At least some in Jesus’ day claimed that Jesus was attempting to set aside Moses’ Law. And certainly many of Jesus’ Gentile followers thought that he did. On the one hand, Jesus claims to not be opposed to the Law in any way (Matt 5:17). He opposes anyone who lessens the Law (Matt. 5:19). On the other hand, he claims that a law of Moses was given just to appease the children of Israel’s “hardness of heart”. And he seemed to have many instances in which he opposed Moses’ Law. Or did he? Let’s look at some of Jesus’ teachings that seem to contradict Moses:
Matthew 19:1-9 v Deuteronomy 24:1
When confronted with Moses’ command to give a certificate of divorce, Jesus claims that the law was a concession to the disloyal hearts of Israelites, and that divorce was never in God’s plan. He uses another part of the Law which confirms that marriage is established by God (Genesis 1:24). Thus, he concludes, divorce should only be allowed if adultery is found—because adultery would break the covenant of marriage even without divorce. While it seems that Jesus is contradicting Moses, on the surface, Jesus is not actually opposing the law, here. The original law was to make a divorce official by having it be written in order to prevent remarriage. Thus the certificate is less about divorce than to disallow remarriage. Thus, Jesus is bringing the law back to its original intent—preventing remarriage, rather than allowing divorce. Jesus then expands the law opposing remarriage in Deuteronomy 24 to include any kind of remarriage except that following adultery, based on Genesis 1. Thus, Jesus is not opposing Moses, but making the law more consistent with itself and God’s plan in creation. The higher law of faithfulness to a covenant and preventing others from sinning trumps the allowance of divorce.
Matthew 15:10-20 v. Leviticus 5:2
Jesus claims that it is not what one touches or eats that makes one unclean, but the intent of one’s heart. This seems to contradict Moses who says that what one touches can make one unclean. Jesus, however, does not deny the actions that one should do to remain clean in the law—he is not opposed to bathing, but only mandatory washing before meals (which is found in the oral law, not the written). He could be speaking about the “real” cleanness that will matter on the judgement day, not the day to day cleanness that is significant in contemporary human society. Jesus is not contradicting Moses, but highlighting the moral law.
3. Loving enemies—
Matthew 5:42-48 v. Deuteronomy 23:6
The Law tells the Israelites who to hate, while Jesus says to hate no one—to even love one’s enemies. However, the Law is very specific about who one is to hate—Moabites, Amorites and Canaanites. Other nations are not to be “hated” or done evil to, even if they do evil (Edom and Egypt—Deut 23:7). Yahweh rescinded his command about the Canaanites (Deut. 20:17; Judges 2:20-3:6). The separation was later to be not to intermarry with these tribes (Gen. 28:1; Judges 3:5-7;Ezra 9:1-3). The Canaanites survived to the time of Jesus, but he granted them the eschatalogical promise to Israel if they displayed faith (Matthew 15). Thus, Jesus is not contradicting Moses, but taking a basic principle of the law—“Love of neighbor” and applying it more broadly.
Matt. 5:34-37; Matthew 23:16-22 v. Numbers 30:3
Rather than just emphasizing the keeping of oaths, Jesus is denying any oath-speech used in a promise. Moses’ law just demands that one keeps the oath one makes. Moses, of course, is not demanding that people make oaths. So Jesus is not contradicting Moses, but heightening the demand. Jesus is emphasizing honest speech for the sake of others in Matthew 5. In Matthew 23, Jesus argues against oath-taking for the sake of devotion. Overall, Jesus is saying that oath-making is less important than integrity and faithfulness to God. Thus, the higher law trumps the allowance of oath-making.
