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The relationship between Jesus and Jewish Law is a complex and nuanced topic, sparking theological discussions for centuries.

1. Layers of Jewish Law

Judaism is characterized by a wealth of legal traditions. The Written Law, found in the Torah, is at the heart of it all. These texts provide the basic principles and laws revealed to Moses, which encompass ethical guidelines, social codes, and rituals that are fundamental to Jewish life.

Nevertheless, the written Law is not isolated. The laws transformed over generations, resulting in a vast Oral Law. This included explanations for specific situations, rulings on complex issues, and ethical considerations not explicitly addressed in the Torah. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, this vast collection of oral traditions was compiled into the Talmud, a cornerstone of rabbinic Judaism.

2. Navigating Interpretations

Jewish groups during Jesus’ time had diverse interpretations of the Law. The Pharisees held the Written and Oral Law in high esteem. They diligently adhered to accepted interpretations and supplemented with their own rules, often emphasizing ritual purity, Sabbath observance, and dietary regulations. These interpretations could become quite detailed, prescribing specific ways to wash hands before meals, limitations on carrying objects on the Sabbath, or restrictions on certain food combinations.

In contrast, the Sadducees emphasized the written Torah and disregarded the Oral Law. As a result, religious practice became more minimalist.

3. Jesus and the Spirit of the Law

Jesus did not disregard the core ethical teachings and principles of the Torah. Rather, he questioned the legalistic interpretations of religious leaders that focused on external rituals and strict adherence to regulations. In his opinion, these interpretations often veiled the true essence of the Law: love for God and one’s neighbor.

He criticized situations where these interpretations became burdensome for the common people. For instance, some Pharisees argued that fulfilling a vow to donate something to the Temple took precedence over caring for one’s parents (Mk 7:5-13). Jesus questioned this rigid interpretation, stressing the importance of showing respect to one’s parents as outlined in the Torah.

4. Internal Transformation and Fulfilling the Law

Jesus stressed the importance of the internal aspects of the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount, he went beyond the simple prohibition of murder and delved into the root causes of violence, such as anger and hatred (Mt 5:21-22). His teaching emphasized that authentic righteousness originates from a heart that has been renewed by the love of God, rather than simply following rituals.

5. A New Covenant, But Not Replacement

Jesus often stated he came to “fulfill” the Law, not abolish it (Mt 5:17). This didn’t mean adding more rules, but rather revealing the deeper meaning and purpose of the Law. He saw himself as the ultimate fulfillment of the Law’s promises, embodying its true spirit perfectly.

Jesus’ teachings on love, forgiveness, and faith offered a new way of relating to God and others. He emphasized faith and grace as essential elements in living according to God’s will. This emphasis on faith and a personal relationship with God through Jesus formed the basis for a New Covenant. This new covenant, established through Jesus’ death and resurrection, placed less emphasis on strict adherence to the Law and more on faith in Jesus as the Messiah.


The essence of Jesus’ teaching on the Law was not about abolishing the Jewish Law but fulfilling it by emphasizing its spirit rather than its letter. Jesus sought to clarify and distill the core principles of the Law, making it more accessible and meaningful to the people.

1. The Law of Love

At the heart of Jesus’ teachings was the Law of Love. This concept was not entirely new, but Jesus brought it to the forefront as the primary commandment. By stating that the greatest commandments were to love God and love one’s neighbor, Jesus simplified the 613 laws into two foundational principles. This approach aimed to direct people back to the relational and ethical core of the Law.

2. Critique of Legalism

Jesus often criticized the legalism of the Pharisees and scribes, who he believed were more focused on the minutiae of the law than on its intent. His critiques, such as those found in Matthew 23:23-24, pointed out that they neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus’ emphasis was on a heart-oriented obedience rather than a mere external compliance.

3. The Spirit of the Sabbath

One of the key areas where Jesus’ interpretation of the Law clashed with that of the Jewish leaders was the Sabbath. While the Pharisees imposed strict Sabbath observance rules, Jesus taught that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27). He demonstrated through healing on the Sabbath that doing good and showing mercy were in line with the true purpose of the Sabbath rest.

4. The Internalization of the Law

Jesus emphasized internal purity over external ritual purity. In the Sermon on the Mount, he expanded on commandments like “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery” by addressing the internal attitudes of anger and lust (Mt 5:21-30). He taught that righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and be rooted in the heart.

5. The Fulfillment of the Law

Jesus stated clearly that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them (Mt 5:17). This fulfillment meant bringing the Law to its intended completion and showing its true meaning. Through his life and teachings, Jesus embodied the principles of the Law and the Prophets, demonstrating a life lived in perfect obedience to God’s will.

6. A New Covenant

Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Law laid the groundwork for the New Covenant. At the Last Supper, he spoke of the new covenant in his blood (Lk 22:20), signaling a shift from the old covenant based on the Law to a new relationship with God based on grace, forgiveness, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This new covenant was foretold by prophets like Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34), who spoke of a law written on hearts rather than on tablets of stone.

Jesus’ engagement with Jewish Law was profound and transformative. He honored the Law by fulfilling its true intent and exposing the superficiality of legalistic interpretations. Through his teachings and actions, Jesus revealed the heart of God’s commandments, centering them on love, mercy, and justice. His approach was not about negating the Jewish Law but about embodying its deepest truths and inviting his followers into a renewed understanding and relationship with God.


Jesus’ life, teachings, and the establishment of the New Covenant offered a new way of relating to God and others. This New Covenant, established through Jesus’ death and resurrection, emphasized grace, forgiveness, and a personal relationship with God, moving beyond strict adherence to the Law.

This leads us to a crucial reflection: Are we focusing more on rituals than practicing love and mercy in our families, workplaces, and communities? Jesus taught that the essence of God’s commandments is love—love for God and love for our neighbors. It is easy to fall into the routine of religious rituals and forget the transformative power of love and grace that Jesus embodied and preached.

In our daily lives, we must ask ourselves whether our actions are driven by genuine compassion and a desire to serve others or merely by a sense of obligation to religious practices. Are we showing kindness and forgiveness to those around us? Are we actively seeking to build meaningful relationships based on mutual respect and care?

In our families, are we nurturing an environment of understanding and support, reflecting Christ’s love in our interactions with our loved ones? At work, do we treat our colleagues with fairness and empathy, prioritizing ethical behavior over personal gain? In our broader communities, are we advocating for justice and mercy, extending help to those in need, and being a source of encouragement and hope?

Reflecting on these questions can help us align our lives more closely with Jesus’ teachings. By focusing on the spirit of the Law—love, mercy, and grace—we can transform our faith into a living testament of God’s love in the world. Let us strive to embody the true spirit of Jesus’ message, ensuring that our faith is not just a matter of rituals but a profound expression of love and service.

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