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Christ commands us early in His teaching to reject the notion that He has abolished Torah, the Mosaic Law, or relieved us of our responsibility to obey it. His teaching on this point is so clear that even well-known Christian scholars who do not actually obey Him here, also do not misunderstand Him here. It is a long-standing tradition of misinterpreting numerous Pauline passages that causes most believers today to miss Christ’s heart in Torah.
In the Bible it is written, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15) Simple basic principles of the Christian life: love God and obey Him, delight in Him and do what He says. When you get this you pretty much get it all.
So then, if we love Jesus Christ, if He is precious to us and we are delighting in Him, how do we then obey Him?
What are His commandments, exactly?
This is the first practical step in loving and obeying Jesus Christ, the link between theology and life — how we translate our love for Christ into action.
In answering, it is natural for us to turn to Scripture and carefully consider what He actually commands.
A First Command
The very first word Christ speaks to us in the New Testament, outside of private conversation, is in Matthew 4:17. This first word is, in itself, a command. Jesus Christ says, “Repent.” He then elaborates on the reason for His command, “… for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We are prone to believe lies about God and ourselves, and this displeases Him. The kingdom of heaven is all around us; to experience it we must earnestly seek the truth, believe it and obey.
This is the essence of repentance: a change in thinking, moving from lies to truth (2Ti 2:25), resulting in changed behavior. Repent, change your beliefs, walk in the light. This is the first command of Christ, and it is evidently central to His ministry.
A Second Command
Shortly after this, in chapter 5, Matthew presents Christ’s first public discourse: The Sermon on the Mount. Beginning with The Beatitudes, Christ introduces us to the people of the kingdom of heaven, what they look like, how they act and how to identify them. Then Christ describes how God’s children are generally treated by, and how they affect the world.
Then, in verse 17, Christ gives us a second command: “Think not.” After telling us in chapter 4 to repent, which is to change our thinking, now He tells us to avoid thinking a certain way about His message.
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
As Christ begins to expound on the nature of the kingdom of God and the principles on which it is founded, He is aware that many will tend to misunderstand Him. There is a mistake that is very easy to make with His teachings.
He cannot be more direct or clear about this concern, presenting a very basic warning to everyone considering His message. This warning comes very early in His teaching and appears to be very important, critical to understanding Who Jesus Christ is and what He represents.
Unpacking Think Not
In order to understand any passage of Scripture we first consider its historical context: Christ is a Jew giving instruction to Jews. Those present before Him on the hillside live in ancient Israel, before there is any such thing as a New Testament. Most all of them attend synagogue and are regularly instructed out of what we now call the Old Testament. The foundation of this instruction is a set of laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These Jewish people are intimately familiar with these laws, commonly called the Torah, and it is the only divine law they know. God’s prophets and teachers have been expounding on these laws, and on how and why to obey them, to the people of Israel for centuries.
When Christ says “the law or the prophets,” He is talking about these laws, and what His prophets and teachers have been saying about them ever since God gave them to Moses at Sinai. God has consistently encouraged His people to keep these laws, and Christ is saying He didn’t come to change that.
To “destroy” a law, which is an abstract concept, means to dismiss it, disobey it, and encourage others to do so by ceasing to promote or enforce the law as valid and applicable, to render it ineffective or obsolete by relieving others of any obligation to obey it. This is the only way one can destroy a law.
What Christ is saying in this second command, “Think not,” is that if we are not careful we may wrongly conclude from His teachings that these laws in the Old Testament are no longer applicable or relevant or appropriate for us to obey. He tells us up front, before He even gets started in giving us extended teaching on spiritual matters, that we are not to make this kind of mistake. He did not come to disobey Torah, or to render any part of it obsolete; He came to fulfill Torah: to keep it perfectly, to demonstrate what keeping Torah perfectly looks like as an example for us to follow, to encourage us to follow Him in keeping Torah, and to reveal Himself and His life as the reality behind its rich promises and symbolism.
In particular, in verse 19, Christ says that anyone who makes this basic kind of mistake, and so begins to deliberately or carelessly break any of Torah, even the most insignificant laws, will be considered insignificant and least important in His kingdom. He affirms that Torah will be relevant in His kingdom for as long as heaven and earth stand. His final statement is simple and emphatic and clear: those who desire to keep all of Torah that they are able to keep, and teach others by word and deed to do the same, will be the key players in His kingdom.
