How Jesus Used the Old Testament in Matthew 5:21-48 (Part 1)

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 murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ … But I say to you … .” (NASB, 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.

Michael Vlach bio


Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.

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There are 11 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I disagree with Michael Vlach on this point.

To me, it seems obvious that Jesus was following the Rabbinic practice of "building a fence."  This is the idea that, to protect violating a command, you create a margin by constructing a safety barrier.  If you do not lust after a woman in your heart, you will not commit adultery.  If you don't hate someone, you will not murder them.

Here is the quotation from Pirke Avot [sayings that date from before Jesus] about being a teacher (Rabbi) and disciple-making:

The Men of the Great Assembly had three sayings:

Be deliberate in judging;

Educate many students;

Make a fence around the Torah.

In my opinion, this is exactly what Jesus was doing, reinforcing the Torah, while also doing some correcting of its misuse.  The relevance of the Torah to the post-Pentecost disicples is another matter.

"The Midrash Detective"

JBL's picture

Are we so very, very sure that the Sermon on the Mount corrects or clarifies our understanding of the place of the law?  Or does it correct and clarify our understanding of righteousness?

Subtle difference, but one that is profound in terms of understanding who we are and who Christ is.

John B. Lee

G. N. Barkman's picture

I doubt we'll ever get this issue fully resolved until we get to heaven.  However, I want to probe Ed's idea of building a fence.  Isn't there a big difference between saying, "If you don't lust in your heart, you will not commit adultery."  (obviously true), and saying "If you look at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her you ARE committing adultery"?  That takes the OT standard and raises it much higher.  That's more than a fence.  It's a whole new category of sin.  As King, Jesus has the authority to do this, and I think we need to recognize what He is doing.  He is asserting His rightful claim to greater authority than Moses.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Bro. Barkman wrote:

That takes the OT standard and raises it much higher.  That's more than a fence.  It's a whole new category of sin. 

I always took Jesus to be getting to the point of the law. Sin isn't just an action; it's also a thought. It infects every part of us. Sure, you haven't slept with her, but you've thought about it a lot, haven't you? (etc, etc).

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

pvawter's picture

TylerR wrote:

Bro. Barkman wrote:

That takes the OT standard and raises it much higher.  That's more than a fence.  It's a whole new category of sin. 

I always took Jesus to be getting to the point of the law. Sin isn't just an action; it's also a thought. It infects every part of us. Sure, you haven't slept with her, but you've thought about it a lot, haven't you? (etc, etc).

Yeah, I've thought this too. I mean, the 10 commandments also prohibit covetousness, which would seem to include that lustful look. It's hard for me to see Jesus' words as setting a new standard rather than emphasizing the true nature of the law. 

Don Johnson's picture

In particular, these are questionable as quotations:

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

I, too, disagree with Vlach on this one, but I disagree with Ed also. It seems yo me these are rabbinical abuses of the law that the Lord was correcting by means of showing that the law goes far deeper than a mere surface understanding (legalism) takes it.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ed Vasicek's picture

JBL wrote:

Are we so very, very sure that the Sermon on the Mount corrects or clarifies our understanding of the place of the law?  Or does it correct and clarify our understanding of righteousness?

Subtle difference, but one that is profound in terms of understanding who we are and who Christ is.

John B. Lee

 

I feel sure of it, although I have to admit my surety is fallible.. As a matter of fact, I wrote a book, much of which is about this.  It is called, "The Midrash Key."  If you find the below interesting, you can find many more details there.

I think Jesus is using an expected rabbinic method and excelling at it.  He is building a fence around the Torah, but the Torah deals primarily (not completely -- there are verses about "saying in your heart") the external.  

Hillel, for example, a few decades before Jesus said, "If you don't want others to do it to you, don't do it to them."  Jesus made this proactive: "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

The School of Hillel was much more about inner attitudes.  Even that emphasis is not unique to Jesus, but His more excellent approach to it was.

Much of Jesus personal teachings to His immediate disciples (esp. those recorded in John, or during Jesus final pre-Resurrection week) are distinct from what the Rabbis taught.  But the Sermon on the Mount is very Rabbinic -- only better. 

The key (as per my book) is understanding the nature of Midrash.  It also unlocks the Book of Hebrews.

Almost all scholars agree that the Sermon on the Mount went at least 2 hours; we have, at most, an 11 minute SUMMARY.  Some comments do not take that into account.

Most of the Sermon on the Mount is Midrash on Torah.  For example, see if this verse doesn't ring familiar in the SOM and some other teachings about reconciliation: 

Leviticus 19:15-19 is an example of what was probably one of the texts Jesus exposited:

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Without getting too long, I believe Jesus elaborates and comes up with ways to implement this.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

I should say that the issue of the relationship of the church to the Torah is complex.  We know that Jewish believers could choose to remain Torah observant and were not to force gentiles to be Torah observant.

That's why David Stern's approach -- viewing Christianity as Trans-cultural Messianic Judaism -- is not far from the mark, IMO.  The unique aspects of the Torah that applied just to Israel are not Trans-cultural.  The problem, however, is in sorting them out.  Pretty hard to do so with total objectivity.

Thus the safest approach is that of House and Ice and others -- the commandments repeated in the New Testament are the parts of Torah we can be sure apply.  Nonetheless, there are commands that may or may not relate (e.g., tattoos). 

Still, the recorded fences Jesus built are inspired and reflect God's will. But we need to understand them in their Jewish context, an approach the church abandoned when it chose a hostile position toward Judaism and Jewish believers perhaps as early as the end of the first century.  They distanced themselves from the very people who could help them understand the context of Jesus' words.

"The Midrash Detective"

T Howard's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

SI published an example of how understanding the "Fence" concept (and the Jewish backgrounds) helps clarify some thorny passages in the Sermon on the Mount.  This article is about calling another a fool.

https://sharperiron.org/article/should-we-call-someone-fool-or-not

Ed, I read the SI article about calling someone a fool. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by the "fence" concept. In my mind, all you need is good exegetical skills to determine the meaning of a passage, not an awareness of midrash fences.

Ed Vasicek's picture

In my view, context is king.  I subscribe to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. Whatever you do to help increase the context (grammatically or historically) has at least the potential to sharpen interpretation.  It may not always do so, but it may. 

Understanding what first century Jewish audiences expected and typically received from rabbis has the potential to increase context, for it is part of the historical background of the text. Building fences -- extra-strict commands to keep from even approaching a violation of a command -- is definitely part of the cultural and historical context of first century Israel.

We may just disagree.

"The Midrash Detective"

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