Kefa (Peter) said that Paul’s writings are often misconstrued by the “unlearned and unstable”. (2 Peter 3:16) One of the biggest way this has been done is through the idea that Paul taught that Yeshua did away with the Torah.
Yeshua himself precluded such an understanding when he said that that not a single stroke or letter of the Torah would pass away until everything designed to occur has taken place and heaven and earth themselves pass away. (Mat. 5:18) Seeing that this has clearly not occurred yet, then by his definition, the Torah remains intact and in force. More formidable is his statement in the same context that “whoever breaks one of the least commandments and teaches others the same will be called least in the Kingdom…” (Mat. 5:17-19) That is something to take very seriously, because there are many who say they follow him but who fit this category.
What, then, was Paul really talking about that would make people think he meant to say the opposite of what Yeshua said?
We will come back to that. But Yeshua gave the other side of the story as well: that those who “do the commandments and teach others the same” will be greatest in the Kingdom. So the question we must address first is: what does it mean to do the commandments? And some also think we need to append the question, “Which commandments?”
That would seem obvious—any that are in the Torah, and whatever they say, of course! But there have come to be many definitions of “Torah”, so nowadays the question is a fair one.
Some use the term to mean only the five books of Moshe—or even just the laws included therein, vis-à-vis the historical narratives. Others call any part of the Hebrew Scriptures “Torah”. The prophets did give some added details about how to obey certain commands; Moshe said very little about what not working on the Sabbath constitutes, but the prophets strongly suggest that it includes not carrying heavy things so as to become exhausted (Jeremiah 17:21ff) and selling the things you have made or buying what other people have made (Amos 8:5)—one way to be sure that we are letting others rest too, not just ourselves. (Deut. 5:14) So to some extent, that could also be a fair definition; after all, what the prophets said came from YHWH just as surely as what Moshe said did, and the term torah does mean “instruction”, so that may be a valid definition if it holds up in context.
But if you go to a yeshiva expecting to “study Torah”, what you will often find is that what you are actually studying is Talmud—commentary on the Torah and sometimes commentary on a commentary on a commentary. While there is much to learn from the commentaries, judging others by their obedience to the “fences around the fences around the Torah” is probably part of what Yeshua meant by not just “laying heavy burdens on others and not lifting a finger to help them” (Mat. 23:4) but also “teaching as Torah the commandments of men.” (Mat. 15:9, based on Isaiah 29:13, LXX version) That is a very dangerous thing, when YHWH told us to neither add to nor diminish from the commands He gave us, “in order that you may keep them” (Deut. 4:2). In other words, they all form such a perfect balance between justice and mercy, kindness and severity, love of Elohim and love of humanity, etc., that if we overemphasize something on this side, it will by its very nature diminish something else on the other side, destroying the balance.
But some would argue, the Talmud is just the writing down of an “oral law” that had been passed down by word of mouth for generations. There were undoubtedly oral traditions for a long time, but do they really go all the way back to Moshe? Scripture says, “Moshe wrote down all the words of YHWH.” (Exodus 24:4) So the only words we can prove YHWH said to Moshe are those that he himself recorded for us. Anything beyond that is conjecture at best.
Some even hold that the only instructions that YHWH intended to include in His covenant were the ten commandments that all of Israel actually heard Him speak before we asked Moshe to mediate for us instead of hearing directly from YHWH. (Exodus 19; Deut. 5:1-4) After all, Deut. 5:22 says “He added no more.” This, he says, is YHWH’s Torah; the rest is what was later called “the Torah of Moshe”. An interesting distinction. But there are almost-innumerable times when those laws are prefaced by “And YHWH spoke to Moshe saying, ‘Speak to the descendants of Israel and tell them…’” That is the most common phrase in the Torah! How can we say that those laws were not also YHWH’s will?
We might be able to say that all of the rulings and statutes are only sub-categories of the ten commandments which include them all within their purview, and they may also just be examples of an over-arching attitude that we should have in every setting, though the specifics may change according to the situation. This is called “the spirit of the Torah”, which we nonetheless get to through its infamous stepsister, the “letter”, because still these details are called “statutes forever for all your generations”.
When does “all your generations” end? When there are no longer any descendants of Israel, and the last I checked, their numbers are still increasing, despite all attempts to preclude such an outcome.
Others suggest that there are three categories of laws--ceremonial, moral, and civil. The moral law, they say, is the only part that carried over into the Renewed Covenant. Does that really hold up to scrutiny? Were the other aspects of the Torah done away with because of Yeshua’s death?
