A quick review before we pick up where we left off:
Last time I described the conflict: Over the last two millennia, common Catholic/Christian doctrine has taught that Jesus nullified the commands of God by fulfilling them in His death and resurrection, and that the apostle Paul then preached against the necessity of walking in the way God commanded through Moses for anyone believing Jesus to be the Christ (Messiah). However, in Deuteronomy 13:1-5, God explicitly states through Moses that a false prophet will be one who may speak and do wonderful things, but will teach the people to turn aside from the way in which God had already commanded them to walk. I briefly described the civil and religious unrest in the Roman occupation of Israel during the first centuries which influenced the emergence of the early church doctrines, and gave several examples from key church fathers evidencing their misunderstanding and departure from the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Wittingly or unwittingly, Yeshua and Paul have been falsely accused of false prophecy. And in this entry, we will hear them defend themselves. Let’s start with Yeshua’s own testimony about Himself from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:17-20:
Vs. 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”… Yeshua is sure to preface his address to the multitude in this way because in the following three chapters, He systematically interprets for the people the correct meaning of various Scriptures which had been misapplied through the centuries. He is explaining the Scriptures, starting with the Torah (common term for the first five books of the Bible; the Hebrew term means, “teaching, instruction, law”). He, the Word of God made flesh, came to give us the full picture of what walking in God’s way truly looked like. This is the meaning of “fulfill” (pleroo, “to make full, influence, complete, bring to an end, realize”). But surely the meaning of “fulfill” cannot be the same as “abolish” (kataluo, “to dissolve, destroy, nullify, loosen, stop”) since the two terms are set in contrast to each other by the adversative conjunction “but” (alla). However, it has traditionally been taught that Yeshua’s fulfillment of the Torah means that He abrogated it (“repealed, did away with”). This logic falls apart quickly since “abrogate” and “abolish” are synonyms and such an interpretation would lend a paradoxical statement such as, “I have not come to stop them but to bring them to an end.” Additionally, Yeshua lumps the Prophets in with the Torah, as turning God’s people back to the Torah is a consistent message of the Prophets. Certainly, no serious Bible student would propose that all of prophecy has been “done away with” by Messiah’s death and resurrection, but unless we are going to betray continuity within the text, bringing an end to the Torah means bringing an end to the Prophets.
Vs. 18, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”… Why does Yeshua mention heaven and earth here? There is a concept in the Bible regarding the necessity of at least two witnesses to establish a matter (Deu 19:15, Matt 18:16). Anyone whose faith was rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures would hear “heaven and earth” and immediately be brought back to Deuteronomy ch 30, which begins with:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where Yehovah your God has driven you, and return to Yehovah your God, you and your children, and obey His voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul,” –Deuteronomy 30:1-2
And ends with:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving Yehovah your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that Yehovah swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” –Deuteronomy 30:19-20
Moses calls heaven and earth to stand as the two witnesses of the covenant agreement Yehovah is making with His people. He calls them because they are witnesses which will remain even as generation after generation of mankind are born and pass on. Yeshua knows this and states it here as reminder. As long as this heaven and earth remain, and we live in the flesh of our current bodies, the Torah of Yehovah is valid for His people. But notice that He uses the word “until”, indicating there will come a time when the covenant comes to a close. And guess when that will be? When heaven and earth pass away:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” –Revelation 21:1-4
Vs. 19, “Therefore whoever loosens one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven”… Let me call your attention back to the word “abolish” (kataluo) which can also be translated as “dissolve, destroy, loosen”. Again we see the word “loosen”, so the Greek words are obviously synonyms but not exactly the same. Here the word translated “loosen” (luse) can also be translated as “declare free, of privileges, or, in respect of lawfulness” according to Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. Of course, this word strengthens the synonymous definition of what Yeshua meant in vs 17 regarding abolition of the Torah. He didn’t come to loosen the Torah and warns us not to loosen it either. On the contrary, He admonishes us not to even forget the smallest commandment, not one letter or even one accent mark of a letter. In no way could it be said that He is advocating His followers to stray from God’s commandments in the Torah. According to the Messiah, the great ones in God’s kingdom will practice and teach these commands while the least in God’s kingdom loosen them and teach others accordingly. If Yeshua (and the Spirit He sent) and Paul taught the apostles and early church to loosen the commands of God, wouldn’t that make Yeshua and Paul least in God’s kingdom? Impossible! Following in Yeshua’s footsteps means practicing and teaching God’s commands, not loosening them. What a tragedy it is that the latter is the welcomed reputation of the vast majority called by His name.
