While I came from a faith-background that treated the entire Bible as important, I was also told that the “Law” was unnecessary during the Christian era because of the work of Jesus on the cross. Yes, it was important to live a godly life, but trying to aspire to honor the “Law” was not only unnecessary, but also a sign that you didn’t fully trust in Jesus. It was considered “works righteousness” and a big no-no.
But upon returning from Israel I was willing to readdress the issue of the “Law.” And one of the first things I learned was that the English translation of the word is lacking at best. The Hebrew word is “Torah” and is more appropriately translated as “instructions.” It’s a picture of an arrow being shot at a target. The bull’s-eye, so to speak, is the Torah. It’s the goal. It’s the ultimate way to live.
I also learned that honoring Torah is both impossible, and simple. Let me explain. The “letter of the Law” cannot be completely kept today. The sacrificial systems are no longer in place, along with the earthly priests and the entire Levitical system. So in that respect, no one can fully “keep the Law.”
But on the other hand, honoring Torah is not a complicated issue. While the Jewish tradition is that there are 613 commandments, it’s very important that we understand that not all 613 commands apply to each individual in each situation. Many were applicable only to national Israel while they dwelt in the land of promise. Many others were specific to the priests and Levites. Still others are specific to gender or family situation. Honoring Torah isn’t as difficult as we have been led to believe in traditional Christianity.
Moses said this himself. At the very end of his life, Moses gave final instructions to the children of Israel just as they were preparing to enter into the Promised Land. After completely recounting the detailed points of the whole Torah, Moses made this statement:
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. Deuteronomy 30:11-14 ESV
Moses is essentially saying, “Don’t complicate this. It’s not difficult to figure this thing out. Do what’s right. You don’t need a bunch of people to explain it to you. You can do this.” And just to be sure that those of us in the “Church Age” didn’t miss it, Jesus said the same thing.
First, Jesus made it abundantly clear in Matthew 5:17-20 that He didn’t come to “abolish the Law” but to “fulfill it.” Once I started thinking for myself (something that in many cases I’ve found is discouraged within traditional Christianity), I found an interesting conundrum within what I was taught. Jesus said He didn’t come to “abolish” the Torah, but Christianity has taught that His “fulfilling” it accomplished the same thing. He came and lived a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose again, thus fulfilling the Law, and as a result we no longer have to obey the Law anymore. Doesn’t that seem a little strange? Jesus showed us what a life lived by Torah looks like, said He wasn’t doing away with the Torah, and now that means that we don’t have to live that way? That just doesn’t make sense.
One Scripture that is used to justify this interpretation is found in Acts 15:10, when Peter states that asking Gentiles to “keep the Law” is asking them to bear a burden that even the Jews couldn’t bear. Is this what Peter really meant?
But let’s allow ourselves to understand what the life of the Jew was during this time. Religious leaders had continued to add rule upon rule to the Torah, in an attempt to prevent any chance of breaking even the slightest commandment. Jesus fought against this attitude throughout His entire ministry (See Mark 8). He didn’t want the religious rules to invalidate what was the heart of the Torah. The Jews were loaded down with these rules and regulations – these additions to the Torah – that had made it a burden impossible to bear.
Jewish tradition calls the specific teachings of a Rabbi – the way that he instructs his disciples to keep the Torah – his “yoke.” It’s the burden of obedience that those disciples were required to bear in order to live like the rabbi. And Jesus told us in Matthew 10 that His yoke was a much easier burden to carry:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 10:28-30 ESV
So what is Jesus’ yoke? What is His way of interpreting Torah? In Jesus’ day, the way that the religious leaders would determine a rabbi’s yoke was to ask him what the “greatest commandment” was. They asked Jesus this:
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your sould and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40 ESV
That’s Jesus’ yoke. Love God and love others. If we get that part of it worked out, the rest is just details. If God asks us to do certain things and not others, we obey. If we have to determine between one path or another, think about those two questions. That’s the yoke that we, as disciples of Jesus, are asked to bear.