Now, let us explore the import of Christ’s statements with an example or two. Torah contains a command to rest on the seventh day of each week. (Ex 20:8-11) So, we are to understand that it is our obligation to honor the seventh day, Saturday, as a manner of life, to treat it as holy and cease from all our labor on it. Torah also teaches us to abstain from eating unclean foods like bacon, ham, catfish, oysters, lobster and shrimp, so we have an obligation to avoid these things. (Le 11:2-3, 9-10, etc.) Torah commands God’s people to keep Passover and the feast of Tabernacles; we should therefore do so. He said to wear tassels containing a blue thread (Nu 15:38-40), and so we should. This is His revealed will for us. Torah contains a great many laws that govern all aspects of life, and they reveal what loving God and others actually looks like.
These examples are not the most significant laws of Torah, they are what we might think of as “the least of these commandments,” and they serve to complete the picture God gives us of His way. The key commands are, of course, to love God with our whole being (De 6:5), and our neighbors as ourselves. (Le 19:18) The rest of Torah is simply an expression of what it looks like to obey these two most important commandments. (Mt 22:40) Torah is therefore, in every respect, the Law of Love: when we walk in love we are aligned with Torah (Ro 13:10), and to the degree that we are inclined against Torah we are inclined against God Himself, for obedience to God’s Law is His very definition of love. (1Jn 5:3)
Clearly, to focus on the lesser of these laws and ignore the greater ones is not Christ’s intent. If we, as the Pharisees of old, tithe every little bit of income we receive and yet neglect to love God and our neighbor, this is enmity against God. In Christ’s metaphor, it is as if we strain to filter out gnats from our juice while we swallow down camels. (Mt 23:24) Christ is assuming we know better than this, and is reminding us that we should not neglect the little laws either: we should not tolerate gnats in our juice.
The Torah is one standard: when we break any of these laws, we break all of Torah (Ja 2:10), and this is the definition of sin. (1Jn 3:4) Whenever we are inclined to violate any aspect of Torah we are sinning against God, ourselves and others. We should never be careless about sin, even little sins.
If we do not apply ourselves in trying to obey each of these laws, and fall into thinking that some of them are unimportant, obsolete or inappropriate, we dishonor Christ the Lawgiver, showing that we do not love Him or trust Him or receive Him. We thereby discredit ourselves in Christ’s kingdom and deny Him in our lives. But if we seek to obey all of His commands as He gives us strength, and if we encourage others to obey Him in all things as well, then we show that we love Christ, that we trust Him, that we receive and honor Him, and thus we are recognized as great in the kingdom of heaven.
Christ’s second command is that we think this way: that we believe all of Torah is valid for us to obey, and that we reject any inclination to dismiss any part of it. His beloved Apostle John says as much, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” (1Jn 5:2-3) God wants us to understand and remember that our desire to obey Torah, including our attitude towards the most insignificant of these laws, is the key factor in how we will be received in His kingdom.
From the outset of His ministry, this is how Christ reveals His heart to us, His value system, His priorities and beliefs, yet this is strikingly different from how most Christians view Him. In contrast to the above, most of us have been taught that Torah is no longer relevant, that Christ has now given us a better law than Torah, and that any significant interest in obeying the old Law is unhealthy or immature, perhaps even dangerous. The reasoning appears to be that if we turn back to the Mosaic Law, we somehow annul or discredit the work of Christ.
Certain statements by Paul have indeed been understood to teach that Christ has delivered us from any obligation to obey Torah. But there is a problem inherent in this way of thinking.
All Paul says is true … but … Christ’s words are also true … and they are also very, very clear.
How do we reconcile them?
To help us out here, Peter warns that in certain places Paul is hard to understand: “As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (2Pe 3:16) If we are ignorant of the spiritual, historical and cultural context in which Paul wrote it is very easy for us to misunderstand him. Paul says things like “we are not under the law, but under grace” (Ro 6:14) and “but if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.” (Ga 5:18) If we are not very careful with the context and we don’t understand Paul’s heart it is extremely easy to take him the wrong way.
It is, however, quite difficult to misunderstand Christ in this second commandment. Many renowned teachers agree with the above exegesis: Albert Barnes, Matthew Henry, John Gill, and Jamieson, Faussett and Brown, to name a few.
In order to claim that the gospel has abolished Torah by rendering it, or even parts of it, obsolete, we must assert that in The Sermon on the Mount Christ is talking about some law other than Torah. We must claim that Christ is telling us, along with the Jews of ancient Israel, before there was a New Testament, to keep some other set of commandments, some new law … perhaps a “law of love and freedom,” but not the Law of Moses.
But where is this new law? Where do we find it laid out for us? What is its basis and standard?
Whatever this new law is, Christ’s command implies that the Jewish people already had it and were already very familiar with it, well before the Cross.
No other law is ever described in any detail by Christ, or by Paul, or by any other inspired writer. Torah is the only divine standard provided for us in Scripture. Our options are quite limited.
