cbfla logo




Malcolm Tolbert and Charlene Kelley
Dr. Malcolm Tolbert with
Past CBF-LA Moderator Charlene Kelley



2004 Inauagural Stagg-Tolbert Forum

By Malcolm Tolbert

From the very beginning the Old Testament has been a problem for Christianity. Questions about the validity and use of the Old Testament arose during New Testament times, and they trouble us to this day. Should Christians think of the Old Testament as word of God? If so, how is it to be interpreted so that they can understand what God is really saying to them through it? In the light of God's revelation in Christ, are Christians even more responsible for ordering their lives by the law, considered by Jews to be the very center of God's revelation to humankind? Or, is the Old Testament so antithetical to the revelation in Christ that it is totally irrelevant for the Christian life and should be discarded entirely? 


Some members of the early churches, often referred to as Judaizers, took an extreme position on the right. They taught that followers of Christ were not exempt from living by the law. The demand that males be circumcised, that they observe the Jewish holy days, that they abide by the dietary laws, etc. had not been abrogated. Furthermore, legalists among the early Christian communities believed and taught that the commandments and prohibitions of the law also applied to everybody who became a believer. Unless converted Gentiles lived by those and other laws, Judaizers did not believe they should be accepted into the fellowship of God's people. 

Paul and the Legalists 

The first believers were Jewish. The males in the church had been circumcised prior to conversion, and apparently, for some time at least, early Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath. Thus, the issue did not become extremely divisive as long as all Christians came from Jewish ranks. When Gentiles began to be converted in Syrian Antioch and in other cities where Paul and his companions preached the gospel, however, the situation changed. Pressure began to be exerted by Judaizers or legalists to force those converts to conform to the requirements of the Jewish law in order to be accepted as valid Christians. 

Apparently at the time of his conversion Paul had experienced the call to be the apostle to the gentiles and had become convinced that salvation was by grace for everybody. Evidently this was the revelation that he referred to when he declared that he had not been taught the gospel (Galatians 1:11-17). Thus, Paul taught that converted gentiles were free from the law. This conviction brought him into direct conflict with the Judaizers. As you know, Paul apparently fought a running battle with people who espoused the position that would have excluded his Gentile converts from membership in the Christian churches.

The Jerusalem Conference

According to Acts, the conference of apostles and elders described in chapter 15 dealt with this fundamental issue. The church leaders were called upon to decide if church membership would be granted only to those who lived by the law. According to the Acts account, Paul's theology emerged victorious. Even so, however great that victory may have been, it did not solve the problem for all time.

A Radical View of the Old Testament

On the other hand, early on there were people who thought that the Old Testament was not relevant to the believer's life or, worse, that the Old Testament was evil. This was evidently a problem that Paul dealt with in 1 Corinthians. Apparently there were people in the Corinthian church who had come to believe that the Old Testament did not have any significance for them. Ironical as it may be, many scholars hold that the ground of this belief was laid by the apostle himself in his teaching about the relationship of Christians to the law. Paul had a very radical view of grace. When he taught that Christians were free from the law, he meant it. Is there anything that you have to do to become a Christian? Paul's answer to that was an emphatic "No." Is there anything you must do in order to remain a Christian? Again the answer was "No." As one can easily perceive, a radical belief in salvation by grace can lead to the notion that immorality is inconsequential to the person who believes. 

A case in point probably lies behind 1 Corinthians 6:12: "All things are lawful for me but not all things are beneficial." Modern interpreters generally believe that Paul was quoting from something in the Corinthians' letter to him when he wrote the first half of that statement. It is also likely that they had heard Paul himself affirm the first half of that statement in the proclamation of his doctrine of radical grace. At least some of the Corinthians had apparently adopted the position that salvation by grace had freed them to do whatever they wanted to do no matter what the consequences. 

Paul did not argue with the Corinthians about their extreme understanding of freedom. Indeed, he endorsed it. He did, however, introduce other considerations. The Corinthians were ignoring an extremely important aspect of the Christian's life. Christians were not only free; they were also loving. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:5, "God's love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit." Love exercises an imperative much more powerful than does law. Love demands that believers do what is "helpful" or beneficial, not what is harmful. 

In the same verse the apostle Paul stated once again the proposition: "All things are lawful for me." At the same time he recognized that the abuse of freedom could lead to enslavement, a very impressive insight into one of the fundamental problems of freedom. It can lead to ruin if it is not exercised responsibly. Paul, therefore, declared, "But I will not be enslaved by anything."

