Were the teachings of Jesus merely different from those of the Jewish religion as practiced at his time, or were they in basic conflict with Jewish tradition?
The Mosaic law in force at the time of Jesus’ ministry was not rejected by the Savior. To a young man who came to him, and who claimed that he observed all the laws of , instructor in Hebrew and research assistant in ancient scripture at Brigham Young University:Moses, Jesus said, “If thou wilt be perfect … follow me.” (Matt. 19:21.) Perfection lay not in forsaking the law of Moses, nor in following it only, but in embracing the higher principles of the gospel that superseded temporal law.
Jesus’ frequent rebuke of the religious leaders of his day consisted not in showing them that their observances had become outdated with his advent or that they were no longer binding. His dispute with the Scribes and Pharisees stemmed from the fact that they insisted on the meticulous performance of temporal laws such as ritual cleanliness, while the weighty laws of love of God and of neighbor remained largely unobserved. Jesus said: “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matt. 23:23.) A Jewish tradition states that it was because of hate between brethren that the temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, in spite of the fact that the Jews of the time were very learned.
Jewish religious learning had regressed into the cold dissection and scrutiny of the letter of the law, while the Spirit of God was denied. The admonition of Jesus that “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27) provides a clear example of the spiritual state of the Jews of his time. This was an admonition that might have been applied to the whole law as well as to the Sabbath.
Jesus observed Jewish customs as well as those commandments in the Mosaic code that were part of the higher law. The atonement of Christ ended the necessity of those performances and ordinances of the Mosaic law that prefigured his sacrifice. Other parts of the law, including the Ten Commandments and precepts such as tithing, remained in effect because they were actually a part of the higher law of the gospel.
Several Mosaic practices such as baptism in water were also contained in the gospel. Strict laws governing hygiene, clean foods, and family and social relationships were neither abrogated by Christ nor abandoned by his Jewish disciples. Rather, ritualistic observance naturally lost its significance as men born of the Spirit would be presumed to keep themselves clean, physically as well as spiritually.
The Savior’s teachings were often in conflict with the Law of Moses, as he sought to restore truths to Israel that it had formerly rejected. From D&C 84:21–27 we learn that the gospel was offered to the children of Israel while in the wilderness, but when they rejected it, the Law of Moses was given instead. Paul said that the gospel was once made available to Israel at Mount Sinai but that it was not “mixed with faith in them that heard it.” (Heb. 4:2.) This is corroborated by a Jewish tradition that explains that a higher law was rejected by Israel at Sinai and that the priesthood was at that time taken from all tribes except the Levites.
The ministry of Jesus was complex. His rejection by the leaders of the Jews made possible his primary mission on earth—the Atonement. Jesus was not a reformer; he was a restorer. The Jewish nation had lost the Melchizedek Priesthood and the higher ordinances and covenants. Jesus restored these things in the establishment of the church in the meridian of time. Since the Jews rejected Jesus, these teachings of the higher law were not adopted, except by a minority of Jews. As a result, the prominence given in the gospel to the spirit of the law, as exemplified by the parables and beatitudes of Jesus, was never incorporated into Judaism.
What can we learn about becoming perfect from the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus?
We have been told many times that there is, in the life of Jesus, a model to which we can turn as we seek to mold and sculpt our own lives into works of perfection. It matters not at which point we focus the eye of scrutiny. Examine the life of Christ as minutely as you wish. No hint of blemished conduct, no trace of lost control, no moment of foolish passion, no spot of crumbling weakness can be found. Jesus is the perfect man. Every moment of his recorded life inspires those who would bring themselves to that level of perfection marked out in the indelible chalk of Christ’s own life. , curriculum writer for the Department of Seminaries and Institutes:
In the trial, arrest, and execution of Jesus we find no exception to this unmatched faultlessness. In those hours of life when he was being ground with merciless pressure, his balance was never threatened, his composure never marred. The betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the gross injustice of his trial, the savagery of the mob, the cowardice of Pilate, even the weeping of his mother at the foot of the cross—nothing could loosen his hold on perfect control; nothing could lessen his total mastery. Christ’s marvelous ability to face adversity without loss of balance or faith in God is one of the great lessons we can learn from him.
In addition, he taught by his own example that God’s will takes priority over all. Submission to the Father is paramount even if it means pain, ridicule, and death. Obedience must remain firm under all conditions, even unto death, if one is to be found worthy of him. (D&C 98:14–15.) Here again, the Son set the perfect example for us. Torture, injustice, the supreme irony of being condemned for blasphemy, the agony in the garden, the sadistically cruel death by crucifixion—all of these combined could not divert him from his determination to do the will of the Father.
Sometimes when circumstances corner a man and leave him no alternative, he may show great courage and strength of will. However, Christ showed those qualities throughout, even though he could have escaped at any moment. The powers of heaven, we are told, are controlled by righteousness. (See D&C 121:36.) Keeping in mind that his was a perfectly sinless life, fathom, if you can, the powers Jesus had at his command. How pitifully futile the might of Pilate’s Roman garrison would have been in the face of the 12 heavenly legions Christ could have summoned, but didn’t. (See Matt. 26:53.) How easy it would have been for the one who cast out devils to banish the arrogant high priest. How elementary for one who loosed the tongues of the dumb to stop the tongues of false witnesses. Yet he who brought worlds and galaxies into being stood mute before his mortal accusers. He who stilled the rushing winds and pounding waves of the Sea of Galilee stilled not the stormy cries of “Crucify him! Crucify him!” He who had escaped unharmed from the angry mob at Nazareth (see Luke 4:29–30) faced the small band of arresting soldiers with a simple “I am he.” (See John 18:5.) The awesome, infinite power at his command was not unleashed to spare himself the least pain, the smallest discomfort. His will was irrevocably interwoven with that of the Father’s, and nothing deterred him from its accomplishment.
One cannot help but be struck with the tremendous difference between Christ’s behavior during those terrible hours and the actions of those around him. Throughout, it becomes clear that Jesus was the only one who was not thrown off balance by the passions of that night and the following day. Judas betrayed him, then committed suicide, apparently in a great overflowing feeling of guilty remorse. The armed party sent out to arrest him fell back in fright when he told them he was Jesus. Peter vowed perfect support and then failed miserably as fear washed out his determination. The high priest was thrown into a rage by the calm demeanor of the accused. Pilate, symbol and wielder of Roman might, became a frightened vacillating man when faced with the King of the Jews. Even the hardened Roman soldier was awed by Christ’s manner of dying. Throughout, it becomes clear that Jesus was not the victim but the Master.
The tragedies and tests of life strike us all; they are inevitable. But they need not hurtle us down to destruction or defeat. Let the storms descend, let the winds howl in all their fury. By the eloquent testimony of his own life, the Master has shown the true meaning of living in a house built upon the rock.