Jesus' Teaching on God's Law

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Jesus' Teaching on God's Law

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Perhaps the most widespread controversies about the teachings of Jesus concern His attitude toward the laws of God recorded in the Old Testament. The approach of most churches and denominations regarding Jesus is that He brought a new teaching differing considerably from the instructions of the Old Testament. The common view is that the teachings of Christ in the New Testament annulled and replaced the teachings of the Old Testament. But do they?

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).

The idea that Jesus departed from the Old Testament is also a common assumption within Judaism. Jacob Neusner, in his book A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, explains why Jews as a whole do not follow Jesus and reject any possibility that He could be the Messiah. "Jews believe in the Torah of Moses," he explains, "...and that belief requires faithful Jews to enter a dissent at the teachings of Jesus, on the grounds that those teachings at important points contradict the Torah" (1993, pp. xii).

Here is a serious mistake both Christianity and Judaism make about the teachings of Jesus. Both hold the erroneous view that Jesus departed from the teachings of the Old Testament, especially with regard to law.

As we will see, the record shows that while Jesus disagreed with the religious leaders, He didn't disagree with Old Testament Scriptures. The same record shows that traditional Christianity itself does not follow the teachings of Christ.

To know the real Jesus we have to ask: What did He really say? It doesn't ultimately matter what people say about Him. Nor does it really matter what interpretations they give of what He said. What truly matters is what He really said, and whether we're going to believe what He said.

Clear statement in the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is a good place to begin. Since this is the longest recorded statement of Jesus Christ's teachings, we should expect to find in it His view toward the laws of God as recorded in the Old Testament. And indeed we do.

One of the reasons for some of Jesus' statements in the Sermon on the Mount is that—because His preaching was so different from that of the Pharisees and Sadducees—some people believed His intention was to subvert the authority of God's Word and substitute His own in its place. But His real intention was to demonstrate that many of the things the Pharisees and Sadducees had taught all along were contrary to the original teachings of the Torah of Moses, the first five books of the Bible.

Jesus refuted the erroneous ideas people had formed regarding Him with three emphatic declarations about the law. Let's look at them.

"I did not come to destroy but to fulfill"

Jesus explains His view of the law very quickly after giving the beatitudes: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).

So immediately we see that Jesus had no intention of destroying the law. He even tells us not to even think such a thing. Far from being antagonistic to the Old Testament Scriptures, He said He had come to fulfill "the Law and the Prophets" and proceeded to confirm their authority. "The Law and the Prophets" was a term commonly used for the Old Testament Scriptures (compare Matthew 7:12).

"The Law" referred to the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses in which God's laws were written down. "The Prophets" referred not only to the writings of the biblical prophets, but also to the historical books of what came to be known as the Old Testament.

We have discussed in earlier chapters how Jesus fulfilled "the Prophets." But what did Jesus mean when He spoke of fulfilling the law?

Regrettably, the meaning of "fulfilling the law" has been twisted by many who claim the name of Jesus but don't really understand what He taught. They say that since Jesus said He would fulfill the law, we no longer need to keep it and the law has no further obligation on His followers.

Another view of "fulfilling the law" is that Jesus "filled full" what was lacking in the law—that is, He completed it, partly canceling it and partly adding to it, forming what is sometimes referred to as "Christ's law" or "New Testament teaching." The implication of this view is that the New Testament brought a change in the requirements for salvation and that the laws given in the Old Testament are obsolete. But do either of these views accurately reflect what Jesus meant?

Jesus' view of fulfilling the law

The Greek word pleroo, translated "fulfill" in Matthew 5:17, means "to make full, to fill, to fill up, fill to the full" or "to render full, i.e. to complete" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2002, Strong's number 4137). In other words, Jesus said He came to complete the law and make it perfect. How? By showing the spiritual intent and application of God's law. His meaning is clear from the remainder of the chapter, where He showed the spiritual intent of specific commandments.

Some distort the meaning of "fulfill" to have Jesus saying, "I did not come to destroy the law, but to end it by fulfilling it." This is inconsistent with His own words. Through the remainder of the chapter, He showed that the spiritual application of the law made it even more difficult to keep, not that it was annulled or no longer necessary.

