Did Yeshua Keep Torah?

(Watch the video here.)

You know the track-and-field event called a relay race where runners take turns racing around a track carrying a baton? When one runner completes his leg of the race, he hands the baton off to the next runner. By rule, the hand-off must take place within a short piece of track called the “changeover box.” This is where the new runner is getting up to speed as the old runner enters, so for a brief period, they are running together on the track. Then the hand-off happens, and the new runner takes off with the baton leaving the old runner behind.

Historically speaking, this is what happened when Judaism evolved into its next phase, which eventually became known as Christianity. This “changeover box”—that moment in history when both systems were running together—lasted roughly from the ministry of Christ (~AD 30) until the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. During that time, one system was winding down while the other was starting up. And those who chose to follow Yeshua (whether Jew or Gentile) went with the new runner.

This would have been a confusing time for first-century Jews who were steeped, generation upon generation, in the Hebrew faith. Many Jews rejected Yeshua, especially the religious leaders, and considered Him a heretic or insane. But those who understood He was their long-awaited Mashiach had come to put their faith in Him. And for this first generation of new believers—the Jewish Christians—it would have been an incredibly confusing time. Especially considering they were still gathering in Jewish synagogues.

This historical period is also confusing today for our friends who believe Christians are supposed to be keeping the Law of Moses. They have trouble reconciling what the New Testament says about this period and are often confused by passages that indicate Yeshua and the Apostles were keeping the Torah. Often, those in the return-to-Torah movement will point to 1 John 2:6, which says, “Whoever says he abides in [Yeshua] ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.” Based on this verse, they argue that since Yeshua walked in the Torah (kept the Law of Moses), that’s what we’re supposed to do, too. They also point to a number of passages which show that even after Yeshua was resurrected, the apostles kept eating kosher, going to Temple, circumcising traveling companions, celebrating feast days, making sacrifices,  observing Shabbat, and keeping other Old Covenant ceremonies. And they are, of course, correct. That is what Scripture says. How are we to understand those passages?

Context is King

Christian thinker Greg Koukl is fond of saying that we should never read a verse of the Bible. Instead, we should be reading passages, chapters, and books. Why? Because to fully understand what Scripture teaches, we need to read it in context. For example, if I told you that Yeshua said, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry,” I would not be lying. He really did say those words. However, if we read the full passage where that phrase is found (Luke 12:13-21), we see that Yeshua was speaking those words as part of His parable of the rich fool, putting them in the mouth of the fool. He wasn’t teaching us to take life easy by pursuing food, drink, and merriment. His lesson was about greed.

The same thing applies to the New Testament verses that talk about Yeshua and the apostles keeping the Law of Moses. Our return-to-Torah friends are isolating one aspect—the fact that Yeshua and the apostles were keeping the Law of Moses—and taking it out of context. What Yeshua and the Apostles did during this period cannot be separated from what they taught. And there are two things we need to keep in mind to understand those texts in their proper context.  

First is the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive passages in Scripture. Descriptive passages simply describe what happened. For example, John 11:35 tells us, “Jesus wept.” This verse describes a historical event—namely, that Yeshua wept. It does not teach that we should all be weeping. On the other hand, prescriptive passages prescribe (teach) what should happen. For example, in Matthew 28:19-20, Yeshua says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . .” This text is prescriptive.

All of the New Testament passages where we see Yeshua and the apostles keeping the Law of Moses are descriptive. They merely tell us what happened. For example:

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms.

(Acts 3:1-3)

There is undoubtedly theological significance in the fact that the lame beggar here in Acts 3 was healed at a gate of the temple. It’s why that detail was included in the story. But the passage does not teach that Christians should go to the temple at the hour of prayer. It merely describes a historical event. In the New Testament , we do not find any prescriptive passages that teach we are to keep the Law of Moses.

Secondly, we need to keep in mind the historical context of the New Testament writings. This is the period of history in which God, through Yeshua, introduced His New Covenant to His people. The changeover box was an utterly unique moment in all of human history. The last generation of the Old Covenant was overlapping the first generation of the New Covenant, which initiated a paradigm shift in man’s relationship with God. Changes of this magnitude can take generations to be fully understood and embraced.