Conceding then that Christ is indeed speaking of Torah we may, after verses 17 and 18, yet be optimistic for a loophole: Christ may be saying that He, in fulfilling Torah Himself, has also fulfilled our obligation to obey Torah, such that we need not concern ourselves with it any longer. But when we come to verse 19, His wording is just too simple and direct to misunderstand. The text only makes sense if Christ is referring to Torah, and if He is intending that we try and obey it all. There doesn’t appear to be any other legitimate way to understand the text. Few good teachers of the Word, if any, appear to be mistaken on this particular point.
However, when it comes to actually obeying Christ’s command and working it out in practice, very few appear to agree with the implications provided above. Most will limit the application of Christ’s words in one of two ways, saying either  only the Jews are obligated to keep Torah, or  that we can break Torah down into different kinds of laws: moral, civil and ceremonial laws, and that we are only responsible to keep the “moral” parts of Torah. Yet both of these attempts are inherently inconsistent and problematic: Christ’s last command to His disciples was to teach the nations to observe and obey all of His teachings: “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:20) Basically, God intends for Gentiles to believe and act in pretty much the same way that the Jews do; in Christ He has made believers from every nation one new man (Ep 2:15), one united people (Ep 2:14), and in that unity has given us a common standard of holiness: Torah. (Ro 3:19) Further, in picking and choosing which laws to obey by calling some of them “moral” (implying that violating the others is not immoral) we generally ignore what most anyone would call “the least of these commandments.” In short: we may not break Torah up into pieces of differing moral quality, and we may not rightly divide people into groups with differing definitions of holiness.
Paul affirms this when he carefully and clearly summarizes his position on Law and Grace in Romans 3:31. Paul understands how tempting it is to conclude that the gospel diminishes the role of Torah and is more than qualified to address the topic. This is how he summarizes the matter: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.”
When Paul wrote this text he was still a practicing Jewish Pharisee (Ac 23:6), which means he was an expert in following Torah and in teaching others how and why to follow it. At the same time he was also the Apostle of the Gospel of the Grace of Christ to the Gentiles. (Ro 11:13 , Ep 3:8) Evidently, Paul saw no conflict in walking openly in both of these roles together in wholesomeness, and had earnestly wrestled through all of the details and concerns of how Torah and faith and grace all work together for both Jews and Gentiles. If any mortal man has ever been qualified to speak with authority on this subject, Paul certainly is that man. In the above text he distills the debate down into a single question and a single emphatic answer. He is extremely clear about his position. In fact, it is difficult to imagine how he might have been more clear.
To establish Torah is to admit and affirm that Torah has been, is presently, and always will be God’s standard of holiness for all men. To claim that we are establishing Torah while we are willfully neglecting or breaking any of it, or teaching others to do so, is merely to deceive ourselves. Christ came to deliver us, both Jew and Gentle, from our inclination to do this, saving us from our tendency to resent and despise Torah, in other words, to sin. (1Jn 3:4-5) In rescuing us He first gives us a new heart that is receptive to Torah (Ez 36:26-27), and then He writes Torah in and on our new heart. (Je 31:33) This is the essence of the new covenant (or, “testament“, He 8:10) and nothing in the Gospel message or in the New Testament scriptures contradicts it.
Faith and grace do not abolish Torah or render any part of it obsolete; the reality is that faith and grace provide us the tendency, desire, strength and ability to obey Torah. (Ro 6:14-15, He 12:28) Christ did not come to change this standard or to give us a new one, but by His teachings and Spirit helps us to better understand and obey the Law He has already given. He does not give us license to break His laws more; rather, He saves us from both the penalty we deserve for breaking them and also from our very propensity to do so. He does not merely offer us a positional righteousness while encouraging us to continue in sin; Christ offers us both a positional righteousness and a practical one. In declaring us righteous and also enabling us to live obediently and righteously He delivers us from the entire penalty of sin — from the wrath of God we deserve as judicial punishment and also from the practical, natural, inevitable consequences, bondage and unhealthiness that comes upon us and those about us when we sin against God and others as a manner of life.
