When a child is born, parents do not feed the child solid food, because the child is simply unable to digest solid food at that point in their physical development. And when a child is growing, parents do not allow the child to be exposed to certain harsh realities of life. We do not teach three year olds about rape and incest. Whether the developmental issue is physical, mental, or spiritual, there is a time to introduce something “harder to digest” to a child.
God, our heavenly Father, has always understood that people need to brought into awareness of his ways in a pace that best suits their ability to digest. For instance, In the Old Testament God said, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." In seminary we were taught, that this rule was given to man by God in His attempt to move humanity from desiring vengeance to desiring justice. Because at the time the rule was given, if someone took your eye, you didn’t just take his eye. You would instead both his eyes, and the eyes of his brother and children (pretty gruesome I know). But when God gave the ‘eye for an eye’ rule he gave it to a society and culture that was living by a practice of exaggerated vengeance against injustice. For that society to receive the ‘eye for an eye’ rule, was to move them toward an understanding of justice. Today we live in a society that has a fairly well established justice system, and while the system undoubtedly has its shortcomings, it is based on the general biblical principle that a person should receive punishment equal to their crime.
During Jesus' ministry he taught also spoke about the "eye for an eye" teaching. In Matthew 5 Jesus taught, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you,... If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek is seen by biblical scholars as the fulfillment of the "eye for and eye" teaching that began in the Old Testament. The two teachings do not, therefore contradict each other, rather, they are two components of God's practice of progressive revelation.
Jesus' teachings did not contradict Old Testament teachings, they were, rather, the progressive fulfillment of the Old Testament teachings. Jesus himself addressed how to reconcile his teachings with the Old Testament teachings. In Matthew 5:17 our Lord said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Then, in the same oratory he cites many other similar examples of progressive revelation, including the following: (from Matthew 5 ):
Concerning treatment of one's brother
21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. ...anyone who says, 'You fool!' to his brother will be in danger of the fire of hell.
27"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'[But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ...
With this concept of progressive revelation in mind I would like to discuss the issue of both polygamy and slavery.
At the time of the writing of the Old Testament, there were a number of practices common in that society that today we look down upon.
Two such practices were those of slavery and polygamy. In the following passages you can read that God never directs people to enslave others, nor does he direct them to take more than one spouse; but rather, already knowing the reality of the culture, God gives rules to try to move his people toward holiness, even in the midst of these sinful practices.
In Exodus 21 we read,
2When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. ...
In Deuteronomy 21 we read:
15If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn.
(Firstborn sons received double inheritance according to Old Testament law)
In the Old testament God never commanded anyone to marry more than one person. Polygamy was never taught by God. Similarly God never taught anyone to take slaves. Rather, God, being aware of the culture he was addressing, tried to guide their practices in a way that would lead them to gradually comprehend that there was a better way of living; a holier way of living.
God does the same with us. He call us, our whole lives, to the next step toward him.
It is interesting that Jesus chose a number of fishermen as his disciples, for God's ways are very much like the ways of a fisherman.
Fishermen use lines of varying strength. A fishing line is often broken by a fighting fish; and then the fish escapes capture. The wise fisherman knows that if the fish is fighting you don't fight back - if you pull too hard on the line the line will break. But if you give the fish more line and let it run from you, (while still connected to the line), the fish eventually tires, and you can reel it in. In this analogy we are the fish, and God the divine fisherman. God does not pull us too hard - he lets us tire on the line. He allows us to become weary so we will stop fighting his divine will. When we stop fighting him he pulls us into his boat, into his arms, into heaven.
When anyone is caught in sin they are struggling against God. They are resisting the very one who is trying to gently pull them into salvation. God tries to pull people toward them at a pace the people can handle. We are called to put on the mind of God and show this same wisdom in the way we treat each other.
When we allow God to pull us toward him, closer and closer, and identifying his divine actions within us, speak to others about how God is acting in our lives, we serve as examples for others. We send out a message that says to them, “God is moving me - he can move you too.”
Understanding God's method of progressive revelation should guide us in how we reach out to others. We cannot try to pull people beyond where they are willing to go. Because if we pull too hard - the line will break and we will lose our relationship with them. God is patient. He gradually loving moves his people toward holiness. We are called to lovingly do the same.