Jesus, by explaining, expanding and exemplifying God's law, fulfilled a prophecy of the Messiah found in Isaiah 42:21: "The LORD is well pleased for His righteousness' sake; He will exalt the law, and make it honorable." The Hebrew word gadal, translated "exalt" or "magnify" (KJV) literally means "to be or become great" (William Wilson, Wilson's Old Testament Word Studies, "Magnify").

Jesus Christ did exactly that, showing the holy, spiritual intent, purpose and scope of God's law. He met the law's requirements by obeying it perfectly in thought and deed, both in the letter and in the intent of the heart.

All will be fulfilled

The second major statement by Jesus given in the exact same context makes it even clearer that Jesus did not come to destroy, rescind, nullify or abrogate the law. "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18).

With these words, Jesus likened the continuance of the law to the permanence of heaven and earth. He is saying that the law is immutable, inviolable and unchangeable and can only be fulfilled, never abrogated.

We should note that in this verse a different Greek word is used for "fulfilled": ginomai, meaning "to become," "to come into existence" or "to come to pass" (Thayer's, Strong's number 1096). Until the ultimate completion of God's plan to glorify humanity in His Kingdom comes to pass—that is, as long as there are still fleshly human beings—the physical codification of God's law in Scripture is necessary. This, Jesus explained, is as certain as the continued existence of the universe.

His servants must keep the law

The third statement of Jesus pronounces that our fate rests on our attitude toward and treatment of God's holy law. "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least [by those] in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:19). The "by those" is added for clarification, since, as explained in other passages, those who persist in lawbreaking and teach others to break God's law will not themselves be in the Kingdom at all.

Jesus makes it very clear that those who follow Him and aspire to His Kingdom have a perpetual obligation to obey and uphold God's law. He is saying that we cannot diminish from the law of God by even a jot or tittle—the equivalent of the crossing of a "t" or dotting of an "i."

The value He places on the commandments of God is also unmistakable —as well as the high esteem toward the law that He requires from all those who teach in His name. His disapproval falls on those who slight the least of the law's commands, and His honor will be bestowed on those who teach and obey the commandments.

Since Jesus obeyed the commandments of God, it follows that His servants, too, must keep the commandments and teach others to do the same (1 John 2:2-6). It is in this way that the true ministers of Christ are to be identified—by their following the example He left them (John 13:15).

Must exceed the scribes and Pharisees

With the next statement in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus leaves no doubt as to what He meant in the previous three declarations. He meant without question for His disciples to obey God's law—and He was requiring them to obey according to a standard that went beyond anything they'd heard before. "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).

Who were the scribes and Pharisees? The scribes were the most renowned teachers of the law—the interpreters of the law, the learned men, the experts. The Pharisees, a related group, were commonly viewed as the most exemplary models of Judaism. They formed a sect of Judaism that established a code of morals and rituals more rigid than that spelled out in the law of Moses, basing much of their practices on years of traditions. The scribes and Pharisees were both highly strict and highly respected in Judaism (Acts 26:5).

While the scribes were the experts, the Pharisees professed the purest practice of righteousness. So when Jesus stated that one's righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, this was a startling declaration!

The Pharisees were looked up to as those who had attained the very pinnacle of personal righteousness, and the common people supposed that such heights of spirituality were far beyond their reach. But Jesus asserted that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees wasn't enough to entitle them to enter the Kingdom of which He spoke! What hope, then, did others have?

Jesus condemns religious hypocrisy

In actual fact, there was a real problem with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The heart of the matter was that their righteousness was defective in that it was external only. They appeared to obey the law to those who observed them, but broke God's law inwardly, where it couldn't be seen by others.

Notice Jesus' scathing denunciation of their hypocrisy in making a show of religion: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence ...For you ...indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness ...You also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:25-28).

These self-appointed religious teachers emphasized minor aspects of the law while neglecting more important issues. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (Matthew 23:23). Jesus was concerned that every part of the righteous requirement be obeyed, and angry that they were blind to the "weightier" parts—the major spiritual aspects—of the law.

While they were fastidious with their ceremonial traditions, at the same time they took liberties to disobey God's direct commands. In some situations they actually elevated their traditions above the clear commands of God (Matthew 15:1-9).

Behind their actions was the base motive of self-exaltation and self-interest. They went public with what should have been their private devotions toward God—prayer, fasting and giving alms—all so they could be seen and thought of by others as righteous (Matthew 6:1-6; Matthew 23:5-7).

