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.”
For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged,
and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Luke 7:1-2
In the passage above about the “measure you use,” Jesus is using a classic rabbinic form of reasoning called midah keneged midah (mee-dah kah-NEG-ed mee-dah), literally meaning, “measure corresponding to measure.” This term was developed by later rabbis, but the idea comes up throughout the Old Testament and is found in the words of Jesus and Paul too. Knowing more about this expression and the logic behind it can give us insight on Jesus’ words, with implications for how we should live.
Measure for Measure
The rabbis from before Jesus’ time noticed that there was a pattern throughout the Scriptures that described how God dealt with sin, in that the consequences often fit the crime. Several places it says so explicitly:
Then say to Pharaoh, “This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.” Exodus 4:22-23
Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. Exodus 22:22-24
This idea that a person receives the effects of their sin back on themselves as punishment, measure for measure, was understood to be a basic principle of God’s justice. It is fascinating to see how often this pattern is found in many other accounts, woven subtly into the story.1 For instance:
Jacob deceived his father Isaac into giving him the birthright by substituting himself for his brother, taking advantage of his father’s blindness. In the same way, he was tricked when Leah was substituted for her sister on his wedding night and he couldn’t see her! Genesis 27; 29:23-25
Pharaoh commanded his people to drown the Israelite boys in the waters of the Nile. Later, his own army perished by drowning in the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. Exodus 1:22; 14:28
Haman was angry with Mordechai for not bowing down to him and he built a gallows to have him hanged. He ended up being forced to lead Mordechai on a horse to honor him, and being hanged on his own gallows! Esther 5:9,14; 6:11, 7:10
We might smile at this “poetic justice,” and when we realize that it’s taking place, we see that events aren’t random, but that God in control. In the story of Jacob, it shows us that God didn’t condone Jacob’s deceitfulness, but let him suffer the consequences of a sin much like what he himself committed. Paul also talks about a general rule of paying the consequences for the choices we make:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Galatians 6:7-8
We know that much of the time this is true – if we’re dishonest, we’ll get caught by our own lies, or if we are hateful, we’ll find ourselves being hated too. It’s just true that generally, what goes around, comes around in this life.
When Not to Use Measure-for-Measure
It might be a temptation, then, to assume that all problems in this life come from midah keneged midah—God giving us our just deserts for some sin in the past. But both the Old and New Testaments disagree with this. In the story of Job, his friends tell him that his suffering must be the punishment for some sin, applying this logic that God always repays the wicked for their sins. But when God finally appears, he is very angry with his friends, saying that they have not spoken of him rightly! (Job 42:8) The underlying message is that we should not use this logic on each other, to look for a reason why others suffer.
In fact, the Scriptures flip the idea of midah keneged midah on its head sometimes, threatening to use it against people who use it against others! In the case of the poor person coming to us for help, we might be tempted to refuse because he got into trouble from his own bad choices. But, the Scriptures say that when we do this, we invite God to ignore our problems, measure-for-measure:
He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor
Will also cry himself and not be answered. Proverbs 21:13
Or as one 18th century rabbi put it,
When a poor man asks you for aid, do not use his faults as an excuse for not helping him. For then God will look at your offenses, and he is sure to find many.2
The quote above reminds us why we shouldn’t be hard-hearted to those who are suffering, even when it’s because of their own sins. We all are sinners, and for the most part, God does not deal with us as we deserve. He restrains his hand of judgment in this life and supplies our needs whether we deserve it or not—causing the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45) We should help those who don’t deserve it because God helps us when we don’t deserve it.
Like the rabbi above who reminds us that none of us is without sin, Jesus points this out when asked about the murder of some Jews in the Temple by Pilate:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Luke 13:2-5
Jesus was saying that while people who suffer are not innocent, they are no worse sinners than the rest of us. We are just like them. None of us is in a position to judge, and God is showing mercy to all of us until the final day of judgment. Instead of looking for ways to blame those who struggle, we should examine our own lives, knowing that being comfortable is not necessarily a sign of God’s approval.3
Being Merciful, Measure-for-Measure
In what way, then, should we respond, measure-for-measure? God uses this logic in a different way that we can learn from. One might think that God would tell the Israelites that they should respond, measure for measure, to the ill-treatment that they got in Egypt by being cruel to the Egyptians in the future. But instead, he tells them to use the logic in another way—that just as they knew what it was like to be helpless aliens and slaves in Egypt, that they should empathize with all strangers who come into their land:
When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. Lev. 19:33-34
God points out that the people’s own hard past should teach them to care about others, particularly the alien, a traveler or refugee who usually had very few rights and was easily exploited. Even if an Egyptian were to come to Israel, the people’s response was to be loving, not vengeful, when they saw him as one who is in the same situation that they once were. In the same way, seeing others’ troubles, and knowing that it is only by grace that we aren’t in their place, should prompt us to come to their aid too. Instead of linking punishment to sin by measure-for-measure, we link our response to what we know God has done for us, measure-for-measure.
