Close analysis of the lives of many of God's servants reveals that they understood this idea of being able to serve God on different levels.
Jephthah could have redeemed his daughter from the vow he involved her with (Lev. 27:4). But he decided in his mind: " I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back" (Jud. 11:35). Actually he could have done; but he so firmly chose the higher level that it was as if there was no way back. Ps. 15:4, in evident allusion to Jephthah, describes those who will attain the Kingdom as fearing Yahweh, and swearing to their own hurt and changing not. Some may swear and change and attain the Kingdom; but we are invited to follow Jephthah to the highest level. The principle of Jephthah's vow is seen in many other Bible characters.
Take Daniel. Most of the Jews in Babylon were becoming spiritually strong at this time; they were the " good figs" of Jer. 24:2, as a result of their tribulations in captivity. Yet they saw nothing wrong with eating meat that had been offered to idols; indeed, Paul also (under inspiration!) says that there is nothing wrong with doing this in itself (1 Cor. 8); it is the offence it may give to others which is the problem. Yet Daniel was prepared to risk his life in order to obey his conscience, which told him not to eat such food. Likewise when the King forbade people to pray to any other god apart from himself, Daniel opened his windows towards Jerusalem and prayed publicly, for all to see. Presumably the other Jews just prayed silently to themselves, without making an issue about it. I can just imagine myself taking that option. But Daniel felt he had to make a point; and he risked his life to do so. And in the business of bowing down to the statue, it seems only three Jews out of thousands were willing to stand up and object to this. Perhaps Daniel himself bowed down to it, following the principle of Jephthah's vow. Yet I wouldn't say that only those three men were acceptable to God at that time.
It seems that Hezekiah lived on a high, high spiritual level prior to his illness and the final invasion. He seems to have been single, and then in his illness he wished for a descendant, and subsequently married the Gentile Hephzibah. However, he didn't render again according to the benefit done to him (2 Chron. 32:25), and was therefore threatened with judgment. In response to this he humbled himself, and the judgment was postponed. He commented that it was a good deal for him, because he would have peace for the rest of the days of the 15 years which God had given him (2 Kings 20:19). My feeling is that Hezekiah lived the rest of his days acceptable with God, but on a markedly lower level than he had lived his earlier life. There are some other kings who are recorded as having lived acceptable lives to God, although evidently they lived on a lower level than the likes of David.
Or take Paul. He says he could have got married, and he cites Peter as a justification for this. But he implies he chose not to for the sake of the Gospel. It seems Paul had the choice from Christ as to whether he wanted to die and finish his probation; but he chose to stay alive, with all the temptations and spiritual pitfalls of human existence, for the sake of the first century believers (Phil. 1:24). He could have taken payment from his converts, in fact Christ had ordained that this was possible, but Paul rejected this (1 Cor. 9:4-16); likewise he chose to be a vegetarian for the sake of not offending others, although he himself knew that God had created animals to be eaten and enjoyed (1 Cor. 8:13). Although he himself chose the higher levels, it is a mark of his spirituality that he was able to tolerate others who took lower levels, and (especially in Corinthians) he even makes the offer of lower levels of attainment. He speaks as if he sometimes writes to his brethren in very human terms, because this is the only level they are yet up to (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:32 AVmg.). He addressed them as still on the level of milk, when they ought to have been on an altogether higher level for their time in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-3). In I Cor. 11:15,16, Paul speaks about the appropriacy of sisters in Christ having long hair, but he goes on to say: " But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God" . This is admittedly difficult to understand. My suggestion is that Paul is saying: 'The ideal is for a sister to grow her hair long. But I know that once you start saying this kind of thing, some will start getting contentious (and times don't change!). So, OK, I admit, there isn't such a custom in the ecclesias, although ideally I think there should be, so if it's going to cause such argument, OK drop the issue. But for sisters to have long hair is the highest level'.
On a more personal level, we read (almost in passing) that Paul five times was beaten with 39 stripes (2 Cor. 11:22-27). Yet from Acts 22:26 it is evident that Paul as a Roman citizen didn't need not have endured this. On each of those five occasions he could have played the card of his Roman citizenship to get him out of it; but he didn't. It wouldn't have been wrong to; but five times out of six, he chose the highest level. It may be that he chose not to mention his Roman citizenship so as to enable him access to the synagogues for preaching purposes. The one time Paul didn't play that card, perhaps he was using the principle of Jephthah's vow- that you can vow to your own hurt but chose a lower level and break it.
