Of Ancient Paths and the Image of God

Isn’t it wonderful that no human owns the rights to the Bible?  Oh, sure, there are translations and versions that have copyrights.  But the thoughts and teachings contained therein are not the exclusive property of any person or group. 

Unfortunately, some people think they own it.  Or, perhaps more correctly, they think their understanding of it is the only understanding possible.  Very often, this is built on taking words out of context and applying isolated verses to meet the teachings and doctrines that have been not only accepted, but elevated to equality with scripture.

One of the favorite pleas of many who find themselves as scions of the Restoration Movement has been a verse found in Jeremiah chapter 6.  In verse 16, Jeremiah records the words of God, “Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”

To many of these people, seeking the Ancient Paths is code for the restoration of First Century church structure and worship.  There have been and still exist books, papers and articles with Old Paths in their titles. Anyone not seeking the right Old Paths are completely and irredeemably wrong. 

To be sure, I understand where they are coming from.  But their Ancient Paths lead to destinations very different from the ones that God spoke of through Jeremiah.  Obviously, the first issue that comes to mind is that Jeremiah was writing a warning to the erring children of Israel, who were about to reap a harvest of God’s wrath for their disobedience.  This means that the Ancient Paths were far older than First Century church practice.

Now, take a moment to read the verse in its context.  I am drawn to the comment in verse 13, where God says, “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.”

What does that sound like?  To me, it rings of Isaiah 1, where God charges Israel with vain worship.  How?  They appeared to be keeping up appearances, including sacrifices, Sabbath assemblies, appointed feasts, and convocations.  It sounds like they were keeping the letter of the law as far as one might observe.

But something was wrong.  God says in Isaiah 1.13, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.”

In vv. 16-17, God gives Israel pointed instructions as to what he required of them to be right in his sight: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  17  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” 

Back in Jeremiah 6.13, everyone was dealing falsely and seeking unjust gain.  In doing so, they were oppressing others.  They were denying justice to orphans and rendering indifference to the plight of widows.  They had left the Ancient Roads, the Good Way, wherein they would find rest for their souls.

Jesus knew the Ancient Paths, and declared it to one who tried to entrap him in his own words.  When asked what the greatest commandment was in Matthew 22, he replied with a synthesis from Deuteronomy 6.4 and Leviticus 19.18: “37 …You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Micah 6.8 relates, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Is that not loving God, to care for his creation by doing justice, living in kindness and freely offering mercy?  To serve others in this way demands humility; to serve this way is to walk with God, because these are attributes of God.

The Pharisees in Matthew 23 got the form right in their strict adherence to the letter of the ceremonial law.  But Jesus called them on something more fundamental: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Some writers suggest that Jesus was thinking of Micah 6.6-8 when he delivered this denunciation of the Pharisaic proclivity for performing for the praise of other Pharisees.  I would tend to agree.

Yes, the Ancient Paths are older than the First Century.  If truth were known, the principles may be as old God, which is to say, eternal.  God’s repeated call throughout the Bible and to all of humankind today is much the same:  love him, love each other.  It is in love and justice and kindness and mercy that true rest can be found for weary and burdened souls.  It is in returning to the nearly forgotten image of God that we can know the peace that surpasses our current understanding.  It is important to remember that we can choose not to follow those original Ancient Paths and easily pass the Good Way by while becoming distracted with interpretations of ancient form and practice. But it is good to know that direction to the true Ancient Paths will always be ours for the asking.

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