When then candidate Obama said in an interview with Rick Warren that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman, he also said that as a Christian he believed "God's in the mix". Indeed. As I engage in the current culture wars dialog I often hear Jesus being quoted and set up as an example of love and tolerance.
Indeed, again. If we're going to seek an example of how to engage culture and what to expect from that engagement, I can think of no greater than Jesus. But as we consider Him, we need also to understand Him a bit, including His worldview and how it was established.
Jesus was a believer in the Scriptures. At that time the "Scriptures" only included what we call today the Old Testament - often called "Moses and the prophets" in the Gospels, because Moses authored the Law (Torah or Penteteuch) and much of the remainder of the Old Testament was penned by prophets.
Speaking specifically of "the Law" Jesus said: For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. (Matthew 5:18 HCSB) Many today like to point out the aspects of the Jewish Law, meant to preserve them physically as well as spiritually, are essentially ignored today by Bible believers. They likely don't understand the theological reasons (there is tremendous depth to Scripture as well as a "big picture") for the dietary and clothing restrictions, for example, not being adhered to by modern Christianity. Yet, Jesus accepted that Law as "Gospel".
He even believed in the stories of Noah and the Ark and Jonah being swallowed by a fish only to emerge three days later to preach repentance to a pagan nation. If we're going to use Jesus as our example, let's be sure we understand what shaped His words and deeds. It was an unwavering acceptance of all of Scripture. If we're not willing to understand that then perhaps we shouldn't be referring to Him.
(Really, if we're going to "follow" Jesus wouldn't that mean the same acceptance of Scripture?)
Jesus was counter-cultural. Some would call Him radical or revolutionary. He found great occasion to confront the religious hypocrisies of His time, and minced no words in judgment and condemnation of those who were steering the people in a direction away from truth and justice. He even threatened them with condemnation in hell. But then, He's Jesus, and only He has that right.
His counter-cultural stirring of the pot would cost Him everything. Eventually those he exposed and challenged became angered to the point that they conspired against Him and succeeded in having Him executed. Indeed, there is a price to pay for daring to warn the fish that they are swimming in the wrong direction.
Jesus was the friend of "sinners". The religious power-brokers - those He dared to offend - were shocked that He ate and drank and conversed with the marginalized of their society. But He came to seek and to save them; to provide them a way to move out of their enslavement to whatever sinful addiction had them entrapped and to set them free. He knew that the best way to accomplish that purpose was to engage them and befriend them. They already knew they were "sinners" - they knew the Law and felt the disdain of the self-righteous. Jesus knew they were sinners as well. And more than anything he wanted to make a difference in their lives.
Yet, He came to bring to them a real righteousness. One story in His life illustrates how He could bring together the seeming paradox of believing that sin condemns, yet offering grace to the sinner that expects radical change. While I find the phrase used too often, He indeed was showing us how to "hate the sin but love the sinner". (Not His words.)
A woman was brought before Him who was guilty of adultery - a sexual sin involving a man to whom she was not married. Some believe it was a set-up, especially since the man was not brought to Jesus. Only the woman. But that's another discussion. The point was, she was guilty of "sin" according to the Law. And His critics, those who would later falsely accuse Him and set Him up for crucifixion, were hoping to cause Jesus to deny the Law He so believed in.
Jesus practiced both grace and truth. He didn't dodge the issue. He didn't give in, either to the self-righteous or to the guilty sinner. To the surrounding crowd He acknowledged that the Law required this woman be stoned - put to death - for her sin. (Within the same context of the Levitical Law were all forbidden sexual practices.) And remember, Jesus accepted this Law as God's eternal word. So, first He threw the ball in the court of the religious, telling them that whoever was sinless should commence the judgment by throwing the first stone.
Not only did He silence the crowd, His requirement of self-judgment dispersed them as they unwittingly were moved to see their own sin. Ouch. But the story doesn't end there. The next part is just as crucial to understanding Jesus as the first.
Turning to look at the woman He asked her a question: "Where are your accusers?" Looking up and around, she realized through teary eyes that they were gone. Now it was just her and Jesus. How powerful that the only one qualified to stone her would not. "Neither do I condemn you." That's grace - receiving what we don't deserve. The Law said she deserved death. Jesus was giving her life.
But don't miss what He said next. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
What didn't He say? He did not say, "You know, I'm not an adulterer myself. It's not how I roll. But if that's what fulfills you, OK." He didn't say, "Nobody's perfect (except Me), and I know this is probably not your fault that you think it's acceptable to do another woman's husband. So, be a little more discerning about who you welcome into your bed from now on." He certainly didn't say, "The Law is so outdated. I say 'If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with'".
He didn't come to redefine sin. He didn't come to free her to continue to sin. He came to free her from her sin and it's consequences. He didn't water-down her guilt. He told her simply, "You're free. Now live a changed life. What you did was wrong. Put it in your past and don't go there again." That's truth.
Grace and truth were what Jesus came to bring. He epitomizes the blending of the two. If we who are His followers are to be like Him, we have to do the same. We cannot turn a blind eye to the truth and in the name of Jesus only give grace, because grace, without being coupled with truth only becomes license to sin. Nor can we go the other way and preach truth without extending grace.
The Gospel requires a message of both. Grace provides the freedom we need from sin. Truth provides the boundaries we need as well. They are not mutually exclusive. They are the very essence of Jesus and how culture should be countered.
Just remember that when and if you do counter the culture, there will likely be a cost to be paid. Not everyone respected Jesus then. Not everyone respects Him now, mainly because they have crafted a Jesus of their own making.