A Most Amazing Discovery

Back when I was in college, I took part in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Having grown up in a Christian home that mostly only read the Gospels and Paul, I was puzzled by the haunting lyrics of one chorus. It sounded like it was straight out of the New Testament, but I had never heard it before. I was moved to tears by each line:

Surely, surely, He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.
He was wounded was for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

These lines obviously describe Christ’s suffering and atonement of our sins, but where did they come from? Puzzled, I searched my Bible. Even now I remember my shock when I learned that these lines were not the work of a New Testament writer, but were from the book of Isaiah, chapter 53:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:3-11, NIV 1984) 

Reading this passage, we can hear its clear and obvious message about Christ. It is so detailed and pointed in its description of Jesus’ death and resurrection that it seems to be a restatement of the basic tenets of the gospel message for the early church.

In fact, it was written almost 700 years before the birth of Christ! I found this a most amazing discovery — that the prophecy about Jesus’ mission on earth could be so clearly laid out, so many centuries before he was born. The New Testament writers refer to it many times, seeing that it so clearly foretold Jesus’ mission on earth.

Yet a More Amazing Discovery

For many years, I was quite thrilled at my Bible study discovery. If I had known my Old Testament better, maybe it would not have been that special. Then I began to learn more about archeology and the discovery of the the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1948, many ancient scrolls and fragments were uncovered in the Essene community of Qumran, in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in Israel.

Before that discovery of the Qumran scrolls, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament were from about 900 AD. Skeptics had charged that modern Bibles were full of legends inserted by pious believers. They were silenced by the finding of the Dead Sea documents, which were a thousand years older than any other manuscript they had found, from about 100 BC.

Of all the momentous discoveries at Qumran, that one that made scholars’ jaws drop was the “Great Isaiah Scroll,” which contained a complete manuscript of the book of Isaiah. Copies of almost all of the books of the Old Testament had been found, but they were in fragments that needed to be pieced back together. Just a few scrolls were found intact, including two copies of the book of Isaiah. Both the original text of Isaiah and the copy on this scroll predate the birth of Jesus.

The text of Isaiah 53 in this scroll was virtually identical to manuscripts of over a thousand years later, even though it had been hand-copied over and over again. The words I quoted above are actually in the text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only difference between that text and later copies is the small insertion in brackets, [of life].  The fact that so little change was seen over thousands of years shows the enormous reverence the scribes had for the text.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was tremendously affirming to Christians and Jews who wondered if the biblical text had been accurately preserved. But finding the Isaiah Scroll, and even a copy of Isaiah’s powerful prophecy in chapter 53 that existed a hundred years before Christ is to me the most amazing discovery of all.

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Photos: Mark Kamin [CC BY-SA 2.5], Ken and Nyetta [CC BY 2.0]

The Context of Paul’s Conflict

Paul’s letters to churches have always been a challenge for scholars, since Paul was speaking to the problems that were specific to these churches. Reading them is like listening to one end of a phone conversation. Without knowing the dialogue that has been going on up to this point, it is difficult to decipher what Paul is addressing.

It will help greatly to understand Jewish culture in Paul’s time. Only in the past thirty years have Christian scholars looked at Paul in the light of this information. Before that, theologians relied mainly on Christian traditions about Jews, rather than historical Jewish sources.

Recently there have been many new insights on Paul, and of course much debate. One misconception Christians have had is that the Jews of Paul’s time were trying to earn their way to heaven by gaining merit in the eyes of God. In fact, Jews generally have had a strong sense of their salvation, because of their election as God’s chosen people. The Mishnah (an early Jewish commentary on the Torah) says, “All Israel has a share in the world to come” (Sanh 3:10).

Because of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel, all its members are assured of eternal life, in Jewish thought. (Note that John the Baptist preached against this – see Matthew 3:9.) Jews did spend much time interpreting the laws, but not out of a sense of insecurity. They did so because they felt they should be faithful to this covenant, since they had been chosen to serve God.

Another reason they strictly observed their laws was out of a strong sense of national identity. The Jews were a small minority in the Roman Empire that had gone through much persecution for not adopting Gentile ways. As a reaction to that persecution, they were especially careful to observe laws that separated them from Gentiles. Being circumcised was especially important, because it was what a Gentile proselyte (convert) to Judaism did to show he had come under the covenant of Moses, the Torah.

