Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Luke + Series Final Results)

isaiahScroll

We decided to do this series to address the idea by some Christians that the Old Testament (OT) is irrelevant. So far, we’ve looked at three of the four Gospels to see what Jesus thought of the OT. I think the conclusions we can draw are clear, so we’ll quickly look at Luke in this blog and then conclude the series by looking at all the data.

To put it simply, if our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, took what we call today the Old Testament seriously, so should we. The evidence says he did.

With this, you cannot fully understand Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection without understanding the Old Testament. This is the opinion of both Jesus and the writers of the New Testament.

Since the first three articles have proven this (and I don’t want to get too redundant!), I’ll share some brief observations on Luke, and then we’ll look at the total count of OT references in all four Gospels to conclude this series.

THE GOSPEL OF LUKE

Like Matthew’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel starts with a birth narrative of Jesus. In both Gospels, we find many references to the OT in these opening chapters by the authors to show that these events are in line with the Jewish Scripture and Jesus is the promised Messiah, a descendant of Abraham and David. Yet, with both Gospels, once Jesus’ public ministry begins, the majority of OT references are made by Jesus himself.

Something interesting that is unique to Luke (Well, the wording is unique; the idea is found in all the Gospels) is:

16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John [the Baptist]; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. (Luke 16:16–17).

Here, Jesus is saying both that the time of the OT (“The Law and the Prophets,” “the Law”) is past, but at the same time it does not become void. This supports the idea we saw in the other Gospels about Jesus NOT doing away with the OT but fulfilling it, and this naturally leads us into the new revelation of God, the New Testament (which is not “new” in the sense of something different, but a continuation and “fleshing out” of God’s Law).

Another interesting thing to note is Jesus’ regular use of Isaiah, which Jesus finds significance in quoting in relation to his ministry. In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus reads from an Isaiah scroll, then states, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In 7:18-23, when John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is “the one who is to come,” Jesus quotes Isaiah, citing his miracles as evidence that he is the Messiah. In 22:37, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53, saying that it will be fulfilled in him. Isaiah 53 is probably the most famous chapter in Isaiah among Christians because it speaks of the “suffering servant,” who will take the punishment of the peoples’ sin upon himself.

Lastly, Luke closes his Gospel with the resurrected Jesus clearly speaking of his death and resurrection fulfilling the OT:

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:24–27). 

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44–47).

Imagine if only Luke recorded these conversations in whole!

THE RESULTS

Here are the numbers for Luke’s Gospel…

THE GOSPEL OF LUKE

  • 24 Chapters

  • 57 References to OT

  • 38 References to OT made by Jesus

  • 67% of OT references are made by Jesus

SERIES WRAP UP

Below are the final results for our 4-Gospel study of Jesus’ use of the Old Testament.

In hindsight, it would’ve been useful to separate the total of OT references by those used by the Gospels’ authors, those made by other people appearing in the Gospels’ narratives (such as the 12 Disciples, other Jews, etc.), and Jesus. But since this informal study was to really see how Jesus talked about the OT, this serves our purposes.

The chart below shows some obvious things. The number of chapters (which, admittedly, are not inspired and simply give us a rough idea of the length of each Gospel) compared to the OT references shows discussion of the OT was an important part of Jewish life and a regular thing throughout the Gospels.  Moving to the right, we see clearly that Jesus spoke often about the OT and it was an important part of his ministry.

Keep in mind, where the chart below is interesting and helpful, the number of OT references by Jesus is not as important as what he actually says about it, which we looked at in each part of this series.

Gospel # of Chapters # OT References # of those OT refs made by Jesus % of OT refs belonging to Jesus
Mark 16 18 15 83%
Matthew 28 65 44 68%
John 21 52 24 46%
Luke 24 57 38 67%
TOTAL 89 192 121 63%

I’d like to hear any thoughts, insights, etc. below in the comments.

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ.

Confidence in Christ v2

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

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The point of this short blog series is simple. (Read Part 1: Mark and Part 2: Matthew.) Some Christians, whether they be theologically conservative or liberal, don’t see the Old Testament (OT) as important or relevant. So, we decided to see how Jesus thought of the OT.

