Followers of Jesus and the Torah including the Ten Commandments
by Dan Appel
by Dan Appel, July 1, 2014
A careful discussion of how Adventists relate to the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, is something which we can agree should be very important. At the same time, many would consider actual discussion of the subject irrelevant, self-evident, or unnecessary because the issues have already been so long decided that there is nothing more to be said or written. A careful study of the Old and New Testaments, though, may reveal some surprising things we may not have considered before.
A couple of foundational concepts, facts, will help us get off on the right foot.
1. Two distinct “laws” are referred to in Scripture. If you don’t keep that fundamental idea in mind, you will clearly miss what the Bible writers were trying to say. Those two laws are the “Royal Law,” or the Law of Liberty, and the Torah – which includes the Ten Commandments, the various ceremonial laws, the civil laws which governed Israel, and the dietary laws.
Whenever you read the word “Law” or “the law” in the Bible, without clarification by the use of modifiers such as “Royal” or “Liberty,” it always refers to the whole Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible written by Moses, known to the Jews as the Torah. Even a cursory look at the context of each instance will reveal that “Law” or “the law” almost never refers specifically to the Ten Commandments, but includes all of the larger body of legal and historical information contained in the Pentateuch.
2. Nowhere does the Bible teach that the Torah has been done away with, or ever will be – until it has fulfilled or achieved its purpose (see Matthew 5:18). It is, Paul tells us, “holy,” “just” and “good” (Romans 7:12,16). That is not the issue. What is plain is that the New Testament authors put the Torah into its proper perspective, showing that it was preceded by what James refers to as the “royal law,” or the “law of liberty,” and it is that law, the royal law, to which God desires to lead us and which he desires that we use as the guide for our lives.
The law which governed our whole universe and any other universes which may exist was a simple one. Jesus refers to it in a number of places (i.e., Mark 12:28-33; Matthew 22:34-40) where he describes it as having only two commandments – “You shall 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. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these!” James underscores this definition in James 2:8, where he says that when we fulfill (the requirements of) the royal law we will focus on loving our neighbor as ourselves. Then he goes on to describe some of the ways that that will play out in the daily life of the follower of Jesus.
So, for at least three thousand years prior to the Exodus, this royal law was what spelled out the requirements for serving God. Following the Exodus, the Jews of Jesus’ day focused on a very elementary basic view of what it meant to serve God – not having any other gods more important than God and not creating anything to worship from wood or stone or metal, etc. The Torah, the five books of Moses, as we will see in the next sections, was given by God to the Jews at Mount Sinai, and became the regulator of all aspects of their existence. Relatively speaking, this elementary set of guidelines was easy to adhere to. The rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30; Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:13-16) could contend, without contradiction by Jesus, that he had kept the Torah from the time he was a child, but his next response to Jesus showed that he didn’t begin to comprehend, much less live by, the royal law.
Jesus returned people to the much more comprehensive view of relating to God – loving him with our entire mind and heart and soul and body.
In doing so, he challenged his Torah-focused disciples not long before his death to focus on something new for them that was not explicitly stated in the Torah, with one exception in Leviticus 19:18, and that was to love each other. Loving each other would prove to the world that they were his disciples (John 13:34,35; 15:12-13). And, John, who apparently finally got it right, writes in 1 John 2:7-8: “Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather, it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment, which, as already mentioned, preceded the Torah – to love one another – is the same message you heard before. Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining.”
The law, which all who wished to be a part of God’s kingdom from the very beginning were expected to live by, involved loving God with all their heart and mind and soul and strength, and others as they did themselves. John repeats this so there will be no doubt of what he means in 2 John 5, where he declares, “I am writing to remind you, dear friends, that we should love one another. This is not a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning.” Similarly, in 1 John 3:10-11 he says, “So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”
A person can search in vain through Genesis and Exodus for any reference to Torah, including the Ten Commandments, prior to the Exodus. Torah and the Ten Commandments were given by God to Israel at Mt. Sinai.
God sent Moses to deliver a group of people who had been slaves in Egypt for more than 400 years. Almost all of them, apparently, had little or no knowledge of God and what it meant to serve him. So, he created a primer to teach them about himself, themselves, the Kingdom of God, sin, and salvation, in what we know today as the sacrificial system. He worked with Moses to create a corpus of civil laws to govern their behavior. He designed a set of health laws to protect them and their environment. In the Ten Commandments, he set out for them the barest outline of what it meant to live as a citizen of his kingdom. (Note, for instance, Galatians 3:17.)
This was not, and was not intended to be, the do all/be all of how they lived their lives. Nor did God have any intention of implying that it was the same law which governed the universe, or even the law which had been the law that God taught to Adam and Eve and that guided the behavior of their progeny until the Exodus.
