3. Is Christ the End of the Law?

Part III

Paul tells us in Romans 10:4 that the “telos” of the law is Christ, which has been translated “Christ is the end of the law” (see NIV 1984). Much debate has occurred over this line. However, few have noticed the surprising way that telos is used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Believe it or not, we find two other places where telos in its verb form, teleos (to end, complete) is used together with nomos (law) in the sense of in the sense of keeping or fulfilling (obeying) it!

Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps (teleo) the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. (Romans 2:27)

If you really fulfill (teleo) the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8)

Certainly in these two passages, the sense of teleo is not “terminate, bring to an end.”

Let’s also examine the other verb that is used in a similar context, pleroo (“to fulfill,” in the sense of filling up). This is what is used 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 (pleroo) them.”1

Note how the verb pleroo is used in these other passages:

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling (pleroo) of the law. (Romans 13:10)

For the whole law is fulfilled (pleroo) in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

Like teleo, the sense of pleroo here is that of upholding the Torah rather than simply seeking its termination.

 

Christ is the Goal of the Torah

So, how should we read Romans 10:4? In light of the rest of Paul’s writing, I think it’s wise to take a two-handed approach. Scholars point out that while telos can mean “end,” it can also mean “goal” or “culmination.” They suggest that Paul’s wording in Romans 10:4 is deliberately vague, conveying two ideas at once. Christ is both the goal and the end of the Law, they conclude.

Christ is the climactic goal of the Torah, the living embodiment of the holiness and compassion toward which God was aiming. Jesus is the “Word made flesh.” He is the only one who has ever perfectly lived out the Torah.

If the Torah is God’s teaching for how to live as his people, in what sense could it end? I’d point out two things. As Christians, we believe that Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our inability to keep God’s commands. As such, he brought the law to the end of its ability to separate us from God because of our sin. For that we rejoice!

Second, God’s policy for centuries had been to separate Israel from the influence of its pagan neighbors. He did this so that he could train his people properly, like a parent teaching a child (Galatians 3:24). In Christ, God gave a new command that went in the opposite direction. Instead of maintaining their distance, Jesus’ followers were to go into the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

The instant Peter visited the first Gentile, the policy of separation collided with the new policy of outreach. According to Jewish law, Peter could not accept Cornelius’s hospitality because Gentiles were “unclean.” But God had given him a vision in which unclean animals were declared “clean.” (Acts 10:9-16)

With the guidance of the Spirit, the church ruled in Acts 15 that Gentile believers did not need to enter into the covenant that was given on Mount Sinai. The “dividing wall of hostility” that the Torah put up to keep the Gentiles away was brought to an end (Ephesians 2:14).

 

Unclean Animals

 

What about God’s Covenant with Israel?

The Torah also contains God’s covenant with Israel. Did Jesus bring this covenant to an end? Absolutely not, Paul exclaims! Just look at Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! …As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Romans 11:1, 28-29

Paul mourns deeply for his Jewish brothers who have been alienated from God’s promises, and he longs for them to believe in their Messiah. He pictures Israel, the family of Abraham, as an olive tree that Gentiles have been grafted into. Some of Israel’s branches have been cut off, but he’s is optimistic that they can be grafted in again. In no way does Paul think of God’s covenant with Israel as nullified, though.

 

In Conclusion

As Gentiles, Christians are not obligated to keep the Mosaic covenant. It was given to Israel, not to the world. We are saved by faith because of Christ’s atoning death, not by keeping laws we were never given.

How then are we to live? Paul and the other New Testament writers spend most of their letters discussing this very subject. In Acts 15:21, the Jerusalem Council points out that that Gentile believers will hear Moses preached every weekend in the synagogue. Certainly they will learn how to live from hearing the Torah preached.

