Did Jesus change moral laws, or did he reiterate their Spirit?

I remember as clear as day hearing people say that when Jesus preached the sermon on the mount, He was erasing the old laws of the Old Testament and replacing them with new laws. Many people within Charity think there’s this enormous paradigm shift between Jesus’ arrival on earth to where certain things that weren’t sinful are now morally repugnant to God. How or why that happened isn’t discussed very often. Nobody explains how this shift took place in light of God being an unchanging being, or why God didn’t give these “new” laws from the start. They go so far as to suggest that Jesus’s words prescribed a newer, holier moral code of conduct that wasn’t prescribed in the Old Testament, but now is mandatory for us today.

Such claims need to be challenged. Christians need to have knowledge of what the OT says in order to see the flaws in such claims. It’s extremely important for people within Charity to realize that while Jesus knew people had heard the law preached a certain way, He didn’t change the OT law. What He did was contrast what Phil Johnson has called “rabbinical glosses” with the actual spirit of the law which was present in OT writings all along. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18:

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.

18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.

These verses are fundamental to getting a real picture of what Jesus is about to say. Charity says Jesus changed the law, but Jesus himself says He didn’t come to do that. In fact, He emphasizes the abiding validity of the OT law by saying that not one bit of it will pass away. Keeping that in mind, let’s start examining his words beginning with Matthew 5:21-22 (NASB):

21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’

22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

Let us ask ourselves: Was Jesus was preaching something new by preaching that this hatred is wrong? Not at all. In Leviticus 19:17 it says:

Leviticus 19:17 You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him.

It’s clear to see that Jesus was not creating a new moral law that wasn’t previously in place. He isn’t (as is so often suggested) extrapolating the prohibitions of OT law beyond the written word to include the inner desire to sin as if the OT didn’t also prohibit inner desires to sin. Jesus isn’t preaching a newer holier morality; he’s telling people what they’ve heard about murder, and then proceeds to point out that what they’ve heard was incomplete representations of the law which had given rise to false conclusions about the law. His audience evidently were taught that the law only prohibited committing homicide, and that since they weren’t literally taking someone’s life that they were justified in desiring their death and exacting their hatred through cursing and name-calling. Jesus’s words corrected this by pointing out that it’s not just wrong to murder a person, but it’s also wrong to feel and exact hatred upon that person. That’s the spirit of the law which had been lost on his audience, and He was bringing that out to them (this is made even clearer in verses 23-26).

What about Jesus’ words on adultery and lust? Let’s look at verse 27-28:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’;

28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Again, Jesus is not preaching something new. He’s not saying, “The Old Testament decries adultery, but now I’m preaching a stricter law- you must not even desire to commit adultery.” Look at the story of the adulteress woman in Proverbs 6:24-35, specifically verses 24-26:

Proverbs 6:24 To keep you from the evil woman,
From the smooth tongue of the adulteress.
25 Do not desire her beauty in your heart,
Nor let her capture you with her eyelids.
26 For on account of a harlot one is reduced to a loaf of bread,
And an adulteress hunts for the precious life.

We see once more that even in the OT, you’re not innocent of committing the sin of adultery if you still have the desire to commit adultery. Jesus was once again filling in the other parts of the law that were missing from what his audience had heard, and He compounds how serious it is in verses 29-30.

(As a side-note, It’s also extremely important to realize that Jesus also didn’t instigate a universal unqualified prohibition against sexual fantasies for any woman. A fuller discussion of this would throw a rod into the spokes of those who would propose that sexual fantasies are wrong in any situation, but that’s a topic I’ll explore that at some other point.)

Now let’s look at verses 31-32:

31 “It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’;

32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Charityites often tell us that divorce is wrong no matter what the situation is based upon this verse. Jesus is supposed to have said that divorce was okay in the OT (as was marrying a divorced person), but now God says it’s a sin. Such is patently false, however. While the OT does permit for divorce, it was still looked at negatively by God. Look at Malachi 2:15-16:

Malachi 2:15 “But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.

