“The Savior’s Use of the Old Testament,” Ensign, July 2002, 47
After His baptism and wilderness preparations for His mortal ministry, Jesus returned to Nazareth, the town where He was raised. There, according to Luke, He gave His Jewish neighbors His first public discourse. This sermon is a model for understanding how Jesus chose to use the scriptures of His day.
Jesus was a regular participator in scripture recitation at worship services, so “he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read” (Luke 4:16). As Jesus took His place before the people, an attendant removed the scroll of Isaiah from its special place in the synagogue and handed it to Him. Carefully and respectfully, Jesus unrolled it until He came to the following passage and read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
“To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19).
With great power and feeling He must have read this passage!
Jesus then rolled the scroll up, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. With all eyes fixed upon Him, He announced: “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21).
With unmistakable clarity and boldness, our Savior proclaimed that in Him was the fulfillment of this 750-year-old Messianic prophecy of the Old Testament. Stunned, everyone “wondered at [His] gracious words” and marveled at the power of His sayings (see Luke 4:22). They knew Him and His family and had heard rumors of His many miracles in other cities.
Jesus discerned their unspoken desire that He also show them a mighty miracle (see Luke 4:22–23). He rebuked their faithlessness, calling their attention to two Old Testament stories:
“But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias [Elijah], when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land;
“But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.
“And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus [Elisha] the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:25–27).
This stern reprimand filled them with anger. How dare He say that two Gentiles had greater faith than they!
This event offers at least three insights into the Savior’s use of the Old Testament scripture: first, Jesus confirmed the words of Old Testament prophets and His role in fulfilling them; second, He affirmed the events of the Old Testament as historical fact and used them to teach eternal truths; and third, Jesus exemplified great respect for the law of Moses as given in the Old Testament.
Jesus loved to quote the words of Old Testament prophets. And since Jesus Christ and Jehovah, the Lord God of the Old Testament, are, in fact, the same person, when Jesus quoted the words of the prophets He was often actually quoting Himself! The Savior quoted from the writings of Jeremiah, Daniel, Zechariah, Hosea, and Malachi. He was especially fond of using the words of the prophet Isaiah.
The New Testament records more than 30 references from these six prophets, 19 of which come directly from the mouth of the Savior (see Bible Dictionary, “Quotations,” 756–59). Sometimes He told His listeners which prophet he was quoting. For example, Jesus named Daniel once (see Matt. 24:15/Dan. 9:27) and Esaias (Isaiah) three times (see Matt. 13:14/Isa. 6:9–10; Matt. 15:7–9/Isa. 29:13; Luke 4:17–19/Isa. 61:1–2).
Other times He used the words of a prophet without specifying where they were from, often simply saying, “It is written.” In this way the Lord gave the authority of the Old Testament to His teaching and prophesying. His use of Jeremiah 7:11, “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Matt. 21:13), gave scriptural justification for His second cleansing of the temple. Shortly before His arrest He said to His Apostles, “For it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered” (Mark 14:27; see also Zech. 13:7). His Apostles would have likely recognized that His words were from the Old Testament, and in this way He assured them that what was about to take place was according to God’s will.
Finally, Jesus sometimes incorporated phrases from Old Testament scripture without mentioning a source. For example, when Jesus told some disciples of John the Baptist, “Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear” (Luke 7:22), He was paraphrasing Isaiah 35:5–6. When Jesus prophesied of His “coming in the clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26), He was incorporating language from Daniel 7:13–14. Thus, His listeners who were familiar with the Old Testament would have found a comforting similarity between His words and the scriptures.
Much of what the Lord taught was either based on, or supported by, historical events described in the Old Testament. He used them not simply to teach the facts of history, but to support and highlight principles of truth. For example:
Sabbath Day. When the Pharisees complained that His disciples had violated the law by plucking and eating “ears of corn” on the Sabbath, Jesus used an incident from the Old Testament to teach about the Sabbath:
“Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him;
“How he entered into the house of God and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?
“Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?” (Matt. 12:3–6).
The incident cited by the Savior is from 1 Samuel 21 and was used to make the point that “The Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath day” (Matt. 12:8). It is also worth noting that Jesus used the words of an Old Testament prophet on this occasion to rebuke the Pharisees: “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt. 12:7; see also Hosea 6:6).
Persecution. Throughout Old Testament history, God’s prophets were persecuted for their testimony (see 2 Chr. 36:14–16; Jer. 37:15–21; 1 Ne. 1:20). The Lord referred to the persecutions of old several times in order to give insight into the hearts of those who persecuted Him. When some leaders of the Jews told Jesus, “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets,” He unveiled their hypocrisy by saying, “Ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets” (Matt. 23:30–31).