Torah is the law of love, based on and rooted in the highest form of love. (Mt 22:27-40) It is also the law of freedom (Ja 1:25), it is truth (Jn 17:17) and it is light. (Ps 119:105, Pr 6:23) Walking in Torah, all of it, sets you free (Ps 119:45), fills you with joy (Je 15:16), and keeps you in regular fellowship with God. (1Jn 1:4-7)
Torah is the perfect (Ps 19:7) written expression of God’s heart (Ps 119:96), every command a unique testimony of His character (172), a singular window into a precious nuance of the infinitude of the divine nature. (Ro 11:33) When we ask Him to open our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of His Law (Ps 119:18), we’re seeking revelation of the righteousness and faithfulness of God (138), to understand His nature and His ways (27) as we meditate on them. (99) They were never meant to be temporary: each one is eternal. (160) Once we grasp how precious they are (72) we stand in awe of them (161b), and take them as our eternal inheritance, the rejoicing of our heart. (111)
Christ Himself is this same perfect expression of God’s heart in human form, the very embodiment of Torah: they are both perfect expressions of the Way. (Jn 14:6) And when Christ returns to reign in power, the above facts will become much more obvious to everyone. “Many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Mi 4:2) Christ will teach Torah to all nations and require everyone to obey it: He will bless those nations which do obey Him, and severely punish those which do not. (Zec 14:16-19, Re 19:15) This does not represent a change in Christ’s values, priorities or perspectives: evidently, this has always been His heart. He does not change. (Mal 3:6, Ja 1:17)
If we think Paul contradicts Christ … then we do not understand Paul.
If we ignore Christ because we misunderstand Paul … then we miss the heart of Christ.
If you are seeing this problem for the very first time, and what it implies, it is easy to become very concerned about it, even frightened …
Do you wonder how we ever got here, to a place so far away from the teachings of Christ, to a place so far from His heart? How could common Christian doctrine be so completely wrong on such a basic concept, be so widespread, and persist for so long?
It is no real mystery how this happened. Let us briefly review the history. Perhaps it will help us be a little more open to God’s plan and design for us.
Back in the earliest days of Christianity, during the time of the Apostles, it was common for the believers, who were mostly all Jewish, to keep Torah. The early disciples kept it and never had any idea that the Law was abolished or abrogated by the gospel. Nothing about the teachings of Christ indicated otherwise, so they all kept the Mosaic Law zealously (Ac 21:20), and encouraged other Jewish believers to do so as well. (21-24) The Apostle Paul himself was evidently in agreement with them, and went to great lengths to demonstrate this. (21:26, 24:14, 25:8)
However, as gentiles were converted and assimilated into the congregations of believers, the Apostles did, in divine mercy and wisdom, recognize that it was inappropriate to compel Gentiles to follow the burdensome man-made Oral-Torah in addition to Torah like their Jewish brothers were doing. (Ac 15:10, Mt 23:4) Further, the Apostles recognized that requiring the same level of obedience to Torah from Gentiles was at times inappropriate due to their cultural circumstances: Gentiles were generally at a significant disadvantage, both due to their interdependence with non-Torah observant communities and also to being relatively new in the Faith. (Acts 21:25) Even so, the Apostles, mindful of the words of Christ (Jn_14:26, Mt 5:19), never actually encouraged anyone to break Torah. They knew better than this, and it is a key point to remember. Their lenience and understanding with Gentiles in Torah observance was wisdom and mercy on their part, not a reflection of the goodness, relevance, applicability or permanency of Torah.
We may search the Word carefully and validate this fact: the Apostles never encouraged anyone to violate Torah. And though it is perhaps more difficult to see, the Apostle Paul never encouraged an anti-Torah mindset either. At times, they did tolerate certain kinds of Torah violations under extenuating circumstances, but they never encouraged, as a general manner of life, the kind of anti-Torah mindset we Christians have today. They never contradicted Christ by teaching that the gospel abolished or annulled the Mosaic Law.
On the contrary, as we have observed, Christ commanded His Apostles to teach all nations to keep Torah. We have no indication that the Apostles ever rejected this principle; in spite of the difficult questions it raised for them, we have every indication that they respected it. Texts that appear to suggest otherwise are not too difficult to understand in this light, given some careful thought, as shown in the essays highlighted at the end of this one.
Then, shortly after the death of the Apostle Paul (c. 67 CE), the unthinkable happened in the Jewish world: the Romans sacked Jerusalem (c. 70 CE), leveling the city as Christ had predicted (Mt 24:2, Lk 23:28-29) and scattering the Jewish believers. Thus began one of the most furious persecutions known to Man. The Romans fiercely, brutally and relentless hunted down the Jewish people from that time onward, and they continued this for hundreds of years. They pursued anyone and everyone who looked or acted like a Jew, including many of the gentile Christians who were attending synagogue and trying to keep Torah along with the Jews. In particular, Rome imposed a very heavy tax, Fiscus Judaicus, upon every Torah-observant person. Anyone who rested on the seventh day, kept from unclean foods and observed the biblical festivals was identified as Jewish by Roman authorities and subjected to this severe tax. This included many Gentiles who had been accepted into Jewish culture and were Torah observant but had never converted to Judaism.
