The Teaching of Jesus.

V. His Attitude Toward the Old Testament.

By Rev. Professor George B. Stevens, PH.D., D.D.,

Yale Divinity School.


Jesus takes his stand on the Old Testament—Old Testament not adequate to the needs of the world—incidental imperfections— revenge—ceremonial system.—Jesus' teaching the fulfilment of the Old Testament law—taught in his own personal life—in the absolute truths of religion—in the conservation of all that was of permanent value for religion—in the abrogation of the Old Testament system as such.—The practical effect of such teaching on Christian thought and life;—Christianity a wholly new garment with the permanent elements of Judaism woven in.

In his teaching Jesus takes his stand, as we have seen, upon the Old Testament. He has no new religion to introduce. He clearly foresaw that some of his disciples would suppose that it was his purpose to break with the Old Testament system, and he warned them against this serious mistake by telling them that any of them who should feel themselves free to break away from the Old Testament law, and should teach others accordingly, should "be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19). His constant manner of speaking in regard to the Jewish religion and Scriptures shows the reverence in which he held them. Some of the expressions which illustrate this reverence are: "I came not to destroy the law and the prophets" (Matt. 5:17); "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35); "That the Scripture might be fulfilled" (John 13:18).

There is in one of his parables a significant expression in regard to the gradual progress of his truth in the world: "First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear" (Mark 4:28). This statement might be fitly applied to the whole process of revelation of which the Old Testament represents the earlier stages. It would as truly describe Jesus' idea of this process as it does the process to which he immediately applied it. The Old Testament represents the first steps in a great course of revelation and redemption which reaches its consummation in Christ himself.

While, therefore, Jesus builds upon the Jewish religious system, he also builds far above and beyond it. While salvation, historically considered, is from the Jews, it is none the less necessary that the Jewish religion should be greatly elevated and enriched. The actual religion of the people, though embodying essential and permanent elements of true religion, is not adequate to the needs of the world; it must be further developed, supplemented, and completed at many points before it can become the universal, the absolute religion.

There were imperfections in the Jewish religion which were incidental to its character and purpose. It was in its very nature provisional and preparatory. It was adapted to an early and rude stage of human development. A convenient illustration is found in the principle of revenge which, within certain limits, the Old Testament sanctioned. "Ye have heard," said Jesus, "that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil," etc. (Matt. 5:38, 39). Another example is found in his conversation with the Pharisees when they asked him why, if a man and wife became one in marriage, Moses commanded to give a bill of divorcement." Jesus answered, "Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it hath not been so. And I say unto you," etc. (Matt. 19:8).

Jesus undermined the whole ceremonial system of the Jews by his teaching that it is not what enters into a man which defiles him, but that it is that which proceeds out of him, that is, from his heart, which defiles him (Mark 7:15). The Levitical system of sacrifices could not long survive among those who accepted the principle of Jesus that "to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33). It is obvious, then, that the actual effect of the gospel in doing away with the Jewish sacrificial and ceremonial system, was a natural and logical result of the principles which Jesus laid down, and may be said to have been contemplated by him.

But the question now arises, Did Jesus intend to abrogate the whole Old Testament religious system, and, if so, by what means ? This question also involves another, If he did do away with this system, how is the fact to be reconciled with his frequent assertion of its divineness ? The most important passage, in its bearing on these problems, is Matt. 5:17: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil." This passage must be read in the light of the explanations and applications which follow it. Jesus proceeds to say that not a jot or tittle shall pass away from the law,-a statement which, if read by itself, would seem to indicate the perpetual validity of the whole Old Testament system, ritual, sacrifices, and all. But to the statement in question he immediately adds: "till all things be fulfiled, or accomplished." He does not, therefore, say that no part of this system shall ever pass away (as it has done, and that, too, in consequence of his own teaching), but only that no part of it shall escape the process of fulfilment; that it shall not pass away till, having served its providential purpose, it is fulfilled in the gospel. What, now, is this fulfilment which is to be accomplished for the whole law, even for its least portions?

This question is not to be answered in a single sentence or definition. The fulfilment of the Old system by the New is a great historic process, the adequate understanding of which requires a careful study of the whole New Testament. Its salient features, however, may be briefly indicated. Jesus fulfils the Old Testament system by rounding out into ideal completeness what is incomplete in that system. In this process of fulfilment, all that is imperfect, provisional, temporary or, for any reason, needless to the perfect religion, falls away of its own accord, and all that is essential and permanent is conserved and embodied in Christianity. Some of the elements of this fulfilment are as follows:

(1) Jesus fulfils the law perfectly in his own personal life. The character of Jesus was the realization of the ideal which the law contemplated. He was a perfectly righteous person, and it was righteousness which the law demanded and aimed to secure. But it is not merely or mainly the personal fulfilment of the law's ideal to which Jesus refers in saying that he came to fulfil the law.

