Posted On March 10, 2022

Jesus as Both the Ultimate Fulfiller and Interpreter of the Old Testament through the Use of the Pentateuch in the Gospel of Matthew

by | Mar 10, 2022 | Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience with a great deal of knowledge relating to the Pentateuch and Torah. Indeed, as J.K. Brown has noted, “Most scholars consider that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience that had been persuaded that Jesus was God’s Messiah.”[1] Within his Gospel account, Matthew utilized many quotations from the Pentateuch to reveal to readers that Jesus is both the best interpreter of the Law and fulfiller of the Law’s righteous demands. Again, Brown noted, “Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus [is] as the consummate interpreter of the Torah in contrast to the Pharisees and scribes (Mt 15: 1-20; 23: 1-24).”[2] Jesus affirmed both descriptors of Himself when He stated, “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” [3] (Matt. 5:17). Thus, Matthew’s use of Old Testament quotations, and especially those from within the Pentateuch and Torah, reveals that Jesus is both the perfect interpreter and fulfillment of God’s holy Law.

Matthew’s Use of Genesis

Arguably, a direct allusion to Genesis is made in Matthew chapter 1, when Matthew sets forth the genealogy, or “genesis,” of the Lord Jesus Christ and His earthly lineage. Brown explained, “Matthew highlights from the very start of his Gospel that God’s present activity in Jesus fulfills Israel’s story and Scriptures. He intimately connects Jesus to Israel’s story by providing Jesus’ genealogy beginning with Abraham and highlighting Jesus’ kingly descent from David (Mt 1: 1-17).”[4] This linkage to Abraham (who is chronicled within Genesis) is vital because it establishes that Jesus, as the Son of God and God the Son, is the Messiah who will effectively renew creation, reverse the curse of man’s fall into sin, and establish a new beginning for mankind, as relating to the covenantal promises God made to Abraham in Genesis.

This beginning establishes Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s plans and the culmination of Israel’s history, which also establishes the expectation that Jesus will fulfill God’s commandments and Laws in a way that no one ever before had been able to. The next allusion to Genesis makes this plainer when, in Matthew 5:48, Jesus commands perfection from His followers, just as God commanded Abraham to be blameless, or perfect, in Genesis 17:1. Of course, since Jesus alone is perfect, He is revealed as the consummation of the Law.

Jesus later quotes again from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 respectively when, in Matthew 19:4-5, He speaks of how God created man and woman to be joined together as one flesh. This reference to the natural order of God’s creation comes within the context of Jesus answering questions regarding the Torah’s view of divorce, once more revealing that Christ is the perfect interpreter of the Law.

Matthew’s Use of Exodus

While Exodus appears to be alluded to in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4 (Jesus was in the wilderness forty days and forty nights and withstood Satan’s temptations, whereas the nation of Israel wandered the wilderness for forty years and fell in every way Jesus prevailed), the clearest quotations of Exodus occur within the Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 5:21, Jesus stated, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” This a reference to the Ten Commandments, as recorded in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, but Jesus interprets the Law even more strongly than the Jews had previously when, in the following verses, He explains that so much as hating another, or calling them by harsh names, constitutes the breaking of the Law in the sight of God. Similarly, in verse 27, He takes the Law of Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18 (“Do not commit adultery”) and interprets it more strongly to include even looking upon another with lust.

This escalation of the Law continues when, in Matthew 5:33, Jesus alludes to Exodus 20:7 and Leviticus 19:12, stating, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” He then explains that there is danger in swearing or taking any oaths, and commands Christians to let their “yes” be yes and their “no” be no.

The Law of Lex Talionos is, likewise, in view in Matthew 5:38 (quoting Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, and Deut. 19:21), but Jesus does not escalate this commandment as expected. Instead, He turns it around and insists, in the following verses, that it is better for the Christian to receive injustice than to retaliate against an attacker.

When Jesus later challenges the faulty traditions of the Pharisees and Jews, in Matthew 15:4, He quotes Exodus 20:12’s commandment to “Honor your father and mother,” and, again showing Himself the perfect interpreter of the Law, explains how the people have failed to uphold this important commandment.

These commandments then find their fullest expression in the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:18, wherein Jesus quotes from multiple commandments of Exodus 20 to tell the man what he must do to be saved. Ultimately, the point of this section is not that man can earn his salvation, but that Jesus, as the fulfiller of the Law, earns salvation for those who repent of sin and trust in Him.

Finally, in Matthew 22:23-33, the Sadducees challenge Jesus on the resurrection. In order to combat their narrative that there is no resurrection from the dead, Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 in verse 32 to prove that, according to God’s own language, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all living. Therefore He is the God of the living, and the future resurrection of believers is a certainty.