Religious leaders did not keep God's law

Immediately after His statement that He had no intention of doing away with God's law, Jesus proceeded to give examples of the traditions and teachings of the Jewish religious leaders that completely missed the point or even contradicted the spiritual intent of God's laws.

The first example He gave was the Sixth Commandment, "You shall not murder." All that the Pharisees understood about this commandment was that the act of murder was prohibited. Jesus taught what should have been obvious, that the intent of the Sixth Commandment was not just to prohibit the literal act of murder, but every evil attitude of heart and mind that led to murder—including unjust anger and contemptuous words (Matthew 5:21-26).

He did likewise with their narrow view of the Seventh Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery." The Pharisees of the day understood the physical act of sexual relations with a woman outside of marriage to be sin. They should also have known, as in the case of the Sixth Commandment, that lust for another woman was sinful because the one lusting had already broken the Commandment in his heart.

These are examples of the "righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees" that Jesus characterized as making the outside of the cup and dish clean, while on the inside remaining "full of greed and self-indulgence" (Matthew 23:25, NRSV).

Jesus instructed His disciples that God's law must indeed be obeyed outwardly, but it must also be obeyed in the spirit and intent of the heart. When Jesus taught such heartfelt obedience to God's laws, He was faithful to what the Old Testament taught: "For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

The prophet Jeremiah looked forward to a time when God would establish a new covenant in which God promised to "put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts" (Jeremiah 31:33). God's original intent for His law was that people would observe it from their hearts (Deuteronomy 5:29). The failure of human beings to obey God's law in the "inward being" (Psalm 51:6, NRSV) inevitably led to outward disobedience.

Jesus did not change the law

Jesus prefaced His contrast of the scribes' and Pharisees' narrow interpretation of the law with its true spiritual intent using the words, "You have heard that it was said ...But I say to you..." (Matthew 5:21-28).

Some erroneously think Jesus' intention was to contrast His own teaching with that of Moses and thereby declare Himself as the true authority. They assume that Jesus was either opposed to the Mosaic law or modifying it in some way.

But it's hard to imagine that Jesus, just after delivering the most solemn and emphatic proclamation of the permanence of the law and emphasizing His own high regard for it, would now undermine the authority of the law by other pronouncements. Jesus wasn't inconsistent; He honored and upheld the law in all His statements.

In this passage He is not pitting Himself against the Mosaic law, nor is He claiming a superior spirituality. What He was doing was refuting the wrong interpretations perpetuated by the scribes and Pharisees. This is why He declared that one's righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus was restoring, in the minds of His listeners, the Mosaic precepts to their original place, purity and power. (For a better understanding of these laws, request or download your free copy of the booklet The Ten Commandments.)

It should also be obvious that because the same God is the Author of Old and New Covenant alike, there can be no vital conflict between them, and that the fundamental laws of morality underlying both must be and are in full accord. God tells us in Malachi 3:6, "I am the LORD, I do not change."

Jesus and the Sabbath

Among those who claim to follow Jesus, no biblical command has aroused as much controversy as the Fourth Commandment—God's instruction to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8-11). Here in particular we find that people's interpretations of Jesus' teaching are all over the map.

Some argue that Jesus annulled all of the Ten Commandments but that nine were reinstituted in the New Testament—all except the Sabbath. Some believe that Jesus replaced the Sabbath with Himself, and that He is now our "rest." Some believe that no Sabbath at all is needed now, that we can rest or worship on any day or at any time we choose. Regardless of which argument one uses, an overwhelming portion of traditional Christianity believes that Sunday, the first day of the week, has replaced the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week.

Can we find support for these views in Christ's practice or teaching? In light of Jesus' clear teaching on the permanence of God's laws, what do we find when it comes to His attitude toward the Sabbath day?

In studying the Gospels, one of the first things we should notice is that Jesus' custom was to attend the synagogue for worship on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16). This was His regular practice. On this particular occasion, He even announced His mission as Messiah to those in the synagogue that day.

Interestingly, we later find that Paul's custom was also to worship and teach in the synagogues on the Sabbath day (Acts 17:2-3). Neither he nor Jesus ever so much as hinted that they needn't be there or that they should worship on a different day!

Confrontations over how, not whether, to keep the Sabbath

Where many people jump to wrong conclusions about Jesus and the Sabbath is in His confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees. Yet these confrontations were never over whether to keep the Sabbath—only over how it should be kept. There is a crucial difference between the two!