The moral law is certainly upheld in the Renewed Covenant—and, yes, “fulfilled”, as he said—but that word does not mean “completely kept so it can be jettisoned”, but rather “given its fullest meaning”: e.g., not only is physical killing considered murder, but the thoughts that lead to it as well; they are actually the real problem, says Yeshua. (See Matithyahu 5-7.)
That, rather than the replacement of the Torah with something else, is probably what the mystical Jewish text Midrash Otiot d’Rabbi Akiba says regarding the “Renewed Covenant” (Jeremiah 31:31), “And the Holy One . . . will expound to them the meanings of a new Torah which He will give them through the Messiah.” (Beit ha-Midrash 3.27-29)
After all, Yeshua did say, “A new commandment I give you.” But what was that new commandment? “That you love one another.” But his right-hand man, Yochanan, when reiterating this, added, “though we had that one since the beginning”. (2 John 1:5) So it is “new” in the sense of “never yet used”, not “never before heard”. It is a re-packaging of the old commandments—almost all of them, actually—in a format more easily seen as applicable in any and every situation we might find ourselves on earth.
It was normal for any covenant to be amended somewhat to fit a new circumstance. We would expect some course corrections if something about the covenant was not working right, to set it on even firmer footing. And people were indeed not using it correctly. Not that any of the core aspects of the Torah was faulty; WE were the faulty party, so the covenant mediator highlighted some of the parts we were overlooking so we would be sure not to miss them.
Yeshua certainly bring out the “fuller meaning” of the Torah: you don’t have to outright murder someone in order to be guilty before YHWH; if you hate them in your heart, or if you commit adultery in your mind, damage has already been done, at least within yourself, even if you don’t have the opening to carry out the logical conclusions of the feeling you allow yourself to harbor.
Yeshua gave us some additional keys by which we can get a “handle” on the Torah: for example, he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, rather than man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) This should give us the right perspective on how to view the sometimes-thorny questions of what is appropriate to do on this holy day and what is not, and how to view other people who do things differently than we do. He never broke the Sabbath, as he was accused of; he just did not do everything according to rules made about it by people who did not understand what it was really about.
Another was the shortcut to the spirit. He said that the whole Torah—and the prophets—“hang” on just two commands: “Love YHWH with all your heart, desire, and enthusiasm”, and “love your neighbor as yourself”. (Mat. 22:40) If your interpretation of a particular command does not fit in one of these two categories, you had better rethink it.
What does it all boil down to? Love, which Paul called the “Law of Messiah”: “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the Law of Messiah.” (Galatians 6:2) And, “love does no wrong to one’s neighbor; love is therefore the fulfillment of the Torah.” (Romans 13:10)
This doesn’t mean we throw specific rules to the wind and just go by a nebulous concept of “love”; that has gotten us to the place where any value judgment is met with the accusation that we are unloving and heartless. The Torah’s particulars define what love really is. For example, “Do not hate your brother in your heart; you must surely rebuke him and not let him keep committing errors.” (Leviticus 19:17—the very context for the original command to “love your neighbor as yourself”!) Total lack of judgment is thus the antithesis of love.
Katriel Porth and Gene Porter in back-and-forth conversation, noted that “everybody’s talking about freedom; they really don’t understand what that means. Freedom is in place because of law and order. If you don’t have law and order, your freedom is really anarchy or chaos. The Torah constrains and gives us boundaries for our freedom. The Torah constrains our flesh so that our spirits and souls can live with proper freedom and liberty. We need law in order to govern ourselves. Many of us have chosen license instead of freedom. Freedom is properly constrained by the Creator of the universe, Who knows how He made us and how we can best live in freedom… He didn’t say, ‘Go forth and be free; do anything you want!’ He said, ‘Go forth and be free under My rules’—and that’s what the Torah is.” (“2,730 Years…and Counting!” podcast)
When Yeshua rebuked the Pharisees for being “hypocrites who tithe mint, rue, and cumin, but have left out those matters within the Torah that are more serious—justice, kindness, and faithfulness”, he did not say that it was unimportant to keep the letter of the Torah, but only that they were neglecting the main thing—the spirit behind the letter. He said both parts were important: “Those you ought [indeed] to have done, but not neglected these.” (Mat. 23:23) He seems to have been echoing Qoheleth/Eccles. 7:18, which says, “It is good that you take hold of this, but also not withdraw your hand from that, because the one who fears Elohim will come out with both of them.”