(2) Jesus fulfilled the law in his teaching by setting forth therein the absolute truths of religion and the universal principles of goodness. This point may best be illustrated from the context of the passage under review. Our Lord says that the true righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (vs. 20). Their righteousness consisted in the punctilious observance of the bare letter of the law, quite to the neglect of its spirit. Jesus then proceeds to show the difference between such external, superficial righteousness and that which corresponds to the law's true ideal. He says (vss. 21 seq.): You have in the Old Testament the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. It is commonly supposed that to refrain from the actual, overt act of murder is to keep that commandment, but I tell you that he only truly keeps it who refrains from anger and hate. In the sight of God, hate is the essence of murder. He thus finds the seat of all goodness, and of all sin in the heart, that is, in the sphere of the motives and the desires.

In like manner, he declares that the essence of adultery is in the lustful desire and the impure look. He thus makes righteousness an inward and moral affair. It depends upon the state of the heart. This truth he next illustrates by reference to a more subtle distinction (vss. 33-37). He cites the commandment which requires men to speak the truth, and to perform their vows unto God. It appears that under cover of this second requirement the Jews permitted themselves to make subtle distinctions between vows or oaths taken "to Jehovah," and those taken, for example, "by the heaven," or "by Jerusalem." Oaths taken in Jehovah's name were regarded as more sacred and binding than those not so taken, and thus an easy way was opened for disregarding the real sacredness of vows and promises. Jesus strikes at the root of all these hollow and dishonest distinctions, and discountenances altogether the use of oaths in apparent confirmation of one's word. Such oaths, he says in effect, are either meaningless or irreverent. Let your simple word be enough. Esteem that to be as binding as if you had coupled your statement with Jehovah's name. The Jews had made the commandment of truthfulness an instrument of untruthfulness; Jesus insists upon a truthful heart which (to use a modern phrase) makes one's "word as good as his bond."

The illustrations of fulfilment thus far given are examples of the way in which Jesus penetrated in his teaching to the inner meaning of Old Testament precepts and exhibited their true ideal requirements, as against the superficial application of them which regarded them as relating to outward action only. Now, however, he takes an example of an Old Testament maxim to which in itself he objects: Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth (Ex. 21:24); but I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil, etc. (vss. 38, 39). The maxim here cited was a part of the Mosaic system. It was a law of retaliation which magistrates were to apply under certain restrictions in the punishment of crimes; it was popularly applied to justify personal, private revenge. Unwarranted as the application was, we cannot justly say that it was this alone to which Jesus objected. The principle which he enunciates is certainly opposed to retaliation itself, though not to retribution. The rule that the wrongdoer was to suffer the same kind of an injury which he had done to another represented a rude kind of justice which was better than none; but it did not accord with the spirit of the teaching of Jesus.

As a final example of fulfilment he cited the commandment: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor," and joined with it the popular addition which was derived by inference from it: "and hate thine enemy" (Matt. 5:43). By leaving off from the Old Testament requirement the words "as thyself," and by restricting the meaning of "neighbor" as much as possible, so as to make love to the "neighbor" suggest hatred of those who were not regarded as "neighbors," the Jews had completely perverted the true and natural sense of the passage in question. Jesus, on the contrary, sets forth the ideal import of the commandment and illustrates and enforces the duty which it enjoins by showing that the love of God, which is the type of all true love, is not niggardly, but large and generous. He then concludes : "Ye therefore shall be perfect (that is, complete in love-generous, helpful and forgiving), as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). These are examples of the way in which Jesus fulfilled the law in his teaching, both by rescuing its true import from the perversions and exaggerations to which the scribes had subjected it, also by recognizing the ethical imperfections in the law itself, and by replacing them by absolute principles of truth and right which are universally applicable.

(3) This fulfilment conserves all that is of permanent value and validity for religion in the Old Testament system. Jesus teaches that this whole system, in all its parts, is involved in the process of fulfilment. He did not illustrate in detail how the fulfilment applied to the various parts of the law. We must ascertain this from the nature of the Gospel and from the history and teaching which the New Testament records. How, for example, did he fulfil the sacrificial system ? No doubt by realizing in his own life, sufferings, and death the true, ideal meaning of sacrifice. How did he fulfil that part of the law which seems strangest to us, the regulations respecting meats and drinks ? These rules were, I suppose, partly hygienic and partly moral in their purpose. Does not Jesus fulfil them by the emphasis which he lays in his teaching upon purity, both of body and of soul ? Whatever they included or suggested that was important for man's permanent well-being will be found to have been incorporated in the comprehensive principles of Jesus.