Perhaps this is also behind Jesus’ words about forgiveness:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:37-38
Like the Israelites, when we see the situation that we were in, and the condemnation that God has us set free from, the reasonable, expected response is that we extend that to others who are sinners like ourselves. Like the Israelites in Egypt, or like the debtor in the story of Matthew 18:23-35, we have been delivered at great cost through unfathomable mercy and are therefore called by God to extend that same mercy to those we encounter.
Let it never be said of us, “You wicked servant … I canceled all your debt because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?” Matt 18:32-33
2 Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsberg (d. 1778), as quoted in Jewish Wisdom, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, 1994, William Morrow & Co, p. 15.
3 This is not to say that we should give to others without discernment, when our resources will be wasted and ultimately unhelpful. Rather than giving up, we should see if there are better ways to do so. On the subject of what Jesus said about suffering, see The Tsunami: Thoughts from Job and Jesus for more.
The legal ruling of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is another aspect of measure-for-measure. This legal principle was actually not interpreted as we hear it, and actually was an effort at moderating punishment and making it more fair. For more, see An Eye For an Eye.
Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2
What did Jesus mean by “do not judge?” This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It can sound like Jesus was telling us to look the other way when we see sin. However, from everything else that Jesus said, we know that he couldn’t be suggesting this. Yet, to not be guilty of ” judging,” we often try to avoid calling sin for what it is.
To better understand what Jesus meant, it is helpful to study some of the discussion going on among others in Jesus’ culture and see if they can shed light on his words. Interestingly, Jesus’ contemporaries taught ideas close to this concept of “do not judge.” While their words do not have the authority of Jesus’ words, and while we need to be discerning about our conclusions, we will see that Jesus may have been expanding on their good ideas in his own teaching about judging.
Judging Others Favorably
We can find some of discussion of Jesus’ contemporaries recorded in the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish sayings written about two hundred years after Jesus lived, but including teachings from his time and before. The most important reference was from a rabbi who lived more than a hundred years before Jesus who said, “Judge everyone with the scales weighted in their favor” (Yehoshua ben Perechia, Avot 1:6). In a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, it says “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God” (Shabbat 127a). It is interesting to see how reminiscent this is of Jesus’ saying, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” To “judge in favorable terms” was considered as important as visiting the sick, devotion in prayer, or teaching the Scriptures to your children!
A story was told to illustrate the point:
A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages so that he could go home and support his wife and children. The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!”
So he said to him, “Well, give me some of the crops I’ve helped grow.”
The man replied, “I have none!”
“Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve helped to raise!”
And the farmer shrugged and said that he had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.
A few days later his employer came to his house with all of his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you suspect me of?”
“I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your cash to buy it.”
Then he said “What did you think when I said that I had no crops?”
“I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.”
He then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?”
“I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the Temple.”
The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son wouldn’t study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!” 1
This story is a strong example of resisting condemnation. It also parallels, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus was saying? In the story, the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt by imagining the best possible motivation for his seemingly suspicious actions. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by always judging a neighbor favorably.
This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earth-shaking interpretation of Jesus’ words. But, what if we applied it to our own lives? Just imagine these situations and the choices you might have in your reactions:
On the way to church, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off. Why?
– The driver is has no regard for speed laws! He is just trying to impress people!
– or, maybe the driver is late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.
In church, you are asked to greet the people around you, but the lady in front of you was obviously avoiding you. Why?
– She is obviously a snob and you didn’t dress well enough today!
– or, maybe she is new to this church or uncomfortable meeting people.
A woman asks you afterward about the surgery she had heard that you had. Why?
– She is a busybody who just wants to put her nose in your business!
– or, maybe she genuinely worries about others, and wants to share your burdens.
In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior. The way we interpret others’ motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. This idea of the rabbis to “judge favorably” certainly was a great one, even if it isn’t exactly what Jesus said.