Ebionites and Gnostics

In the second century an ascetic Christian sect called Ebionites taught that Jesus' followers were under obligation to keep the law. They occupied the position to the extreme right on the issue we are discussing. On the other hand, a movement called Gnosticism also developed in the second century. Because of their belief that matter was inferior to spirit, Gnostics held that the material world was created by an ignorant, inferior deity. From the Gnostic point of view the human problem was ignorance rather than sin. People imprisoned in the world of matter did not know who they were or what their true destiny was. They needed the knowledge (gnosis) necessary to be liberated from their imprisonment in matter so that they might move into the realm of the Spirit.

According to Gnostic theology, Christ was not the son of the Old Testament God but had come from the God who is true spirit. The purpose for which he appeared in the world was to impart to humans the secret that would enable them to escape their enslavement in the material world. He was Revealer rather than Redeemer. Gnosticism was a serious threat to early Christianity but lost the battle against the orthodox position, which accepted the Old Testament and taught that the God of the Old Testament was indeed the father of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

These then are the extremes: on the one side are those who taught that Christians must obey the law as articulated in the Old Testament; on the other are those who rejected the Old Testament completely. Those extremes still exist in the world today. The great majority of Christians, however, fall somewhere between the two. No matter what their theory of inspiration, by and large, believers endorse the view that the Old Testament is an essential part of God's revelation. They do not teach, however, that male Christians have to be circumcised or that the Sabbath, Saturday, has to be observed as the Old Testament commands.

Jesus and the Old Testament

My interpretation of Scripture begins with the conviction that we are to interpret everything that happened before Jesus in the light of God's revelation in him. Also, we are to interpret everything that has happened since then in the same way. The most important question related to the issue we are discussing is this: How did Jesus interpret the Old Testament? 

Matthew, more than any of the other gospels, was interested in the relationship between Christians and Judaism. This is seen in the emphasis on the role of the law in the M materials. [1] Matthew 5:17 ff. is a good place to begin an examination of the position delineated in this gospel's description of Jesus' relationship to the Jewish law. In the opening statement Jesus declared himself against those who would abandon the Old Testament as irrelevant or pernicious to the Christian's life: "Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets." [2] Instead, he asserted that the law and prophets would be in force until "all [was] accomplished," that is, until God's purpose in them was fulfilled. At the same time, he separated himself from the legalists when he declared, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20)."

Matthew 22:36-40

We now turn to examine the possible meaning of these statements so crucial to Matthew's delineation of the relationship of Jesus to the Jewish Bible. In my opinion, the key to what is meant in Matthew about fulfilling the law and the prophets is found in 22:36-40. A lawyer (scribe) asked Jesus to identify the greatest commandment in the law. In reply Jesus pointed to two of the Old Testament injunctions, love for God and love for the neighbor. That is followed by a very important statement found only in Matthew: "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 22:40)." In other words when you love God with the totality of your being and your neighbor as yourself, you have done everything that God wants you to do. [3] The fulfillment of the law and the prophets takes place in the teaching and the life of Jesus. God's purpose in all dealings with humans throughout history is pointing toward the life of Jesus where love for God and love for others reaches its fullest expression.

Genuine Righteousness

Now let us turn toward a consideration of the "righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees," whose meaning is closely related to what we have discussed above. As defined legalistically, righteousness is expressed in observable actions. Legalism, however, does not deal with motives behind the actions. In legalism the standard of righteousness is achieved when our actions conform to a set of commandments. Observers can discern that we are righteous simply by observing what we do. It is from this perspective that a lady in Appalachia made this comment: "I can tell you if woman is a Christian as far as I can see her." In Judaism it was clear to all who the righteous and sinners were. Those who were sinners were the people who did not live by the commandments articulated in the rabbinic traditions. [4] One rabbi counted 248 commandments in those traditions, and another said that there were 365 prohibitions. The righteous had shown they were righteous by the meticulous observance of all those laws. After all, it is easy to determine if people wash their hands before they eat. All you have to do is watch them. 

Jesus, on the other hand, took a totally different approach. If love for God and others is the criterion of righteousness, it means that no outsider can know whether we are really righteous or unrighteous. Righteousness becomes a matter of the heart, as many biblical references indicate. The heart is the center of the person. It has to do with will, with commitment, with basic values. To love God with all your heart is the same as saying that your commitment to serving God is total. There are no hidden reservations.

