Should Christians Observe Torah?

Most Christians would, without hesitation, say NO! What has Torah got to do with us? That's for the Jews, isn't it?

However, such a response leaves many unanswered questions about who Jesus is, and what he taught, and how he commissioned his disciples to preach the Gospel to the nations.

The "Torah" consists of the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Rabbis have counted a total of 613 laws, including the Ten Commandments that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Yeshua (Jesus) was an observant Jew, circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), presented to the Lord with appropriate sacrifices being made (Luke 2:22-24) and brought up in an observant family that used to go to Jerusalem every year at Passover (Luke 2:41). Most Jews at that time, if they lived any distance from Jerusalem, would go there a few times during their lives, but the family of Yeshua went there every year, so they were very religious.

Yeshua lived an observant lifestyle, to the extent that the Pharisees, the most religious Jews of his time, could not find fault with him. He was able to say to them "Which of you conviceth me of sin?" (John 8:46). Their understanding of "sin" would mean "violation of the Torah".

Yeshua was a travelling Rabbi, going about from place to place, followed by his "Talmidim", or disciples. The term "Rabbi" was the official title of someone in charge of a synagogue. It was also used loosely to describe anyone with a good knowledge of the Torah who used to teach others on a regular basis. It was quite common in those days to have travelling "Rabbis" followed by their "Talmidim". The objective of a Talmid was to learn everything his Rabbi could teach, become like him, and then become a Rabbi himself. It was a hard life, with few physical comforts, and when Yeshua called his Talmidim, saying to them "Follow me", they knew exactly what he was calling them to.

He taught that he had not come to destroy the Torah, or the prophets, but to fulfil it. (Matt. 5:17). This is commonly misinterpreted to mean that Yeshua replaced the Torah. It doesn't mean that at all. When two Rabbis are arguing, and the argument becomes heated, one might say "You are destroying the Torah" and the other would say "No, I am not destroying the Torah, I am fulfilling it" (meaning I am interpreting it correctly). Yeshua goes on to say "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled". A "jot" is the smallest Hebrew character, known as the Yodh. A "tittle" is a small point on the corner of a character, even smaller than a Yodh.

Yeshua spent his three-year ministry teaching his Talmidim to observe the Torah, then he commissioned them to go out and teach others. In Matt. 28:19-20 he says "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen."

The instruction to teach people to "observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" means "teach them to observe Torah". The instruction to teach "all nations" means all people throughout the nations, both Jew and Gentile. It took a while for this last bit to sink in. For the first few years they preached only to the Jews, scattered throughout the Mediterranean, but when the Gentiles believed, they had to grapple with questions about how much of the Torah the Gentiles should be expected to observe, considering that they started off from a position of knowing nothing about it.

In Luke 24:45-47 he commissioned them to teach something new, that was not generally understood at the time. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, and said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

So he commissioned them to teach the Torah as it was commonly understood by the Jews, but also to teach that forgiveness is through the death and resurrection of Messiah.

This new teaching would have seemed at variance with traditional Jewish teaching, since they expected Messiah to come as King, not to suffer and die. However, Yeshua told them he would come again in great power and glory. (Matt. 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 21:27). When he ascended into heaven, the angels spoke of his return (Acts 1:11).

The idea of a sacrifice outside of the Levitical system would also have seemed a bit strange. According to the Torah, the Levites were to make regular animal sacrifices in the Temple and they would not have contemplated any other type of sacrifice. However, after the execution of Yeshua, the Roman Empire imposed more and more restrictions on the activities of the Jews, until finally in AD 70 the Temple was destroyed and the sacrifices ceased.

Rabbi Sha'ul (the Apostle Paul) appears to be consoling the Jewish believers about the imminent or completed destruction of the Temple, depending on when the book of Hebrews was written. He says the builder of the house deserves more honour than the house, and now we are that house. (Hebrews 3:2-6). He goes on to say that we have a High Priest, not of the order of Levi, but of the order of Malki-Tzedek (King of Righteousness). Yeshua came from the tribe of Judah, so he was an entirely different type of priest, not to be confused with the Levitical priesthood. (Hebrews 7:11-14).

In Hebrews 8:8-12 we have a quote from Jeremiah 31:31-34, about how the Lord will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and Judah. This is often quoted out of context and taken to mean that we are under the New Covenant and we don't have to observe the Torah. It says exactly the opposite. In verse 10 it says: For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.