It is no coincidence that during this time a few Christian leaders began to seriously question the relevance of Torah, looking for a loophole that would permit Gentiles to distance themselves from Jews. As violent persecution against the Jewish people persisted, anti-Torah teaching became much easier to accept. A new generation of leadership soon rose up in the churches teaching and believing that Torah had been abolished by the gospel, flatly contradicting the very words of Christ and the firm beliefs of His earliest followers.
By the middle of the second century this teaching had become much more popular in the churches, and by the third century it was firmly entrenched in Christianity, as evidenced by the debates between Augustine and Jerome. Jerome, a prominent church leader (c. 347-420 CE), insisted that “the gospel had abolished the law and that the observance of the law is dangerous for anyone. He reprimands Augustine for his view that it was alright for converts from Judaism to observe the traditions of their forefathers, not because it was necessary for salvation, but simply as part of their tradition.” (Letters, p. 280)
Ever since that time, right up to the present day, anti-Torah sentiment has been nearly universal in Christianity. It was not dealt with during the Reformation nor rooted out in subsequent Protestant work. Only recently has there been more widespread interest in the relevance of Torah, yet few who follow Torah stay true to the gospel as well; a solid biblical balance is indeed quite rare.
But, again, when Christ returns, He will ensure that we all have His clarity in this.
The Rest of Christ’s Commandments
To come full circle now, if we were to continue on through the Gospels and consider all of Christ’s commands one by one, we would find more of what we have found above: all of Christ’s commands are essentially commands to keep Torah. What is new about Christ’s commandments, if we want to think of them as new, is that He clarifies and exemplifies and calls us to a more complete and wholesome motivation and perspective as we obey Torah. It is not about whether we should keep Torah or not, but about how and why we are to keep it.
Even Christ’s most famous command is like this: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (Jn 13:34) Torah already commands us to love each other (Le 19:18), so what’s new here? Christ is re-introducing the second great commandment again and afresh, making it new by His example: “as I have loved you.” This concept is not new in the sense that it is fundamentally different from all the other commandments; neither is it promoting a new or better standard — there can be no higher standard than loving God with all of your heart and your neighbor as yourself. He is giving us the same command in a new context, with a clearer example of what it means.
Christ has demonstrated to the disciples how to love by keeping Torah in their presence, allowing them to observe Him and His manner of life for three precious years. His commandment is that we love each other with a new understanding of what love means after watching Him love, carefully considering His example to us. In setting this example, Christ never violated Torah, nor encouraged anyone else to do so. (Jn 8:46, 1Pe 2:22) We are to follow His steps. (1Pe 2:21)
John, the beloved apostle, after observing Christ so intimately and following Him closely for so many years afterwards, sums up what he understands from this entire experience as he conveys Christ’s “new commandment” to a dear sister in the faith. “And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk after his commandments.” (2Jn 5-6) Loving each other is something God has always required of Man, but He had been progressively helping us flesh this out, showing us what it means.
Torah defines love. Loving as God intended is equivalent to keeping all of Torah. This is what Paul means then he says, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Ro 13:10) When we see things from God’s perspective, we cannot distinguish between obeying Torah and loving others: they are one and the same.
So What Now?
As Peter warned, if we are content to be “unlearned and unstable,” we may continue to “wrest” Paul’s words from their context, much to our own hurt. Let us not do this; let us not be “unlearned and unstable” any longer. Let us be willing to depart from common teaching as needed, look to the whole of Scripture and begin to test what we have been taught in light of the plain words of Christ, beginning with the simple and clear texts to orient us as we try to understand the other, less clear, more difficult Pauline passages.
And as we do so … let us not forget the gospel; let us purpose to hold on to it intelligently, prayerfully and earnestly.
This is certainly not a trivial undertaking, but it actually can be done, and it can be done by anyone willing to submit to God. It does not take a Greek or Hebrew scholar to figure this out. We just need to be patient, ask the right questions, stay humble, and be willing to obey the truth once we have found it.
A Basic Truth
The first step is to carefully consider that Torah is intrinsically good. Paul says this in several places, as in: “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” (Ro 7:12) It is so good that the godly nature of Christ within every believer already delights in Torah (vs 22), and the sinful nature in us is always warring against it. (vs 23) We must, again, think carefully here, to make sure we understand.
When we say that something is good, we mean that there is benefit in it for those who use it as it was intended. There is an inherent blessing in good things, they are not intrinsically harmful or destructive. When we believe something is good for us, we seek it out and incorporate it into our lives. We generally think that pleasure is good, so we look for and participate in activities that give us wholesome pleasure. We enjoy good food and drink, rest, healthy friendships and relationships, sex with our spouse, nice clothing, etc. These are all good things when used as God intended, and they can bring much health and blessing to us.
