Hi everyone... This is essentially a "first" for this page. We received an email from someone who had listened to one of our podcasts regarding the words that Jesus spoke, and I thought she had great questions and concerns that others might also have, so I decided to respond with a blog post.
In a previous podcast (actually, in many previous podcasts), we've talked about how Jesus' words as recorded in "the Gospels" were often intended solely for a particular group of people (most often His fellow Jews). The essence of the questions in regards to this is: How do I know which of Jesus' words are for me? Should I discard the gospels as a source of guidance? Since we say that Jesus' words about forgiveness in the Lord's Prayer is a Jewish mandate (and not for Christians), then how should the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) be interpreted?
Here are my thoughts on all this.
I understand how it may sound like we're saying that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, collectively known as "The Gospels," should be discarded, and we've tried many times over the years to communicate that that's definitely not what we're saying. :) What we're saying is that the New Covenant didn't begin at the start of the book of Matthew, but it actually began after the death of Jesus, and as Paul wrote, Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law..." (Gal 4:4). Jesus did indeed have an "Old Covenant" ministry that led up to His death and resurrection, which then brought about the New Covenant (and ended the Old Covenant). Under the Old Covenant, Jesus spoke many times as a Jew to Jewish people. He taught the Law of Moses and He even put a magnifying glass on it in places such as The Sermon on the Mount. These words are often misunderstood/misinterpreted as "Christian" teachings.
Many years later, the Apostle Paul would write many things about the purpose of the law. The law was "the ministry of death" and "the ministry of condemnation" (2 Cor 3:7-9). It "gave birth to bondage" (Gal 4:24). Etc. God Himself had given the law, and He had purposed it for these reasons that Paul eventually understood. Ultimately, the law was given "so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may become guilty before God" (Rom 3:19). Many things that Jesus said were "mouth stopping" statements! Many things that He said to those who were under the law stopped people from justifying themselves according to the law or according to their own good deeds or sense of righteousness. When measured up against God's standards that Jesus laid out time and time again, all people could do was go away sad, as the rich young ruler did, for example.
Contrast all of this with what we now have in the New Covenant, being freed from law and self attempts at righteousness (self-righteousness). We have already been forgiven of all sins (Eph 1:7, Col 1:14, 2:13), and the exhortation is for us to forgive others because we've already been forgiven. (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13). Under the Old Covenant, including Jesus' Old Covenant teachings in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, if they didn't forgive others, God would not forgive them. But under the New Covenant, which is completely new, and is completely separate and different and much much better than the Old, we have already been forgiven of all sins... because of nothing less than the Blood of Jesus. Everything has changed in this New Covenant, after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So this is how I look at many of the parables, including the parable of the unforgiving servant. It had a purpose for those to whom it was spoken, but now under the New Covenant we see how things have changed. It's a New and Living way, with Christ Himself as our life, rather than us trying to be and do for Him. All of that said, Jesus did speak words that were meant not only for then, but also for now and forever. There is no formula as to understand which words are meant for us today. The main thing is to understand the New Covenant, especially through reading Paul's epistles and the book of Hebrews, and when we read Jesus' words to different people we can make a better determination as to where He was coming from in each instance. It also doesn't hurt to understand the Old Covenant, as His hearers back then fully understood! Things make much more sense when viewed with the two distinct covenants in mind.