In the previous article I made the point that one’s actions may not be judged apart from him. We cannot know what actions mean apart from a personal context any more than we can know what words mean apart from their use in a sentence. Just so, apart from who God is, we cannot know what God means when he speaks. God’s most explicit word to Man is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. As such, Christ is our beginning and ending if we are to understand what God means. “It is Jesus himself who comes between the disciples and the law, not the law which comes between Jesus and the disciples. They find their way to the law through the cross of Christ.”1
The Lord of the Sabbath
“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ ” (Matt. 11:28-12:8)
This is one of many places where the place that Torah had in the life of the Jews is replaced with the person of Jesus Christ. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish tradition likely extending back before the time of Christ, says, “R[abbi] Nehunya b[en] Ha-Kanah said: He that takes upon himself the yoke of [Torah], from him shall be taken away the yoke of the kingdom [i.e. the troubles suffered at the hands of those in power] and the yoke of worldly care; but he that throws off the yoke of [Torah], upon him shall be laid the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care.”2 Instead of inviting people to the yoke of Torah Jesus invites them to take up his yoke. I do not think it is necessary to say that Jesus stands above the Torah. What would that mean? How does one stand above his own word? We must not see him as above Torah but we must see Torah in relation to him. The Torah had been ripped away from God and placed into the uncareful hands of Man. By inviting the people to take his yoke upon them he forces them to see that Torah does not exist apart from the God who gave it. If we do not see Torah as the word of God then we do not see it at all. Torah is only the word of God insofar as it is the Word of God. If we interpret it to express anything other than the will of Jesus then we have not understood it. Like any action, any speech, it is only intelligible when understood in relation to the person. God in Jesus defines what is meant by Torah. If Torah is rent from Jesus it means something that he never meant. It becomes a burden instead of a delight (cf. Isa. 58:13).
As Jesus traveled his disciples became hungry and began to eat. The Pharisees then take what Torah had said and separate it from what God meant. They thereby accuse his disciples of doing what is unlawful. They took the sabbath to mean something which would be a burden to Man, when in fact the sabbath is supposed to be a delight. In Mark’s parallel account he reminds them that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The sabbath is not the Lord of Man but his servant. Any other way of seeing sabbath is to misunderstand what God means by sabbath. So Jesus points to another scripture which they no doubt knew, though they did not know what it meant, as Jesus again makes clear. “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Mat. 12:7). They knew what scripture said, but they did not know what it meant. And they did not know what it meant because they had separated the word from the speaker. Had they really known God they would have known that whatever God meant by “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” he did not mean “You must starve.” And so Jesus reminds them that Torah does not exist on its own. It is an expression of the will of a person. There is no Torah without its Lord and “the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (12:8). We may not separate one from the other.
Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect
Just as Moses went up the mountain to receive the word of the Lord so Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver the word of God. After blessing all of those who had joined themselves to him he affirms his union with Torah. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:17-19). While he calls his disciples to obedience, he does not leave open the option of obeying the Law apart from him. We saw above what sort of righteousness the Pharisees produced when they wrested the law of sabbath from the hands of Jesus. And so he calls us all to a righteousness which “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20). The righteousness which exceeds is precisely the righteousness of Christ. It is the Law of Christ, for there is no Law apart from him.
Six times Jesus points to the Law and six times he joins it to himself. “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …” We may not separate Jesus’ word–for that is what Torah is–from Jesus. When we separate the word from the Word we get an inferior righteousness and “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19). Jesus insists that the word is the word of God. It is therefore an expression of himself. We may not read the word of God without remembering the God who spoke it, the God who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (5:44). And so we realize that God’s word is no word if it is severed from himself. It is what it is only insofar as it seen as an expression of Christ who is himself an expression of the will of God. So the word of God and the Word of God call us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).