The Apostles knew that we can discover great wisdom within the Torah because Christ himself was the goal toward which it was aiming. This is our goal too—to be filled with the love and goodness of our Lord and Rabbi, Jesus.

~~~~~

Go back to part 1, What “Fulfill the Law” Meant in its Jewish Context

Go back to part 2, What Paul Said about Fulfilling the Law

(Certainly much, much more could be said about these issues. My point is to share a few language and cultural insights that challenge our reading, not deal exhaustively with Pauline theology.)

2. What Paul Said about “Fulfilling the Law”

Part II

In the past, the idea that “Christ brought the Law to an end by fulfilling it” has been the traditional rationale of why Christians are not obligated to keep the laws of the Old Testament.

We overlook the fact that in Acts 15, the early church declared that Gentiles were not obligated to convert to Judaism by being circumcised and taking on the covenant of Torah that was given to Israel. Instead they were told that they must simply observe the three most basic laws against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, the minimal observance required of Gentile God-fearers.1

Abraham & sonsAccording to Acts, the reason Christians have not been required to observe the Torah was not because it has ended, but because we are Gentiles (at least most of us).

Paul, of course, was zealous in saying that Gentiles were not required to observe the Torah when some insisted they become circumcised and take on other observances. He himself still observed the Torah, and proved it to James when asked to do so in Acts 21:24-26. Yet he still maintained that Gentiles were saved apart from observing it.

Paul supported this idea by pointing out that the Gentiles were being filled with the Holy Spirit when they first believed in Christ, not after they had become Torah observant (Gal. 3:2-5).

He also pointed out that Abraham did not observe the laws of the Torah that were given 400 years later, but was justified because of his faith. (Gal. 3:6-9)2 He concluded that all who believe are “Sons of Abraham” even though this very term was usually reserved for circumcised Jews.

 

Paul’s use of “Fulfill the Law”

An important part of this discussion is that Christians widely misunderstand the word “Torah,” which we translate as “law.” We associate it with burdensome regulations and legal courts. In the Jewish mind, the main sense of “Torah” is teaching, guidance and instruction, rather than legal regulation. Note that a torah of hesed, “a teaching of kindness” is on the tongue of the Proverbs 31 woman (Proverbs 31:26).

Why would torah be translated as law? Because when God instructs his people how to live, he does it with great authority. His torah demands obedience, so the word takes on the sense of “law.” But in Jewish parlance, torah has a very positive sense, that our loving Creator would teach us how to live. It was a joy and privilege to teach others how to live life by God’s instructions. This was the goal of every rabbi, including Jesus.

The question then becomes, if the Torah is God’s loving instructions for how to live, why would Gentiles be excluded from its wonderful truths? Surprisingly, in both Romans and Galatians, after Paul has spent a lot of time arguing against their need to observe the Torah, he actually answers this question by explaining how they can “fulfill the Law.” He says:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10)

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:14)

If Paul is using first idiomatic sense of “fulfill the Torah,” he is saying that love is the supreme interpretation of the Torah–the ultimate summation of everything that God has taught in the Scriptures.

Paul was reiterating Jesus’ key teaching about loving God and neighbor that says “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”  (Matt. 22:40). The two laws about love are not just more important than the rest, they are actually the grand summation of it all.

About a century later, Rabbi Akiva put it this way: “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is the very essence (klal gadol) of the Torah.”3 Love is the overriding principle that shapes how all laws should be obeyed.

.

Love as Fulfilling the Torah

Paul also seems to be using the second idiomatic sense of “fulfill the Torah” (as obedience) to say that loving your neighbor is actually the living out of the Torah. When we love our neighbor, it is as if we have done everything God has asked of us. A Jewish saying from around that time has a similar style:

If one is honest in his business dealings and people esteem him, it is accounted to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah.4

The point of the saying above is that a person who is honest and praiseworthy in all his dealings with others has truly hit God’s goal for how he should live. He didn’t cancel the Law, he did it to the utmost!

Similarly, Paul is saying that when we love our neighbor, we have truly achieved the goal of all the commandments. So instead of saying that the Gentiles are without the law altogether, he says that they are doing everything it requires when they obey the “Law of Christ,” which is to love one another.

For him, the command to love is the great equalizer between the Jew who observes the Torah, and Gentile who does not, but who both believe in Christ. Paul says,

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

 

Torah

 

 

 

Go to part 3: Is Christ the End of the Law?

~~~~~

1 See “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, pp. 141-144. The three commandments against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder were considered the three most heinous sins, and also sins that Gentiles were particularly prone to commit.

Scholar David Instone-Brewer points out that “strangling” was likely a reference to infanticide, which was practiced by Gentiles but abhorrent to Jews. See the article, “Abortion, What the Early Church Said.”

2 See the article “Family is Key to the “Plot” of the Bible.”

3 Rabbi Akiva, (who lived between about 50-135 AD); B. Talmud, Bava Metzia (62a). Also see the article, The Shema and the First Commandment.

4 Mekhilta, B’shalach 1 (written between 200-300 AD).

 

1. What “Fulfill the Law” Meant in its Jewish Context

What did Jesus mean when he said that he “came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it”? (Matthew 5:17)

Pastor Andy Stanley recently published an article in Christianity Today called “Jesus Ended the Old Covenant Once and for All” which is based on the idea that to “fulfill the Law” means “to bring it to an end.”1 An honest reader can’t avoid noticing that this interpretation seems strained. In just the next few verses, we find Jesus saying quite forcefully the very opposite. What is going on here?

The key is that the phrase “fulfill the Law” is a rabbinic idiom. It is found several other places in the New Testament and in Jewish sayings too. Hearing it in context will shed light on its true meaning.

.