Vs. 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”… Initially, this statement seems out of place. Is Messiah teaching a faith-by-works principle? No, because rigid adherence to the Torah is not what saves men, and it never has (Heb 10:4). He is giving His followers a warning. The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders, the seminary professors of their day, career theologians. The commoners likely thought they could do no better in heeding Yeshua’s exhortation to “do and teach the commandments” than by imitating the professionals. However, we later hear Yeshua counsel His disciples not to imitate what they do. Yeshua calls the scribes and Pharisees who mocked Him “white-washed tombs”, meaning that they looked good on the outside but were dead inside. What God desires is a broken and contrite heart which desires to obey and follow Him (Psa 51:17, Psa 119:11), not unrepentant, untransformed hearts which works only for show (Deu 10:16, Isa 1:12-17). Furthermore, this sect of Judaism taught that the oral traditions of the sages, which were added to God’s Law, maintained equal authority to the very Words of God. Their additions Yeshua calls “heavy burdens” and “hard to bear” saying these leaders “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, neither entering yourselves nor allowing those who would enter to go in.” –Matthew 23:13. Yeshua’s statement here in vs 20 is that of clarification as if to say: “Yes, obey and teach the commands of God, but don’t seek the righteousness of your leaders who have subtracted and added to My Word. Follow My example of righteousness, which exceeds theirs.” And proceeding systematically, one topic at a time, He expounds to the multitude the full meaning inherent in God’s commands, often in direct opposition to the warped perspective of the religious establishment.
Next, let’s take a look at two examples of commonly misunderstood and/or overlooked statements by Yeshua regarding the Torah. It is commonly assumed that in such passages, Yeshua chides the leaders in regard to their observance of God’s Law. But is that truly the case? Let’s examine the Scriptures.
1) The first example is found in Mark 7:1-13 in which the Pharisees and scribes questioned Yeshua for His disciples’ eating with ritually unwashed hands, breaking a tradition of the sages, not a command of God. So He says to them,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” –Mark 7:6-9
Three times in a row He differentiates God’s commands from that of man’s tradition and rebukes them for upholding the latter over the former. In the next four verses He exemplifies their error:
“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever curses his father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” –Mark 7:10-13
In this passage Yeshua contrasts God’s Law by quoting Exodus/Leviticus/Deuteronomy against man’s law by quoting a tradition of the elders. It is Yeshua, not the religious leaders, who upholds the commandment of God. And it is the religious leaders, not Yeshua, who dismiss God’s Law to uphold doctrine contrary to the Torah. In no way can it be understood from this passage that Yeshua’s frustration with the elders was their obedience to God’s Law. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Yeshua repeatedly reproves these leaders for practicing and teaching a religion which “leaves”, “rejects”, and “makes void” the commandment of God. What would Yeshua say to the Catholic/Christian church leaders who have followed in this same error of the Pharisees and scribes, teaching God’s children to set aside His commands?
2) Another example is found in John 7:22-27 in which Yeshua defends Himself for healing a man on the Sabbath, saying,
“Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the Law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man’s whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
The miracle Yeshua is referring to is the healing of the man who was lame for thirty-eight years at the pool of Bethesda, as recorded in John 5:1-15. The religious leaders told the man, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat” (John 5:10), but where does God’s Law say that? Answer: it doesn’t. If a person were to read the literature regarding the Sabbath in the Talmud (compilation of rabbinic commentary on the Torah) the conflict the Jewish leadership was having with Yeshua would become obvious very quickly. In tractate Shabbat, the Talmud specifies 39 categories of restricted activity on the Sabbath. One of them is “Transferring Between Domains” or “carrying”, in which, grossly stated, one couldn’t carry an object in a public setting farther than approximately 1.7 meters (4 amos). Yeshua healed this lame man and said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (John 5:8), effectively dismissing the traditional restriction of carrying and walking outside the prescribed allowance. Notice also in this text that Yeshua indirectly upholds obedience to the command of circumcision so that God’s Law given through Moses, “may not be broken”. Can this Scripture be used to support the claim that Yeshua spoke against honoring the Sabbath, a very central part of the Torah (and hugely more than an iota or dot)? Or had He again reproved the elders for “making void” the commandment of God by their traditions? We must read the Apostolic Writings (“New Testament”) with this concept in mind or else the resulting theology makes Yeshua a false prophet worthy of death according to God’s instruction through Moses. May it never be! In each instance, however, it is revealed that Yeshua upholds God’s Word. He has to. He is the Word of God made flesh, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Let’s shift gears now and examine the life of the apostle Paul. In my experience, Paul’s words are much more difficult to understand than Yeshua’s. Therefore, it’s not surprising that most of the anti-Torah theology is derived from Paul’s words rather than those of the Messiah Himself. The danger of utilizing the letters of Paul to establish doctrine is multifaceted but the primary one is lack of context. We must remember that Paul’s words were addressed to specific congregations around the Roman Empire with specific cultural and interpersonal issues which differed one from the other. Along the same lines we must remember that Paul’s writings were letters. The surviving copies of manuscripts are the written recordings of a conversation between a teacher and a congregation. Obviously, we do not have the other side of the conversation. Imagine listening to a telephone conversation in which you can only hear one person speaking. This gives room for major misunderstanding of the meaning or purpose behind what is heard.
