Deuteronomy in the New Testament
According to McConville, Deuteronomy is cited in the New Testament more frequently than any other Old Testament book, though some think more in terms of the Psalms. It is certain that the influence of Deuteronomy goes far beyond the number of actual direct quotations, although McConville acknowledges that there is no common formula for tracing Deuteronomy through the New Testament.
Wenham says that the towering figure of Moses is the key to the history and literature of the Pentateuch in general, and Deuteronomy in particular. Moses is mentioned ninety-nine times in the New Testament, and this is, in itself, formidable evidence of Deuteronomy in the New Testament.
Moses appears alongside Jesus at the Transfiguration, and Broyles says that this indicates that Jesus was being portrayed as a new Moses with a revelation of God as significant as the Mosaic law. He further declares that the Gospels present Moses as both the Lawgiver and the mediator of that Law, and that this is confirmed in John 1:17 by the apostle himself, and by Jesus in John 7:19.
Jesus spoke in a remarkable way about Moses (John 5:45-47) saying that Moses wrote about him; this is indeed identification with and authentication of the towering figure of Moses. Guthrie says that the strong Jewish belief that the Lord would raise up a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15), led Philip to find Nathanael and say to him about Jesus, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Stephen’s closing words in Acts 7:35-41 pick up the theme of Jesus being a prophet like Moses, while Stephen is clearly telling the people that they have rejected Moses. As Moses the prophet was rejected by his own people, so would Jesus be. It is, according to Broyles, a distinctive emphasis of Deuteronomy that Moses suffered Yahweh’s anger (vicariously?) solely on account of the people (Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:26; 4:21; 34:4).
The ethics of Deuteronomy are visible in the New Testament, although McConville says that the manner in which this happens is complex. Jesus used the tool of contrast as he cited the divorce law of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in Matthew 19:7-9 by appearing to set a higher standard than the Old Testament law did. Compare further Matthew 5:21-48 and the ‘But I tell you’ sayings of Jesus. Similarly, Deuteronomy 19:21 and Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek. The prohibition on oath-breaking in Deuteronomy 23:21 becomes a prohibition on oath-making (Matthew 5:33-37). Wright says that, as Jesus himself pointed out, the Deuteronomic law is not a command to divorce wives but a provision that regulates those instances when a divorce takes place.
Jesus said that he came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, not to abolish them (Matthew 5:17). McCconville considers it likely that Jesus saw his preaching of the Law in general as bringing out its full force rather than diminishing it, and cites his words on murder and adultery (Matthew 5:21-30) as a case in point.
To Deuteronomy 6:4,5 Jesus added the phrase ‘with all your mind’ and described the verses as ‘the first and great commandment’ (Matthew 22:37,38; Mark 12:29,30; Luke 10:27). During his temptation by Satan, Jesus countered the devil’s attack with words quoted in Matthew 4:4 from Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:7 from Deuteronomy 6:16; and Matthew 4:10 from Deuteronomy 6:13. All of this indicates the depth of Jesus’ meditation on the written word in Deuteronomy, says Wright.
Jesus taught about the Law in Matthew 5:17ff and quoted the commandment ‘Do not murder’ from Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. In John 5:31-36, Jesus cited three witnesses to his own claims, and thus appealed back to Deuteronomy 19:15. In Matthew 5:38, Jesus cited Deuteronomy 19:21 and highlighted the law of equal retaliation. The matter of hating your enemy from Deuteronomy 23:6 was developed further by Jesus in Matthew 5:43 as he engaged in the debate of law.
Deuteronomy 4:1 is an important verse with regard to two linked themes that are found in the words of Jesus and in the New Testament in general: ‘So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.’ The teaching given is for obedience not knowledge (teaching you to observe) and those words lead to life (so that you may live).
Jesus said in John 6:63 that his words were spirit and life, and, in Matthew 19:17 he told the rich young man, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” In his conversation with the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-19), Jesus quotes the law from Deuteronomy 5:16-20. McConville says that the Deuteronomic connection between hearing the word and receiving life (Deuteronomy 30:20), recurs in the New Testament as hearing Jesus’ word and receiving eternal life (John 5:24,25).