If you read the first two parts of this series on Mark and Matthew, I think you’re beginning to see a pattern here: throughout the Gospels, the OT is referred to constantly, and much of those references are made by Jesus himself.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN: THE DATA

  • 21 Chapters

  • 52 References to OT

  • 24 References to OT made by Jesus

  • 46% of OT references are made by Jesus

Keep in mind this a quick count done in one reading of John’s Gospel and does not include the numerous times Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” which is an OT reference to Daniel 7 (which he does 12 times in John’s Gospel).

Compared to the other two Gospels we looked at so far, John has the smallest percentage of OT references made by Jesus of the OT references. In Mark, Jesus makes 83% of the OT references, and in Matthew, Jesus makes 68% of the OT references. Yet, Jesus’ 24 references compared to 21 chapters gives us a rough idea that Jesus made such references regularly in John’s Gospel. And, with this, as you’ll see below, quantity does not effect quality.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS

As most know, John includes a lot of material the other three Gospels do not. Yet, in John, we find more of the same that we found in Mark and Matthew. As in the other Gospels, in John there are many OT references made by both the writer of the Gospel (John) and Jesus himself (and even by other people who appear in the narratives).

And, as in the other Gospels, there are many statements about how the events recorded of in the Gospel fulfill OT Scripture. In John, these statements certainly increase in the later chapters surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, such as:

Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 20:8–9)

Some other interesting highlights where Jesus alludes to the OT include:

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life… There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”… 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 5:39–6:14). 

Here, Jesus plainly states that the OT bears witness about him and that Moses wrote of him. Some of the people listening to him understand Jesus to be “the Prophet who is to come,” which could only be a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-22, where God promises to Moses to rise up in Israel another prophet.

In 10:35, Jesus makes an interested argument based on one word in Psalm 82 and then states, “Scripture cannot be broken.”

“I AM”

A much more subtle allusion to the OT that many may miss is Jesus’ constant use of the phrase “I am.” In Exodus 3, when God first appears to Moses (as a burning bush), Moses asks for God’s name. Scripture tells us, “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ”’I AM has sent me to you”” (Exodus 3:14).  So, “I AM” is God’s name, which is pronounced “Yahweh” in Hebrew (often pronounced incorrectly as “Jehovah.”). In the Greek of the New Testament, “I AM” is “Ego Eimi.”

Jesus makes “I AM” statements throughout John to subtly imply to those with ears to hear that he is God in the flesh, and John uses these to not-so-subtly show his readers of that exact idea:

John begins his Gospel with a prologue that tells us right away that Jesus is God (1:1) and became a man (1:14). After the prologue, John goes on to show this with the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. One way John does this is giving us many times Jesus refers to himself as “I AM.” Some of these in English are translated as “I am he” or even “it is I,” which are acceptable translations, but if you look at the original Greek, they are all written in the same way: “Ego Eimi” (“I AM”).

In 6:20, when the disciples are on a boat in the storm and see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says, “I AM. Do not be afraid.” In 13:19, Jesus says to his disciples, “I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I AM.”

But this is most clearly seen throughout John 8. Jesus states, “…unless you believe that I AM you will die in your sins” (8:24). He goes on to say that when he is “lifted up” (which may be a reference to him being lifted up on the cross, his ascension into heaven, or him being lifted up in glory, or all of them – which is how I understand it because they are all related) that his audience “will then know that I AM” (8:28).

And if you think I’m stretching it here to prove my point, the people listening to Jesus in his day don’t think so because in 8:58, Jesus makes the grammatically-odd statement “before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus’ listeners finally get it: This guy is calling himself the God who appeared to Moses! And that’s blasphemy! So, they pick up stones to stone him to death (8:59).

John brings this theme to its climax by concluding his Gospel in Chapter 20 with “doubting Thomas,” upon meeting the resurrected Jesus, declaring “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). (For those of you following closely, Chapter 21 is John’s epilogue. Just as he started with a prologue, he closes his Gospel with an epilogue.)

Thus, one of the ways Jesus communicated to his fellow Jews that he was God-in-the-flesh was by referring to their holy writings – what we call the OT.

TWO LAST (TRINITARIAN) PASSAGES WORTH NOTING

In the same vein – and in another subtle reference to the OT – Jesus says in John 7,

38 [Jesus said,] Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38–39).

It’s interesting that John tells us that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, here when he speaks from Scripture of “living water.” When we turn to Jeremiah 17:13, we read this:

“for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.”

So, John 1:1 establishes that the Father and Son are both God, and here we find that the Holy Spirit is also God. Thus, we find the Trinity – three unique personalities sharing one divine identity.

