Episode 56: How Jesus read the Old Testament

Dan introduces a new guest to the podcast, James Andrews, to consider the whole question of how we read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus.  Do we even need to pay it any attention now that Jesus has come?  They consider what it means for Jesus to fulfil the Old Testament and find that, when Jesus reads and applies the different parts of the Hebrew Bible, he shows us how to bring it to life in our lives as Christians today.

Show Notes

Dan first explains how the recent Bible Book Introduction episodes on Genesis and Exodus prompt many other questions that can’t be covered in a single episode. One fundamental question that arises from reading any part of the Old Testament is about how relevant it is to Christians. Dan and James discuss how their conversation aims to help by seeing how Jesus read and used the Old Testament.

Avoiding two extremes

James describes two extreme, yet very common views among Christians, which are polar opposites of each other. Many Christians are not familiar with the Old Testament and do not see the point in reading it. Perhaps they are put off by some of the violence or the obscure laws. On the other hand, some Christians take an overly literal approach, applying the Old Testament teaching directly without first considering the cultural background and context.

Guidance from how Jesus read the Old Testament

Dan and James consider how the book of Hebrews identifies Jesus as the last and most complete revelation of God, following the “many times and in many ways” that “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1-2). In that sense, he is the fullest revelation of God. This means he is ought to be a good guide for understanding the relevance of the Old Testament today.

Jesus used the Old Testament all the time, but it is very notable that in Luke 24:44 Jesus describes how everything in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms was pointing forward to himself. James notes that these are referring to the three sections of the Jewish scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament, therefore Jesus said that in some sense he fulfilled the Old Testament. Comparing other uses of this word in Matthew 23:32, (where it is used in a negative way), this implies that Jesus was the best example of bringing out the original intentions of the scriptures. This suggests that the Old Testament definitely has value for those who follow Jesus.

How Jesus read the Old Testament laws

Dan and James move on to consider some examples each from the three sections of the Hebrew scriptures – the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms. Beginning with Matthew 5, (e.g. Matthew 5:21-26), they discuss why Jesus seems to be dismissing the Old Testament laws. However, on closer inspection, James explains how that Jesus is giving practical steps to attain to the spirit of the law, which was lying behind them all along.

The example of the turning the other cheek is the classic example of where it seems that Jesus overturns the harsh Old Testament law in favour of a different response. However, the laws of retaliation about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38-42) were about limiting retribution in an ancient Near East culture that allowed and encouraged retribution, especially when taken out against people of lower social status. God’s laws about “an eye for an eye” seem to be primitive in a 21st century context, but they weren’t supposed to be strict moral code for all time. As Jesus instructs us, the original law was more about teaching his people to think carefully about retribution and revenge. Jesus, the fullest expression of God’s law, brings out the fullest expression of the underlying principle when he teaches his followers to avoid seeking retribution at all.

How Jesus read the Old Testament prophets

Moving onto an example of Jesus quoting from the prophets, James and Dan consider Matthew 9:13, when Jesus quotes from Hosea 6:6. Jesus drew attention to the deeply profound statement that God desires “mercy, and not sacrifice”. It’s fascinating that this illustrates the Hebrew scriptures critiquing itself. The law was not to be used as a stick to beat people with. Instead, it was supposed to demonstrate God’s mercy and encourage his people to show mercy. The sacrifices were a teaching mechanism to help the people learn to serve their God, giving themselves to him as a sacrifice, and learning to live and reflect his own mercy and grace.

James mentions several other examples of Jesus leaning towards mercy in relation to the Old Testament, including his healings on the Sabbath and touching people with leprosy to heal them. God’s mercy is even seen in the narrative flow of the Old Testament, (see our Bible Book Introductions to Genesis and Exodus for more detail about this), underlining that Jesus is helping us to identify the important principles within the Hebrew scriptures.

How Jesus read the Old Testament Psalms and wisdom books

Finally, James and Dan consider the occasion when Jesus quoted Psalm 110. This was an example of Jesus acting in the tradition of wisdom teachers, asking rhetorical questions (as he did on many occasions!) and interrogating the text, encouraging people to think for themselves and interpret the scriptures with careful thought.

The actual Psalm in consideration is also instructive. It’s a conundrum to figure out. How can David, the king of the people of Israel, still have a superior who is other than God? The Hebrew scriptures are pointing towards someone else who would come and be superior to anything within its pages. This is reflected in Abraham who “rejoiced that he would see my day” (John 8:56) and how the Prophets diligently searched the scriptures for more information about the coming Messiah, (1 Peter 1:10-11). So the Old Testament scriptures themselves, within the Psalms, the whole collection of the Writings and further into the Law and the Prophet, indicate that they ought to be read in the light of Jesus, the coming saviour.

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