Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Matthew)

 

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The concept of this short blog series is simple: We’re simply asking, Is the Old Testament relevant to the Christian faith? and then reading through the Gospels and seeing what Jesus’ attitude towards the Old Testament tells us.

In the first part of this series, we looked at the Gospel of Mark, the shortest Gospel. We found…

THE GOSPEL OF MARK

  • 16 Chapters.

  • 18 References to the Old Testament (OT).

  • 15 of those references to OT were made by Jesus.

  • Thus, 83% of OT references in Mark are made by Jesus.

This time, with the Gospel of Matthew, again we read and counted OT references, excluding again many of the times Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, which is an OT reference.

Matthew has 28 chapters – noting that these chapters are not part of the original text but give us a rough idea of a Gospel’s length compared to the other Gospels. I counted 65 references to the OT. Matthew’s Gospel, the most Jewish of the Gospels, has the major theme of Jesus being the Jewish Messiah; thus, it’s not surprising that the author, Matthew, includes many references to the OT, especially in the first three chapters, to support this idea.

Yet, again, like Mark’s Gospel, we find the majority of OT quotes and references – 44 of them – belong to Jesus.

This means Jesus makes 68% of the OT references in the Gospel of Matthew.

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

  • 28 Chapters

  • 65 References to OT

  • 44 References to OT made by Jesus

  • 68% of OT references are made by Jesus

In these references, Jesus speaks of Solomon, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Sodom and Gomorrah, Elijah, Jonah, Isaiah, the Ten Commandments, Abel, Zechariah, Daniel, and Noah and the Flood. He quotes from the books of the Psalms, Deuteronomy, Zechariah, and others.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS

Many of the highlights we looked at in the previous blog on Mark also appear in Matthew. Let’s look at some highlights we don’t find in Mark…

#1 – JESUS VS. SATAN: Matthew 4:1-11

We’ll start was a popular episode, which is also recorded in Luke but only briefly summarized in Mark: Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

We’re told of three ways the Devil tried to temp Jesus to sin, and all three times Jesus shuts Satan down by stating “It is written…” and then quoting from the OT book of Deuteronomy.

One thing particularly interesting to note is that Satan quotes the Psalms to Jesus to manipulate him, but Jesus counters Satan’s use of Scripture with more Scripture:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

This is something we see all the time: someone rips a quote from Scripture out of context for his own selfish gain. Jesus, thus, models for us how to respond: by properly using Scripture, by understanding and using it in its proper context!

Lastly, it’s interesting that Jesus rebukes Satan by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3:

“ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

For Christians today, “every word” from the mouth of God includes both the New and Old Testament.

#2 – I Came to FulFill the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

What Matthew has that the other Gospels do not is the amazing Sermon on the Mount (though some of the teachings are also found spread throughout Luke’s Gospel). Jesus concept of the OT is clearly seen within it, so we’ll briefly look at several passages from the Sermon. The first, perhaps being one of the most important quotes by Jesus for giving Christians insight into how they should understand the OT, states:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 

The phrase “The Law and the Prophets” is often how Jesus and others in his day referred to what we call the OT. If there is one big idea from this passage that can’t be ignored, it’s that Jesus is explicitly teaching that the OT is NOT irreverent – “not an iota, not a dot”! How much more clear can Jesus be?

But this leads us into a theological question (which we also addressed in other blogs): Why do Christians follow some of the OT commands and not other? Jesus gives us the answer above: became he came to fulfill the OT. How? Through his life in perfect obedience to it and his atoning death on the cross. Because of this, Christians no longer make sacrifices or follow other OT religious laws, which all point forward to the Christ’s atoning sacrifice, yet Christians still do follow the OT moral law, because morality is based in the nature of God and God’s nature doesn’t change.

#3 – The 6 Anti-Theses: Matthew 5:21-47

Immediately after the above quote, Jesus gives what is sometimes called “the six anti-theses,” where Jesus starts each section by saying, “You have heard… But I say to you…”

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’… 

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart…

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely… 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all… 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil….

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…

In each of these, Jesus is first referring to a passage in the OT (“You have heard..”) and then drawing out its deeper significance (“But I say to you…”) or citing a misunderstanding or abuse of an OT passage and correcting it. Take note, by saying “I say to you” Jesus is not speaking as a prophet speaking on behalf of God but as God himself. By doing this, Jesus is showing the importance of studying the OT and understanding it correctly.

