Thursday, July 25, 2019

How Jesus Used the Old Testament in Matthew 5:21-48

By Michael J. Vlach

With Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus quoted the OT seven times. Six of these involve an OT command from the Law of Moses followed by the statement “But I say to you. . . . .” A seventh concerns a statement that Jerusalem is “the city of the great King,” a reference to Psalm 48:2 in Matthew 5:35. This latter example, from Psalm 48:2, is a contextual affirmation of the significance of Jerusalem. Our attention, though, focuses on the other six uses of the OT. These reveal how Jesus viewed himself in relation to the Law of Moses. These six uses of the OT by Jesus are:

You have heard . . . “‘You shall not commit murderand ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ . . . But I say to you . . . .” (Matt. 5:21-22; quotation of Exodus 20:13).

You have heard that it was said, “‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:27-28; quotation of Exodus 20:14).

“It was said, “‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:31-32; quotation of Deut. 24:1).

Again, you have heard . . . “‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:33-34; allusion to Lev. 19:12; Deut. 23:21).

You have heard that it was said, “‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:38-39; quotation of Exod. 21:24).

You have heard that it was said, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you. . . .” (Matt. 5:43-44; quotation of Lev. 19:18).

Noticeable is the recurring formula, “You have heard” or “It was said,” followed by “But I say to you.” This repetition indicates these six uses of the OT are joined in a broader argument. These six uses must be studied individually and collectively.

How is Jesus using these OT texts from the Law of Moses? Before commenting on this question, note that the meaning of Matthew 5:21-48 is heavily debated, as is the section immediately preceding it—Matthew 5:17-20. These two sections have ramifications for how Jesus viewed the Law of Moses and whether the Mosaic Law is binding on Christians today. A full discussion of these issues and the debates over them go way beyond our purposes here. But it is necessary to briefly state the main positions concerning what Jesus is doing in Matthew 5:21-48.

One view is that Jesus corrected distortions that the Jewish religious leaders allegedly made to the Law of Moses. So Jesus is removing rabbinic-tradition clutter from the Law of Moses so the Law can be correctly understood and followed. If this is accurate, Jesus is not really “quoting” Mosaic commands but stating rabbinic traditions of the Law so that He can correct them. Charles Quarles seems to affirm this position when he writes: “The formula [“But I say to you”] contrasts Jesus’s interpretation of the Scriptures with popular rabbinic interpretations” (Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, 55).

Another position is that Jesus actually quotes Mosaic Law instructions to contrast these with His new instruction for the new era He brings. With this view, Jesus is the better Moses and King who offers New Covenant instruction that supersedes the instruction of the Mosaic era.

A third and mediating view is that Jesus maintains continuity with the Law of Moses as a rule of life for today, but He also makes some modifications to the Law, perhaps internalizing and individualizing the Mosaic commands. Allegedly, a merger of the Law of Moses and Law of Christ is happening. What Jesus says has ramifications for the New Covenant and Law of Christ but this involves the Mosaic Covenant, too, in some aspects. Turner seems to affirm a version of this third perspective when he writes, “On the one hand, Jesus does not contradict the law, but on the other hand, he does not preserve it unchanged.” (Matthew, in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 167).

In short, the issue here is whether Jesus is exegeting and confirming the Mosaic Law as a rule of life or whether He is giving New Covenant instruction that is not the same as the Mosaic Law. Or is the truth somewhere in between? Which view one holds often affects how the six quotations in Matthew 5:21-48 should be understood. If the first view above is correct then Jesus confirms the Law of Moses by removing false Jewish understandings of the Law. If the second view is correct, Jesus is quoting actual Mosaic Law commands to contrast them with His new instruction as the better Moses and Messiah. The third view takes a middle-ground approach. If correct this seems to blend Mosaic and New Covenant instructions in a hybrid manner.

