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Did Jesus Really Abolish the Law? Part 1


HighBeamMinistry.com

“17 Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20) 

 

I want to dig into this section of scripture that’s caused a lot of confusion among Jesus’ followers. The question is, “What is Jesus’ take on the Torah (aka the Law)?” Jesus answers that question clearly, but you must dissect this foundational part of the Sermon on the Mount to understand His point. This section must be understood properly to grasp what Jesus taught His then and future followers. The related questions are 1) What place does the Torah have in the lives of those who have genuinely committed to following Him (genuine followers, not CHRINOS – Christians In Name Only), and 2) What role does the Torah play regarding how our relationship with God is restored, i.e., salvation?

 

Before we go further, the whole idea of a Christian taking the Torah seriously and obeying it puts many professing believers on edge. Not that many have studied it, mind you. Most Christians have formed their ideas about the Torah by accepting what their replacement theology pastors and seminaries have taught without question.

 

But here’s the cold, hard truth based on what it meant to be a disciple in Jesus’ day. You can’t call yourself a true disciple without learning and practicing your rabbi’s teachings. Period. This is especially true when your rabbi is God and the Torah’s Author. To claim Jesus as your Rabbi and Lord and refuse to learn and practice His teachings is an oxymoron. Jesus is clear about this. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say?” (Luke 6:46).

 

So, let’s put on our adult pants and look honestly at this crucial section. Regarding Matthew 5:17-20, this part will focus on the “What is Jesus’ take on the Torah?” (verses 17-18). The next part will focus on the follow-up questions, “What place does the Torah have in the lives of those who have truly committed to following Him (verse 19), and 2) What role does the Torah play regarding how our relationship with God is restored, i.e., salvation?” (verses 20).

 

Warning. This is your last chance. Reading further will probably mess with your theology.

 

Okay. You kept reading. It’s on you now. Here we go.

 

What is Jesus’ take on the Torah/Law?

Let’s start with what the Torah/Law is. Torah means “instruction” and is related to two Hebrew words, yara, and moreh. According to John J. Parsons of hebrew4christians.com (an excellent resource), “the Hebrew word Torah comes from the root word yara meaning “to shoot an arrow” or “to hit the mark.” When used in relation to moral and spiritual truth, the word means “direction” or “instruction” regarding doing the will of God.” Torah is also related to the Hebrew word moreh, meaning teacher.

 

The ideas show us that the Torah is like an archer who shoots an arrow toward a target or a teacher who points his students toward how to live. As you can see, these words are a far cry from “Law” in the legal sense. In short, God gave the Torah to His people, the Israelites, to teach them how to live under His kingship and within His family. The Torah is based on the standard of God’s person (right being) and His will (right doing).

 

God gave His Torah to His people after He struck down Egypt and delivered them from Pharaoh’s grasp. Simply put, the greater King (Yehovah) defeated the lesser king (Pharaoh), freed His enslaved people, and brought them to Himself so He could become their King and Israel, His people creating God’s kingdom on earth.

 

As was customary, the conquering king would offer the people he freed a covenant to protect and guide their newfound royal relationship. Yehovah did this at Mount Sinai when He declared, “I’ll be your King, and you’ll be My people. This is what I will do for you, and this is what you’ll do for Me” (Exodus 19:5-6, paraphrased). The King offered, Israel accepted, and bada-bing, God’s kingdom on earth became embodied in His people whom He would soon plant in Canaan, their covenant land Yehovah promised to Abraham centuries before.

 

The Torah contains the terms of the Sinai/Mosaic/First covenant. The Torah spells out what both parties are obligated to do and not do to prove their ongoing faithfulness to one another. The Torah, the Sinai Covenant laws, is not simply a list of do’s and don’ts. “Torah aims people at God’s will. Torah teaches them HOW to walk a straight path, i.e., live right with God or righteousness…If properly taught and obeyed, it is a guide for successful living” (Dr. Brad Young).

 

From the moment the Sinai covenant was signed in blood (a blood covenant, Exodus 24:3-8), the people of Israel were bound to learn and follow the covenant terms, the Torah. That was the case from Mount Sinai to Jesus’ day.

