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A perennial challenge for Christians is how to read, interpret, understand, and apply the Scripture of the Hebrew people. What do we do with an ancient law code, mythological tales, histories not written as history the way we understand history, poetry and proverbs collected and edited over hundreds of years, and weird prophetic books about strange places and times, sometimes with very strange occurrences or characters? This struggle isn’t unique to us. By the time of Jesus, these texts were already very old and somewhat otherworldly. But the Jews of his time were, in some way committed to them. How they were committed to them was an ongoing debate. And Jesus, well Jesus changed everything as it relates to what we call the Old Testament. Let’s hear some of what Jesus had to say about that in his Sermon on the Mount in this Covenant Weekly for March 19, 2024.

When it comes to the Hebrew Scripture, or the Old Testament as we usually call it, there hasn’t been a Christian consensus on how to read it. Because the earliest Jesus followers were Jewish, you would think that they would follow the Jewish way of understanding it. But there was no one Jewish way to approach it. The text that was given as a law code, myth, historical biography of a nation, wisdom literature, and prophecy was wrestled with by generations of Jewish scholars and thinkers. Some thought it should be obeyed literally. Others thought it was pointing to something spiritual. Still others felt it was primarily just a record of the past to offer wisdom and theological understanding, but not to be obeyed in a literal sense.

Those same ideas about scripture exist today. Some Christian contexts emphasize obeying the Bible. Some seek to do it more faithfully than others, but the general gist is that the Bible - Old and New Testament - gets read to discern the instructions we need to follow. The measure of faithfulness, then, is how well we obey the Bible and, as such, obey God. Many in this camp, recognizing the ancient reality of many of the laws, subdivide the laws into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. They suggest that we learn from the civil laws, set aside the ceremonial laws, and rigorously obey the moral laws.

Others, recognizing that much of the Old Testament can’t reasonably be obeyed today, approach the Bible as a non-literal and non-historical spiritual guide. Others draw on it for wisdom and revelation about God but aren’t interested in obeying it.

But Jesus pushes back against these approaches in his Sermon on the Mount. We read this starting in Matthew 5: 17.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Here, Jesus suggests that we can’t just dismiss, or abolish the Law and the Prophets. (That is shorthand for the Hebrew Scripture.) Jesus insists to those who object to his way of reading, teaching, and living that he didn’t come to do so! He insists that it will last until everything is accomplished. That certainly brings up a question! What does it mean to say that “everything is accomplished” when we’re talking about a text that includes law, poetry, and the biographical narrative of a nation? Jesus further insists that practicing and teaching the Scripture is a great thing! Then, he brings the hard word at the end insisting that unless people are even more righteous - or faithful in obeying the Old Testament law - than the most righteous people of Jesus’ day they won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. In this, Jesus is suggesting both that the most righteous people of his day aren’t good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven and he is suggesting that it is impossible to fully and properly obey the letter of the Old Testament law.

So what is the law for? How can “everything” in it be accomplished? Jesus gets to that in the second half of verse 17 when he says, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus himself was the fulfillment of all that the law was trying to guide people towards; all that the myth was trying to reveal; the story of the chosen people; the wisdom of the poetry and proverbs; and the prophecy looking forward to God’s plan. How could this be? Because Jesus was God revealed in the flesh - the exact representation of God.

So when Jesus showed up. When Jesus lived and died and came back to life, he was accomplishing everything. He was fulfilling it. Does this mean it has no use to us today? Can we join the camp that ignores it? Of course not! If it was fulfilled in Jesus, we need to read it in light of Jesus. We need to view it through the person, teaching, and work of Jesus and from there allow it to point through Jesus in the direction of God’s heart for us - the full life God longs for us to live.

Following this, Jesus proceeds to consider six specific laws from the Hebrew Scripture - laws related to murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, and enemies. He looks at what Scripture says or how the righteous people of his day have insisted it should be followed. And then he pushes beyond the text. He insists that it wasn’t the end of what God wanted. It was only pointing in the direction of God’s heart and suggests that we need to follow that direction through Jesus to move more fully into alignment with the heart of God.

In our Covenant Weekly, I’m not going to take the time to work through each of these sections. We preached through them just a couple of years ago. If you want to go back and listen to those, you can find them at And we’ll try to practice reading the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus by going back into some of the ancient stories with a series looking at the book of Daniel which we’ll get to on Sunday mornings after Easter.

But for now, be encouraged to go back and read the Old Testament. Read it through the person, work, sacrifice, and victory of Jesus. Read it knowing that it has been fulfilled through Jesus. As you read it, where there are questions, dig into Jesus. Where there is confusion, hold on to Jesus. But as you go with Jesus into the Old Testament, you might just get pointed further into the heart of God.

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