This article explores how Jesus read the Old Testament and what we can learn from that for how we interpret the Bible by looking at 5 examples from the Gospels.
One of my core beliefs is that Jesus is the clearest revelation of what God is like.
God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like—But now we do.Brian Zahnd
Or phrased in a different way:
If it doesn’t sound like Jesus, it’s not the Father.Keith Giles
Following Jesus means learning from him and following his example. In this article, I want to explore what this means for the way how we should interpret the Bible. Let’s look at five examples.
Example 1: Matthew 5:38-39 & Deut 19:21
You must not show pity; the principle will be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot.(Deut 19:21; NET)
But Jesus contradicted this command:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 5:39 But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.(Mt 5,38–39; NET)
Jesus made it clear that “an eye for an eye” was never God’s true will, but only a temporary solution that was a concession to the hard hearts of men. He therefore rejected this commandment and made it clear that this is not God’s way. Jesus showed us that God’s way is the way of forgiveness and enemy love.
It is impossible to obey Jesus and the commandment (Deut 19:21) in the Old Testament (OT) at the same time. Either we follow the OT commandment of limited vengeance and disobey Jesus’ way of forgiveness, or we follow Jesus’ commandment of unlimited forgiveness and disobey the OT commandment. In this case, it is not possible to obey the OT and Jesus at the same time.
Context: what is really interesting in this passage is that only a few verses earlier, Jesus said
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.(Mt 5,17; NET)
Jesus came to fulfill the law. The Greek word for “fulfill” is plēroō, and it means as much as to make something complete, to fill it or to bring something still imperfect to perfection (Bauer/Aland).
So the point is not that Jesus exactly followed all 613 OT commandments. Jesus also does not endorse all 613 commandments in the OT. This becomes clear very quickly to anyone who reads the Gospels, because Jesus is again and again accused by the scribes of having broken some commandments. So this is not the point. The point is that Jesus fulfilled the core of all the commandments. He demonstrated and fulfilled the idea behind the commandments through his life, and thereby brought the law to completion. What does this mean? Jesus himself said in Mt 22 that love for God and neighbor encompasses the entire law. Anyone who loves God and neighbor has fulfilled the law. Jesus loved God and the people around him throughout his life. All his actions were motivated by love. Precisely by dissolving some commandments that contradict his ideal of love, he brought the law to perfection.
Example 2: Luke 4:19 & Isaiah 61:1-2
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.(Is 61:1-2; NRSV)
The last part of these 2 verses was especially popular with the Jews. They were eagerly waiting for God to finally come to settle accounts with the hated Romans. This part was a kind of favorite promise of the Jews. But Jesus interpreted Isaiah 61 in a completely new way. When Jesus read Isaiah 61 in the synagogue, he left out the part about God’s vengeance (Isaiah 61:2). In doing so, Jesus made it clear that he was concerned with healing broken hearts and bringing good news to the poor. Jesus removed the part about God’s violent vengeance because that part does not really reflect what God is like. God is not vengeful. God is gracious and merciful. When Jesus left out their favorite part of Isaiah 61, it was too much for the listeners. They immediately became angry with Jesus. A good translation of Luke 4:22 is, “All bore witness against him (Marshall, 1978:185) and were shocked (Greek: ethaymazon) at the words of mercy that came out of his mouth.” That Jesus turned a text of God’s violent vengeance into a text of grace, was too much for them, and they became angry and tried to kill Jesus (Luke 4:28-30). It is an interesting pattern in the Gospels, that often when Jesus talked about the greatness of God’s grace and mercy, the people became angry and furious with Jesus. Because God’s love is so scandalously great that we can’t fathom it. The way of revenge is so deep within us humans that God’s love is incomprehensible to us and makes us angry.
Example 3: John 8 & Leviticus 20:10
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.(Lev 20,10; NRSV)
When the scribes brought an adulteress to Jesus, they referred to this law. However, Jesus deliberately ignored this law because it is based on violence and revenge and has nothing to do with God and true love. The scribes put the fulfillment of laws above the good of people. They were willing to stone the woman. They shamed the woman and treated her with contempt by their public accusation. It must have been hell for that woman. But Jesus elevated the welfare of the woman above the law. He put love and mercy at the center. Jesus saved the woman and did not condemn her. He showed appreciation and respect for the woman. God’s will is the salvation and restoration of people, not the obeying of man-hating commandments.
