A very astute person once said, “There is no absolute truth, except that there is no absolute truth”, to illustrate the difficulty of arriving at absolute truth. During Old Testament (OT) times the Israelites were given what they perceived to be 613 absolute truths. Some ultra-orthodox Jews still hold fast to these practices, like the side curls you see on Hasidic males. Most Christians have recognised the transient nature of these laws so don’t need to ask whether we should wear gloves when marking the Sherrin football, because you won’t become unclean when you touch the skin of a dead pig (Leviticus 11:6-8). We also don’t need to ask which of the surrounding nations we should choose our slaves from (Leviticus 25:44). The New Testament tells us in Colossians 2:17 that, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
The early Christian church, which was largely composed of Jewish converts, struggled to let go of these laws given for a particular time and focus on Jesus Christ who had fulfilled the law. This caused a lot of turmoil in the church and a council of apostles and elders was convened at Jerusalem to settle the dispute. It was decided that Gentile converts did not need to be circumcised or keep the law of Moses. Acts 15:20 spells out the new relative truth for their time: “Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” These injunctions also were not absolute truth. The apostles and elders recommend, but don’t mandate these requirements.
This is an important principle in the Bible. The time or circumstances has a large impact on the way requirements or even laws outlined in the Bible are implemented. Paul in Galatians argues strongly against mandatory circumcision of males, yet in Acts 16:3 he encouraged Timothy who had a Jewish mother to be circumcised. He didn’t mandate Timothy’s circumcision, but encouraged it for the greater good of their mission to the unbelieving Jews.
A similar appeal to higher principles of behaviour lay behind Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:25. ”Eat whatever is sold in the markets”, which may include some food that had been offered to idols. So here Paul is here saying that food is not a matter of conscience; food does not commend us to God. What matters is the mission of the church which should focus on people. In verse 28 we read that for the sake of other people, if a weaker brother in faith tells you that the food has been offered to idols, Paul says refrain from eating this food. Paul has modified the apparent absolute requirements of the Jerusalem council to suit the particular needs of the people who the Church in Corinth is ministering to.
This evolution of the requirements surrounding food consumption is also seen in the teaching of Jesus. In Matthew 15:1-20 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for finding fault with His disciples who have broken the tradition of the elders. He tells them it’s not what goes into your mouth that matters. We are defiled by what comes out of our hearts and mouths which leads to transgression. This encapsulates the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus takes some of the OT laws and seems to render them obsolete. For example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:38,39).
These laws given to Israel served a purpose for a particular time, but Jesus demonstrates their transient nature by pointing us to the higher principles that undergird these laws. The whole sacrificial system of the OT was a transient system of shadows or types. We don’t rely on the blood of bulls and goats, but Christ’s own blood who entered the most holy place, once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12).
I read an article recently where someone took pride in some of the progress the Adventist Church has made since the mid-twentieth century. They mentioned things like: the acceptance of wedding rings, the progress in some of the dress regulations and Sabbath requirements in our boarding schools, improvement of our health foods, equal pay for most women employees and our movement away from the reporting of our evangelism work. They then conclude by saying that, “the current generation should stop campaigning for more change as this is promoting a radical, liberal agenda”. There are many problems with this statement, but the obvious one is that our early reformers were also charged with promoting a radical, liberal agenda. The early Seventh-day Adventists in the late nineteenth century, led by a woman, Ellen White, transformed our Arian or semi-Arian understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ into acknowledging His true position as part of the triune Godhead.
We need to learn from the lessons of the Bible and our own church history. We are on a journey where truth is relevant to our own time and circumstances. We work out truth for our time using the many resources within our community, but primarily drawing on the principles in the Word. The ultimate expression of the Word is the Logos, Jesus. In His teachings we find the truth for our time.
In conclusion, what is the truth we need to hold fast to? Truth is absolute, but our perception of it is progressive and dependent on circumstances. Our guide at all times will be the “Word”, the Logos, Jesus Christ manifested to us through the Holy Spirit. This is the journey that we travel on together as a Church, guided by sacred text and our intellect directed by the Holy Spirit. The journey is never complete in this life. We need to be tolerant and patient with each other and realise the journey will only reach its conclusion in the new earth.
Terry Bottrell is a long-term secondary teacher in Adventist schools. He writes from Qld.