We think the second view is accurate. All six statements by Jesus can be linked with specific Mosaic instruction. And while Jesus mentions the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 5:20, He does not appear to be addressing the issue of rabbinic interpretations in His sermon. Thus, the simplest and best view is that Jesus is simply quoting and paraphrasing Mosaic Law instruction. In sum, Jesus quoted the Mosaic Law six times in Matthew 5:21-48, not simply to explain the Mosaic Law or to correct misunderstandings of this Law, but to contrast Mosaic Law instruction with His New Covenant requirements. In fact, all of Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount) is new instruction from the King. He offers at least 46 explicit commands in this section. Note Jesus’ emphasis on His words at the end of the Sermon:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them. . . . (Matt. 7:24).

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them. . . . (Matt. 7:26).

for He was teaching them as one having authority. . . . (Matt. 7:29) (emphases mine).

The stress with these statements is on Jesus’ words, not those of Moses.

With Matthew 5:17-19 Jesus declared that He did not come to abolish the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. “the Law or the Prophets”). He came to “fulfill” them. Matthew 5:18 reveals that fulfillment means that everything in the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) must come to pass. And one of these predictions was that there would be a coming New Covenant that would supersede the previous Mosaic Covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-32 predicted this:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord (emphases mine).

So fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets includes the prediction that the New Covenant would replace the older Mosaic Covenant.

This does not mean Jesus’ New Covenant instruction is contrary to what Moses said. While God’s moral standards existed before the Mosaic Law was given in Exodus 20, the Mosaic Law represented God’s moral standards for the era between Moses and Jesus. And we should expect continuity of God’s moral standards across human history. This is true for both the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ. But a new era arrived in Jesus and with it a New Covenant and it requirements. Just as Jesus’ superior priesthood has superseded the Aaronic priesthood (see Hebrews 7-8), so too Jesus and the New Covenant supersede Moses and the Law of Moses. In sum, with Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus is the ultimate Prophet and Lawgiver who now declares a transition from Moses and the Mosaic Covenant to Himself and the New Covenant. An epochal transition has occurred (see 2 Cor. 3:6-11). This development was not unforeseen. Moses himself predicted a coming Prophet to whom the people would listen (see Deut. 18:15, 18), and that prophet arrived with Jesus (see Acts 3:22-23).

Important with Matthew 5:21-48 are the six transitions from “You have heard it said” to “But I say to you.” The “but” (de) is adversative and indicates a contrast. The “I say” (egō legō) highlights the authority of Jesus. To paraphrase, “Moses said . . . but I say to you . . . .” This is more than Jesus explaining Moses, He is emphasizing His authority. A transition occurs from the Mosaic era to the New Covenant era in Jesus (see John 1:17). Jesus presented Himself as the New Covenant lawgiver who contrasted His new and authoritative teaching with that of the Mosaic instruction. Jesus is not saying the previous Mosaic Covenant was wrong (see Rom. 7:12), any more than the old Aaronic priesthood was wrong. But the Mosaic Covenant and its particulars were shadows (see Heb. 10:2) that now give way to the superior New Covenant. This transition is similar to the message of Hebrews 8:13: “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first [Mosaic] obsolete.” With Galatians 4 Paul said the Law was a “tutor” to that leads us to Christ, but now that Christ has come the tutor is no longer needed (see Gal. 3:24-25).

What does this mean for our purposes? Jesus’ six quotations from the Mosaic Law are contextual and offered for the point of contrast for the new era in Jesus. There are no explanations of the Mosaic commands mentioned because Jesus takes them at face value to springboard to His new requirements. There certainly are no hidden meanings or reinterpretations being offered. Jesus is saying, “Moses said this, but now I’m telling you what I expect.”