He fulfils the prophets by realizing their highest ideals of religion no less than by accomplishing their predictions. The great fact in this connection is that Jesus fulfils the Jewish history; in him the development of revealed religion culminates; he is its realization and its goal. The aspirations and hopes of the nation had been directed for centuries to some great consummation, some wonderful expansion of the kingdom of God; this Christ came to accomplish, but into its realization the Jewish nation, through blindness and perversity, did not largely enter.

(4) The process of fulfilment involves the passing away of the Old Testament system as such. As the fulfilling of the blossom by the fruit involves the passing away of the former, so does the New system replace the Old. This view of the matter is abundantly recognized in the teaching of our Lord and his apostles. He described his truth as new wine which must not be put into the old bottles of Judaism (Matt. 9:17). He said that his gospel was not merely a new patch which was to be sewed onto the old garment of the law; it was rather a new garment complete and sufficient in itself (Matt. 9: 16). In entire accord with this teaching Paul says that Christians are "not under the law" (Rom. 6:14), and he exhorts the Colossians not to allow anyone to sit in judgment upon their liberty in regard to the observance of the various parts of the Jewish system, which, he says, are a "shadow of the things to come" (Col. 2:16, 17). In teaching that the Old Testament system is done away in Christ, the Epistle to the Hebrews is especially explicit; indeed the whole force of the argument rests upon this idea. The writer quotes a passage from Jeremiah in which the giving of a new covenant is promised, and adds: "In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away" (Heb. 8:13). The point here is that the very idea of a new covenant which, according to the prophet, was not to be like the covenant which God had made with the fathers, implied its final abrogation.

It is certainly a matter of great interest to observe that the prophets themselves discerned the temporary character of their own cultus. What religion, besides Judaism, ever predicted its own passing away ? One of the most significant facts of prophecy is that the loftiest spirits in the nation were led to look for the dawning of larger truth, and for a more complete form of the kingdom of God.

But when it is said that the Old Testament system is abrogated in the New, it is of capital importance to observe that the New replaces the Old, not by destruction, but by fulfilment. The New does not reject and discard the Old; it preserves and embodies it, just so far as it has elements of permanent value for the world's religion. The fulfilment is, therefore, an organic process; the New comes out of the Old by a natural and orderly process of development. In that process what is unessential falls away of its own accord, while all that is essential and permanently useful is taken up into Christianity, more completely developed and applied, and reinforced by higher motives on the plane of broader principles.

This subject is a very practical one in its bearing upon Christian thought and life. Speaking generally, the Christian world has never very clearly perceived what was its relation to the Old Testament religion. How discordant and inconsistent have been the prevailing views on this subject. Commonly some rough distinction has been made between those parts of the system which were supposed to be binding and those from which the Christian was believed to be free, but this distinction rested on no well-defined principle whatever. The discrimination has ordinarily been perfectly arbitrary, having no better grounds than those of practical convenience. Let me illustrate. No Christians, in our time, hold that they must observe the Old Testament rules respecting meats and drinks, or suppose that they are bound to observe the sacrificial system. But this was not always so. In the apostolic church there was a large party who held that it was necessary for the Christian even to keep the whole law of Moses in order to be saved (see, e.g., Acts 15:1). Their view was that Christianity was a kind of addition or appendix to Judaism and that their former religion, in all its particulars, was in full force and perpetually binding. Paul had his sharpest conflicts with this party. He showed that they were quite consistent, though consistently wrong. In insisting on the necessity of a continued observance of circumcision, they logically committed themselves to the keeping of the whole law. But it was impossible that Christians should long continue to observe the whole Mosaic ritual, and the effort to do so was less and less consistently made.

In modern times we not infrequently find Christians who have conscientiously placed themselves under some part of the Old system, believing that it is binding upon them. Who has not heard Christian men argue that the law of tithes was still binding, or that the Jewish Sabbath-day (our Saturday) was of perpetual obligation? Some Christians have separated themselves from their brethren and organized separate churches because they believed that it was obligatory upon Christians in all ages to sing in public worship only the hymns which were sung in Old Testament times. Some have discarded pipe organs because there were no pipe organs in the Jewish temple, although it would seem from the Psalms that every kind of musical instrument known to the time was in use there.

