The Torah (God's teaching)
Many Christians have a view of God’s law as being more older Testament than new, and a little judgemental and legalistic. In response to this, we are going to take a look at how we would define law before viewing the biblical picture of law which reveals a loving father pointing out the way that His children should live.
How would we define the word ‘Law’?
Law speaks of a body of rules and principles that are the expression of individuals or governments seeking to provide freedom, safety and security for those within their jurisdiction. As a means of protecting this freedom for its citizens the law also imposes penalties as a deterrent to would-be lawbreakers. From this description we see that where there are laws, there is a lawgiver and subjects along with the expression of the will and power of the lawgiver who enforces the law.
When laws are correctly applied the result is a well-ordered society that benefits everyone. For example, very few parents complain when a 20mph speed limit is put in place outside the primary school attended by their children. The benefits in adhering to this particular law include greater safety for children and greater freedom of thinking for the parents.
A law can tell us something about the people who made the law.
Imagine travelling to a country where a law has been passed stating that a sweet shop had to be opened on every street corner and only government officials were allowed to own them. A second law was then passed, stating that everyone had to make a purchase from these shops at least once per week.
In the above two laws we learn something about the lawgiver, they being members of a government that abused its power and authority in making money for its officials through imposing their own rules on society.
Law can often reveal something about those making such as was the case in Nazi Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War Two where the ruling party banned the sale of
electric goods to Jewish residents. At that time Germany was involved in nationalism and fascism and encouraged society to look down on the Jews. When you begin to look down on others it becomes easier to abuse them and justify your own wrong-doing.
God’s laws are summed up in Deuteronomy 6:5 and reiterated by Jesus in Mathew 23:37-39 where we read the following words:
"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment with the second one being, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'”
Jesus then goes on to say that all the Law and teachings of the Prophets were based on these two commandments.
On the basis that a law tells you about the lawmaker we see that the One who speaks of loving others must Himself be all-loving. God is love (1 John 4:8) and love is first and foremost a decision to give out of self for the benefit of others with no thought of personal gain. The simple, deep and profound truth is that you and I have been placed in this world in order to be loved. Life is not about achievements, recognition, money or worldly success. Life is about being loved - we are loved and called to love others.
You and I have the opportunity to be great in life and being great is about loving others for, like us, they were created to know God’s love. Love seeks to provide, protect, uplift and support others in the very best way possible. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:3, if this is not the case then we may have gifts and faith that moves mountains, but are nothing.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
God’s laws are given for our benefit.
God’s laws (e.g. Deut 5, Exo 20) are given for our benefit and in breaking them we end up damaging our lives through ignoring our heavenly Father’s teaching. For example, if someone ignores the law of gravity and jumps off a cliff, they do not break the law of gravity but end up killing themselves. If this is what can happen when we ignore natural law, then what sort of damage are we doing to self, those around us and the world we live in when we ignore God’s commandments? The society we live in clearly answers this question in all of the broken families and fragmented lives around us.
Made in the image of God.
Man has been created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and although fallen retains something of that image seen in part, in the varying codes of morality across the ancient world. For example, in the Code of Hammurabi, if a married man or woman was caught with another woman or man, they were to be tied together and thrown into a river to drown. In this, and the strong condemnation of adultery in many ANE cultures, we see how ancient communities were aware of the destructive nature of immoral behaviour.
However the true picture concerning how we are to live (in heart and mind and not just an outward expression) can only come from our Creator and is seen in His Laws and decrees. God alone knows what we were created to be like and just how far man has fallen into sin. In sin, we deny God’s love and forget who we are and who we are called to represent. In light of this, let us now turn to look at the Torah, which was established to help protect man from the inevitable consequences of his autonomous existence and point us to a living saviour. So what is the Torah?
The Torah: God’s teaching.
The word Torah means teaching and speaks of how a father would instruct his children. So when we think of a caring father kneeling down beside a small child and pointing out the best way to live you clearly see the heart behind the Torah (teaching). Our Father wants us to ‘hit the target’ so to speak; to know how to get the very best out of life and how to be complete. From this we see that the teaching (law) of God is that which points us back to the heart and life of this loving Father.
