Jesus asked His disciples the most penetrating question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt. 16:13).
Their responses included a number of prophets, such as Elijah and John the Baptist, and then the declaration of His identity as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (vv. 14–16). None of them viewed Him as a Jewish rebel despite the multiple controversies over the Law that had already been their experience of Jesus (9:1–8; 12:1–14; 15:1–9). Yet, this is one of the modern interpretations of Jesus—a rebel who intentionally violated the Jewish Law. Is this true?
On the other hand, the Gospel of Matthew clearly records Jesus’ own words concerning the Law and Prophets as the one who came to fulfill, not abolish them (5:17). Jesus affirmed the permanence of the Law and His role in fulfilling it (v. 18). So, how do we reconcile the times that Jesus was accused of contravening the Law with His clear intention to fulfill it? Could Jesus genuinely fulfill the Law and at the same time be a rebel flouting it?
The Sabbath Squabble
Interpreting the Law is at the heart of deciding whether Jesus was a religious rebel or not. From the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees, who interpreted the Law according to their traditions, Jesus broke the Law, especially the Sabbath (Mt. 12; Mk. 2—3; Lk. 6, 13—14; Jn. 5, 7). They considered any work done on the Sabbath a violation of it, including meeting human needs, such as healing. By this standard, Jesus was a rebel, breaking the Law, and therefore could not be the promised Messiah (Jn. 9:16).
Jesus responded with several counterarguments to correct their distorted perspective. He highlighted their inconsistency with respect to the Sabbath by their approval of rescuing an animal at risk of harm on the Sabbath, but not delivering a person from something worse, a debilitating disease or condition (Mt. 12:11–12; Lk. 14:5). Further, Jesus pointed out they would meet the physical needs of their animals for food or water on the Sabbath (Lk. 13:15) but not do so for people, who are more valuable (Mt. 12:12). They also conducted circumcision on the Sabbath to keep the Law (Jn. 7:22–23), which certainly needs work to be performed.
Further, Jesus asserted that the Sabbath was made for humanity, not the reverse (Mk. 2:27), and so it should be applied for the benefit of humanity. This truth was highlighted by His question, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mk. 3:4). But the most confronting response to the scribes and Pharisees was Jesus’ claim to be Lord of the Sabbath (Mt. 12:8; Mk. 2:28; Lk. 6:5). In other words, He decided how the Sabbath should be kept and rightly so, as He was the one who first commanded it in the giving of the Law to Moses (Ex. 20).
The Letter of the Law
The Sermon on the Mount clearly communicates Jesus’ interpretation of the Law as more internal than external (Mt. 5—7). Attitudes of the heart were at the root of actions, which meant external compliance was not sufficient in keeping the Law. The scribes and Pharisees focused on their version of external compliance and sadly lost the blessing that the Law was meant to give. This also established a deceptive standard of righteousness, which they seemed to achieve, but which Jesus challenged (Mk 7:1-23; Mt. 23).
[The Pharisees] placed an unbearable, unlawful burden on the people. Jesus came to set people free by removing such burdens, and He did so in His fulfillment of the Law.
Rebellion or Fulfillment?
When an accurate understanding of how the Law should be interpreted is applied to Jesus’ actions in relation to the Law, we see that Jesus was certainly not a rebel. He did violate the scribes and Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law, but theirs was not valid. Rather, they placed an unbearable, unlawful burden on the people (Mt. 23:4). Jesus came to set people free by removing such burdens, and He did so in His fulfillment of the Law. He stated clearly that He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but rather to fulfill them (5:17). In so doing, His perfect obedience to the Law enabled His substitutionary death on the cross to pay the penalty of humanity’s breaking of the Law (Rom. 5:19).
Jesus fulfilled the Jewish Law, and He was the only one capable of doing so. He was not a rebel in the sight of God, despite not conforming to some significant cultural norms. His violation of them was necessary to accomplish His mission as Savior, setting “at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk. 4:18). We should be thankful that Jesus confronted hypocritical legalism to establish true righteousness and make it available to all.