For they have committed adultery and there is blood on their hands and they have committed adultery with their idols; and even their children, whom they had borne for Me, they passed before them to be consumed. Moreover, they have done this to Me: They defiled My Sanctuary on that day, and they desecrated my Sabbaths, when they slaughtered their children for their idols they would come to My Sanctuary on that very day to defile it! Behold, they have done this in My Temple!
–Ezekiel 23:37-39 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
–Colossians 2:16-17 (NASB)
Tales of the Messianic Era series
Sorry. This is a long one. I was dozing in bed this (Sunday) morning when a few thoughts pulled together for me. This “mediation” is the result.
It seems that, according to the prophet Ezekiel (and many other prophets in the Tanakh), God really, really cared about the Israelites keeping His Sabbaths (the weekly Sabbath and the Moedim or Holy, appointed times), but Paul seems to think they don’t matter. Of course, the traditional Christian resolution is that Ezekiel lived on one side of the cross and Paul on the other. Jesus changed everything.
But did he?
I won’t be seeing my Pastor again for one of our conversations for another week or so, but in our review of D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians, and specifically the chapter covering Galatians 2:15-16, Pastor asked me to read all of Galatians 2 as well as Romans 3 and 4, and Colossians 2 to prepare for our next discussion.
I can see where he’s leading.
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
–Matthew 5:17-19 (NASB)
You can click the links I provided to get the deeper analysis from my review or by watching the episode, but the basic idea is that Jesus is saying he did not come to neglect the Torah or to teach others to neglect it, but rather to teach it correctly and to obey Torah himself. Of course, this too is on the “wrong side of the cross,” so my Pastor could just say that after his death and resurrection, Jesus changed his teachings. But that would be really confusing for him to teach one way before his death and then completely change things after the resurrection. Christian doctrine demands that he did so, but it defies not only logic, but the overall narrative of the Bible as God’s message to the Jewish people and the rest of the world.
In Ezekiel and many other places in the Old Testament, we see God caring very much about whether or not the ancient Israelites obeyed His commandments. There were dire consequences for them neglecting the mitzvot including exile and death.
Now the Lord was angry with Solomon because his heart was turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not observe what the Lord had commanded. So the Lord said to Solomon, “Because you have done this, and you have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you, and will give it to your servant.
–1 Kings 11:9-11 (NASB)
But the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness. They did not walk in My statutes and they rejected My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live; and My sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I resolved to pour out My wrath on them in the wilderness, to annihilate them. But I acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, before whose sight I had brought them out. Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands, because they rejected My ordinances, and as for My statutes, they did not walk in them; they even profaned My sabbaths, for their heart continually went after their idols.
–Ezekiel 20:13-16 (NASB)
God expects obedience to His commands by Israel’s Kings, Prophets, and the nation as a whole. Disobedience carries dire consequences.
Do not imagine that I have come to violate the Torah or the words of the prophets. I have not come to violate but to fulfill. For, amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one yod or one thorn will pass away from the Torah until all has been established.
–Matthew 5:17-18 (DHE Gospels)
Jesus tells his disciples and his critics that he has not come to disobey the mitzvot or to teach others to do so but rather, to teach others to obey the mitzvot and to obey them himself. Further, he says that heaven and earth will pass away before even the tiniest detail of the Torah passes away. Since heaven and earth continue to exist, long after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, logically, I have to conclude that the Torah still applies to the Jewish people as it did the day Jesus uttered those words.
But then, what do I do with the following?
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
–Galatians 2:21 (NASB)
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.
–Romans 3:21-30 (NASB)
Of course, Paul immediately says in the next verse, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”
From my point of view, Paul isn’t “undoing” the Torah (Law) but rather, he’s saying (and this is how I read his entire message to the churches in Galatia) that Torah obedience doesn’t justify anyone before God.
…that doesn’t mean God disdains the Law that He Himself created or that Jesus unplugged Jewish obedience to God from God’s overall plan. Jesus said that the Torah wouldn’t pass away, not even in the smallest detail, until heaven and earth passed away.