From the understanding that the Jews alone were God’s chosen people, there was a tendency toward religious elitism. Their picture of Gentiles was that they were degenerate sinners, prone to idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. Jews would not enter a Gentile’s home or eat with one.

The Shock of Gentile Believers

In Acts 10-11, we see that God had to give Peter a special revelation that he was supposed to visit Cornelius the Gentile, because otherwise Peter wouldn’t have done it. God had to tell Peter that what he had declared “clean,” Peter should not declare “unclean.” Other Jews were shocked that Peter had visited him, and even more dumbfounded God had poured out on the Gentile believers the Holy Spirit, the sign of the New Covenant.

This was the controversy at the heart of Paul’s conflict with other Jews too. For the past two thousand years, the Jews alone had been God’s holy people. Now, Paul was actually saying that these filthy sinners, who had never been a part of the covenant of Moses, could be accepted by God. To many, it undermined God’s special relationship with the Jews for Paul to say that a person could be saved apart from their covenant.

To Paul, their insistence that Gentiles be circumcised and become Jews made it pointless that Christ even came. If being Jewish was what saved you, this was not a new gospel at all (Gal 1:7). There had been Jewish evangelists before now who convinced Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes, and this is what they had been preaching up until this time.

Paul’s Opponents

The major concern of Paul’s opponents was that it was necessary for the Gentiles to become Jews in order to be saved, and they did this by becoming circumcised and observing the Mosaic laws. How could God accept them when they were not a part of the covenant he had clearly given? In essence, salvation was dependent upon becoming a Jew, since the Jews were the chosen people.

The emphasis was not so much on legalism, earning their way to God’s favor, like in Martin Luther’s time. Rather it was nationalistic and elitist: only Jews can be saved, therefore, people needed to come under the covenant of Moses to be saved. They needed to observe the law of Moses to be a part of God’s covenant people. Some Judaizers may not even have been believers, but other Jews who told Gentiles that they need to become Jews to be saved.

How did Paul respond? He made two main points. First, it was clear to him that God had accepted Gentiles as Christians because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit when they believed, just as Jews were. The giving of the Holy Spirit was the sign of the New Covenant, and the fact that they had the Spirit meant that they were a part of the covenant. Paul says to the Galatians,

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:2)

Here, Paul is reminding the Galatians that they had received the gift of the Spirit when they came to faith in Christ. Now, they had begun observing Jewish laws out of a worry that they needed to be Jewish to be saved.

The phrase “works of the Law” is especially significant. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the phrase “works of the Torah” was a technical legal term for those laws that marked the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, like circumcision and eating kosher. These laws specifically marked a person for whether he or she was Jewish or not. Paul reminds the Gentiles that they did not receive the Spirit by practicing Judaism, but by believing in Christ, so they should not worry that they need to do that now.

Scholars point out that Paul was in no way rejecting his own Jewish faith or telling the Jewish believers to abandon their covenant. Rather, he tells people to remain what they are, circumcised as Jews or uncircumcised as Gentiles, because in their Messiah Jesus they had been made one.

Sons of Abraham

Paul’s other example to prove that Gentiles could be saved apart from being Jewish was Abraham. Abraham was still an uncircumcised Gentile when God made his covenant with him. God came to him and promised that all nations on earth would be blessed through him.

Abraham was never under the covenantal law God gave to Moses, since God didn’t give it until four hundred years later. Instead, Abraham was considered righteous in God’s eyes because of his “emunah,” faith in God’s promises, and faithfulness in following him.

To Paul, Abraham was the perfect example of God’s grace choosing someone, and them responding in faithfulness. That is what he wants for the Gentile believers: that they become sons of Abraham, showing their faith in God’s love.

Photos: Dimnent Chapel [Public Domain], Domenico Fetti [Public domain], Hult, Adolf, 1869-1943;Augustana synod [from old catalog] [No restrictions]

Paul, the Gentiles and the Jews

At the end of Acts 21, we encounter a text that is important for reading the rest of Paul’s letters. Paul will spend the rest of his career discussing how the Gentile believers relate to the Jews and the Law that God had given them. Let’s look at a text that shows some of the controversies that were going on and how Paul responds:

The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the Law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
 (Acts 21:18-25)

First of all, note that thousands of Jews in Jerusalem believed. The Greek word here is related to “myriads,” which often is translated “tens of thousands.” So there was a very large group of Jewish followers in Jerusalem, one of the areas where Jesus had encountered much opposition.