16 “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

Once again, what Jesus is teaching is in harmony with the OT law. God hates divorce, and as Matthew 5:32 says, the only case where a person may divorce is in an extreme circumstance, infidelity being an example.

Let’s move on to verses 33-34.

33 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’

34 “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,

You probably know what I’m going to say, but again, Jesus is not preaching something the OT didn’t. It’s true that He says it’s better not to make vows at all, but take into consideration what verses 35-37 have to say:

35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING.

36 “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.

Keep in mind that nowhere here did Jesus forbid making vows to God, but as is evidenced by the verses above, people were making false oaths by swearing by everything from the earth to their hair- and very probably thinking that since their oaths weren’t binding then they didn’t have to keep them. That’s what Jesus has in mind when he says:

37 “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

Now, the intent here is not to prohibit the making of vows or oaths entirely. It has to do with making vows to things that have no moral binding upon the one making the vow. Jesus clearly prohibited that particular kind of vow, and this is evidenced by the fact that Christians and God made vows later on in in Matthew 26:63-64, II Corinthians 1:23, Hebrews 6:13-18, and Acts 2:30. And, of course, for the record, the OT also prohibited making frivolous vows and made it a rule to keep vows made to God in Deuteronomy 23:21-23:

Deuteronomy 23:21 “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you.

22 “However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you.

23 “You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, what you have promised.

Now time to address one of the most favorite “proof-texts” for nonresistance:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’

39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from the pulpit that Jesus was saying self-defense used to be moral, but now Jesus said it’s immoral. However, that is not what these verses teach. The eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth words were derived from Leviticus 24:13-23 where God laid down laws to ensure that the governing authorities exacted equal punishment upon both Israelites and non-Israelites alike for violating the law. That’s an entirely different category from a citizen insulting another citizen by slapping him in the face. We’ve already seen Jesus has quoted misrepresentations of OT law in order to correct his audience’s misperception of it, and he’s doing it again here. His audience had heard that the punishment should equal the crime, and incorrectly concluded that they could return insults. Jesus sets the record straight.

Still, we can expect someone to argue that even if the OT didn’t justify retaliation to insults, Jesus was still changing the law and preaching something new in verses 40-42 by telling Christians to go out of their way to help them out with their animals, finances, workloads, etc. Such is shown to be false yet again in light of Exodus 23:4-5:

Exodus 23:4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.

5 If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him.

Here we see that Christians even in the OT times were commanded to treat their enemies in the manner Jesus was prescribing in his sermon on the mount. Thus once again, Jesus brought out the true intention and spirit of the law in contradistinction to what his audience had heard. Moving on to verses 43-44:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’

44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

47 If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Notice what Jesus said- his audience had heard that the law taught you to love your neighbor AND to hate your enemy. I would challenge anyone to show me a place in the OT where the command to love your neighbor was coupled with a command to hate your enemy. There is no such example in the Bible, so again, Jesus’s audience had heard something false. They understood a command to love their neighbor would logically lead to a command to hate their enemies, and Jesus rebukes them and tells them they should actually love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them so they can be like God. How would they be like God? Surely God never loved or commanded His people to love Israel’s enemies in the OT, did He?

Well, actually He did. The example of God having Elisha heal and subsequently convert Naaman, a literal enemy of Israel, showed that God wanted His people to love their neighbors AND their enemies in the OT as well as the NT. Not only that, but consider the story of Jonah! Jonah is a prime example of someone who loved his neighbors and hated his enemies, and found himself on the receiving end of God’s punishment as a result. Recognize also that while God did often show mercy to Israel’s enemies at certain times, He did also make allowance for Israel to kill them. This absolutely demolishes the idea that God has only ever been peaceful or only ever been bloodthirsty. God has been both all the way through, and He didn’t stop when the NT came along.