So the “anti-Torah” portions of Paul’s letters either mean Paul was hopelessly conflicted about the Torah or that Christian tradition has erroneously interpreted Paul for a very long time now.
As you probably guessed, I read Ezekiel quite recently and I “discovered” some startling things about the future; about the Messianic Age that is yet to come:
And He said to me, “Son of man, thus says the Lord God, ‘These are the statutes for the altar on the day it is built, to offer burnt offerings on it and to sprinkle blood on it. You shall give to the Levitical priests who are from the offspring of Zadok, who draw near to Me to minister to Me,’ declares the Lord God, ‘a young bull for a sin offering. You shall take some of its blood and put it on its four horns and on the four corners of the ledge and on the border round about; thus you shall cleanse it and make atonement for it. You shall also take the bull for the sin offering, and it shall be burned in the appointed place of the house, outside the sanctuary.
–Ezekiel 43:18-21 (NASB)
Here we see the future Temple, the one that will exist in the Messianic Era. God is describing the sacrifices that will be offered by the Levitical priests in the future Temple, just as those sacrifices were offered in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert and in Solomon’s Temple. In Ezekiel 44:15-31, God is describing the ordinances that apply to the Levitical priests, which mirror those originally given in the Torah.
And then we have this:
‘Thus says the Lord God, “The gate of the inner court facing east shall be shut the six working days; but it shall be opened on the sabbath day and opened on the day of the new moon. The prince shall enter by way of the porch of the gate from outside and stand by the post of the gate. Then the priests shall provide his burnt offering and his peace offerings, and he shall worship at the threshold of the gate and then go out; but the gate shall not be shut until the evening. The people of the land shall also worship at the doorway of that gate before the Lord on the sabbaths and on the new moons. The burnt offering which the prince shall offer to the Lord on the sabbath day shall be six lambs without blemish and a ram without blemish; and the grain offering shall be an ephah with the ram, and the grain offering with the lambs as much as he is able to give, and a hin of oil with an ephah. On the day of the new moon he shall offer a young bull without blemish, also six lambs and a ram, which shall be without blemish. And he shall provide a grain offering, an ephah with the bull and an ephah with the ram, and with the lambs as much as he is able, and a hin of oil with an ephah. When the prince enters, he shall go in by way of the porch of the gate and go out by the same way. But when the people of the land come before the Lord at the appointed feasts, he who enters by way of the north gate to worship shall go out by way of the south gate. And he who enters by way of the south gate shall go out by way of the north gate. No one shall return by way of the gate by which he entered but shall go straight out. When they go in, the prince shall go in among them; and when they go out, he shall go out.”
–Ezekiel 46:1-10 (NASB)
The Prince, that is, Messiah, will offer the traditional sacrifices in the Temple, and he shall, along with all Israel, observe the New Moons and Sabbaths in accordance with the commands of God in the Torah. This is all supposed to happen in the future Messianic Age, on the “right side of the cross,” and apparently in direct contradiction to what Paul wrote in Colossians 2:16-17.
So we have a few options to consider. If the traditional Christian interpretation of Paul is right, then in spite of all of the evidence in the Old Testament to the contrary, and especially Ezekiel, Jesus “undid” the Torah of Moses for the Jewish people. But that doesn’t make sense. Not only would Paul have to contradict the Old Testament prophets, but he’d have to contradict Jesus and even himself. The scriptures between the Old Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, and the different letters of Paul don’t match up.
If that option doesn’t work, where can we turn?
The only other direction to move in (unless we want to dismantle Christianity) seems to be the fact that the traditions Christianity have been using to understand the New Testament and probably the whole Bible need a bit of reworking. You can’t ignore one part of the Bible in favor of the other. If Paul seems to contradict the Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself, then either Paul is wrong and our New Testament is hopelessly flawed (in which case, we have to dismantle Christianity), or we’re seriously reading things in the wrong way. We don’t understand Paul and we are forcing an interpretation on him that doesn’t fit and that Paul himself would never recognize.
