The New Mitzvah of Christ, part 1

lovingkindness“What you dislike, do not do to your friend. That is the basis of the Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

-Shabbos 31a

“Love HaShem your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all your knowledge.” This is the greatest and first mitzvah. But the second is similar to it: “Love your fellow as yourself.” The entire Torah and the Prophets hang on these two mitzvot.

Matthew 22:37-40 (DHE Gospels)

The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) is above all else a commandment, a mitzvah that we are to obey. When Messiah Yeshua comments on the Shema, he joins it with another commandment to reveal deeper implications hidden within both…

As the greatest of the commandments, the Shema is tied to this second commandment, which “is similar to it: ‘Love your fellow as yourself'” (Leviticus 19:18). This linkage is integral to the Shema, because one cannot love God in the way that the Shema defines love without loving one’s neighbor.

As we have seen, we cannot reduce the love of God to a mystical or pietistic encounter; it must be acted out in a walk of obedience.

Rabbi Russ Resnik
“‘Shema:’ Living the Great Commandment,” pg 71
Messiah Journal, Issue 112
Published by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

Yesterday (and actually before that in a more general sense), I was talking about love within the context of both the very famous words of the ancient sage Hillel and Yeshua’s (Jesus’) two greatest commandments. Of course, the Master was referencing the Shema, which every Jewish person will immediately recognize (I don’t know if the Shema was formalized in the late second Temple period, but certainly, the Messiah’s Jewish audience would have immediately recognized the source of his lesson). Rabbi Resnik is also addressing primarily a Jewish audience and more specifically Jews who are Messianic, but his article in Messiah Journal brings up questions involving Gentile Christians and the application of Torah. After all, we are disciples of Christ as well, and thus under his authority and teaching. But how far do the Master’s lessons to his Jewish followers extend to the disciples of the nations?

Yeshua’s second point is, “On these two commandments hang all the Torah and the Prophets.” This doesn’t mean that they render the rest of the Torah and the Prophets irrelevant, God forbid, but that they provide the framework for understanding, interpreting, and applying all of Torah and the words of the prophets. As Hillel says, “All the rest [of Torah] is commentary: now go learn it.” (b.Shabbat 31a). The two-fold commandment doesn’t supersede Torah. Rather, it provides the framework for the proper interpretation of the whole.

-Resnik, pg 73

Thus Rabbi Resnik dispenses with supersessionism, but he made me think of something else.

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

Acts 15:19-21 (ESV)

These are some of the most misunderstood words we find in the New Testament, at least by some variant Christian faith groups. The majority of Christian churches believe that the “Jerusalem letter” was a ruling of James and the Council of Apostles stating that the practice of the Torah mitzvot as applied to the Jewish people, should not also be imposed on the body of Gentile disciples, but rather only certain specific standards. However, verse 21 seems to indicate some sort of connection between the Council’s pronouncement to the Gentiles and Moses being proclaimed and the Torah being read every Sabbath in the synagogues.

Some suggest that James’ intent was that the Gentiles should learn Torah and learn to obey it in the identical manner of the Jews as an obligation. If we marry this idea back to Rabbi Resnik’s commentary on Christ’s two greatest commandments, it seems to fit, but then, I can hardly believe that the esteemed Rabbi meant to communicate that idea. But if he didn’t, what are he, and Jesus and James, saying?

One of the topics I’ve been discussing with Pastor Randy at my church is what “Torah” means within a Messianic context, and how (or if) Torah is applied to the non-Jewish disciples of the Master (i.e. Christians). It’s a difficult question to answer, especially if part of what you mean by “Torah” involves Talmud and how the rulings and opinions of the ancient Jewish sages are applied to the various normative Judaisms in our day.

Frankly, I believe that Christians should learn Torah. In fact, I believe that Christians do learn Torah. We just don’t call it that. We call it “Bible Study” or “Sunday School.”

What would the early Gentile Christians have learned by going to the synagogues and listening to the Torah portions being read every Shabbat?

They would have learned Torah.

Why?

And you, go to all the nations. Make disciples; immerse them for the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to keep all that I have commanded you.

Matthew 28:19-20 (DHE Gospels)

Again, especially using the Delitzsch translation, it certainly seems as if Jesus meant for the disciples of the nations to “keep” what he taught, if we can assume what he taught was “Torah,” and given his two greatest commandments, that is indeed what he was teaching.

