God’s Illogical Logic of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

Many of us have seen the movie Narnia or read the classic book, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This classic tale contains obvious parallels to the story of Christ. At the climax, the White Witch demands the life of the boy Edmund because he is a traitor to his family. She says that the “deep magic” allows her to kill every traitor — his life is forfeit for his sin.

Aslan, the Lion who represents Christ, gives his life in the boy’s place but later rises from the dead. When asked why, he said, “…there is a magic deeper still which [the White Witch] did not know … that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [of judgment] would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”1

This “deeper magic” of Narnia — the idea that the sins of one person can be forgiven because of another person’s sacrifice — is a fundamental part of the Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement. We take it for granted that mercy is shown to the guilty for the sake of an innocent person.

If you think about it, this is quite illogical. In our own relationships we generally don’t transfer our feelings from one person to another. We don’t say “thank you” to one person because someone else did us a favor. Somehow, however, we have gotten used to the idea that God will forgive many sinners because of the righteousness of just one person.

Does the idea of granting mercy for the sake of another have precedent in the Hebrew scriptures? One might think it was invented in the New Testament. But interestingly, according to Jewish scholars, the answer is yes. Many have found this merciful “divine illogic” throughout the Old Testament and consider it an important principle of Judaism!

Jewish scholars explore the most minute details of the Torah and Hebrew scriptures, often picking up subtle themes that Christians might miss. So it is fascinating to see all the motifs that they find even though they may not be looking for Jesus.

Mercy for the Sake of Another

The Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna sees this pattern as early as Genesis 19, when Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom. Lot had chosen to move to Sodom knowing that it was sinful. He became active in city leadership and even allowed his daughters to intermarry with the population.

Even though Lot wasn’t as corrupt as the Sodomites, God did not save him because of his own righteousness. Rather, the Bible says that “God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen 19:29). God delivered Lot from the catastrophe for the sake of Abraham — as a response to Abraham’s faithfulness, not Lot’s.

According to Sarna, “This ‘doctrine of merit’ is a not an infrequent theme in the Bible and constitutes many such incidents in which the righteousness of chosen individuals may sustain other individuals or even an entire group through its protective power.”2

This is the first of many times when God pardons one for the sake of another. For some strange reason, God often made his forgiveness contingent on an intercessor’s prayer. For instance, when King Abimelech took Abraham’s wife Sarah captive, God told him that he was under judgment, but if Abraham prayed for him, he would live (Gen. 20:7). At one point, God even lamented that no one can be found to “stand in the gap” for his people, as if he will not act without an intercessor (Ezekiel 22:30).3

Similarly, at the end of the story of Job, God was furious with Job’s counselors and said to them, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. … My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly” (Job 42:7-8).

God’s forgiveness seems to await the request from Job, the innocent victim of their sin. Moreover, the fact that God calls him “my servant” is a compliment that was rarely used except for those whom God highly esteemed.4 Was God saying that in accepting his prayer, he will pardon them for Job’s sake, rather than their own?

The Merit of the Fathers

A related idea in Judaism is that God will show special mercy toward the people of Israel because of the merits of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.5 They see this as coming from God’s promises of blessing to the patriarchs, and because he told Moses that he would pardon to the thousandth generation those who love him (Ex. 34:6-7).

So when Moses appealed to God to forgive Israel in the wilderness, he reminded him of his promise to his ancestors (Ex. 32:13, Deut. 9:27). In Micah 7 and elsewhere, God’s mercy is linked to his pledge to the patriarchs:

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago. (Micah 7:18-20)

Even Paul alluded to this idea in Romans 11:28: “… but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” John the Baptist, however, told his audience to repent and to not assume that the merit of their ancestors would be sufficient to pay for their sin: “Do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matt 3:9).6

Because of this idea, when Jews pray for forgiveness for their sins on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, they focus on reminding God of the faithfulness of their ancestors, focusing especially on the story of the “Akedah,” when Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac at God’s request.