While it’s difficult to guess the number of Jews who believed in Jesus, an estimate of 10% has been considered reasonable, given the response in Jerusalem. This would mean that there was actually a large favorable response among Jews to Jesus, and that they did not entirely reject Jesus as Messiah. Tensions between Jews who believed and those who didn’t became worse and worse over time, and this is reflected in their persecution of the early believers. Later, as more Gentiles entered the church, the church became more hostile toward the wider Jewish world. Soon it encouraged Jewish believers to leave behind their religious beginnings.

The Jews who did become followers of Jesus were “zealous for the law.” This is a positive statement from James, showing that since they became Jesus’ disciples, they were passionate about observing the Law as Jesus did. Jesus lived perfectly according to the law, and he summarized it with two statements — love the Lord with all of your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. It seems that Jesus’ disciples would have done their best to follow his example. However, they also believed they are under the New Covenant of forgiveness through Jesus’ atoning death. For them, this does not make them less interested in living the way God said he wanted.

Later in the passage, they discuss the fact that even though believing in Jesus has made the Jews more observant of the Torah, the church has decided that it is not necessary for the Gentiles to observe every stricture of the Torah. This has created quite a controversy, and rumors are flying that go beyond the truth. If Paul has told the Gentiles they don’t need to become circumcised Jews, has he been discouraging Jews from observance too? Of course not. He just needs to show the believers in Jerusalem that he has not tried to undermine God’s laws, and still faithfully observes them himself.

This whole text may surprise readers who have believed that Jesus and Paul preached a gospel that negated and disparaged God’s laws. In contrast, they are both careful observers of the Law, and have a positive view of the commandments God gave. Since Jesus summarized the law by saying it taught us how to love God and love other people, how could it be bad? Yet it was not necessary for the Gentiles to observe it as they did.

Israel had been called out as a nation and commanded to be separate from Gentiles on Mt. Sinai. Now, it will be a huge question for them of how God wants Jewish believers to live together with those who are not under his first covenant, but now together with them under the new covenant God made through Christ for the forgiveness of sins. That will be much of what the rest of the New Testament addresses. 

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New LightTo explore this topic more, see chapter 21, “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006, p. 141-44.

For a more detailed treatment of this discussion, see my three part article, “What it Means to Fulfill the Law.”

 

Photo: Dimnent Chapel [Public Domain]  

Giving God Our Best

I have a friend in Baltimore whose business allows him interact often with the Jewish people there. He said that every year for the festival of Sukkot, people would spend $50 or more for a citron, a lemon-like fruit they used in the observance of the harvest of thanksgiving. Some of them sold for as much as $900!

Irritated, he asked why the prices were so high. They explained that the citrons had to be raised in Israel, and then inspected for absolute perfection, and 95 out of 100 were not good enough. Only flawless ones were allowed to be shipped to America and sold for the festival.

Even more amazing is that the people who were buying them were by no means rich, and some of them were very poor indeed! When he asked one Jewish friend why they spent such so much of their meager income on these things, he said, “How can we worship our God with anything less than the very best?”

What an amazing attitude! Is God so important to us as Christians that we would spend our money and time extravagantly on him? Even if buying things to worship him is not our main goal, do we display this attitude about being consumed by a desire to be like Christ, to spread God’s word, and to honor him with our lives instead?

If you think about it, what else would be appropriate? The King of the Universe who set the galaxies spinning and designed our DNA has stooped down to live with us. He has become one of us and suffered and died for our sins. What else but our very lives is appropriate as a response to that?

In Leviticus and Acts

When the God of the universe decides to live among his people, and every aspect of their lives must change because of it. We see this in Leviticus, as God teaches his people how to honor him in their daily activities and worship. We see it also in Acts, when God comes to live in their hearts, the people are now consumed with a desire to tell the good news to everyone around them.

In Leviticus, the gold and silver of the tabernacle and the many sacrifices cost much of their wealth, and the Sabbath days and years will cost them time that could be spent on growing crops, training armies and building their nation. Could it be that the reason why the early believers in Acts had such amazing passion for serving God was because they were used to thinking in terms of using everything they owned to bring him honor? We also see the same attitude toward revering God’s holiness in Acts as in Leviticus. God explains they should bring only their absolute best to him and live pure lives before him.

We saw twice what happens when humans approach the presence of God without treating his holiness with the reverence it deserves. When Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, came too close and offered incense in an inappropriate way, they insulted the God who carefully explained how to come near him, and it cost them their lives (Leviticus 10:1-3).