Torah Reading

To Fulfill the Torah

The translation of “to fulfill” is lekayem in Hebrew (le-KAI-yem), which means to uphold or establish, as well as to fulfill, complete or accomplish. David Bivin has pointed out that the phrase “fulfill the Law” is often used as an idiom to mean to properly interpret the Torah so that people can obey it as God really intends.2

The word “abolish” was likely either levatel, to nullify, or la’akor, to uproot, which meant to undermine the Torah by misinterpreting it. For example, the law against adultery could be interpreted as only about cheating on one’s spouse, but not about pornography. When Jesus declared that lust also was a violation of the commandment, he was clarifying the true intent of that law, so in rabbinic parlance he was “fulfilling the Law.”

Imagine a pastor preaching that cheating on your taxes is fine, as long as you give the money to the church. He would be “abolishing the Law” – causing people to not live as God wants them to live.

Here are a couple examples of this usage from around Jesus’ time:

If the Sanhedrin gives a decision to abolish (uproot, la’akor) a law, by saying for instance, that the Torah does not include the laws of Sabbath or idolatry, the members of the court are free from a sin offering if they obey them; but if the Sanhedrin abolishes (la’akor) only one part of a law but fulfills (lekayem) the other part, they are liable.3

Go away to a place of study of the Torah, and do not suppose that it will come to you. For your fellow disciples will fulfill it (lekayem) in your hand. And on your own understanding do not rely.4 (Here “fulfill” means to explain and interpret the Scripture.)

Fulfilling the Law as Obedience

The phrase “fulfill the Law” has another sense, which is to carry out a law – to actually do what it says. In Jewish sayings from near Jesus’ time, we see many examples of this second usage as well, including the following:

If this is how you act, you have never in your whole life fulfilled the requirement of dwelling in a sukkah!5 (One rabbi is criticizing another’s interpretation of the Torah, which caused him not to do what it really intends.)

Whoever fulfills the Torah when poor will in the end fulfill it in wealth. And whoever treats the Torah as nothing when he is wealthy in the end will treat it as nothing in poverty.6 (Here it means “to obey” – definitely the opposite of “fulfill in order to do away with.”)

These two meanings of “fulfill” shed light on Jesus’ words on in Matthew 5:19:

…Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Here the two actions of “practicing” and “teaching others to do the same” are an exact parallel to the two idiomatic senses of “fulfill.” In contrast, the words “break” and “teach others to break” are the idiomatic senses of “abolish.”

With this in mind, you can see that Matthew 5:19 parallels and expands on Jesus’ words about fulfilling and abolishing the Torah in Matthew 5:17. By understanding this idiom we see that Jesus was emphatically stating that his intention was to explain God’s Word and live it out perfectly, not to undermine or destroy it.

Why was Jesus emphasizing this point? Most likely because the Jewish religious leaders had accused him of undermining the Torah in his preaching. Jesus was responding that he was not misinterpreting God’s law, but bringing it to its best understanding.

Furthermore, if any of his disciples twisted or misinterpreted its least command, they would be considered “least” in his kingdom. Jesus’s entire ministry as a rabbi was devoted to getting to the heart of God’s Torah through what he said and how he lived.

Notice that on at least one occasion, Jesus leveled this same charge against the Pharisees. He accused them of nullifying the law to honor one’s mother and father by saying that possessions declared corban (dedicated to God) could not be released to support one’s elderly parents (Mark 7:11–12).

Certainly Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly. But as a rabbi, he also “fulfilled” it by clarifying its meaning and enlightening people about how God truly wanted them to live.

 

