I'm assuming everyone knows what a "Red Letter" edition of a Bible is. It's where the words of Jesus are printed in the color red (representing His blood). Fascinating words, are they not, those words in red? They're the very words of Christ, right? And so it's all about how to live the Christian life then, right? After all, He's the Messiah! And whatever words the Messiah spoke, we just do it and we're on the right path, right?
Let's back up just a bit and look at something else. Actually, let's look "ahead" to Paul's writings, which of course were written years after Jesus' death and resurrection. He says some interesting things that have helped me to see a lot clearer when it comes to some of the words of Jesus. Regarding God's law, Paul called it "the ministry of death" and "the ministry of condemnation" (see 2 Cor 3:7-11). Paul talked much about the purpose of the law. It was a "tutor" to lead TO Christ, but once faith has come, the tutor's (law's) job is done and we are no longer under it (Gal 3:24-25). And the key verse that turned my thinking upside down in such a way in which I can never go back is Romans 3:19, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God."
The law was meant from the beginning to be the ministry of death and condemnation. It was not meant as a source of life, but of death. It was not meant as a way to live a godly and holy life, but rather through it we died and were then made alive together with Christ (Gal 2:19-20). Its purpose was to speak to those who were under it, stopping their mouths and making them guilty! All of this is important, but I want to focus on that one phrase, "that every mouth may be stopped."
Now that we know what the law's purpose was, we can look back and see how Jesus used the law when speaking to people. They didn't have Paul's epistles, and Jesus was very clever and skillful with His use of the law, so we're very fortunate today to have Paul's epistles to understand all of this! Let me give a few examples of what I'm talking about.
In Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-23), the man asked Him, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Now, we know through Paul's epistles that we cannot obtain eternal life through keeping the law, right? But yet Jesus answered the man, "You know the commandments, 'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'" Huh? And what about this - Another time "a certain lawyer" asked Jesus the same question (Luke 10:25-37). Again, two commandments came up. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind," and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus replied to the man, "You have answered rightly; do this and you will live." Again, I say, "Huh?" Paul said in Gal 3:21 that there is NO LAW that can give life!
But if we put all of this together I think we get the bigger picture. The law was meant to make everyone guilty and it was meant to stop mouths! Jesus used the law perfectly with these two men, and He used it perfectly and skillfully elsewhere as well. Follow the "certain lawyer" story all the way, and the man sought to "justify himself" by probing Jesus a little bit further about the meaning of those laws, and Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan. We've often looked at this parable as a "Christian teaching," but look, it was spoken as an answer to this man who was seeking to justify himself! It was a mouth-stopping parable! "My neighbor" is EVERYONE, including my worst enemies.
Keep all of this in mind when reading the "Red Letters" (the words of Jesus). Very often it's not a "Christian teaching" that He's giving, but rather it's the ministry of death and condemnation! But you say, "Joel, Jesus didn't come to condemn, but to save!!!" And you're very correct! The thing is, often it takes a mouth-stopping, guilt producing word to bring people to the end of themselves and their self-reliance, and their trust in their own works, and that acts as a tutor that leads to faith and salvation!