 

When Jesus arrived, He announced a new and better way into God’s kingdom based on trusting the Father’s plan through His approaching sacrifice for sin. The new way of becoming part of God’s kingdom would also involve a new covenant between God and His people.

 

This new covenant (see Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 11, 36) was better because 1) it was signed with better blood (Jesus’, not an animal’s), 2) it would radically transform people inside from resisting God’s instructions, guidelines, and commands (the Torah) to wanting to follow them, 3) and it would make it easier to follow God’s Torah because the Holy Spirit would indwell each changed person and motivate them to follow God’s commands and guidelines.

 

When Jesus appeared, He not only announced the approach of God’s kingdom in a new way, Jesus taught the King’s ways – the Torah. Don’t miss this! The Torah of the Sinai Covenant (Covenant 1.0) is the same as the upgraded New Covenant (Covenant 2.0). Doubt me? Read it for yourself:

 

“’Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days’—the Lord’s declaration. ‘I will put my teaching (Torah) within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (Jeremiah 31:33, italics author).

 

“I will give them integrity of heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, so that they will follow my statutes, keep my ordinances, and practice them. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20, italics author).

 

“I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:27).

 

See? Jesus came to upgrade the Old Covenant into the New Covenant, Covenant 2.0, both of which included the same Torah as the covenant terms. Same Torah, different location, from outside to inside. As God, Jesus was the Author of those terms. He not only knew the letter of the Torah, but as God, He knew the reason, intent, proper interpretation, and application of each law.

 

However, the leaders of Jesus’ day didn’t see it that way. By the time Jesus showed up, successive generations of Israelite/Jewish leaders and teachers had built a body of instructions, guidelines, and commands based on their limited human understanding. Some of these interpretations and applications were accurate. Some commands were so radically stretched that while the leaders followed and taught the letter of the Torah, they violated the spirit of it. Jesus’ teachings, based on His divine comprehension of the Torah, often collided with the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ teachings based on their limited human intellect.

 

This conflict is behind the Sermon on the Mount. We see it reflected in Jesus’ declaration, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law (Torah) or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17, NKJV).

 

Spoiler alert! Jesus clearly stated that He would never contradict, suspend, or do away with the Torah/Law. To determine that, we must understand what Jesus meant by “abolish” and “fulfill.”

 

This verse can be understood in two ways. First, Jesus is the zenith, the epitome of the Torah in all its fullness. Remember that the Torah is based on God’s person (right being) and will (right doing). Since Jesus is God, He’s the perfect embodiment of the Torah. “(The Torah) now existed (in Jesus) as God originally intended it” (Blizzard and Bivin). Jesus is the Torah in human flesh, the Living Torah of God, the embodiment of His Father’s will. In this light, John 1:14 can be read, “The (Torah) became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The reality is Jesus is what we would look like if we were to interpret and apply God’s Torah perfectly in our lives.

 

The second way “abolish” (destroy) and “fulfill” can be understood is Jesus affirming the Torah as the way we are supposed to live. Combining the two views, Jesus shows us how to live the Torah (#1) and then teaches us how to live it (#2). The second view is closest to what Matthew 5:17 means. Here’s why.

 

Most Christians think abolishing and fulfilling lead to the same conclusion. Generally speaking, abolish means “to do away with something,” and fulfill means Jesus achieved what we couldn’t. At face value, it appears the Torah no longer applies to Christians. Therefore, we can do away with it. But think how illogical this sounds. “I didn’t come to do away with the Torah or the Prophets. I didn’t come to do away with them but to do away with them.” Jarring and illogical, isn’t it?

 

Furthermore, Christians would easily do away with “the Law,” but very few would think of doing away with the Prophets. Folks, it’s either one or the other. Do away with both or embrace both. There’s no separation of the two in Jesus’s statement.

 

The problem with figuring this out is that “abolish/fulfill” are Hebrew idioms regarding Torah study and practice.

 

Abolish and fulfill in this context are technical terms in rabbinic debate. Abolish, as an idiom, means to misinterpret or misapply a Torah command. If one rabbi felt that his colleague was misinterpreting a Torah passage, he would accuse him of “destroying, abolishing, annulling, and tearing down” the Torah. Such destroying meant that the accused rabbi was weakening or even nullifying God’s intended meaning.

