It is one of those disturbing questions that haunt the theology and teaching of many Christians. Did Jesus perfectly keep the Mosaic Law? It seems unthinkable to even ask such a question, since it is rightly believed that he always did everything right. However, the truth is often stranger than fiction, and the intersection between Jesus and the Law has caused more than one ulcer of the mind.
By way of definition, the Law mentioned here is a reference to the Old Covenant Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai for the people of Israel, and all the scriptural clarifications and additions thereafter given through the various prophets of God. This would include the 10 Commandments, as well as all the other 600-some-odd commands, and also every prophecy. That Law makes no distinction between supposed moral and ritual laws — to violate any command of God, is a moral failing.
This full reference, for what the Bible refers to as the Law, can be confirmed in many ways, but a quick look at the footnotes around Romans 3 for the dozen-plus quotes from “the Law” come not from the traditional law section of Genesis through Deuteronomy, but actually from what is known as the Writings and the Prophets, like Psalms and Isaiah.
This fundamental question then, is a query about both the purpose for Jesus coming to earth, as well as the purpose for that great Law of God. And so, since we ought to be interested in knowing our Lord, we must be brave enough to ask the question: Did Jesus come to keep the Law?
Many churches and ministers teach that Jesus was a faithful Jew under that Law and must have flawlessly kept that Law of Moses. Even more importantly, they will teach, that Jesus came to do what no one else was able to do — to obey that Law for us, so that all who put faith in him can be credited as if they too can stand righteous before God in the Law. Many even teach that since Jesus succeeded in keeping the Law, through his Spirit in a Christian, that they can now also keep the 10 Commandments and other big commands in that Law.
That my friends is a dangerous lie! It might sound good, but it undermines the truth of the gospel, let alone directly violates what Scripture actually says.
“Clearly no one is justified before God by observing the law” (Gal 3:11)
Jesus did not come to keep the Law for Christians, or for Jews, or for himself. Keeping the law never causes anyone to be justified as righteous before God. Not only was that not what the Law was designed to do, righteous comes to Christians through a very, very different path. That truth applies both to Christian believers, as it also applies to Jesus himself.
Jesus did not become identified as righteous because he somehow was recognized as having kept the Old Covenant Law. Jesus is called “the Righteous One” because of who he is inherently from eternity. This righteousness is a reference to his identity and character and holiness; something that no law, not even the Mosaic Law, could ever establish.
This is why the gospel teaches that:
“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Rom 1:17)
The righteousness that God seeks in believers can never come from a measurement of how well a person observes and applies any law. It can only ever come through faith in the person of Jesus from heaven, who already is and has always been Righteous. Such righteousness is about identity, not about law keeping. Keep in mind, however, such faith does require effort at applying it, but it comes through walking by faith in being guided by the Spirit, rather than through some defined law by which we can measure our success or that of others.
So, it might be said, “fine, Jesus didn’t become righteous by keeping the Law, but as a Jew, he still had to obey it, like all other believers in God”. Really? Let’s see if Scripture supports such human reasoning. Consider what the Lord said about his keeping of this Law:
“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread — which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.” (Mt 12:3-4)
This divine response was given to confront the challenge as to why Jesus was leading his followers through the grain fields on the Sabbath day. As the Pharisees rightly observed: “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” (v.2).
Sadly, many ministers distort this event by suggesting that this claim of doing something unlawful was the result of the Pharisaic additions to that Law, not because the followers of Jesus were actually doing anything wrong against the Law, but that is not what Scripture says. Consider the words of God from within that Law:
“‘Six days you are to gather it [the food out in the fields called Manna], but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.’ Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?'” (Ex 16:26-28)
This command in the Law was the very first detail ever given about the Sabbath. It even predates the Sabbath definition given in the forth of the 10 Commandments. God expressly commanded his people not to gather food out in the field on the Sabbath day — the very thing that Jesus’ disciples were doing.