The Law is no different. Torah can certainly be abused, used for purposes other than what God intended, but – and you may need to walk by faith and not by sight here for a little while — it actually is good for us when we use it rightly. Paul says this plainly, “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” (1Ti 1:8)
The Purpose of Torah
The next step is to carefully consider what the Scripture says about the purpose of Torah. A common anti-Torah perspective looks to Galatians 3:24 for guidance here: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” The anti-Torah mindset claims from this text that the sole purpose of Torah was to make us feel guilty so that we will flee to Christ for salvation. The claim implies that once we are in Christ the Law is no longer useful to us. However, this is not what the verse actually says. It merely states that Torah happens to have this effect upon us, not that this is its purpose. Torah does affect us in this way because we are evil: we violate God’s law, and in our guilt we do find motivation to run to Christ. This is certainly a good thing about Torah, and we should be thankful for it.
Torah certainly is in every way contrary to our sinful nature. The reason we don’t naturally obey Torah is because there is an ungodly part of each of us that does not believe God’s law is good. This is why we are not naturally inclined to obey Torah in our flesh. Paul says plainly that “the carnal mind (any ungodly belief system or pattern of thinking) is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” (Ro 8:7) This part of us that cannot submit to Torah, which Paul calls “the carnal mind,” is also called “the old man” (Ep 4:22) and “the flesh.” (Ro 7:25) It is the part of us that operates in lies, outside the truth, and it is therefore, by definition, irreconcilably opposed to God. This part of us cannot obey Torah. Christ did not come to fix this part of us: He offers only to put it to death, to crucify it along with Himself. (Ro 6:6)
This innate distaste of our flesh for Torah is actually the easiest way for us to uncover and expose the parts of us that are not yet aligned with God and His holiness. The old man is very deceitful and elusive, but Torah consistently shines a light on him and exposes him. No wonder the enemy wants to alienate us from Torah! Why would God ever abolish such a gift, so long as we struggle with sin? He didn’t: Torah is just as important for Christians as it is for unbelievers. Everything about Torah that moves a sinner to flee to Christ also guides and strengthens Christians in their walk with Christ.
Though we may find in Torah a useful feature as it exposes our fleshly nature, this is not, however, actually the purpose of Torah, or even a description of Torah itself. This is more of a description of the way we respond to Torah.
Paul formally states the purpose of Torah in 1 Timothy 1:5: “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” This word end is translated from the Greek telos, which means the point aimed at, the goal or purpose. The primary reason God gave us Torah is to guide, promote and encourage our sanctification, our actual, practical goodness, our righteousness and holiness. The goal of Torah in every believer is a pure and holy love (charity out of a pure heart), an accurate internal ability to identify good from bad and right from wrong (a good conscience), and a genuine, organic assurance regarding key, fundamental spiritual truths (faith unfeigned). Anyone who seeks to use Torah for any other purpose is abusing it, as Paul says in continuing the above. “From which (end, or purpose) some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm.” (vs 6-7) To turn away from the purpose of the Law is to show that we do not yet understand its very first principles. To pursue any other goal through Torah is at best a waste of time; to abuse something as powerful as Torah can deeply harm both ourselves and others.
Once we are convinced that Torah is good it makes sense to begin to try to obey it with this goal in mind, even before knowing whether we are required to or not. If Christ’s own words are not conclusive enough for us, Paul’s statements about the nature and purpose of Torah should be sufficient motivation for us to at least be willing to give it a try.
A Practical Test
Being willing to obey the truth is as or more important than sound doctrine, yet we may think we are willing to obey Christ when we are not. It is so easy to be a hearer of the Word and not a doer, and a stubborn unwillingness to obey — being disobedient at the core — will actually blind our own eyes and stop our own ears, deceiving our own selves (Ja 1:22) so that we cannot understand and believe. (Jn 5:44) It is pointless to begin theological research until we are sure we can both see and hear clearly. In other words, we should not be trying to add knowledge to our faith: we should add virtue to our faith, and then add knowledge to our virtue. (2Pe 1:5)
So, before going to the trouble of untangling all the theological knots that our teachers have woven for us in taking portions of the Pauline epistles out of context, asking yourself this question may be very helpful: “Would God mind if I wanted to start keeping some of His old laws, not in order to make myself look good or to earn salvation or anything, but just because His law is probably good and I think it might be good to obey good laws … would this be offensive to God in some way?”
