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
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)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 isfulfilled 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)
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.”
The Bible is often hard for us to understand because it comes from a Hebrew-thinking mindset very different than our own. Many words translate one way into English, but actually have a richer meaning in Hebrew that sheds light on many passages.
It’s also important to have a sense of the spiritual imagery that the Bible uses, to get into the minds of the ancient Israelites and see how they experienced God’s presence in the world. They found pictures of theological concepts in the world around them, and God communicated with them through them. Jesus also uses these images to tell about himself, and we need to understand his culture to comprehend his message.
One prominent image that recurs from Genesis to Revelation is that of living water. In the Middle East, water is scarce and precious, and very much needed for survival. Only a few months of the year does rain fall in Israel, and the rest of the time the ancient peoples survived on stagnant water that was stored in cisterns in the ground. When rain does fall after many months of clear blue skies, it seems to be a miraculous gift from God.
The difference with or without rain in Israel is amazing – the hills can be barren and brown much of the year, but after a season of rain, covered in green meadows and flowers. Where there are rivers, lush vegetation surrounds them, while only yards away, all is barren.
Out of this arose the idea of living water, or mayim chaim (MY-eem KHY-eem), which refers to water in the form of rain or flowing from a natural spring, which has come directly from God, not carried by human hands or stored in cisterns. It also is a contrast to sea water, especially that of the Dead Sea, which looks refreshing but is poisonous, and makes the land around it barren.
Living water was strongly associated with the presence of God. Many times in the scriptures, God is called the source of living water.
From Eden, where God dwelled with man, a river welled up that formed the headwaters of four mighty rivers. (Gen 2:10).
Psalm 29:10 pictures God sitting “enthroned over the flood.”
In Revelation, the river of life flows out from under the throne of God (Rev. 22:1).
In Jeremiah it says,
O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water. (Jer. 17:13)
Even other nations understood this picture of the gods being associated with sources of living water. Pagans of the first century who worshiped Pan set up their shrines at the great cave from which the Jordan emerged at Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, and called it the “Gates of Hades”. This image was common to many cultures of that area, and God used that image to teach his people about himself.
Spiritual Lesson: Water in Israel and Egypt
One lesson that the ancient Hebrews would have learned about God’s ways came from the contrast in the water sources of Egypt and Israel. In Deuteronomy 11:10 – 12 it says,
The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.
The difference between Egypt and the promised land of Canaan was that in Egypt almost no rain fell, and crops were entirely irrigated by the flooding Nile and by the labor of hand-watering, while in Canaan the land was entirely watered by rain from God. While Egypt didn’t feel the presence of God through rain, it achieved its secure food source through human effort. Egypt and Canaan, therefore, were a contrast of security of human effort compared to dependence on God. The Egyptians were even aware of the difference between their land and others – one Greek historian quotes them as feeling this way:
“If the gods shall some day see fit not to grant the Greeks rain, but shall afflict them with a long drought, the Greeks will be swept away by a famine, since they have nothing to rely on but rain from Zeus, and have no other resources for water.” (Heroditus 2:13)
And in fact, in Genesis we hear that Abraham and Isaac are forced to go to Egypt several times when a drought overtakes Canaan, and of course during Joseph’s time, that is what brings the entire family to Egypt to survive.
There was a spiritual lesson for the Israelites when they left the land of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan — that when God chose a land for his people, he didn’t choose a place where they could have security because of their own efforts, he chose a land where they would be far more dependent on him and would need his presence watching over them to send them the living water of rain.
Many Christians have seen God do the same thing in their own lives, when they step out to follow him and he takes them from security of their own effort and brings them to a point of dependence on him, which doesn’t always include prosperity as the world sees it.
In like manner, even though Israel is the “Promised Land,” in many places the land is not nearly as lush as Egypt. It is interesting that God often desires dependence for his people rather than abundance, as our “prosperity gospel” teachers may tell us.
