Did you know that the Hebrew word torah, which was translated into the Greek as nomos (custom, law, convention) and then into English as law, really means instruction, guidance, or teaching? It is really the teaching or guidance of Moses, and not the law, that we are dealing with here. And that can make a lot of difference in our thinking.
In relation to God’s love for us, the Law is a major sticking point. From a Western point of view, law is absolute, and each infraction must have its corresponding punishment. To further confuse things, if we are thinking of the Kingdom of God as being heaven, and we hear Jesus saying that this or that behavior will keep us out or bring us into the Kingdom, it sure sounds as though the Law–keeping the Law–is what “saves” us and gets us into heaven.
That, by the way, is the best definition of legalism I’ve heard: the mistaken belief that keeping the Law makes us acceptable to God and “saves” us. Though we say we know we’re “saved by grace,” that God’s acceptance is a free gift, functionally we’re still focused on keeping the Law as prerequisite. It’s a very short drop into legalism, after all. Now since Moses originally instituted a true theocracy for the Hebrews, there were no separate civil and religious codes, just one torah/law which then had to have its legal requirements and punishments, but as the concept of instruction or guidance suggests, the original intent and meaning of torah/law was something else.
First of all, the ancient Jews did not even have a clear concept of an afterlife, so the Law as the vehicle for afterlife salvation would have been foreign to them. Jews to this day view salvation as spiritual liberation here and now. They see this life, this world, as hanhaga, the meeting place between God and man. The place where these relationships are worked out. And Torah is the structure of the arena–the rules of the game, to push that metaphor. In this original conception, the law was a picture of what the relationship between God and man and between man and man was supposed to look like. It was an image of the finished product, and a Way to the finished product at the same time.
Think of torah/law as one of those molds into which you pour liquid Jello. If you leave the Jello in the mold long enough, you can eventually pull the mold away and the Jello stands on its own, and looks like the mold. To the ancient Jews, Torah was the mold into which we pour our lives. If we stay in the mold long enough, it can be pulled away, and we will retain its shape. We will look like Torah, or better, Torah will be written on our hearts. And so the Law is not and never was a vehicle for salvation in the next life. It was and is the vehicle for salvation here and now: what we call sanctification–the process of being set apart for God.
But by Jesus’ time, this original intent had been subverted. Religious authorities such as the scribes and Pharisees had taken their own short drop into legalism. They had developed hundreds of extra laws that they called “hedges” or “fences” around the torah/law in order to “protect” it. But over time, these fences had become as important as Torah itself, and the measure of a person’s righteousness before God was the measure of his compliance with both Torah and this oral tradition, the fences. Jesus’ most pitched battles were those he waged against the legalism of the Pharisees and scribes. He worked hard to redefine the Law back to its original intent and form.
Read the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5, 6, 7) and look especially at Mt 5:20 where Jesus says, “Unless you exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Hard words. Especially considering that no one could even match the requirements for the righteousness of the Pharisees (perfect compliance with the law, oral tradition, temple practices, and separation from anyone who didn’t), let alone exceed them. But Jesus wasn’t thinking in only one dimension. He was trying to show us that by fulfilling the original intent of the law, we could exceed the legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees and enter the Kingdom at the same time. A twofer–two birds with one stone.
A contemporary Jewish follower of Jesus puts it this way: “The Way points out that if we simply follow mitzvot (commandments) without any concern for the heart of God’s teaching, then we are following mechanically, and our observance is worthless. YHWH’s Torah is meant to turn us into a holy people–that is, a people whose behavior is different and distinctive from that of others; ‘If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Because even tax collectors do the same!’” (here for more)
Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what come out of his heart. Therefore he said that all foods are clean (Mk 7:18-23), an incredible, shocking point to make to Jews, but one that Jesus made over and over. Jesus reinterpreted the Law throughout his ministry in five major ways:
–That the oral tradition did not have the force of Torah.
–That keeping the Law involved fulfilling the purpose of the law and not just keeping the rules.
–That obedience or disobedience is inward, and not an outward function.
–That outward forms/rituals mean nothing if the heart is not right.
–That the Law is the expression of God’s will and desire, and not just a code of ethics.
The Sabbath was a case in point. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. The purpose of the Sabbath was to provide people a time of refreshment, revival, and renewal in God’s presence. The code of not working on the Sabbath was meant to fulfill that purpose. But Yeshua showed us that sometimes the best way to fulfill the purpose of renewal and refreshment was to actually break the code of the Law–or at least the oral code. To do “work” and positively heal on the Sabbath fulfilled the purpose of the Law much more fully than to negatively refrain and follow the code. This is Torah written our our hearts.
Way of the Heart
Left unchecked, people will always regress back to legalism. It’s basic human nature to see the world in two dimensions, from a physical perspective only…to long for the false security of the thick walls of a code that “saves.” Jesus is calling us to look at the world and our lives from a deeper perspective. To say as he did, that we are not here to abolish the Law, but to fulfill its deepest purpose, its sebyana. But not in a mindless following of rules. Not in a quid pro quo mindset of storing up personal gain. And not in continual fear of punishment, either. Torah/law is the beautiful picture of who we really are. As God sees us. As we will be as we choose Kingdom moments, enter the Kingdom, become characterized by Kingdom–by the practice of the presence of God in our lives.
Its all here in Jesus’ vision and message for our abundant lives. Understanding what Jesus meant by Kingdom and by Law will clear most of the narrow path of the Way for us. And along the Way, we’ll get a better view of the Father’s perfect love that will finish off what’s left of our fear and allow us to really begin to enjoy the ride.