#4 – The “Golden Rule” – Matthew 7:12

12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

This final verse we’ll look at from the Sermon on the Mount is a famous one. Often called “the Golden Rule,” it’s a personal philosophy of conduct many people – even non-Christians – are familiar with: Treat other like you want to be treated. But where many people – both Christians and non-Christians – know the first part of this verse, they don’t know the second part: “for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Interestingly, Jesus is summing up the whole of the OT (“the Law and the Prophets”) in a terse command. It’s interesting that many believe there is a disconnect between the “harshness” of the OT and the teachings of Jesus, yet Jesus himself affirms again and again that his teachings are simply a continuation (and fulfillment) of the OT.

#5 – From Abel to Zechariah: Matthew 23:35

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

This is one of those passages that I would’ve never picked up the significance of if someone hadn’t pointed it out to me. Here, Jesus condemns the religious hypocrites of his day with those hypocrites that came before them, who claimed to be godly people but persecuted and killed the prophets and other righteous men of God starting with Abel all the way to Zechariah.

The fact that Jesus says from Abel to Zechariah is profound. As many know, Abel was the first victim of murder in history. He was devoted to the LORD and a son of Adam and Eve, but his brother Cain, in jealousy and rage, murdered him (Genesis 4:8-11). Zechariah, too, was righteous and murdered (2 Chronicles 24:20-22).

Now, the ordering of our books in the modern Bible is not inspired by God or inerrant; they could just as easily be organized in another way. In the ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), Genesis is the first book and Chronicles is the last book. (And Chronicles is not split into two books like in the Christian Bible.)

Abel (in Genesis) is the first person murdered and Zechariah (in Chronicles) is the last person murdered within the Hebrew canon of Scripture. By saying from Abel to Zechariah, Jesus is basically saying from Genesis (first book) or Chronicles (last book) of the Jewish Scripture.

Thus, Jesus confirmed all the books of the OT – from the first book to the last.

 

READ PART ONE: The Gospel of Mark & the Old Testament

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Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Mark)

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THE OLD TESTAMENT CHALLENGED

Recently, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has received a lot of pushback from the Christian community for telling Christians to “unhitch” their faith from the OT: “[First century] Church leaders unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures,” said Stanley.

I wasn’t a Christian long when I realized I preferred to spend my time of Bible study in the New Testament (NT) rather than the Old Testament (OT), which isn’t surprising. After all, we call ourselves Christians because of Jesus Christ, so it’s natural to want to spend more time in his teachings and the letters of his disciples in the NT. With this, the OT is much more ancient, longer, and more difficult to grasp than the NT. Frankly, many Christians don’t know what to make of much of the OT and when considering challenging issues concerning the Bible, many Christians find themselves wishing the OT simply wasn’t there.

Where Stanley still claims the OT is the inspired word of God, those who hold a less-traditional view of Scripture assign the OT lesser status than the NT, some even dismissing much (or all) of the OT as not part God’s divine Word. In fact, many – whether they realize it or not – chop up the Bible and create a hierarchy of biblical authority. According to this thinking, the four Gospels – and particularly Jesus’ actual words in those Gospels – are more authoritative than both the OT and other NT writings.

The church’s traditional, historical view of the Bible is that it’s all God’s Word. Whether it’s Moses’ words, Jeremiah’s words, Matthew’s words, Paul’s words, or Jesus’ words, it’s all “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) and holds the same level of authority: the authority of God.

But the fact remains, many Christians do their best to simply avoid the OT. Yet, the longer I study the Bible, the more I have realized that one cannot make sense of the NT without the OT (and vice versa). The Bible is not two separate, unrelated revelations of God, but one continuing revelation.

The OT is important for all Christians to wrestle with and gain a better understanding of, and I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to understand this.

So, to get this point across, I will NOT be arguing for a traditional view of Scripture or explaining why the canon is divinely-inspired or laying out biblical theology so one sees the logical connection between the OT and NT.

No, we’re simply going to look at Jesus’ attitude towards the OT. We’ll work through one gospel per article, starting with Mark.

I think you’ll see that Jesus’ thinking and theology are all perfectly in line with the OT and that Jesus considered what we call the OT anything but irrelevant.

THE DATA: MARK’S GOSPEL

I decided to start with the Gospel of Mark for one simple reason: it’s easily the shortest of the four. How much will Jesus refer to the OT in it?