In Acts, when Ananias and Sapphira bring money to Peter and lie about the price of the field, they brought the Lord a sacrifice laced with their own sin! (Acts 5: 1-6) This was amazingly offensive to God, and once again he takes their lives. As God was beginning this new work, it was especially important that his people revered him as God.

Our Inner Attitude

If God teaches us inner attitudes through the external laws that he gave, what is he teaching us from this? That he wants our absolute best, our first fruits of our time and energy, not our leftovers and flawed material. We fool ourselves if we say that God accepts every gift from us, so anything we bring is fine. The widow who brought two pennies gave an acceptable sacrifice because it was all she had, but if a rich man would have thrown in two pennies, it would have been contemptuous and insulting.

It has been extremely rare that God ever shows his holiness and punishes those who abuse it. Rather, God allows us to come to him with halfhearted prayers, sinful self-absorption and hollow promises to do his will, and he patiently works to transform us into people strong enough to live sacrificially for him.

If we really have learned from Leviticus about God’s holiness and glory, and our need to sacrifice our very best for him, it should make us utterly sold out to please him: to spread the gospel, to serve those around us, to do our work well and bring him honor. Then we will be as effective and fruitful as the believers in Acts, who gave everything they owned to him, who were ready to lose their lives for him. That must be our goal.

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Photos: Johann Werfring [CC BY-SA 3.0], Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Leviticus: God’s Way of Teaching

Leviticus is a challenge. To many it is legalistic, bloody, and impossible to understand. Some come close to committing the heresy of Marcion, an ancient church leader who said that the God of the Old Testament was evil and created laws just to hold people in bondage. Even though the church denounced Marcion, his attitude has lingered to this day.

If we believe the truth that “the Son is the exact representation of the Father,” we must understand that the same powerful love that characterized Christ is also that of his heavenly Father. The fact that Jesus himself was there helping inspire Leviticus should color our reading of the book!

Taking that attitude, let’s look at some broad principles for how to read the laws of the Torah:

God only teaches what people are able to understand. That means that he spoke in a way that made sense to people 3000 years ago, and he modified his style as people changed over time. In Genesis, God let Jacob marry both Leah and Rachel, and both became mothers of the tribes of Israel. But in Leviticus God gave the law that a man should not marry a woman and her sister, and later the New Testament clarifies the fact that God’s ultimate intention is that one man marries one woman.

God didn’t try to change Jacob and his culture all at once, he did it gradually over many years. This is like a parent who speaks one way to a 4 year old, and another way to a 14 year old. God was patient with his people and knew that humans can only change little by little. (Although we think we can handle all his teaching at once!) If we see what people were thinking at the time, and then what God was teaching them in the language they understood, we can see the purpose and importance of his Torah.

God is teaching inner attitudes by shaping outward action. The word Torah, which we translate to “Law,” has a negative sense to many Christians. But the word in Hebrew actually means instruction or guidance. A teacher is a morah and his/her teaching is torah. It has the sense of pointing, as in aiming an arrow to hit a target. God uses his laws to teach his people who he is, what good and evil is, and how to live life the way it was meant to be lived.

Behind every regulation is a principle of what our hearts should be like inwardly. Parents use that kind of teaching with their children too. Think of the fact that we train our children to say “Please” and “Thank You.” We aren’t just doing that to add another rule to their lives or to conform them to social expectations. As a child learns the habit of “please and thank you,” the attitude of consideration of other’s desires and gifts is also learned.

God teaches great truths about himself to these people by how he shows them to live. For instance, when God tells them to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to harvest, he is teaching them to care for the less fortunate. When he gave them the laws of the Sabbath he was teaching them to trust him to take care of them one day out of the week, and that they can rest from their own advancement and rely on him. Both of these ideas were radical ideas of that age, in which the poor were exploited and resting one day out of seven was unheard of.

So what was God teaching them? Of the many things God taught them, the most important was that he is the true God of the Universe, and he is sovereign. The ancient world largely believed in territorial gods that were responsible for the fortune of the peoples who worshiped them. Religious worship was not for the sake of the god, it was to ensure fertility and prosperity of the people.

Idols were set up, and incantations were used to induce the god to enter the idol, and fertility rites used to get the god to cause crops to grow and animals to breed. Behind this is a pagan understanding that gods are able to be manipulated by the power of incantation and magic to obey man’s desire for prosperity. There was also very little thought about the god being moral and decreeing moral laws that we should obey. Their “gods” were to be manipulated into serving man’s needs, but people lived the way they desired.