The particulars are meant to convey us into the universal idea behind them, but sometimes they can be carried too far. The basic idea of an offering was there ever since Qayin and Hevel, partly as an expression of gratitude to YHWH, but also to teach us the gravity of what was needed in order to deal with how deep a hole we were in. But if He asks for an animal to be slaughtered in this or that situation, and He finds this a “soothing aroma”, doesn’t that mean He will be even more pleased if we bring Him lots of animals? The prophet Mikha asked the same question:"
"With what shall I come before YHWH, and bow myself before the high Elohim? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will YHWH be pleased with thousands of rams, or with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is appropriate, and what does YHWH require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk modestly with your Elohim?” (Mikha 6:6-8)
If anything, He wants as few offerings of certain sorts as possible. The altar He commissioned was tiny compared to the one that came later. That the altar had to become so big that you would have been able to turn an 18-wheel truck around on it was not exactly good news: we were not meant to have to bring many sin offerings, because sin was supposed to be rare; having it come to the point of slaughtering an animal was supposed to be a deterrent to repeating the same offense a second time.
YHWH Himself argues that many of these offerings were somewhat of an afterthought. “I did not speak with your ancestors nor give them orders in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning the matters of ascending offerings or slaughterings; rather, this is the thing that I commanded them: ‘Obey My voice, and I will become for you an Elohim, and you will come to be My people. And walk in the whole way that I have commanded you so that it may go well for you.’ But they did not listen…” (Yirmeyahu/Jer 7:22-24) I think this is why we are told that the Torah (at least this aspect of it) “was added on account of [people] stepping out of line, until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come, being put into place by messengers through the hand of an arbitrator.” (Galatians 3:19)
That is a fitting segue into the second category into which some people put certain parts of the Torah. The renewed Covenant says, “By one offering he [Messiah] has forever perfected those who are being set apart.” (Heb. 10:14) Does that do away with the need for any other offerings? Will we need offerings again when the Temple is rebuilt? Yes, the prophets say it will indeed be rebuilt, and it seems it will be very soon. Ezekiel describes a temple in which the prince (presumably the Messiah himself) brings offerings. (Ezek. 45:16-17, 22; 46:2, 4, 12)
Another prophet says, “He will be build the Temple of YHWH … and he shall be a priest on his throne, and shall reconcile them both.” (Z’kharyah 6:13) Messiah (which means “the anointed one”) will remove any apparent contradiction between the two roles for which the ancients were anointed (priest and king) and these two different aspects of the truth which sometimes seem to conflict with one another as surely as Judaism and Christianity do!
So animal offerings must mean something different from what has been assumed!
And indeed that is what the renewing of the covenant tells us: “It is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” (Hebrews 10:4) That means it never did; it only covered sins until a more appropriate blood could come along that actually could remove it—a more complete offering, of which the slain animals were a picture.
If only those who have kept every one of these laws every day is going to be included in the Kingdom, we are all in big trouble. If you are trying to keep every bit of the Torah as a means of placating YHWH or buying your own redemption, don’t kid yourself into thinking you can do it all on your own. That is a hopeless cause at best, and a temptation to spiritual pride at worst. When the infrastructure of all of Israel is back together again, and we are all supporting each other in keeping it, these commandments are not out of our reach. (Deut. 30:11) Until then, we need some help.
And we do we have an advocate who is not only righteous (1 John 2:1) but has shared his righteous merit with those who admit that, despite good-faith efforts, they come up short. (Romans 5:19) For those who have experienced the renewal that his blood brings, some kinds of offerings may no longer be necessary. But we participated in an actual slaughtering of the lamb one Passover, and it is unforgettable. The meanings of what it actually took to deal with sins, guilt, or (in the case of Passover) our slavery to them, are brought out in ways that nothing but the direct carrying out of the act can fully convey. That, I think, is the most basic reason YHWH simply says to do them.
If that is not enough, remember that in the Kingdom there will still be many people who are brought into the empire of the “king of kings” (a Hebrew description for a king of one land who has conquered other nations) knowing nothing of the One this king represents, so they are given the same lessons that Israelites started out with.
Thus, although they are not carried out today when there is no Temple, that does not mean these aspects of the Torah will never be appropriate again.
Another aspect of the “ceremonial” law is the festival calendar YHWH laid out for Israel. (This bleeds over into the “civil” category, which might not be implementable while the citizens of the Kingdom are scattered under many governmental regimes, but which will certainly be needed again once all of Israel is back together. So I’m not sure the distinction between “ceremonial” and “civil” holds up under scrutiny either.)
What does the Renewed Covenant say about the festival calendars? “Messiah our Passover has been offered, so let us keep the feast…” (1 Corinthians 5:8. Mind you, this was written not to Jews, but to Gentiles, who supposedly don’t have to keep as many commandments! Think again.)
