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It is unfortunate that theologians on the subject of marriage have biased opinions on what Jesus wanted for marriage and divorce. For example, some will claim that Jesus "forbade" divorce. Therefore, they conclude that "Jesus presumes to teach that what the Law of Moses 'permitted' and regulated was actually the sin of adultery."i Jesus is not teaching this error; the theologians are. In the passage in the "sermon on the mount" He specifically gives an exception for one to "put away a wife" just as Moses did in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
PRACTICAL DIVISION OF THE TESTAMENTS
They either then try and harmonize their misinterpretation of Jesus' teaching with the apostle Paul or completely ignore Paul's writings. The fact is, Paul's teachings were exclusively under the New Covenant whereas Jesus, on the other hand, during His earthly ministry was dealing with repentance toward the Old Covenant prior to its termination.
But the question is sometimes asked, "Doesn't Jesus say that Moses allowed things that God did not approve of; e.g., divorce?" The answer should be obvious. Nowhere does Jesus deny the authority of Moses nor that Moses spoke and wrote from God. Rather, He commands that when the teachers teach from the authority of Moses, "that observe and do" (Matthew 23:2). He identifies the command of "honoring father or mother" as "Moses said" but at the same time calling it "the word of God" (Mark 7:30). In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus quotes Abraham as saying, "They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them" (Luke 16:29, 31). Jesus affirmed that Moses accused the people before the Father (John 5:45). "But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (John 5:47). Jesus accused the Jews at the temple of not keeping the Law of Moses (John 7:19). Jesus equated obeying the circumcision law on the sabbath with healing on the sabbath (John 7:22, 23). He respected and honored the sabbath law (Luke 4:16).
The Old Testament was not referred to as the "Old Testament" when Jesus was on earth. The first five books were often referred to as "The Law" and the remaining books were known as "The Prophets." Sometimes the Psalms (also called, "The Writings")ii were distinguished from the "Prophets" (Luke 24:44). But when Jesus was using the name "the Law and the Prophets", He was referring to all of what we call today, "the Old Testament."iii
Jesus asserts that His teaching during His earthly ministry was not to "destroy" the Old Testament; i.e., meaning to "loosen down" as of a house or tent (2 Corinthians 5:1) or "disintegrate; demolish" (KataluoG2627, Mickelson's). Thayer gives the following meanings: "to dissolve, disunite (what has been joined together); metaphor: 'to overthrow i.e. render vain, deprive of success, bring to naught'; of institutions, forms of government, laws, etc., to deprive of force, annul, abrogate, discard."
Whereas Paul and Peter by the Holy Spirit that Jesus had exaleiphoG1813 ["rubbed out, obliterated, erased"] the ordinances and shadows of the Mosaic Covenant (Colossians 2:14-17), called "the mystery" in Ephesians 3:1-7, Jesus on the other hand specifically said that what He was teaching in the sermon on the mount was not kataluoing ["dissolving"] the Law and the Prophets. Jesus was fulfilling them.
When Jesus was directly quoting the Law, He would say, "It is written", as He did to the devil during the wilderness temptations (Matthew 4:1ff; Luke 4:1ff). Or, as He answered the lawyer (Luke 10:26), "He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?" When the lawyer quoted the Old Testament passage as written, Jesus commented, "Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live."
However, since Jesus used the expression, "You have heard" in Matthew 5, was He not referring to how the Pharisees taught the people, which was called in Hebrew 'שמעתא' "hearing"? The hearings were the connotations and/or traditions added by the Pharisees.iv Commentators (such as McGarvey, Jamieson +, Barnes, and Clarke) all agree that Jesus was especially addressing the "glosses" v that were added to the readings.
When we compare the Law with what is quoted by Jesus, such an interpretation can be seen as true. For example, with verse 43, "hate thine enemy" is added to the "love" passage commanded in the Law. This is not in the Mosaic passage. The Pharisees may have been interpreting Deuteronomy 32:41 or Numbers 10:35 in connection with verse 43. Such passages, however, when read are actually referring to the hatred of their enemies toward Israel. The Pharisees were in error.