Example 4: Luke 9:55 & 2 Kings 1
Another example has to do with Elijah. Elijah was one of the great heroes of the Israelites. Elijah confronted the priests of Baal and had 450 of them killed. In another story, he called fire from heaven to consume 100 soldiers who were to take him to the king (2 Kings 1). These soldiers had done nothing wrong, they just had to do their job, but Elijah burned them with fire from heaven. Elijah was a great example to the Israelites at the time of Jesus. They wished that God would send fire from heaven to destroy the hated Romans. The 2 disciples of Jesus, James and John, had been sent by Jesus to prepare the villages that Jesus would come. But one village would not have Jesus, so they proposed to send fire from heaven to consume the people (Luke 9:55). Jesus’ response here is very important. Jesus rebuked the disciples and said:
You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.Footnote to Luke 9:56 (NRSV)
This idea, loved by the Israelites, that God sends fire from heaven to consume his enemies, Jesus did not attribute to God, but to the enemy. Satan always wants to destroy, murder and annihilate. God is not vengeful. God loves his enemies, that is what Jesus made clear through his life and death. Jesus revealed to us a God who wants to save humans and not destroy them. With this, Jesus certainly turned the worldview of his disciples upside down, because he questioned the actions of one of their heroes in the OT.
Example 5: Deut 28 & John 9:3
Deut 28 is a long chapter about God blessing all who obey him with wealth and health and cursing all who disobey him with sickness, poverty, and misfortune. This very simplistic thinking was typical at the time and is still prevalent today. Far too often we assume that when something bad happens that it is a punishment for a sin and that we will receive blessings if we live pleasing to God. We find this message over and over again in the OT. But Jesus made it very clear that this is not the truth. Again and again in his teachings, he alludes to Deut 28 and makes it clear that God is not like that. Deut 28:24 predicts to the disobedient that no rain will fall on him, but Jesus taught that God causes His rain to fall on the good and the bad (Matt 5:45). In Jesus’ time, people assumed that blindness and other disabilities were God’s punishment for sin. Therefore, in John 9, the disciples asked Jesus who was to blame for the blindness of a blind man. But Jesus clarified that sin was not the reason for the blindness.
Or another time a tower fell down and killed 18 men, and everyone concluded that this happened because the men were probably evil sinners. But Jesus rejected and contradicted such thinking (Luke 13:4-5). In doing so, he contradicted a central idea in many OT texts and declared it not true. This is a liberating truth. Jesus freed hundreds of sick, poor and handicapped people from a heavy burden of guilt that was placed on them. We can only imagine how much suffering this wrong thinking had caused. People who were blind, deaf or disabled had to live not only with the disability, but also with the guilt that their sin or the sin of their parents was to blame. This is perverse. This is inhuman. Jesus ended this myth and freed people from this burden. God does not punish us with sickness, suffering, or disability for our sin. This world is clearly more complex than that such simplistic thinking could explain all suffering. A good case in point is Job. Job’s friends kept insisting on this simplistic black and white thinking, insisting that Job’s suffering was his own fault. But in the end, God rebuked them for this behavior and was angry with them because it was a dehumanizing and short-sighted way of thinking.
Jesus chose and emphasized texts of grace and mercy. And he ignored or contradicted texts that portrayed God as a vengeful or dehumanizing God. He even associated some of these texts with Satan, making it clear that God is not truly like that.
Derek Flood summarizes it this way:
Application: What does that mean for the way we interpret the Bible?
Whenever our interpretation of the Bible leads to people being condemned or humiliated, or people being hurt or marginalized, we must be very careful. Then we may interpret the Scriptures as the Pharisees did.
Like Jesus, we must read the entire Bible through a Jesus-filter. This means that we should not accept everything without reflection, but must wrestle with the text and interpret it in the light of Jesus’ teaching and life. Only then are we faithful to the example of Jesus. Only then do we read the Bible as our Master modeled it for us.
Paul once said that the goal of all teaching is love:
But the aim of our instruction is love.(1 Tim 1:5; NET)
Our interpretation of biblical texts should result in love! When we read difficult texts in the Bible, and especially in the OT, our heart does not have to become heavy. We can trust that God always was, is and will be as Jesus revealed him. We are allowed to wrestle with these difficult texts and interpret them in the light of Jesus. If we interpret a text as portraying a God who is inhuman and cruel, then it is likely that we have still misunderstood something or that the text is to be interpreted differently.
This hermenutic principle of Jesus, was also followed by Paul and many of the early church fathers. HERE you can read how Paul intentionally reversed violent OT texts.
Flood, D. (2014) Disarming scripture : cherry-picking liberals, violence-loving conservatives, and why we all need to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did San Francisco, Metanoia Books.
Bauer, W. and Aland, K. (1988) Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der frühchristlichen Literatur Berlin ; New York, W. De Gruyter.
Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text. Paternoster Press.