In answering this, does it make sense to think as follows? “Why, of course not! Don’t be silly! God wouldn’t mind at all if I wanted to obey some of these old rules just because I thought they were good to keep. God is good and wouldn’t give us laws merely to inconvenience us; maybe He even intended to bless us in some way through them, who knows? I may not be required to keep these old laws, but surely God won’t mind if I want to keep a few of them, especially in the context that I know I am already saved by Christ: I know it has nothing at all to do with me being justified before God. I am not trying to establish my own righteousness apart from God; I just want to obey Him as much as I possibly can because I am already saved and because I love Him.”
If the Spirit confirms this in you, that God doesn’t mind if we want to start obeying Torah, given that this is not for salvation in any way but just out of a sense of God’s goodness and our love for Him and anything that ever came from Him, then it is easier for us to see that the reason we aren’t obeying Torah is not actually rooted in what we have been taught.
Once we understand that we are free to obey Torah without offending God, and that we have always been free to do so, this exposes the fact that our disobedience of Torah does not actually lie in our poor theology; it lies in the fact that we are not personally inclined to obey Torah. We are not delighting in it. (Ro 7:22) Our theological baggage may help us quiet the guilt inherent in our aversion to Torah, but it is not the root cause of our disobedience. This is very important to understand.
Once we acknowledge this, it is again a simple thing to ask God to make us willing. (Ps 119:36) Even if we are not yet willing to start obeying more of Torah, are we willing to be made willing? For the love of Christ, can we at least ask Him to soften our hearts? Who knows what He might do?
And once we come to understand that Torah is actually good for us, that there just might be a blessing in it for us, we just might be tempted to try and get some of that blessing. After all, who couldn’t use a little more of that, right?
Baby Steps First
Now, Torah contains many kinds of commands, some of which are most easily obeyed by anyone, and others which are quite impossible for anyone to obey completely. Torah addresses every single aspect of our life: physically, emotionally and spiritually, and it does so from very many angles. It addresses the spirit, soul, heart, mind and body through all of these dimensions and at most every level of maturity. Regardless how broken a person is, there will be commands that are quite easily obeyed if that person wants to obey them. And, of course, there are commands that no one can obey perfectly, giving the most holy and righteous soul a continual challenge to pursue in God.
What is so wonderful about this aspect of Torah is that there are some mechanical things anyone can do, even without perfect motives, to move toward holiness. When we do move toward holiness through this kind of physical obedience, keeping the purpose of Torah in mind, seeking for God to change our motives as we obey, something wonderful often happens. He does.
So, as a practical step to make some progress, meditate on verses that reveal the goodness of Torah (there are many; try Psalm 119!) until this idea begins to sink in. Then reach out to someone else who is seeking to love and obey Jesus Christ and share these concepts with them so that they can join you in the journey. If you have trouble finding a like-minded person, please let me know and I will try to help you out myself.
In community, even if it is just with one other person, start asking God to show you Torah commands you are breaking that you can actually keep, even if your heart isn’t quite right about it. As our new man already delights in Torah, ask God to help you walk in delight in Him through these commands. Don’t pick one that implies breaking civil law, like stoning an adulterer or anything (for more on that one, and others like it, see Use It Lawfully). Take a simple one, like Sabbath. It is probably the only one of the Ten Commandments you don’t already obey. Being one of the Ten, it seems to be an important one. If you have employment that permits (And, no, you probably don’t want to start out on a journey like this by quitting your job! Better get some runway behind you, and get some air under your wings, before you go and do a thing like that. You don’t want to crash and burn!), purpose to start treating Saturday as unique, different than the other days of the week. Take baby steps at first, but do start to set it apart; stop your regular pattern of work on that day and learn the blessing of a cyclical pattern of rest.
Ask God to show you how and take it slowly, as you feel it is safe. Anyone can do this, at least in some small way. Don’t worry about doing it perfectly … just move toward God through Torah as He leads. He delights in this, and He will surely help you and show you how.
From there, give your stomach and health to God: drop bacon, ham, shrimp and other unclean things from your diet. God never intended that we eat scavengers and such: they are not God’s design for food. The food-based commands were not arbitrary. Then start taking better care of yourself in other obvious ways … drinking more water, taking vitamin supplements, exercising and stretching and toning, keeping up your appearance and cleanliness, respecting and appreciating your own dignity and worth as a child of God … building health holistically, one step at a time, for Him. (2Co_7:1)
And then you might consider looking into the biblical feasts. They are indeed rich, shadows of things to come. (Col 2:17) They can, in themselves, be a source of deep joy and rich learning.
There will be no end to the discovery … it is the discovery of the heart of God … the unsearchable riches of Christ are here … in Torah. (Ro 11:33, Eph 3:8)
Where else do you think Paul found these riches? Back in those early days, Spirit-guided Torah study was pretty much all anyone had. Yet they seemed to do pretty well with it. The Church hasn’t been the same since she left it.