It is ironic that they ask for forgiveness for the sake of Abraham, who was a father who had such great love for God that he was willing to sacrifice his own son. Even more ironic is the fact that they also ask for mercy for the sake of Isaac, who offered himself up as a willing sacrifice and was obedient to do his fathers will! (The rabbis noted that if Isaac was carrying enough wood to burn a sacrifice, he had to be a grown man and able to overpower his elderly father. They saw his willingness to be a sacrifice as the major point of the story.)

While these practices are not explicitly pointing toward Christ, they do show that the Jewish reading of the Hebrew Bible supports the idea that a sinner can seek forgiveness from God because of the righteous merits of another person.

Atonement for Unintentional Murder

Another interesting place Jewish sources have found themes that Christians would see as pointing to Christ is in the regulations involving cities of refuge. Those cities were to be places where people guilty of accidental manslaughter could flee to escape revenge by the offended family (Numbers 35:9-15, 22-28).

Guilty individuals were required to live in the city until the death of the High Priest, at which time they were free to go home. The rabbis had a fascinating interpretation of the logic behind this:

The priests atone for unintentional sins through the offering of sacrifices, the high priest atones for even more, this being the reason for his functions on Yom Kippur, and the death of the high priest is the highest form of atonement which atones for unintentional manslaughter, the severest of unintentional sins. 7 (emphasis mine)

Remarkably, in the subtle logic of Torah regulations that Christians tend not to read, we see a picture of Christ as our great High Priest who obtained forgiveness for our sins through his own death.

