Reading through the Lens of Jesus


In my first Kaleidoscope post, I said, “Since we are Christian readers of the Bible, the lens through which we read, interpret, and understand it is Jesus Christ. So we use a common lens, even though the uniqueness of our place means that we might look through it differently.”

So let’s think about reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus.

A good text to begin with as we consider interpreting Scripture through the lens of Jesus is Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)

Here is the text as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message:

“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.

“Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.

So, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish (or demolish) the Scriptures (the law or the prophets); I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (or complete);” the Greek word is plerosai. Peterson’s line that interprets the word “fulfill/complete,” “I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama,” is helpful in unpacking what is being said here. A. T. Robertson said, “Fulfill is to fill full. This Jesus did to the ceremonial law which pointed to him and the moral law he kept” (Word Pictures in the NT, Vol. 1, p. 43).

Jesus’ coming and Jesus’ teaching did not and do not eliminate the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible from Christian consideration but Jesus’ coming and Jesus’ teaching do affect the way we read them and the way we live them. For Christians, the OT law and prophets have not been invalidated; rather, they have in Christ been fulfilled/completed/filled full.
But what does that mean?

For one thing, it means that in Jesus the kingdom of God broke (and continues to break) into the world. As Robert Guelich said, “Matthew clearly understood Jesus to be the redemptive historical fulfillment or completion of God’s redemptive activity, witnessed to by the Old Testament and promised for the age of salvation” (Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 164). So the life and ministry of Jesus is the “all is accomplished” to which v. 18 refers (cf. Guelich, p. 168).

Still, we who are the disciples of Jesus want properly to fulfill the teachings of the law in line with its fulfillment by Jesus.

That leads us to the second thing. We read in v. 20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” No one in 1st century Israel had more respect for the law and prophets than the scribes and Pharisees; no one tried harder to live “righteously” than they did. As Peterson describes it in The Jesus Way, the Pharisees were a response to the attempts of Antiochus Epiphanes (2nd century BCE) and his spiritual and cultural descendants to replace Jewish commitments with Greek culture. They were “committed to a radical, uncompromising, and believing obedience” (p. 210). But, Peterson says, by NT times, two negative things had happened: “One, this accumulation of rules and customs had become a rigid exterior armor among many of the Pharisees” and “two, the Pharisees had become small-minded, obsessively concerned with all the minute details of personal behavior” (pp. 210-211). Peterson says that the Pharisees underwent a “slow change from an interior passion to an exterior performance and the shift of attention from the majesty of God to housecleaning for God…” (p. 212).

As Clarence Jordan said of this mindset,

Now Jesus said that was the wrong attitude to have toward it.The whole Law and Prophets, he said, were aiming at but one thing, and that was to get people to love the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their mind, and to love their neighbors as themselves (Matthew 22:37-40).And he said he wasn’t going to drop one comma or period from the Law until it reached this objective. The purpose of the Law was not to enslave men but to lead them to the freedom which only love can produce. (Jordan, The Sermon on the Mount, rev. ed., p. 47)

Therefore, for our righteousness to “exceed that of the…Pharisees” means at least to nurture our interior relationship with God so that our actions will emerge from our love and from our passion.

So, for Jesus to “fulfill” the law and prophets is first for their content and teaching to be fulfilled and completed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and it is second for Jesus to enliven in us the spirit of those teachings so that our hearts are changed and our lives are changed. Jesus opens up the depth of meaning in the Scriptures so that we can find depth of meaning in our lives and in our discipleship. In relationship with Jesus we become participants in the kingdom of God and that makes it possible for us to live the “higher righteousness” that is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount.

Such reading of the Bible is not wooden and stifling. Such reading of the Bible is rather alive and invigorating. It helps us develop a living faith that grows out of ongoing engagement with the text, with the Spirit, and with God’s intention that we live a full and free life.

We’ll examine how it works in future posts. . . .

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at He is the Uniform Series Curriculum Editor.

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