Living Water as the Holy Spirit
For the Israelites, the presence of rain in Israel was very much associated with blessing by God, and its absence with his disapproval. Almost every prophet decreed that drought would come as a punishment for their sins. But God’s redemption was likened to him sending abundant rain, giving them living water to drink:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. (Isaiah 35:5-7)
Because living water came directly from God, it was closely associated with God’s Spirit in the world. When God promised to redeem his people, he promised to send his Spirit:
For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants; and they will spring up among the grass like poplars by streams of water. (Isaiah 44:3 – 4)
In Joel, the outpouring of God’s Spirit in the last days is closely associated with living water:
Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before… Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be ashamed. And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:23, 27-29)
This image of living water is therefore an important feature of the ministry of Jesus. In the book of John, he explains that he is the one who truly brings living water into the world. He says to the Samaritan woman,
Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)
And later, during the feast of Sukkot, on the last and greatest day, when the prayers of Israel were an impassioned plea for God to bless them with rain, Jesus stood up and shouted, saying,
“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink! He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this he spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37 – 39)
An interesting rabbinic insight is that “living water” is also understood to mean a true knowledge of God. Certainly this is associated with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us God’s will and guides and directs us. And certainly it is associated with Jesus’ ministry of revealing God’s true character by Jesus’ sacrificial love for us. It is in contrast with that of “brackish water” like that of the Dead Sea, which is a false knowledge of God, that false prophets and twisted doctrines yield. Although it looks fine to the eye, it is quite poisonous!
And, in Hebrew, the word for knowledge, da’at, carries the connotation of intimacy and care, as when we know a person, we care for them. So, living water as knowledge of God really means an intimate relationship with him, which is what the Spirit gives us.
A Beautiful Prophecy of Living Water
In Ezekiel 47, there is a wonderful picture of living water. The prophet Ezekiel is at the temple, and sees a little trickle of water flowing out from under the alter. The water flows out of the temple down the south stairs. A thousand cubits from the temple, the strange flow of water has grown ankle-deep, and a thousand more cubits it is knee-deep, and a thousand more it is waist deep, and finally it becomes a stream so deep and wide that it can’t be crossed. This paradoxical river does a strange thing – it gets fuller as it flows away from its source. How can that be?
Moreover, this little stream from the temple is flowing southeast out of Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea, twelve miles away. The land to the east of Jerusalem is arid, and the area near the Dead Sea is a poisoned salt wasteland where absolutely nothing can live. But this stream has a marvelous affect:
On the bank of the river there were very many trees on the one side and on the other. Then he said to me, “These waters go out toward the eastern region and go down into the Arabah; then they go toward the sea, being made to flow into the sea, and the waters of the sea become fresh. “It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. “
And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many. “But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. “By the river on its bank, on one side and on the other, will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither and their fruit will not fail. They will bear every month because their water flows from the sanctuary, and their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek 47:7-12)
It is beautiful to see how the image of this river of life flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47 describes the outpouring of the Spirit that occurred at Pentecost. Of course, the Spirit first fell on the people in the temple as they were worshiping there, as tongues of flame settled on them. It was as if the Spirit started trickling out of the sanctuary to that little “puddle” of believers.
Interestingly, when Peter preached to the people at the temple at Pentecost, he was probably standing on the south stairs, where the water in Ezekiel’s vision flowed! That is a large public gathering place where the worshippers entered the temple, a common site of public teaching. Also on that south stairs are the mikvehs (ceremonial baths), where 3000 people that day were baptized in living water. They have been excavated and are visible even today.
The trickle of God’s Spirit became ankle deep as the first believers shared the gospel and many in the city believed, and then knee deep as they carried the gospel to the surrounding countries. Instead of running out of energy as it flowed, the river of God’s Spirit got deeper and wider as it flowed! And its ultimate destination is that of the most desolate of wastelands, full of the poisonous, brackish water of the Dead Sea. This is the dark reality of a world devoid of a true knowledge of God. Anywhere it touches it gives new life and an intimate relationship with God where there was only death before.
We were all the more touched by the fact that one of the places where this river of life flows is En-Gedi, the image we chose for our name. We knew that En-Gedi is an oasis full of waterfalls that show the image of living water. But only after studying this passage did we realize that En-Gedi is fed by waters that come down from the mountain of Jerusalem, and are right at the edge of this “River of Life” of God’s Holy Spirit that he is pouring out on the world.
What is God’s final plan for this river that gets deeper and wider as it flows?
The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk. 2:14, Isaiah 11:9)
“Cursed (Arur) is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush (arar) in the desert, and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant.