A repeating principle in Paul’s writings is a teaching that the Torah doesn’t save men (Gal 2:16), and to that I say, Amen! But why does Paul have to keep repeating this doctrine so incessantly throughout his writings? Because preaching obedience to the Torah for salvation, as the Judaizers did, was a common occurrence in the first century (Acts 15:1-2). This is why Paul had to belabor the argument against this philosophy ad nauseam. So we 21st century children of God who are far removed from the culture and context of Paul’s writings, hearing only Paul’s side of the conversation where he passionately and adamantly preaches against this principle, get the notion that Paul taught against obeying the commandments of God’s Torah all together! But nothing could be further from the truth. Thankfully, Peter, a contemporary to Paul and one of the closest disciples to Messiah Yeshua, recognized this problem in the very time it occurred and wrote,
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of Lawless people and lose your own stability.” –2 Peter 3:15-17
There are a handful of Scriptures written by Paul which are commonly used to express “the believer’s freedom from the Law in Christ Jesus”. However, as has been clearly demonstrated up to this point, if Paul truly meant his words to be interpreted this way, which has become common in Catholic/Christian doctrine, he would be a false prophet according to God’s Word already spoken through Moses 1300-1500 years earlier. That being said, each controversial statement of Paul can be explained if read and understood in the proper context of language, history, and culture to establish that he did not teach the nullification of God’s Law in light of the work of Messiah Yeshua. However, at this time, instead of examining some of Paul’s commonly misunderstood statements, let’s allow Paul’s own testimony about himself to explain his stance.
It is believed that Paul returned to Jerusalem from his third missionary journey in 57 AD. Galatians and Romans, the two Pauline epistles most frequently used to espouse the antinomian doctrine against the Torah, had already been written, the former sometime around 49 AD and the latter in the early spring of 57 AD. That both of these letters had been written and sent to the early congregations directly prior to Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem is significant because upon meeting with James (the brother of Messiah Yeshua) and the Jerusalem council, the first thing these believers said to Paul regarded the reports of anti-Torah gossip that had been made about him. Apparently, even 1st century believers misunderstood Paul’s intent:
“When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed and they are all zealous for the Law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our ways.” –Acts 21:17-21
Is this not the same rumor being made about Paul to this day, that his letters teach us to forsake Moses (the Law/Torah)? Notice also that there are “thousands” of Jews who believe in Yeshua as Messiah and also remain “zealous for the Law” even two decades after Messiah’s ascension. This demonstrates that the dismissal of the Torah in the early church did not occur at Messiah’s death/resurrection/ascension, which is what is preached today in Catholic/Christian doctrine. It was a later erroneous teaching of the church fathers. So what did James and the council of believers instruct Paul to do to put an end to the rumor? Make a public statement to the contrary:
“What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the Law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.
Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering (sacrifice) presented for each one of them.” –Acts 21:22-26
The Jerusalem Council, led by the apostle, James, the half-brother of Messiah Yeshua, instructs Paul to complete the ritual cleansing associated with vows which includes animal sacrifice! If Paul, the great apostle and missionary, truly believed that the Law had been abolished in the death/resurrection and ascension of Messiah Yeshua, then Scripture should record his objection to this order. But it does not. Instead, Paul agrees with the plan. Two decades after the death and resurrection of Messiah Yeshua, Paul and other believing brothers schedule a time to perform ritual sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is likely that Paul and these men were fulfilling Nazarite vows in accordance with the Torah in Numbers 6:9-12. Why is this happening (animal sacrifice nonetheless) if Yeshua’s sacrificial death brought the Torah to an end? Answer: Messiah’s work did NOT bring the Torah to an end. James, the leader of the believers in Jerusalem at that time, instructs Paul to follow his directions so that, “all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the Law.”