As Jesus commissioned his disciples (Matthew 28:19,20) the Lord made it plain that they were to teach all nations to obey everything that he had commanded them. The theme of obedience is also found in Luke 11:28; John 14:15,21,23 and 15:10. Jesus also spoke of his disciples hearing his voice, and finding abundant life in him (John 10).
Deuteronomy 16:16-17 deals with the reciprocal nature of giving and blessing, and speaks of joy being complete; this theme is picked up and, as Wright says, polished by Jesus in John 16:24.
In Matthew 15:3 Jesus speaks of ‘the command of God’, which the religious people would associate with the command of God in Deuteronomy 5:16. In Deuteronomy 3:20 the Lord’s rest is spoken of, and Jesus gives the term its highest expression when he offers rest to the weary (Matthew 11:28,29).
In dealing with sexual immorality, Deuteronomy includes the guilty man in the sentence and thereby shows that the law did not support a double standard in dealing with sexual issues. Those who brought to Jesus only the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11) did not follow the law in Deuteronomy 22:22 and thereby allowed Jesus to deal with them as lawbreakers, and take the focus off the woman alone, as explained by Wright.
According to Wright, it was the apostle Paul who made the most use of Deuteronomy in his theological and missiological reflection. Paul reflected especially deeply in Deuteronomy 32, and that chapter has been called ‘Romans in a nutshell’. Wright also says that Deuteronomy 9:4-6 stands theologically as the Old Testament equivalent of the arguments used by Paul in Romans 1-3.
According to McConville, the New Testament’s monotheism needs no special justification within itself, precisely because it can rest on the legacy of the Old Testament, to which Deuteronomy made no small contribution (Deuteronomy 6:4). Similarly the theme of idolatry is sometimes directly mentioned in the New Testament, and Deuteronomy may be detected underlying these statements. Consider Paul’s reference to pagan sacrifices to demons (1 Corinthians 10:20) and the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:17). There is also the issue of yoking in 2 Corinthians (6:14) which may relate to Deuteronomy (22:10) and the yoking of animals.
The theological theme of unmerited grace is found in Deuteronomy (9:6), and this theme extends throughout the New Testament. The Deuteronomic reference made it clear that God was giving to his people because of his grace, and certainly not because he approved of the way that they were living. Paul uses this theme as he writes to the Corinthian church: ‘For in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Having demonstrated God’s work of grace in their midst, the apostle then makes it plain throughout the letter that their behaviour is not the reason why God has given them so much.
Deuteronomy 7:7,8 make clear that God did not choose Israel because of any worth in themselves, but just because he chose them; this theme is continued in the New Testament by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. In writing to the Galatians (3:5), Paul points out again that God’s grace is his motivation to give, not what he sees in the life and behaviour of his children. This is a major theme that Paul expounds at length in Romans. Paul quotes from the Deuteronomic law in Romans (13:9) from Deuteronomy 5:17-19,21.
The idea of self-denial on behalf of others can be found in Deuteronomy and a similar thought is found in 2 Corinthians 9:9-15 where Paul is writing about generosity to those who are in need.
Consider the law on the release of slaves in Deuteronomy 15:12-18 in which masters must not only release them after six years, but also provide liberally for them out of their own substance.
The issue of slavery is an interesting one as the humanitarian book of Deuteronomy allows a controlled institution of slavery as a pragmatic measure, but insists that there should be no slavery in Israel. McConville reflects on this at some length. In the light of Deuteronomy, consider Paul’s approach to the difficult issue of the runaway slave Onesimus in his letter to Philemon.
In his letter to the Galatians (3:10), Paul cited the law from Deuteronomy 27:26, and quickly followed up by showing how Christ became a curse under the law (Galatians 3:13 and Deuteronomy 21:23). In Galatians 3:19 Paul speaks of the Law as having been ‘ordained by angels through a mediator’.The only Old Testament basis for the idea of angels being concerned with the giving of the Law is in Deuteronomy 33:2 (LXX).
The words of Moses in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 should be compared carefully with Romans 10:5-8, where Paul develops these words to speak of Christ and his ascension based on the Deuteronomic theme of ascent-descent. Moses’ song in Deuteronomy 32 is quoted by Paul in Romans 12:19 where he takes up the theme of vengeance from verse 35, and this same theme is also discussed in Hebrews 10:30.