But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream. It will not fear when the heat comes, but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit.” Jeremiah 17:5-7
After reading this proverb about the cursed tree and the blessed tree, it is easy to imagine what the blessed tree must look like — thick green leaves; branches covered in large, luscious fruit; abundant growth even when everything is dry all around. The tree pictured here looks like such a tree.
But the remarkable thing about this beautiful tree is that it is actually the cursed tree that Jeremiah spoke about in this proverb. According to Nogah Hareuveni, an expert on plants of the Bible, in Hebrew the name of this tree is called the Arar, which sounds similar to the word for cursed (arur) and is part of a wordplay which is central to this poem.
Why is it called “cursed”? Because if a thirsty, hot traveler approaches the tree and picks a nice big fruit, he will find a nasty surprise. When opened, the fruit makes a “pssst” sound, and is hollow and filled with webs and dust and a dry pit. The Bedouin call this tree the “Cursed Lemon” or “Sodom Apple” because it grows in the desert salt lands that surround the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorrah once were. According to their legends, when God destroyed Sodom, he cursed the fruit of this tree also.
Interestingly, the cursed tree looks very healthy and abundant, as if it has a survived even in hard times and still has done well in life. Like the tree, many people who rely on their own strength really persevere enough so that they seem to “have it all.”
But we will not be judged on our “tallness” (fame, notariety) or our “leafy-ness” (material success), but on the fruit of our lives. Jesus tells us that rocks and weeds in our life can prevent us from bearing fruit. But it seems that even if we seem to be bearing fruit, there is a danger that it might be quite empty.
What really is wrong with the tree? Essentially, the big problem is that the fruit has no juice. The tree is supposed to absorb life-giving water from the soil and pass it on to others through its fruit, but something is not happening. It is as if the tree has cut itself off from the source of living water by relying on its own strength.
In some sense, the juice is the maim chaim (living water) of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus says will pour out of the one who believes in him (John 7:38). The “juice” comes having a life that is filled with the refreshing presence of the Lord, and without that, our lives are empty and hollow.
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. Acts 15:28-29
When the early church convened in Jerusalem to decide what to do with all the new Gentile Christians, there was debate about whether they must convert to Judaism or not. Some felt that since the Jews had always been God’s people, to be saved one must be Jewish. But Paul and the rest of the early church saw that God is the God of the Gentiles also (Romans 3:29), and ruled that Gentiles could be God’s people without converting to Judaism.
One thing that we find puzzling is the rules that the early church said applies to the Gentile converts because they appear to be mostly food laws – meat sacrificed to idols, blood, and strangled animals, things that would prevent them from having table fellowship with Jews. But out of all the things that should be prohibited to the Gentile world, why these?
Some scholars have a different answer based on knowledge of the texts and the Jewish culture of the time. They note that in ancient manuscripts, the text of this passage is difficult and often varies between manuscripts, leaving out one or more of the prohibitions. Their suggestion is that the most ancient versions of this passage actually contained a proscription against the three most serious sins in rabbinic thinking of the time – idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed (murder). In Hebrew, the law against murder is shefichut damim, literally, “shedding of bloods.” The Hebraic idiom may have been misinterpreted after translation into Greek to mean the prohibiting the eating of blood instead.
Interestingly, rabbis often accused the pagan Gentiles of being guilty of exactly the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. And, a prohibition against this threesome of sins is also mentioned in other early Christian literature as well. Later in the Talmud, these three laws were interpreted as part of the laws that God gave to all humanity in the time of Noah in Genesis 9. They were extremely serious sins — rabbis ruled that all of the commands of the Torah could be broken to preserve a person’s life except these three things.
This seems, in my opinion, to be a much more satisfying answer to what we as Gentiles called to do. Of course sexual immorality and murder are universally wrong, and no Gentile worshipper of God can keep worshipping idols as well. The Holy Spirit and early church did not give all of humanity odd food laws to follow; rather, they ruled that we are answerable to God for these most basic, and serious sins.
“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink!” John 7:37
Living water is one of the many physical images used in scripture to express spiritual truth. We as Westerners don’t usually recognize the significance of the Hebraic use of imagery, and we miss them.