Paul, decades after his supposed “conversion from Judaism”, was so eager to get back to Jerusalem in time for Shavuoth that he skipped visiting congregations he dearly loved and wanted to revisit (Acts 20:16)—and in that day, it pretty much meant he would never get back to see them again, because they were treacherous and expensive journeys away. On another occasion, he set his own schedule by that same feast when describing how long he would stay in a particular place. (1 Corinthians 16:8) So jettisoning these “ceremonial” aspects of the Torah was the farthest thing from Paul’s mind.
When addressing such accusations from Jews as Christians now accuse him of, very late in his life, Paul openly and very publicly declared, “I have done nothing against the nation or customs of our ancestors!” (Acts 28:16)
And that brings us back to our first question: just what did he mean when he said things like, “You are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14-15)? Well, right there he clearly stated what it does not mean: that we should break the law just because we are not “under” it! “Under” here seems to have to do with being judged on that basis. He says the Torah does not condemn us, at least where we are extended special mercy; if it did, it would give our sins dominion over us, and YHWH does not want anything else to be in dominion over His specially-chosen ones who serve Him directly. That doesn’t mean the standard is no longer valid, but that He has considered our extenuating circumstances, and, as the old song says, “looked beyond our fault and seen our need”, and He did not just waive our “fee”; He paid it in a different way so He could focus on other parts of our relationship—because, yes, even the Torah is just one part. It is not the end in itself, but one means to the end of knowing Him.
Rabbi Micha’el Washer explains: “There are two parts of the Torah, the curse and the Pictures… ‘Now that understanding has come by looking at what the Tutor is showing us, we’re no longer under that Tutor’ (because it did its job and gave us understanding). (Galatians 3:25) The basics of the Torah: the Kosher Laws, the New Moon, Festivals, and Sabbath…give us faith, or understanding of [Elohim]. They are tutors that take us aside and give us a detailed explanation and understanding of the incomprehensible. Once faith comes from those Tutors, they are no longer needed. We graduate. Our rank has increased and we have become mature in one aspect or another. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We don’t storm away from the Tutor, tear up the books, and burn down the school! We simply graduate from that very small detailed class. There are countless other classes to take…We read it every year, going over the same passages over and over again, yet every year there is another layer, another Tutor, another revelation of the incomprehensible. Can you see how it is not about salvation? It is about maturity. It is about continually being ‘led to Messiah’…Just like [chewing] cud…Month after month the New Moon can teach us details about being Born Again. Week after week the Sabbath can reveal details of the Messianic Kingdom. Meal after meal, avoiding what is not food and eating what is can reveal many spiritual truths…This can be repeated to even deeper effect the next month, and the next, for years to come…not just by reading about it, though it must start there, but by doing the activity that each tutor inherently carries with it…That is the audio-visual course that drives the information home.” (When All the Pictures are Restored, pp. 68-69)
We may not have to carry out every part of it every day—as individuals. Each of us is tremendously limited, especially as long as we do not have the infrastructure of the whole nation of Israel to uphold and undergird each other. After 25 years of walking in Torah, I believe it is wise to focus on one part at a time, then back off from some lessons lest we become unbalanced.
For example, it is an enlightening exercise to carry the purity laws to their fullest possible extent, especially in the context of a community, for they teach us to make distinctions and to consider how not to defile others in the deeper ways that physical impurity illustrates. But knowing who is in a state of purity or impurity can become quite embarrassing if anyone is inclined to be mean or crude. One must be careful not to make anyone feel like they themselves are “dirty” when the ritual uncleanness is not through any fault of their own.
Extend the same grace to others that you would want them to extend to you. Do you really want to be judged without mercy? We should not place undue pressure on others to conform to what it is you are learning at that moment, when the Master is emphasizing another part of His instruction to them at that time. Yeshua said, "If you had understood what 'I desire mercy [more than] sacrifice' meant, you would not have condemned those who are blameless.” (Mat. 12:7)
These rules will really matter when there is a Sanctuary again that can be defiled; until then, they are mainly a matter of rehearsal, and that does not have to be done every day, though it is good to practice until we have a real feel for what it is about and how it works, so that when the time comes when we must follow these procedures, we will be ready.
We might only need to carry out a particular command once to learn its lesson, and not every command is for every person. Some are only for men, some for women, some only for priests, some only for the king or the high priest. Some parts may not be applicable to everyone or at every time; for example, we do not have a Temple now (though that may soon change), so we cannot carry out certain commands right now. Others are only for when we live in the Holy Land, for it holds a higher level of both importance and sanctity, though we can do many of them partially, in analogous ways, in order to remember how to do the real thing when we can. Then, when doors open for us again, carrying out those restored aspects of the Torah will have many more lessons to teach us.