In early Israel the Torah, specifically referred to the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy) and revealed the way of life that was to be lived based on the covenant that God had made with His people. This did not mean that God’s love was not present for others who sought Him yet were not yet in covenant, as can be seen in people like Melchizedek (Gen 14:18, Heb 7:1) and the foreigner in Israel (Exodus 12:48). It can also be seen in the way God forgave the pagan city of Nineveh who sought Him for forgiveness (Jonah 3:6-10) despite not knowing everything about Him.
In the later history of Israel, other books on wisdom and the teaching of the prophets were included and spoken of as the Torah. For example, when Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 He calls it part of the law (John 10:34). The torah speaks of the teaching of God yet is also to be viewed as a covenant document – a legally binding agreement between God and His people showing them the right way to live and to love others. In a covenant agreement there is the giving of self; God is like a Shepherd who seeks to protect the sheep and lead them to green pastures.
Three areas of Law.
In the Older Testament, we find the being divided into three areas: moral, ceremonial and civil.
The foundation of the moral law is found in God’s law of love which sums up the Ten Commandments and speaks of the attitude of heart that we should have towards God and others.
The ceremonial laws speak of how Israel was to approach God through the sacrificial system and by observing festival days such as Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles (all of which are now fulfilled in Christ).
The civil law speaks of how Israel was called to conduct herself among the surrounding nations. As we shall see later, some of these civil laws seem peculiar to the 21st century mind, until we put them in the culture and context of the day. These civil laws are not binding on the church, which is called to keep the Law of Love summed up in the Ten Commandments.
So to sum up at this point, we note that the word ‘Torah’ speaks of the teaching of God and is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning, “to point with the finger or hand” or “to shoot an arrow”. From scripture, and what has been said so far, we see that it speaks of a Father who is perfect in all His ways, and who desires to instruct and help us. In a way, we could think of God’s law as the character of God written on the parchment of time.
Ultimately, the embodiment of the Law is seen most clearly in the lawgiver who walked amongst us: Jesus Christ. Through bringing the law of the kingdom of God to bear on what life had become, we see in Jesus’ rule and reign as a servant, how life should be lived in close fellowship with our heavenly Father.
God’s law is a yoke of blessing.
In the early 19th Century, there was the custom of foot-binding in China. This is because small narrow feet were regarded as beautiful and young girls would have their feet bound tightly so as to prevent further growth. The foot-binding resulted in lifelong disabilities for those who had been forced to undergo the painful process. In contrasting the pain and damage of foot binding with the comfort of a made-to-measure pair of shoes we begin to get an idea of what Jesus means when he says, “My yoke is easy and burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30.
Jesus tells those who were weary and burdened through wrong thinking and the oppressive ways of others, to come to Him and find rest (Mat 11:28). In coming to Jesus, they would find true rest for their souls because His teaching is a perfect mould, so to speak, for man’s heart and mind and He was present as the One who would lead and guide them.
In the ancient Near East, you would not throw any old yoke on a pair of oxen. Instead you would take the oxen in to be measured up for a yoke so that it fitted perfectly, like a handmade suit or pair of shoes.
God’s Law is the teaching of a Father who knows exactly what we need. When it feels oppressive or restricting, it is because of what we have become and not because of God’s laws which are a perfect fit for our real self. For example, a drug addict who is coming of drugs feels uncomfortable because of what he or she had become – a drug addict – and not because the rules in a drug rehab centre which are there to help them. Our hearts and minds were made to run, so to speak, on God’s teaching.
When a yoke was placed on two oxen, there would be a stronger ox leading the weaker and teaching it the way to go. In Jesus, we have the Son of God who is like the stronger ox. He leads us by His Spirit and is always willing to help us grow into the new life we have been given through Him.
In complete contrast to Jesus’ yoke, there is the yoke (teaching) of the world (Gal 5:1), which is ill fitting and reduces us to slavery. The ‘yoke of the world’ speaks of wrong thought patterns and belief systems that fragment and destroy the very societies they often seek to preserve.
Obedience: being able to receive what is already present.
"If you love me, you will obey what I command.”
Obedience to God does not earn us blessing, but enables us to receive what is already present. For example, a child who obeys the parent who asks them to open their curtains in the morning does not earn the sunlight which then streams through the window (on a sunny day!). In opening the curtains, the child is able to benefit from what is already present.