Then in Hebrews 8:13 we get to another verse that is often quoted out of context: In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. This verse is often taken to mean that the Torah will vanish, but how can it vanish when it is written on our hearts? The only thing that has vanished is the heart of stone that observed the Law as a legalistic ritual and not with the joy of having it written in our hearts.

If the Torah remains, how did the early believers in Yeshua put it into practice? In Acts 1:13 there is a list of the disciples, including someone called "Simon Zelotes" (Shimon the Zealot), meaning he was zealous for the liberation of Israel from the Romans, but probably also zealous for the Torah. In Acts 21:20, we read of tens of thousands of believers among the Judeans, all zealots for the Torah. Sha'ul wanted to dispel any rumours that he had been teaching the Jews living among the Gentiles to apostasise from the Torah, so he took four of his zealot friends to the Temple and performed a purification ritual that would have ended with animal sacrifices, had they not been interrupted by an angry mob. (Acts 21:21-27)

What would be the point of animal sacrifices, for believers in Yeshua? According to the book of Romans, it doesn't save anyone, so why do it? The answer is that the Torah is a lifestyle issue, not a salvation issue. Just because the Torah doesn't save us, that's no reason not to observe it. In the case of animal sacrifices, the purpose would be to illustrate the seriousness of our sins. Animal sacrifices would not have been a regular practice among the early believers, but they clearly did it on some occasions in association with certain Temple rituals.

There can be no doubt that the early Jewish believers were Torah-observant. At first they thought that Yeshua was only for the Jews, and any Gentiles who wanted to believe in him would have to convert to Judaism in the usual way. They didn't know what to do when large numbers of Gentiles believed but didn't want to observe the Torah, not all of it anyway. Sha'ul and Bar-Nabba went to Jerusalem to discuss it with the elders, and they came up with the result that the Gentiles should observe four simple rules (Acts 15:20).

  • Abstain from things polluted by idols (for example food offered to idols during pagan worship).
  • Abstain from fornication (sex outside of marriage).
  • Abstain from things that were strangled (because the blood would not be drained out).
  • Abstain from blood (which probably means do not murder although it could also mean abstaining from blood products).

However, that's not the end of the story, because the next verse says:

For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.

In other words, the four rules are just for starters. If they want to go further they can find out all about the Torah from the Synagogue (the Messianic Synagogue of course, which came to be known as the "Church"). It was unreasonable to expect the Gentiles to observe the whole Torah all at once, and the four rules were just a way of breaking them in gently. If someone stuck with the four rules and didn't go any further, it was not considered a problem. They were not under any compulsion.

If anyone thinks that Acts 15 represents the abolition of the Torah, look at the beginning of Acts 16. A believer called Timothy had a Jewish mother but a Greek father, and Sha'ul had him circumcised to avoid causing offence to the Jews on his next preaching tour.

The next question is, where have we gone from here? Why has the church become so distant from it's Jewish roots? It's a long story of anti-semitism and compromise with paganism. The Gentile believers eventually outnumbered the Jewish believers and decided they would rather have something totally Gentile. After the first century, Saturday worship was changed to Sunday to celebrate the "venerable day of the Sun". The Passover festival was abandoned and Easter was substituted. The word "Easter" is derived from "Ishtar" or "Astarte", the fertility goddess. Hannukah was abandoned and Christmas was substituted, so that Christians could join the pagans in their celebration of Saturnalia, the birthday of a variety of child-gods that are all derived from Nimrod of Babylon.

Sha'ul and the early believers would turn in their graves if they saw what we are doing today. Yeshua, fortunately for us, is not in his grave. He is risen, he is alive, he sees it all, and we have to repent.

Whatever we think our obligations are towards the Torah, we should not approach it purely from a point of view of obligation, but rather to find out what we can learn about the nature and purposes of God. The Torah is not a burden, it is a joy for those who have it written in their hearts. David was already under the New Covenant, or at least he was looking forward to it, because he said "Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight" (Psalm 119:35). It was David who gave us the prophecy about the priesthood of Messiah "The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek". (Psalm 110:4). He could give a prophecy like that because he had the Holy Spirit. (Psalm 51:11).

How do we receive the Holy Spirit? No, we don't go to a meeting where everybody falls on the floor. We get the real Holy Spirit by obedience to the Torah. "If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you." (John 14:15-17). This does not necessarily mean that we all have to be experts in the Torah to receive the Holy Spirit. We simply need to be obedient to what we know, and we should be willing to find out more about what God wants.

Copyright 1996 Updated September 2000

Mike Gascoigne
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