During His earthly ministry, was Yeshua (Jesus) instructing us to become followers of Moses? Did He come and die on the Cross so that we could be forgiven and therefore "start over" by keeping the Law (and its 613 commandments)? Is the gospel message really a sort of "reformation" of Temple Judaism? Did Yeshua come to renew the covenant made with Israel at Sinai or did he come to give us a new and better covenant that would somehow supersede it (Heb. 8:6)? In the light of his teaching, it appears that the answer to each of these questions is both a "yes" and "no."
When Jesus proclaimed, "Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17-20), he was actually amplifying the message of both Moses and the prophets, though his interpretation was contrary to various "traditional" views of his day. "You have heard that it was said [in the law, or by your sages...] ... BUT I SAY unto you..."
As a good Jewish teacher, Jesus continually affirmed the inner meaning of the Torah, especially the Shema and the related obligation to love others (Matt. 22:36-40). In that regard His doctrine was surely a continuance of the Torah's foundational message. However, Jesus clearly extended the reach of the Torah to include the inner heart attitude of the person. Observing the law was not a matter of adhering to various external codes of conduct but involved the rigorous self-examination of the heart and soul.
The law forbade the act of murder, for example, but Jesus extended the scope of the law to reach the intent of the heart: "You have heard it said (i.e., by Moses himself as he quoted the words of YHVH) 'You shall not murder...' but I say unto you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause is liable to excommunication; whoever insults his brother is liable to punishment, and whoever calls his brother a fool is in danger of the fires of Hell" (Matt. 5:21-22). As someone once put it, murder is just anger "communicated really well..."
Likewise, the law forbade the act of adultery, but Jesus focused not on the external action but rather the heart condition: "You have heard it said, (i.e., by Moses himself as he quoted the words of YHVH) 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart." When Jesus explained that the law's intent was to prevent even looking with lust upon a woman, for all the more reason it should be obvious that we refrain from physical acts of adultery or fornication. Dealing with the inner heart attitude that gives rise to the lustful look therefore obviates the need to forbid the outer practice of the flesh (and therefore fulfills the intent of the law against adultery).
In matters relating to 1) divorce (i.e., Deut. 24:1-4), 2) the taking of oaths (Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Num. 30:2; Exod. 20:16), 3) the exercise of retribution (Exod. 21:23-24, Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21), and 4) the obligation to hate one's enemies (Deut. 7:2, 13:15-17, 20:16, Psalm 137:9, etc.), Jesus actually circumvented the written words of Torah by denying matters that were technically permissible according to the "letter of the law" (Matt. 5:31-47). We see this clearly in the case of divorce, for instance. When the Pharisees asked him whether it was permissible to put away one's wife (Deut. 24:1-4), Jesus answered: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 18:8). Note once again that the rigor of Jesus' interpretation superseded that of Moses himself, who permitted divorce as a concession to human frailty and evil. Indeed, in each of these examples (divorce, taking oaths, retaliation, tribal loyalty), Jesus' interpretation was more demanding and rigorous than the written laws found in the Torah of Moses.
By expounding the requirements of the law with such rigor, Jesus was claiming equal authority with YHVH Himself (יהוה). After all, each antecedent clause, "You have heard that it was said..." referred to an explicit utterance made by the LORD Himself at Sinai. Jesus then authoritatively extended the reach of the commandment by identifying its underlying ethical intent. This is what he meant by "fulfilling" the Law, or reaching the goal of the Torah's message. The time of "circumcision of the heart" was at hand (Deut. 30:6). The message of the law was to be written on hearts of flesh, not tablets of stone (Jer. 31:33, 2 Cor. 3:3,6; etc.).
The law of God - in particular, the moral aspect of the law - is indeed "holy, just, and good," though it is powerless to change the heart. This is not because the law is sinful, but rather because it reveals the presence of sin in our hearts. The law simply demands that we live as morally perfect agents -- regardless of our heredity, infirmities, social status, education, and so on. Like a flawless mirror, the law reflects back to us the truth of our moral and spiritual condition, and thereby reveals our need for deliverance from ourselves. The "problem of the law" is that it is "weak" on account of human "flesh," and therefore remedy had to be sought through other means (Rom. 8:1-4). This is the ultimate gospel message itself - that God sent His Son to both save us from the just verdict of the law (through Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice) and to provide the heart's means to serve Him in the truth (through the agency of the Holy Spirit, given to those who trust in Him).
To underscore the need for personal deliverance, Jesus was once asked by "a rich young ruler" what "good deed" must be done to inherit eternal life (Matt. 19:16-22). Jesus answered with the statement, "Keep the commandments," and then provided the mitzvot listed in the second half of the tablets (that is, the commandments that dealt with social relationships). When he was further asked, "What else do I lack?" Jesus told him to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor. The "one thing missing" in this man's observance was the heart -- namely, love and genuine compassion for the poor. Such love was not something that could be gained by merely "following the rules" but required a radical heart change. Again, Jesus was calling for religious observance that was far more rigorous than was conventionally understood by the Jewish leaders of His day. It's the inner intent of the commandments that matter, not mere conformity to an external ideal. "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
Sometimes those who advocate "Torah observance" for the Christian seem to protest that the gospel message is often presented as a sort of "get out Hell free card" or a means of obtaining a "cheap grace" that encourages a lackadaisical performance of religious obligation. Such people -- well meaning as they may be -- have yet to fully hear the words of Jesus regarding the righteousness required by the law itself: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). Was Jesus then suggesting that his followers were to be more scrupulous than the hand-washing Pharisees or the nitpicking scribes of his day? Were his followers to be marked by fastidious attention to the law's every detail, painstakingly adhering to the percentages of "mint and cumin" that should be designated as a tithe (Matt. 23:23)? Or was he rather suggesting that the righteousness of Messiah required "taking up the cross" and following Him in faith and self-sacrifice?