 

As you might guess, fulfill is the opposite. Fulfill is idiomatic for interpreting or applying a Torah command correctly. The basic idea is “to establish the full meaning.” To fulfill means strengthening a Torah command by accurately interpreting and establishing God’s intended meaning.

 

Therefore, abolishing means interpreting and applying the Torah inaccurately. Fulfilling is interpreting and applying the Torah accurately. Knowing this difference is crucial because when we misunderstand the Torah’s proper meaning, we’re unable to obey God’s will and, in a way, negate the Torah. On the other hand, when we understand the Torah’s proper meaning, we can obey God’s will and, therefore, affirm the Torah as His right way to live and then do so.

 

With this idiomatic language, Jesus says to us in Matthew 5:17, “Don’t even think that I came to misinterpret or misapply the Torah and the Prophets. No way! I came to reveal their clearest meaning and how to obey them as My Father intended.”

 

Not that I want to put too fine a point on it, but Hebraically speaking, we can say that those who claim today that the Torah is invalid as God’s instructions or guidelines for life are discouraging others from knowing God’s will fully and thus hindering them from living a God-pleasing, obedient life.

 

In short, they’re doing precisely what Jesus said He wasn’t doing!

 

That Jesus had to say, “I did not come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets,” shows that He was being accused of destroying the Torah and the Prophets through misinterpretation or misapplication. The entire Sermon on the Mount proves this, Matthew 5-7.

 

It’s clear from the Gospels that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw Him as just another itinerant rabbi from the Galilee region. Since the scribes and Pharisees regarded the Oral Torah (man-made commands and instructions) as at least equal to the Written Torah (God’s commands and instructions), when Jesus challenged the Oral Torah and the traditions of the elders, they accused Him of breaking the whole Torah, even though Jesus was only bringing their errant Oral Torah interpretations into line with God’s Written Torah.

 

Let this sink in. The leaders accused the Living Torah of abolishing His own Written Torah through misinterpretation and misapplication, while Jesus was correcting the Pharisees who were actually abolishing the Written Torah through their misinterpretations and misapplications! “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13). Imagine correcting the Author of the Torah about what He really means by His own words. Now that’s chutzpah!

 

In vs. 17, Jesus categorically rejected the charge that He was destroying His Torah and the Prophets via inaccurate interpretation. On the contrary, He fully endorsed the Written Torah and declared that only He understood it accurately.

 

Prof. David Bivin of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Gospel Research offers this translation based on Hebraic foundations, “Do not suppose that I have any intention of undermining scripture by misinterpreting it. My purpose is to establish and maintain the knowledge and observance of God’s Word, not undermine it.”

 

Here’s a fun question. Why would Jesus affirm the Torah?

 

First, as Israel’s Messiah (Anointed King), He had to. According to the Torah, Israel’s king must be Torah observant. Deuteronomy 17:18-20 (the fifth book of the Torah) commands every Israelite king to write for himself a copy of the Torah and then read it continually, know it thoroughly, meditate on it intensely, and live it properly. God expected His king to be Torah-observant because the Torah was Israel’s Constitution and their highest law.

 

As Israel’s ultimate king, Messiah was expected to be the ultimate Torah-observant man. Rejecting or mishandling God’s Torah would immediately disqualify the candidate for kingship. This partly explains why Jesus was rejected as Messiah because the Jewish leaders believed Jesus was either violating or disregarding the Torah by opposing their teachings and traditions, something they thought the real Messiah would never do!

 

But in reality, Jesus upheld the Torah perfectly. Therefore, Jesus corrected the leaders’ faulty teachings and applications when they didn’t align with the letter and intent (the spirit) of God’s Torah. But since the leaders held their teaching at or even above the level of the Written Torah, Jesus appeared to them as blaspheming and harming the Torah, both Written and Oral. Therefore, they disqualified Jesus and rejected His claim to Israel’s throne (Matthew 26:62-68).

