Hasidut: Righteousness that Goes Beyond the Law

Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

 

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, we find some of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. He said that those who do and teach others to do even the least of God’s commands will be called “great” in his kingdom. He speaks about having “righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees,” and then he tightens many laws, comparing lust to adultery, and anger to murder, etc. He then makes extreme statements about cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin, and concludes with words about aiming to be perfect, like God himself.

These words of Jesus are a struggle for many of us. One traditional approach to dealing with them is to say that Jesus was actually showing how impossible it is to earn our way to heaven, to cause us to ask for salvation by grace instead. However, it’s hard to believe that Jesus was setting up impossible standards simply to discourage people from keeping them. Jesus challenged his disciples to live according to his teachings, and he did so himself. Understanding his Jewish context better will allow us to unravel several “knots” in this passage.

First of all, it is important to understand that “entering the kingdom of Heaven” is not synonymous with “going to heaven when you die.” The phrase “kingdom of Heaven,” malkhut shemayim, (mal-KHOOT sha-MA-yeem) is synonymous with “kingdom of God,” and it refers to God’s redemptive reign on earth right now. To “enter” or to “receive” his kingdom was to enthrone God as your king, committing yourself to be a part of God’s “team” and to do his will.

Jesus’ references to the “kingdom of Heaven” in the Sermon on the Mount were really about how to aim to do God’s will as members of his kingdom, not how to earn your way to heaven.1 Our salvation is based on Jesus’ atonement for our sins, not on “earning our way.”

The Idea of Hasidut

Jesus may have actually had an idea in mind that was in the culture at that time. He appears to be focusing on the idea of hasidut – (hah-see-DOOT), a rabbinic term which is often translated “piety.”2 It means to walk closely with God and be utterly obedient to him. A hasid (ha-SEED), a pious person, eagerly asks the question, “What more can I do to please you?”

The idea is that they don’t focus on the minimum requirements, but on going beyond the rules to serve God. An Orthodox Jewish source describes the idea of being a hasid this way:

The hasid is one who goes beyond the letter of the law in his service of G-d. He does not do only what he is told, but he looks for ways to fulfill G-d’s will. This requires intelligence and planning; one must anticipate just what G-d wants of him and how he can best use his own talents in service of his Creator. [This is] in direct contrast to mock-piety – fasting, wailing, rolling in the snow, etc…. G-d has no interest in senseless service – that we do things just because they’re hard (and get us a lot of notice). Piety is not doing things which hurt. It is careful, planned and responsible service of G-d. We are not to sacrifice ourselves for G-d with self-destructive acts of devotion; we are to *live* for Him.3

The goal of most rabbis was to interpret God’s Torah (law, teaching or instruction) so that people could apply it to their lives and live within its limits; but if you think about it, laws can only define the very minimum required to not sin, they can’t legislate what you could do purely out of love. If this is Jesus’ thinking, it clarifies his words about “righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees…” (Mt 5:20). The phrase “scribes and Pharisees” may not be about them as people, but as the recognized interpreters of the law.

One translation says, “Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law…” (New English Translation). You could read this as, “do more than what the finest interpreters of the law say you must do.” Then the passage isn’t about being stricter than the strictest, but about seeking to do God’s will beyond its official interpretation. Jesus was not saying, “sit back and enjoy your free ride to heaven,” but exactly the opposite — “if God is really your king, you need to do your utmost to please him.”

Hasidut and the Sermon on the Mount

Understanding the idea of hasidut helps us see the overall message of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus points out various minimums set in the law, and then says to go beyond that. The law says “don’t kill” but you should not even stay angry. The law says, “don’t commit adultery” but you should not even lust.

The law says you can take vows in God’s name, but instead, you should be a person who has such integrity that your “yes” and “no” are just as good. Not only should you not seek revenge against your enemies, you should find ways to show them and everyone else the love of God. Loan people your money, carry their burdens. Anything!

Ultimately, the whole sermon is not so much about a list of toughened rules, but about exhorting us to change where our aim is. It is easy to look for what the minimum is so that you can just do that, but in every case Jesus is saying, “Don’t live by the minimum!” Don’t say to yourself, as long as I don’t commit adultery, it’s fine to lust. Don’t say that as long as I don’t kill someone, I can be furious with them. If you want to be a part of God’s redemptive kingdom on earth, don’t ask how little you can do, but ask how much you can do, to please your Father in heaven.

