WHY IT IS ESSENTIAL TO STUDY THE
HEBRAIC ROOTS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
REDISCOVERING THE HEBRAIC ROOTS OF THE EARLY
CHRISTIAN CHURCH, CIRCA A.D. 60
UNDERSTANDING WHAT "THE LAW" REALLY MEANS
AS IT IS REFERRED TO IN SCRIPTURE
In the Hebrew/Jewish culture of the Bible, references to "the Law" in our English translations can mean one of several things, and we have to look at the context of the Scriptures to get our cues as to the accurate and correct understanding of each occurrence. The purpose of this article is to establish a clear difference between the Instruction of God (Torah) and the extreme legalism (Oral Torah or "traditions of the elders") into which it had eventually been perverted by the time of the first appearance of Messiah.
Most fundamentally in scripture, a reference to "the Law" is to the Torah (in Hebrew) which is, specifically, the teaching (i.e., instruction) of God as given to Moses atop Mt. Sinai for the people:
"These are the statutes and judgments and laws, which the LORD made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by thehand of Moses." Lev. 26:46 (see also Ex. 19:7-8, Ex. 24:3,7,12, Ex. 34:32, and Lev. 27:34)
The Torah is known to us more familiarly as the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy. It is most important to pause here to recognize the great disservice that has been done to this "Instruction of God" as given to His set-apart (sanctified) people by commonly translating it into English as the word "law". Instantly the Instruction of God becomes stamped with an impression of legalism and rigid compliance simply through the selection of that word.
In fact, the instruction of God was meant to set His people on His path; to distinguish them from the pagan peoples around them, to guide them in His ways, and to help them to know how to recognize His Voice: His Word, and -- most importantly of all -- to cause them to learn to trust Him. This was done with the singular goal of bringing this Instruction of God to the "Nations", the Gentiles, so that all the world might know the One true God, and have the opportunity to receive His Atonement.
Without question the Instruction of God requires obedience, but it is also clear that such obedience is inextricably connected with love of God. Over and over, the encouragement is given,
"Love the LORD your God with ALL your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength." Deut. 6:4-8
This is, in fact, what Jesus, the Word made flesh, identified as, "the greatest commandment in the Law (Torah)". A careful examination of the three words in Hebrew for heart, soul, and strength reveals that what God is seeking from His people is their total, irrevocable, commitment to Him as their King: the LORD of their lives. In the same way Jesus, the Son of God, adjures us,
"If you love Me, keep my commandments." John 14:15, 21
In the time of Y'shua (Jesus) 2000 years ago, the Torah was universally accepted by all religious factions (Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Priests, Levites, Essenes, etc.) as the direct word of God as spoken to Moses, and was usually referred to as the "Torah Moishe". For this reason, references to "the Law", i.e. the Torah, are often made as a reference to Moses (Moishe in Hebrew), e.g. Matt. 23:2,
"The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;".
This is a reference to being a teacher of the Torah (seated means to teach, and the chair of Moses is the teaching position or authority of Moses with regard to Torah). Or take another example,
"And when the days for her purification according to the law of Moses [Torah] were completed, they [Joseph and Mary] brought Him [Y'shua] up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord [in the Temple of God - His Father's house], (as it is written in the Law [Torah] of the Lord....). Luke 2:22 [KJV]
We can see from this that the parents of Y'shua were Torah observant Jewish people who faithfully carried out the Word of their God.
There are well over 70 such specific references in the New Testament which all show a Jewish religious life which was absolutely founded on Torah, the Law of God. Every phrase such as, "Did ye never read in the Scriptures," or "by the Scriptures of the prophets", or "that the scripture might be fulfilled" is pointing at one document alone: the Tenach. The Tenach is the Hebrew Scriptures, or what we unfortunately call "the Old Testament" today (more on that mis-representative appellation later). This is not speculation, spiritualization, inference, or opinion, it is unquestionable historical fact. Now, going even further, we can see clearly that Y'shua (Jesus) taught his disciples (that includes us!) that He came to fulfill the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, that is, He came to fulfill everything of the plan of God that is revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures,
"Think not that I am come to abolish the law, or the prophets: I am not come to abolish, but to fulfill." Matt. 5:17 [NASB]
"Then He [Jesus] said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself. Luke 24:25-27 [KJV]
"And He [Jesus] said unto them, 'These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning Me.' Then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures," Luke 24:44-45 [KJV]
"And when they had appointed him a day, there came many [Jewish leaders in Rome] to him [Paul] into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening." Acts 28:23 [KJV]
"If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:" James 2:8 [KJV]
"God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that He hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee." Acts 13:33 [KJV]
Now, 2000 years later, we must look back to get a very different view from that of our own culture and our very anglicized translations by seeing through the eyes of those ancient peoples, and understand how totally the lives of the Jewish people revolved around the Torah Moishe.