All of this is good stuff to point our to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the Trinity.

Let me point out one last interesting passage; though we are primarily concerned with the OT references made by Jesus himself in John’s Gospel, this last one – made by the author, John, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, is worth noting.

In John 12:37-40, John quotes from Isaiah twice to show that what is happening during Jesus’ ministry is fulfilling Scripture. He then states, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him (12:41).”

Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory? What an intriguing thing to say! So, we turn to Isaiah and search through it. Where could have Isaiah possibly seen Jesus’ glory? The only option is found in Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:1–5).

Thus, in this vision of God – Yahweh, I AM, the Lord of hosts – Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory.

NEXT: Final of the series: LUKE’S GOSPEL.

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Confidence in Christ v2

 

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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Confidence in Christ v2

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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Christianity Through Roman Eyes: What Does a Pagan Roman Letter from 111 A.D. Tell Us About Early Christians?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The earliest known mention of Christians by a Roman appears in a letter by Pliny, a Roman governor of Asia Minor – what is now part of modern Turkey.  The letter is actually the second earliest writing about Christianity by a non-Christian, the first being from about 90-95 AD by Josephus, a Jewish writer.

Pliny’s letter was written in 111 AD, which puts it immediately after the New Testament era. At this point in history, the last “books” of the New Testament were written and the last of the Apostles would’ve died off not long before this.

Pliny is writing to Emperor Trajan for advice about dealing with this strange new group of people called Christians. The letter gives us some interesting insights into the earliest Christians.

THE SITUATION 

Pliny writes in the letter:

“For the moment, this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.

“Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I felt that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ—none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

“Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.”

So, people are being accused of being Christians and Pliny is having them brought before him.  Obviously, something about these Christians is causing the pagan Romans concern, even to the point of having pamphlets published naming names of supposed Christians.

Those accused of being Christians were ordered by Pliny to worship and pray to pagan idols of Roman gods (likely Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, etc.) and a statue of the Emperor Trajan and to curse the name of Christ, things no “genuine Christian” would do. Some of these accused Christians obey Pliny and other do not. Those that refused, Pliny states plainly, were led off to execution.

EARLY CHRISTIAN PRACTICES DESCRIBED

Pliny receives (and, thus, so do we) some interesting insights into early Christianity from the questioning of those who claimed they had once been Christians but no longer.

Pliny continues:

“They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god,”

This is interesting because many skeptics try to claim that the idea that Jesus Christ is God developed long after – even centuries after – Christianity originated. In other words, they claim the first Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God, but as time passed and legends grew, Jesus Christ became God. Yet, here we have a non-Christian witness telling us Christians worshipped Jesus as God at the very beginning of the second century. And, clearly, this was a practice that had to be going on before the letter was written, which places this practice of worshipping Jesus as God even earlier.

Pliny continues:

“and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called on to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind;”

Several things are interesting to note here.

First, when Christians would gather, they worshipped Christ and made oaths to follow biblical morality (which included being honest with money [“to not deny a deposit when called on to restore it”]). Then, they would gather again at a later time for a shared meal. We read in the Book of Acts that sharing meals was a regular part of living as the local church for the first Christians (Acts 2:46).

It’s a bit humorous in hindsight that Pliny describes the food of the Christians as “ordinary” and “harmless.” There were rumors back then that this strange new cult of Christians were cannibals. That may sound crazy to many of us today, but when you take into account the Christian ordinance of communion (The Lord’s Supper), where Christians symbolically eat the “flesh” (bread) and drink the “blood” (wine) of Christ, one can understand how such a rumor could begin. Communion is a ritual implemented by Christ himself to be done to remember his self-sacrifice upon the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:26-28; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Such a rumor starting among those unfamiliar with Christian practices and beliefs makes perfect sense.

“but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies.”

These Christians had met for shared meals, but they ceased meeting like this because Pliny outlawed similar meetings for political reasons. The Roman authority didn’t want any competition, so “political societies” were outlawed. Though the Christians were not getting together for political reasons, their gatherings for meals shared enough characteristics with these political clubs for them to be in violation of the law, so the Christians ceased to meet in this way.

The point we should note: with the exception of worshipping the Roman gods and emperor, the Christians were law-abiding.

“This made me decide that it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses.”