Read Part 2, What Paul said about “Fulfilling the Law.”

~~~~~

1 Andy Stanley elaborates on this interpretation in his new book Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. (Harper Collins, 2018) His idea is that Christians need to distance themselves from the Old Testament because Jesus came to bring Judaism to an end. (Yes, he really said this.) He tries to soft-pedal this idea by saying that his true purpose is to make the Bible more inviting to seekers. But he uses classic Marcionistic and supercessionistic arguments to make his point, and ignores everything written by New Testament scholars in the past 50 years. This was a truly awful book that was painful to read.
For an alternative perspective on Jesus and the Law, see the chapters 11 and 12 of Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2019), pp 154-191. The rabbinic idiom “fulfilling the Law” is discussed on p 176-77.

2 See the chapter “Jesus’ Technical Terms about the Law” (pp. 93-102) in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007).

3 Mishnah, Horayot 1:3. The Mishnah is a compendium of Jewish law that contains sayings from 200 BC to 200 AD. This saying was very early, from before 70 AD.

4 Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14.

5 Mishnah, Sukkot 2:7

6 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:9

What it Means to “Fulfill the Law”

What did Jesus mean when he said that he “came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it”? (Matthew 5:17)

Pastor Andy Stanley recently published an article in Christianity Today called “Jesus Ended the Old Covenant Once and for All” which is based on the idea that to “fulfill the Law” means “to bring it to an end.”1 An honest reader can’t avoid noticing that this interpretation seems strained. In just the next few verses, we find Jesus saying quite forcefully the very opposite. What is going on here?

The key is that the phrase “fulfill the Law” is a rabbinic idiom. It is found several other places in the New Testament and in Jewish sayings too. Hearing it in context will shed light on its true meaning.

.

Torah Reading

To Fulfill the Torah

The translation of “to fulfill” is lekayem in Hebrew (le-KAI-yem), which means to uphold or establish, as well as to fulfill, complete or accomplish. David Bivin has pointed out that the phrase “fulfill the Law” is often used as an idiom to mean to properly interpret the Torah so that people can obey it as God really intends.2

The word “abolish” was likely either levatel, to nullify, or la’akor, to uproot, which meant to undermine the Torah by misinterpreting it. For example, the law against adultery could be interpreted as only about cheating on one’s spouse, but not about pornography. When Jesus declared that lust also was a violation of the commandment, he was clarifying the true intent of that law, so in rabbinic parlance he was “fulfilling the Law.”

Imagine a pastor preaching that cheating on your taxes is fine, as long as you give the money to the church. He would be “abolishing the Law” – causing people to not live as God wants them to live.

Here are a couple examples of this usage from around Jesus’ time:

If the Sanhedrin gives a decision to abolish (uproot, la’akor) a law, by saying for instance, that the Torah does not include the laws of Sabbath or idolatry, the members of the court are free from a sin offering if they obey them; but if the Sanhedrin abolishes (la’akor) only one part of a law but fulfills (lekayem) the other part, they are liable.3

Go away to a place of study of the Torah, and do not suppose that it will come to you. For your fellow disciples will fulfill it (lekayem) in your hand. And on your own understanding do not rely.4 (Here “fulfill” means to explain and interpret the Scripture.)

Fulfilling the Law as Obedience

The phrase “fulfill the Law” has another sense, which is to carry out a law – to actually do what it says. In Jewish sayings from near Jesus’ time, we see many examples of this second usage as well, including the following:

If this is how you act, you have never in your whole life fulfilled the requirement of dwelling in a sukkah!5 (One rabbi is criticizing another’s interpretation of the Torah, which caused him not to do what it really intends.)

Whoever fulfills the Torah when poor will in the end fulfill it in wealth. And whoever treats the Torah as nothing when he is wealthy in the end will treat it as nothing in poverty.6 (Here it means “to obey” – definitely the opposite of “fulfill in order to do away with.”)

These two meanings of “fulfill” shed light on Jesus’ words on in Matthew 5:19:

…Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Here the two actions of “practicing” and “teaching others to do the same” are an exact parallel to the two idiomatic senses of “fulfill.” In contrast, the words “break” and “teach others to break” are the idiomatic senses of “abolish.”

With this in mind, you can see that Matthew 5:19 parallels and expands on Jesus’ words about fulfilling and abolishing the Torah in Matthew 5:17. By understanding this idiom we see that Jesus was emphatically stating that his intention was to explain God’s Word and live it out perfectly, not to undermine or destroy it.

Why was Jesus emphasizing this point? Most likely because the Jewish religious leaders had accused him of undermining the Torah in his preaching. Jesus was responding that he was not misinterpreting God’s law, but bringing it to its best understanding.

Furthermore, if any of his disciples twisted or misinterpreted its least command, they would be considered “least” in his kingdom. Jesus’s entire ministry as a rabbi was devoted to getting to the heart of God’s Torah through what he said and how he lived.

Notice that on at least one occasion, Jesus leveled this same charge against the Pharisees. He accused them of nullifying the law to honor one’s mother and father by saying that possessions declared corban (dedicated to God) could not be released to support one’s elderly parents (Mark 7:11–12).

Certainly Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly. But as a rabbi, he also “fulfilled” it by clarifying its meaning and enlightening people about how God truly wanted them to live.

 

Part II What Paul Said

In the past, the idea that “Christ brought the Law to an end by fulfilling it” has been the traditional rationale of why Christians are not obligated to keep the laws of the Old Testament.

We overlook the fact that in Acts 15, the early church declared that Gentiles were not obligated to convert to Judaism by being circumcised and taking on the covenant of Torah that was given to Israel. Instead they were told that they must simply observe the three most basic laws against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, the minimal observance required of Gentile God-fearers.7

Abraham & sonsAccording to Acts, the reason Christians have not been required to observe the Torah was not because it has ended, but because we are Gentiles (at least most of us).

Paul, of course, was zealous in saying that Gentiles were not required to observe the Torah when some insisted they become circumcised and take on other observances. He himself still observed the Torah, and proved it to James when asked to do so in Acts 21:24-26. Yet he still maintained that Gentiles were saved apart from observing it.

Paul supported this idea by pointing out that the Gentiles were being filled with the Holy Spirit when they first believed in Christ, not after they had become Torah observant (Gal. 3:2-5).

He also pointed out that Abraham did not observe the laws of the Torah that were given 400 years later, but was justified because of his faith. (Gal. 3:6-9)8 He concluded that all who believe are “Sons of Abraham” even though this very term was usually reserved for circumcised Jews.

 

Paul’s use of “Fulfill the Law”