We see a precedent for this in the Torah. The book of Exodus tells the dramatic historical story of how, after nearly four-and-a-half centuries in Egyptian slavery, God freed the Israelites. As they made their escape, YHWH parted the Red Sea so they could cross on dry land. Moses then led the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land on what should have been an eleven-day journey. It ended up taking them forty years to get there! Because of Israel’s obstinance and disobedience, God delayed their entry into the Promised Land by four decades. Apparently, you can take the Israelites out of Egypt, but it’s a lot harder to take Egypt out of the Israelites. In the end, an entire generation of Israelites who were raised in Egypt died off before God finally allowed His people into the Promised Land. Only those under twenty years old, plus Caleb and Joshua, would enter it (cf. Num 14:30-31).

In the same way, God ordained another 40-year period—the “changeover box” from AD 30-70—in which the New Covenant would be taught and start to take hold. The books of Acts, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and several of Paul’s epistles contain many prescriptive passages specifically written to help transfer the baton to the new runner, so to speak. These texts were written when the Temple was still standing and functioning and the old and new systems were running in parallel. This is why there was still a kind of legitimacy to the Old Covenant practices during this period. For example, Paul still took oaths and offered gifts, and the apostles still kept the feasts and went to Temple. But we know from the larger story of Scripture that this legitimacy was ultimately going to end. Yeshua and the Apostles taught that, under the New Covenant, humanity is reconciled to God in a new way: through faith in the atoning work of Christ.1 Unlike the old system, the new system does not require a physical temple or sacrifices.2 The feasts, dietary restrictions, circumcision, and other old covenant practices had come to an end.3

The Wayback Machine

Imagine you’re a Jew living in or near Jerusalem in the year AD 50. Everything about your life and your culture is centered around the Law of Moses. You’ve been participating in the feasts and Temple services, eating kosher, and keeping Shabbat your whole life. And your parents have been doing the same thing since they were born. So have your grandparents. And their grandparents! And it’s not just your family; your entire culture, going back centuries, has been doing these things. It’s all you’ve ever known.

And then, one day, you started hearing about a rabbi named Yeshua—a fellow Jew who was born and raised in your Jewish culture. He walked the same dusty roads you walk every day. He kept Torah and taught in the synagogues. And then, one day, you hear that Yeshua was killed. Crucified by the Romans. And before His followers could fully begin mourning, miraculously, He rose from the dead. Three days after being crucified, Yeshua stepped out of His grave, and for forty days, He walked around and was seen by hundreds of people. You know people who saw Him! Many of your friends and family members have come to believe Yeshua is the long-awaited Mashiach spoken of in the Torah and have begun following Him. Imagine you’ve come to believe in Him, too. You’ve joined up with this new Jewish movement called The Way. You’re all trying to understand what it means that the New Covenant—the promise HaShem[4] made to your people through the prophet Jeremiah 600 years ago—has arrived.

Now imagine you and your friends are gathering together in synagogue. A letter has been written to the new Jewish believers in Yeshua and your rabbi has received a copy. He stands up, opens the scroll, and reads it to all who are gathered there. (Remember that, as you hear these words, the Temple is still standing and functioning in Jerusalem.) He reads,

And every priest stands daily at his service offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when [Messiah] had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

(Hebrews 10:11-14)

Your mind is reeling. What? Our sin sacrifices are no longer required? Yeshua’s sacrifice was once for all? We don’t need to offer a sacrifice at Yom Kippur like we’ve been doing every year for centuries? If you’re an American, this would be akin to the United States constitution being replaced and the 4th of July holiday becoming obsolete. The annual celebration Americans have been observing for generation upon generation is no longer needed; no more parades, or barbecues, or fireworks. Actually, this analogy only gives us a small hint of what it would have been like. The significance of the Law of Moses to a first-century Jew would have been much greater than the significance of the constitution to a modern-day American. But this gives us a sense of the kind of cultural and spiritual paradigm shift that was happening during the changeover box.

Even the Talmud?

What’s interesting is that in addition to what Scripture teaches and what scholars say,5 there may also be confirmation of this changeover box in the Talmud. Although the Talmud is made up of extra-biblical writings, not Scripture, it is nonetheless a historical resource that can teach us a lot about the Second Temple period. And the Talmud contains a story that, perhaps without intending to, supports the New Testament teaching that the Mosaic Covenant had become obsolete. According to the Messianic Jewish organization One for Israel:

The Talmud says that at the end of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the high priest would wait for God’s “miraculous stamp of approval,” indicating the acceptance of Israel’s atonement. How would God show His approval? According to the Talmud, inside the temple there was a red fabric: (lashon shel ze’hurit). This piece of fabric would miraculously turn from red to white as a sign to the nation that God had indeed accepted their sacrifice, and that their sins would be covered for one more year. The sages write (see Tractate Yoma 39b) that forty years prior to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (around 30 CE, since the temple was destroyed in 70 CE), the red fabric stopped turning white on the Day of Atonement. The Talmud explains that this caused much panic and distress among the priests.

