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Deeper Than the Surface: Christ and the Law


At a glance it would seem that Jesus did not strictly uphold all the laws of the Old Testament. Although both Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 state that in a case of adultery both adulterers should be stoned, Jesus refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). On the other hand, Jesus told the leper He cleansed to go show himself to the priest (Matthew 8:1-4), enjoining thereby a process that involved obeying ritual laws of cleanliness. Yet the Gospels say nothing about Jesus having gone through ritual cleansing after touching the leper, though this would be expected by close adherents of Torah.

Yet the way that Jesus looked at the laws of the Old Testament lay beneath their surface. Adultery, for instance, was not just the external act of two people, each married to another, engaging in sexual intercourse; rather anyone who looked at a woman with the desire to possess her committed adultery with her in his heart (an injunction that could apply equally to women with men). Murder included much more than the physical taking of life. Jesus applied the sixth commandment to anger at a brother, insult, and calling a person derogatorily, “You fool” (Matthew 5:21-22). Instead of interpreting the third commandment, not to take God’s name in vain, as the rabbis did as the making oaths in vows but not carrying out the vows, Jesus rejected oath-making altogether. Rather, Jesus stated, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37, NRSV), indicating that simple decisions from the heart marked the true lawgiver.

Jesus even went so far as to counter what some view as the cornerstone of Old Testament law: the lex talionis or law of retaliation. This law is found in just three places: Exodus 21:24, in the law of the pregnant woman injured in a fight; in Leviticus 24:19, 20 involving the maiming of someone; and Deuteronomy 19:21, involving a false witness who intended to do harm to someone on trial. Since nowhere else does Torah apply this law, one could argue, as I do, that the law applied only to specific cases, to establish their limits; it was never intended to serve as an overarching principle underlying all other laws.

What supports this conclusion is the fact that the lex talionis did not originate with the Bible. Hammurabi, of the Old Babylonian period (some 400 years or more before the Exodus), introduced it into specific laws such as the one in which, if a beam from a poorly built house fell on the owner’s son’s head, killing him, the builder’s son would lose his life (LH §230) or the law that stated that if a free man’s wife was struck and killed by another free man, that man’s daughter was to be put to death (LH §209, 210; see also LH §§196, 197, 200, 229, 230). Apparently, Hammurabi’s use of this law did not linger; most laws promulgated by kings or of unknown provenance before and after Hammurabi’s time utilized pecuniary penalties—except for the Middle Assyrian laws which enjoin rather harsh penalties and include some tit-for-tat punishments such as MAL A §14. The use of this principle, therefore, in Biblical law, attached as it is to specific laws, does not automatically infer that it served as an overarching legal principle in the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus’ transformation of this principle from retaliation to a gentle, forgiving rebuke, in which the victim puts the perpetrator into a socially awkward position, has often received qualification: it only applies, some say, to individuals seeking retaliation, not to communities or societies at large. Yet Jesus’ entire sermon in Matthew 5 stands as a formal treatment of Torah, most specifically, the Ten Commandments. As Christians, the question then remains whether or not Torah, as seen through Jesus’ eyes, is applicable to us only in the context of our individual lives but not in our wider social settings or whether it applies to us in other contexts.

In His conclusion of His treatment of the law, Jesus strikes at the heart of God’s overarching principle of all of Torah. Elsewhere, Jesus summarizes it this way: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV). Jesus disregarded the principle of “an eye for an eye” and even the principle of justice (which anciently was two-pronged with one prong representing equity and fairness and the other prong signifying retribution) for the principle of love. Whatever we do in terms of keeping the law we must do with the eye to loving God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves. This is why Jesus reached into the depth of the law that involved the motives and desires of the heart rather than to merely legally sanctioned actions. Simply refraining from physical acts that could be framed in a lawsuit was not enough to Jesus; what one did to injure another through a look or a word or even one’s thoughts (see 1 John 3:15), that legally could be justified because it lay outside the domain of specific laws, was breaking the law as verily as defying a specific law through overt action.

Yet Jesus does not, in His conclusion to His treatment of law in Matthew 5, stop there. How can one know if one really loves God? Human nature is adept at self-deception, let alone the deception of others. Many can create a façade of “love” and “goodness” but injure another in the process. As Jesus pointed out in a different setting, “the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33, NRSV). What fruit could a person bear that would testify clearly to a life lived by love to God and love to others. Jesus establishes the kind of love that characterizes children of their heavenly Father: “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48, CEB).

Here Jesus clarifies, in typical Hebraic parallelism who are enemies are. Our neighbors do things now and then that hurt us to some degree, but our enemies are those who harass us. That is, if we only love those who love us back, we still remain self-serving. True love, the love of our heavenly Father reveals itself in loving those who hate us, from whom we will never get anything in return but abuse, even if under the guise of love. In the Old Testament, God never commanded Israel to love their enemies. In the context of ancient Near Eastern retaliation that spawned war and continual strife, such a law might have hastened wholesale revolt against Yahweh and could have furthered the cause of idolatry. The closest God could come to such a law is found in Leviticus 19:33, 34: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (NRSV). At first glance, it would seem that “alien” does not come close in meaning to the term “enemy.” And certainly, this is true if one understands the term to refer to an emigrant family who migrated to Israel from another land perhaps because of famine or political unrest. Looking at the term through western eyes, we may easily conclude the aliens are potential converts to Israel’s God, Yahweh. But in the ancient Near East, especially in tribal communities, an influx of aliens, especially if they were driven from their homeland due to war, would be regarded possibly as potential enemies. Given that aliens often came with different cultural backgrounds, misunderstandings could easily arise and strife could result. Within the larger ancient Near Eastern milieu, where retaliation seemed the most justifiably route to take against one’s enemies, this command is not so far removed from Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies.

By pointing to this highest kind of love, Jesus establishes what He intended the law to do. Never was it meant to function as fodder for endless debate to see how one could legally keep the commands, but get away with murder, so to speak. Neither was it created to serve the interests of the powerful or spiritually elite who could twist and turn the law against their neighbors. And never was it intended to supply self-righteous judges with ammunition to use against others and judge their souls. What Jesus did in His sermon in Matthew 5 was to overturn all the abuses of Torah, with all their misinterpretations, accumulated throughout time to the present. By teaching us to love our enemies, He drew a line in the stone tablets between those who think they keep the law and those who really do, declaring, that it is those who love their enemies who really exemplify the love on which the law and the prophets rest. It is those whose hearts are transformed by the love of God shown in Jesus who really keep the law.

Jean Sheldon is a professor of religion at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.

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