There’s one thing that’s certain. Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture was vastly different than the religious leaders of His day. And I would venture to guess, vastly different than how we might read it, too.
As Derek Flood points out in his book, Disarming Scripture: Cherry Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did, Jesus prioritized people over the biblical text. The Pharisees, on the other hand, prioritized their text over people.
This is the major difference between Jesus’ hermeneutics and religious hermeneutics, even if that religion is calling itself Christianity. Here’s what Flood says about this:
“This radical stance of prioritizing love over law could be said to be the baseline of Jesus’ exegetical method. It is absolutely central to how Jesus understood and interpreted Scripture.”
“What we have here in the Gospels’ frequent conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees are two diametrically opposed ways of interpreting the same Scriptures coming into open conflict.” (p. 38)
Jesus was in constant conflict with the religious leaders because, in their minds, He was undermining the Law of Moses and the traditions of the elders. And, according to a “plain reading” of the text, they were right.
What’s interesting about this is that Jesus insists that He didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill every jot and tittle (See Matt. 5:17-19), but then proceeds to seemingly violate or contradict major parts of it! Here are just a few examples:
According to the Law, the adulterous woman should be stoned. No exceptions. Jesus does no such thing. He lets the adulterous woman go unpunished.
According the Law, when you touch an unclean person, you are unclean. Jesus touches the unclean and they are healed!
According to the Law, an “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” was the proper response to violence done to you; according to Jesus, we’re not to resist an evil person.
According to the Law, we’re to love our neighbors and hate our enemies. According to Jesus, we’re to love our enemies and pray for them.
According to the Law, violators are cursed by God; according to Jesus, God’s blessings fall on the unjust the same as the just.
According to the Law, we are to rest on the Sabbath and keep it holy; according to Jesus, helping those in need is more important.
Notice that in all these “violations” people are prioritized over the jots and tittles. Again, here’s Flood’s take on Jesus’ methods…
“The way of Jesus in contrast is instead focused on what love requires—even when doing so means breaking rules and commands.” (p. 39)
This makes me wonder how Jesus would be received in our “Bible-believing” evangelical culture. He doesn’t seem like a “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of guy. Some might even think He’s a (gasp)…liberal!
The point is, if Jesus was actually fulfilling the Law (and I believe He was), He was doing so in a vastly different way than simply taking the biblical text at face value.
Jesus was interpreting the Law through the lens of love….because God is not the Law, God is love. And the Word of God is not the Bible; the Word of God is Jesus.
Why is this distinction important? Because, while following the letter of the Law can lead death, following the Bible text can lead to the worst form of cruelty and hatred. As Blaise Pascal once observed, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
But following Jesus always leads to love.
When we have a “flat” reading of the Bible, we end up painting ourselves into a corner, defending the text while violating the people Jesus died for. We fail to see that even the Law should lead us to other-centered love.
Jesus was simply echoing the prophet’s pushback on the idea that obeying God was about ritual sacrifice and religious zeal. Here’s one example from Isaiah, and notice what God is fed up with and what He considers more important (Emphasis mine):
11 “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?”
Says the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle.
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
Or of lambs or goats.
12 “When you come to appear before Me,
Who has required this from your hand,
To trample My courts?
13 Bring no more futile sacrifices;
Incense is an abomination to Me.
The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.
14 Your New Moons and your appointed feasts
My soul hates;
They are a trouble to Me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers,
I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.
16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.
Cease to do evil,
17 Learn to do good;
Rebuke the oppressor;
Defend the fatherless,
Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17 NKJV)
What Isaiah was trying to tell us here, and what Jesus brilliantly reveals by His life and teaching, is that our sacrificial obedience and zeal to defend the sacred text was never the Father’s heart. The only thing God has ever wanted is a people who are fully His and who have the same care and compassion for others He has for them. This is how Jesus revealed God; this is how He interpreted Scripture. We should probably do the same.
17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:17-18 NKJV)