We know from Ezekiel that the Messiah and all Israel will once again offer sacrifices at the Temple, that all of the Sabbaths and New Moons will be observed, that the Levitical priesthood will be restored, and that the Torah mitzvot will be performed correctly by the Jewish people. From Matthew, we know that not one tiny detail of the Torah will pass away until heaven and earth pass away. And from Paul we learn that no matter how important obeying God is by observing the Torah mitzvot, behavioral obedience doesn’t justify anyone, Jew or Gentile, before God. Only faith justifies through God’s grace.
But we still have one little problem. If the Torah is still fully in effect for the Jewish people, what about Jewish disobedience? We have a long record in the Tanakh of the ghastly consequences for such disobedience. While the nation of Israel exists again today, it is still a largely secular nation. Also, many, many Jewish people still choose to live in the diaspora (exile) rather than making Aliyah to Israel and living in the Land, which is also a commandment. Many, many Jews in Israel and all over the world do not observe all or even some of the mitzvot.
What is God’s response to all of this?
Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
–Acts 15:10-11 (NASB)
We see a couple of interesting things here. First of all, Peter calls the Torah “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” If that’s true, then why do we see so many complementary references to the Torah in both the Old and New Testaments? The answer, I believe, is the long history of Israelite disobedience to the mitzvot which resulted in God’s terrible wrath upon Israel. Faith and obedience to God in the Torah is wonderful, but the consequences of faithlessness and disobedience are disastrous, a yoke that Israel has not been able to bear.
But Peter also said something else. It wasn’t the words he used but the order of them. He said that “But we believe that we (Jews) are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they (Gentiles) also are.” As a Jewish person and an apostle, you’d have expected Peter to say that the Gentiles are saved in just the same way as we Jews are. That’s how it was expressed on previous occasions including Acts 10:45.
I think this might be the answer:
For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
–Galatians 3:10-14 (NASB)
I believe Paul is saying a couple of things here. First, he is continuing with his central theme in this letter that no one is justified by obedience to Torah in and of itself. If anyone depends on their Torah obedience to justify them before God, then they will be judged by God based on their obedience alone. Since we have a long history of Israel disobeying Torah or not obeying it completely, any disobedience carries with it the curses God proscribed for disobedience, namely things like famine, exile, war, and death.
There is evidence that some first century Jewish people, including some Jewish believers, thought that they could only be justified before God by obedience to the mitzvot (Acts 15:1-2 for example). I think the “light bulb” went off over Peter’s head as he was speaking in front of the Council in Acts 15. I think he understood the Gentiles were saved by faith but it suddenly dawned on him that the same “mechanism” that saves Gentiles also saves Jews…faith, not observance of the mitzvot alone and not being ethnically Jewish.
So what did Jesus “nail to the cross?” Not the Torah. We have too much evidence that says the “curse of the Law” isn’t the Law itself. I believe what he “nailed to the cross” were the curses for Jewish disobedience of Torah. The “yoke” that Israel has never been able to bear. This is the freedom the Jewish people experience in Messiah. And through Messiah, the blessing of Abraham has come to the people of the nations so we too can receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
I found a rather helpful individual comment on the blogosphere that I think helps illuminate this point:
I would like to add to this that Yeshua removed the curse of the Torah not by making this curse in itself invalid or inapplicable, but by introducing an atonement which exceeds the means of atonement provided by the legal system of the Torah. For in and through his sacrifice we can be justified from all things, from which we couldn’t be justified by the Torah of Moses (cf. Acts 13:39). In becoming a curse for us by being hanged on a tree, Messiah provided a means of atonement which results in eternal and definite forgiveness for those who truly repent, and in this manner he redeemed us from the curse of the Torah (Gal. 3:13).
More: Derek Leman has recently written a blog post on a related topic called Physical and Spiritual Election.