When we obey God’s laws, we are more able to receive what God has already provided for us through His grace and mercy (all His promises are “yes” in Christ: 2 Cor 1:20).
“Life is made or broken by the degree of conformity on the part of any individual or society to that knowable, divine direction, the will of God…All energy, expended in any activity whatsoever, which is at variance to the will of God is lost, never to be seen again.”
Dr Breese in, ‘Seven Men who Rule the World from the Grace, p 134
The commands of God to Israel were there to help, no matter how strange they may seem to us today!
It has been said that there was once an unusual law passed in a large city in the Far East by the government. The law stated that each inhabitant in the city had to kill ten flies a day. This law did not make much sense to those in the rest of the country and so they began to think, yet again, that the lawmakers were rather strange people. However, back in the city where the law had been passed, many of the residents were very pleased, despite the inconvenience, as a fly epidemic was soon eradicated!!
God’s desire to help His people can be seen even in some of the apparently ‘strange laws’ that we find in the Bible. As previously mentioned, the reason some of them seem strange is because we ignore the cultural background of the day and miss out on what is really being highlighted. The Bible has been written for us but not to us and if we are going to know what it means in some places then we need to see how it spoke to the people it was first written to.
For example, one seemingly strange law is found in Exodus, where Israel is told that they are not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 34:26). In looking at the cultures surrounding Israel at that time, we begin to see why it is mentioned.
According to history, this practice of boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk was part of an ancient Canaanite fertility practice used by those who wanted to get pregnant. Therefore in prohibiting it, God is speaking along the lines of not getting caught up in empty traditions or the ways of other cultures that could trap a person.
Another law that may appear strange to us at first glance is found in Leviticus 19:27, where we read that men were not to cut the hair at the sides of their heads. In looking at surrounding cultures, we see that this was because shaving designs into the sides of the beard and head were at that time part of pagan religious practices, which along with other practices, sought to enslave people.
Other laws, such as not eating pork can be related to health and hygiene, yet also go beyond this. Pork was also probably classified as an unclean animal because it was often used as part of Baal worship by surrounding nations, as well as being a part of the worship given to the so-called Egyptian god, Sept. If Israel had eaten pork on entering the land, they could have ended up buying from the nations around them, and getting involved in their systems of worship.
At this point, we need to recognise that we live in a world where everything was originally good. Being unclean (as in the case of certain animals) speaks of the effects of the fall, yet also of the wrong usage of God’s creation, and not necessarily something unclean in the animal itself.
In the Older Testament, there were many dietary laws in place and this helps us understand why some of the new Christians from Jewish backgrounds initially had problems when it came to eating meat sacrificed to idols (Romans 14:1-13, 1 Cor 8:1-10). They had been taught that such animals were unclean yet this was, in part, one of the ways in which God kept Israel separate from surrounding nations at that time. Now in Christ these new believers were in the new and stronger part of the covenant (the law written on hearts, and with the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives), and this ruling did not apply.
All the festivals, ceremonies, meals, and food that was either allowed or to be avoided by Israel were, in a sense, imitating the actions of God who limited His special presence to Israel so that they would be a blessing to the world. Israel was called to be a light to the gentiles, yet as history reveals, this only fully came about through Jesus Christ (John 8:12).
In order to help bridge the gap between Jewish and Gentile believers at the time of the early church, the Council of Jerusalem asked people to adhere to certain regulations (Acts 15:20-29). This was only for a season and not binding for eternity.
An eye for an eye.
Israel was called upon to fulfil God’s commands in such a firm way on occasion that some people think there is a radical difference between OT and NT ethics, with the OT displaying an “eye for an eye” mentality, whilst the NT speaks of God’s love for all people. There are a few points that we need to note in order to show that this thinking (of a radical difference between the O.T. and N.T.) is wrong.
Firstly, an ‘eye for an eye’ (Ex 21:24) is not about vengeance but about exacting an appropriate punishment for a crime. In the ANE (Ancient Near East), punishment was often totally disproportionate to the crime, and therefore God is simply making sure that His people operate within the confines of a judicial system that seeks the right punishment.
