Imagine a chemist or an engineer or doctor thinking that what came before in his field, the accumulated wealth of knowledge and of best practices, is no longer of value and foundational for what he does now…
One major modern-day theological misconception comes from assuming that the Pharisees, one Jewish sect of many in Jesus’ day, represented the opposite of Jesus’s teachings. Assumptive preaching, directly or indirectly, seeks to make a contrast between the Law keepers and Jesus. The Law, presented as antiquated, and the Jews, presented as Law fixated, are projected in a negative light. Jesus and his followers, presented in humanistic fashion, in a positive light. In so doing, the Pharisees and the Law have become stereotyped in the minds of many and with it, Jesus has become stereotyped. With mischaracterization comes misapplication of the gospel.
What is juxtaposed in the gospel are the encounters Jesus has with those of his day and the prevailing opinions about the Law and about the Messiah. Jesus speaks to Pharisees, scribes, religious leaders, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, fishermen, the blind, the lame, the sick, the rich, the poor and to political power – Pontius Pilate – and to a massive crowd. These occurrences reveal Jesus’ dealing with misunderstandings of the Torah. Jesus’ countering their perceptions of the Law caught many off guard and troubled the righteous who lived by the Law. To ward off their concerns and not willing to destroy one iota of the Law, Jesus says to the Sermon on the Mount crowd “Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them!” Not one iota of the Torah will pass away until all is fulfilled with the New Creation (Matt. 24:35).
With his Sermon on the Mount Jesus offered the big picture truth – the Law of Love should be the arbiter of our intents and actions as the fulfillment of the Law. This is God’s intentions for his created beings (Matt. 7:12). The Law basically said “Don’t do this and if you do…” Jesus, in the his sermon, explains his interpretation of the Torah to the Jewish crowd (Matt: 5:17-20). He counters each of their “You heard it said…” understandings by telling them to look at the Torah his way. He summarizes the Torah and the Jewish understanding of the righteous being admitted into the New Creation with “Well, then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)
One important consideration to keep in mind with regard to framing a picture of the law is that the gospel writers did not intend to paint an across-the-board history of the time of Jesus. This context was provided by the intertestamental scribes. The Jewish community and the gospel writers knew their writings. The gospel writers stated purpose (John 20:31) was to write an account of the One they called the Messiah. This is the focus of the gospels, not “Law bad, Jesus good”. None of their accounts diminish or denigrate the Law or the Law keepers. Their accounts tell us of Jesus’ juxtaposed encounters and ways of thinking about the Law and life in a Jewish contemporary context. Matthew’s gospel account in particular addresses issues of concern for second temple Jews including matters of the Torah and righteousness which is mentioned over and over again in his account.
Another basis for the assumption that the Law had been negated and done away with is the fact that Christians are not obligated to follow the Law. For one thing, animal sacrifices were no longer required. Jesus – the Lamb of God – sacrificed himself for us. The righteous were to do the same. The assumption that the law, with its instructions and blessings and curses was done away with is a misunderstanding of the sending of the spirit at Pentecost upon those who believed in Jesus as Messiah. In fact, Pentecost confirms the words of the Law and the prophets: “the “word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” (Deut. 30:14)
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh ,… Ezekiel 11:19
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31;33
There are some who draw many parallels between the giving of the Torah and the giving of the spirit at Pentecost: The Many Parallels of Sinai and Pentecost. Others line up the dates: The Giving of The Ten Commandments was on Pentecost.
The Torah, the instructions, never went away. In fact, it is right in front of you. Here’s Moses telling the children of Israel this very thing:
For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ “Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it. Deut. 30: 11-14 (emphasis mine)
The English word “law” is a translation of the Greek word nomos. And, nomos is a translation of the Hebrew word “Torah”. Deuteronomy, as quoted from above, is a restating of the nomos – the law, the Torah. And, as stated above, one cannot presume that a Moses needs to be dragged off mountain top to restate the law. The law is a by-your-side tutor. So, one is without excuse regarding the knowledge of God and his Torah (restated by Paul in Romans1:18-32).
The Torah is teaching, instruction, and “best practices” to point the Jews the way to walk, to learn to be holy as God is holy. The Torah contains blessings for those who obey the Torah and curses for the those who choose not to obey. The Torah life is not a life of bondage. Rather, it is a life with boundaries. (Boundaries are conflated with bondage these days). The Torah for the Jews and especially for the Qumran community was not a religion but a way of life.
The wisdom literature of the Scripture speaks about observing the law – the Torah – to become wise. This includes home schooling one’s children in the Torah.
Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching (torah). Prov. 1:8
The Apostle Paul, the chosen emissary of Jesus to the Gentiles, would speak also speak to the Messianic Jews regarding how to understand Jesus in relation to the Torah, especially in light of the fact that Paul did not require the Gentiles to follow the Torah. Many today assume that meant Paul disposed of the law for Christians. The trained as a Pharisee and law observant Paul taught a different approach to the Torah in accordance with the resurrection of Jesus and his kingdom on earth (Gal. 3: 19-20). The thinking that the law was made irrelevant by Jesus was countered early on by Paul as he taught that the Messiah delivered on his covenant faithfulness:
The Messiah, you see, is the goal of the law, so that covenant membership may be available for all who believe. Rom. 10:4
Like Jesus, Paul didn’t dismiss the law. And, like Jesus Paul made it known that obeying specific laws was secondary to one’s intent and love for the One who redeemed them to walk in love. Perspective, God’s perspective is what mattered most and not man’s attempt to practice the Law.
Circumcision is nothing; uncircumcision Is nothing: what matters is keeping God’s laws. 1 Cor. 7: 19
This perspective, as taught by Jesus (“Except your righteousness exceed that of…”) and later by Paul to the Jews who wanted to be declared “righteous” to be accepted in the age to come, also made clear that the law brought God’s people only so far.
We are Jews by birth, not Gentile “sinners.” But we know that a person is not declared “righteous” by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.
That is why we too believed in the Messiah, Jesus: so that we might be declared “righteous” on the basis of the Messiah’s faithfulness, and not on the basis of works of the Jewish law. On that basis, you see, no creature will be declared “righteous.” Gal. 2: 15-16
It would be hard to imagine a chemist or an engineer or doctor thinking that what came before in his field, what works and what doesn’t work, is no longer of value and foundational and to declare a new way. But, it is easy for social engineers to discard what came before, including the law, to invoke a societal tolerance of all manner of license against perceived authoritarianism.
The gospel as dispensed today in many churches leaves out the historical context of the Law (and of Jesus) and coaxes out stereotypes. The Jews of Jesus’ day are presented as under the heavy yoke of the Law and obsessive about rules and regulations and keeping the law. Jesus is presented as chastising them for bothering with the law and not being more human. Some preaching will go so far as to say that the law was a failed attempt by God to make his people righteous and that Jesus came to discard it and to try a new way.
Jesus is presented as setting people free from the Law and therefore accountability so that they can be their own person. And, erroneously, the Jews are presented as caring about the Law and Jesus caring about people. I have seen Jesus presented as enlightened man of peace and love. Often on social media I have seen Jesus hailed as a Progressive along with Che Guevara and other radicals. Others on social media have stated that Jesus is OK with homosexuality based on the thinking that God made them that way and the law Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin. is pre-Jesus and therefore invalid (Jesus as social-justice warrior).
Others, including a well-known Jesuit priest on social media, have implied that the Law is authoritarian and “conservative values” and therefore must be vilified as uncaring and Jesus as humanistic “Progressive values” to be embraced. These pagans worship their gods and follow their laws even sacrificing children to them in the name of Jesus the Progressive.
The effects of suppressing the truth about the Law is seen in our culture and individually, as accountability is thrown out the door with the law. Lawlessness abounds, anarchy follows and in-your-face mocking of the righteous. “Law bad, Jesus good”.
Imagine listening to a singer’s performance and the singer and musicians didn’t care about tonality, meter and pitch. Imagine that they didn’t care about what came before musically and what worked to harmonize their performance. The sounds they make are jarring to the ears but you listen because it is promoted as avant-garde, unheard of and en vogue. You leave the performance feeling unsettled because the music didn’t resolve – there were no tonic chords only an establishment mocking dissonance. The ‘music’ was unconstrained and lacked direction and meaning. Yet, you feel proud of yourself that you were involved in something unconventional and iconoclastic. Later, at dinner with your companions, you rave about the performance. You want to come off sounding liberal, broad-minded and, …Progressive, and not like so many others who are so conventional and lacking your insight. There is preaching today just like that today. “They declare themselves wise, but in fact became foolish.” (Rom. 1: 22)
Finally, there are three Psalms in which the Lord’s instruction is central to understanding life before God: Psalm 1, Psalm 19 and Psalm 119. The writers show a strong desire to know God and His ways. The Psalmists want God’s instruction more than life itself. We would do well to do likewise, since man does not live by bread alone.
There is so much more that could be said about Jesus and the law, so I commend the following:
Required reading: the chapter Did Jesus Abolish the Law of Moses? –Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings Between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus by Matthias Henze