In conclusion, it is clear that Jesus had a huge job on his hands in cleaning up after the messes left behind by those who had misrepresented God’s law. What we cannot forget though is that we’re in almost the exact same situation when it comes to those professing to be believers who would insist that what Jesus’s audience had said was true. There is so much misrepresentation going on even today that it isn’t even funny, but we need to do everything we can to remove the cobwebs from our minds and see Jesus’s words for what they really were. Jesus wasn’t decrying sexual desires en toto, He didn’t instigate an unqualified prohibition against divorce, He wasn’t decrying vows, nor was He preaching nonresistance. The reason I took so much time before I published this article is because the misinterpretation of these verses is the latch-pin that holds the foundation of all said legalistic doctrines together, and pulling that out will hopefully make the entire structure crumble for the house of cards that it really is. Thanks to everyone who has read this far, I hope it proved a blessing to you, and I’d like to send a thanks to Phil Johnson and (believe it or not) to jwscholar for their helpful resources on this topic.

About princeasbel

As Frank Walton says, I'm just a college undergrad who loves God.
This entry was posted in Covenant Theology, Divorce, Lust, Nonresistance. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Did Jesus change moral laws, or did he reiterate their Spirit?

  1. jwscholar says:

    Two things.

    First, you said a correct understanding of this topic is “extremely important,” but you didn’t really go into why that is the case. That might be helpful.

    Secondly, I think your interpretation of the section on oaths is a little sketchy. ;)

    Allow me to offer my alternative.

    The Pharisees’ line was “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” I’d like to suggest that what they meant by that was “Don’t swear falsely to God.” If you were swearing by something else–the earth, your head, even the Temple–your oath wasn’t binding, and you weren’t obligated to keep it.

    So, Jesus says, don’t swear by those things. (You’ll notice that He doesn’t say “Don’t swear by God.”) Don’t have a double standard of honesty–one when you’re under oath to God, and one when you aren’t. Your word should be worth more than cash (which isn’t saying much these days).

    So His concern wasn’t directly with people profaning something by swearing falsely upon it. He was concerned with the falsehood itself. =)

    • princeasbel says:

      I infer a prohibition against swearing by God from the prohibition against swearing by Jerusalem, the earth, etc. I can’t say I find your alternative “less sketchy.” Of course, I’d rather hear how amazed you are at the fine thorough scholarship of everything else you read, but as Rich Alvarez has said, “That, of course, would be completely ridiculous, meh-heh!”

      • jwscholar says:

        The whole thing about swearing falsely by something profaning it or being “to the detriment of ” it. Where’s that come from?

        And incidentally I am amazed at the fine thorough scholarship of the rest of the article. It’s almost like I wrote it myself. >.> =P

        • princeasbel says:

          i) I trashed that previous comment since you repeated it in in this comment, so don’t feel bad. :-)

          ii) Hmmm… I was going to say I should add the words, “to the reputation of,” but I don’t think that would necessarily solve the problem… Hm. I’ll have to think about that.

          iii) I said that a correct understanding of Matthew 5:27-28 was extremely important- as I will explain some other time. It’s not extremely important to understanding this particular article.

          iv) And incidentally I am amazed at the fine thorough scholarship of the rest of the article. It’s almost like I wrote it myself. I should have seen that coming. X)

  2. Ted Paul says:

    This article obviously took a lot of time and effort to put together. It would probably take me months or even years to put something that covers such a big topic into a form I’m comfortable publishing. Thanks for the work you put into this PrinceAsbel.

    What I was wondering about was how you understood the “law” in the OT and how that understanding is effected by the material contained in the NT.

    For example, in the debate between Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen and Paul Feinberg in 1981 entitled “The Place of O.T. Law on the Life of the N.T. Believer” Bahnsen’s third thesis was, “We should presume that O.T. standing laws continue to be morally binding in the N.T. until they are rescinded or modified in application by further revelation.” (Timestamp 16:13).

    You’ve given us some examples of “moral laws” and argue that Jesus “reiterated their spirit” in the N.T. I’m wondering if you would provide examples of “laws” from the O.T. that N.T. believers are no longer required to observe or no longer required to observe in the same way?