In addition to the Torah, the Jews of Jesus time were guided by the words of the Prophets and the words of the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc). The language of the time referred to these collectively as "the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings", or to "Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" when making reference to all of what we know as the Old Testament which is the Hebrew Bible. The word in Hebrew which has been coined as an acronym for these three sections is "Tenach". It stands for Torah (instruction), Neviyim (prophets), and Kituvim (writings). Our Old Testament is exactly equivalent to the complete Hebrew Bible, the same one which Jews use today (only the order to the books is different).
Now that we have this understanding of "Law" as most fundamentally being a reference to the Torah of God in the life of Israel, we now have to carefully ascertain that there is another reference to "law" which is used in the New Testament. This reference is one that is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) since it is one that did not exist in the Old Testament times. Rather, it had its genesis in the time of Ezra after the return of the Jews to Jerusalem following 70 years of God-ordained and directed exile to Babylon for their prolonged disobedience.
When the remnant of the Jews returned, they were a chastised people, hungry for God's Torah, and committed to becoming fully observant of God's commands. The result was a sincere craving to fully understand God's plan (Torah) which produced a prolonged seeking after His ways. The universal belief of the Jewish scholars in 400BC was that God's word was perfect and complete, and that within it -- if one would only seek diligently enough -- was contained every answer for how man was to conduct his life. This is actually true if God's intent is fully pursued, but there are two decidedly different courses that can be taken by man to access this understanding.
One is of God and the other is of man; one is spiritual and the other is legal. Here is where the problem began, and it should be an instruction of warning to us today. Men and women of Israel unfortunately turned to their scribes and rabbis to interpret God's Word to them rather than turning directly to God Himself to "listen to His voice, and walk in His ways."
Based on the scholars' premise, the scribes and rabbis came to the conclusion that if one studied the Torah sufficiently, that the answer to every question could be found. This began the outflow of many man-made interpretations to what the Torah specifically meant as it laid down its various commandments, decrees, ordinances and codes.
Over the next four hundred years as the common people kept asking the rabbis for understanding of what they should or should not do in thousands of circumstances of life having to do with marriage, family, working, eating, personal hygiene, religious worship, and on and on, the rabbis developed answers that became more and more specific, refined and entrenched.
By the time of Y'shua, this interpretive work had developed into a huge body of man-made law - - extracted from the Torah - - that had been passed on verbally from rabbi to rabbi (and each to his own disciples) over succeeding generations. Due to this method of transmission and to the weight of importance it had developed in the lives of the people it became identified as the "oral torah", and in the bible it is known as "the traditions of the elders"; it is often referenced also as "law".
Therefore, when reading the New Testament, one must discern whether a reference to the English word "law" is translated from a Hebrew or Greek word about the Ten Commandments, or about the Law of Moses (Torah), or about the whole Hebrew bible (Tenach), or about the traditions of the elders (the man-made Oral Torah). Often Bible interpreters apply the one word "law" rather loosely without drawing distinction as to which meaning of "law" is being referenced. It is of key importance to remember that -- at the time the Scriptures were written -- it was assumed that the common knowledge of the culture was sufficient to discern the differences.
In the long run this ambivalence over the word "law" in the New Testament is probably good since it requires the individual reader to use his/her own mind to do the research, and figure it out for themselves. The problem is, however, that many Bible readers are totally unaware of this background of the possible meanings of the word "law", and are easily (and largely) confused.
For example, would Y'shua, the Son of God, intentionally break God's Law? In the words of Rav Shaul (Paul), "May if never be!!!" Of course He wouldn't. How could He possibly say on one hand that "I do nothing except what the Father tells me to do", and then on the other hand break one of God's commands? Simple logic testifies to you that this would never happen, but Y'shua often -- and intentionally -- broke man's laws, the traditions of the elders, the Oral Torah, for the purpose of showing God's chosen people how they were misleading themselves by making an idol of their own laws.