And above all, the Lord Jesus. The way Paul speaks of " such great salvation" (Heb. 2:3) might imply that a lesser salvation could have been achieved by Christ, but He achieved the greatest possible. " He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him" (Heb. 7:25) may be saying the same thing. Indeed, the excellence of our salvation in Christ is a major NT theme. It was typified by the way Esther interceded for Israel; she could have simply asked for her own life to be spared, but she asked for that of all Israel. And further, she has the courage (and we sense her reticence, how difficult it was for her) to ask the King yet another favour- that the Jews be allowed to slay their enemies for one more day, and also to hang Haman's sons (Es. 9:12). She was achieving the maximum possible redemption for Israel rather than the minimum. Paul again seems to comment on this theme when he speaks of how Christ became obedient, " even to the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8), as if perhaps some kind of salvation could have been achieved without the death of the cross. Perhaps there was no theological necessity for Christ to die such a painful death; if so, doubtless this was in His mind in His agony in the garden. " If it be possible, let this cup pass from me" (Mt. 26:39) may not simply mean 'If it's possible, may I not have to die'. The Lord could have meant: 'If it- some unrecorded possible alternative to the cross- is really possible, then let this cup pass'- as if to say 'If option A is possible, then let the cup of option B pass from me'. But He overrode this with a desire to be submissive to the Father's preferred will- which was for us to have a part in the greatest, most surpassing salvation, which required the death of the cross.
One likewise feels that Christ would have been justified in accepting the pain killer that was offered Him in His final agony (Mt. 27:34); but He refused it, it seems to me, in order to achieve the greatest salvation for us. He never once used what I have called the principle of Jephthah's vow. In the same spirit, some faithful men of old refused legitimate deliverance from torture so that they might obtain " a better resurrection" (Heb. 11:35). The record of the cross (see 7.11) is full of examples of where the Lord in physical terms rejected legitimate comforts in His final hours. Yet throughout His life, He was ever ready to concede to the weakness of those who would genuinely follow Him. The way He spoke about demons without giving His hearers a lecture about the folly of such belief is proof of this. He could have insisted, as we do, on the rejection of such superstitions. But this was not His way. I am not suggesting that we have the right to make such concessions in our preaching and baptizing. But He did.
It is also worth meditating upon the Lord's wilderness temptations. The first temptation- to turn stones into bread- would not in itself have been a sin if He had agreed to it. But it would have been choosing a lower level, by breaking His fast. But the next temptations were to actually sin. If He had agreed to the first suggestion, obedience to the next ones would have been harder. It could even be argued that to put the Lord to the test was permissible on a lower level- for passages like Ps. 34:8 and Mal. 3:10 almost encourage it for those with a weak faith. Gideon likewise put the Lord to the test and was answered. But the Lord chose the higher level: and He knew Scripture which could support it. But the fact He chose the highest level first of all, meant that He was better able to take the higher level again, and to finally overcome the third temptation, which was definitely a clear choice between right and wrong. More than this, anything other than a desire to make the highest maximum commitment can lead to failure. “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left” (Ecc. 10:2 NIV) has been understood as referring not so much to right and wrong, good and evil, as to the highest good and lesser good (cp. how the left hand can stand for simply lesser blessing rather than outright evil, e.g. Gen. 48:13-20). The fool inclines to lower commitment. The wise will always incline to the maximum, wholehearted level.
The nobleman is credited with faith by the Lord, and therefore He healed his son; but the record says that he only believed after the healing (Jn. 4:50,53). Christ saw that man's low level of faith, and took him where he was, with the result that he soon rose up to a higher level. The Lord must have reflected on the wide differences between the various levels of faith and commitment He encountered. Jairus besought Him to lay His hands on his daughter (Mk. 5:23); whilst the Centurion's attitude was " say the word only" (Lk. 7:6). His faith was undoubtedly on a higher level (Lk. 7:9), but still the Lord accepted the lower level of Jairus and worked with it. He was manifesting His Father in this. Reflect how Daniel refused to eat the food sent to him from the King of Babylon; but God arranged for this very thing to be sent to Jehoiachin as a sign of His recognition of his repentance (Jer. 52:34)! God saw that Jehoiachin wasn't on Daniel's level, and yet he worked with him.
