The Jesus Criterion #14 – Jesus as our interpretive criterion

By Steve Flowers

One of my seminary professors taught me to think of God’s revelation down through history as three concentric circles that represent the various means in which God has revealed God’s self. The most inner circle is the personal revelation of God as Jesus. This is God Incarnate, that is to say God made flesh. The middle circle represents God’s revelation through all other stories, events, and persons as recorded in the Bible. The outer most circle would represent any other events in which one believes God disclosed God’s self throughout history that were not recorded in the Bible.

Looking at this chart, Jesus’ life should be seen as two different metaphors. One is that Jesus is literally the bull’s eye of understanding God. As both God and sinless human in perfect harmony with the triune God, the life of Jesus can be viewed as the purest form of God’s revelation we have received. The other metaphor is that we see the inner circle as a sun from which God’s revealed self radiates out such that all other biblical stories or commands not about Jesus cannot conflict with or contradict the acts and sayings of Jesus. All of God’s truth from the Bible must be a product of or align with what radiates out from the innermost circle (i.e., Jesus’ words and actions) as an extension of God’s revealed self. This concept of revelation makes Jesus the ideal standard through which we need to interpret all scripture.

In his book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World, Addison Hodges Hart summed up how Jesus is that standard of measure:

Christ is the culminating revelation who sheds light on the adequacies and inadequacies of all that came before him in the scriptural record.

For Christians, both canons taken together provide the essential conceptual context for understanding Jesus and his message. For us, then, Jesus is the key to unlocking the Scriptures, and the Scriptures — in all their variety and occasional contrariness — lead us to a more lucid interpretation of his teachings.

This concept is not just the opining of others. Our Bible tells how Jesus made himself that standard during Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus first ties himself to the scriptures by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). As Jesus continues speaking, we see even more clearly what He means by coming “to fulfill” the scriptures. He quotes a series of commands from scripture that had long been misinterpreted to his hearers. After each quote and using only his own authority, Jesus provides the correct interpretation using the repeated pattern of “You have it heard it said… But I say to you…” (emphases added):

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-26; referencing Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, 16:18)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-30; referencing Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18)

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32; referencing Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.” (Matthew 5:33-37; referencing Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21)

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42; referencing Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:20-21)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-47; referencing Leviticus 19:18)

In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, Dr. M. Eugene Boring states Jesus made himself the authority on scripture through this message in Matthew:

Jesus does more than give a better interpretation of the old authority; he relocates authority from the written text of Scripture to himself— i.e., to God’s presence in his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Still, the point is that Jesus’ teaching is not transgression of the Law, but its transcendence.

At this point it is not just an interesting methodological theory to consider but also the witness of the Bible itself that we are to use Jesus as the criterion by which we interpret the entire Bible. We conclude with the excerpted May 6th devotional from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest in which Chambers succinctly identified this point while reflecting on Galatians 5:1—

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

A spiritually minded person will never come to you with the demand— “Believe this and that”; a spiritually-minded person will demand that you align your life with the standards of Jesus. We are not asked to believe the Bible, but to believe the One whom the Bible reveals (see John 5:39-40). We are called to present liberty for the conscience of others, not to bring them liberty for their thoughts and opinions. And if we ourselves are free with the liberty of Christ, others will be brought into that same liberty— the liberty that comes from realizing the absolute control and authority of Jesus Christ.

Always measure your life solely by the standards of Jesus. Submit yourself to His yoke, and His alone; and always be careful never to place a yoke on others that is not of Jesus Christ. It takes God a long time to get us to stop thinking that unless everyone sees things exactly as we do, they must be wrong. That is never God’s view. There is only one true liberty— the liberty of Jesus at work in our conscience enabling us to do what is right.

Next post: Jesus style, part 1