It is much more common to make a distinction between the ceremonial and the moral parts of the law, and to suppose that, while the former are done away, the latter are still binding upon Christians. But this distinction is recognized neither in the Old nor in the New Testament; it is a modern division of the law which is quite convenient and natural for us, but one of which a quite unwarrantable use is commonly made. Christ did not fulfil a part of the law merely, but the whole of it. He does not complete the ritual part of the Old Testament alone, but all its moral parts as well. This is but to say that it was not merely the ritual element of the law which was imperfect and temporary, but the moral element as well. Many a moral maxim and practice of the Old Testament, as we have seen, was below the plane of Jesus' ideal morality. If he fulfils the system in all its parts, then must the system as such pass away. And this is the fact in the case. On no other supposition can the New Testament references to the subject be naturally explained; on no other view can a clear definition be given of the relation of the two Testaments.

On hearing this view of the matter stated the question will naturally arise in many minds, Is the Old Testament, then, destroyed ? I answer, It is not destroyed, but it has been fulfilled. On this distinction between destruction and fulfilment turns my whole view of the question at issue. The fulfilment is, by its very nature, a conserving process; it rejects nothing which it can use by embodying it in its perfect result. All the essentials of the Old Testament are preserved in the New, and it is as parts of the gospel of Christ that they belong to us and are binding upon us. The Old Testament system as such we are not under; in other words, we are under only so much of it as has been taken up and incorporated in Christianity, and we are under that because it is a part of Christianity, not because it is a part of the Old Testament religion. But some one will ask, Are we not under the authority of the ten commandments? I reply, In their Old Testament form and as part of that system, we are not; else should we be bound to observe Saturday as a day of rest and worship, instead of Sunday, since the fourth commandment requires the sanctifying of the seventh day. The main substance of the ten commandments consists of changeless principles of righteousness and is therefore a part of Christianity; in that sense we are under the commandments, and in no other. The duty to obey parents, for example, is just as urgently inculcated in the gospel as in the commandments, and is, of course, perpetually binding, but the reason by which it is enforced in the Old Testament—that by obedience one may win a long residence in the land of Canaan—is not at all applicable to us.

The truth which we have been considering, stated on its positive side, is that Christianity is complete and sufficient in itself as a guide to faith and action. The whole truth of the matter is in that most expressive figure of Jesus to which we have referred: His gospel is not a patch to be sewed on the old garment of Judaism, but a wholly new garment. We might carry out the figure a step further by saying—quite in harmony with his thought—that into the texture of that garment have been woven all the elements of Judaism which are adapted to become parts of its permanent and perfect structure.

While, then, we are not under the old system at all, it must always have the greatest value in helping us to understand historically its own fulfilment in Christianity. To speak in Paul's language, the Old Testament is glorious, but not with "the glory that surpasseth" (2 Cor. 3:10), that is, it has its true glory in the fact that its mission was to prepare for and to usher in a more perfect system. It was glorious, not so much in itself, as in the great end which it contemplated.

In this view it will be seen that the old system could well be both temporary and divine. Its glory lay in the very fact that it was to give itself up to decay in order that from it, as from the seed, a larger life might spring. Had this truth been clearly seen by the church of the apostolic age, many great controversies and alienations would have been avoided. It was naturally hard for those who had been reared and trained as Jews to see the sufficiency and independence of Christianity and to recognize the complementary truth that the Jewish religion had waxed old and was ready to vanish away. It required a vision to convince Peter of the largeness and newness of the gospel, and even then he does not seem to have stayed convinced. The whole dispute about circumcision which so tried the soul of the apostle Paul would have been settled in an instant if all could have seen Christ's truth of fulfilment. It was incapable of real settlement except upon Paul's bold principle that the Christian is not under the law, either in whole or in part.

Our Lord seems to have foreseen the perplexity and friction which this question would make among his followers and to have described the situation in parabolic language when he said:" No man having drunk old wine desireth new: for he saith, The old is good" (Luke 5:39). His meaning evidently was that men would find it hard to adapt themselves to his higher standards and ideals after having been so long used to other and lower ones. The natural and, within limits, useful conservatism of men in religion often prevents them from rising to higher standpoints and dulls their minds to the perception of new truth. A blind attachment to the old, in the conviction that it represented the full and final truth, proved a great hindrance to the spread and full reception of the gospel in the apostolic age.

In conclusion I can do no better than to commend to the student of this subject a careful study of that remarkable prophecy of Jeremiah to which reference has been made, in regard to the new and more perfect covenant which God will give to his people (Jer. 31:31-34); and in connection with this passage, the use which is made of it in the Epistle to the Hebrews (8:8-13) should also be carefully observed.