 

Another reason Jesus affirmed the Torah is His absolute commitment to obey His Father’s will. Again, the Torah reveals God’s will as the standard of correct behavior and actions. If Jesus came to do His Father’s will perfectly, why would He reject and discard the very revelation of His Father’s will? Why would Jesus deliberately lead people away from His Father’s will? As part of the Triune Godhead, why would Jesus teach people the Torah and then expect them to ignore His commands? Instead, wouldn’t we expect Jesus to clearly explain His Father’s will and show His disciples how to live per His Father’s standard?

 

Doesn’t this now make sense? Jesus is the Torah in human form. As the Living Torah, He can never misinterpret or cancel His laws. Instead, Jesus can help us understand them accurately and live them properly so we, too, can do our Father’s will and please Him, just as Jesus did. He never misinterpreted His Torah because He couldn’t! Jesus interpreted and applied His Torah with perfect meaning and intent.

 

Since we know that “abolish and fulfill” doesn’t mean getting rid of the Torah, it is clear that Jesus affirmed the Torah’s validity and importance to His followers. Now, we need Jesus to tell us how long the Torah will remain in effect. (Did I mention that this will probably mess up your theology? Well, hang on.)

 

“For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).

 

In the original Greek, the phrase, “For I assure you,” is the Hebrew word, amen. Amen means “Truth!” In Greek translations, amen is often used as if Jesus was putting emphasis on the next thing said.

 

According to David Stern’s Jewish New Testament and Commentary, amen “is always used in reference to something previously said…(Jesus’) amen to himself emphasizes his own previous point, sometimes with force, as in, “You may not think that I really meant what I just said about not messing with the Torah, but I do!” Jesus strongly affirmed what He said about His mission. “Don’t even think that I came to misinterpret the Torah! I came to show you precisely what it means…AMEN!” Jesus follows that up by declaring exactly how important the Torah is.

 

It will remain in force until God remakes the heavens and the earth.

 

Whoa! What?

 

The Jewish sages and rabbis believed that the Torah was eternal. They believed (and still do) that the Torah will last as long as the world lasts. “Everything has an end – heaven and earth have an end – except for one thing which has no end. And what it that? The Law” (Genesis Rabbah 6:1). Jesus agrees with them entirely.

 

The sages and rabbis also say the Torah exists not only into eternity but also from eternity. In other words, the Torah existed before anything was created. Since Jesus, the Living Torah, was with God before Creation, He would agree! According to God’s word, the Torah was, is, and will be forever!

 

Jesus tells us how valid the Torah is for all time by saying it will outlast heaven and earth. Let this sink in! His implication is the Torah applies today because heaven and earth still exist. There’s a reason He says this about heaven and earth passing away, which concerns covenants.

 

Why do people need covenants? Covenants protect relationships. They spell out the terms each party will follow for a successful, mutually beneficial relationship. A covenant seals the agreement to work together. An essential part of covenants is the need for witnesses.

 

Why do covenants need witnesses? If one party breaks the covenant, covenant witnesses are called to testify that the offending party indeed made a covenant with the other, swore to be faithful to the terms, and violated the terms. That’s why we have witnesses at weddings and notary publics for contracts. Furthermore, the Torah stipulates, “One witness cannot establish any iniquity or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 19:15).

 

So, who are the two witnesses of the Sinai covenant? Heaven and earth. “Gather to me all the elders of your tribes, and your officers, that I may speak these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to witness against them” (Deuteronomy 31:28). So, what would happen if the world ever got to a point where it was never possible for humanity to break God’s covenant terms? There would be no need for a covenant to protect their relationship with God. No need for the covenant = no need for the covenant witnesses.

 

Isn’t it interesting that at the end of the book of Revelation, after the wicked people, the Antichrist, the False Prophet, Satan, death, and hell are finally disposed of, there immediately follows a new heaven and earth? That’s because humanity has finally been restored to perfection (Acts 3:21). The old heaven and earth will remain covenant witnesses until we reach perfection. When humanity reaches perfection, there will be no need for heaven and earth as covenant witnesses because the King’s ways will never be broken. When the old heaven and earth pass away, the New Jerusalem arrives along with the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21).

