Did Jesus Violate the OT Law?


A recent argument online has raised an important question about the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament Law, and in particular the Sabbath. I’ll leave the background for interested readers to discover, but the main point that piqued my interest was the argument by some that Jesus violated the Old Testament Law when he healed on the Sabbath. (The whole argument is such a mishmash of bad exegesis, heresy, and improper inference from both sides that it isn’t worth diving into.)

The simple answer is “no.” If Jesus had violated the Old Testament Law, then he would have sinned and would not have been our Messiah. We needed a blemishless sacrifice for our own sin, which only Jesus—who is very God and very man—could provide.

Those who are arguing that Jesus violated the Moral Law of the Old Testament are implicitly arguing that Jesus sinned against God. If we accept the account of the author of Hebrews, then we know that Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). Or, perhaps, the Paul’s argument toward that same end might encourage us to accept that point (1 Cor 5:21). If one disagrees with the testimony of Scripture and argues that Jesus did, in fact, sin, then the rest of this argument doesn’t matter because the only real authority for theology is that person’s opinion (or whatever other source he/she deems to be, in his/her opinion worthy of the highest authority).

For those of you with me, we’ve established that Jesus did not sin.

However, Jesus did not follow the customs of the people of his day relating to the observation of Sabbath. This was a major point of contention between the religious authorities of the day and him.

Jesus on the Sabbath

For example, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Matt 12:8-14 right after he explains why his disciples’ eating of gleaned grain was not a violation of the Sabbath (vv. 1-8). This made the Pharisees pretty mad, likely because he both undermined their legalistic hegemony (vv. 11-12) and because he implies that he is Messiah (v. 8).

There are other examples, as well.

Significantly, in John 5, Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda on a Saturday. This leads to a full-scale decision to kill him. John is much more explicit about the complaint of the Pharisees: “This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making him equal to God.” (v. 18)

This passage is important because it states explicitly that Jesus broke the Sabbath.

At this point, some might think my argument scuttled. If we read absolutely literally, then John says that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Some infer that a) some portions of the OT Law are more important than others, so Jesus didn’t sin by violating a portion of the Law; b) Jesus sinned (see above); c) the Sabbath Law was not in play for Jesus.

Options a) and c) are in play for orthodox Christians, but I don’t think either one is correct.

Although John 5:18 states that Jesus was “breaking the Sabbath,” we can recognize that John is describing the perspective of the Pharisees. When John is speaking from his own perspective he writes that Jesus “was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 17). In contrast, the Pharisees see Jesus’ good works as breaking the Sabbath and “making himself equal with God.” (v. 18) Of the four gospel writers, John is the clearest about announcing Jesus’ deity, so there is little question that he is not actually accusing Jesus of violating the Old Testament Law. He was violating the imposed, unbiblical norms of his day, which had been imposed on the Jews by their religious leaders in order to ensure they didn’t violate the real Law.

The Nature of the Law

There is a solid rabbinic tradition of a tripartite division of the Law in the Old Testament. This division has been largely recognized through Church History, though it is certainly not a universally held view.

Generally, the Old Testament Laws tend to be divided into the Civil, the Ceremonial, and the Moral Law. Civil laws tend to be those laws of the Old Testament that focus on the political and social administration of the people of Israel. These include the casuistic limitations on punishments for idolaters, adulterers, slavers, etc. Such laws, like the various property laws, are helpful in understanding the principles of justice, but our building codes do not require a parapet around the roof because it is no longer technologically or culturally necessary and because the nation of Israel, as a theocracy constituted in the Old Testament is no longer extant. Occasionally, actual theonomists arise (not just faithful people seeking justice in society that doesn’t match the worldview of the vogue “secular” culture) that try to enforce parts of the civil law, but it rarely goes far and is inconsistent with the way Christianity has interpreted the use of the OT Law.

The second category of Old Testament Law is the ceremonial law. These are laws related to the worship of the Israelites, including the various offerings, sacrifices, cleansings, and festivals. Even orthodox Jews do not practice this portion of the Law fully, because they have no temple in which to conduct the various sacrifices. For Christians, it is this portion of the Law that we generally understand to have been fulfilled by Christ (cf. Matt 5:17).

The third category of the Law is the moral law. These are contained in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. According to the Reformed tradition, this portion of the Law is still in play for several reasons. First, it is the only portion of the Law that was actually written by God himself. (Ex 31:18) Second, the Decalogue is considered to reflect the character of God. This is the resolution to the famous Euthyphro dilemma of philosophy. God’s Law is good not by declaration of God or by pre-existence morally prior to God, but because it reflects the character of a good God. Third, most of the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament explicitly, and the entirety of them seem to be reaffirmed to Christ when he summarizes them in the first and second greatest commandments. (cf. Matt 22:34-40) The first greatest commandment is generally considered to summarize the first tablet of the Decalogue, with the second summarizing the latter portion of the Decalogue. Those who hold this position generally argue that the civil and ceremonial law are temporal and geographically bound applications of the moral law.

There are certainly objections to this approach to the Law, but that is a topic for another day.