Over the last few weeks, a clergy friend and I have been meeting to discuss a book we started reading together titled The Forgotten Jesus: How Western Christians Should Follow an Eastern Rabbi by Robby Gallaty. The basic premise is this: We often neglect the fact that Jesus was a Jew. As modern Westerners, we come to the Bible almost two millennia after it was written and we struggle to interpret it the way most of the New Testament authors likely intended – through an Eastern and Jewish perspective. As I’ve started reading this book and reflecting on its message, I want to share with you a couple things to consider.
First, we should always read the New Testament in light of the Old. The New Testament authors are constantly quoting from the Law and Prophets, which makes up the majority of the Old Testament scriptures. One example comes from Matthew 22 (and the parallel in Mark 12) where Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He responds by quoting the Old Testament:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)
In this New Testament passage, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, verses that most Jews would have known by heart. The point being, Jesus was not coming up with anything new. Rather, He was simply pointing back to the commandments contained within the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament).
Second, we often either forget or choose to ignore Jesus when He says, “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.” (Matthew 5:17 NIV) The teachings of the Old Testament are not null and void. Instead, Jesus came to bring about the intended purpose of the Law and Prophets – to be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:3-6) Jesus seeks to transform how the law was understood. It wasn’t just a matter of literal observance, but of understanding the meaning behind it. Jesus points out that God’s will is not simply to not murder, but that we shouldn’t hold on to anger that could lead to such an act. God’s will is that we be faithful to our spouse in mind and spirit, not just by avoiding the physical act of unfaithfulness. The teachings of the Law and Prophets were meant to make those who followed them holy, since God is holy. (1 Peter 1:16 [quoting Leviticus]). Jesus’ motto was not “out with the old and in with the new;” He meant for us to understand the purpose of the commandments more deeply.
Connecting the Old and New Testaments is not always easy, but we cannot understand one without the other. As you encounter Jesus in your life, I pray you will not try to mold Him as you see fit, but would seek to understand the historical Jesus whose coming was foretold in the Jewish scriptures. May the Holy Spirit be upon you as you do.
Rev. Timothy Wilmetti – Bluffton First United Methodist Church