Recall that Jesus stated that He had come for "the lost sheep of the House of Israel." Now He was living right in the midst of the very people He had stated were lost so they were obviously not physically lost. But they were spiritually lost. A careful reading of Ezekiel 34 is highly recommended here. The Nation had its priests, it had its rabbis, it had its scribes, it had its Pharisees, it had an entire gamut of religious leadership, and the country still revolved around it's God-given traditions, so how could they be lost?
Quite simple. They had strayed into extreme legalism as the acceptable approach to God. This is what their religious leadership had taught them based on centuries of scholarly misdirection. No one sought after God on a spiritual level, no one truly looked into his or her own heart to self-examine their own nature against the standards God had given -- all was legalism.
They had developed detailed laws, virtually a formula, that were represented as the true path to righteousness. They offered that if you were thoroughly taught by the rabbis or Pharisees in the Oral Torah (the man-made body of law), and observed it totally, that then you would be seen as righteous in God's eyes. The "flock" was being instructed in a false path to salvation and were being lead directly away from their God rather than to Him. The entire religious leadership (the false shepherds) had totally mislead the flock, and they were indeed lost themselves.
As the Good Shepherd, the True Shepherd of Israel, Jesus wanted the people to see how they had gone astray, and that, as a nation, the flock of God needed to turn back to God, to understand His righteousness, to understand His ways.
This is why Y'shua (Jesus) held such extreme contempt for the entire religious leadership, and utterly condemned it in the most inflammatory language: "Brood of vipers, scorpions, sons of Satan, hippocrites"; He pictured them as men looking pious and polished on the outside, but being filled with the worse possible filth and corruption on the inside. This was the language He poured out on the highest religious leadership of the nation . . . . . . just imagine what He might have to say to the religious leadership of much of what regards itself as "Christianity" today.
Actually, He has already told us,
"Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." Matt. 7:22-23 [KJV]
This is why Y'shua was speaking "as having His own authority"; he never quoted any of the Oral Torah or the revered scholars who had developed it except to mock it or warn against it, He WAS His own authority! As the Apostle John puts in the most profoundly clear words that human ears can ever hear,
"all the Torah hangs on this commandment"
(slightly paraphrased for emphasis).
That is, if this commandment is operating fully, totally and completely within your heart, all the others automatically fall into place in your life.
Y'shua strove to show that God had no interest in legalism, but only in a devoted relationship that reflected the nature of God Himself. The New Testament is filled with example after example of this, particularly in regard to the Sabbath. If you look again, you will see that Y'shua seemed to go out of His way to heal people on the Sabbath, and this always produced resentment rather than praise. Why? Because under the Oral Torah it was forbidden to heal on the Sabbath since the act of healing had been defined as work.
Clearly, this definition seems to be at odds with the will of God, but the people had blindly accepted it. Sabbath laws had run rampant through the nation, and virtually paralyzed life at that time. In this day and age we have no glimmer of what the legalism of the religious leadership had done to the people, but Y'shua came to set the captives free: those who had become hopelessly bound up in their own law.
With this background, now look at another example. In Matt. 12:1, the Pharisees make an accusation against the disciples of Jesus for violation of the Sabbath law, and rebuked Jesus, as their rabbi, for not correcting them; ask yourself to what "law" they are referring:
"At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, 'Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.'"
The Pharisees reference is to the requirement in the Torah for the Sabbath to be a day of rest; one in which no work was to be done. But the Oral Torah had sought to define every possible action that could conceivably be defined as work, and the result were literally thousands of Sabbath laws defining "work". Under these definitions the disciples had broken at least four Sabbath laws: they had plucked grain (harvested), they had separated the grain from the husked (threshed), blown the husks away to expose the grain (winnowed) and, in doing all this, had prepared food to eat. I doubt that any clear thinking person today who desires to walk in God's ways would in any stretch consider what the disciples had done to be a violation of the SPIRIT of God's law regarding the Sabbath.
If the reverence of God's request is not in your heart, then your external acts are of no significance to God. I can hardly think of anything that could have been more appropriate on the Sabbath then to be strolling through the Judaean countryside and fields talking with the Word of God made flesh about the Word of God, and casually eating food plucked from the vines as you walked along. When you see the same picture out of the scripture in this way, you realized how cold, hard-hearted and legalistic the religious leadership of the country had become. This was not just the condition of a few people, it was pervasive from top to bottom.
Jesus warned His disciples,
"beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees".