The image of living water is known around the Middle East, where water is scarce and precious. In biblical times, when rain fell after months of clear skies, it was considered a miraculous gift from God. And, in the dry areas, lush plant life was only found on the banks of rivers. From this arose the idea of mayim chaim (MY-eem KHY-eem), life-giving water from the heavens or from a natural spring.
This image recurs from Genesis to Revelation, strongly associated with the presence of God. In Jeremiah it says, “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water” (Jeremiah 17:13). From Eden, where God dwelled with man, a river welled up that formed four mighty rivers (Genesis 2:10). In Revelation, the river of life flows out from under the throne of God (Revelation 22:1). So, when Moses struck the rock on Mt. Sinai to yield water it would have made sense to the people, because if God was present on Mt. Sinai, water should miraculously flow from that mountain too.
By understanding the imagery of the scriptures, we can hear God’s word better. We hope you will be refreshed by having a little drink of living water with us each day!
“…And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” – Mark 4:18-19
One year for Christmas I bought two gift boxes of potted bulbs that would bloom as a beautiful bouquet in the middle of winter, if the growing directions were followed. I kept one for myself, and I wrapped the other up and gave to some ladies at my workplace. When they unwrapped their box they “oohed” over the beautiful flowers in the picture on the box, thanked me appreciatively and set it aside. I set my own box aside for a week, and then discovered that the bulbs had sent up stems, and had been growing inside the box on their own with no light or water.
The next time I saw the ladies I saw that their box hadn’t been opened, so I told them that the bulbs were growing already. But it fell on deaf ears, and their box sat unopened in clear view of everyone for some weeks beyond that. I can only imagine that when they opened it, they were saddened to find stems that had grown, gotten yellow and never bloomed because they were not cared for.
What hit me is that this was a little like Jesus’ parable about the seed that was sown on various types of soil. In Jesus’ parable he speaks about people for whom wealth and daily cares act to choke the seed of the Word in their lives, making it unfruitful. In a related way, many of us are excited to get the “gift of salvation” and like to look at the picture on the box, but we don’t open the box and do the work of prayer, discipleship and study. We would rather be busy with our own daily activities and just be glad we are saved.
But God desires more than to give us a box with a lovely picture on it. He gave us a living gift, just like the bulbs in the box! Just like them, the gift of the Holy Spirit is alive in us too, but only can grow in us as much as we let it. How sad if the beautiful bouquet that the Lord had intended to grow from our lives would remain stifled and yellow inside of us. We need to become true disciples so we can bloom in the way he intended.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole House where they were sitting.… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.…
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd….”
One of my favorite places to visit while in Israel was the southern stairs of the Temple. Not only did it offer shade at the right time of the day, of great importance under the summer sun, but it is also a very “authentic” place. There are not many places in Israel where you can say for certain, “I stood/walked where Jesus did.” — but this is one of them. Many of the original steps leading up to the Temple remain, including the threshold in front of the main Temple entry gate, across which Jesus must have made a number of trips. This was also one of the best locations in Jerusalem for a teacher to speak to a group, something Jesus likely did as well.
But the southern stairs have a special meaning for the Christian church for another reason: this is the most likely location for at least some of the events of the day we know as Pentecost. That is actually the Greek term for the Jewish feast known as Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks. This harvest festival, held 50 days after the feast of first fruits, also celebrated God’s giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. At nine in the morning — the time Peter identifies for us — every good Jew (Jesus’ disciples included) would have been at the Temple for the morning sacrifices related to this feast.
For some reason, over the years, the Christian church has often associated Pentecost with the Upper Room, but there is no indication of this in Acts 2. In fact, all the clues point to the Temple: 1) ‘House’ in Jerusalem (v.2) was always the Temple; 2) every good Jew would be there for the feast at 9AM (15); 3) it would be the only place where you’d have so many foreign (diaspora) Jews (5-11); 4) the southern stairs was a logical place for Peter to preach to such a large audience, and 5) the only area in Jerusalem with enough mikveh’s (ceremonial baths) — over 140! — to baptize 3000 people (41).
For God, often represented by wind and fire in the Old Testament, to fill and then leave the Temple, was a picture of God changing his address. No longer does he live in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in his followers, those Paul described as “the Temple of the Holy Spirit.”