When the question of how much they should require of newcomers came up (Acts 15), the Jewish leaders of Yeshua’s community only required a few things—only what was necessary for them to be able to eat at the same table—and decided to leave them to learn the rest of the Torah in the synagogues week by week, taking on more obligations as they were ready, once they had come to understand what they were about. We are in a similar situation, “coming back from among the Gentiles”, so in a parallel way we should take on whatever we can as we can.
And what do we do with the rest of the Torah? Discard it? No; use it as it was meant to be used:
“All Scripture…is profitable for teaching, for convicting evidence, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), whether we can follow every detail right now or not.
So every part of Torah is useful and we may not denigrate any part of it. It all still has a place, even if just to give us an example of what is not a good course of action:
“Every scribe who is discipled into the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who takes out of his storehouse [things both] fresh and ancient.” (Mat. 13:52) When grasping new parts of it for the first time, as Ecclesiastes said above, don’t let go of what you learned earlier.
The important thing is to walk in the Spirit—the Holy Spirit as well as the spirit of the Torah, that is, the attitude that underlies the commands. Follow YHWH’s leading for that day. As Ken Medema put it so succinctly:
“There’s no way in this world that I can be everything that love means for me to be. But as long as morning breaks another day, Lord, I’m yours; I’ll follow. Lead the way.”
If we are joined to the Messiah, walking in the spirit and not the flesh, we are not under condemnation (Romans 8:1), so if we keep our hearts open to His step-by-step leading and do what we hear, there is no reason to fear. The curse has been lifted; that is the part of the Torah that has been done away with, if any—not struck from the books, but from our record. What was “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:14) was not the Torah’s commands themselves but the declaration of condemnation that they had imposed on us because of our disobedience. After that, what is left? Blessing and joy, and the awesome privilege of working out what YHWH works into us, cooperating with Him as He operates behind the scenes of all creation, and living in synch with the ultimate reality.
Thus the “rules” in Torah become examples of larger themes that apply in every situation, not just in the specific settings it actually talks about.
YHWH says that a major aspect of the renewal of His covenant is that He will write His Torah on our hearts. (Jeremiah 31:33) He will give us a new heart and a new spirit—one sensitive to His leading. (Ezekiel 36:26) Putting those together, that means He will turn our preferences toward what He has written in stone so that they become “second nature” to us, whether little by little or through a sudden “change of heart”. It does not negate the Torah that is external to us; He lines us up with what He has wanted all along, because we now understand, acknowledge, and adopt as our own the principles behind the particulars which tie them all together so our attitudes and motives become consistent with His.
Ariel Berkowitz puts it this way: “We know from reading Matthew 5:17ff that the Torah could not have died…What has changed is our relationship to the Torah, because of our changed relationship to sin. Before we knew Messiah’s righteousness by faith, we attempted to use the Torah as a means of earning righteousness, something it was never intended to be. Only one outcome could have resulted from such an illegitimate usage, and that is condemnation—because such works-righteousness could never remove our sin… Our new reality is that Messiah has atoned for our sin and made us new creatures… Thus, our relationship to the Torah has changed… Now, because we believe in Messiah and are trusting in [YHWH] to justify us, the Torah has become something completely different. Just as its author designed it to be, it is ‘holy, righteous, and good.’ (Romans 7:12) … The problem was not the Torah--it was sin… The true Torah is our walk of faith… and rest in the finished work of Messiah… The true Torah is for us a mirror reflecting who we now are as ones who have been redeemed and made anew… ‘Do what it says.’ (James 1:22) Why? Because it is telling us who we are! …When we have looked at our own face in the mirror and then do not do just what it says, we have… forgotten what we look like…It tells us what behavior would be consistent with who we now are…in Messiah. (Romans 5:19)…The true believer…does not do in order to become. He does because he is what [YHWH] has made him” (already). (Torah Rediscovered, pp. 138-139)
“Grace” is often contrasted with “law”, but when seen in the right light, the Torah’s laws are actually the “means of grace”—the procedures He gives us by which to set us in the right position to receive an answer our prayers for help and holiness. And they keep us out of so much trouble. Let’s not be the kind of people who wait until all else fails to read the instructions!
Obedience is an expression of who we are that can give others a taste of what they, too, can become. Therefore it should not be such a somber thing, though it is serious and all-important, but when understood properly it has a winsome, upbeat, celebratory tone.
Do we “have to” keep the whole Torah? Maybe that is not the right question to ask. It is something we “get to” do. It is a “treasure map” YHWH has given us to get to know Him as well as it is possible for mortals to do. This is what Moshe was dying to do. Why would anyone not want that? We can’t achieve it completely in this life, but why would you want to miss that all-surpassing blessing?