In this context, Hebrews also speaks about the Lord who will judge his people (10:30), and this is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy 32:36. Romans 15:10 quotes Deuteronomy 32:43 verbatim from the LXX though the Deuteronomic theme of vengeance is not developed further here.
In 1 Corinthians 10:18-22 Paul discusses the issues surrounding sacrifices to idols and demons, and he may well have had Deuteronomy 32:17 in mind as he wrote, says Guthrie. In Ephesians 6:2 Paul picks up on from Deuteronomy 5:16 the commandment to honour parents and makes it fresh for his readers and listeners.
Deuteronomy 7:6 speaks of a people holy to the Lord God, a chosen people, a treasured possession. This is a common theme through the New Testament, with perhaps its greatest expression in 1 Peter 2:9: ‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.’ See also John 15:19; Acts 22:14; Colossians 1:21-23; 3:12; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Timothy 1:4; 1 Peter 1:2; Revelation 17:4.
One direct promise of Deuteronomy, that God would raise up a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15,18), was applied to Jesus by Peter (Acts 3:22,23). In Acts 3:22, Peter quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 18:15-18, and in Acts 7:37 Stephen quotes the same passage as he recounts Moses speaking to the Israelites.
Deuteronomy 4:1-8 speaks of the purpose and the value of the law and forbids the adding to or taking away from the words given. Ancient suzerainty treaties frequently contained such prohibitions, and they appear also in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 22:18,19).
The title of God as Lord of Lords as found in Deuteronomy 10:17 is applied in Revelation 17:14 and 19:16 to Jesus, the conquering Lamb of God; this unmistakable identification declared Jesus to be God in himself to John’s readers. The Lamb who is Lord of Lords shares the throne of God in Revelation 22:1,3.
Eichrodt speaks of the Deuteronomic concept of the distant God who yet condescends to be really present in the midst of his people and enables them to participate in the divine life lives on in the symbolic language of the New Testament, which uses the image of ‘tabernacling’ to tell of the dwelling of the eternal God among men (John 1:14; Hebrews 8:2; 9:11; Revelation 7:15; 15:5; 21:30).
While the Tabernacle itself is not a specific theme in Deuteronomy, the book begins (1:6-8) with the call to break camp and possess the land, and the dwelling of God with his people (and the consequences thereof) is constant theme throughout the book.
Wright says that the common rite of the washing of hands cited in Deuteronomy 21:6-9, which deals with the absolving of bloodguilt, was used most famously (and proverbially) by Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:24).
According to Wright, there can be no doubt that the early church found in Deuteronomy 15 a charter for their attempt to eliminate poverty in their midst, and Luke links the growth of the church as firmly to that social and economic effort as to the evangelistic preaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35).
The great Deuteronomic themes of kingdom, election and covenant continue into the New Testament, where they are interpreted Christologically. McConville, on page 151, expands this thought by examples. The kingdom theme is found in Luke 22:29,30; the election theme is found in 1 Corinthians 1:27,28. The theme of covenant in Deuteronomy becomes the New Covenant of the New Testament, and both Paul and Hebrews have a lot to say about this. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8; 9:15; 12:24 as cited by McConville. He also refers at length to covenant righteousness in Deuteronomy and Romans.
It is difficult to exaggerate the influence that Deuteronomy has had on the New Testament. While space within this essay allows little more than a brief mention of many of the connections, careful study of Deuteronomy will repay itself many times over as the New Testament bears witness again and again to the relevance of the book of Deuteronomy in our lives today. Those who seek to dismiss the Old Testament will lose a richness of heritage and links with the past, which make the book of Deuteronomy such a fascinating study for today.
Editors: D Guthrie & J A Motyer, The New Bible Commentary, (London, Inter-Varsity Press, 1970)
Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1981)
Walter Eichrodt, Theology Of The Old Testament, (London, SCM Press, 1961)
J Gordon McConville, Grace In The End, (Carlisle, Paternoster Press, 1993)
Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy, (Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1996)
Editors: Joel B Green and Scott McKnight, Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1992)