Matthew’s Gospel and Jesus the Interpreter of the Law

Matthew’s Gospel is written for the benefit of an audience of Jewish heritage. We know this because Matthew quotes Sacred Scripture liberally, because the Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees and scribes figure prominently, and because of the importance of the Sermon on the Mount as a central component of Jesus’ ministry in the Matthean gospel.

In one chapter of his book, The Real Jesus, The scholar Luke Timothy Johnson argues that Jesus speaks of himself as teacher, interpreter, and one who has fulfilled the Law of Moses in the Gospel of Matthew. Johnson rejects the Jesus Seminar theory that Jesus did not regard himself as Messiah, nor expect his audience to believe he was “the Son of God.”

On the contrary, Johnson argues that Jesus was fairly explicit, in his Sermon on the Mount, that not only was he obedient to the Law, but that he interpreted it. His obedience to the Law is expressed at 5:17-19; Do not think that I have come to abolish the law… not the smallest part of the letter will pass from the law. However, he then dives in to correct poor interpretations of the law, by, for example, forbidding divorce (5:31), mandating charity towards an enemy (5:43), and settling peaceably with an opponent (5:21). His position on divorce and forgiveness upend the law contained in Leviticus, such that Jesus positions himself not just as a teacher, but as an interpreter of the law.

Johnson regards the passage at 11:28 to be pivotal in establishing Jesus’ self understanding as Messiah.

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.

If you consult an Old Testament concordance, you will see the term “yoke” occur at least 30 times. Jews of the first century would have understood the phrase “take my yoke upon you” in the context of the “yoke of the law” or the “yoke of heaven.” Thes phrases had both negative and positive connotations. To be in a right relationship with God was to accept the yoke of heaven. To be burdened with sin was to live under the heavy yoke of slavery. For first century Jews, the “yoke of the Law” was obedience to the Torah (“the Law”) and particularly to the minutiae of the Book of Leviticus.

In either case, when Jesus says “take my yoke upon you,” he is laying claim to the law, without in anyway contradicting the “greatest commandment” of the Torah, in Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

For Johnson, Jesus’ rhetoric and public speech are consistent with the idea that he was both messiah and the Son of God.

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