Case closed? No, there’s more. It is while Paul was at the temple, following the directions given by James, that a riot broke out regarding his presence there, and after being questioned by the Roman commander, he was sent to Felix, the governor in Caesarea. Felix first heard the accusations against Paul by the Sanhedrin officials: that Paul was a troublemaker, stirred up riots, and desecrated the Temple. Then he allows Paul to testify about himself, saying:
“My accusers did not find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd, either in the temple or in the synagogues or in the city. Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me. But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets.” –Acts 24:12-14
Earlier in the chapter, his accusers call him the “ringleader of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). This is important because the early church writings regarding the Nazarenes describe them as a sect of Judaism which believed in Messiah Yeshua and still kept the Torah (see the 4th century church Father Epiphanius’ words in the last blog). Epiphanius claimed that the Nazarenes were not Christians because they confessed the Law, and yet here we see Paul tagged as the “ringleader” of this sect. So if Paul, as a Nazarene, believed in Messiah Yeshua and also observed the Torah, and 300 years later the Nazarenes were still known for believing in Messiah Yeshua as well as observing the Torah, then the definition of “Christian” is what must have changed over several hundred years to no longer be characterized by observing God’s Law.
For two years Paul remained in custody under Felix until Felix was called to appear in Rome and Festus succeeded him as governor. Again, Paul was brought before the court, and the Sanhedrin officials “stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove” (Acts 25:7). And again,
“Paul argued in his defense, ‘Neither against the Law of the Jews, nor against the Temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.’” –Acts 25:8
Paul’s epistles were letters written across languages and cultures all over the Roman Empire. Some of the things he wrote were admittedly hard to understand, as confirmed by Peter, and misunderstood to infer that Paul actually spoke against living in obedience to God’s commands through Moses. However, Paul evidenced His obedience to the Torah publicly by observing the Nazarite ritual sacrifice as well as paying the fees for four brothers performing the same animal sacrifice. He publicly stated in court that he believed everything in the Torah/Prophets and several years later again stated in court that he had not broken any of the Torah at all. This is Paul’s own testimony about his beliefs and his devotion to walking in the way of God’s commandments. May we not find ourselves sitting in the same seat as the false witnesses who falsely testified about him to the contrary.
In closing, I want to give a modern-day example of a false prophet. Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda was a Puerto Rican-born American minister who declared himself to be the reincarnation of the apostle Paul and subsequently Jesus Christ. He later claimed to be the anti-Christ and that the “Jewish teachings” of Jesus of Nazareth were nullified in order that mankind now follow the teachings of the apostle Paul as dictated by Miranda. According to a 2007 Newsweek article, his stated definition for anti-Christ was, “no longer following Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the days of his flesh”. Miranda maintained that the revelation of his supernatural identity began in 1973 when he was visited by two angels in a vision. So my question is: Why doesn’t the church believe in him? Answer: because his words violate the previously established Word of God.
I mentioned before that the writings of Paul in his letter to the Galatians are very commonly used in attempt to mount a defense for anti-Torah theology. What is so ironic about that fact is something Paul says in that very letter to the Galatians about false prophecy:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” –Galatians 1:6-12
Paul says that he doesn’t even care if an angel from heaven appears to deliver a message. If that messenger preaches something other than the divine message already spoken and given by God to His people, then that messenger is a false prophet! Do you see that Paul is using the exact same argument to the Galatians in defending the good news of Messiah that I am using in defending God’s Torah? God does not break His covenants. God does not go back on His Word:
“I will not violate My covenant, nor alter the Word which goes forth from My lips.” –Psalm 89:34
God’s covenants are perpetual, building upon rather than canceling each other. The hope of our eternal salvation, which is by grace through faith, is firmly rooted in this well-established Biblical principle: God does not break His covenants or change His Word. It is only the “ignorant and unstable” believers who accept prophetic new figures such as Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda who violate Yeshua’s words in the Scriptures. Peter argues it is the same for those who violate God’s words in the Law of Moses. No devout Christian will accept any doctrine which nullifies the New Covenant, nor should they. Neither will any devout Jew accept Jesus if He nullified the Torah… nor should they.
“The secret things belong to Yehovah our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Law.” –Deuteronomy 29:29
God spoke the Torah to His people through Moses, commanding them to walk in His righteous way, calling it a blessing. The psalmists agree, rejoicing in the wonders of His Torah. The prophets consistently call us to repent and turn back to His Torah. Yeshua’s perfect life demonstrated the righteous way to live out the Torah which we are to imitate. And the apostles imitated their Master with eyes enlightened to the full meaning of the Torah. Why should we do any different?
“And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says ‘I know Him’ but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.” –1 John 2:3-6