Seeing the Merciful Illogic of Christ’s Atonement

Jesus’ first followers were well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretation. They certainly knew Isaiah 53, that spoke of one who would “bear the sin of many, and make intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). They did not invent the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice would atone for the sins of those who believed in him; rather, they could see that it was woven throughout their Scriptures from beginning to end.

~~~~

1 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis (New York, MacMillan, 1950)

2 See Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), p. 150-151.

3 Ibid.

4 JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, by Nahum Sarna p. 187.

5 S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, pp. 170 – 198. Also, see “Virtue, Original,” by Joseph Jacobs

6 Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, by G.F. Moore, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1927), pp. 535-545.

7 Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), as quoted (without a source) in “Parashat Matot-Masei” by Zvi Shimon, Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash 

Amen and Amen!

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting. And let all the people say, “Amen.” Psalms 106:48

It is interesting to note that the most widely known word on all the earth, across the most languages, is the word “Amen,” a Hebrew word. Jews, Christians and Muslims all use this word in prayer, and it generally moves unchanged from language to language. Even in the Greek of the New Testament, the word was written literally as “amen” rather than a Greek translation being used.

The word “amen” is related to the Hebrew words “emunah” (faith, belief, trust) and “emet” (truth). It means something like, “This I affirm,” or “Let it be so.” It was used throughout the Old Testament as a response, as when blessings or curses were read as part of a covenant, and all the people said “Amen.” When psalms were sung, the people would respond, “Amen.” The leader didn’t say it – it was a way of the people to proclaim their agreement with the liturgy they heard. (See today’s verse.) In Jewish prayer today, this is still done. After the leader recites the prayer, the audience follows with “Amen,” in effect saying, “I affirm this prayer also, let it be so for me too.”

Some scholars believe that there has been confusion in our understanding of Jesus’ use of “amen.” He often began speaking with an “amen,” which has been thought to be a way to emphasize his own words. In the King James, it is translated “verily” and modern translations remove it altogether, and substitute “I tell you the truth.”

Robert Lindsay, a scholar of the first century Jewish context of Jesus, believes that Jesus actually used “amen” as it was used by the rest of h is society – as a response of affirmation of something else that precedes his words. For instance, when the centurion tells him that by just saying the word, Jesus can heal from afar, Jesus says, “Amen! I tell you, I have not seen such great faith in Israel.” (Matthew 8:10) The beginning “amen” is an exclamation of enthusiasm in reaction to hearing the man’s statement of faith. Jesus responded to the people and situations around him with a loud “amen” sometimes, and didn’t just underline his own teachings with that word.

“Amen” isn’t just the natural end of a prayer, it is a way of saying “I most certainly agree!” Whether we say it at the end of our own prayers, or use it to agree with the prayer of another, may all our prayers reflect this wholehearted agreement with the words we have prayed, and our response of faith to God’s answers.

A Precious Goblet

by Lois Tverberg

“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Exodus 34: 6-7

We might struggle with the fact that the Bible portrays God as sometimes forgiving sin, and other times angrily punishing it. Sometimes we over-simplify this to say that the God of the Old Testament was full of judgment, and Jesus was all forgiveness. If we read more closely, we find that neither is the case. God forgave the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf, but then forbade Moses, his greatest prophet, from entering the promised land because of his sin in striking the rock. Likewise, Jesus spoke about the coming judgment more than anyone else in the New Testament, yet he told the woman caught in adultery that her sins had been forgiven. He said, “Woe to you, blind guides!” but later said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

This idea that God displays both judgment and mercy for sin was the subject of an interesting rabbinic parable:

Venetian GlassIn the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven, he said, “This may be compared to a king who had a craftsman make for him an extremely delicate, precious goblet. The king said, ‘If I pour hot liquid into it, it will burst, if I pour ice cold liquid into it, it will crack!’ What did the King do? He mixed the hot and the cold together and poured it into it, and it did not crack.” Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “If I create the world on the basis of the attribute of mercy alone, it will be overwhelmed with sin; but if I create it on the basis of the attribute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15, adapted1)

This parable doesn’t use detailed theology to explain why God is merciful sometimes and why he chooses to judge at other times – it merely points out that he needs both in order to reign over his creation while allowing it to survive.

We find that this blend of mercy and judgment is often what we deal with in our lives. Parents struggle with the balance of enforcing rules along with showing grace to their kids — not being too strict, yet not letting their kids run wild either. Employers often deal with employees who are not performing and have to decide if they should fire them, or give them another chance. When our spouses do something that hurts us — should we forgive them and let it slide, or bring our hurt and anger to their attention?

