Jesus Trumps Biblicism: A Tale of Sticks and Stones


Jesus Trumps Biblicism: A Tale of Sticks and Stones
Brian Zahnd

This morning I was reading Scripture. From the Old Testament I was reading Numbers and in the New Testament I was reading John. In Numbers chapter 15 we find this story…

An Israelite guy was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. This was forbidden. The guy got caught and was taken into custody. Moses inquired of Yahweh what should be done. Yahweh told Moses that the guy had to be killed. So the stick-gathering Sabbath-breaker was taken outside the camp and stoned to death by the congregation of Israel. Sticks and stones. (Number 15:32–36)

Next I read from the Gospel of John chapter 5. This is what happens…

Jesus meets a guy who has been paralyzed for 38 years. Jesus tells the guy to take up his bed and walk. The man is healed, takes up his bed, and heads for home. But this was the Sabbath. And the guy gets busted for breaking the Sabbath. When the Judean Torah enthusiasts find out that it was Jesus who was behind all this Sabbath breaking, they are prepared to kill Jesus. (Like Moses did in the Bible.) John concludes the story like this…

“This is why the Judeans were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’ This is why the Judeans were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:16–18)

Look at what we have here. In Numbers a guy gets caught picking up sticks on a Saturday and is stoned to death. The text tells us that Yahweh instructed Moses to do this. This is the Moses who spoke to God face to face. (Exodus 33:11)

But in the prologue to his gospel John says this…

“The Torah was given by Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God who is near the Father’s heart, he has made him known.” (John 1:17–18)

We want to say, wait a minute, John! What do you mean no one has ever seen God?! Abraham saw God under the oaks of Mamre. Jacob saw God at Bethel. Moses saw God on Sinai. Isaiah saw God in the Temple. Ezekiel saw God by the river Chebar. To which John says something like this: “I know, I know, I know. But no matter what dreams, visions, revelations, epiphanies, theophanies, christophanies people had in the past, compared to the revelation of God that we now have in Jesus Christ, no one has ever seen God!” John stands his ground on this point.

Moses says God told him to kill the Sabbath-breaker.

Jesus says (in the context of killing Sabbath breakers) that he only does what he sees his Father doing, and that “the Father raises the dead and gives them life.” (John 5:19–21) According to Jesus, his Father doesn’t kill, his Father gives life.

Do you feel the tension? I’m not inventing this tension. It’s right there in the Biblical text! It was right there in my Bible reading this morning! I just happened to read Numbers 15 and John 5 back-to-back. It’s actually an excellent exercise.

In Numbers a guy is stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

In John Jesus heals a guy and tells him to carry his bed on the Sabbath.

Those most committed to Torah wanted to kill Jesus.

Just like Moses killed the Sabbath-breaker.

Do you see the problem? Of course you do!

Except it doesn’t have to be a problem. It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s only a problem if you confuse Biblicism with Christianity. The Bible is not the full revelation of God. Jesus is! This is what John means when he dares to say that no one has seen God. It’s Jesus who reveals God. Jesus makes a clear distinction between Biblicism and what we will come to call Christianity, when he says…

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you will not come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39–40)

Jesus trumps Biblicism.

So if we’re going to talk about what stance Christians should take on the death penalty, we can’t just cite the Torah. The Torah endorses stoning Sabbath breakers. Jesus did not! The Torah endorses stoning adulterers. Jesus did not! Moses thought God wants us to kill Sabbath-breakers. Jesus said his Father gives life to the dead. The Torah came by Moses. Grace and truth came though Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the full revelation of the Father.
Jesus is what God has to say.
Jesus is God’s Truth.

Does this mean we pitch the Old Testament? Does this mean I’m a Marcionite? (Google it.) Of course not! God forbid! No way, José! The Hebrew Scriptures are inspired. They are the inspired telling of Israel coming to know the living God…but the story doesn’t stop until we get to Jesus! I read the Old Testament devotionally every day. (That’s what I was doing this morning.) I pray the Psalms every day. I receive the Hebrew Scriptures as the Bible of Jesus. But I follow Jesus! I don’t have to pretend that Jesus endorsed every depiction of God found in the Old Testament. Because Jesus did not!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…”

Something new!

If we could ask Jesus if he thinks God told Moses to kill people who pick up sticks on the Sabbath, I think Jesus would say something like this: “I only do what I see my Father doing. My Father gives life to the dead.”

Jesus trumps Biblicism.

And I’m glad!


(The artwork is by Lucie Beardwood.)