Secondly, we note that God’s love for Israel is mentioned on many occasions (over 30 times in Deuteronomy, for example). God’s love is so strong that He will not allow things to continue in Israel that cause problems. Issues had to be dealt with immediately and the death penalty was sometimes inflicted upon those who were, by virtue of going against God’s commands, already spiritually dead.
Psychological help found in the law.
“…Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in his guilt. "'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:17-18
Hatred is one of the prime stress factors in our lives and there are many passages which warn us against harbouring such things as anger, resentment or bitterness (Luke 9:51-56, Heb 12:14-15; Col 3:8, 13-14). This reveals, in part, why God’s people are also instructed not to covet what belongs to others (Ex 20:17), or to be greedy (Col 3:5) – because it damages self and the society we live in.
“Study after study over the past fifty years has demonstrated the effects of various stress agents upon the human system. Many have indicated that disease-producing bacteria do not become overtly active in humans without the help of stress factors…The long list of diseases now known to be either caused or aggravated by emotional stress includes disease of the digestive system (ulcers, mucous colitis, constipation, diarrhoea), and diseases of the circulatory system (high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, migraine headaches, angina pectoris, arteriosclerosis).”
Dr K. Barfield in “Why the Bible is Number One p 69-70.
At the risk of repetition, we have to remember that some of the laws specifically given to Israel were fluid and not static in that different commands were given at different times in response to different situations. Whilst noting this, we also recognise that at all times and in all ways God’s laws were given to help His people in their relationship with each other and self. That which remains eternal is the heart of the law revealed in the Ten Commandments and summed up in Jesus’ words…
“'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
The compassionate lawgiver and the year of Jubilee.
God’s law reveals His compassion and concern for His people. As a Father who looks after His children, a clear example of His compassion and concern for all is seen in the command to observe the Year of Jubilee.
The year of Jubilee was a Sabbath of Sabbath years and known as a year for celebrating liberty, freedom and redemption. This was because in the fiftieth year, all debts had to be discharged and the lands lost through debt were also returned to their original owners, regardless of whether the money owed had been paid. Think about it; all debts and financial obligations were written off – every debt was wiped away (ultimately fulfilled by Jesus Christ) and it was as if they had never happened. God is gracious and merciful, and does not want a society where the rich can exploit the weak, and build their lives on the misery of others.
The Law teaches how we are to live in God’s presence.
Overall, the general principle that needs to be adhered to is that the law teaches us how to live in God’s presence. Therefore, in all that we do we should ask ourselves the question: “Does my thinking and attitude in life square up with what it means to live in the house of the Lord (1 Cor 3:16)?”
In Psalm 19:87 we read, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul”, with the Hebrew word translated ‘reviving’ speaking of turning back to a starting point. God calls us to look at the true blueprint of life, given in love. Therefore, His Law is the expressed thoughts of a loving Father who desires the very best for His children. Remember, the Torah has no connotation of constraint or compulsion as a curtailer of real freedom.
The law of the Lord is perfect (complete in every way) and revives the soul (through showing us how to live according to our Father’s wishes). The statutes of the Lord make us wise (able to discern properly). The precepts (responsibility God places on His people) bring joy (uplifting the heart and mind), and His commandments (the exercising of correct judgment), brings light and life into our lives (Psalm 19:7ff).
God’s teaching exposes man’s fallen nature.
Many of us will have driven along a motorway at a seemingly moderate speed, only to get a shock when we glance at the speedometer and find we are driving faster than we thought. We live in a society where we can become increasingly tolerant to things we were never meant to accept in the first place. In our fallen world we can become tolerant to attitudes and behaviour that shouldn’t really be present.
Torah law reveals the destructive and rebellious nature of sin and challenges us concerning what we should really be like. God is going to challenge us because He hates sin and desires the very best for His children.
Sin, first and foremost, is the refusal to live as a son or daughter and a failing to hit the target, so to speak. In Hebrew thought, sin is also the fire that destroys our name, this referring to our true nature and character. In denying God’s love and living our own way, we destroy our lives, as if we were a fire consuming the family home. In complete contrast to this ‘fire’, the fire of God’s presence destroys what we have become as we are purged from wrong thinking and allows our true self to live and breathe.
