This is the 8th Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy. The immediate preceding blog is Reading Torah and Keeping God’s Word.
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
A purely literal reading of John 1:17 might cause one to conclude that the Evangelist John was claiming that there is no truth in Moses, only law, and thus no truth in the Torah, our Old Testament. Of course that is not the contrast John the Theologian is making. He is not rejecting the Moses and the entire Old Testament as being void of truth, for it is the entire Old Testament which points to and makes Jesus Christ known to us all. Later in his Gospel, John writes: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). John obviously doesn’t think the Torah is devoid of truth for it bears witness to Christ and thus is true. Jesus in fact fulfils Torah.
As the Fifth Century bishop Theodoret of Cyrus wrote: “It was the Law, after all, that guided us to Christ; so the one who believes in Christ the Lord fulfills the purpose of the Law.” (Theodoret of Cyrus, COMMENTARY ON THE LETTERS OF PAUL V 1, p 107)
Generally the New Testament writers understood that with the coming of the Christ, the Old Covenant (=Testament) had been fulfilled. Its purpose accomplished and thus the new Covenant which God had promised has been ushered in (Jeremiah 31:31-34). They describe the Law as being but a shadow of the reality to come or a custodian – a temporary condition until the time had come for God to reveal His perfect salvation.
“So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:24-26).
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near” (Hebrews 10:1).
“The early identification of Jesus as, in the words of the Psalm, ‘a priest for ever’ and as ‘the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ – therefore simultaneously and uniquely both the sacrificial victim and the sacrificing priest—became part of an elaborate scheme of interpretation by which the liturgy prescribed in the Torah, especially Exodus and Leviticus, was seen as having become obsolete now that the One it pictured had finally come into human history in the person of Jesus Christ. What had been ‘foreshadowed’ in the Torah had now been ‘overshadowed’ in him as the fulfillment.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, WHOSE BIBLE IS IT?, p 96)
The Torah foreshadowed Christ, but alas, also represents a stumbling block (Romans 9:30-33) because people can begin to trust in their own righteousness achieved through their own efforts rather than seeing that even the Law was a gift to those who believe the God of Love is working for their salvation. When we trust in our own efforts to keep the Law, we don’t even need God for our salvation! We can keep twisting our interpretation of the Law to make it more possible for us (and us alone!) to keep Torah. The downside? If we believe we save ourselves through our own effort to keep every detail of the Law, we will find ourselves condemned if we fail in any one detail of the Law.
“If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ said also, ‘Do not kill.’ If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:8-13).
What happens to those who rely on their own ability to keep the Law is they forget the purpose of Torah was not to simply develop fanatical adherence to the details of the Law, but it was rather a way to help us remain faithful to God and to help us love God with all our heart, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5, the great “Shema Israel”), and to love neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18). St. Paul recognized that demanding strict adherence to Torah meant God had no intention of saving the world, whereas he had come to recognize that it was faith in God which in fact was what God wanted from all His human creatures as witnessed in the life of Abraham who was the father of many nations.
“In other words, the law poses a religious problem for the apostle to the Gentiles. On what basis does a Gentile become a member of the community of Christ? Is it through circumcision and adherence to the law of Moses? Or is it on some other basis? In this regard, the apostle is clear. Obedience to the law of Moses is not an entrance requirement into the community of Christ for the Gentiles. Indeed, the law of Moses is not a universal requirement for the people of God in Christ. … In effect, Paul has transformed Judaism from a national religion into a universal religion through the incorporation of Gentiles into the community of Christ. Paul did not perceive this to be a negation of Judaism but a completion of Judaism and its task of being a blessing to the nations.” (James Aageson, WRITTEN ALSO FOR OUR SAKE: PAUL AND THE ART OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION, p 27)