An important part of this discussion is that Christians widely misunderstand the word “Torah,” which we translate as “law.” We associate it with burdensome regulations and legal courts. In the Jewish mind, the main sense of “Torah” is teaching, guidance and instruction, rather than legal regulation. Note that a torah of hesed, “a teaching of kindness” is on the tongue of the Proverbs 31 woman (Proverbs 31:26).

Why would torah be translated as law? Because when God instructs his people how to live, he does it with great authority. His torah demands obedience, so the word takes on the sense of “law.” But in Jewish parlance, torah has a very positive sense, that our loving Creator would teach us how to live. It was a joy and privilege to teach others how to live life by God’s instructions. This was the goal of every rabbi, including Jesus.

The question then becomes, if the Torah is God’s loving instructions for how to live, why would Gentiles be excluded from its wonderful truths? Surprisingly, in both Romans and Galatians, after Paul has spent a lot of time arguing against their need to observe the Torah, he actually answers this question by explaining how they can “fulfill the Law.” He says:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10)

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:14)

If Paul is using first idiomatic sense of “fulfill the Torah,” he is saying that love is the supreme interpretation of the Torah–the ultimate summation of everything that God has taught in the Scriptures.

Paul was reiterating Jesus’ key teaching about loving God and neighbor that says “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”  (Matt. 22:40). The two laws about love are not just more important than the rest, they are actually the grand summation of it all.

About a century later, Rabbi Akiva put it this way: “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is the very essence (klal gadol) of the Torah.”9 Love is the overriding principle that shapes how all laws should be obeyed.

.

Love as Fulfilling the Torah

Paul also seems to be using the second idiomatic sense of “fulfill the Torah” (as obedience) to say that loving your neighbor is actually the living out of the Torah. When we love our neighbor, it is as if we have done everything God has asked of us. A Jewish saying from around that time has a similar style:

If one is honest in his business dealings and people esteem him, it is accounted to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah.10

The point of the saying above is that a person who is honest and praiseworthy in all his dealings with others has truly hit God’s goal for how he should live. He didn’t cancel the Law, he did it to the utmost!

Similarly, Paul is saying that when we love our neighbor, we have truly achieved the goal of all the commandments. So instead of saying that the Gentiles are without the law altogether, he says that they are doing everything it requires when they obey the “Law of Christ,” which is to love one another.

For him, the command to love is the great equalizer between the Jew who observes the Torah, and Gentile who does not, but who both believe in Christ. Paul says,

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

 

Torah

 

 

 

Part III  Is Christ the End of the Law?

Paul tells us in Romans 10:4 that the “telos” of the law is Christ, which has been translated “Christ is the end of the law” (see NIV 1984). Much debate has occurred over this line. However, few have noticed the surprising way that telos is used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Believe it or not, we find two other places where the verb form of teleos (to end, complete) is used together with nomos (law) in the sense of in the sense of keeping or fulfilling (obeying) it!

Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps (teleo) the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. (Romans 2:27)

If you really fulfill (teleo) the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8)

Certainly in these two passages, the sense of teleo is not “terminate, bring to an end.”

Let’s also examine the other verb that is used in a similar context, pleroo (“to fulfill,” in the sense of filling up). This is what is used 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 (pleroo) them.”1

Note how the verb pleroo is used in these other passages:

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling (pleroo) of the law. (Romans 13:10)

For the whole law is fulfilled (pleroo) in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

Like teleo, the sense of pleroo here is that of upholding the Torah rather than simply seeking its termination.

 

Christ is the Goal of the Torah

So, how should we read Romans 10:4? In light of the rest of Paul’s writing, I think it’s wise to take a two-handed approach. Scholars point out that while telos can mean “end,” it can also mean “goal” or “culmination.” They suggest that Paul’s wording in Romans 10:4 is deliberately vague, conveying two ideas at once. Christ is both the goal and the end of the Law, they conclude.

Christ is the climactic goal of the Torah, the living embodiment of the holiness and compassion toward which God was aiming. Jesus is the “Word made flesh.” He is the only one who has ever perfectly lived out the Torah.

If the Torah is God’s teaching for how to live as his people, in what sense could it end? I’d point out two things. As Christians, we believe that Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our inability to keep God’s commands. As such, he brought the law to the end of its ability to separate us from God because of our sin. For that we rejoice!

Second, God’s policy for centuries had been to separate Israel from the influence of its pagan neighbors. He did this so that he could train his people properly, like a parent teaching a child (Galatians 3:24). In Christ, God gave a new command that went in the opposite direction. Instead of maintaining their distance, Jesus’ followers were to go into the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

The instant Peter visited the first Gentile, the policy of separation collided with the new policy of outreach. According to Jewish law, Peter could not accept Cornelius’s hospitality because Gentiles were “unclean.” But God had given him a vision in which unclean animals were declared “clean.” (Acts 10:9-16)

With the guidance of the Spirit, the church ruled in Acts 15 that Gentile believers did not need to enter into the covenant that was given on Mount Sinai. The “dividing wall of hostility” that the Torah put up to keep the Gentiles away was brought to an end (Ephesians 2:14).

 

Unclean Animals

 

What about God’s Covenant with Israel?

The Torah also contains God’s covenant with Israel. Did Jesus bring this covenant to an end? Absolutely not, Paul exclaims! Just look at Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! …As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Romans 11:1, 28-29

Paul mourns deeply for his Jewish brothers who have been alienated from God’s promises, and he longs for them to believe in their Messiah. He pictures Israel, the family of Abraham, as an olive tree that Gentiles have been grafted into. Some of Israel’s branches have been cut off, but he’s is optimistic that they can be grafted in again. In no way does Paul think of God’s covenant with Israel as nullified, though.

 

In Conclusion

As Gentiles, Christians are not obligated to keep the Mosaic covenant. It was given to Israel, not to the world. We are saved by faith because of Christ’s atoning death, not by keeping laws we were never given.

How then are we to live? Paul and the other New Testament writers spend most of their letters discussing this very subject. In Acts 15:21, the Jerusalem Council points out that that Gentile believers will hear Moses preached every weekend in the synagogue. Certainly they will learn how to live from hearing the Torah preached.

The Apostles knew that we can discover great wisdom within the Torah because Christ himself was the goal toward which it was aiming. This is our goal too—to be filled with the love and goodness of our Lord and Rabbi, Jesus.

 