A Worship War
Imagine another scenario where a “worship war” has broken out in a congregation. The older members want to sing hymns and the young members want gospel rock. The older people are saying things like, “They have no appreciation for the richness of hymns – they only want to be entertained!” The younger people respond with, “The old folks don’t care about reaching the lost—they just want to do things the same old way!”
What would happen if each group stopped assigning negative motivations to the other group? What if the “hymns only” group started saying, “Maybe the younger members of our church think that they can bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own style…” What if the “rock band” enthusiasts started saying, “Maybe the older members find more meaning in what’s familiar rather than in what sounds strange to them…”
How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to love and accommodate each other?
To this day, Jewish culture has endeavored to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” There’s a Jewish group that meets simply to practice giving the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind. They reflect on hurts in their lives and then propose ways to excuse the perpetrator. When one of them didn’t receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, “Perhaps the person was under the impression that they had already sent an invitation,” or, “Perhaps they couldn’t afford to invite many people.” 2
One Jewish website called, “The Other Side of the Story” is filled with stories where a person looked liked he was in the wrong, but then turned out to be innocent.4 The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably.
Jesus’ Words, “Do Not Judge”
Even though the rabbis’ words are wise, they aren’t exactly what Jesus said. How does Jesus teaching about “do not judge” compare to theirs? Jesus began with what the other rabbis taught and then increased the challenge. His audience already knew about the “judge favorably” teaching; it had been around for at least a hundred years. The famous rabbi Hillel, who lived fifty years before Jesus, said, “Judge not your fellow man until you yourself come into his place” (Avot 2:5). His idea was that we shouldn’t judge because we don’t have full knowledge of another’s life experience. We can’t know if someone struggles with depression or some other wound from their past. Hillel’s idea is a step closer to what Jesus said, and it shows that the discussion of “judging” was still going on in Jesus’ time.
However, Jesus’ reasoning was different from Hillel’s. Jesus knew that people sometimes do sin willfully and intentionally. At some point it will be undeniable that a person’s intention was evil, and we can’t pretend that it wasn’t. Jesus pointed out that our response must be to remind ourselves of our own sinful hearts—the only hearts we really can know. Realizing our own sinful nature, we shouldn’t place judgment on others. If we want God to be merciful to us, we need to put aside condemnation and extend mercy instead.
As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:35-38) Rather than saying, “Judge favorably,” perhaps Jesus would have said, “Judge mercifully! Do everything you can to extend mercy to others.”
Obviously, this not to cast aside discernment. We should discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is not only to discern, but also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). And when a wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive (Matt 18:15-17).
While we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the motive of the heart. We need to leave final judgment up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. So when we are in a situation where we are tempted to condemn someone, we need to step back, hand the situation over to the Lord, and remind ourselves that it is his job to render judgement, not ours. As we read in James 4:12, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”
It turns out that both the rabbis’ words and Jesus’ words are extremely useful in every day life. Our attitude toward others will become more loving when we assume the best rather than the worst about people. If we try to always “judge favorably,” we will be less likely to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. Even when people are clearly in the wrong, we can give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.
Other Ways of Judging
If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it includes many other types of hurtful behavior as well. Insults are a form of judgment, such as calling someone arrogant or loud-mouthed. Gossip relies heavily on judgment too. People who gossip usually look for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others. Criticism, cynicism, even complaining are all rooted in searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (James 4:11).
Negative judgments are particularly toxic to marriage relationships. In the book Blink,3 Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of married couples which examined the rate of divorce compared to attitudes that the couple showed toward each other in interviews five or ten years earlier. The interviewers looked at dozens of variables, but found only one factor that could almost surely predict divorce—an attitude of contempt. When one or both partners habitually spoke to the other with disdain or disgust, even in the most subtle ways, the marriage was often moving toward a break up. If you think about it, contempt comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy. It is a way of saying, “I have reached my verdict, and there is nothing good in you.”
People who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in looking for something wrong in other peoples’ actions—their own act of judging negatively. If you think about it, anger always involves an accusation of sin. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what sin you might be accusing the other person of; then remember that Jesus says that you are a sinner too. You can’t expect God’s mercy if you aren’t merciful to others. (See Matthew 18:23-34.)
All of us would do well to focus more on judging favorably, and extending mercy. Both are ways of showing God’s grace. We’ll find that over time, it really has the potential to transform our personalities to be more like Christ. Listen to Jesus words one more time:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Luke 6:35-38