This understanding is bolstered by the fact that Jesus’ six “But I say to you” statements sometimes reveal differing requirements and consequences than Moses spoke of. Jesus quoted Exodus 20:13 in Matthew 5:21 to show that whoever committed murder during the Mosaic era would be liable to a judicial court. But with the new era Jesus brings, hatred is considered murder, and the consequences of hatred can lead to being sent to the “fiery hell” (5:22). While the Mosaic law was also concerned heart issues such as coveting (e.g. coveting in Exodus 20:17), Jesus goes beyond the physical act of murder to addressing hatred. He also points out even more severe eternal consequences for hatred—namely eternal fiery judgment. 

Next, in Matthew 5:27 Jesus quoted Exodus 20:14 concerning avoiding adultery and stated that lust for a woman is adultery of the heart (Matt. 5:28). Jesus then declared that radical removal of tempting influences is necessary to avoid adultery of the heart which can lead to hell (Matt. 5:29-30). As the greater Moses and Messiah, Jesus requires purity of heart for His followers with implications for eternity.

With Matthew 5:31, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 24:1, a part of the Mosaic Law that allowed for divorce. But with Matthew 5:32 Jesus declared that divorce should never happen except for sexual immorality. The Mosaic Law temporarily allowed for divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts (see Matt. 19:8), but Jesus reestablished the principle from creation that God made man and woman to be joined for life (see Matt. 19:3-9). So now with Jesus’ new instruction, no divorces were allowed, except for sexual immorality. The temporary allowance for divorce under the Mosaic era is removed.

In Matthew 5:33 Jesus alluded to Leviticus 19:12 and Deuteronomy 23:21. Under the Mosaic Law oaths to the Lord were allowed. But in the New Covenant era oaths are not be made at all. Instead, the good word of a Jesus follower makes oaths unnecessary (Matt. 5:34-37). This too is a change from conditions under Moses.

With Matthew 5:38, Jesus stated that the Mosaic law command concerning retaliation in Exodus 21:24 should not be the emphasis for His followers as they serve Him. Instead of seeking retaliation, the followers of Jesus should show radical kindness to those who afflict them (see Matt. 5:39-42) in the cause of Jesus. This is not a statement that governments cannot seek justice for wrongs done, but in the cause of Jesus' work, the emphasis is not on seeking retributive justice.

Lastly, with 5:43-48: Jesus called for loving both friends and enemies. The command to love your neighbor is an obvious reference to Leviticus 19:18, although the words “as yourself” are missing. The following command in Matthew 5:43b to “hate your enemy” is more difficult to understand. Since there is no explicit command to hate your enemy in the Mosaic Law some think Jesus is correcting misguided Jewish oral tradition here. Allegedly, Jesus corrects a misunderstanding of the Mosaic Law by removing the addition of hating enemies. A better understanding, though, is that Jesus paraphrased Mosaic instructions concerning enemies of Israel. Deuteronomy 23:3-6 forbade entrance to the assembly for Ammonites and Moabites since they denied food and water to Israel when Israel came out of Egypt. Likewise, Deuteronomy 25:17-19 commanded harsh treatment of the Amalekites for how they mistreated Israel after the exodus from Egypt. According to the Law of Moses, Ammonites, Moabites, and Amalekites were to be treated as enemies for a time. While acknowledging that Jesus could be correcting Jewish oral tradition, Blomberg notes, “it is equally possible that Jesus is summarizing in the second clause of his ‘quotation’ a very natural inference that could be drawn from the original meaning of various OT passages (e.g. Deut. 23:3-6; 25:17-19 . . .)” (“Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 27). In short, Jesus’ reference to not hating enemies probably refers to the Mosaic commands concerning Israel’s enemies.

When the six OT quotations in Matthew 5:21-48 are examined properly, we see that Jesus does more than explain or exegete Mosaic instruction; He offers commands for the new era He brings. Jesus authoritatively states what He expects from His followers. Thus, in Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus quoted the OT contextually in order to make a contrast. He does not change the meaning or reinterpret the Mosaic commands. He quoted these to emphasize His role as New Covenant Lawgiver.


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