5. Harvesting and preparing food on Sabbath—
Matthew 12:1-8 v. Leviticus 25:4
In Matthew, the disciples are plucking and eating grain as they pass through a field on the Sabbath. Harvesting food is forbidden on the Sabbath, according to the law and Jesus is attacked by the Pharisees for allowing them to do it. Jesus, however, gives a number of examples showing in the Scriptures how one law is contradicted and set aside for a greater one: a. David ate the consecrated bread intended by law only for priests (I Samuel 21:1-6; Leviticus 24: 5-9). Thus, the cultic demand is marginalized due to the need of doing mercy to the King's servant b. The priests do not keep the Sabbath, but do their work during the Sabbath. Thus, the Sabbath command is marginalized by the need to maintain the temple pure. Thus, the disciples are innocent of wrongdoing before God, because although they may have technically broken the Sabbath laws against harvesting and preparing food (Exodus 20:10; 31:14-15), but they were living out the law of mercy for the sake of the ministry to a king— even as David did of old. Again, Jesus is not contradicting Moses, but prioritizing the law in an internal conflict
6. Honoring Father and Mother—
Matthew 8:21-22 v. Exodus 20:12
One should always honor one’s parents, and one kind of honoring is to bury the dead. However, when a potential disciple asks Jesus to bury his father, Jesus refuses him, telling him to let the “dead bury their own dead”. This seems to contradict the command to honor one’s parents. However, Jesus is not contradicting it. First of all, Jesus is prioritizing work for God’s kingdom before participating in honoring one’s parents, just as Jesus prioritizes God’s kingdom work over many other necessary things (Matthew 6:33). On the other hand, burying is not so much a sign of honor, unless there is no one else to bury them. The important thing is that the body gets buried, and not left exposed. As long as someone is burying the body—as Jesus says there is—then no dishonor is there.
Matthew 23:22-23 v. Leviticus 27:30
Jesus states that tithing is a less significant law than mercy and justice. Jesus is not opposed to tithing in this verse. Rather, he is saying it is a less important matter than mercy, justice and devotion to God. Some tithing might very well display mercy, but not the tithe of herbs, which is what Jesus is discussing. Jesus often opposes the oral Torah (Matthew 15:1-15; 23:16-31—opposing the traditions of the “fathers”), but he usually speaks of obeying the “commands” of God instead—the true Torah.
8. Welcoming sinners into the Eschatalogical blessing—
Matthew 9:10-13; 21:21-22 v. Deuteronomy 28:15
The Law makes it clear that those who are under the law but disobey it will die and not receive the blessings of God (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Jesus, though, is granting God’s kingdom to sinners, and welcoming them through eating with them. However, there is always a place in the Law and prophets for those who regret and repent of their deeds (Deut. 19:1-7; Ezekiel 18; Psalm 51; II Samuel 12). Their repentance displays faith, and so they must be welcomed and forgiven. Forgiveness of sin is not foreign to the Law, even for intentional sins (Genesis 50:17; Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14)—Jesus is just emphasizing forgiveness with an eschatalogical spin. Thus, Jesus is in agreement with Moses.
9. Welcoming Canaanites and Gentiles into the Eschatalogical blessing—
Matthew 8:5-13; 15:21-28 v. Deuteronomy 7:1-2
Jesus supports the welcoming of outsiders into the blessing of God in the kingdom. This seems opposed to the Torah (Exodus 34:24; Leviticus 18:24) on the surface, which does not readily grant the blessings of God to Gentiles. Jesus, however, seems to determine that some Gentiles that display true devotion to God and to the coming King deserve a place with Abraham Isaac and Jacob better than some who live within their earthly realm at present (Matthew 8:5-13). This is not opposing the Torah, but making the shift that Isaiah made, determining that the “nations” is anyone who is opposed or unfaithful to God, while the “servants” are those who are faithful to God (Isaiah 65:8-17; 66:17-23). Jesus is not contradicting Moses, but interpreting those who are “inside” God’s kingdom by the standard of faith.
Jesus does not contradict Moses
Jesus does not oppose the Torah in any way. Often Jesus is seen as doing away with Sabbath and cleansing laws of Moses’ law, but he is not doing so. At times he is prioritizing them, so that if they are in conflict, it can be seen which laws should be obeyed in a certain context. At times he is adjusting them, to make them be interpreted in light of compassion and justice. And at times he is heightening them, so they are to be interpreted in light of God’s higher laws. But never does he just say that this law has no place; nor does he set aside any command.