In wandering from the path and living our own way, things may not seem so different for a while, but ultimately we are sowing the seeds of destruction in the very life we are seeking to protect and build. In seeing this, we begin to understand why one of the Hebrew pictures for repentance is destroying the house behind us.
In our rebellion and disobedience, we build life our own way and it becomes the place where we live, with the ‘bricks’ being wrong thought patterns etc. In repenting, we turn from this ‘house’ to the truth and destroy the ‘house’ of wrong thinking, not wanting to go back to old ways. In seeking God and following His ways in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we can find great freedom. His law does not limit us, but helps to prevent us from destroying ourselves.
“When we see God’s boundaries as limitations on our fun, we are like a fish in a fishbowl who sees the big exiting world happening around him and feels left out. “I want out” he says. “I don’t want to be stuck in here!” He flops out of the fishbowl and onto the floor, where he dies. Inside the bowl he had been fed and taken care of. The bowl was there to provide for him and protect him, yet he couldn’t accept it that way.”
Josh McDowell in, ‘Why Wait’.
The Law points to Jesus.
In Galatians, Paul says that the Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24), with the picture behind the words, ‘put in charge’ being that of a person who protects the child, and makes sure the child safely reaches his or her teacher. Jesus is the true teacher and embodiment of the Torah who lived out the law perfectly and gave His life so we could find forgiveness and reconciliation.
As has already been said, God’s law is there to protect us; yet it cannot save us (Heb 10:1ff). His law is there to help direct us into right relationships with others, yet it cannot give us a right relationship with God. Therefore, anyone who tries to use the law as a means of earning salvation is under condemnation. However, when a person is saved, we expect them to seek to obey God’s law as can be seen from James, who writes “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” James 2:21-22.
We are saved through placing our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and His substitutionary death in our place. As we then learn to live out our lives according to His will and way, we become more complete as we appropriate that which is ours through grace alone. As this happens under the anointing of the Holy Spirit (Rom 12:2), we begin to experience more of what we already are by way of position: sons and daughters of God. As the letter by James clearly states, those who have no interest in doing what the Law says are not even saved, because faith without works is dead. To put in bluntly, how can anyone truly say they have met the living God through the sacrificial work of Christ, and then remain exactly the same?
Ultimately, all of God’s teaching point’s us to Christ who fulfilled the Law, He being the only one who could bring about a right relationship between man and God. In Christ we have a Saviour who perfectly lived out the law in every way and showed the heart of the lawgiver in that He then gave His life so that we could find forgiveness, reconciliation and spiritual growth. God cares for us!
“God – He is both transcendent and immanent. He both thinks and feels. He is divine, and he is personal. He knows, he remembers, he predicts. He experiences and rejoices and is sad. He does things: he creates, he comes, he acts, he performs miracles. He loves; he forms relationships; he warms our hearts. He is holy and good; he provides standards of right and wrong. He speaks; he communicates propositionally; he reveals truth. He is the truth; he promises, he guarantees, he holds things together. All these characteristics are found in the one God, not contradicting each other, but enriching one another.”
Dr Peter Hicks, ‘Evangelicals and Truth’ p 148.
Jesus reveals the heart of the Law.
Jesus did not come to destroy the law (Matt 5:17), but to uphold its true meaning, and in doing so, often came against what it had become in the hands of man as little more than a means of earning salvation, and a tool to judge others with. The law is nothing of the sort and has no connotation of constraint or compulsion as a curtailer of real freedom. God’s commandments are a clear expression of His love for us, revealing the care and concern that a Father has for his children.
A call to love and serve.
We are called to love the Lord and to love our neighbour. We are called to witness to others (Mt 5:13-16) that the Lord is absolutely right and trustworthy in all things. We are encouraged to meet together (Heb 10:25), to forgive others (Col 3:13), and to live by and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25), and serve one another in love (Eph 6:7, 1 Peter 5:2). In doing so we begin to fulfil His law of love.
Jesus is the embodiment of the law (the teaching of God) and the One who reveals God’s sacrificial love in all ways. If you want to see the heartbeat of the law, look at Jesus and be encouraged, uplifted and blessed as those who are called to freedom in Him.
Written and produced by Pastor Jem Trehern. 2017.