Here, we see that both slaves and women held the position of deacon in the early church.

WHEN DOWN IS UP AND UP IS DOWN

Pliny ends this section of his letter by concluding:

“I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

To close, we must note the irony. After laying out that the Christians are an honest, moral, harmless, law-abiding people, this Roman, who doesn’t hesitate to execute or torture them, describes them as a “degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths”!

Keep in mind, “cult” for most of history is a neutral term without the largely negative connotation that it holds today. “Cult” simply means a religious group devoted to a certain deity or person. Thus, Christians are quite literally members of the cult of Jesus Christ.

But it should also be noted that “cult” may not be the best translation here. The Greek word used is actually superstitio, which can be translated “superstition.” All three Roman writers who mention Christianity in the beginning of the second century (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius) describe the group as superstitio. Superstitio “referred to beliefs and practices that were foreign and strange to the Romans” [1] and was a term with a negative connotation.

Where we may think pagans would be open to other forms of religious faith, the Romans considered themselves extremely pious according to their religion and looked at foreign faiths with suspicion. Yet, as long as those foreign faiths also honored the Roman gods, they were tolerated. In the eyes of the Romans, the exclusivity of the Christians’ beliefs put their very society and culture at risk by offending their gods.

Despite this, early Christianity grew and spread in this environment, ultimately changing the culture around it.

So, in a way, the Romans were right to fear the Christians as a threat to their way of life.

 

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Read Part 2: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

[1] The Christians As the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken – Second Edition, Yale university Press, 2003 P.49-50

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Does Mark, the Earliest Gospel, Have a Divine Jesus? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

Mark

Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol in his 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims makes a common claim of those who want to challenge the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus. Akyol claims that the belief that Jesus is God was a later development that was not held by the first Christians.

According to Akyol, as Christianity spread from the Jews to the pagan Romans, Jesus’ status was raised to divine. He writes, “…the more Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots and planted itself on Hellenistic soil, the more it perceived Jesus as divine. This was no preplanned scheme, but the natural result of transferring monotheistic Jewish concepts to a polytheistic Gentile setting” (P.47).

Since the Gospel of John is understood to be the last gospel written and the gospel that most explicitly teaches that Jesus is divine, Akyol argues that Jesus’ divinity was a later development. He writes, “Among the four gospels, the one that has the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any, is Mark [the first gospel to be written]… Yet when we come to Matthew and Luke… the emphasis on Jesus as a suprahuman being increases,” finally evolving into the more obvious teaching of Jesus’ divinity in John’s gospel (P.48).

Akyol is right that Mark is considered by most scholars to be the earliest gospel (though some make good arguments that Matthew is the earliest), and the majority of scholars agrees that John was written last, as well as John focuses the most on the divinity of Christ.

But is Jesus’ divinity NOT found in Mark, the earliest gospel? 

In our last article, we already saw how Akyol is wrong about the Epistle of James not holding to the divinity of Jesus, and James is one of the earliest – and likely thee earliest – work in the New Testament, a fact Akyol himself emphasizes.

So, how about the earliest historical narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of Mark? Let’s look at Mark’s gospel and see what it has to say for itself.

 

Jesus’ Divinity in Mark? You Don’t Have to Look Long

If we look at Mark, we don’t have to look far to find Jesus’ divinity. In fact, we only need to look at the first three verses:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)

Right off the bat in 1:1 we have an expression to describe Jesus that Muslims do not like: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet, even Christians may understand this not as a divine title but as a title that can be applied to the Jewish, strictly human Messiah. So, let’s put that phrase “Son of God” aside for now and look at the rest of 1:1-3.

It’s interesting that Mark chose to begin his account of the ministry of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” by quoting the Old Testament (OT). Mark conflates two OT passages: Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. As you read on, it’s clear that Mark is applying these OT passages to John the Baptist. Thus, John the Baptist is “the messenger… who will prepare your way.”

So, we have to ask: who is “your” a reference to?

Let’s continue on to 1:3 to find out: John is the one to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Now, no one can read any of the four gospels and come to any conclusion other than that John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus. Thus, Jesus is the Lord.

