It is fascinating to consider how a literalist application of Scripture, as evident in the teaching and practice of the Pharisees, was challenged by Jesus and the New Testament writers. The apostle Paul is the premier example of how a transformational encounter with Jesus changed the way he interpreted and applied God’s word.
As a strict Pharisee, Paul was a legalist and a violent supporter of God’s law. “God said it, I believe it and that settles it” would have been his unspoken assumption to take Old Testament laws literally and apply them without compromise. The seriousness of circumcision and its foundational role in the religious and political life of the nation of Israel would have been one unquestioned example based on God’s command to Abraham:
This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Gen 17:10-14).
That is a clear, unequivocal command. Yet when Paul met Jesus, he changed the way he interpreted Scripture. He had a new lens through which he understood God’s purposes and so he amazingly rejects circumcision for God’s people despite God’s firm admonition that it be enacted as an eternal covenant. He states, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Co 7.19).
The intriguing aspect of this verse is that in dismissing the direct command of God, Paul declares that we are called to obey the commandments of God! What has changed in Paul’s hermeneutic – the way he interprets and applies Scripture – so that by exhorting people to NOT literally fulfill the declared action of a command, Paul can still assume that Christians can (and must) obey God’s commands?
One influence on Paul’s thinking would have been Jesus’ teachings about the law. A particularly contentious command for Jesus that the Pharisees followed literally was to keep the Sabbath holy and not work on that day. Jesus’ argument against the Pharisees was not that they had mistaken the words of the command, but that they had misinterpreted God’s intention in giving the command. Jesus did not deny that he was working on the Sabbath but by saying, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5.17), declared the right to do so. This interpretation of the command was not based on the meaning of the original terminology but on Jesus’ perspective of the fundamental purpose of the command. Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2.27 NRSV) announced the appropriateness of bringing wholeness and release to people on the Sabbath.
Where the purpose of the command was fulfilled, literal adherence to the words of the command was unnecessary and could even be deceiving by distracting from the purpose. This is why Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their strictness in following the letter of the law while ignoring the heart of the commands. It appears from the New Testament approach towards the law that the fulfillment of God’s commandments is not determined by passionate yet wooden attention to the words, but by comprehending and entering into the heart of and intention of the Giver of the command.
Therefore, when the question of circumcision came to a head in the early church (Acts 15), the argument did not focus on the terminology of the command – that was clear and unequivocal. Rather the concern was how God’s intentions were fulfilled through faith. Peter declared, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8,9).
From the way Jesus and the New Testament writers interpreted the law of God, it seems that we have been given a lesson in how to interpret God’s word. Rather than seeking to obey commands given in the Bible as if it was a law that must be adhered to in a word-for-word fashion, we are called to discern the intention and purpose of God in and through those commands. The meaning of the commands occurs in the context of following Jesus’ purposes, not by strict adherence to a particular wording. The one who obeys is not the one who focuses on the terminology, but the one who looks past the words into the heart of God. The approach of the apostles in the New Testament indicates that they were not preparing a manual of laws for Christians of all eras to follow like an algorithm even if they don’t understand the purpose; rather the apostles were discovering how to live out the gospel. This New Testament process serves as a pattern for us so that we also may work out our passion for the same kingdom purposes.
If this interpretive concern I have presented truly reflects the hermeneutic of Jesus and the New Testament authors, it provides support to accept into membership those who have not been baptized by immersion if their baptismal expression has fulfilled the purpose of expressing commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Even though the literal word of the command is “immerse,” the heart of baptism is the expression of faith of a good conscience (1 Pet 3.21). To reject such an expression of faith as a fulfillment of the command of God based on a literalist adherence to the words of a command is to oppose the interpretive heart of Jesus and Paul.
(NIV used unless otherwise stated)