~~~~~

(Certainly much, much more could be said about these issues. My point is to share a few language and cultural insights that challenge our reading, not deal exhaustively with Pauline theology.)

1 Andy Stanley elaborates on this interpretation in his new book Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. (Harper Collins, 2018) His idea is that Christians need to distance themselves from the Old Testament because Jesus came to bring Judaism to an end. (Yes, he really said this.) He tries to soft-pedal this idea by saying that his true purpose is to make the Bible more inviting to seekers. But he uses classic Marcionistic and supercessionistic arguments to make his point, and ignores everything written by New Testament scholars in the past 50 years. This was a truly awful book that was painful to read.

For an alternative perspective on Jesus and the Law, see the chapters 11 and 12 of my book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2019), pp 154-191. The rabbinic idiom “fulfilling the Law” is discussed on p 176-77.

2 See the chapter “Jesus’ Technical Terms about the Law” (pp. 93-102) in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007).

3 Mishnah, Horayot 1:3. The Mishnah is a compendium of Jewish law that contains sayings from 200 BC to 200 AD. This saying was very early, from before 70 AD.

4 Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14.

5 Mishnah, Sukkot 2:7

6 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:9

7 See “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, pp. 141-144. The three commandments against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder were considered the three most heinous sins, and also sins that Gentiles were particularly prone to commit.

Scholar David Instone-Brewer points out that “strangling” was likely a reference to infanticide, which was practiced by Gentiles but abhorrent to Jews. See the article, “Abortion, What the Early Church Said.”

8 See the article “Family is Key to the “Plot” of the Bible.”

9 Rabbi Akiva, (who lived between about 50-135 AD); B. Talmud, Bava Metzia (62a). Also see the article, The Shema and the First Commandment.

10 Mekhilta, B’shalach 1 (written between 200-300 AD).

Bible quotations are from the ESV. Compare translations of Romans 10:4 here.

Image credits – Wikipedia, Herman Gold, Glen Edelson Photography, József Molnár, Stephen Baker, Matt Botsford, Kate Bergin.

Pursuing Righteousness

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:6,10-12

Prison Cell

What did Jesus mean by saying that those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness possess the Kingdom of Heaven? Knowing more about the biblical language will allow us to dig deeper.

The Greek word for “persecute” is dioko, which can also mean “pursue”. The parallel word in Hebrew is radaf, which also conveys both meanings — to pursue and to persecute. As a result, this passage could be just as easily rendered, “Blessed are those who are pursued because of righteousness.”