Even cursory consideration will reveal that the royal law, and not the Torah, or even the Ten Commandments, was what formed the standard of behavior of God’s subjects in heaven and the unfallen universe.
While the first commandment is really a restatement or summary statement of the royal law’s command to love God supremely, the same can be said of the second commandment. The third commandment makes absolutely no sense in the context of a perfect world if it is viewed, as is commonly done, as merely referring to cussing. What it in reality says is that we should not claim to be followers of God unless we are committed to living like it – in other words, we should not take his name in vain. This principle is what Satan violated in heaven when he rebelled against God. Whatever his claim, he intentionally chose to live in a way contrary to what he professed.
The fourth commandment of what we call the Decalogue is also senseless in the context of heaven. The Sabbath did not exist until this world was created as a memorial of Creation (note Genesis 2:13). In Mark 2:28, Jesus tells us that he created the Sabbath as a gift for humanity after he created human beings. To believe that the Sabbath existed in heaven, one has to believe that the world and all that is on it was created billions of years ago and therefore could be memorialized, or that it was not created billions of years ago and therefore would not have been in any heavenly law. For heaven and the rest of the universe to keep the earth’s weekly Sabbath would require that earth was the universe’s clock, and that everything in the universe was ruled by the spinning of a little world in a minor solar system in one of billions of galaxies in the universe.1 No, the Sabbath was given as a gift to humanity at the Creation. Only when God brings the capital of the universe to earth (Revelation 21) will heaven celebrate Sabbath on the restored earth (Isaiah 66:22).
In a setting where Jesus said that there is no marrying or giving in marriage (Matthew 22:30), the fifth and seventh commandments would have made no sense.
The first instance of killing recorded in the Bible was Cain’s murder of Abel (although Revelation 12:11 may give us a hint that death was associated with the original war between God and Satan in heaven). So the sixth commandment would have referred to something that heaven’s inhabitants were totally unfamiliar with.
What purpose would the eighth commandment have in a place where the angels had everything they ever needed or wanted? The same goes for the tenth commandment.
Does anyone think that God needed to spell out to the angels or any other beings that they were always supposed to tell the truth, as the ninth commandment dictates?
Prior to Israel’s Egyptian captivity, loyal followers of God, no matter their nationality or location, lived by the royal law, which was much more comprehensive and all-encompassing and complete than the Torah ever could hope to be.
So, what was the purpose of Torah? It is clear that all of the Ten Commandments make perfect sense in a fallen world for anyone just beginning to learn about God.
The same goes for the rest of Torah. It was nothing more than a shadow pointing to something greater (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 10:1-6); but shadows are never reality. It was a schoolteacher designed by God to teach something about sin and God – until the reality (Jesus) appeared. (Galatians 3:23,24). What was written on stone and papyrus would then be written on the human heart (Hebrews 10:16; Jeremiah 31:33-34).
What changed was not the content but the motivation and the means and the scope. Torah wasn’t done away with; it was superseded by something much greater and more comprehensive.
For those with a slave mentality who know little or nothing about God, the Ten Commandments and the rest of Torah point out in the most basic way how we are in rebellion against God, and explain in kindergarten terms the plan of salvation. But to make that the basis of a mature or maturing relationship with God is something akin to only reading Dick and Jane all the way through college.
Almost all followers of Jesus I know of could agree with all that I have said, until it comes to the Sabbath. Then, in order to protect the Sabbath they often revert back to the Ten Commandments. In doing so, they miss a very important point.
Jesus, the Creator of the world, gave humanity the gift of the Sabbath in a perfect world before sin ever raised its ugly head. He made it holy time! You could take the Old Testament after Genesis 2 out of the Bible, and the Sabbath would still be important to followers of Jesus. Not only did he create it, he kept the Sabbath the whole time he was on earth. As far as we know from the Bible, the early church only worshiped on the Sabbath; and we will celebrate the weekly Sabbath in the earth made new (Isaiah 66:22-23).
Sabbath fits perfectly into a relationship, royal law-based life. The Sabbath was given to humanity to enhance our relationship with Jesus and others. God did not arbitrarily ask us to stop our ordinary labors as a test of loyalty or commitment or to make us miserable. He realized that compulsive as we are, we would never stop working and focus on our relationship with him and others unless he gave us the gift of focused and intentional time for those things which encompass the very bedrock of his kingdom and which are spelled out in the royal law.
In Isaiah 58:13-14, God tells us that protecting this Sabbath gift and delighting in it it opens the door for us to delight in God in ways we would not be able to otherwise. Called to cease our laboring and focus on intimacy, we have the opportunity to experience him and what the kingdom is about in the only way we can.
This “royal” view of law and life gives us insight into a real, much more comprehensive and personal understanding of the nature of sin – a topic we will examine in the second of this series.