How we treat each other should be a reflection of how God treats us. We can make concessions for each other’s weaknesses, accepting that some will live on higher levels than others; or we can demand a rigid standard of spirituality from them. I would venture to say that neither of these attitudes are morally wrong in themselves; it's just that as we judge, so we will be judged. For some time I have struggled with Matthew 18. It's a chapter all about forgiveness, of forgiving until 70 times 7, of never giving up our search for the lost sheep; of being soft as shy children in dealing with each other (a matchless, powerful analogy if ever there was one). But wedged in the middle of the chapter is the passage which says that if your brother personally offends you, go to him and ensure that he sorts it out; and if he doesn't, take someone else with you, then tell the other believers about him, and throw him out of the church. This always seemed to me rather out of context in that chapter. But there must be a point behind the paradox presented here. Perhaps it's something along these lines: 'If your brother offends you, you are quite justified in 'taking it up' with him, demanding he acknowledge his wrong, and eventually expelling him from the church. But- why not just forgive him, without demanding an apology from him?'.
I am aware that some are uncomfortable with these suggestions. Some would rather see everything in black and white; 'If you do this, it's a sin; but you can do that and that's OK, that's not a sin'. And of course, this is just how many churches operate (Catholics and JWs especially), because they know this is what people want. Yet we have to wrestle with a personal relationship with God, not through a church or priest. Therefore I don't think it's always appropriate to analyze our lives in terms of " Is this a sin...?" . It implies a spiritual brinkmanship, a playing with God, which ought to be foreign to us. It is surely a denial of the idea of us being in a dynamic, two-way relationship with God; we don't structure personal relationships around a list of dos and don'ts. The " Is this a sin...?" syndrome also runs into problems with the fact that obeying some of God's principles technically leads to breaking others; e.g. the command to take the wife of your dead brother, even if you were already married, led to polygamy, which was against the ideal standard of Genesis. And there are other examples of breaking one commandment to keep another.
The fact God allows His children to live His truth on different levels needs to be grasped firmly by us, lest we become discouraged that others live on an apparently lower level than we do in some aspects of life. Being surrounded by ‘lower levels’ ought to inspire us to the higher levels. Zelophehad had only daughters; usually, in his context, a man would have taken concubines in order to produce sons. The record of his only having daughters is presented in the context of genealogies which show that many Israelite men had more than one wife (1 Chron. 7:15). But Zelophehad wasn’t dragged down by this; God inspired him to maintain the higher level which he had chosen to live by. He didn't use the principle of Jephthah's vow.
The fact God allows us each to live His Truth on different levels ought to inspire us to greater heights of devotion, rather than lead to complacency. After all, think of (or imagine!) someone you truly love and respect. If they say: 'Please can you do this job for me by next week, but if you can, it would be great if you could do it by tomorrow, although actually it would be fantastic if you could do it right now'; what will your response be? The very fact they have given you some options will inspire you to do what they ask, as far as you are humanly able, as quickly as possible, with a zest that probably wouldn't be there if they had given you only one option. And the more you realize that the person will still genuinely love and respect you if you do the job in a week's time, the more it will inspire you to do it right now. I think it's the same with us and God.
The generous response of the Israelites in giving towards the tabernacle was surely because it was not demanded of them but merely their assistance was invited (Ex. 35:24). We all know (or we ought to) that we are basically weak-willed, we try to take spiritual short-cuts wherever possible; we suffer from the 'little of both' syndrome. Like Lot, we perceive that what we want is both like the garden of God (Eden) and also like Egypt (Gen. 13:10); there is a tremendous dualism in our spiritual vision. By nature we will tend towards keeping God's commandments next week rather than today. God knows all this; and so instead of giving us only black and white commandments (and I am not suggesting that such things don't exist), God has also given us some options. The problem with deciding to live on a low level, to be consciously content with giving a 30-fold response rather than 100-fold, is that we can slip down the spiritual levels until we actually go out of relationship with God. There is such a thing as right and wrong. If we truly love God, surely we will want to serve on the highest level. What others are doing ought to be quite irrelevant to us. Most of our lives are spent relatively indifferent to the vast love and grace that has been personally shown to us. If we spot our brother behaving in the same indifferent way, albeit in different aspects of life- what is that to us? If only we were swamped by the grace which we have received, by the wonder of standing acceptable in God's eyes; the weaknesses of our brethren would hurt so much the less.
" If God's moral judgment differs from ours so that our 'black' may be His 'white', we can mean nothing by calling Him good" .