Six Examples of Genuine Righteousness

Beginning with Matthew 5:21, Jesus gives six examples that show how his understanding of the Old Testament is conditioned by the law of love. Before we get into that we need to make another important point. According to Jesus, love for God and the neighbor are inseparable parts of a whole. The way we show that we love God is by loving our neighbor. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus tells us that the criterion of judgment will be the way we relate to our needy neighbors. In that passage we read this statement: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (v. 40)." Loving the neighbor is actually the way that Christian disciples love the Lord

The Law Deepened

Now let us look at the six examples that illustrate the approach adopted by Jesus in his interpretation of the Old Testament. The first is the law against murder. If Jews seeking to be righteous as defined by the law refrained from actually murdering another person, they could be sure that they were in compliance with the law prohibiting murder. Jesus, however, understood that murder stems from the attitude of the heart. Anger [5] and prejudice against others are two of the causes of murder. This means that while we may not actually commit murder we may have the heart of a murderer. If we have the heart of a murderer, it means that we do not love our fellow human being. Among other things, love means that the person of the other is sacred to you. 

The same is true with reference to the law against adultery (v. 27 ff.). We can refrain from committing adultery but still be guilty of lusting for the person. Lust motivates us to use others as objects to satisfy our own desires. Lust becomes a possibility when we fail to appreciate and honor the sacredness of the other person. It is extremely selfish, the opposite of loving the other. In these first two examples Jesus simply deepened the two commandments to say that the heart has to be right for the person to be righteous. The righteous person does not have the heart of a murderer or an adulterer. The righteousness defined by Jesus can neither be measured nor observed. Another person cannot know for sure if I am righteous, that is, whether or not the actions they observe have their genesis in a "pure heart," [6] whether my heart has been transformed by the love of God.

The Law Set Aside

Furthermore, Matthew gives us three examples in which Jesus completely set aside laws of the Old Testament and declared them invalid as directions for the life of faith. The first is the law of divorce (5:31-32). Scholars agree that the Matthean passage as it is phrased does not represent the teaching of Jesus. Rather, it made his teaching more palatable by opening up an exception, allowing divorce if adultery has been committed. Scholars believe, therefore, that the Markan parallel (10:2-9), which does not contain the exception, probably represents the original statement of Jesus. Although the Old Testament allowed for divorce, it was not the expression of a loving heart. Jesus, therefore, sets it aside altogether for his followers. [7] 

Jesus also set aside the Old Testament passage that permitted the use of oaths (5:33-37). The person with a loving heart is characterized by integrity and honesty in relation to others. There is no need for the added compulsion of an oath to make one tell the truth. 

He declared that retaliation against an offender (5:38-42), which the law mandated, was no longer valid for his followers who are motivated by a loving heart. They are always open to a relationship, even with those who abuse them. Rather than retaliation, they seek to forgive. The greatest manifestation of this kind of love is seen in the crucified Jesus while he was suffering on the cross. 
These illustrations reach a climax in 5:43-48 when Jesus closed a loophole that many had found in the Old Testament command to love their neighbor. In the broadest definition of the law the Judaism of the time used the term neighbor only for fellow Jews. Some limited the scope of the law even more rigidly. If you defined your neighbor as a member of your group, the law was not so difficult to fulfill. Jesus, however, eliminated any possibility of misunderstanding the meaning of the commandment by stating specifically that his followers were to love their enemies. This takes the commandment of love to the highest and most difficult level. 

The passage reaches its climax in Jesus' statement: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5:48)." A primary meaning of the word translated "perfect" is "mature." God's perfection or maturity is demonstrated in the way God relates to those who are hostile. God's actions flow out of the divine nature. God's love for us is not determined by our being loveable. God loves us even when we don't deserve it. We become mature as believers, therefore, when our relationship to others is consonant with our commitment to God, that is, when we do not react to others in terms of their character. Rather, our relationship to them is an expression of our own character as followers of Jesus.

Some Conclusions

In summary fashion we have examined six examples from Jesus' teaching that bear on our understanding of the Old Testament. There are three conclusions that I have drawn from these. First, the most striking aspect of this passage is the way that Jesus' word is set over against the word of the Old Testament: "You have heard it said….but I say to you (5:21-22 et al)." In a stark and startling manner the word of Jesus contradicted what the Jewish people believed to be the ultimate word of God expressed in the law. This was done by a person without any credentials at all to enforce his authority. He had been trained in no rabbinic school. He occupied no position of authority among his people. He was an upstart, an unknown from Nazareth. His authority, therefore, lay only in the force of the claim that his words laid on his listeners. It depended on their hearing and believing Jesus' unsupported word. This went against all their training to that point in their lives in which they had been taught that the Law was the ultimate, eternal, immutable word of God. 

