Circumstances and the Bible

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Let me share some examples of how the principle of “circumstances alter cases” can be seen in the Bible. In Genesis 17 God offers Abraham an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). That sounds pretty permanent. This everlasting covenant would be for “you and your offspring after you throughout their generations” (Gen 17:9, ESV). That’s sounds pretty permanent too. And the sign of that everlasting covenant was the circumcision of all males among the descendants of Abraham.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the early church adopted circumcision as a mandatory rule for all followers of Jesus. In fact, some of the most passionate believers among them confidently asserted, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1, ESV) But at the council described in Acts 15 church leaders discovered that the Holy Spirit was calling uncircumcised Gentiles like Cornelius. What to do? They re-thought Genesis 17 and drew the conclusion that circumcision was specifically for the physical descendants of Abraham, but was not required for the Gentiles (Acts 15:19). Later on, when Timothy accepted Jesus, Paul required him to be circumcised because the Jews in that area knew his father was a Greek, but he had a Jewish mother (Acts 16:3). The full Gentile Titus, on the other hand, was not circumcised (Gal 2:3). Circumstances alter cases.

The book of Leviticus offered rules and regulations for Israel’s experience of wandering in the desert and living in tents around the tabernacle. Leviticus 17 addressed the issue of private slaughtering of animals for food and sometimes even as sacrifices. Some of this slaughtering was happening around people’s tents, others did it outside the camp. Leviticus asserts that under no circumstances was such slaughtering to occur without bringing the meat to the door of the tabernacle to be inspected by a priest (Lev 17:4). Even better would be to let the priests handle the whole process there (17:5-6). A crucial factor in this regulation was the proper draining of blood so it would not be eaten (17:10-11). This was to be “a statute forever for them throughout their generations” (17:7). This is a reasonably clear text. And it sounds pretty universal and permanent.

A generation later, however, the circumstances were about to change. Moses created a “second law” (Deuteronomy) which would apply to Israel’s settled existence in the promised land (Deut 12:1). In Deuteronomy 12 he instructs them to continue bringing animals for sacrifice to designated locations such as the sanctuary (Deut 12:13-14). But the slaughter of meat for food was no longer part of the regulation. They could freely do that slaughtering where they lived as long as they did it the right way, respecting the blood regulations (12:15-16). You see, with sacrifices at the sanctuary, the animals could be transported live, so the distance between home and sanctuary is not critical. But with meat slaughter, freshness begins to decline the moment you do it and having to transport meat as much as 50 miles back home before people could eat it made no sense. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

2 thoughts on “Circumstances and the Bible

  1. Owen Bandy

    Another situation where “circumstances altar cases” is found in the issue of divorce and remarriage. It has been typically a rule that the only reason for divorce and remarriage has been the statement by Moses, and repeated by Jesus that the only justified reason for divorce is fornication. (Matthew 5:31-32) But even that was a concession because of the hardness of their hearts because in the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:8) Then Paul comes along and says that “if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.” It appears to me that Paul here adds another concession to allow for another circumstance. I would like to know your thoughts on that John.

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