The relevance of the Torah as a practical guide to loving one another
For Christians, following Jesus is what matters. The priority of Jesus over the Torah and the Prophets was shown to his disciples in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5). In working out how to love in practice, the first place to look is to look to Jesus. As Tom Wright puts it: ‘the creator God has unveiled his genuine model for humanity in Jesus the Messiah, and there are certain ways of behaving which just won’t fit.’ But in looking to Jesus, we need to reflect especially carefully on what he taught us about the Torah.
Jesus himself points us towards the Torah as part of the reve- lation of God through which we may discover what it means to love one another. Jesus’ best-known moral teaching and guide for life in the Kingdom of God, the Sermon on the Mount, is also an extended reflection on the Torah: exploring the commandments against murder (Matthew 5:21–26), adultery (5:27–32), bearing false witness (5:33–37) and coveting (6:19–24). Here Jesus is affirming the importance of the Torah by laying bare the moral principles which lay at its heart.
Far from abolishing the moral demands of the Torah, in fact Jesus radicalised them. Jesus taught that at the heart of the commands ‘Do not murder’ and ‘Do not commit adultery’ was an obligation not to cherish anger and lust in our hearts. Truly ‘Christian morality’ must be heartfelt obedience to God’s good moral laws under the Holy Spirit’s moral guidance. In order to make wise moral decisions we need to have internalised God’s law and to meditate upon it with the help of the Holy Spirit.
That Jesus’ teaching is the fulfilment of the Torah ought not to surprise us: both were given by the same God. Jesus was the one towards whom the Torah was pointing. Paul says in Romans 7:14 ‘The law is spiritual’, by which he means that the Torah belongs to the Holy Spirit. The Torah is a particular part of the revelation of God’s law, which is to be understood by Christians through the power of the Spirit in the light of the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Both the Torah and Jesus’ teaching are built around the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour. These are the most important elements of the moral order, and this underlying moral order is the same in the Old Testament as in the New Testament. The personal character of our God has not changed and, despite different cultures and social conditions, the fundamental nature of human beings has not changed either. However, Christians live after the establishment of the new covenant, by which we have a relationship with God based on Christ’s obedience and sacrifice in our place. We are God’s people not because we obey the rituals given by Moses but because we have a relationship with Christ.
The two Great Commandments do not make all other moral principles redundant. Instead, they sum up the rest of the Torah (Romans 13:9). Attention to what God has revealed about what pleases him is a key part of learning what it means to love God and to love our neighbour. Jesus’ example and the priority of love rule out blind copying of the Torah as an option for Christians. What we are called to is the more difficult, creative task of under- standing the moral principles to be found throughout the whole Bible, reflecting on those principles in the light of Christ and with the help of the Spirit and the community of the Church, in order to make wise decisions as to how to apply those principles in our lives today. This is God’s law for us, or we might say, the law of Christ.
Paul grounds his instructions for Christian living on his teaching about Christian identity. Christians need to learn to live in ways which accord with their new identity as Sons of God and as temples of the Holy Spirit. Paul knew that Christians were not under the Torah (Romans 6:15) but instead under Christ’s law (1 Corinthians 9:21). That did not mean the Torah was irrelevant when deciding how to live. Paul cites Deuteronomy 32:35 in Romans 12:19 when talking about vengeance. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’ when writing about pay and conditions for Christian workers, taking a principle from the Torah and applying it creatively to a new context. When Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the effects of sleeping with prostitutes, he brings together reasons related to their relationship with God through Christ and in the Spirit along with Genesis 2:24, quoting from the Torah.
(The fourth and last part will be published next week)
a guest contributor to Cambridge Papers, is a barrister and a theologian. He has completed a PhD on ‘A Trinitarian Theology of Law’.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, SPCK, 2004, p.67.
Rom. 10:4 is better translated ‘Christ is the goal of the law’ rather than ‘Christ is the end of the law.’
Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, Hendrickson, 1994, pp.29, 510. See also Neh. 9:13.
In understanding the task of reflecting what the Bible teaches us about God’s law, there are important hermeneutical, cultural and theological issues, but exploring those is beyond the scope of this paper.
1 Cor. 9:9; 1 Tim. 5:18.
‘Your bodies are members of Christ himself’ (1 Cor. 6:15); ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor. 6:19); ‘you were bought at a price’ (1 Cor. 6:20).
‘The two will become one flesh.’