Subject: what is the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament?
Complement: Jesus does not disregard the Old Testament or merely comment on it, rather he fulfills it.
Introduction: The Old Testament is often a barrier to people interested in Jesus.
I was talking with a woman who was just starting to follow Christ more faithfully. God was working in her and some in her family noticed. Her sister challenged her new belief in God by asking her “Would you sacrifice your son if God asked you to?” Her sister was, of course, making reference to the famous scene in Genesis 22 where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son — the son God promised would bless the whole earth — as an offering. We know from the Genesis account that God ends up freeing Abraham from that command, but it is still a difficult story for someone reading it today. My friend did not know what to say, so she hemmed and hawed about how God would probably never ask her that. But in the end she had to admit that if God asked her, she would obey at which point the sister felt she had proved her point about religious faith being irrational and dangerous.
In the same way I have had many people grow confused and concerned as they read about the “God sanctioned” or even “God commanded” violence in Old Testament. How can this God be related to Jesus who told us to love one another and died in our place? For many people the Old Testament or the “Hebrew scriptures” to use a different term, is not only a mystery but a barrier to following Christ as a Christian
Many cope with this confusion by simply disregarding the Old Testament either in belief or in practice. This is a temporary solution at best. The more important question for us is not “how do I make the Old Testament square with what I see in the New Testament?” but, “How did Jesus view the Old Testament?” After all, if we are following him and he should be our guide.
Transition: Jesus addresses this issue in Matthew 5. We have already studied through the Beatitudes and then Jesus’ statement that we are both salt and light. Now he addresses his connection to the Old Testament, what he calls in the terminology of the day “The Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus fulfills the OT
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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
In this passage Jesus says that he has not come to disregard the Old Testament, nor to simply restate its commands. Jesus has come to fulfill the scriptures. This means that Jesus is the center piece of all of scripture. The big story is about him. Indeed we cannot understand the Law and prophets without seeing how they are fulfilled in Jesus. So let us ask the question: “How does Jesus fulfill the Old Testament?” He does so in at least three ways.
Prophetic – Jesus fulfills the prophecies of scriptures. For example:
Ceremonial – Jesus fulfills the ceremonial law. He is the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world. He gives his life as a ransom and an offering for sin. In this way he fulfills the temple and sacrificial laws. Without the Old Testament scriptures we would not understand the meaning or urgency of Jesus’ death.
Life as the New Israel –Jesus is born under the law into the Jewish nation. More than that, his life parallels the life of the nation.
Transition: Jesus is completing the story and revealing the character of God because he is God. This is why he tells us not to disregard the Old Testament. It is vital to understanding who Jesus is and we discard it at our peril. In fact we will be held accountable – especially if we are teachers, for understanding and applying it. Look what he says:
The Old Testament is important, and understanding it through Jesus will deepen our faith and strengthen our walk.
18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Far from disregarding the Hebrew scriptures Jesus reaffirms that they are eternal and important. Nothing in it will disappear until everything is accomplished. We have seen that much of the Old Testament has already been accomplished in Jesus’ first coming, but not everything. Some prophecies will only be fulfilled when Jesus returns. Until then we are warned not to set aside anything. So while we must interpret the Law and the Prophecies through Jesus, and while that may take some thought and study to do well, we are nonetheless urged to do the work. Those who refused to grasp the truths of the Old Testament will be called “least” in the kingdom of heaven. They will not grow into the people that God calls them to be and will be limited in their effectiveness and devotion.
Take for example the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Clearly Jesus did not interpret the Sabbath the way the religious leaders in his day did. He said that the Sabbath was made for people not the other way around. He told us that it is ok to do good on the Sabbath. We also know from Paul’s writings in Galatians that we are not bound by the Law and that for us one day is the same as another. Also that the early church worshipped on Sunday to celebrate the resurrection. How does this effect us? On one hand we could celebrate that we are not bound by Sabbath law as the Jews in the first century were and devote ourselves to working everyday all year long. Or we could consider that maybe there is a reason God told his people to rest one day a week. Perhaps keeping a Sabbath (on whatever day of the week it might be) is a way of enjoying God and acknowledging that he is God and not our jobs. The more seriously we take God’s command, even as we interpret it through the freedom we have in Jesus Christ, the more we will grow.
Or take the example that we began with, Abraham and his son. The reason we know God that will not ask us to sacrifice our sons is because God already sacrificed his son. We do not need to make a sacrifice because God already did that for us. So if we thought we heard God saying to do so we would know it is a lie.
Transition: Jesus tells us that obeying these commands will make us great in the Kingdom of heaven which is another way of saying useful and valuable to the Lord. But notice that he does not say that misinterpreting the Old Testament will get us “kicked out” of the Kingdom. This is not an issue of salvation, but of growth and that is because our salvation, our place in the kingdom of God is established another way as we can see in the next verse.
Obedience to the Old testament does not determine our righteousness because that comes from faith in Jesus.
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
When Jesus first said these words they must have come as a shock to his disciples. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were notorious for their scrupulous adherence to the Mosaic law and traditions. For example, the law required people to fast once a year as part of the day of atonement. Pharisees thought fasting once a year was not enough. They fasted twice a week! Listeners must have been thinking that to be more righteous than the Pharisees they would have to fast three times a week. But that is not what Jesus is saying. We can unravel his meaning when we consider that the religious leaders challenged Jesus about fasting. They asked why Jesus’ disciples never fasted. Jesus said that one doesn’t fast at a wedding reception because it is a cause for celebration. Jesus is the bridegroom of humanity and when he is present it is a time for celebration not for mourning. In other words Jesus is not pointing to a more rigorous righteousness but a different kind of righteousness, one centered on him.
The Law sought to change people’s behavior from the outside in. Jesus has come to change us from the inside out. That change starts when we admit our need for him, receive his gift of forgiveness and follow him. At that point we are given righteousness based on what Jesus has already done for us. In this way our righteousness exceeds that of those who are seeking God through legalism or ethnic identity. If righteousness is by the Law and the Law is about correct behavior then we need new behavior. But if the Law is meant to express the inclination and love of the heart, then we need a new heart. Jesus has come to give us new hearts and this is why Jesus says our righteousness must exceed that of the religious authorities.
Transition: this point is important because Jesus is not giving us a new set of rules to obey. He is describing what it means to have a relationship with him. Spiritual and behavioral change is not about white knuckled obedience and self control, but about cooperating with what Jesus is doing in our hearts.
Conclusion – being a Christian, is about following Christ and cooperating with his work in our lives.
Following Jesus is a transformative relationship that changes you from the inside out. We want to pay attention to what God is doing inside us. The answer to change is your relationship with God through Christ. It is not about telling you to do or not do certain things.
So at this point in your life what do you struggle with the most, what is your area of disobedience? Where are you most non functional?
Is it anger, materialism, lack of generosity, bitterness, lust?
The answer, the deep answer to these things is not just a list of what not to do. It is about understanding how Jesus meets the deep needs that leads to your sin. What is God is doing in you? What does your behavior tell you about your spiritual need? Jesus is the answer to your wounded ego, your need for perfection or control, your fear and selfishness. That is where God will begin changing you and after that the behavior will take care of itself.