 

“Not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass…”

 

Not only does Jesus affirm the Torah’s validity and eternality, Jesus uses good old rabbinic hyperbole to tell us how utterly important the Torah is. In Matthew 5:18, Jesus exaggerates to state how intensely He feels about the Torah’s importance. “Not a yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, nor even a kots, the tiny decorative spur sometimes added to the yod, would ever be removed from the Torah.”

 

How important are the kots, the smallest strokes of letters, to preserve? The difference between a dalet (ד letter d) and a resh (ר letter r) is a tiny stroke to the right of the vertical stroke, but look what a difference it makes. Without the tiny stroke, the Hebrew phrase “Adonai echad” (the Lord is One) becomes “Adonai achar” (the Lord is another), declaring that Yehovah is not the One True God but just another god. Even the tiniest mark makes an enormous difference.

 

Not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter” means “not the most insignificant thing.” When Jesus declared that heaven and earth would sooner disappear than the tiniest letter of the Hebrew alphabet or its optional decorative stroke, He was emphatic that the Torah His Father had given Moses on Mount Sinai would never cease to exist.

 

Since that’s the case, what about “until all things are fulfilled”? It could also refer to the Torah and not just God’s plan. Tim Hegg says it could mean, “Until everything small or great in every aspect of the Torah stands and finds its completion. Until then, nothing will be lost or aborted”(Hegg). Are there still prophecies in the Torah and Prophets that have not come to pass? YES! Then Jesus tells us the Torah is still in effect, even if theologians and pastors deny it, because heaven and earth are still here, and there’s scripture that hasn’t come to pass.

 

So, here’s how Roy Blizzard, Jr. of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Gospel Research paraphrases Jesus’ take on the Torah in Matthew 5:17-18. “‘Never imagine for a moment,’ Jesus says, ‘that I intend to (do away with) the Law by misinterpreting it. My intent is not to weaken or negate the Law, but by properly interpreting God’s written Word, I aim to establish it (strengthen it), that is, make it even more lasting. I would never invalidate the Law by effectively removing something from it through misinterpretation. Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than something from the Law.’”

 

Pretty impressive, huh? Just two verses put the Torah and the rest of God’s Word in a new light. Now, here’s your theology-buster. In the Sermon on the Mount, your Savior and Lord, the Torah’s Author whose fingers carved the summation of the Torah on stone (the 10 Commandments, Exodus 31:18), is talking to those who follow Him. Oh no, not just His Jewish followers at that time. Anyone who signs on to follow Rabbi Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. The New Covenant was created so the Gentiles could join in the blessing of being restored to our Heavenly Father’s family, and the Torah is still God’s covenant terms and instructions for the Gentiles on how to live with Him.

 

If you disagree, take it up with Jesus, but I have a pretty good idea who would win that debate.

 

I’m not being snarky here. In the next part, we’ll examine what place the Torah has in the lives of those who have truly committed to follow Him (Matthew 5:19, with a dip into Acts 15) and what role the Torah plays regarding personal salvation (Matthew 5:20).

 

Bibliography:

Bean, William E., New Treasures, Revised Edition: A Perspective of New Testament Teachings Through Hebraic Eyes, Cornerstone Publishing, P.O. Box 26654, Minneapolis, MN, 55426. 1995, 1999 Revised Edition.

Bivin, David and Blizzard, Roy, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebraic Perspective, Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, OH; Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, PA 17257. 1983, 1984, 1994 Revised Edition

Hegg, Tim, Matthew 5:17-20 – Yeshua’s View of the Torah, Some Preliminary Questions and Answers, www.torahresource.com, 1989

Hegg, Tim, Matthew 5:17-20: Yeshua’s View of the Law, torahresource.com/matthew-517-20-yeshuas-view-law

Stern, David, The Jewish New Testament and Commentary, 1989, 1993.

Young, Brad H., Jesus: The Jewish Theologian, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., P.O. Box 3473, Peabody, MA 01961-3473. 1996

 

Shining the Light of God’s Truth on the Road Ahead

 

Pastor Jay Christianson

The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts

 

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