    For the sake of simplicity or due to general laziness, I know that some people assume a total replacement of all O.T. “law” by N.T. teachings. And while I can appreciate the clean lines this type of thinking allows us to draw between the O.T. and N.T. it doesn’t seem to me to be supportable.

    Feel free to ask me questions for the sake of clarification.

    Thanks again for all the work you put into this. I’m sure it was a monumental effort.

    • princeasbel says:

      One good example of a law we’re no longer required to observe would be animal sacrifice. Now why is that? Is it because the law no longer demands a sacrifice for our sins? No. The reason we don’t is because the law’s requirements have been paid by Christ’s death.

      Yes, it was a pretty big effort, and I hit a snag here and there, but ultimately I think it came out pretty good. It really is worth it though, not only for those who will read it, but I think what James White said was true when he said that you never REALLY know a doctrine until you try to teach it, and writing this article kind of solidified what I’d believed before about Matthew 5.

  3. jwscholar says:

    The reason we don’t is because the law’s requirements have been paid by Christ’s death.

    I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. It is true, Christ’s death did pay the law’s requirements–but it paid those of the whole law, not just the ceremonial law. Yet we’re still obligated to follow the rules laid out in certain parts of the law–”thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Christ paid that law’s requirements for us, so we no longer suffer the guilt and condemnation that comes from breaking that law either in word or in deed. But we still may not murder.

    Have another idea?

    • princeasbel says:

      You completely missed what I said. I said we’re no longer required to observe laws regarding ANIMAL SACRIFICE.

      • jwscholar says:

        But the reasoning you gave applies equally to ceremonial and moral laws. In other words, if your conclusion follows for ceremonial laws, it follows for moral laws as well.

        • princeasbel says:

          No it does not, because while we’re still required to obey moral laws today, it would in fact be a sin to continue to follow the laws of animal sacrifice because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice.

      • jwscholar says:

        Exactly. Therefore your reasoning is wrong, or at least misstated.

        • princeasbel says:

          It is nothing of the kind. It was never my position stated or implied that we’re no longer required to observe Old Testament laws en toto including both moral and ceremonial laws. I gave a specific example of a particular set of laws that we’re no longer required to observe today not because they’re now invalid, but because their demands have been permanently met. You have yet to show how my example must necessarily include an affirmation that we’re no longer required to observe every other law besides that.

      • jwscholar says:

        That was the purpose of my original comment along those lines.

        The reason we don’t [observe animal sacrifices] is because the law’s requirements have been paid by Christ’s death.

        But the Bible says this:

        “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)

        This is clearly not talking strictly about the ceremonial law. It is talking about the whole law, including the moral law. Yet we are still obligated to obey the moral law. Therefore, when we say that Christ’s death fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law, it does not free us from obligation to obey that Law.

        That is the flaw in your reasoning, as you worded it. It may have simply been a poor choice of words.

        • princeasbel says:

          For the umpteenth time, jwscholar, my position that you quoted remains the same. It was not a poor choice of words; They clearly had a preloaded context of the law’s requirements as they pertained to animal sacrifice. Perhaps working at McDonald’s has clogged your synapses, but your inability to recognize this fact is not my problem.

          I’m really starting to believe you want to argue purely for the sake of arguing- In fact, I’m tempted to publish an article that simply contains the word “boo” and then watch as you try to start a sparring session on why I said boo. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the time or patience to keep beating dead horses, so if you have nothing of value to add to this discussion, stop leaving comments.

  4. princeasbel says:

    I think I understand your comment about vows now, and having thought about it for a while, I think it is what the text is teaching. I’m going to go ahead and edit my post accordingly.

  5. Meg Martin says:

    The work you put into this is incredible and I want to come back when I can take it all in slowly. I just found your blog!

  6. crbcorg says:

    Endorsing a lustful heart…. Sorry, though that may suit your flesh quite well…. Your mind is not to be filled with pornography….. I really question your salvation…. Please tell me what evidence do you have that you are born again?

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