Further, when we turn to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in the OT and read them in context, who is the messenger of these passages preparing the way for? God. The LORD. Yahweh – the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14. The God of Abraham and Moses. There is no controversy about this; it’s a plain as day. In Malachi 3:1, the Lord Yahweh is speaking: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Isaiah writes in 40:3: “…prepare the way of the LORD [literally: Yahweh]; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

So we see, not even four verses into Mark’s gospel, Akyol’s argument is already destroyed. Mark begins his gospel by telling his audience that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God, Jesus Christ. 

 

Did Jesus Claim to Be God?

Another claim Muslims like Akyol like to make is that Jesus himself never claimed to be God. Thus, Mark – the author – may have claimed Jesus is God, but Jesus never did. Yet, when we read Mark’s account carefully, we see Jesus claimed divinity by both his actions and words. Let’s look at three examples of this:

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7)

Akyol may not understand the significance of what Jesus is doing, but Jesus’ fellow Jews certainly did because God is the only savior (Isaiah 43:11, 25). For a man to claim to forgive sins, something only God can do, is blasphemy – as Jesus’ 1st Century audience clearly understands. By claiming he has the authority to forgive sins, Jesus is claiming divinity.

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

In 14:62, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself) of Daniel 7:13-14. This Son of Man is described as a being who comes into the presence of God without being destroyed; yet, no sinful human can come into God’s perfect presence without being destroyed. Further, this being is also given glory in God’s presence. Can anyone be given glory other than God is God’s presence? God shares his glory with no one! (See Isaiah 42:8; 48:11; also see John 17:1-5.)  Again, Jesus’ fellow Jews understand that he is making a claim of divinity, as we see by their strong reactions and accusations of blasphemy.

And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:36–41)

Now, ask yourself, when the men in the boat witnessed Jesus calm the storm with a verbal command, how would they – all first century Jews, let me remind you – answer the question Mark ends this episode with: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus was showing these men something, and these men where NOT Roman pagans or twenty-first century Westerners, but Scripture-reading and -believing Jews; thus, they would understand this “something” as first century Jews.

So, how would they understand this?

First, in the very first words written in the Jewish Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) God creates all things by simply speaking them into existence. Take note that Jesus does not pray to God to calm the storm; he simply speaks.

Furthermore, Psalm 107:23-32 tells of God controlling a storm at sea. Verse 29 reads, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Finally, one cannot read the details of this account and not think of the Book of Jonah. Jonah unwisely attempts to escape God’s commission by fleeing by boat to a faraway land. Because of this, God sends a storm, which Jonah sleep through, only to be awoken by the crew of the ship in a panic. Jonah knows the storm was sent by God because of his disobedience and, thus, tells the pagans to throw him overboard to save their lives. Once Jonah is overboard, the storm immediately stops. The pagans, in turn, worship Jonah’s God.

So, again, I ask: how would a 1st Century Jew answer: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The answer is clear: God.

Akyol’s Big Mistake

As we discussed in an earlier article on Akyol’s understanding of the NT letter of James, Akyol makes the mistake of assuming every work in the NT was written to convey the same message to the same audience, and every NT writing should cover the entirety of Christian theology. This is not the case.

For instance, Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, so it appears his primary audience were Jews, so he focuses primarily on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah. Yet, even Matthew portrays Jesus as God in the same ways Mark and Luke do, and at the end of Matthew we have the unignorable Trinitarian proclamation by the resurrected Jesus to baptize in the singular name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To be fair, Akyol does quote historian Larry Hurtado, who writes “a remarkable level of devotion to Jesus erupted in the earliest years of the Christian movement,” and Cambridge professor Richard Bauckham, who states, “the earliest christology was already the highest.” But other than these cursory mentions, Akyol ignores any historical scholarship contrary to his theory and quickly moves on.

Yet, let me point out that Akyol himself says that the Gospel of Mark has “the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any.” Thus, even Akyol seems to begrudgingly admit that Mark may contain a divine Jesus.

Finally, isn’t even just ONE reference to Jesus’ divinity in a gospel enough to establish it? If I, for instance, only mentioned once in a story that a woman is pregnant, wouldn’t that be sufficient to establish for the whole of the story that the woman is pregnant? As we saw, Mark begins his gospel by making it clear that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God.

To try to invalidate the witness of the gospels to Jesus’ divinity by arguing that earlier gospels contain less about Jesus’ divinity is like arguing that you’re “kind of” pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not, and you are either God or you’re not. All four Gospels witness to Jesus’ divinity. The amount of space each gives to it is irrelevant to the discussion.

Read: James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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