No wonder many people don’t know what to do with the Old Testament. No wonder one of Jesus’ own disciples didn’t. Philip said to Jesus, “Tell us about the Father and we will be satisfied” (John 14:8). Jesus replied, “Have I been with you so long Philip, and you don’t know me” (John 14:9)? What Philip seems to be saying is “We aren’t asking about You. We worship You as the Son of God. And to our great surprise we are not afraid of You. What we want to know about is the Father. We want to know about the One who drowned all but eight and said, ‘If you disobey Me, I will kill you.’ We want to know about the God who killed the firstborn in Egypt (Exod 11:4-7) and the 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35). The God who killed Uzzah when he touched the ark (2 Sam 6:3-8) and turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt (Gen 19:26). The One who swallowed up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num 16:1-35), and burned up Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1-3; Num 3:2-4), and sent the she-bears against the boys who mocked Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-24).” And so on down the list. “Jesus, could the Father possibly be like you?”
Jesus replied, as in John 14:9, NIV: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Since the account in John 14-16 is quite condensed, Jesus could well have continued at this point, “And Philip, as for those difficult stories in the Old Testament, don’t take them to mean that the Father is less gracious and less approachable than you have found Me to be. It so happens that I am the One who led Israel in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4). The command to stone Achan was Mine. Philip, why don’t you ask Me why? I’d love to tell you. I would almost put off the crucifixion if you disciples would only ask Me.” But according to the record, they never asked Him.
He went on to say something extraordinary to them. In John 16:26, He spoke words which most Christians have not yet incorporated into the good news. Jesus said, “I. . . will tell you plainly about my Father” (John 16:25, NIV). Goodspeed helpfully translates what follows:
“I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself” (John 16:26, Goodspeed). I consider these the most astonishing words in the Bible; we will spend much time on them later.
What a shame they didn’t ask Him what He meant by these words (John 14:9; 16:25-27). Instead, they wanted to argue about the positions they would hold in the kingdom. Since they didn’t ask, then it’s really left with us to ask. “Jesus, why did you order the stoning of Achan? How could you, the gentle Jesus, do that? And Jesus, why did you set up the whole priestly system of intercession and mediatorial work, when you said there is no need for anyone to intercede with the Father, for the Father Himself loves us?” I wish they would have asked Him these questions, because then the biblical record would hold the most incredible information from the Lord Himself. Well, we had better ask now. If we ask, what important answers may come as we ask of every story, teaching, and event in the Bible, “What does this tell us about God?”
Fortunately, some Pharisees asked Jesus a difficult question which gives us some idea as to what He might have said on those other occasions. When they asked Jesus about divorce, they said, “Jesus, you know the texts that say we may divorce our wives. Moses gave us permission. What is your view on the subject?” Matt 19:7. And Jesus explained why He had given Moses directions as to how the people could (if they wished) divorce their wives in Matthew 19:7, 8:
The Pharisees asked him, “Why, then, did Moses give the law for a man to hand his wife a divorce notice and send her away?” Jesus answered, “Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you are so hard to teach. But it was not like that at the time of creation (GNB).”
You see in Moses’s day when you tired of your wife, you simply sent her home. You didn’t even have to give her camel’s fare to get there. All you had to say was “Out! I have a new one moving in this afternoon.” Through Moses God said, “If you’re going to do it, do it in a more humane manner.” But God’s real feeling is expressed in Malachi, “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16, RSV). Most people do.
Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees is the key to so many other places in the Bible where God seems to recommend something strange or wrong. God is not contradicting Himself in those places, He’s meeting people where they are. The Matthew 19 passage illustrates a fundamental principle of interpretation, which we will use throughout the rest of our conversations, the principle of context. It was the context, the setting, that determined the meaning of a passage when it was originally written. To the extent that we can recreate and recover that original context, we are in a position to recover the original meaning.