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The Bible says God never changes his mind, but does he ever change his law? In David Instone-Brewer’s new book, Brewer looks at the ancient cultural meaning of many of the Bible’s Old Testament laws and New Testament regulations to understand how they transfer over to us today, if they do at all.
Brewer writes that “God’s laws in the Bible constantly pushed humanity forward in order to change them for the better–in areas of punishment, equality, and care of the oppressed. God’s law changed people as much as they could be changed at the time” (9). Since circumstances and cultures change, God’s law (and the ways of applying it) changes as well “if it was going to produce the same purposes that God intended” (8).
To give some guidelines, Brewer says that countercultural commands and timeless commands still apply today. A countercultural command would be not worshiping idols. A timeless command would be a universal command found in all societies (like not murdering or stealing). On the other side, there are non-cultural, culture-reflecting commands like women’s head covering in 1 Corinthians 11. There was an underlying heart issue that Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 11. Western people don’t wear head coverings, so we have to look at the heart of the issue Paul was addressing to apply it to our lives. It does not mean Christian women need to begin wearing a head covering to church (or anywhere). Finally, there are changeable commands.
Brewer gives two examples in Nehemiah where Nehemiah changes the OT law given in Exodus. First, he makes a law against shopping on the Sabbath (Neh 10:31), and he turned the once-in-a-lifetime tax into a yearly tax (compare Neh 10:32 with Exod 30:11-16).
As well, polygamy was allowed in the OT, though it was never ideal and never God’s intention. Wars happened often, and men died. A man could take a second wife (a widow) so that she could be supported and could have offspring. Jesus said God’s original intention for marriage was for one man to be married to one woman. At his time, there were just as many men as there were women, so there was no need for polygamy. In fact, if polygamy had still been allowed, rich men would have taken multiple wives (just as Solomon did), leaving poor men alone and on their own (23).
After his first three chapters, Brewer covers 27 different topics in five sections:
- Sex and Marriage
- Church Issues
- Personal Vices
- For the Sake of Others
Almost every chapter was a pleasure to read, and I wish more authors could write like Brewer. In each chapter Brewer takes a problem (tolerance), explains the culture the Old and New Testament people lived in and why a command was either given or an action allowed, and then draws conclusions to Christians today.
In regards to tolerance, Rome was very intolerant. Brewer writes, “Roman tolerance meant that everyone had to join in with worship [either of Roman gods or the Roman emperor]; Christian tolerance meant that no one should be forced to do this” (155). Today’s tolerance is to let people believe “whatever they want without trying to persuade them otherwise” (156). We certainly don’t find that in the NT. Paul preached in synagogues until he was thrown out. Once he was stoned, and when he got up, he went right back into the city (Acts 14:20). The first NT Christians were Jews, and they still retained some of their Jewish practices. This was acceptable as long as they didn’t think these practices (like circumcision) were needed for salvation. So, Paul, a Jew, circumcised Timothy (Jewish mother, Roman father) so that they could reach more people, but he didn’t circumcise Titus (who was a Greek).
Brewer looks at the text of 1 Timothy 3:4 and how church leaders have to manage their own family well, even their children. Yet this doesn’t mean that a pastor must not have perfect children. It also does not mean that the pastor should step down if his children leave the faith or rebel after leaving home. Rather, in the OT and the Greco-Roman world, fathers ruled the household. In the OT, there were no prisons, and so a rebellious adult child was a detriment to society. Take note: this is talking about adult children. Most adults lived near their parents, sometimes even living in the same home (with an extension added on). If a father knew his son had done something wicked (like murder or rape), but instead turned a blind eye, then he was not managing his home well. He was not bringing about justice, and that would hurt the families and the society around them.
Parents can’t control their children, little beings who have minds of their own. But they try to instruct and disciple in ways fitting to each child. As that child grows into a teenager and beyond, the parents become more hands-off, releasing them into the wild, praying that God will keep close. A rebellious child does not automatically bring down a pastor.
This book was a nice read. I certainly enjoy theology, but many of the books I review take some work to follow the argument. But this one was a pleasure to read. I almost read through half the book in two hours. Each chapter is about six pages long. Brewer doesn’t speak in academic lingo, and it is refreshing when an author doesn’t take himself so seriously that he can joke around. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but the premise of the book is very intriguing. I will be thinking about it for a long time, and I hope he comes out with a sequel. I would like to see more examples. Pastors, teachers, students, and lay people would enjoy this one.
- Series: Scripture in Context Series
- Author: David Instone-Brewer
- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Lexham Press (September 25, 2019)
Buy it on Amazon or from Lexham Press
Disclosure: I received this book free from Lexham Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.