Jewish_men_praying2But he wasn’t teaching his Jewish disciples to be Jews; they already knew about that…being Jewish as a lifestyle, was fully integrated into the Israeli Jewish existence. Religion in ancient times wasn’t separated from any other part of life, so to observe the mitzvot for a Jew was just part of normal living.

But then, what was Jesus teaching them that he also wanted to be taught to we Christians if not how to live as a Jew? What was being read in the synagogues every Shabbat that James wanted the Gentile disciples to hear? The Torah and the Prophets.

But if all Christians are supposed to learn and obey the Torah in the manner of the Jews, why did Paul say this?

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Galatians 5:2-4 (ESV)

Paul is communicating to his Gentile Christian audience with a very simple “if/then” statement: If you accept circumcision (convert to Judaism), then you are obligated to keep the whole law (Torah). The implication is made obvious by turning the positive statement into a negative. If you do not convert to Judaism (remain a Gentile Christian), then you are not obligated to keep the whole law (Torah).

So far, as nearly as I can tell, Jesus and James wanted the Gentile disciples to learn the Torah but not be obligated to it in the manner of the Jewish people. But then why does Jesus in stating “the great commission” tell the Jewish disciples to “keep all that I have commanded you?” Something is missing. What were the Gentiles supposed to learn from the Torah by hearing it (and no doubt observing their Jewish mentors performing the mitzvot), and then what were they supposed to keep that Jesus taught?

I first want to mention that in Galatians, Paul is indeed saying that keeping the Law does not justify anyone before God, neither Jew nor Gentile. It is Christ who is our sole justification before the Father. A Jew observing the mitzvot isn’t justified simply by observing the mitzvot, and I’ve never heard a Messianic Jew say anything different. Nevertheless, Paul certainly expected Jews to be obligated to the Law, otherwise, he wouldn’t have said that righteous Gentile converts were also obligated. No, the application of the Sinai covenant was not done away with by Jesus or by Paul. However, we see that it wasn’t applied to the Gentiles, at least not in the way we see it applied to the Jews.

So how is there a difference between Torah being applied to Jewish and Gentile disciples of Jesus Christ? That’s where we’ll begin in part 2 of this two-part article.

Peace.

6 thoughts on “The New Mitzvah of Christ, part 1”

  1. “Man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of G-d”.

    I noticed Yeshua did not say “Jews shall live by every word, but Gentiles by a fraction”.

  2. So you disagree with my interpretation of scripture, that how Torah is to be applied to Jews and Christians is different. Perfectly understandable, but I think I can establish a good argument for my case (you can never “prove” anything on the Internet), but in part 2 of this article and in another wee article series I’m in the process of writing.

    But you’ll have to be patient since so far, you’re only reading one-half of this article (I split it because putting it together created a blog post well over 3000 words, and I’ve discovered most people don’t want to read something that long in one sitting).

    1. “So you disagree with my interpretation of scripture,”

      I’ll wait and be patient and listen and consider before I decide if I disagree. Shalom 🙂

  3. I appreciate that, Steven. Thanks. Even if you disagree, no worries. What’s most important is that lines of civil conversation remain open to discuss variances in how we understand the Bible, God, and being disciples of the Jewish Messiah. I don’t think any one person has it all right (except Messiah, of course) so we’ll learn more if we can talk than if we remain in our individual silos discussing ideas only with those who we know already agree with us (it’s only when things get “uncivil” that communication doesn’t work out so well).

    1. “(it’s only when things get “uncivil” that communication doesn’t work out so well).”

      I’m working on being more civil. Thanks Shalom

  4. Actually, that wasn’t aimed at you, Steven. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there are quite a few folks who read this blog and most of them don’t comment. A few have commented in the past in an unpleasant and even hostile manner, often excusing their poor behavior as “discussion” or “debate.” I’ve gone to enough of these rodeos, so to speak, to be able to tell the difference between people respectfully disagreeing and someone coming after me with a verbal hatchet.

    I appreciate your efforts to approach my blog honestly and with a forthright attitude. I don’t expect we’ll agree on everything, but at least we can do so within the context of being brothers in Christ.

    Thanks again.

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