How Did Jesus Interpret the Old Testament?

“You have heard it said… but I say…”

Twenty-four hours; one day; the simple waiting of the sun to set once more, and all would have been different.

But Jesus didn’t wait. Matter being, he instigated a big ordeal. The scene opens with a need before Jesus, while he stands in the midst of those searching for a reason to discredit him and his teaching. He speaks, “I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy? (Luke 6:9)”

No one seems to respond. So Jesus directs his attention toward a man with a withered hand. His hand is ailing. How long has it been this way? We’ve no way of knowing, but something that is known is that a withered hand isn’t overly life-threatening, at least not for one more day. Jesus heals his hand that day. He heals him on the Sabbath as if to flaunt his disregard for the religious leaders’ interpretation of Moses’ Laws.

Consider another case. This one has no gray areas or any wriggle room. A woman is caught in the act of adultery (John 8). The Law is very clear; she is to be put to death (Deut 22:22, Lev 20:10). Jesus chooses to restore her instead.

The reality is that Jesus often breaks the law in the recorded gospels, at least in how it has been interpreted by the religious leaders of Israel. He touches unclean persons, making him unclean also (Lev 15:19). He allows his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, dines in the midst of the tainted, and brings healing and acceptance to those far outside the sanctuary of a chosen people. This is the very same Jesus who makes this claim.

“Don’t think for a moment that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come to fulfill them (Matt 5:17).”

The Greek word translated ‘fulfill’ is interestingly used over 70 times in the New Testament and can mean several similar but a little bit different things. It can mean ‘to make full; to fill up.’ It can also mean ‘to make complete’ or ‘to carry into effect.’ None of these definitions however resign Jesus to being in agreement with how the Law was being interpreted and enforced during that day by the religious leaders.

It is evident that this caused a major disruption, Jesus’ interpretation of the Law, in that he makes his defensive statement, then elevates his case with the ‘jot’ and ‘tittle’ clause, meaning that one of the two parties has completely abandoned the right method for understanding the Scriptures as God gave them.

What here, I ask myself, is the common ground of every event where Jesus reportedly broke the Law as the religious leaders had interpreted it? In every case, at least I think, Jesus prioritizes the needs of people over a stringent interpretation of regulations. He does not consider this as abolishing the Law, but fulfilling it. Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets as described by Jesus’ actions meant delivering it as fully intended, and that full intention is obviously mysterious in nature, requiring more than a checklist to navigate.

This is difficult to grasp though, because we, like the religious leaders, also expect a cut and dried list of rules to cling to where there is never a moment’s question of what is right and what is wrong. When it came to interpreting Scripture, Jesus often chose to defend people rather than a rule or a ritual.

Derek Flood describes these two methods of interpretation as diametrically opposed to one another, rendering us to examine, “Am I a creature of unquestioning obedience or of faithful questioning?” Is adhering to a rule more important to me than altering my life and standards to meet the needs of those laid at my gate? When Jesus reads his Bible, he chooses the latter. This may often be to the dismay of the religious, but according to the Lord of the Sabbath, is an accurate interpretation of the Word.

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About mtsweat

Seeking the rest that is only promised and found in Christ Jesus, along with my treasured wife of more than twenty-five years, we seek to grow in our relationship with our Heavenly Father, walk with the Holy Spirit as He moves our hearts, loving others always as Jesus loves us, and carry the news of His glory, the wonderful gospel, that gives light and life where there once was only darkness.
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4 Responses to How Did Jesus Interpret the Old Testament?

  1. Jim says:

    MT, another great post.

    Were you aware that the OT law provided no sacrifices and offerings for willful violations of the law? It is true, check out Numbers 15. The sacrificial system ONLY allowed sacrifice for sins that were unintentional, not deliberate, pre-meditated sins. The punishment for deliberate sins was death.

    Yet, God many times, even though His own law required that the guilty be cut off, extended mercy to the offender. A perfect example of this is David and Bathsheeba. David knew she was married and that sleeping with her would be a direct and willful violation of God’s commandments. He did it anyway. He also knew that having her husband killed after she became pregnant was the same thing. He did THAT anyway. Premeditated adultery and murder, both capital offenses.

    God’s written punishment for this was death (numbers 15:30) But he spared David’s life, and even allowed him to remain king. Figure that one out!

    I think this should lead one to conclude that God can exercise mercy whenever and to whomever he wants. His mercy stands above His law and truly “triumphs over judgment.”

    • mtsweat says:

      Thanks Jim. That is an evocative thought from Numbers, and in case we might want to play around with the severity of committing intentional sin under the Old Covenant (and I think the New also by the way), in verses 32-36 we see it enacted; a man is stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

      I’ve not quite put my hands around it fully, but there is something very relational between “All the Law is fulfilled in these two commands, Love God and love your neighbor” and “the severity of the Law.” Your example is excellent (and in the OT I might add), David rightly should have been taken out, but then so should I, on many, many occasions (intentional occasions).

      In every case, it should at minimum make us astutely aware of a loving God of grace who shows mercy where it is not deserved, all the while pointing toward finding the story’s apex in Jesus, the provision and provider of our path.

      Thanks again Jim…

  2. “Jesus prioritizes the needs of people over a stringent interpretation of regulations. ” Yes, and Paul taught that it was no longer necessary to keep or follow the Law because a New Covenant had now been established. Probably why the Jesus movement within Judaism of that time evaporated. Another dislike by Jews was that they felt the Messiah was their sole ownership.

    • mtsweat says:

      Interesting your take on the Law. Do you think that Jesus and the NT authors literally declare the Law obsolete, or just as the religious leaders were interpreting it? Thanks.

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