A careful student will notice that Jesus does not reject the accusation of breaking the Law; rather, he challenges their understanding about innocence. He and his followers were being accused of doing what is unlawful, and to that he says: so did David and yet he remained innocent. Again (as noted in Mt 12), he compares what was happening to the priests who work on the Sabbath day, which was unlawful (aka: they break the Law), and yet are innocent before God.
How is it that a Christian, let alone a Jew, could knowingly break the Law, and yet somehow be innocent?
This gets to a fundamental truth of the Word of God. The Law provides no end. There is no point at which a human could ever be said to have “kept the Law”. It just doesn’t exist, because that is not part of the purpose for which God established it. One can strive to “be keeping” the law, but the past tense of having “kept” the law assumes that what the law continues to require is somehow finished with no further expectation. Even after a person dies, the Law continues to demand things that that person no longer can do. It might be theoretically possible to say that a person has never broken the law, but the Law can never be satisfied in its thirst for obedience, such that it could ever be accomplished, achieved, or concluded. This is why Scripture speaks of the Old Covenant sacrifices as being offered “endlessly, year after year”.
For this reason, Jesus did not come to keep that Law. And yes, shocking as it sounds, he led his disciples (and thus retains the ultimate responsibility for what they were doing in eating grain in the fields on the Sabbath day) to do things that broke the Law of God.
If the priests were identified as breaking the Law when serving in the Temple on the Sabbath, then any type of “work”, even that which is part of ministry, is a violation of the Sabbath command. This is why the Jews were so disturbed about the healings that Jesus kept doing on that special day. Those who try to suggest that they should have been praising God for the miracles, rather than criticizing him for what he was choosing to do on the Sabbath, are like those who “want to be teachers of the Law, but don’t know what they are talking about, or about what they so confidently affirm”. The Law commanded against any and all work, with no exception, by anyone of the people of God. Amazing displays of supernatural power are not allowed for with in that Law as an excuse for breaking God’s commands. Jesus was violating that Sabbath law and that was one of the problems that the Jews struggled against.
Jesus was not denying that he was working. In fact, he specifically agrees with this observation, and even goes so far as to claim that God the Father also works on the Sabbath day:
“‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working’. For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (Jn 5:17-18)
Notice the phrase in the above text that was written by the Apostle John which says “not only was he breaking the Sabbath”. This does not say that this was wrongly being claimed by the Pharisees. This is what the Holy Spirit inspired John to confirm about Jesus, that he broke the Law and that he also made himself to be equal with God — both of which are true, and both of which undermine what the Law of God said was acceptable for God’s people.
In another case, Jesus reveals something extraordinary about his authority as it relates to the Law. The ancient King Darius revealed his limitations of authority when he created a law that unintentionally ended up putting Daniel into the lions den. He could create new laws, but then he, like all other humans, remains subject to and under such laws. He was powerless to change the law. The same thing is revealed through Esther about the genocide law Haman had legally set up with the royal seal against all Jews at that time. In civilized societies, laws cannot be freely changed whenever a king wants to do so. No one, not even the king is above the law…except Jesus.
“For the Son of man is the Lord of the Sabbath.” (Mt 12:8)
The law that established the seventh day with all its restrictions was not over Jesus; rather, he was Lord over it. Jesus, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, has an authority over everything, including over law. He is not, nor ever can be subject to law. Rather, he is Lord over law and so laws do what he wants. He demonstrated this shocking truth by defying the law of gravity through walking on water, and by defying the power of death, by raising back to life people whose bodies had already started to decay. He even demonstrated this authority over God’s Law by forgiving the woman caught in adultery even through that Old Covenant Law was very clear in requiring that she be stoned to death for her sin. He is the source of righteous laws and thus all such law must remain subject to his divine right of application. This is the very substance of grace. It is what allows for forgiveness — something that does not exist in or can ever be found in law.
This is not to suggest that Jesus is somehow lawless, but that all authority, including the legal authority of laws, remain subject to him and how he chooses to use it. He is very much in support of the use and value of laws, but they do not exist to restrict him. He always keeps his word, which is a far greater foundation for reliance than any law could ever establish. Ultimately, laws can be useful for governing because they depend on the eternal nature of trustworthiness in the Word of God, whom we now know as Jesus. Laws can be broken, but his word stands forever and can never disappear or be distorted. In this way, Jesus is an eternal law unto himself. This truth is the bedrock of grace, something far greater than even the Old Covenant Law.