We may think that we have to always act in the same way in these situations — never letting sin go unpunished, or always trying to be merciful and dismiss it. But the reality is that we need to balance these. Even God walks the difficult line between mercy and judgment. Making the right choice for a given situation requires great discernment. It is comforting to know that we can turn to him when we deal with these questions because he knows our struggles far beyond what we could ever imagine.


(1) See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Loving.html for more.

Photo: Queensland Museum

Blood on the Doorposts

by Lois Tverberg

Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household… Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the people of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs… The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. – Exodus 12:3-4, 6-7, 12

What was the significance of putting blood on the doorposts? One very important thing to realize is how it foreshadows the future shedding of blood of Christ, that protects us from judgment, just as the blood here protected the families from judgment.

But yet, the act of putting blood on the doorposts says other things as well. One is that it was a public commitment to the God of Israel in that hostile land, in which that kind of sacrifice was an abomination, which would lead to the person’s being stoned (Ex. 8:26). Only those that were convinced that God would triumph over the Egyptian gods would have done so because of fear of public execution.

Also, putting the blood on the doorposts was a mark of faith that apparently was not limited to Israelites, but anyone who placed his or her faith in God. The text says that many others left Egypt with the Israelites (Ex. 12:38) – perhaps they too had claimed this God by marking their homes. Even some of Pharaoh’s officials feared the Lord – could some of them have even done it? Interestingly, entire homes and families were saved, just as in the New Testament, entire families were baptized and saved (Acts 16:34). Even Rahab the harlot was able to save her family by marking her home with a scarlet cord! (Josh. 6:25) The Bible often talks about salvation in terms of families, while we think in terms of individuals.

Finally, it is amazing that God told people to make a sacrifice and put the blood on their homes. Normally sacrifices were made at an altar in a tabernacle or temple, and only the ceremonially clean could enter in. God’s great shekinah glory would be very present at the altar, apart from the rest of the people. Here, God was telling them to anoint their home as God’s altar and publically place their faith in him. God’s presence came that night and to those who did not fear him, it lead to judgment. But to those who had faith, it would set them free.

Having a Single Eye

by Lois Tverberg

Have a Single Eye 1The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. Matthew 6:22-23 KJV

What does Jesus mean in the strange passage above when he refers to having “a single eye”? Figures of speech in other documents from that time help illuminate Jesus’ puzzling words. Several idioms that mentioned the “eye” were about a person’s attitude toward others. A person who possessed a “good eye” was generous toward others, and a person with a “bad eye” was stingy and self-centered.

It has been suggested that Jesus was referring to having a “good eye,” but the Greek in the passage actually does not say “good” (kalos), rather it says “single” (haplous).

In fact, being “single” is not an uncommon idiom in that time, however, not in the precise sense we understand it today. Throughout the New Testament the idea of “singleness” (haplotes) is used to mean “sincere” or “undivided,” often in exhortations to have a “single heart” (See 2 Cor. 1:12, 11:3, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22). Sincerity and lack of duplicity seems to be the idea of the following passage:

The good man has not an eye of darkness that cannot see; for he shows mercy to all men, sinners though they may be, and though they may plot his ruin.…His good mind will not let him speak with two tongues, one of blessing and one of cursing, one of insult and one of compliment, one of sorrow and one of joy, one of hypocrisy and one of truth, one of poverty and one of wealth; but it has a single disposition only, simple and pure, that says the same thing to everyone. (1)

This passage describes a man’s “eye” in terms of his caring for the needs of others, and contrasts an “eye of darkness” to a disposition of “singleness”. The contrast seems to be between pretending to care about others with an inward attitude of self-advancement and of having a genuine concern for others, without hidden motives.

And, we do actually find the idiom of having a “single eye” in Jesus’ time too:

I never slandered anyone, nor did I censure the life of any man, walking as I did in singleness of eye (3:4)… And now hearken to me, my children, and walk in singleness of heart….The single [minded] man covets not gold.…There is no envy in his thoughts, nor [does he] worry with insatiable desire in his mind. For he walks in singleness, and beholds all things in uprightness of heart….Keep, therefore, my children, the law of God, and attain singleness…(2)

Here, the idea of “singleness” was associated with a freedom from envy of money. “Singleness” in this passage refers to a person of sincerity who does not have a secret agenda of self-advancement. This translates into a lack of covetousness and greed.

Now Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:22-23 gain more clarity in their context. Jesus seems to be talking about our attitude towards others. Do we have a simple desire to serve God by caring for the needs of others? Or are we insincere people who are self-centered and serving our own agenda? If all we recognize is our own needs, we are blind indeed.


(1) Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3 The Testament of Benjamin is of the body of literature called the “pseudepigrapha” — Jewish writings from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. that are not canonical, but are helpful for showing the cultural expressions and religious understandings of that time.