Matthew’s Use of Leviticus

As already listed above, many of the quotations from Leviticus in the Sermon on the Mount also line up with Exodus. However, one particular example of Jesus’s quoting of Leviticus is found in Matthew 5:43, when Jesus stated, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” which is an allusion to Leviticus 19:18. Apparently, the people had misinterpreted God’s command not to take vengeance or hate a neighbor specifically to mean that one could hate a foreigner. Once more, Jesus reveals Himself to be the perfect interpreter of the Law as He explains that Christians are to love all.

Interestingly, the next true quotation/allusion to Leviticus does not occur until Jesus is establishing rules from church discipline, in Matthew 18:15-16. Here, alluding to Leviticus 19:15, 17, and Deuteronomy 19:15, Jesus explains how “the testimony of two or three witnesses” is to be used by the people of God to encourage a greater deal of holiness among the people.

Matthew 22:34-40 may contain the greatest use of Leviticus, however, because when Jesus was asked to summarize the Law, He did so by saying that one must, “Love God (above all else)” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev.19:18), which is the fulfillment of the Law. These are, of course, the qualities He exhibited at Calvary. (Though not directly quoting Leviticus, much of the crucifixion of Jesus also corresponds to Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement.)

Matthew’s Use of Numbers

The use of the book of Numbers is a bit more difficult to discern within the Gospel of Matthew, but there does appear to be at least one allusion to it.

In Matthew 12, Jesus and His disciples find themselves in the crosshairs of the Pharisees for having plucked grain on the Sabbath. First, Jesus defends the disciples by mentioning how David and his men ate the Bread of the Presence, intended only for the Priests, and was not counted guilty of sin for having done so. Then, in 12:5, Numbers 28:9-10 is alluded to when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” Numbers 28:9-10 speaks of how the priests, from within the temple, were to offer sacrifices before the Lord on the Sabbath day of rest. This would have included work on the part of the priests, but they remained guiltless in the sense that God did not count their work as a breaking of the Sabbath commandment to rest.

Within the fuller context of Matthew 12:1-8, it becomes clearer that Jesus mentions this allusion to Numbers to teach His listeners that He is greater than the temple (vs. 6) because He is “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). While the Pharisees prized the temple because it was there that sacrifices were offered to God, Jesus instead taught His audience that obedience to God superseded sacrifice. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and thus desired the people to learn that the Sabbath rest was never intended to enslave the people but free the people to enjoy God.

Matthew’s Use of Deuteronomy

Many of the examples above connect to Deuteronomy since this book, in many ways, restates the Laws of the previous four books of the Pentateuch. However, Matthew 4 contains some of the greatest direct quotations of Deuteronomy, as Jesus uses the Scripture of this book to combat Satan and his temptations. For example, when Satan tempts Jesus to turn rocks into bread, Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 8:3, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God. When Satan tempts Him to throw Himself down from the temple, He quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to explain that God must not be put to the test. Finally, when Satan tells Jesus to bow to him so that he can give Him all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus rebukes him with the use of Deuteronomy 6:13 and 10:20, stating that it is God alone who is to be worshiped.

Matthew 5:31 and 19:7 both relate to Deuteronomy 24’s teaching about divorce and giving a certificate of divorce to the wife. In each case, Jesus explicitly states that divorce is only acceptable based on sexual immorality and that, ultimately. However, God calls some to singleness; all are called to sexual purity, especially those gifted with marriage.

Interestingly, the challenge of the Sadducees in Matthew 22:24 relates to Deuteronomy 25’s teaching about remarriage and the marriage of a widow. Still, Jesus once more shows Himself to be the perfect interpreter of the Law when He explained that, in the resurrection, none would be given in marriage.

As A. Winn wrote, “In Matthew’s Gospel this authority possessed by Jesus finds unique expression in Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah.”[5] Indeed, “The Matthean formula whereby Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .’ (see Mt 5), may indicate that Jesus’ teaching is Torah messianically interpreted, or perhaps Torah messianically superseded.”[6] In each of the examples above, Jesus’s authority as the true interpreter, and fulfiller, of the Law is on display.

References

[1] J.K. Brown, “Matthew, Gospel of” within Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series), ed by Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 575.

[2] Ibid., 577.

[3] Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).

[4] J.K. Brown, “Matthew, Gospel of” within Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series), 578.

[5] A. Winn, “Son of God” within Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (The IVP Bible Dictionary Series), ed by Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 891.

[6] Ibid.

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