing.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day gave themselves power by deputizing themselves as police enforcing Torah for the sake of God’s glory, particularly by attacking those who did “work” on the Sabbath. In John 5:10, they lay into a crippled man whom Jesus had healed, saying, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” Really? You can’t carry an object? What if the man had been carrying a plate of food? Do you have to eat your food like a pig with your mouth directly off the ground or is even that too much work? It is a tremendously common power tactic in our day for Christians to deputize themselves like the Pharisees as the defenders of God’s glory whose job is to police others’ morality. After all, Leviticus 19:17 says, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” Some Internet trolls probably have that printed out on a sticker on their laptop screens.
Jesus throws a wet blanket over this power game by saying God doesn’t want His own glory on the Sabbath because He wants to strip you of your pretext for oppressing people with your exhibitionist “self-sacrificial” piety. But Jesus’ Sabbath healing obviously isn’t even primarily about offending the Pharisees. When he sees the man with the withered hand, he sees someone who has a legitimate obstacle to fully experiencing the glory of God on a day when God wants to share His joy with everybody. So He doesn’t heal to disrupt worship or because worship is unimportant; He heals to allow worship to happen. We don’t know whether this happened in the middle of Jesus’ sermon though it’s clear that it was quite disruptive; but Jesus was unwilling to allow worship to continue until everybody could enjoy it together. The implication is that we are engaging in sacrilegious worship if anyone in our worship community has the equivalent of a withered hand or a withered dignity that prevents them from fully enjoying the glory of God, because worship is not about silently humblebragging that we are selfless saints who don’t have any needs and only talk about God all the time; it’s about bringing all our neediness and sin into the healing rays of God’s light where we can lose ourselves inside His glory.
The controversy of circumcision was the basis of the first apostolic council that Christianity ever convened, the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. It seems to me from the way “circumcision” is used in New Testament discourse that the word doesn’t just refer to the physical act of cutting the foreskin of the penis but serves as a symbolic summary of Torah fidelity, all the ways that God’s people are supposed to honor their covenant and set themselves apart from the Gentiles. Circumcision was the first covenantal command given to Abraham in Genesis 17 long before the Ten Commandments were even written. God says very plainly that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people” (v. 14).
But what circumcision ends up becoming is a mark of legitimacy, a means of separating who’s in from who’s out. And neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other apostles are as devoted to reinforcing the power of insiders as the Christian machine has become for the majority of its Constantinian existence. Whether or not we have our sons’ foreskins snipped is more a matter of hygiene today, but boy oh boy, do we have our own “circumcisions.” Since the information age is an ideological era in which we are increasingly defined not by our physical bodies but the words with which we represent ourselves, our “circumcisions” are the position “stances” and doctrinal “views” we use to mark ourselves and litmus-test other people to see if they are “set apart for God” like us or “Gentile” losers.
To be fair, this kind of litmus-testing happens just as readily with the liberal concerns of identity politics as it happens with the conservative concerns of doctrinal “orthodoxy.” Nothing is more important to progressive bourgeois white people than to put their “circumcised” political correctness on proud display before others; nobody hates racists and sexists and homophobes and so forth more than progressive bourgeois white people who need to show how “circumcised” they are. Likewise, I think the reason that conservative evangelicals defend their doctrtinal “circumcisions” so furiously is because without them, their whole system for organizing the world into who’s in and who’s out would collapse and they wouldn’t know who to be friends with.
This is why I’m tickled perhaps a little too giddily to read Paul’s subversive shredding of the concept of circumcision in Romans 2:25-29:
Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?… For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.
The only way Paul’s statement that uncircumcised people can “keep the requirements of the law” makes any sense is if the “requirements of the law,” like circumcision, are really “matters of the heart” that are “spiritual and not literal,” meaning that one could somehow achieve the spiritual equivalent of circumcision (and presumably every other law) without being “circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin” (or literally obeying any other law). Man, the implications of Paul’s thinking would make guys like John MacArthur so mad if they ever allowed themselves to recognize them, because he yanks out their “circumcised” soapbox from under them.
Many Christian interpreters of Romans want to make Paul’s concept of “faith” into the new “circumcision” that replaces foreskin-snipping. But justification by faith is not a replacement “circumcision”; it is the repudiation of the concept of “circumcision” and the insider/outsider game that it creates. Paul writes that “there is no distinction” between insiders and outsiders anymore “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:22-25).
We do not justify ourselves by believing in Jesus; we are rescued from justifying ourselves by believing that Jesus has put every mistake we’ve made onto his cross. If we really are “justified by [God’s] grace as a gift,” then there is no performance evaluation for us to pass or fail, whether in the form of living a flawless life (which no one has ever done) or “accepting” Jesus perfectly into our hearts (which no one has ever done either). The question is whether we really trust in God’s grace enough to let ourselves renounce the self-justifying “circumcisions” by which we divide the world into outsiders and insiders. We are saved when we stop “circumcising.”