Let's return to the story of the "rich young ruler" who asked what "good deed" must be done to inherit eternal life. As the story goes, after the man heard Jesus' demand for self-sacrifice, "he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." Jesus then said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven." The disciples were astounded at Jesus' comment and exclaimed, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus replied to them, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:22-26). Those who advocate the observance of the law as a means of justification (or sanctification) before God need to confess their need for salvation -- from their own sinful heart condition. Only God has the power to change the self-serving human heart. This is a glory not shared with the various "self-improvement" programs of the world's religiously minded.
Hear the words of Jesus regarding the "goal" or "end" of righteousness required by the law: Self-sacrifice, unfeigned love for others, genuine compassion, and the unselfish practice of mercy -- all of which were perfectly exemplified in the life of Messiah himself. The "goal of the law" is the miracle of heart changed by the power and grace of God.
Now there is a "twist" regarding this entire discussion. In ethical matters we clearly see that Jesus' interpretation of the law was more rigorous than that of Moses, but regarding ceremonial and social laws we note that Jesus often overruled the Torah entirely. For example, when Jesus spoke of dietary restrictions (kashrut) he said, "What enters the mouth (i.e., food) does not defile a person, but what comes out of his mouth" (Matt. 15:11), and by so saying implied that various rules regarding what foods to eat, how meat was slaughtered, ritual handwashing, and so on, were not relevant. Concerning ritual impurity, we note that Jesus touched a "leper" (Matt. 8:1-4) -- something explicitly forbidden by the law without becoming "unclean" (Lev. 14:4-29). Moreover, Jesus not only touched a leper but healed him and declared him "clean," overruling the law's requirement that only a kohen (priest) could do so based on prescribed rituals (note that Jesus' instruction to give "testimony" of the healing to the Temple priests was intended to testify that Someone greater than the Levitical priesthood was now in their midst). Likewise we read that Jesus touched the corpse of a young girl -- another act that would render someone ritually unclean -- yet this action displayed the power of God by raising her from the dead (Mark 5:41). Finally, when Jesus "cleansed the Temple" and stopped the "carrying of the ritual vessels," he interfered with the regular sacrifices of Israel (Mark 11:16), something clearly forbidden by Levitical law.
But what about the matter of Sabbath observance? Did Jesus break the Sabbath, or did he adhere to various rules about not touching or doing certain things on this day (i.e. the 39 categories of work forbidden by the rabbis)? When he was once criticized by the Pharisees for allowing his disciples to pick some grain from the fields on the Sabbath, he responded that the Scriptures themselves testified that King David "broke the commandment" by eating the bread reserved for the priests (i.e., the "showbread"), and noted that the priests likewise "profaned" the Sabbath by performing avodah (service) at the Temple (Matt. 12:1-5). Jesus then stated that "someone greater than the Temple is here" and went on to chastise his accusers by pointing out that the deeper principle of the law is to show mercy before sacrifice (Hos. 6:6, Psalm 51:16-17, Prov. 15:8, Matt. 9:13, etc.). As the very "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:8), Jesus sanctioned acts of mercy to be performed on the consecrated day of rest. Indeed, just as the law permitted a male to be circumcised or an animal to be pulled out of a well on this day, for all the more reason should a man be healed on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:11-13). The Sabbath is not a day of (static) rest but is a means of providing rest for others by doing acts of chesed and mercy. Again, the Pharisees had confused the "inner" with the "outer" and made a category mistake. "Man was not made for the Sabbath, but Sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27).
So we see both evidence of continuity and discontinuity regarding the law in the teaching of Jesus. Regarding the underlying commandment to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself, he was in full agreement. Yet Jesus revealed that the practice of such love was far more rigorous than was commonly interpreted by the sages of his day, and nothing short of moral and spiritual perfection was acceptable to God. "Be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). The discontinuity occurs primarily as response to the frailty of our human condition. By revealing the "goal" or "end" of the law, Jesus also revealed our need of personal deliverance. We are sinners and we need a changed heart from God to be saved...
Jesus summed up his view of the obeying the underlying intent of the law with the following sober warning:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matt. 7:24-27)
For those who trust in Him for a heart change and eternal life, Jesus is the Authority of Almighty God, the very Word of God incarnate. His words define our Torah. We all must answer to Him.
The love of God is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14; James 2:8), and this love is manifest in the Person and Presence of Jesus, the perfect fulfillment of the law of love (John 1:1, 13:34-35, 1 John 4:10-12, 2 John 1:6, etc.). The love of Jesus imparts "righteousness to every one who believes" (Rom. 10:4).
Practically speaking, living in response to the love of God does not imply spiritual anarchy or "lawlessness," however, since the Law of Messiah (תּוֹרַת הַמָּשִׁיחַ) is to "bear one another's burdens" (Gal. 6:2) by emulating the sacrificial love that Yeshua has revealed and bestowed to us (John 13:15, 34, 15:12, etc.). "If you love me," Jesus said, "keep my commandments" (John 14:15, cp. 15:10). Moreover, those who receive Jesus as their Savior are given the Holy Spirit (רוּחַ הַקּדֶשׁ) -- also called the Comforter (παρακλητος) -- through whom the inner intent of the law is written upon the heart by faith (Gal. 5:18, 22-23). The heart of the law, then, is the law of the Gospel message itself - to love God and to serve others through the miraculous agency of God's redemptive grace.
May God work within us all such a miracle!