Second, Jesus' challenge to certain Old Testament passages lay in his commitment to the central, heaviest, most important commandments of the Old Testament. Evidently he did not believe that a passage in the Jewish Bible that contradicted the commandment to love was the ultimate word of God. Jesus, therefore, with astonishing boldness set aside certain commandments that he believed were contrary to the law of love.

William Sloane Coffin has said it well. "When everything biblical is not Christ-like, we Christians need to develop an interpretive theory of Scripture. I think that the love of Jesus is indeed the plumb line by which everything is to be measured. And while laws may be more rigid, love is more demanding, for love insists on motivation and goes between, around, and way beyond all laws." [8] 
Third, in Matthew 5 we are given only six examples of the way Jesus interpreted the laws of the Old Testament. These six, however, along with other relevant passages in the gospels give us enough guidance so that we are able to apply the same criterion to other passages that are presented as the commands of God. 

According to the laws of the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to execute certain offenders by stoning. Some of those offences were blasphemy (Lev. 24:15-16), filial insubordination (Dt. 21:18-21), breaking the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36), and adultery (Dt. 22:22-24). There is an interesting aspect of the punishment prescribed for adultery. If in a populated area a man raped a virgin who was engaged to be married, the man was to be stoned. The virgin was also to be stoned if she did not cry out for help. We must remember that an engagement was as sacred as a marriage. If the woman was not engaged to a man, adultery was not at issue. We have some indication of Jesus' attitude toward the law that prescribes stoning as the punishment for adultery in the passage found in John 8:3-11. [9]


I have mentioned a few of the many instances in the Old Testament where actions and words ascribed to God cannot be made to fit into the concept set forth by Jesus in Matthew 5. I cannot believe in a God who ordered the Israelites to wipe out whole populations. [10] We call that genocide and find it utterly reprehensible when it is carried out in the world today. I cannot believe in a God whose law demands the execution by stoning of a disobedient son or the execution of a virgin whose only sin is that she may not have cried for help when she was being raped in a populated area. If I have to choose between the ideas found here and there in the Old Testament that depict a harsh God and the picture of God presented by Jesus in Matthew 5 and elsewhere, my choice is clear. Furthermore, there is simply no way that you can harmonize the two, which means that you have to make a choice. 

Good elucidation of Scripture demands that the interpreter use good principles of interpretation. For many people, one verse in the Bible wherever found carries as much authority as any other verse. This has produced a bewildering mass of prooftexts to support bad theology. It seems to me that the beginning point for biblical interpretation is found in the Bible itself. According to the New Testament, God's ultimate revelation is Jesus. His life and teachings provide the perspective for interpreting both the past and the future. This means that I have to interpret Deuteronomy in the light of God's revelation in Jesus. When I do this, I have to conclude that some passages in the book do not give me a correct understanding of God. Moreover, it means that I have to attempt to understand what God is saying and doing in the twenty-first century in the same way. 

The burden of this paper has been to show that certain biblical passages contradict what Jesus taught us. We can only hold that all the Bible is literally the word of God by tolerating impossible contradictions. This certainly was true of the argument advanced by a well-known pastor. He argued that God really did little children a favor when he ordered the Israelites to destroy them because, being in a state of innocence, they went to heaven instead of to hell. 

In his book, The Old Testament As Word of God, the Old Testament scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, raises the question: "How can we differentiate between God's word and human words in the Old Testament?" He replies with these words: "The answer is found in that surrender to God and in that unity with Christ that lets his Spirit work and testify through me. It is also found in the willingness to let God speak to me through the inspired human testimonies of the Old Testament."

One does not have to believe that the Old Testament gives a faithful picture of God in every passage to understand that it is absolutely indispensable to those of us who are Christians. Jesus did not appear out of nowhere with no links to the past. Rather, he was the climactic moment in what scholars call "heilsgeschichte" or, as it is known in English, "salvation-history." I believe that God's purpose as shown in the Bible is to create a people who love God and love one another. The revelation of that purpose unfolds in "salvation history," that is, a series of special events. These would include the call of Abraham, the liberation of a slave people from Egyptian tyranny, the establishment of the covenant at Sinai, and the ministry of the great restoration prophets (Isaiah, for example) among others. It culminates in Jesus of Nazareth. Without the Old Testament and its contribution to the message God has given to us we would be sorely handicapped. It can be the word of God to us when we interpret everything it says about God in the light of the fuller understanding of God given to us by Jesus.