A great and chronic myth has been perpetuated within Christianity that needs to be addressed. It is the belief that the Law (i.e., the Torah) has been and always will be impossible to keep, and that Yeshua came to live out the Torah perfectly and thus "fulfill" it so his followers would not have to. This article seeks to examine the veracity of this claim and expose the problems of misunderstanding the Torah and its function. We will be examining some familiar passages, but hopefully in a new light that will begin to illuminate this subject.
Three primary passages have lead many to believe the Torah to be impossible to keep: Acts 15:10, James 2:10 and Paul’s circuitous argument in Romans 6-7. This series of articles will address each of these cases. We will begin with the first passage, the famous argument Peter puts forth at the Council of Jerusalem.
In Acts 15 we read of a debate among the followers of Yeshua — who were all Jewish up to this juncture — in regard to the position of Gentiles who have confessed allegiance to Yeshua and forsaken idolatry. Followers of Yeshua who were also Pharisees thought that the natural thing for these Gentiles to do was to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses:
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)
This belief only made sense at that time. These Gentiles had chosen to accept the God of the Jews and follow the Jewish Messiah. If they wanted to fully participate in communal fellowship and experience the richness of the life the Jewish believers were living, it only seemed logical to take the next step of circumcision. After all, they could not fully participate in commemorating the Master's death and resurrection during the Passover if they were not circumcised. Along with eating the unleavened bread and drinking the cups of wine, partaking of the Passover lamb was central to the ceremony in which Yeshua had commanded his disciples to remember his suffering. As Yeshua partook of the Passover elements, he told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.”1 Uncircumcised Gentiles, however, according to the instructions God gave Moses in Exodus 12, are forbidden to partake of the Passover lamb. Both Exodus 12 and Genesis 17 describe circumcision as the precedent for those who attach themselves to God's chosen people. Therefore, the followers of Yeshua who were also Pharisees logically concluded that circumcision was necessary for Gentile followers of Yeshua as well, and the apostles had agreed up until this point.
Peter and Paul, however, had experienced something new happening among the Gentiles. They had seen how the Gentiles were experiencing God’s favor just as the Jews. There were hundreds of Gentiles were now coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah, repenting of their sins and trusting in him as their hope for a future resurrection and a share in the world-to-come. Peter faced one of his greatest challenges when he was sent to Cornelius the Gentile. By divine revelation he was told that he should not regard Gentiles as “common or unclean,” but he was to teach them of Yeshua and invite them to a life of discipleship as well. When he began teaching Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them as it had been on the Jews at Shavuot (Pentecost). God was showing him that Gentiles were to be accepted into this Jewish faith as Gentiles, without having to first go through a conversion process to become legally Jewish through circumcision.
When the sudden influx of Gentiles flocking to this Jewish sect called The Way was fully realized, the issue of their status as Gentiles came into question. The issue was presented to the elders at Jerusalem, who convened to decide the path for these Gentiles who were suddenly becoming so numerous among the believers. Should they take the traditional path of circumcision and conversion to fully integrate themselves into Israel and take on the full responsibility of the Torah? Or should there be another, alternative path for them that would affirm their unique calling as those from among the nations? It is in this context that the discussion began.
The believers who were also Pharisees (probably a strong majority) made the claim, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Hearing this, Peter stood up and gave testimony that this was not necessary for Gentile believers. He said:
Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. (Acts 15:7–11)
Upon first glance, Peter seems to describe the Torah as “a yoke … that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). But is this understanding backed by the rest of Scripture? First, let’s take a look at the Torah itself. How does it describe the “burden” of keeping the commandments found within it? Deuteronomy tells us, “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off … But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:11, 14). John, the beloved disciple of Yeshua, agrees. When writing his third epistle, he tells his audience that the commandments of God — all of the instructions found within the Torah — are “not burdensome”:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. (1 John 5:1–4)
Unfortunately, this is the complete opposite of the way many Christians think of the Torah. In fact, many even go so far as to try to use the words of Yeshua to turn the Torah into a means of condemnation, rather than liberation. They claim that when Yeshua revealed the standard by which the Torah should be kept, in his Sermon on the Mount, it was to show the Jews their foolishness in trying to keep the Torah. According to this theory, “Jesus exposed the futility of life under law.”2 According to traditional interpretation of these passages, Yeshua’s instructions in the Gospels, particularly those found in the Sermon on the Mount, were never intended for his followers. They were merely to condemn the Jews' futile attempts to obey God by keeping His instructions:
Jesus tells his audience to cut off their hands, to pluck out their eyes, and to be perfect just like God. He tells them that their righteousness must compete and win against the Pharisees'. He says that they must first forgive others in order to be forgiven. In short, Jesus is discouraging his contemporaries as they seek to achieve righteousness through the law.3
Why do we believe this is the case? Why do we believe that Yeshua’s instructions were spoken sarcastically to the Jews regarding righteousness? Is that his means of communication? The reason we believe this is that we have been taught that there is an “Old” Testament and a “New” Testament. We have been taught that God dealt with the Jews by giving them impossible laws, but has given the Gentiles only His grace and love. We have been taught that God was angry in the “Old” Testament when He delivered His people from slavery, but that He had a better attitude when He sent His son to be brutally murdered. In short, we have fallen for the deception that God has changed and therefore so have His requirements for righteousness. We believe this because we want to. Believing that the Scriptures are not to be taken seriously is far easier than actually taking them to heart. Did Yeshua really believe that we could refrain from lust, anger and wife-swapping, or that we were really supposed to love jerks? Unfortunately, many Christians believe Yeshua was stating the impossibility of such things. Andrew Farley, one of many evangelical pastors in this same boat, believes these things to be “impossible,” and teaches others to believe this as well:
Jesus’ impossible teachings of “sell everything, sever body parts if necessary, be perfect like God and surpass the Pharisees with your righteousness” are not honestly compatible with salvation as a gift from God.4
He even goes so far as to say, “Living by rules is cheating on Jesus!”5 This, in a nutshell, is anarchy. This also completely contradicts Paul’s instructions on multiple accounts. First, we know that “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Everything He does has order and structure. Second, to live “without law” is sin. Laws are the boundaries He has created for the safety of His people. To claim that we are no longer bound to any laws is to actually reject God. John tells us, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). He explicitly says, “sin is lawlessness.” When Paul writes to Titus, he makes an even bolder statement:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11–14)
In this passage, Paul claims that Yeshua’s sacrifice was not to “redeem us from the law,” but that it was actually to “redeem us from all lawlessness.” In other words, Yeshua came to take a lawless people and bring them under the authority of his Father’s rule. This may come as quite a shock to many believers. However, this is in complete agreement with the rest of Scripture. Rather than taking a few verses out of context to establish an argument by which we can abolish the Torah (something Yeshua expressly denies in Matthew 5:17), we should be looking for a means to support the continued validity of the Torah.