“Fear of Sin”

A central aspect of being a hasid in Jewish thinking was that one tried to walk intimately with God. To be close to God meant that you needed to do everything to keep sin out of your life. From this came the concept of yireh chet, (yeer-EH het) “fear of sin.” Here, “fear” doesn’t mean being terrified of punishment or of God’s anger. Rather, it is to be horrified by the idea of having sin disrupt your intimate walk with God.

As a result, a person who is a “sin-fearer” would do everything possible to keep it out of his or her life. Jesus’ strong words about cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye fit with this idea of “fearing sin.” Jesus had a great revulsion to sin because he realized what it did to break the relationship between God and man. He used hyperboles to motivate his listeners to avoid it at all costs.

A person who was aiming for hasidut set his own boundaries inside of the rules as others kept them, so that he didn’t come close to breaking the Law. A recent example is two ultra-orthodox leaders from Jerusalem who booked a flight to the US and bought all the seats in the first class section of a plane, requested only male flight attendants, and even taped over the TV monitors.4 They went to enormous expense to avoid being tempted by sin.

This is especially appropriate to think about during the month of Elul, which usually occurs during the summer on the Gregorian calendar. Elul is the last month before the High Holy Days and the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and ask for forgiveness of their sins. It is traditional to spend the month in self-examination and repentance.

Interestingly, many sermons mention that the letters of the month Elul, aleph-lamed-vav-lamed, are the beginning letters of the phrase Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This is the highly romantic phrase from Song of Solomon that is often engraved on wedding rings. The take-home point is that during the month of Elul, our motivation for repentance should come from a desire to rid ourselves of anything that may have come between us and a deeply loving relationship with God.5

The Danger of Trying to Be a Hasid

Throughout the centuries there have been movements in Judaism and in Christianity that have tried to draw closer to God by becoming fastidious about observance and in keeping away from sin. While the goal is admirable, whenever a person tries to live this way there are many potential traps. One can easily become a legalist, or prideful, or hypocritical, or elitist. In light of this, it is interesting to read the following quote:

There are seven kinds of Pharisees: the “shoulder” Pharisee, who ostentatiously carries his good deeds on his shoulder so all can see them; the “wait-a-moment” Pharisee, who wants you to wait while he performs a mitzvah (good deed); the bruised Pharisee, who runs into a wall while looking at the ground to avoid seeing a woman; the “reckoning” Pharisee, who commits a sin, then does a good deed and balances the one against the other; the “pestle” Pharisee, whose head is bowed in false humility, like a pestle in a mortar; the Pharisee who asks, “What is my duty, so that I may do it?” as if he thought he had fulfilled every obligation already; the Pharisee from fear, like Job; and the Pharisee from love, like Abraham.6

Many recognize how similar this passage is to Jesus’ “woes” of Matthew 23. It might surprise Christians that the Pharisaic movement practiced its own self-criticism and noted the same kinds of errors that Jesus did. More than one scholar has pointed out that Jesus’ statements might be like the “seven kinds” saying in another way.

Instead of accusing every person of all of the sins that he speaks of, they assert that each “woe” is pointed at only the people who are falling into those sins. Instead of the blanket statement, “Woe to all of you — you’re all greedy, legalistic, and hypocritical!” he was saying something like, “Woe to you who are greedy, and woe to you who are legalistic, and you who are hypocritical!” Rather than condemning the whole group, he may have been pointing out the errors, just as the other rabbis did.7

It’s easy for us to read these passages about the seven types of Pharisees smugly, as if only the foolish Pharisees could ever have fallen into these problems. Instead, we should see them as wise words to anyone who is passionate about trying to live as God intended. There are so many ways to go wrong — by slipping into pride, or legalism, or by becoming hypocritical.

The answer is not to just give up and be worldly. The rabbis have an excellent insight that sounds like Jesus may have been saying the same thing. They point out that of all of the types of Pharisees, the only one that is truly commendable is the one that serves entirely out of love. One rabbi says it this way:

To serve with love does not mean just following the Torah and commandments, and not walking in the path of wisdom because of other reasons: to avoid bad consequences, and to be rewarded. Rather, it is doing the right thing because it is right, and in the end good comes because of it. This quality is very great and not every wise man attained it. This is the rank of our father Abraham whom the Holy blessed One has called “my lover” [Is. 41:8] because he served only for the sake of love. The Holy blessed One has commanded this virtue through Moshe as it is said: “You shall love Hashem your God.” When one loves God with proper love, automatically one performs all commandments with love.8

This fits completely with Jesus’ statement that all the commands can be summarized by “Love the Lord your God,” and even quotes that same verse. It seems that Jesus and later rabbis both saw that when you are obeying God purely out of love for him, you are eager to go beyond the minimum. When your love for God motivates you to keep from things that tempt you into sin, you can set up boundaries without becoming arrogant or legalistic about them.