(2) Testament of Issachar, 3:4, 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1 Also from the pseudepigrapha.

For more this, see the article, “If Your Eye Be Single” by Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili and Marc Baronnet

Irony in the Extreme

by Lois Tverberg

One key to unlocking many difficult Bible passages is to know that Middle Eastern teachers loved to use irony to make a point. Jesus and Paul frequently did this, but this habit can leave us scratching our heads. In fact, we can make major mistakes in our reading of the New Testament by not grasping the irony that they employed to describe the shocking new reality of the Kingdom of God.

 

NoExplanations

For instance, Jesus’ saying about John the Baptist in Luke 7 often mystifies readers:

I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. Luke 7:28

The first question that comes to mind is, “What’s wrong with John the Baptist?” But Jesus himself starts out by saying, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” Jesus was making an extreme comparison to show that when God’s Spirit is poured out on those who believe, they will be even more empowered to preach and convict than John. Wow!

We find this style of speaking throughout the Old Testament as well as among the rabbis. Proverbs contains many examples of ironic contrast. For instance,

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty warrior, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. Proverbs 16: 32

The point isn’t that warriors are bad—in fact, warriors like King David were considered the greatest heroes of their day, and women filled the streets with dancing and singing when they came home from battle (1 Sam. 18:6-8). We can only grasp the power of such a saying when we see the irony of elevating someone who can simply control his own anger to the same level as a national hero.

One of the most common places to employ exaggeration and ironic comparison was in describing the coming glory of the Messianic reign:

On that day the LORD will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them. Zechariah 12:8

As in Jesus’ comparison above, we might ask, “What’s wrong with King David, that he’s being compared to the feeble?” It sounds, initially, like an insult to someone or something that we know is great, like King David. But the just opposite is true. We should say, “Wow! In the end times, what amazing glory God’s people will have!” Ironic comparison was a way of heaping superlative on top of superlative.

 

Welcome no parking

It’s critical for Bible readers to see this strong bent toward irony in the New Testament, especially when the kingdom of Christ is compared to the glory of Israel. For instance, in Hebrews, the giving of the covenant on Mt. Sinai is compared to the heavenly Jerusalem:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… Hebrews 12:18-24

Once again, this passage makes the event on Mt. Sinai seem very negative. But in the Bible, the meeting of Israel with God on Mt. Sinai was considered a stunningly amazing, wonderful event. Just imagine! The true Creator of the Universe had manifested himself on earth in order to make a covenant with this scraggly little tribe. Still today in Jewish tradition it is seen as a “wedding ceremony” where God betrothed himself to the nation of Israel.

The point of the Hebrews passage is not to say how terrible it was to have been at Mt. Sinai, but to say that as glorious as that was, the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ was even greater.

Often Paul employs this same irony in his letters, and it is essential that Christians to recognize his “accent” so that they don’t become anti-Semitic in their disparagement of Israel. For instance, Paul used it in Galatians 4:22-28 when he compared Israel to Hagar and Ishmael, and the Gentile believers to Sarah and Isaac (Genesis 16:4). His goal was to reassure the Gentiles that even though they weren’t born naturally into the Jewish nation, God had accepted them as his true “family.” Just as Hagar despised Sarah for her inability to bear children, they were being persecuted by the Jews for not being the true children of Abraham.1

We often read Paul’s statements about the law and God’s covenant with the Jews as negative, not realizing that in Paul’s own mind, these are extremely positive. He was using strong irony to say that as great as they were, the new covenant in Christ is even greater. Only when we comprehend the comparison he was making, will we see the glory of what God has done for the world through the coming of Christ.


1 See The Irony of Galatians, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2002) by Mark Nanos, a Jewish scholar, who points out that the flavor of much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is ironic.

(Photos: Albert Herrer, L. Tverberg – “No Explanations” sign outside the Church of All Nations, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem)

Fulfilling the Law

by Lois Tverberg

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 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. Matthew 5:17-19

Why does Jesus speak about “fulfilling the Law”? He does not mean “annul it” as many have said. The phrase “to fulfill the Law” means “doing exactly what God wants” in other places in the New Testament and rabbinic writings too.1

David Bivin says that the phrase “fulfill the Law” was also used as an idiom that meant to “interpret the Torah correctly.” The Hebrew word for “fulfill” that Jesus would have used when speaking is kayem (KAI-yem) which literally means, “to uphold” or “to establish,” as well as “to fulfill.” 2  In the Mishnah, it is actually used both ways. It can mean to describe teaching the Torah in the sense of confirming, explaining, or interpreting correctly, but it also can mean to carry out and obey, to actually do what the law commands says. Sometimes it carries both ideas—to interpret the Torah in order to follow it correctly. Here are some examples of the variety of usages:

“If this is how you act, you have never in your whole life fulfilled (kayem) the religious requirement of dwelling in a sukkah!'” Sukkot 2:7 (One rabbi is criticising another’s interpretation of the Torah, which caused him not to do what it really says.)