This fundamental truth can be verified in one verse (not to mention in many other places as well), where the Lord speaks about the scriptural source of what makes God’s word “unbreakable”. In the following quote, you can see that the Law contains and records a statement of truth that is unbreakable, but not because it is in the Law, but rather because the word-of-God is found inside that Law. In other words, it is the word of God that makes a statement eternal and unbreakable, not its location or recording within a law. It is what comes from Jesus, the living Word of God, that establishes and sustains life, law, trustworthiness, truth, and absolute certainty.
“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods’, to whom the word of God came — and the Scripture cannot be broken…” (Jn 10:34-35).
Scripture makes the striking comparison that Law came to humanity through Moses. In contrast, grace and truth come through Jesus — the Word who was God and was with God in the beginning. The ability to grant absolute absolution and forgiveness comes from a source that is above law and always will reign sovereign over such condemnation for violation. As it says elsewhere, the Law is only a shadow of the true reality that can only ever be found in Christ himself.
This is how we come to discover the purpose and limit of the Mosaic Law. “Law was made for man, not man for Law.” Remember, this “Law” is not plural, like Luther and many other Christians assume when they speak of the apparent problem of legalism; rather, it is a specific reference to that Old Covenant Law given to Moses for the ancient people of God called Israelites. God created that Law to help lead his people to Christ. He created Law to help people recognize their sinful condition and desperate need before a holy God. He created Law to instruct, which it continues to do because it is the very word of God, but never to provide righteousness or salvation. That could only ever be found through faith in Jesus.
Think about Jesus’ words when he challenged the people’s understanding of obedience to the Law of God:
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mk 3:4)
Can you answer that? You might want to bite your tongue and consider that no other human being was capable of answering that question. It is not scripturally possible to answer it, because one must first address what law is being considered when he asked “which is lawful”. If you, like everyone in his audience at that time, think he was speaking of the Old Covenant Law, then you can read what the Law says like everyone one else could then. The specific context of doing work on the Sabbath day was a sin under that Law and doing good was not an acceptable excuse for such willful rebellion, not even if it might save a life. There is no allowance for violating the Law simply because we think we are “doing good” or because we think we are “saving a life”. Under the Mosaic Law, good intentions do not provide a get out of Hell for free card.
That Law did not allow for anyone to make such a choice. Think of Uzzah, who put his hand out to stabilize the ark while everyone was celebrating and worshiping God as it was being carted back to Israel, and God struck him dead on the spot. Doing good, was not an acceptable excuse for disobedience!
Jesus’ question, however, does have an answer, but as alluded to earlier, one must first consider which law Jesus was referring to, which was not the one his audience would have assumed he meant.
This is the same frustration that all Jews would have felt when Jesus gave his parable about the Good Samaritan. He clearly applauds the Samaritan for being compassionate, and he rebukes both the priest and the Levite for walking on by. Do you know what the Law commands about priests and Levites in regards to touching or even getting near a bloody person? I’ll let you look up the many references, if you’re interested, because these restrictions were not Pharisaical additions, but explicit commands from the mouth of God. By avoiding that person, they were obeying God’s direct commands, and yet Jesus expects something that cannot be done by anyone who continues to live under that Law.
Jesus was forcing a change of standard in how to live before a holy God. Those who live under any part of that Mosaic Law cannot ever live by righteousness through faith. Law inhibits walking by faith, because it can be measured and achieved, whereas faith must operate on trust for living within godly boundaries that cannot be fully seen or recognized. They are incompatible, like new wine in old wineskins, or old patches sewn onto new clothes. Such attempts to mix them together will destroy both.
Jesus was intentionally breaking the Law of God, and yet he remained innocent. The appropriate question at this point ought to be, “how in God’s name is that possible?”