From around the year 30 CE, according to the Talmud, God no longer honored the Sinai covenant as the way to cover Israel’s sins. What happened to the Sinai covenant? The answer is that the Law is now fulfilled in a new way—not by something that will temporarily cover our sins for a year, but by Someone who atones for our sins once and for all.

Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus – Postell, Eitan, Soref,

The End of An Era

With the Temple’s destruction in AD 70, the changeover was complete; the baton had been transferred to the new runner.6 No longer could worship or sacrifice be offered at the Temple, as required by the Torah. Gone were the Levitical priesthood, the animal sacrifices, the Temple ceremonies, and many of the civil laws. All told, nearly 40 percent of the commandments in the Torah were no longer able to be kept due to the destruction of the Temple,7 an event that was ordained by God and prophesied by Yeshua:

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

Luke 21:5-68

The destruction of the Second Temple served as a pivotal plot shift in God’s unfolding story of redemption. Looking back from two thousand years later, it’s hard not to see this event as God telling His people that the path for the old runner had ended. The baton has been handed off to the new runner. In the end, many first-century Jews missed the hand-off and continued to follow the old runner as he left the track. And this is precisely what the return-to-Torah movement is asking us to do today.

It’s like an ancient city where a rich man decided to build a giant temple. Workers erected scaffolding around the building as they built the tall outer walls. Then they began working on the interior. The work dragged on for years, then decades, then centuries. Entire generations were born and died without the temple being completed. Over time the people began to believe that the scaffolding was the finished temple. Then one day, centuries later, a man comes along and starts taking down the scaffolding. The people riot and want to kill him for tearing down their temple. But the man was only taking down the framing around the real temple because it had fulfilled its purpose. The scaffolding was just a shadow of the Real Temple, which this man came to reveal.9

Yet groups like the Hebrew Roots Movement say, “No! We need to put the scaffolding back up!” This is where the return-to-Torah movement is at its most dangerous. When it teaches that we need to go back to worshipping the scaffolding, it is denying Christ. Yes, Yeshua kept the Law of Moses in His time with us on earth, and He did so perfectly. He kept it right up until He fulfilled it. But now that the Law has been fulfilled (Matt 5:17), we are no longer required to keep it. Paul teaches:

The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

Galatians 3:24-26:

What does that mean for us today? For one thing, it means if we choose to keep the Law of Moses today—with its requirements for priests and sacrifices—we are turning our back on everything Yeshua did for us. If the blood sacrifices for sin are still required (or they will be when the Temple is rebuilt), why did Yeshua shed His blood on the cross? Are we saying His death accomplished nothing? Was it a pointless waste of time?

Of course not! Yeshua fulfilled the Law of Moses so we wouldn’t have to; He imputed His righteousness to us.10 So even though He kept the Law of Moses, we are not required to. When we read in 1 John 2:6 that we should “walk in the way Yeshua walked,” it does not mean that we are to keep of the Law of Moses. That would contradict the rest of the New Testament. In the wider context, we see that verse is about walking in obedience to Yeshua Himself: not to the Torah or the Law of Moses. The way we properly “keep Torah” today is by following, loving, and obeying Yeshua.


Footnotes

[1] John 3:16; Acts 4:12; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 10:10.

[2] John 4:21-24; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Peter 2:4-6; Hebrews 9-10;

[3] Romans 2:25-29; Colossians 2:16-17.

[4] In Judaism, HaShem (lit. “the Name”) is used to refer to God, particularly as an epithet for the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), when avoiding God’s more formal title, Adonai.

[5] For a survey of scholarly positions on this period of history, see my book Torahism: Are Christians Required to Keep the Law of Moses?

[6] For a discussion about how this event changed Judaism and ushered in the rabbinic age, see my book Torahism: Are Christians Required to Keep the Law of Moses?

[7] These include all of the mitzvot (commandments) that had to do with priests, sacrifices, and Temple services.

[8] Also see Matthew 24:1-3; Mark 13:1-4.

[9] Galatians 3:23-26; Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 10:1.

[11] 1 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9.

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