Did Jesus Teach Only According to the Law of Moses?
There are some who believe and teach that Jesus of Nazareth, throughout His life and ministry, taught only according to what was written in the Law of Moses. In their estimation Matthew 5:17-19 demands such a view: if Jesus taught anything that might be seen as contrary to the Law of Moses, then in their view He is guilty of changing the Law and encouraging others to violate it. Do the Gospel authors validate such an understanding of Jesus’ instruction?
Jesus at times did provide instruction regarding the Law of Moses. His critiques of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious authorities involved their interpretations of the Law of Moses, the traditions they developed, and the practices they bound and loosed on Israel (e.g. Matthew 15:1-9, 21:23-33, 23:1-36). Jesus also spoke as a prophet to Israel, warning about their impending doom (e.g. Matthew 21:33-44, 24:1-36).
Yet most of Jesus’ instruction centered on what Matthew calls the “Gospel of the Kingdom” (Matthew 4:17, 23). Throughout His life Jesus proclaimed the message of that Kingdom which would be inaugurated through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Acts 1:1-11). Most of Jesus’ parables attempt to describe the Kingdom and how it works (e.g. Matthew 13:1-58). Jesus gathered the twelve disciples around Him to provide them direct instruction and to give them practice in proclaiming the message of the Kingdom to prepare them to be His witnesses after His resurrection (Matthew 10:1-42, Acts 1:1-11).
While much continuity exists between the decrees of the Law of Moses and the good news of God’s Kingdom in Christ, there are many aspects of discontinuity, and Jesus taught on some of these points of discontinuity during His life and ministry. One type of discontinuity is seen in Matthew 5:20-58 in which Jesus contrasts “what was heard,” the bare minimal standard of righteousness demanded by the Law of Moses and in Pharisaic interpretation, and “what I say unto you,” God’s higher expectation of righteousness in His Kingdom. Perhaps the clearest form of discontinuity is found in Mark 7:14-23; Jesus declares that defilement is not a matter of food and drink but the evil thoughts and inclinations of the heart. Mark explicitly draws out the implication: “this he said, making all meats clean,” (Mark 7:19), even though the Law declared many types of animals unclean (Leviticus 11:1-47). Jesus makes another explicit contrast in terms of divorce in Matthew 19:3-9: the Law of Moses allowed the Israelites to divorce their wives for any reason even though such was not God’s intention from the beginning, and according to the good news of the Kingdom of God in Christ, those who divorce and marry another commit adultery, unless they divorced their spouse for having committed porneia (sexually deviant behavior; Matthew 19:9).
Is Jesus therefore guilty of transgressing the Law, adding to it and taking away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2)? The four Evangelists do not accuse Him of doing so; they record Jesus as condemning the Pharisees for adding to and taking away from the Law of Moses (e.g. Matthew 5:19-20, 15:3-9), but portray Jesus as keeping the Law fully (Matthew 5:17-18). There is no contradiction or disharmony, for Jesus is proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom in advance of the establishment of the Kingdom; meanwhile, the Evangelists record these events after the Kingdom is inaugurated and Jesus reigns in heaven so that Christians may know what their Lord said and did so as to follow after Him (John 20:30-31, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:6).
During His life before His death and resurrection Jesus did not encourage anyone to violate the Law of Moses. Where the Gospel of the Kingdom might demand more than the bare minimum of the Law there is no sin in holding to the higher standard. Jesus’ many opponents looked for reasons to accuse Him of violating the Law or teaching against it (e.g. Matthew 22:15), and yet they do not consider what He said about defilement in Matthew 15:10-20, Mark 7:14-23 as worthy of bringing accusations against Him.
We can see, therefore, that Jesus is proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and is establishing the guidelines and principles by which it will be run even though its time had not yet come during His life and ministry. Once He rules in heaven as Lord the Gospel of the Kingdom is enacted in full force: meats and persons are not inherently unclean (Acts 10:9-29, Romans 14:14). Christians are to love everyone, do good to everyone, and to not take vengeance but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21, 1 Peter 2:18-25). Paul echoes the Lord’s teaching against divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11.
Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a first century Palestinian Jew subject to the Law of Moses; it is through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension that He fulfilled the Law and the prophets and could inaugurate a new covenant in His blood (Matthew 5:17-18, Hebrews 7:1-9:27). During His life Jesus rebuked religious authorities for their distortions of their understanding and application of the Law of Moses and spoke prophetically to Israel. But Jesus’ primary message is the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, and while that message maintains many points of continuity with the Law of Moses, many other things, including matters of cleanliness and matters of divorce and remarriage, are quite different. May it never be suggested that Christians cannot pattern their lives after the words of their Lord; let us boldly declare the same good news of the Kingdom of God as the Lord Jesus did to Israel during His life!
Ethan R. Longhenry