Is the Torah Binding on Christians?
Many Torahists claim that we Christians have been duped by an anti-semitic, Roman / Gentile corruption of the Christian theology. And out of what seems to be genuine love and sincerity, they are urging us to return to Torah. This idea immediately struck me at a gut level as wrong and possibly even heretical, but I’ve been having trouble explaining exactly why. And that’s a sure sign that I have either believed something I was told without checking it out for myself or that I don’t fully understand it yet. Either way, I wanted to get to the bottom of it. So I’ve been reading both Testaments of the Bible to gain a better understanding of Torah Law and the Messiah. I’ve also been reading a book called “Introduction to the Intertestamental Period” (Surburg) to gain a better understanding of the history of the Jews and the progression of Jewish teaching in the 400 years between the writing of the Old and New Testaments. And it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience that has opened my eyes to a number of new things.
What I’ve found and will demonstrate below is that the old covenant (the Law and the Prophets) has been supplanted by the new covenant (the Kingdom of God) which Christ brought us. But it should be noted that the old covenant of the Law and the Prophets wasn’t destroyed or torn down. Rather it was fulfilled and completed. And it turns out that, while God’s laws and His promises are eternal, the law of Moses has passed away.
Scripture is clear that followers of Yeshua are under the law of Christ, not the law of Moses. In fact, calling Christians to “return to Torah” is not only wrong, but it’s also dangerous and goes against Scripture, as you’ll see below.
The Law Versus The Kingdom
First of all, where did I get this distinction between the “Law and the Prophets” and the “Kingdom of God”? I learned it from Jesus Himself when, as recorded in Luke 16:16, He said, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.”
A wider reading of the gospels reveals that Yeshua taught many “kingdom” principles during his earthly ministry. And with respect to the differences between the two covenants, much of Yeshua’s teaching focused on the contrasting motivations behind the two covenants; specifically what had become the external, outward manifestation of the old versus the internal, spiritual focus of the new. This contrast is clear in the criticisms that Yeshua repeatedly leveled against the scribes and Pharisees. (Matt 23:1–39; Mark 7:1-8; Mark 12:35–40; Luke 11:37–54, 20:45–47) His rebuke of the Pharisees for hypocrisy and perjury are a vivid illustration of the distinction He was drawing between inner and outer moral states.
Further evidence of the differences between the two covenants can be found in the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7. Here Yeshua shares a number of teachings that start with, “You have heard it said…” after which He mentions a law from the Old Covenant. And then He follows that with, “But I tell you…” where He takes the Old Covenant law that had become external and redirects it to the internal motivation (Matt 5:21-22, 5:27-28, 5:33-34, 5:38-39, 5:43-44). This again is a clear contrast between the old and the new; between inner and outer moral states.
The Old & The New
There is a wealth of Scriptural data in both the Old and New Testaments that talk about how the Messiah will bring in a new covenant. For example, consider the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.” And this promise was later fulfilled, as evidenced in multiple passages in the New Testament including Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25, 2 Cor 3:6, Heb 8:6-13, Heb 9:15 and Heb 12:24.
Conversely, I have found no Scriptural evidence that the Mosaic Law was intended as a permanent institution. In fact, Yeshua tells us that, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached” (Luke 16:16a). And the author of Hebrews teaches us that Jesus is our new high priest and “…when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also” (Heb 7:12).
Fulfilling The Law
What does the Bible say about the fulfilling of the Law and when the New Covenant is to take effect? Scripture, as a whole,
First of all, we see that Yeshua fulfilled the demand of the Law for perfect obedience (Galatians 3:10, John 8:29, John 8:46, 1 Peter 2:22, 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15, 1 John 3:5). And in chapter 24 of Luke, when Yeshua first appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, He talks about having fulfilled the law :
“He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’”Luke 24:44-48
Yeshua explained to the disciples that He had fulfilled everything that was written about Him “in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” And three days before that, while He was hanging on the cross, He also spoke of fulfillment, saying, “It is finished”. What did He mean by that? What did He finish?
So the Scriptural evidence points to the fulfillment of the Law being completed upon Yeshua’s resurrection. Thus, it is no longer a law that the Jews, or anyone else, is obligated to obey as a legal system. Paul supports this notion in his “marriage” metaphor, which emphasized the changing of laws:
“For the woman who has a husband, is bound by law to the husband while he is living; but if the husband dies, she is discharged from the law of the husband. So if then, while the husband lives, if she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if the husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is no adulteress, though she is joined to another man. Wherefore, my brothers, you also are made dead to the law [Torah] through the body of Christ; that you should be joined to another, even to him who was raised from the dead, that we might bring forth fruit unto God.”Romans 7:2-4)
In other words, if Christians were to try to keep both the Torah and the law of Christ, we would be committing spiritual adultery!