The true God starts to challenge this in every encounter Israel has with him. He makes a covenant with them that they would obey his laws and not the other way around. He will not be manipulated when they set up the golden calf idol, even though they were trying to invoke his presence through it. He replaces the pagan incantations and fertility rites by giving them detailed instructions on how to make a tabernacle and objects to worship him.

While other cultures had similar forms, a revolutionary change took place: in the middle of the Holy of Holies there was no idol, but rather a chest containing his Covenant as well as evidence of his salvation in the form of manna and Aaron’s budding staff. This amazing concept of an invisible God with moral laws who would save his people was also unimaginable in the ancient world. This was a radical new way of thinking for them.

So as we read Leviticus, the challenge is to find God’s teaching that underlies the ancient laws. Even though we are not under the sacrificial system, and Jesus was the final sacrifice, we can learn from it what God felt was important and apply it to our lives. Because Jesus was the Word of God incarnate, we can tell if we have been learning what God is teaching us if our lives resemble that of Jesus more and more.

Photos: Dimnent chapel [Public domain] 

Jesus’ Most Radical Teaching

by Lois Tverberg

When Christians begin to learn more about Jesus’ Jewishness, it comes as a surprise that many of his teachings have parallels in those of other rabbis of his time. For instance, his command to forgive others so that one’s sins will be forgiven (Mt 18:21-35) is found in earlier Jewish writings.1 Even when Jesus disagreed with others, he was not casting aside all of Judaism, but was usually affirming one rabbinic position over another in an area of debate. For example, when asked about divorce, he disagreed with the teachings Hillel, but agreed with those of Shammai.2 Rather than being entirely at odds with his countrymen, his ministry built on the teachings of his day and brought them to a new level.

Learning that Jesus was not the first person to teach some ideas seems to undermine his uniqueness. What about his teaching drew such enormous numbers of passionate followers? What about Jesus’ teachings was unique?

Jesus’ Radical Teaching

According to one scholar, there was one major theme of Jesus’ ministry that went beyond anything any other rabbi taught and was entirely unique to him.3 Not only was it radical, it also was central to his lifestyle, his teaching about the Kingdom of God, and his mission as the Messiah. It is the following:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt 5:43-45)

This is probably the most difficult command Jesus ever gave, and even for us today it might seem impossible.4 But understanding them in their context is critical for grasping the implications of Jesus’ ministry and our calling as members of his Kingdom.

“Hate Your Enemy” in the First Century

Scholars used to wonder who Jesus was quoting as saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” It is not in the Scriptures, and the rabbis of Jesus’ time did not teach this. The Dead Sea Scrolls finally gave an answer by revealing that one group of Jesus’ contemporaries, the Essenes, took an oath twice each day to “to hate forever the unjust and to fight together with the just.” They referred to themselves as the “Sons of Light” who shared an “eternal but concealed hatred of the men of the Pit,” as they awaited the Day of Vengeance — the great war when they would destroy the “Sons of Darkness.”5

Like others of the time, their understanding from the Scriptures was that God would establish his Kingdom on earth by destroying his enemies. To them it was a good thing to hate their enemies, who were the enemies of God. God’s “enemies” were not just the national enemies of Israel, but all sinners. Many passages in the Old Testament equate sinfulness with being God’s enemies, like “For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered.” Psa. 92:9. Obviously they felt that if they should hate God’s enemies, the sinners of the world, they were among the righteous themselves.

In contrast, among the rabbis there were some who, like Jesus, pointed out that God shows mercy toward sinners. It was said, “The day of rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous.6 Like Jesus, they pointed out that God cares for even those who hate him by providing for their needs. Someday judgment would come to everyone, but before then, God shows his kindness to everyone in the world. Jesus went beyond this, however, to challenge his listeners to share God’s unlimited love to even their worst enemies.

The Son of Man – Judge of God’s Enemies

Jesus pacifies two warriorsJesus’ understanding of God’s mercy toward his enemies was central to his teaching about the Kingdom, and part of his radical challenge to the common belief about the Messiah. Most believed that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would liberate God’s people from his enemies.7 In ancient times, kings acted as the supreme judge of their land, and the Messianic King would do so as well. He would be the judge that would bring the Kingdom of God to earth by destroying the evil of the world.

