Every so often, the champions and foes of “Red Letter” Christianity break out their arguments, sharpen them up, and take to the internet. Champions say we’ve ignored the words of Jesus—highlighted in some modern Bibles with red lettering—for far too long. They want us to take up the radical call to discipleship Jesus issued in the Sermon on the Mount. The foes say that even printing these words in red creates a false, canon-within-a-canon that distorts the Scriptures.
Of course, there is a good sense in which we ought to give heightened priority to the words and deeds of Jesus. Unfortunately, some other self-described “Red Letter” Christians do more than give them priority. Instead, they contrast and even set in opposition the words of Jesus from the writings of Paul, or some other similarly ill-tempered and unprogressive disciple. While problematic, that approach is even less concerning than the tendency to pit Jesus against the Bible he grew up with: the Old Testament. Jesus’ words and character are contrasted with the Old Testament law, or the various commands of God scattered throughout the narrative sections of the Torah. So where Jesus and the Old Testament seem to conflict on violence, neighbor-love, sexuality, or some other hot topic, go with Jesus, they say. If you have to pick between red or black letters, go with red.
At the risk of kicking off another round of ‘robust dialogue’, here are three reasons why that approach doesn’t really work.
Red Letters Tell Us About the Black Ones
The first and most obvious problem is that the red letters tell us that the black ones are good. Jesus clearly affirms the authority of the Old Testament law in a number of places. For example, Jesus quotes three times from the law in Deuteronomy to silence the Devil’s accusations (Matt 4:1-11). Disputing with the Pharisees, Jesus frequently asks, “Have you not read?” In each case he assumes these are binding texts (Matt. 12:3, 5 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10, 26).
Some might point to Jesus’ overturning of Old Testament principles in the Sermon on the Mount as evidence he sat lightly towards them. Aside from the fact that this argument ignores the clear statement in Matthew 5:17 (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”), a contrasting reading guts the force of Jesus’ statements. These antitheses are so radical because Jesus takes what might be called “authorial liberties” with the Old Testament law.
Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the new and better Moses, who hands down the law from the mountain (Matt. 5-7), only has force if you assume Moses’ revelation was true. It is only powerful to say Jesus brings a new divine message that supersedes the Old Testament if the Old Testament had power in the first place. It would be an exceedingly odd way of honoring the “red letters” of Jesus, then, to repudiate what he says about the black ones.
Scripture Says = God Says
Without denying the human element in the inspiration of the Scriptures, B. B. Warfield argued that in apostolic usage, phrases like “it is written” or “Scripture says” (Gal. 3:8; Rom. 9:17; Heb. 1:6; 3:7; etc.), make sense only when equated with “God has written” or “God, as recorded in Scripture, says.” Pressing further into Jesus’ view of the Old Testament, we can see that the apostles haven’t diverged from their Lord. In one key encounter Jesus clearly equates “the law” and the “Scripture” with the “Word of God.” Jesus answered them:
Is it not written in your Law, “I said, you are gods”? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, “You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God”? (John 10:34-36)
Not only does Jesus equate the Old Testament Scripture with the Word of God, he re-emphasizes their inviolability and authority by adding that they can’t be “broken.” The Greek word is luo, which can be translated “to destroy, to tear down, the break to pieces.” Essentially, the Old Testament can’t be ignored, released, explained away, or rendered null and void. Similarly, in a dispute with the Pharisees over the Sabbath, Jesus quotes the law (Exod. 20:4) and identifies it with God’s very Word: “So for the sake of your traditions you have made void the very word of God” (Matt. 15:6).
Jesus Quotes . . . Himself?
The Book of the Covenant given to us in Exodus 20:18-23:33 opens with the words, “The LORD said to Moses” (v. 22). The rest of the commands are addressed to the people as the voice of the LORD, spoken to Moses, who presents them to the people. Most of the law in the rest of the Torah is delivered in the same divine voice (cf. Leviticus 1:2; Numbers 5:1-2;). So the law has authority because its author is “the LORD,” the great “I AM” who revealed himself to Moses (Exod. 3:14) and brought Israel out of Egypt (Exod. 20:2).
Paying attention to the Christological and trinitarian logic of the Scriptures, we see that Jesus identifies himself with the God of Israel through the Johannine “I AM” statements, (John 6:35; 8:12, 58; 10:9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1; esp. 8:58). So we must conclude that, as the eternal Word of the Father, Jesus himself is responsible for the Old Testament he quotes. We can emphasize the Spirit’s role in authorship and inspiration as the Westminster Confession does (“Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture,” WCF 1.10). Or we can credit the Father for this speech. But the outward works of the Trinity are undivided, even while the order of the persons is distinguished. So we must not think any kind of divine authorship excludes the Son.
In other words, unless we deny Jesus’ self-identification with the God of Israel, the Torah and law give us Jesus’ first Sermon on the Mount. These commands number among the “red letters” of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament Still Isn’t Easy
It’s okay to recognize the troubling nature of some passages in the Old Testament, especially some of the harsher commands of the law. Christians can say that in the Old Testament Jesus gave laws that were appropriate for the time and the place in redemptive history, and they no longer apply in the same way today. “The law came through Moses; but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
Still, we err when we reject the words of our Lord in the Old Testament because we cannot reconcile them to the New Testament. Instead, as disciples we must strive to humble ourselves beneath the Word, not settling for cheap, easy answers, but wrestling with the text in faith. Trust that the Lord will eventually bless us through the truth, even in his most difficult words.