Interestingly, in Hebrew, if a person is “pursued” by something, it can be an idiom expressing eagerness, anxious expectation, or a passionate desire for something — like saying that we are “consumed” by a passion or goal. (1) So, this sentence could speak about being consumed by the desire for righteousness, as much as it expresses the idea of being persecuted by others because of righteousness.

If this alternative meaning is true, then this verse is a close parallel to Matthew 5:6, which speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (tzedakah), and it would be a strong allusion to two passages from Jesus’ scriptures:

Justice, and only justice (also tzedakah), you shall pursue (radaf), that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:20

Listen to me, you who pursue (radaf) righteousness (tzedakah) and who seek the LORD… Isaiah 51:1

Of course, the very next verse of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:11) is definitely about persecution – about insults and libel and ill-treatment by others. But yet “pursued for the sake righteousness” is ambiguous, whether it speaks of the person’s passion, or of mistreatment by others.

Could it be that Jesus was actually combining the two ideas into one? Will those who are passionate about righteousness face persecution because of it? Certainly Jesus’ first followers faced no end to persecution for their great commitment to him, and in our own century, many Christians have experienced great persecution for his sake. All those suffering for the Lord’s name can take comfort knowing that their dedication and faithfulness does not go unnoticed. He says, “Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven!”


(1) R. Buth, Pursuing Righteousness, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.(Premium Content Membership needed for access)

Photo: Sathyan Velumani

Blessed Are…

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3

The beatitudes in Matthew 5 are beautiful, but their meanings are not always clear to us. The first word of every statement is usually translated “blessed,” although some translations use the word “happy” instead. In Greek the word is makarios, and in Hebrew the word would have been “ashrei,” as it is found in many sayings the Old Testament, for instance:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. Psalm 1:1

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Psalm. 32:1

Content ChildIn Hebrew, the word ashrei does mean “happy” or “contented,” but not in the sense of short-term, shallow pleasure. It means a sense of knowing deeply that God’s favor rests on you, because God approves of how you live. When the word is plural, as it is in both verses above, it is to express great intensity. It is like saying, “Oh how wonderfully satisified and pleased a person can be when…”

In the beatitudes Jesus highlights the heart-felt joy of God’s favor in light of many circumstances that we would certainly not expect to give a person pleasure in our world. Who would want to be poor in spirit, meek, mourning, or persecuted? But Jesus was teaching that it is precisely when we have the least amount of approval from the world, that God pours out his greatest approval on us. When we are living life as it was meant to be lived, we can then know we are pleasing our Father in Heaven. This will lead to a sense of contentment and joy like no other!


 

Photo: Yvette T.

Blessed Are the Mourners

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Matthew 5:4

Sad Statue

This line of the beatitudes is beautiful because it says that God cares about those who are hurting and wants to heal them. But it seems odd to call mourners blessed, and to single them out as a group that God favors. All of the other beatitudes speak about an attitude or action that Jesus wants from his followers — such as being humble, righteous, pure in heart, peace-loving or merciful. This line, however sounds as if those greiving are somehow what God desires.

It helps to know that Jesus was alluding to particular scripture passages in the beatitudes, like Isaiah 57, 60, 61, & 66 and Psalm 37 & 38. In those passages, mourning is often mentioned, but grief in general is not the focus. Instead, the prophets often mourned over injustice, or lamented about personal or national sin. Experiencing God’s punishment on Israel and Jerusalem for its sins brought mourning as well, while forgiveness brought comfort. For instance:

I am bent over and greatly bowed down; I go mourning all day long. For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I confess my iniquity; I am full of anxiety because of my sin. (Psalm 38:6-7, 17-18)

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

We see here that “those who mourn” from these passages are those who are contrite for their own sins and those of Israel, or who desire the healing of their people. In this sense, mourners are those who care deeply about righteousness, but yet are merciful, wishing for repentance and God’s forgiveness. They fit well with the other groups that Jesus calls blessed, because they long for God’s will to be done, while still wanting to see God’s grace for sinners.

This is still a challenge to us as Christians today. It is easy to see the sins of other Christians or of the world in general, and angrily accuse them. But Jesus is saying that we can lament that things aren’t they way they should be, and we should long for the day when comfort will come, when Jesus’ reign is established over all the earth.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Romans 12:14-17

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Matthew 24:30-31


 

Photo: Jes

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called
sons of God. Matthew 5:9

What is a “peacemaker,” and why should he or she be called a “son of God”? With all the anger and broken relationships in the world, we can imagine how important healing is from a person who helps others be reconciled. And anyone who extends peace in a situation where they are in conflict with another knows that it usually is costly — they often need to conceed their own rights and put aside hurts that don’t feel resolved.