Mark contains 16 “chapters.” As I read through, I simply jotted down every reference to the OT I came across (excluding most of the times Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man,” though this is a title adopted from the OT). Though chapters were not part of the original manuscripts, they give us a rough idea of the length of each Gospel as compared to the others.

I counted 18 OT references.

Of these, 15 were said by Jesus himself. So, all but 3 came from Jesus’ mouth.

Thus, 83% of OT references, allusions, and quotes in Mark’s Gospel are Jesus’ words.

THE GOSPEL OF MARK:

16 Chapters

18 References to OT

15 References to OT made by Jesus

83% of OT references are made by Jesus

SOME HIGHLIGHTS

Let’s look quickly at 5 significant passages from those 15 OT references by Jesus:

#1

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:2–9).

When questioned about divorce, Jesus without hesitating points his opponents to the Jewish Scripture (what we call the OT). Not only does he refer back to the creation story in Genesis 1-2, but he quotes directly from it (while indirectly referring to Adam and Eve). With this, Jesus refers directly to Moses (and his writings on divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

It’s interesting to note that Jesus clearly teaches that not all OT commandments by Moses are universal. (For a more on why certain OT commandments are still followed by Christians and other are not, click here.) But what is most significant is that Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 – pointing way back to creation before the fall into sin – to give his definition of marriage: one man and one woman becoming “one flesh” for life through God.

#2

24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:24–27).

Here, Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees, who don’t believe in the future resurrection of the dead. Again, it’s striking how Jesus immediately refers back to the OT to argue his stance, even chastising them for not knowing Scripture and plainly telling them “you are wrong.” Once again, he refers to Moses, mentioning specifically Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, as well as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from Genesis.

But what is most interesting is that Jesus bases his whole argument on the tense of a single verb! As proof of a future resurrection, Jesus quotes God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: “I am the God of Abraham…Isaac… Jacob.” From a human standpoint, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead at the time of Moses’ life, yet God is – not was – their God. Jesus is using the present tense Hebrew word for am to prove that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still experiencing life with God. To those on earth, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were gone, but Jesus says it’s not so; God is still their God because they still live.

What kind of confidence in the authority and preservation of the OT must Jesus have to base his whole argument of the tense of one verb?

#3

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28–31)

This passage is important because it shows Jesus’ understanding of the continuity of the OT and NT. Many Christians shy away from the OT because, they think, its teachings do not fit well into NT teachings. Jesus clearly doesn’t think there’s any disconnect between the OT and NT. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18; thus, the greatest commandments, according to Jesus, come from the OT. As I said above, the OT and NT are one continuos revelation from God.

This should motivate us all to work for a better understanding of the OT. Yes, some of it seems strange and harsh to us, but Jesus did not think so. This should motivate us to wrestle with the tough passages to understand them as Jesus did.

Furthermore, understanding the difference between the OT moral law and the OT religious law and why Christians continue to follow one and not the other is essential. (To start, again see here.)

#4

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,

“ ‘The Lord said to my Lord,

“Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’

37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35–37)

I love this passage because, again, we see Jesus using the specific wording of an OT passage to astound his listeners. This is also significant not only because Jesus quotes Psalm 110 and confirms David as the author, but also Jesus states that David wrote this by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus basically asks, if the Messiah will be David’s descendant (“son”), how can the great King David call him his Lord? Jesus is dropping a loud hint that the divinely-inspired Psalms are telling them that the Messiah will be much, much greater than King David.

#5

49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” (Mark 14:49).

This final passage we’ll look at in this article is from Jesus’ arrest before his crucifixion. Though he doesn’t make a specific reference to an OT passage, he refers to “the Scriptures” – which to a Jew of Jesus’ day could only be what we call the OT today – and that they are being fulfilled through these events. Thus, Jesus says his arrest and execution actually fulfill the OT.

One comes to understand through Jesus (and the NT revelation) that the whole of the OT is a foreshadowing and preparation for the coming of the God-man and his atonement for sins by his death on the cross. Where it’s beyond the scope of this article to explore how Christ fulfills the OT law, it’s enough to note here that Jesus in Mark 14:49 (and other places in the Gospels) confirms that he does.

But if that’s not satisfying to you, take a moment and read Isaiah 53. Here’s a taste:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Did Jesus consider the Old Testament relevant? He clearly did.

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