How The Teachings of Jesus Relate to The Old Testament

For the last 500 years, there has been an ongoing debate as to how the teachings of Jesus relate to the Old Testament (OT). There are three basic views:

1. The Reformers believed that it related to a perfect continuity (or, continuousness). That Jesus’ teaching did no more than explain the OT Law. In keeping with this view, when they came across what would appear to be certain corrections in the OT Law where Jesus uses the phrases found in Matthew 5: 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, and 43: “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”  They argued that Jesus was merely correcting the interpretations of the Scribes and the Pharisees.

2. The Anabaptists[1] represented a second view of the Reformation. They said that Jesus’ teaching was a radical discontinuity (or, break) from the OT. That what Jesus said is radically new and He even repealed or rescinded some parts of the OT. Some of the Anabaptists would even argue that Jesus was at odds with some of the specific laws of the OT.

So, of the above two views, one was a radical (or perfect) continuity while the other is a discontinuity with the OT.

3. The third view, which I believe is the correct one because it seems to deal most honestly with the text, is the view that Jesus’ teaching is radically new and supersedes (or replaces or succeeds) the OT, but is also in full, or complete continuity, with the OT. 

One way to think about this third view is to see that Jesus completed, or fulfilled, the Old Testament Law. 

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill”  –Matthew 5:17 

“Fulfill” means to complete. An example of Jesus fulfilling the Law is that when Jesus came, He brought an end to the dietary and ceremonial laws around sacrifice – because He became the ultimate Sacrifice. It isn’t so much that Jesus contradicted the Law, but that He fulfilled the law, He validated the Law. That is why cultural critics of Christianity (and sadly, many churchgoers) don’t realize that we are not bound to the OT Law any longer. 

The OT Law was given to point people forward to the promised Messiah (Jesus). Once Jesus came, the Law’s purpose was fulfilled, and it became obsolete. It was not destroyed, but fulfilled by a higher law, the law of the gospel of grace, and God’s radical and revolutionary kingdom was established on the earth.

So, Jesus’ subversive and radical teaching about a New (Kingdom) Covenant supersedes the OT but it doesn’t contradict the OT. Jesus’s teaching was new and radical (and non-violent) and it did not exist before Jesus came. As mentioned above, this is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about (Mat 5-7). Jesus is reinterpreting the Law by moving it from outward rigor to the motivations of the heart.

It’s pretty common these days for people to dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they follow some of the rules in the Bible and ignore others.” The challenge usually sounds something like this: “When the Bible talks about certain sexual behaviors as sin, you quote that; but when it says not to eat shellfish or not to get a tattoo, you just ignore it. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what suits you best?”

One of the most helpful ways to think about this is to look at the three types of laws there are in the Old Testament.

  1. There were Civil Laws, that were set up so the nation of Israel could thrive in their daily living. What we see in the NT is that Jesus came to establish the KOG on the earth – a spiritual Israel, that we now identify as the Church. We’re no longer bound by the civil codes of Leviticus because God doesn’t have a nation-state on earth anymore. It is true that some civil laws have made their way into the legal systems of the US and have been adopted in much of the world.
  2. There were Ceremonial Laws related to Israel’s worship and were primarily to point people to the coming Messiah. These laws are no longer in effect with the coming of Jesus. These laws were about “clean” and “unclean” things, and various kinds of sacrifices. Other temple practices. illustrate for us God’s holiness, our unholiness, and what God would do about it. The entire sacrificial system was designed to point out just how large the gap was between sinful humanity and a perfect God—and just how costly it would be to bridge that gap. If we accept Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need the lesser sacrifices anymore. In fact, it would actually be offensive to go back to them, because that would communicate that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t sufficient.
  3. There were the Moral Laws, which reveal the nature and will of God declaring what God deemed right and wrong—the 10 Commandments, for instance, were fulfilled in Jesus as well, in that he kept all of them perfectly, every day, always, for his entire life. But unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were more time-bound, these laws reflected God’s assessment of right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since his character doesn’t change, his views on morality don’t either. In fact, whenever Jesus mentioned the moral laws, he either reaffirmed them or intensified them! To follow Jesus is to seek to love what he loved, including the moral law.

This helps explain what can seem contradictory to those who don’t see how Jesus fulfilled the Law. In Romans (7:1-6) and Galatians (3:25) Paul is very clear that we are released from the constraints of the Law.

What does it mean that Jesus fulfilled the Law? It means that every law pointed to Him, and he completed everything they pointed to. Thinking of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we keep some of the OT commands and (now) “ignore” others because they were fulfilled by Jesus.

The Jesus follower is not under obligation to keep the moral law as a way of earning his or her way to God. Instead, s/he is changed by the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit to begin to desire to keep God’s laws. This, by the way, is what separates Christianity from every other religion or philosophy of life, it’s not about what we must DO to please and appease God, it’s about what God has DONE through the finished work of Jesus Christ in dying for our sins. So, obedience then becomes the fruit of God’s sacrificial grace and not the goal. The goal is to love God and love people, which is known as the Great Commandment (Mat 22:37-40). In fact, Jesus says the whole OT can be summed up in this Great Commandment (v. 40).

So the next time someone says that Christians arbitrarily pick and choose from the Bible, we can respond with the civil/ceremonial/moral law response. We aren’t being arbitrary we’re being faithful. We’re reading the OT as the New Testament teaches us to. So we can eat our shrimp and get that tattoo without guilt, but let’s not throw away the 10 Commandments just yet.


[1] Meaning to baptize over again when a person has made their own confession of faith – even when they had been baptized as children.

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