Shalom on EarthUnderstanding the whole meaning of the Hebrew word shalom, peace, adds greatly to the picture of the peacemaker. Shalom doesn’t just mean a harmonious relationship or the absence of war. Rather, it refrs to one’s entire well-being and wholeness. A person can bring shalom to a life by helping deal with hurts and fix wounds of all kinds — essentially, trying to restore life to all that it was intended to be.

Why does Jesus say that they will be “sons of God”? In his culture, an assumption behind the word “son” was that a son shared the characteristics of his father, and grew up to be like him. When Jesus was called a “son of David,” it meant that he was a great king like David. In a similar way, Paul declares those with faith the “sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). Likewise, for a human being to be called a “son of God” meant that he or she was an imitator of God and acted as he does. Jesus says a similar thing later:

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matt 5:44-45.

By giving up his son Jesus to bring peace between sinners and himself, God is the best example of one who pays a costly price for peace. This is the kind of peacemaking that we are called to as sons and daughters of God.


 

Photo: Barbara Carr

The Poor in Spirit

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Who are those who are the poor in spirit, and how do they possess the kingdom of heaven? It helps a lot to know the idioms of Jesus’ time and his references to the scriptures. The phrase “poor in spirit” is an allusion to Isaiah 66:2:

This is the one I esteem: he who is humble (poor, ani) and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2

Pilgrim ReadingThe word “poor” is ani in Hebrew, and is also often translated “afflicted,” and often used to refer to groups of people like widows and orphans who were dependent on charity to survive. A person who is “poor in spirit” sees himself as needy and helpless without God, and yearns desperately for God’s presence in his life. Like a recovering addict, he can only survive each day by leaning on God. The opposite type of person is someone who is “great of spirit” who is bold and self-reliant, who has no need of anyone’s help, especially not God’s. He is one who feels that he is “the captain of his fate, the master of his soul.”

The overall picture of Isaiah 66:2 is that God looks with favor on those who know they are inadequate to run their own lives, but show reverence for God, and are sorry for their sins. When we bring this picture of a person who is “poor in spirit” into Jesus’ saying in the beatitudes, it fits with the Kingdom of Heaven as we understand it hebraically.

The “kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “kingdom of God” — it is not being used to refer to heaven after we die. Rather, it describes God’s reign over the lives of people here on earth. Not all people are in God’s kingdom, but a person enters the kingdom by enthroning God as his king, committing himself to doing God’s will. (1)

So we see now that a person who is poor in spirit is one who sees his need for God’s reign over his life, and submits to his rules. God’s kingdom consists of exactly this kind of people — those who are humble and needy enough to yearn after him.


(1) For a more complete understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven, see the following articles: What is the Kingdom of Heaven? and The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News

Photo: William Blake

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

by Lois Tverberg

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. ” Matthew 5:3

All of the beatitude sayings are very Hebraic, and somewhat difficult for Western Christians to grasp. The saying above, that the “meek shall inherit the earth” is widely quoted, but barely understood.

Lebanon

It is very helpful to know that this line, like almost all of the beatitudes, is a quote from the Jesus’ scriptures, specifically Psalm 37:11. In that verse the Hebrew word for “meek” is anav. It is also translated humble, afflicted or poor. Moses was called the most “anav” (humble) man on earth. It is often used to describe the people who called out to God for help in their difficulty, instead of being aggressive in fighting for their own way.

The theme of Psalm 37 is to remind us that when we are wronged, we shouldn’t try to get revenge, but to trust in the fact that God will someday set the world straight. It says,

… Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek (anavim) will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. (Psalm 37:7-11)

Six places in Psalm 37 it talks about those who would “inherit the land” (yirshu aretz, to inherit or possess the land/earth). That phrase is very significant, having first come up when God made the great promise to Abraham that he would “give him this land to possess/inherit” (Genesis 15:7). Then, later in Deuteronomy, more than a dozen times, Moses tells the people that only by being obedient would they be able to remain in the land:

Deuteronomy 8:1 “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your forefathers.”

Deuteronomy 16:20 “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

It seems that in Psalm 37, David was using this idea from Deuteronomy that God would see to it that the faithful would remain in the land God gave them, and the evil-doers would be removed from it. The psalmist was using the phrase “inheriting the land” in a wider way to speak of God’s full blessing. The wicked may seem to be winning now, but the righteous will ultimately possess God’s gifts for eternity.

In quoting this verse in the beatitudes, Jesus seems to be saying that if we are humble and rely on God rather than striving to punish those who have done us wrong, that we can trust that God will win the day. No matter how much the world demands that we should fight evil with evil, eventually God will reward his followers who trust him to set things right.


 

Photo: Bontenbal