Listen to Him
The disciples would need to learn this lesson again and again. The words of Moses and Elijah are no words at all unless they are seen as the very words of Christ. “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.’ ” (17:1-8). It is not that Moses and Elijah and Jesus present different voices. They all speak the word of God, but only Jesus is the Word of God. This lesson they had to learn. They had to learn that to read Moses was to read the word’s of the Beloved Son. They had to learn that to hear Elijah was to hear Jesus. Whenever they listen to Moses and Elijah they are to listen to Jesus. “Listen to him” said the voice from the cloud. And the disciples “saw no one except Jesus.” There is no other to see. All words are to be seen as the Word. There is no one else.
Jesus the Word of God
If we want to know the word of God we are not permitted to listen to any other voice than Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14). Whatever God said, Jesus is always what he meant. “He is the self-expression of the Father–what the Father has to say. And there never was a time when He was not saying it.”3
Walk to Emmaus
After the incarnation we may not read the Old Testament in any way other than Christologically. Jesus made this clear to two disciples on a walk they shared to Emmaus. After they expressed their disappointment at Jesus’ crucifixion he said to them, “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). This is not to say that Jesus picked out a bit of scripture from Moses here and a bit from the prophets there and said, “Yes, these are prophecies of me.” Rather, he shows that it is all about him, from beginning to end. How could it be otherwise? He is the Word of God. There is no word without Jesus in it. We may not separate the scriptures from Jesus else we fall under his condemnation. “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (John 5:39a). No! There is no life at all in the scripture unless we see that they are connected to him who has life in himself (cf. 5:26). “And it is they that testify of me”, he says. “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (5:39b-40). It is in Jesus that we find life. And so, scripture apart from Jesus is no life at all. If we separate the word of God from the Word of God we make it a dead letter. It can only kill. But if in the word of God we see Jesus and listen to him we find that we have life, and that which is life indeed.
All Things In Him, Through Him, and For Him
The incarnation did not only transform the way we see and hear the Old Testament. It must by necessity transform the way that we see and hear the world. Just as we do not know what the Old Testament means apart from Jesus so we do not know what the world means apart from him. Because as the incarnate Word he is the mediator between God and Man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), he is also the mediator between Man and the world. “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20). We no longer have immediate access to the world. To have such immediate access is to abuse it, to see it askew. To attempt to grasp the world apart from Christ is violence and deception. The world must be shaped by him and reinterpreted through him. There is no world apart from him.
“We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life. But this barrier is no surly contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. By virtue of his incarnation he has come between man and his natural life. There can be no turning back, for Christ bars the way. By calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of the world. He wants to be the center, through him alone all things shall come to pass. He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality. Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1.3; 1 Cor. 8.6; Heb. 1.2), he is the sole Mediator in the world. Since his coming man has no immediate relationship of his own any more to anything, neither to God nor to the world; Christ wants to be the mediator … There can only be a complete breach with the immediacies of life: the call of Christ brings us as individuals face to face with the Mediator … For the Christian the only God-given realities are those he receives from Christ. What is not given us through the incarnate Son is not given us by God.”4
We may no longer see the poor, we must see Christ. We may no longer see our enemies, we can only see Jesus. We cannot see our rights but only God’s gifts. We do not see our families, instead we see the Church, which is Christ’s body. We may not see the world unless in it we see the glory of Christ and his handiwork, otherwise we are blind and there is no health in us. We must all be able to say, “I believe in [Christ] as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see [him], but because by [him] I see everything else.”5
©M. Benfield 2017
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 123.↩
2. Herbert Danby, Trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.5, p.450. Another occasion where Jesus places himself in the place of the Torah is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” vis a vis Mishnah, Aboth, 3.6, “R. Halafta b. Dosa of Kefar Hanania said: If ten men sit togehter and occupy themselves in [Torah], the Divine Presence [The Shekinah] rests among them, for it is written God standeth in the congregation of God … And whence [do you learn this] even of two [people]? Because it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard.”↩
3. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 173-174.↩
4. Bonhoeffer, 95-97.↩
5. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?”, (New York: Harper Colloins, 2001), 140.↩