Jesus then foretold the fate of His own disciples whom He would send forth to testify unto the world:
“Behold, I send unto you prophets, … and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:
“That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth” (Matt. 23:34–35).
Jesus then ended this prophetic denunciation by specifically mentioning Abel and Zacharias, two Old Testament prophets who had been martyred (see Bible Dictionary, “Abel” and “Zacharias,” 600, 790).
Judgment. Jesus used Old Testament examples of the wicked being destroyed to demonstrate some of the standards by which we will be judged. During a discourse on judgment, some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign. He called them an “evil and adulterous generation” for seeking a sign (see Matt. 12:38–42). And to drive His point home, He declared that the gentile people of the city of Nineveh (see Jonah 3:1–10) and the gentile queen of the south (see 1 Kgs. 10:1–10) would be better off at Judgment Day than them.
When speaking to His disciples about the judgment that will come at His Second Coming and how one might prepare for it, the Lord referred to two Old Testament events: the stories of Noah and Lot.
“But of that day [the Second Coming] and hour knoweth no man. …
“But as the days of Noe [Noah] were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
“For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,
“And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be” (Matt. 24:36–39).
Luke’s report of this same moment adds:
“Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
“But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
“Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. …
“Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:28–30, 32).
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets,” Jesus said. “I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17). The meaning of this verse may be amplified by an alternate translation: “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets, I have come not to abolish but to complete, to make their meaning full.”1 The Hebrew word Torah, which literally means “teaching or doctrine,” is rendered in the New Testament by the Greek word nomes, which means “law.” Therefore, what Jesus was conveying is that whenever He spoke of or taught from the law of Moses, He would render a fuller or more complete meaning. The law had been given to Moses by Jehovah, who was now upon the earth in His mortal ministry as Jesus Christ; therefore it was His prerogative to make the meaning of the law, the teachings, and the doctrine “full” and “complete.”
Jesus used the law of Moses as it was intended to purify lives and teach of salvation through the Messiah. The law of Moses, correctly understood and applied, would raise the natural man to a spiritual level and fortify him against the cunning of the devil. When tempted by Satan during His 40 days of fasting in the wilderness (see Matt. 4:1–11), Jesus responded to the temptations by referring to Old Testament scriptures: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (see Deut. 8:3); “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (see Deut. 6:16); and “For it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (see Deut. 6:13; Deut. 10:20; Josh. 24:14).
“Have ye not read,” He chided them, for He knew full well that they had read the writings of Moses, “that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
“And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
“Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:4–6).
Using passages of scripture that the Pharisees pridefully considered themselves to be experts in, Jesus confounded them by teaching the true doctrine intended in the law of Moses.
In Luke 14, Jesus relied on principles from the law of Moses (see Ex. 23:4; Deut. 22:4) to defend His healing on the Sabbath day. When the rich young man asked what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus referred to several of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 (see Mark 10:17–19). In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus said that the law of witnesses (see Deut. 17:6; Deut. 19:15) should be applied in resolving disputes. He also used the law of witnesses in John 5:31–38 to defend declarations of His divine sonship and in John 8:1–11 to withhold judgment on a woman taken in adultery.
Luke chose to tell us of two incidents that, like bookends, at the beginning and at the end of His mortal ministry, illustrate Jesus’ role in fulfilling the law of Moses. “This day is this scripture fulfilled [completed and its meaning made full] in your ears” (Luke 4:21), He said at His first public discourse. Then in an upper room following His Resurrection, He said to His Apostles:
“These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
“Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures [the Old Testament]” (Luke 24:44–45).
Jesus did not reject the law of Moses—the Torah—as found in the Old Testament. Rather, He used it to affirm its own truthfulness and give a more complete meaning.
The prophet Nephi has counseled us that the words of the Old Testament will be “plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Ne. 25:4). The Apostle John has clarified that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). Therefore, a testimony of the Savior is crucial to understanding the Old Testament. The Savior used the Old Testament to show that He is its central figure. To understand the Old Testament we must surely look for Him on every page, for “Moses did not only testify of [His coming], but also all the holy prophets. …
“… They have testified of the coming of Christ, and have looked forward, and have rejoiced in his day which is to come.
“And behold he is God, and he is with them, and he did manifest himself unto them, that they were redeemed by him; and they gave unto him glory” (Hel. 8:16, 22–23).
Using the Old Testament as the Savior used it means that we also will use it to testify of Him.