Hasidut: The True Goal of Discipleship

This sermon of Jesus is difficult, but it is his goal for us as his disciples. No one is capable of doing this when they first believe, but we can aim to be a little more like this every day of our lives.

In some churches we don’t hear much of this message because Jesus’ great commission to “raise up disciples of all nations” has been interpreted as only meaning, “share the gospel with the lost.” Then the emphasis is on how easy it is to receive the free gift of salvation, and the only thing that we teach after that is how to evangelize others.

A disciple is much more than a mere convert, however, and believing in Christ is not God’s supreme goal for us — it is only the beginning of a life of walking ever closer to him. To go no deeper than “accepting Christ” is to be like the seed that fell on the rock or in the thorns — it sprouted, but bore little or no fruit (Lk 8:4-15). As critical as it is to share the message of Christ with the world, Jesus’ challenge to us is to always seek to go higher and deeper in our love and service to him.

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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.

1 See the article “What Is the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

2 Many points in this article are based on the talk “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer,” by David Pileggi, which was given at the Insights into Jesus of Nazareth Seminar, which is available at the link. Also, see “Jesus and the Hasidim” by Shmuel Safrai, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

3 Rabbi David Rosenfeld, Pirke Avot, Mishnahs 10-11 at torah.org, adapted.

4 Story from Dwight Pryor, as quoted by David Pileggi in “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer.” See footnote above.

5 Many stories are based on this saying about Elul. An example is at this link.

6 Babylonian Talmud (supplement), Avot de R. Nathan 37.4.

7 David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992) p. 69. Also, Menachem Mansoor, Encyclopedia Judaica, (Jerusalem: Macmillan and Keter, 1972) 13:366.

8 Rebbi Moshe ben Mimoun, “Hasiduth: Love and Av’oda” The word “Hashem” means “the name” in Hebrew and substitutes for God’s name, as does the phrase “the Holy Blessed One.” This is done out of reverence, so that the name of God is not used irreverently and thereby profaned. This is also the rationale behind spelling “God” with a dash in the middle, and also Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” where “Heaven” is an indirect reference to God. This is actually an illustration of “fear of sin” – going out of one’s way to avoid doing wrong. For more on the Jewish traditions regarding the name of God, See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005), pp. 55-58.

Photos: Макаров [Public domain]

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

Love is the Fulfillment of the Law

by Lois Tverberg

Fulfilling the LawDo not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17-19

People have scratched their heads over what the phrase “fulfill the Law” means. Some say that when Jesus “fulfilled the Law” he got rid of it, even though twice in this passage Jesus says quite forcefully that this isn’t true. By studying other passages in the New Testament and Jewish sayings from around that time, we can understand more fully.

The Greek word in this passage for fulfill is “plerosai” which means “to complete,” “make full,” or “accomplish.” Often it is used in the sense of Christ fulfilling a prophecy. But when it is used along with the Law, it has the sense of “accomplish a goal.” The same word is used in these passages by Paul:

Romans 13:8: Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

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

In both places, the idea is the opposite of “getting rid of the law”—it really means to accomplish God’s goal, to obey his will in the best possible way. The word for “law” in Hebrew is “torah,” and it literally means “instruction” or “guidance” and had a very positive connotation. To “fulfill the Torah” was to accomplish God’s will exactly as he would have it. A rabbinic quote helps us understand how it is used:

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. —Mechilta, B’shalach1

In this statement, the idea is that a person who is honest and praiseworthy in all his dealings with others has truly accomplished God’s goal for how he should live. He didn’t cancel the Law, he did it to the utmost!

In Matthew 22:39, Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to “love God and love your neighbor” and said that these summed up all the Law and Prophets. So Paul is saying that when we love our neighbor we are truly hitting the mark, doing exactly what God wants us to do.


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.

1 As quoted in J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p.4.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vshioshvili/