III. Unclean Food
The question of unclean food is dealt with by both Jesus and Paul. Like circumcision and the Sabbath, the Jewish dietary laws comprise a holiness of obeying arbitrary commands from God for the strict sake of being obedient. God says in Leviticus 10:10, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” There is much value to having a division in our world between holy space and common space, even if its basis is arbitrary. Evangelical low-church Protestants have lost something by destroying this distinction when they worship in elementary school cafeterias and take communion by way of single-serving cracker and grapeshots sometimes in the same packaging.
So there’s a legitimacy to distinguishing between sacred and profane that we’ve lost in American culture. But as with the Sabbath and circumcision, what the New Testament eradicates is this concept of obedience for the sake of obedience. The corrective that both Jesus and Paul provide is a transformation from a morality of establishing your covenantal “set-apartness” to a morality of purifying your heart to become God’s mercy in the world. What’s most important to learn from are the underlying principles that Jesus and Paul offer for their teaching on unclean foods. These principles can and should be applied analogously to the moral questions of our day now that things like “sacrificial meat” are quaint relics from the distant past.
Jesus says in Mark 7:18-22:
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?… It is what comes out of a person that defiles.For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
What this says to me is that morality is not an external juridical matter for God, but rather an internal therapeutic matter. God is not looking to see whether we are doing what he said to do for the sake of His honor. There are two reasons why we have been given all the commandments: for the sake of justice in how treat others (love of neighbor) and for the sake of purifying our hearts so we can enjoy God perfectly in worship (love of God), which actually makes our justice into its natural outflow. Jesus chastises the Pharisees for their casuistic legalistic approach to obedience: “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). What matters to Jesus is not whether we do things that are unclean from a juridical, behavioral standpoint; it’s whether we do things that are impure to our hearts so that they pervert our worship and make us live unjustly.
Now here’s the awful scandal for the religious insiders who have so much invested in their deputized policing of other peoples’ Sabbaths, circumcisions, and unclean foods: different things corrupt different hearts, which means that sin is (wait for it…) relativistic. What a scandalously heretical/postmodern/liberal thing to say, etc! Why do you hate it so much for me to say that? Because it means you have to take off your Jesus purity-cop badge and lay it beneath Jesus’ cross with all the other idols!
I don’t know else can you read the verse that is perhaps the most ignored teaching of Paul’s in all of his epistles: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14). Go ahead and say it: But Paul’s just talking about unclean food! Then why didn’t he say “no food” instead of nothing? Paul says something very similar in 1 Corinthians 6:12-14:
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything. Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.
There’s a theory that “all things are lawful for me” is a slogan the Corinthians had that Paul is throwing back in their faces, but there weren’t any quotation marks in the original Greek text so I took them out. It’s horrifying to the purity police to hear Paul say something like “All things are lawful for me.” The NIV translators were so scandalized they had to add a “You say” in front of it. But this is no call to an anything goes kind of hedonism! Paul’s moral standards are way more demanding than the easy clear legalism that the purity cops want so they can focus on technically following the rules and condemning others who don’t. This requires constant critical thinking. What is going to make me live a fleshly existence and what is going to make me live an inspired existence?
I memorized 1 Corinthians 6:12-14 in Greek and I say it every week as a penitential practice, kneeling on the marble in each chapel of the basilica where I go because it hurts my knees. Why? Because I want resurrection! When I conclude that prayer with ho de theos kai ton kurion egeire kai hemas exegeire dia tes dunameos auto, I’m asking God to throw off my filthy rags and raise me from the dead. There are things that are sinful for me and nobody else because they dominate me and become my idols. Being overly obsessed with my blog is one of them, which is why you won’t hear from me for a while starting a week from Wednesday during Lent. Even though all things are lawful for me, not all things are beneficial. I want a pure heart so I can see God because that’s the promise that Jesus made to me in Matthew 5:8.
What we should all want for each other are pure hearts so that we can all share in the glory of God together. The way to tell that it’s really about that and not about the self-satisfaction of being a purity cop is if you’re willing to accept that every single individual person has a different set of what is clean and unclean for them to do. We can help each other out when we see other people getting fixated, addicted, or overly zealous about anything in a way that detracts from love of God or love of neighbor. But we are disempowered by God through his teachings on Sabbath healings, circumcision, and unclean food in the New Testament of His holy word from using that book as the basis for self-aggrandizement, litmus-testing, and purity policing ever again. So let’s all put our purity cop badges down at the foot of the cross and accept the resurrection of the one who died to save us from our self-righteousness!