Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and other teachings are every bit as relevant to us today as they were to those who heard them from Jesus’ mouth two thousand years ago.
God’s Word is overflowing with beautiful, timeless principles and promises that apply to us and which the Bible says were recorded for our benefit, so that we can learn from others’ experiences.3 On the other hand, there are many passages in the Bible that can’t be applied literally to our lives today. A good deal of the Old Testament is historic in nature, chronicling the lives and times of the Jewish people and their forebears, and holds little relevance to our lives today. The fundamental principles of the Word are timeless, but we must apply them in the context of contemporary circumstances.
That’s nothing new.
The Mosaic Law had been the Jewish people’s standard for more than a thousand years, although how to apply it had often been a complicated and controversial matter. Jesus shone new light on the matter. His teachings focused on love, mercy, and humility, in sharp contrast to the exacting, legalistic interpretation held by the religious leaders of His day and their predecessors.
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’” Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount. “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. … You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.”4 Only moments before, Jesus had said that He hadn’t come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets, but to accomplish their purpose.5 Jesus ushered in a new era of faith that made obsolete the complicated rules and regulations, customs, and ceremonies detailed in the Old Testament, which the Jewish people had held to for over a thousand years. “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be [made right with God] by faith,” Paul the apostle explained. “But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor."6
As Christianity has developed over time, methods, concepts, and applications have continued to change and evolve. The early church faced the challenge of organizing and evolving from a small group of persecuted believers to an established religion with influence on the world of their day. And like the early church, the believers of each era since have had to be prepared to adapt to the world around them to some degree in order to reach people and to be relevant. Whenever the church tried to halt the process of change or was unwilling to adapt to the times, it ran into trouble; it either became too rigid and controlling, or it became irrelevant and people lost interest in Christianity. As Christians, we should strive to identify the timeless principles of the Word, but at the same time understand that how these principles are applied may change as the context changes.
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The one thing the New Testament forbids us to do is to treat it as a static document to be used as a set of proof-texts for instant solutions to complex and controversial contemporary problems. To misuse the New Testament in this way is to deny its dynamic character and to fail to realize that the Word has to be applied in a specific context.—Karl Paul Donfried
It will greatly help you to understand scripture if you note not only what is spoken and written, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goes before and what follows.—Miles Coverdale
Times change. God doesn’t, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be. … Every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now, in this place, in this time.—Rob Bell
1. 1 John 4:8
2. Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39
3. Romans 15:4
4. Matthew 5:38–41, 43–45 NLT
5. Matthew 5:17
6. Galatians 3:24–25