The answer here can be found in reflecting on the purpose for Jesus coming to this earth. Knowing the consternation and confusion that his confrontation of the Mosaic Law would cause, Jesus preempts this question by saying:
“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.” (Mt 5:17)
Notice this statement is addressing assumptions about the reason and purpose for Jesus coming to earth. He is teaching here on why he came from heaven and how that dramatic event would impact the Law and how it (the Law) would forever thereafter apply to believers.
He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. If you read the rest of this above text, you will see that Jesus was about to repeatedly challenge what the Law required and in several cases he would directly change what it demanded to something that everyone would hear as the very opposite expectation (like making oaths in God’s name, to which he said stop doing this). His words and life would often look like a direct challenge to core aspects of the Old Covenant Law. He would break laws and that would understandably look like he was abolishing it.
He certainly was changing the Law, as well as the entire covenant expectations to an entirely New Covenant, but that is not the same thing as abolishing. Scripture says this Law and Covenant would become “obsolete”, now that Jesus had come, but the purpose for this change was specifically about fulfillment.
This “fulfill” does not mean that he came to obey it for us. Again, he repeatedly broke that Law, while somehow remaining innocent. By fulfill, he was revealing that his mission for coming to earth was, among other details, to specifically accomplish all that the Law said and prophesied about the coming Messiah — as the biblical text itself words it: “until everything is accomplished” (v.18).
Unlike the Law which has no capacity to be completed or fulfilled, prophecies can and must once-and-for-all be proven, completed, fulfilled, and accomplished. As the Lord confirmed, “Moses wrote about me”, and “all that the scriptures have said, must be fulfilled.” This is the very reason that Jesus spoke those amazing final words upon the Cross: “It is finished”. The purpose for his first Advent, his coming as a human to this earth, was to fulfill all that the Law and the Prophets foretold about that coming. That is what he came to perfectly do — to finish fulfilling all that it said about him.
He did not actually fulfill or accomplish everything in the Law about him, however. Whenever the Law speaks of things related to what we now understand as part of his second Advent, those details are still working themselves out toward a final fulfillment, but with regard to his purpose in showing himself as a baby in a manger, he came to do the will of his Father, and he did it flawlessly and completely.
One of those details within the Law that he came to fulfill was to become a curse for us. Keeping the Law would not provide anything for us, but resolving the curse from disobedience against that Law would save us. That Law, and the divine demand of God, is that “in the day you sin, you shall surely die”. That curse — that horrific condemnation under the wrath of God — is defined by the Law’s phrase: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree”.
That is what Jesus came to fulfill. He came to hang himself on a tree, so that you and me who put our faith in him and what he did on that Cross in our place, might no longer be under that eternal curse. God’s legal expectation would not simply be dismissed, but rather it would be fulfilled, only not by us directly, but by the suffering of the One who created that Law.
Wow. He didn’t come to keep the Mosaic Law. He came to fulfill what it demanded of our souls and life, by putting himself to death and then raising himself back to life so that through faith in his grace toward us, we might live a new and eternal life in grateful worship of him.
Now, for Christians, Jews, and all who want to truly live, Jesus becomes our new standard. We don’t look to that former Law which can only ever end in death. Rather, we look to our Lord, holding to his words, putting into practice his expectations, measuring ourselves to his pattern and ways, seeking to live by faith through the leading of his Spirit.
Those who strive to keep any detail of that former Law are “alienated from Christ” (Gal 5:4). Jesus did not come to keep that Law, nor should you attempt such dishonor. He is our righteousness, so make every effort to live by his living words and active Spirit.
Those who rebel against him, who refuse in some detail to obey his revealed words, violate the eternal Source of all righteousness. They do something far more vile than any disobedience against that former Law of God, for they willfully reject the Lord of that Law and of everthing. They disobey the gospel, for which Scripture prophecies that such apparent believers “will never see the Lord”. Jesus is our new law. He is our righteousness, because of who he is, not based on some human accomplishment at keeping the Mosaic Law.
This new righteousness comes from heaven in the person of Jesus; it does not come from his earthly efforts at keeping Jewish laws.
“We have been released from the Law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom 7:6)