Author: Ron Graham
Did Jesus Preach the Law of Moses?
—Or did he preach the gospel?
This lesson examines an interpretation of the scriptures whereby the teachings of Jesus are regarded as exposition of the Law and the prophets rather than of the gospel. The idea is that Jesus preached a true interpretation of the law of Moses to show the Jews how to keep the law from the heart rather than legalistically and traditionally as they were doing. In this lesson we question whether this is a correct view of Christ's earthly ministry.
1 Jesus Critical of the Lawyers
It is correct that Jesus criticised the scribes and teachers for their handling of the law. For example...
- They commanded things the law did not command, adding their own traditions (Mark 7:1-23)
- They practised the law to be seen and applauded by men (Matt 6:5-18).
- They were ignorant of the Scriptures (Matthew 22:23-33)
- They neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23-24).
- The whole of Matthew 23 is a sermon condemning the scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses's seat.
2 Encouragement to Keep the Law
It is correct that Jesus encouraged people to keep the law. For example...
- He made it clear that the law was still in force (Matthew 5:17-20).
- He actually commanded people to keep the law (Luke 17:12-14, Mark 10:17-19, John 8:3-7).
- He observed the law himself (Galatians 4:4, Psalms 40:7-9, Hebrews 10:7).
3 Expounding the Law
It is correct that Jesus expounded the law of Moses. For example...
- He stated the basis of the law (Matthew 22:34-40).
- He interpreted the prophets (Mark 12:35-37, Mark 13:14, Luke 24:44).
- He argued about interpretations of the law (Matthew 12:1-8).
- He showed how his own teachings could be applied by those who kept the law (Matthew 5:21-24, Luke 18:9-14).
4 Preaching the Gospel
It is incorrect that he confined himself to the law of Moses or that preaching the law was the thrust of his ministry or his over-all purpose...
- Matthew says Jesus preached the gospel (Matt 4:23).
- Jesus was annointed to preach the gospel . (Luke 4:16-21).
- Jesus was the first gospel preacher (Luke 16:16 Hebrews 2:3).
5 What is the Gospel Jesus Preached?
Some say that the word "gospel" or ευαγγελιον (euangelion) in the Greek, simply means glad tidings. For example, the angel said to the shepherds, "Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10).
The angel (αγγελος angelos) was simply announcing or proclaiming (ευαγγελιζω euangelizo) the happy event of Christ’s birth.
So, it is said, "gospel" simply means good news, so when Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom, all he did was announce a happy event at hand. For example, we read that Jesus "was going about in all Galilee, teaching in the synagogues of the Jews, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom" (Matthew 4:23).
This is taken to mean that he went about teaching the law of Moses, and in the course of that, he simply announced that the kingdom, of which the old testament prophets had spoken, was at hand.
Now see how, for example, this reasoning interprets the following: "The law and the prophets were proclaimed until John. Since then the gospel of the kingdom is preached" (Luke 16:16).
Jesus is supposed to be saying that the law and the prophets were proclaimed until John, and since then, Jesus had been expounding their words, and including in his exposition the announcement that the kingdom of which the prophets spoke was at hand.
By this interpretation, the "gospel" that Jesus proclaimed is seen as part of the old testament (the law, the psalms, and the prophets). Jesus is made to be simply announcing good news in the course of proclaiming the old law and prophets, rather than making known the new and distinct message that is about to supercede them. He did not, it is said, teach new doctrine that would apply in the new kingdom.
6 Difficulties with the Interpretation
On the surface the above sounds like a reasonable argument, but when you think about it you are led to wonder...
- Why would Jesus devote his last years to teaching what his death would abolish? His death was going to bring in a new covenant. Why not prepare people for that new covenant by teaching them about it, rather than teaching the old one that is about to be superceded?
- Why would Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John labour to write down so much of what the Lord said before the cross, if all they were doing was adding books to the Old Testament at a time when the New Testament was being written?
- How could Jesus have spoken "words of life" if he confined himself to "the ministry of death"? (John 6:34-39,68, 2Corinthians 3:7).
- Why would the Spirit bring to the apostles' remembrance the words that Jesus spoke if those words were not for the new age? (John 14:23-26).
- Why does the Holy Spirit cause confusion by using the same term "the gospel" for both of Christ's messages —the one before he died, and the other after he arose (Romans 1:15-16)?
These puzzlements do not arise, of course, if we take it that there is only one doctrine or gospel of Christ, not two, and if we see the cross as the centre, not the divider, of his teachings.
7 Consequences of the Interpretation
As we have said, some people teach that the ministry of Jesus was to preach the law of Moses. They say that his teaching was meant to give the true interpretation of the law of Moses, and to show the Jews how to keep it from a faithful heart, rather than only legalistically and traditionally.
The upshot of this idea, is that the ministry of Jesus is not a source of law and doctrine for Christians. Christ's words, from this viewpoint, should be treated as the sunset portion of the old testament, not as the dawning part of the new testament.
The effect of this teaching is that verses such as Matthew 19:9 on divorce and remarriage, or Matthew 18:l5-17 on correcting erring brethren, or Luke 22:19-20 on observing the Lord's Supper are not treated as instruction for the coming kingdom, but only for the time then present.
I trust that this study will help you in your mind to put the sayings of Jesus, where they belong, The marvelous "words in red", in our Bibles are an important part of the New Testament, a part of the gospel which is the power of God for salvation to those who believe (Romans 1:16).