Scriptural Support For A New Covenant
If you’re not yet convinced that Jesus inaugurated a new covenant between God and His people which supplanted the old covenant,
After discussing how the fullness of the Deity lives in Christ bodily, the Apostle Paul goes on to say:
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath He quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.”Colossians 2:13-14 KJV
In other words, the old Law was nailed to the cross; fulfilled by Jesus’ death. This is in reference to the legal bond of ordinances to which the Jews had agreed and, as mentioned in Romans 2:14-15, to which the consciences of the Gentile’s bore witness. Paul then goes on to talk about how taking
Because we are no longer under the old Law, we are no longer bound by its rules as related to food, drink, religious festivals, etc.
In his discussion about how the Jew and the Gentile have been reconciled through Christ (14-22), the apostle Paul writes, “For He himself is our peace, Who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in His flesh the law with its commands and regulations…” (Col 2:14-15a)
Paul says that Jesus’ sacrifice has set aside the law with its commands and regulations.
This entire chapter is relevant to the discussion at hand because in it the Apostle Paul is talking about faith versus works, the law, and the promise. Specific verses to look at are:
- 12-14: “The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, ‘The person who does these things will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ
Jesus,so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
- 23-25: “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the Law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the Law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
In other words, now that Yeshua has come, we are no longer under the Law.
Again, the entire chapter is relevant as it talks about Yeshua being the high priest of a new covenant. In particular:
- 6-7: “But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another”.
- 13: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
The author of Hebrews says now that Yeshua has come, the first covenant is obsolete and outdated and will soon disappear.
The 8th chapter of Hebrews cited above quotes from Jeremiah 31:31-34 which is a prophecy of a new covenant to come. The passage says, in part, “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel…It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors…because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them…This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time…I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
The new covenant to be established by Yeshua had been foretold by Jeremiah 600 years earlier.
What Then of The Torah?
So, the answer to the larger question we’ve been considering is an emphatic “no”; while Christians are certainly under the authority of the Torah as Scripture, we are not bound by the law of Moses. We do not need to keep the feasts, or avoid certain foods, or observe certain religious festivals. That said, it’s important to point out that this does not mean that the Old Testament is of no value today.
“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”Romans 15:4
The Law of Christ
To understand the Law of Christ under the new covenant we need to recognize some important distinctions within the Law of Moses, also known as the Torah. Jewish tradition holds that there are 613 permanent commandments (mitzvot) in the Torah. These mitzvot cover a wide range of topics from clothing, to food, to sex, to sacrifice, to religious observances, and so on.
As I read the teachings of Yeshua and the New Testament authors, it becomes apparent that some mitzvot were endorsed and upheld (Matthew 15:18-20), and other mitzvot were deemed fulfilled by Yeshua (Rom 3:24-25), and yet other mitzvot were deemed obsolete and outdated (Heb 8:13). Let’s take a look at these three categories:
First, there is what we might call the “moral law” of the Torah, which is clearly upheld (and even made more spiritual) by Yeshua and the New Testament authors. These are the mitzvot that deal with our hearts; meaning our motivations and our internal, spiritual condition. These commandments are grounded in God’s unchanging nature as holy and morally perfect and thus will never change. This is the law that governs our moral affairs and it culminates in the two greatest commandments; loving God and loving people (Matt 22:36-40). So the duties given under the moral law are still our duties today, and the moral sins forbidden by it are still sins today. For example, it is still wrong to commit murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander, and the like. This is the part of the old law that has been carried forward into the new.
Second, there is what we might call the “legal law” of the Torah. This is the part of the law that has been fulfilled according to Yeshua and the New Testament authors. These mitzvot are not rooted in God’s unchanging nature, but rather in His sovereign plan as it unfolds in history. They are the laws that dealt with our outward, physical actions and behaviors that so often turned into the “laws of men” and “traditions” that Yeshua spoke of in Mark 7. So, for example, we are no longer required to follow the Torah’s dietary laws (Mark 7:14-15, Acts 10:14-15, Col 2:16-17) or keep the feasts (Col 2:16-17), or partake in ceremonial cleansing rituals (Mark 7:14-15).
Lastly, there is what we could call the “sacrificial law” of the Torah, which deals with how we are saved and made right with God. These mitzvot are rooted in God’s unchanging nature—namely His justice—but they no longer bind us because they were fulfilled once and for all by Yeshua (Heb 10:8-10). We are no longer required to make sacrifices, offerings, or burnt offerings for our sins. And in Hebrews 10 we are even told specifically that Yeshua’ sacrifice set aside the old law and established the new:
“First He said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then He said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”Hebrews 10:8-10
Yeshua was our perfect sacrifice, and it’s His blood that cleanses us and makes us right with God. (Matt 20:28, Matt 26:28, Rom 3:24-25, Heb 10:19, Heb 13:12, Col 1:20, Eph 1:7, 1 Peter 1:18-19, 1 John 1:7, 1 John 2:2, Rev 1:5, Rev 7:14).
My gut-level reaction that a return to the Torah would be wrong turned out to be valid. And now, after spending a lot of time looking into it for myself, I better understand what Scripture says. And it’s clear; the old covenant has been fulfilled and replaced by the new covenant. Followers of Jesus are under the Law of Christ, not the Law of Moses, and therefore are not bound by the Torah.