Ask God to help you take these first baby steps with wisdom, not to earn any brownie points with God or others, but simply because you love Him, and since it is probably right and good to do good things. Believe by faith that God and His ways — and therefore His Laws — are good, and in faith turn this belief into action. Check with your community to ensure you are doing this safely, not in a way that will incur distress and difficulty you are not prepared for (loss of your job, or creating major disruptions in your family, especially at first). You will likely be surprised at what happens. I sure was.
The reason it is wise to involve others is two-fold. Firstly, Torah is not made merely for individuals but for whole communities. This is the root of the Apostles’ discretionary toleration of certain types of Torah violation for Gentile believers. When you are living in relative isolation amidst an anti-Torah culture you need the wisdom and grace of God to move toward Torah without the enemy destroying you and others in the process. (Ac 15:28-29, Col 4:5) Secondly, you and I are prone to both cowardly compromise and also to hardened self-righteousness, and sometimes it takes others to point this out to us. It is so easy in this journey for wrong motives to creep in and destroy everything. We need the grace of God, in ourselves but especially in and through others, to do this well. When you are holding on to someone else in slippery places it is much easier to keep your balance, and you tend to walk more carefully and intentionally for both your sake’s. There are many pitfalls along the way and you should not try to walk it alone, unless you have no other option.
Once you have started obeying Torah in wisdom and love, you will begin to see and experience that there is a real blessing in it. This is ultimately why God gave it to us; it was not just as an inconvenience to drive us to Christ. It did drive us to Christ, but not because it was bad for us; we were bad, not the Law. Once your eyes start to see the goodness of God in Torah, you will likely start to see and understand God and His Word in ways you could not have imagined, in a whole new light. It is a basic, significant paradigm shift and it will likely take a while to get there from here. There will be many questions, but you will have taken off the blinders enough to be able to see your way.
Help For The Journey
Once you are clear that you are at least willing to obey Torah, even if you are not required to, you can be reasonably sure that disobedience is not going to be a big hindrance in your ability to understand and believe the truth with all confidence. This is the essence of a pure heart: submitted, willing to be made willing. From this place you can begin to rigorously search out the deeper theological truths freely and boldly. Now it makes sense to tackle Paul afresh and anew.
Once you are firm in your understanding and have had some serious practice integrating Torah into your life, the time may come for more of a sacrifice in this: letting go of a career, dealing more openly with family who can’t understand, taking persecution in love and joy for following Christ.
But remember this: following Torah in an anti-Torah culture was never God’s ideal design. There are problems here that take the wisdom of Solomon to work out. He gave Torah to a nation and then provided for the immediate destruction of anyone within this nation who ever openly despised His Law. You don’t live in a culture like that (there aren’t any today). Be patient and prayerful. Don’t let the enemy beat you up. Keep seeking God and loving Him. May He guide you, and may you feel His tender mercies all along the way.
There are a few great resources available to help us as we grow here. Tim Hegg’s Torah Resource is excellent. Also, here are a few of my own additional thoughts on this topic.
- All Thy Commandments – Laws we can obey
- Christ Is the End of the Law – Christlikeness: the goal of Torah
- Disannulling the Command – Torah’s the standard, but it’s not eternal
- Dead To The Law – Dead as far as the Law is concerned
- Delivered from the Law – Delivered from sin’s penalty and dominion
- Did Christ Declare All Foods Clean? – Poorly handling Mk 7:19
- Every Creature of God Is Good – Dietary laws are still valid
- Let No Man Judge You – Obeying Torah free of Jewish tradition
- No Greater Burden – The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)
- Not Under Law – On Law and Grace: Victory over sin
- Nothing Unclean of Itself – Living in peace with weaker brothers
- One Law – Answering opposing claims at their best
- One New Man – The laws Christ abolished and why
- That Which Is Done Away – Torah is to be abolished, but not yet
- The Covenants of Promise – God’s contracts with Israel
- The End of the Commandment – God’s purpose in Torah
- The Feasts of the Lord – Observing God’s festivals
- The Law Was Our Schoolmaster – The nature of Torah and its purpose
- The Lord’s Supper – The Lord’s Supper is Passover
- Till the Seed Should Come – Torah’s life-span
- Use It Lawfully – Difficulties in observing Torah
- What God Hath Cleansed – Peter’s vision on the rooftop
- Zealous of the Law – The Apostolic perspective
Please feel free to correspond with me directly about any of these articles, or on any related topic or concern. I will gladly help in any way I can.
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