(Scripture quotations come from the Complete Jewish Bible)
How should Christians view the Torah? And what is our relationship with Jewish tradition? These are questions we struggle with today. I have listened to positions from both extreme sides of the answer. Some say that Christians should obey all of the Torah and others say we can completely ignore it and just piecemeal Christ’s commands from the New Testament alone.
Let’s start with some definitions. The Torah is the combination of the first 5 books of the Old Testament (also called the Pentateuch). That is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Now there is another word, mitzvot, which means commands. There are many mitzvot, or commands, scattered throughout the Torah.
This problem of which ones are relevant to Gentiles is addressed partly in Acts 15:10-20 where the Messianic community addresses the issue of Gentiles accepting Jesus as their Savior and receiving the Holy Spirit. The question was, “What does adopting Gentiles into God’s family look like?” They quote Amos 9:11-12 as evidence that Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised and become Jews to follow Jesus.
They then write a letter that outlines some things Gentile believers should refrain from:
- Consuming food sacrificed to idols
- Consuming blood
- Consuming things that were strangled
- Fornication (any sexual act outside the confines of a man and his wife)
Now, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of things believers shouldn’t do. But it’s worth taking a look at where these particular commands may have come from. We can see as far back as God’s covenant with Noah and his family that consuming blood was forbidden (Gen 9:4). The consumption of things strangled may be implied in this, I’m uncertain. Fornication (adultery) is explicitly forbidden in the 10 commandments (Exodus 20:14). Consuming food sacrificed to idols could be construed as worshiping or serving idols, which is forbidden in Exodus 20:3-5. It’s interesting to me that none of the laws in Leviticus or commands exclusive to Deuteronomy are referenced. When people want to make ridiculous example of following “Old Testament Laws” in the present they almost exclusively pull from Deuteronomy which functions more of as a Middle Eastern Treaties or Constitution for the nation of Israel. Deuteronomy is referenced about 80 times in the New Testament but not in this context of Gentiles serving God.
While we often focus on the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17), I would like to point out that a long list of rulings/judgements/laws follow the commandments in Exodus 21:1 through 23:33. Having read through them I would like to try to summarize a bit. Please consider reading them in more depth yourself.
First, God very clearly states that murder, kidnapping, sorcery, sex with animals, sacrificing to false gods, and cursing your parents are very serious crimes (punishable by death).
Secondly, when you harm another person or their property in any way, whether intentionally or accidentally, you owe them compensation for the harm you have done them. This could look like replacing property or restitution for lost days of work.
Third, God’s people are to be kind and compassionate to, and not take advantage of, foreigners, the poor, widows, and orphans.
Finally, God’s people give offerings to God and do not curse Him or their leaders. Instead they celebrate God with festivals. They do not allow themselves to be ensnared into serving false gods.
For me, Exodus 23:1-3 really stands out. “You are not to repeat false rumors; do not join hands with the wicked by offering perjured testimony. Do not follow the crowd when it does what is wrong and don’t allow the popular view to sway you into offering testimony for any cause if the effect will be to pervert justice. On the other hand, don’t favor a person’s lawsuit simply because he is poor.” It just feels very relevant with the rhetoric and misinformation flying around in every direction and the many presumptions and gossip that are bandied around as fact.
The other section I found interesting comes right afterward. Exodus 23:4-5 states “If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey straying, you must return it to him. If you see the donkey which belongs to someone who hates you lying down helpless under its load, you are not to pass him by but go and help him free it.” I like that this is already setting the stage for Christ’s command to “Love your enemy”.
What we get from all of this is a good outline for what God sees as good and evil and what we should be looking to when Christ says in John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” We should also not neglect which two commands are the greatest according to Jesus. (Matthew 22:36-40) “’Rabbi, which of the mitzvot in the Torah is the most important?’ He told him, ‘‘You are to love ADONAI your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ This is the greatest and most important mitzvah. And a second is similar to it, ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’ All of the Torah and Prophets are dependent on these two mitzvot.’”
We can see how the commandments in Exodus are reflected in the two great commandments. And of course, Christ took it to a whole new level, didn’t he? In the Sermon on the Mount he took the commandment to not murder and said in Matthew 5:22 “But I tell you that anyone who nurses anger against his brother will be subject to judgement.” Again, in relation to the commandment to not commit adultery (which is defined as sex outside the confines of a man and his wife), Christ says in Matthew 5:28 “But I tell you that a man who even looks at a woman with the purpose of lusting after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Thus brings us to the real challenge of showing our Love for Christ by obeying His commandments. We must do so in a wider range of ways than we tend to consider and we must do so in our hearts as well as our words and actions. When we harm someone we must sincerely repent and be eager to make reparations. When we sin against God in our hearts we must be quick to repent and follow Christ’s command to the adulterer and “don’t sin any more” (John 8:11). But we must also proactively desire to show compassion to the marginalized (the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner) and take what concrete actions we can to aid them. These are the things that the Torah and Christ demand of us as Children of the Living God who was, and is, and is to come. We are separate and Holy and it should show in our Love for people, our condemnation of sin (particularly in ourselves), and our Love of God. All of this is, of course, only possible by receiving the Holy Spirit through Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. In the end, it’s God’s transformational power through the Holy Spirit that unbelievers should see as most startling and most appealing. That is how we should shine God’s Light into the darkness and bring His lost sheep back to Him.