One of the titles of the Messiah that was most strongly linked to the role of judge was the “Son of Man,” because in Daniel 7, it speaks of the Messiah being led into the heavenly courtroom where the book of judgment was open, and being given authority by God to reign over and judge humanity:

The court was seated, and the books were opened…

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. (Dan 7:10, 13-14)

Several New Testament passages speak about the Son of Man as judge, including, “[God] has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man” (Jn 5:27), and Rev. 14:14, in which the Son of Man carries a sickle for the final harvest of judgment. Often Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man,” and he also used the term to speak about the coming judgment: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done” (Mt 16:27). However, he consistently spoke of this as in the future, and stressed that now was the time of God’s mercy.

Fascinatingly, Jesus uses the title, “Son of Man” to show his authority to forgive sins as well. When the paralyzed man was lowered into the room by his friends, Jesus said, “But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home” (Lk 5:24). Jesus is the Messianic Judge with the capacity to forgive or condemn, and he used his power to forgive.

Another powerful example is in the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who repented of his corruption. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors because they had “sold out” to their Roman oppressors and profited from their own people’s misery. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector who had become very rich at others’ expense, and certainly he was considered a great sinner and God’s “enemy.” But yet when he repented, Jesus used his authority as the Son of Man to proclaim salvation to him from his sins. Jesus, as the King and Judge, was expanding his Kingdom through mercy, as he forgave God’s enemies instead of condemning them.8

Expanding the Kingdom by Forgiving Enemies

The scandal of the Gospel was that everyone thought that the Messiah was going to establish God’s Kingdom by destroying God’s enemies, but Jesus was bringing God’s Kingdom by showing God’s love for his enemies instead. As their King, he personally would suffer for their sins and purchase their forgiveness. Paul says this very thing:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:8, 10)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col 1:21-22)

For many in the early Jewish church, the most shocking and scandalous application of this truth was that God’s love extended even to Gentiles. Many laws were in place to keep Jews from being defiled by contact with “Gentile sinners” (Gal 2:15), who as a group were thought to be characterized by the three most terrible crimes in Jewish law: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. With this dim view of the Gentiles as “enemies of God,” we can imagine the surprise when God poured out his Spirit on them! It took a special vision from God to convince Peter that he could even enter a Gentile home (Acts 10:28). Paul was a perfect apostle to them, as a former enemy to all God was doing through the early church. Such was God’s amazing love.

Being a Part of the Kingdom of Mercy

It is only when we see ourselves as God’s former enemies that we realize that our admittance into his Kingdom was because God’s love for his enemies extends even to us. Perhaps the reason that the Gospel was so difficult for many to accept was that Jesus’ listeners saw themselves as already “on God’s side,” as righteous victims of suffering at the hands of the Romans, and felt justified in wanting God to destroy them. They were happy to read about God’s coming judgment in the Scriptures. It was the prostitutes and tax collectors who could see themselves as “enemies” that wanted to take up this offer of forgiveness. Only when we see that we are saved by God’s amazing love do we realize our obligation to show the same kind of love to others as well.

~~~~~

1 Joshua Ben Sirach said in approximately 180 BC, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sirach 28:2-4) Jesus built on this teaching in a powerful way in the parable of the Good Samaritan — see the article, “Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You.”

2 See “‘And’ or ‘In Order to’ Remarry” by David Bivin, available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

3 From a lecture entitled, “Do this and Live: The Ethics of Jesus,” available as part of an audio seminar from En-Gedi called, “The Gospel of Jesus and John the Baptist,” by Dr. Steven Notley.

4 It sounds as if Jesus is advocating complete pacifism, which was most likely not true. See “Do Not Resist Evil: Jesus’ View of Pacifism” at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

5 See the Manual of Discipline 9.21–23 and The Jewish War 2:139, by Josephus. Quotes are from “Us and Them: Loving Both,” available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

6 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a

7 For more about the common misunderstanding of the Messiah and Jesus’ teachings to challenge it, see “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

8 See “Son of God, Son of Man” for a fascinating theory of why Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man” as both innocent victim and final judge.

* The three articles cited above by David Bivin are available in his book published by En-Gedi, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context.

Photos: Rufus Sarsaparilla, “Brindle Boxer and house cat.” “Jesus pacifies two warriors,” originally painted by Anton von Werner [Public domain].

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.

~~~~~

SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

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.

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.

.

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

According 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).

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.

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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.

SittingFor an alternative perspective on Jesus and the Law, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179. The rabbinic idiom “fulfilling the law” is discussed on p 176-77.

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.

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.