How should Christians apply the Old Testament to their lives? What did the apostle Paul mean when referring to the Old Testament he wrote, “…everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
In another place, he noted evil things people did in Old Testament times and wrote, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come (I Corinthians 10:11). A study of the way New Testament writers quote and apply Old Testament Scriptures will teach us much about how to relate to the Old Testament. But the most important insight on this question is found Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17ff.).
Detailed look at Jesus words
Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount in third person: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He maintained third person address throughout the beatitudes. Jesus then intensified his message by moving to second person: “You are the salt”…”You are the light” (Matthew 5:13,14). In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus increased the intensity a little more by moving to first person address: “Truly I say to you,” “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”
Use of “I say to you” must have startled the religious leaders. Teachers in Israel would weight their words with authority by saying, “Moses wrote…” or through reference to the Law or sacred writings. But “I say to you” strikes a tone similar to “Thus says the Lord.” This is partly why, at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). This is also why Jesus had to clarify both his understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures and how he related to them. Matthew 5:17-20 serves this purpose.
Looking more closely
On the surface, vv. 18-19 appear to be the most difficult portion. In verse 18, Jesus establishes a strong endorsement of the law’s enduring validity throughout human history (down to the least stroke of a pen). In verse 19, Jesus issues an equally definitive statement on the enduring applicability of the Old Testament (down to the least commandment).
- v. 18- Enduring validity to the least stroke.
- v. 19- Enduring applicability to the least commandment.
Yet these endorsements raise a problem. Very few bible teachers believe that every Old Testament commandment should be obeyed today. Who would insist that the food laws be followed today? Both Jesus and His apostles released people from these laws (Matthew 15:1-20. Act15). How many of us offer sacrifices at a temple in Jerusalem or even consider ourselves required to do this?
Perhaps Jesus is only insisting upon the enduring validity and applicability of the moral law of God (like the ten commandments).
Using a triadic division of the law as: Moral, Ceremonial and Civil, it is suggested that Jesus is only referring to the Moral portion.
Yet beyond the fact that the triadic understanding (though helpful to us) cannot be demonstrated to be an approach to the law in the time of Christ, the text itself refuses such a limitations. In the six antithetical statements in the rest of chapter five, Jesus interacts with more than the so-called moral section of the law. And verse 17 refers to, “the law or the prophets” which is a summary way of speaking of the entire Old Testament.
Verses 18 and 19 are even more comprehensive in referring to, ” the least stroke of a pen and the least command.” Jesus unquestionably has the enduring validity and applicability of the whole O.T. in mind here.
- How then should we understand the abrogation of entire portions of the law (like dietary and ceremonial portions)?
- Would we risk demotion in the kingdom by not obeying or requiring things like Sabbath law?