He saw this insidious teaching of the religious leadership as leaven that spreads through a whole lump of dough and changes it from what it once was; it was their "leaven" that had permeated the entire nation causing the flock of God to lose its way. The concern for any idea or concept foreign to God invading the body of believers was seen with the same imagery of leaven (symbol of corruption in the Jewish mind); the apostle Paul warned of this in the same way as well:
"Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us:" 1 Corin. 5:6-7
While mentioning Paul, a most important point regarding "the law" should be made with respect to his writings. Many past and present-day church "leaders" have tried to tell us that Paul was teaching that Jesus had put an end to the Law (the Torah), and that he (Paul) warned against returning to the Law. Once again, beware the leaven. These twists and spins on what Paul says are, at best, total misunderstandings of the clear intent of the Apostle, or they are calculated, intentional misrepresentations at worst.
When one translates the Greek text accurately (which is not difficult to do) what we find Paul saying is the Jesus the Messiah is the End of the Law in the sense of its completion or fulfillment; this is exactly consistent with what Jesus says of Himself and what Paul teaches elsewhere in Acts. Furthermore, Paul's warnings about falling back into the "law" have to do with returning to the perverted legalism of the day rather than to carrying out God's Torah, His instruction, in faith, trust and devotion. Paul trusted that all those who were truly seeking after God, whether they be Jew or Gentile, would seek out God's instruction (Torah) to know it for themselves. The heart of the true believer cannot be satisfied until it is filled with the Word of God as Paul clearly understood when he spoke these words:
"For Moses [Torah Moishe] of old time hath in every city them thatpreach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day."
Acts 15:21 [KJV]
Truly, the original intention of the rabbis was to honor and reverence God by attempting to be strictly adherent to His plan, but, like so many things which men do, it became perverted. Man injected himself into the equation, and the oral torah became a body of law that was much of man and little of God. Y'shua came pointing the people back to a direct relationship with God; one in which they turn to God Himself for the answers rather than turning to men. Our world is no different. Men turn to men in the form of priests, rabbis, ministers, evangelists, and pastors rather than turning to God Himself and yielding themselves fully to Him. There is an understandable reason for this: FEAR:
"It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Deep in our hearts, we humans know this instinctively so we try to find acceptable alternates, and that usually expresses itself as turning to a man who seemingly represents God rather than confronting the prospect of coming face to face with God Himself. It is easier to deal with a man; you can ignore him or doubt him as you desire because you know that he (or she) is sinful just like you. But to allow oneself to come face to face with God Himself is a prospect too terrifying for most people to even want to contemplate so they reach for the easy substitute.
We can see ourselves mirrored in the response of the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai when first confronted with that commitment to God,
"And all the people perceived the thunder and the lightening flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance. They then said to Moses "Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die."
We see ourselves further in God’s quiet comment to Moses after being told that the people of Israel had sworn to do and obey all that their God had spoken to them:
'Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!
Deut. 5:29 [NASB]
He wishes that there was such a heart within us that we would love Him enough and have awesome enough respect for Him that we would do as He asks by following His commandments. His ways are meant for our good; they are meant to bless us.
All of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings are the revelation of God's plan of redemption for all of mankind, and of His triumph over Satan who is committed to the destruction of God's creation. The Hebrew Scriptures are the picture of a plan, the blueprint so to speak, but a plan not yet fulfilled. The fulfillment of that plan begins in the New Testament (Covenant) in the person of Y'shua HaMeshiach (Jesus the Messiah) whose very name means "God is Salvation". All of the plan of the Tanach is fulfilled in Him, and He Himself tells us this in no uncertain terms.
But there is more yet to come; still more to be fulfilled. As He promised His disciples,
"Every thing written about Me in Moses, the Prophets and the Writings must be fulfilled."
The other shoe has yet to drop. The second half of the New Testament has yet to be written. The Son of God is coming back to establish the kingdom of God literally on this earth. That is why He led us to pray in this way:
"May thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven."
God’s will is going to be done on this earth in that day when His Son sits on the throne of David on Mount Zion. Then,
"many nations will come and say, "Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD And to the house of the God of Jacob, That He may teach us about His ways And that we may walk in His paths." For from Zion will go forth the law, Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem." Micah 4:2 [NASB]
God’s instruction never changes and it has never been abolished. It will, ultimately, be taught to all the nations of the earth in the coming Kingdom Age.
References to consider:
Luke 24:25-27 "And beginning with Moses and with all the Prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the scriptures." The only "scriptures" that existed at that time were those of the Hebrew canon: the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.
There are many more examples then this. Seek and ye shall find!
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