At one point in history, Aristotle was regarded as the greatest thinker of all time. For almost two thousand years, people believed Aristotle was right when he said that the heavier an object was, the faster it would fall to earth. That was the truth for two thousand years, determined by the world’s greater thinker. Anyone, of course, could have taken a heavy object and a light one, and dropped them from a tall place to see whether or not the heavier object landed first. But no one did that until nearly two thousand years after Aristotle’s death.
Legend has it that in 1589 Galileo gathered all the learned professors to the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then he went to the top with a ten pound weight and a one pound weight and dropped them at the same time. Both landed at the same moment. Yet even though they saw it with their own eyes, the professors denied the evidence and continued to say Aristotle was right.
Why? Because they gave more authority to what the legendary Aristotle said than they were ready to give the new guy on the block, Galileo. “Who does this upstart think he is to contradict the greatest thinker in the world?”
This only shows that it’s human nature we’re dealing with. It’s hard to shift away from what you’ve given authority to all your life – having accepted the belief of others for thousands of years – even if it’s proven to be in error. It just shows that visual evidence that clearly reveals the truth is not enough to change some people’s minds.
Jesus came along and taught something new. He taught, not as the scribes taught, but as one having authority. The fact that the scriptures were being interpreted differently was nothing new for the children of Israel. They were used to it. They had their conservative side of interpretation and their liberal side and all the flavors in-between.
A rabbi with a new teaching would say things like, “You have heard it said that ‘the scriptures should be understood this way,’ but I tell you, ‘this is what God really wants.’” That’s what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you ‘do not resist an evil person”… and he also said, “You have heard 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.’” (Matt. 5:38-39; 43-44)
A Jewish rabbi taught one of my classes at Vanderbilt. He said it’s been determined that there were a least twenty-three different Jewish sects or what we might classify as denominations of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. Nobody has ever been able to agree about what God wants based on the Scriptures, not even the Jews.
Still, the Jewish scribes were the authorized teachers of the Scriptures. They wore a belt and on that belt hung some keys. These keys were symbolic of the knowledge, experience, and authority of that scribe. In the business and religious worlds, diplomas seem to indicate the level of authority some will be given. These keys were recognizable symbols that gave you honor and authority because you had achieved a certain level of proficiency in the tradition.
Rabbis who had a new teaching would then attract followers who became their students, or disciples. Once a rabbi taught his disciples the details of his interpretations, he then gave them authority to teach the Scriptures in the way he had taught. He would say something similar to what Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 16, “I give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:13-20)
At one point, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “By what authority do you do and teach what you do?” The Greek word for authority means “the power to choose.” If you remember the story, Jesus didn’t tell them. He said, “You answer this question for me first and then I’ll tell you by what authority I say what I say.” They wouldn’t answer the question, so he didn’t tell them where his power to choose came from.
I read a book (Phyllis Tickle, The Emergent Church) that pointed out that in the two thousand year history of Christianity, there’s been a major shift about every five hundred years in where the body of Christ has placed its authority.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, the institutional church was formed in Rome and it was given the power to choose what was right and wrong. Then in the ninth and tenth centuries, the pope became the infallible authority for interpreting the truth. Then in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, during the Reformation, a group of people decided the Scriptures should be the ultimate authority for deciding the truth. Obviously, everyone wasn’t on board with every shift in who could decide what God’s will was.
And now, in the 21st century, we’re seeing another shift. People are questioning whether every word in every part of the written Scriptures is actually the truth about what God wants. Just like many question whether the pope is infallible, and the institutional church continues to show it isn’t perfect in its choices. The Scriptures are now in question – is every part of it true?
It’s upsetting when you begin to wonder if the place you have put your authority is somehow shown to be imperfect – whether it’s Aristotle or the church, the pope or the Bible. If we can’t trust something to tell us the absolute truth in every way, what are we going to stand on? I hope and pray we are finally shifting our authority to the Rock of our Salvation, Jesus Christ, and let him be our final authority.
How do you as a follower of Jesus decide how to bind and loose? Martin Luther gave clear direction on how to decide which Scriptures are to be followed in a sermon on Luke 14. He said, “If you are a Christian you have power to dispense with all commandments as far as they hinder you in the practice of love. (volume V: 165:20)
That was his way of saying, “I give you the authority to bind and to loose if it leads to love.” If it helps and guides you to love, then follow it. If it hinders you and prevents you from showing love, then get rid of it. Love is to be the interpreter of the law. Luther also said, “Love and necessity control all law; and there should be no law that cannot be enforced and applied in love. If it cannot, then let it be done away with, even though an angel from heaven had [broadcast] it. (volume V:165:28)
Luther said since it’s your life/soul that depends upon it, you must chose who you will follow. Don’t turn your soul over to truths others mandate for you. Be accountable to yourself for what you believe. Don’t trust an institution, a figurehead, or even a compiled book that’s never been interpreted the same way by any generation of human beings from the day it was put on paper.
Luther said this is how you decide the matter for yourself: “God must speak to your heart: “This is God’s Word” (second sermon on Matt. 7:15-22, volume IV: 239:8).
The Scriptures tell us that God is love. Do you accept this as truth? If you have love (Love) in your heart, then make your decisions on the authority of your heart for there is no greater authority than love. When love is your authority and Jesus is the example you are trying to follow, your choices will always lead to the fruits of the Spirit, bringing peace, joy, kindness, generosity, healing, and comfort into the lives of people who are hurting, like Jesus did. And the kingdom of heaven will be near.
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 Brett Blair and Staff, “Astonishing!” sermon on Mark 1:21-28, Sermons.com