This is affirmed in Matthew 5:21. "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time" (Matthew 5:21). This was also a Talmud expression; that is, as here, "by them of old time", or "to the ancients." The expression is not speaking of Moses or anyone of the inspired prophets, but to those interpreters, the "ancient" teachers before Jesus but since the days of Ezra. These "ancients" had corrupted the Law of Moses by their false glosses which they recited to the people.vi
"Here Jesus quotes the Jewish oral teaching current in his day."vii It is reasonable then to believe that Jesus was correcting or clarifying what interpretation and connotation the teachers had left in the "hearing" with the people. "For I say unto you, That except your righteousness [DikaiosuneG1343] shall exceed [the righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). Thayer's Greek Definitions states that DikaiosuneG1343 refers to "a doctrine." Jesus is definitely not censuring Moses but the Pharisees. Jesus also says that what He's saying is prior to entering the kingdom. What Law existed before the kingdom came? See more on this subject in X.232 Their Teachings of Right and Wrong.
During the "sermon on the mount" Jesus would state a subject “It has been said” and then follow it up with His commandment, “But I say unto you” (Matthew 5). He did this in this sermon with “putting away” (verse 32). The observation is made when He concludes the sermon on the mount: "And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his teaching: For he taught them as [one] having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:28, 29, ESV2011).
Why were the people "struck" with amazement because of how Jesus taught as compared to how they were accustomed to being taught by the scribes (and Pharisees)? Was it not because of the Pharisees' method of appealing to the "oral interpretations" of the sages, while Jesus affirmed His corrections with "I say unto you."
Remember Jesus was careful to point out that He was not attacking the Law of Moses since He prefaced His words with, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Matthew 5:18). He was born under the Law of Moses (Galatians 4:4) and He did not violate any of it (Hebrews 4:15). He did not teach against it. Jesus was sinless Himself with the Law (Hebrews 4:15). He did not teach his disciples or audience to disobey it which would have made Him worthy of death (Deuteronomy 13:1).
It is the opinion of some that God's moral codes continue in Jesus' law but on a much higher and consequential scale (Galatians 6: 2, Romans13, John 15: 12, Hebrews 10: 25 ff.). It is easy to agree with this position in reading the "Sermon on the Mount"; however, when we look closer to the context of Jesus versus the Pharisees, we can appreciate that Jesus is really clarifying the essence of the teachings of Moses and the Prophets.
It is a sound argument, I believe, that the reference that Jesus made to His not destroying the Law also assured His listeners that what He is saying does not mean that He wants them to break the Law of Moses which they were under. He would not have told those living in anticipation of His kingdom and during his ministry that they should disobey any of the Law. It cannot be overstated. Jesus was not Moses' enemy.
Jesus confirms, for example, the Old Testament teaching on loving God and loving one's neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:18,19; 22:37, 39).* The "Law and the Prophets" hang on these two commands. Which law? The Law that came by Moses (John 1:17). This is what we call the Old Testament. I have heard plenty "sermons" on Jesus' teaching of "love God" and "love your neighbor." This is true. This is Jesus' teaching. But as He points out, He had given that teaching through the Law of Moses and His Old Covenant prophets.
* "And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments" (Deuteronomy 5:10; cf. 7:9).
"And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might" (Deuteronomy 6:5; cf. 10:12; 11:1,13; 13:3; 30:6,16,20).
"Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I [am] the LORD" (Leviticus 19:18).
"[But] the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I [am] the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:34; cf. Deuteronomy 10:18,19).
- Gaylon West. From his latest book: Marriage Made From Heaven.
Throw Out the Lifeline
i Quotes Meier. http://daviddflowers.com/tag/shammai/
ii"Psalms." Easton's Illustrated Bible Dictionary.
iii McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nelson, 1999, pp. 334-335.
iv John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
v gloss.-"an explanation or addition to the Biblical text." wikipedia.org.
vi John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible. "Matthew 5:21."
vii Exegesis of Matthew 5:32-33 and Matthew 19:3-9
[Prepared for the Dakota-Montana District, Eastern Conference, Fall Pastoral Conference, November 6-7, 1973.] By Gerhold L. Lemke