For example, Jesus boldly challenged the Jews concerning their interpretation of Sabbath observance by performing healings on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17; Luke 14:1-6).

According to the Pharisees, rendering medical attention to someone, unless it were a matter of life and death, was prohibited on the Sabbath. And since none of these healings involved a life-and-death situation, they thought Jesus was breaking the Sabbath. But as the Savior, Jesus understood the purpose of the Sabbath, that it was a perfectly appropriate time to bring His message of healing, hope and redemption to humanity and to live that message through His actions.

To make His point, Jesus asked the Pharisees the question, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4). He exposed their hypocrisy in that they saw nothing wrong with working to rescue an animal that fell into a pit on the Sabbath day, or watering an animal on that day, yet they were condemning Him for helping on the Sabbath a human being—whose worth was far greater than that of any animal (Luke 13:15-17; Matthew 12:10-14).

He was rightfully angry at their inability to see that they placed their own traditions and interpretations over the true purpose of Sabbath observance (Mark 3:5). Yet they were so spiritually blind that they hated Him for exposing their distortions of God's commands (Mark 3:6).

On one occasion Jesus' disciples, as they walked through a field on the Sabbath day, picked handfuls of grain so they would have something to eat. The disciples weren't harvesting the field; they were merely grabbing a quick snack to take care of their hunger. But the Pharisees insisted this was not lawful. Jesus used an example from Scripture to show that the spirit and intent of the law were not broken and that God's law allowed for mercy (Mark 2:23-26).

It was in this context that Jesus gives the true purpose of the Sabbath. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," He said (Mark 2:27). The Pharisees had reversed the priorities of the law of God. They had added so many meticulous regulations and traditions to the Sabbath commandment that trying to keep it as they demanded had become an enormous burden for people rather than the blessing God had intended it to be (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Jesus then claimed to have authority to say how the Sabbath should be observed: "Therefore, the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:28). Here Jesus takes His rightful place as the One who gave this law of the Sabbath in the first place. For, being the very Creator as we have previously seen (Colossians 1:16; John 1:3), He is the One who created the Sabbath by resting on it (Genesis 2:2-3). Thus it is foolish to argue that Jesus would abolish or annul something that He had personally created for the benefit of every human being!

What Jesus is in essence saying to the Pharisees here is: You don't have a right to tell people how to keep God's laws. I am the One who gave the law to man in the first place, therefore I know why it was commanded and how it was intended to be observed.

When Jesus spoke, it was from the authority He inherently possessed as the great Lawgiver. Jesus never abrogated His own law! But He did most certainly correct these religious leaders' perversions of the law without hesitation. (If you would like to know more about the biblical Sabbath day, request or download your free copy of the booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest.)

Judaism forsook Moses, Christianity forsook Christ

When it comes to Jesus and the law, we have to conclude that the "Christian" religion has let us down by not holding to the original teachings of Christ, who Himself held to the original teachings of the Old Testament Scriptures. And as the teachings of Jewish religious leaders corrupted Moses, so did the later teachers of Christ—that is, false teachers—corrupt the teachings of Jesus. In reality, Jesus and Moses agreed.

Let's ask a question here. If Jesus were here today, which day would He observe as the Sabbath? It would be the day He commanded in the Ten Commandments, the seventh day.

The real Jesus kept the law and expected His disciples to do the same. He made clear His attitude about anyone diminishing one iota from the law. Anyone not keeping it is only using the good name of Christ without doing what He said.

He warns us: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'LORD, LORD,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'LORD, LORD, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21-23).

So we have to ask, Do the churches which claim to represent Christ really represent Him accurately?

Jesus often pointed out that His teaching was based in the Old Testament Scriptures. When challenged concerning His teaching He responded, "Have you not read...?" before pointing His challengers to the Scriptures that supported what He had said (Matthew 12:3-5; Matthew 19:4; Matthew 22:31).

Those who say that Jesus departed from the Old Testament are simply wrong. In this chapter we have demonstrated that both many Jews and most of Christianity are incorrect in their assessment of Jesus' teachings. Jesus faithfully taught the written word of the Old Testament.

We have seen earlier that Jesus was actually God in the Old Testament. God doesn't change His ways. He is eternal. It would not inspire much faith to know that He required one thing in the Old Testament but then changed His mind and came up with a wholly different set of requirements in the New. Jesus Christ is consistent, "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).