R. Yonatan says, “Whoever keeps (kayem) the Torah when poor will in the end keep it in wealth. And whoever treats the Torah as nothing when he is wealthy in the end will treat it as nothing in poverty.” Avot 4:9 (Here it means “to obey” – definitely the opposite of “fulfill in order to do away with.”)

R. Nehorai says, “Go into exile to a place of Torah, and do not suppose that it will come to you. For your fellow disciples will make it solid (kayem) in your hand. And on your own understanding do not rely.” Avot 4:14 (Here it means to explain it and fill it with meaning.)

Fulfilling the Law 2

We can see from these passages that when used of the Torah, the word “fulfill” means to interpret God’s word correctly, and also to live it out. This is key to understanding Matthew 5:17-19:

(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 them. … (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.

Verse 19 parallels and expands on verse 17. “Fulfill” in vs. 17 is a parallel to both of the two words “practice” and “teach” in vs. 19, which makes sense with how the rabbis used the word. The words “break” and “teaches others to break” is the sense of the word “abolish” in Matthew 5:17.

Likely, Jesus’ opponents had accused him of misinterpreting the Scriptures. But here he emphatically states that his goal was to explain God’s word and obey it fully, so that we can understand how God wants us to live. All who are in his kingdom are likewise called to imitate him in obeying God’s laws, and to correctly teach others to live like him too.


1 See “Love is the Fulfillment of the Law.”

2 David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus (En-Gedi, 2005), p 93-94.

Photo: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection

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.


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/

The Son of Man

by Lois Tverberg

His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. – Daniel 7:14

One phrase Jesus often uses to describe Himself is “The Son of Man.” Many have assumed that when Jesus uses the phrase to describe himself, he is emphasizing his humanity. That appears to be true in some places. But people are often unaware that the phrase “Son of Man” was one of the most powerful messianic claims! It is from a passage in Daniel 7:13 – 14:

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. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

This passage is about the messianic king. God had promised David that one of his own offspring would have a kingdom without end (2 Samuel 7:13), and this is who is being described here. Daniel has visions of many kingdoms rising to power, but the final kingdom that conquers them all is this kingdom of the Messiah. And this is the scene of the the great King coming to take his seat of honor and receive authority over all creation.

When we now look closer at how Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” to refer to himself, we can see that he is often referring to himself in terms of this passage!

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:30)

Art of Transfiguration

We can see these in scenes the Son of Man coming in the clouds and the picture of Jesus having great glory, just as in Daniel. Here Jesus is hinting to his great glory as the Messiah by alluding to these passages, as he does many places. So, the passage in Daniel predicting the Son of Man coming in glory is central to what Jesus says about his own future, and is a prominent image in the New Testament to describe the glorified Christ on the throne in heaven. This explains Jesus’ usage of the term as prophetic toward his return as judge at the end of time, and also shows that he didn’t regard himself only as a humble human being, but as the predicted Messiah who would have a kingdom without end.


See Ch. 22, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young, Hendrickson 1995, p.243-52.

Photo: http://elizabethhagan.com/2014/03/02/wait/

True Sons of Abraham

by Lois Tverberg

Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up sons to Abraham. – Luke 3:8

The quote above is from John the Baptist. Understanding it depends on catching the meaning of the phrase “sons of Abraham,” which actually is important several places in the New Testament. A cultural perspective can clarify its meaning.

Abraham was of course the father of the Jewish people. He was a Gentile himself until he and his family took on God’s covenant by being circumcised, the covenantal sign for him and all his descendants. In one sense, the term “son of Abraham” means to be a decendant who shares in Abraham’s covenant, in effect to be a circumcised Jew. By the time of Jesus, the idea had arisen that a person’s salvation was based on his or her being a “son of Abraham” in terms of being part of the family covenant. However, in John’s words above, he is disagreeing with this and says not to claim that their national covenant made them right with God. Rather, they needed to be true “sons of Abraham” – people who inwardly have the faith that Abraham did. They expected that a son would tend to have his father’s personality, so to be a “son of Abraham” was to have the character of Abraham, meaning to have faith and commitment to God. Jesus says this in John 8:39.

Interestingly, Paul stretches the definition farther to even include the Gentiles, the very group not included in the first definition of a “son of Abraham”! He says,

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations (Gentiles) will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3:7)

Paul is reading the words of God’s promise to Abraham to say that He would bless the goyim, (meaning both “nations” and “Gentiles”) through him. He is pointing out that God’s blessings are not just for the Jews, those who become circumcised and obey the Torah, but also for the Gentiles of the world. Interestingly, when God told Abraham this, he was still a Gentile himself! From this fact, Paul can conclude that Gentile believers in God are true sons of Abraham. He says,

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. (Galations. 3:29).