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Did Jesus Appoint Peter As the First Pope?

Did Yeshua give Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and make him the first Pope?

Matthew 16:13-20 is chock full of fuel for theological controversy!

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
Matthew 16:13-20 ESV

This is one of the primary passages that the Roman Catholic Church will claim as support for their authority. Yeshua (Jesus) made Peter the first Pope and gave him the authority to modify God’s Law as needed, and today’s Pope has inherited that authority in an unbroken line of succession from Peter. Since the Pope has authority to dictate (bind and loose) the rules to Heaven, then when the Pope says the Sabbath is now on Sunday, God has to shift his schedule to suit Rome.

Except that’s not what the Bible says. Not at all. But then again, it’s easy to see how one might conclude that from this text.

Yeshua used several puzzling phrases in this conversation. I’ll address each of them in turn.

Who do people say the Son of Man is?

“Son of Man” essentially means “human”. Throughout the book of Ezekiel, angels refer to the prophet as “son of man”, evidently not as a special title, but something more like “descendant of Adam”. However, in some contexts it had a much greater meaning. In the apocryphal books of Enoch, an angel also refers to that prophet as “son of man”, but with the added connotation of “Messiah”.

The author of Enoch probably took his cue from Daniel who described a divine being “like a son of man” who came from Heaven, suffered, and then returned to Heaven with great glory. Daniel’s Son of Man is clearly a reference to the Messiah who would defeat Israel’s oppressors and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. Yeshua clearly had this context in mind as he frequently referred to himself as the Son of Man.

The question Yeshua asks is ambiguous though. Most English translations read “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” but a few follow the King James Version and the Textus Receptus in reading “Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

While the difference seems slight, it could actually make it a completely different question. The former asks about the identity of the Son of Man, while the latter asks about the nature and identity of Yeshua. I think the disciples’ answer supports the ESV’s rendering more than the KJV’s. They didn’t say “Some say you are John the Baptist…”, but “Some say John the Baptist…” This might more properly be understood as “Some say that Daniel’s Son of Man is John the Baptist…”

Whichever he meant by the first question, Yeshua then turns it around to himself and the disciples. “Whom do you say I am?”

Peter immediately replies “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” by which he also identifies Yeshua as Daniel’s Son of Man. (Also Enoch’s Son of Man, contrary to the text of Enoch, which identifies Enoch himself. Yeshua responds by saying that Peter could only know this because God had especially revealed it to him, and this sets the stage for the next controversial phrase.

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.

First, let me talk about “church”. Yeshua was not establishing a new religion or organization. The English word church translates the Greek word ekklesia, which just means “gathering of people”. The English word build translates the Greek word oikodomeo, which can mean to build from scratch, but it can also mean to refurbish or renovate.

Yeshua wasn’t building a new Gentile religion, but restoring the remnant of faithful Israel. Whenever the Apostles wrote of “the church”, they meant an assembly of the people of God. Ekklesia is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew words kahal and edah, which are translated as “congregation” or “assembly” in the phrase “the congregation of Israel” throughout the Old Testament.

Peter’s name in Greek is Petros, which is derived from the Greek word for rock, but has been altered to a masculine form suitable for a man’s name. “Rock” on the other hand is the standard feminine Greek word, petra.

The question is, what does Yeshua mean by “this rock”? He frequently changed subjects in the middle of a sentence, using one idea as a segue or illustration of another. Did he do that here, saying “You might be named Rocky, but on this other rock…”? If so, what is the other rock? I think there are three possible interpretations:

  1. The rock is Peter who would be instrumental in the reformation of the assembly of Israel.
  2. The rock is the revelation which Peter received from God concerning the identity and nature of Yeshua, and that revelation would trigger the reformation of the assembly.
  3. The rock is Yeshua, whom the prophets also called “a rock of stumbling”, a “corner stone”, and “the spiritual rock that followed [Israel in the wilderness].

All three interpretation seem plausible to me and in accordance with the rest of Scripture. I think the first and third explanations are most likely, and I lean toward the first–I haven’t always–that Peter himself is the rock on which the assembly of Israel would be rebuilt.

The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it

Does “it” refer to the ekklesia (the assembly) or to the petra (the rock)? I believe it refers to the rock, to Peter himself.

Hell in this verse is the Greek word Hades, which refers to the grave–Sheol in Hebrew–the place where the spirits of the dead are held while they await their ultimate resurrection. “Hell” is a poor translation in modern English, because most people equate Hell with the Lake of Fire described in Revelation, but this is not the same as Hades. (See A Dictionary of Death, Resurrection, and Judgment for more information.)

A city’s gate have two primary purposes:

  1. A defensive structure used to control entry to a walled city.
  2. The center of commerce and the city government, especially the court.

In neither case are gates used in an offensive nature. The implication is that Peter will, in some way, assault the gates of Hades. Stay with me a little while longer and I’ll explain what that means. It is closely tied to the next thing that Yeshua told him.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven

Yeshua did not give Peter the authority to deny anyone access to eternity, to “excommunicate” them. That isn’t what the “keys of the kingdom” are for. Rather, Yeshua told Peter that, because he was the first to recognize him as the Messiah and Son of God, he would also be the first to open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven to others.

The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t solely in Heaven. It’s also right here among us. Wherever the citizens of the Kingdom reside, there also is the Kingdom. Yeshua also told us that there are many in the Kingdom who will not be accepted into eternity (see the parables of the good seed, the sower, and the talents, among others), so the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are only about opening access to the Kingdom, not to Heaven nor to eternal life.

In Matthew 16, Peter was the first to announce to the disciples that Yeshua was the Messianic Son of God.

In Acts 2, Peter announced to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (Pentecost) that Yeshua of Nazareth had come and inaugurated the Kingdom of Heaven.

In Acts 4, Peter announced to the Sanhedrin and the priests that they had crucified Yeshua of Nazareth, but that same Yeshua had risen from the dead.

In Acts 10, Peter announced to the Roman Centurion Cornelius that God welcomed him and his family into the Assembly and the Kingdom of Heaven.

At least four times, Peter was the first to open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven to a group of people, and this is what Yeshua meant when he said that he would give Peter the keys of the Kingdom. Not to lock anyone out, but to open the gates to all who would give their full allegiance to the King, no matter who their parents were or what language and religion they had been born into.

But in possessing the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, Peter opened two gates, not just one.

He also broke down the Gates of Hades so that those who were dead in sin, without hope of every reconciling to the God of the Jews, would be born again. The spiritually dead came to life through Peter’s testimony.

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven

Rabbinic literature uses this concept of binding and loosing to refer to rulings on questions concerning the application of God’s Law. Here again we come to the concept of the “gate” where the elders of a city used to sit and hold court. The Law was written in ink, but the application often requires weighing competing obligations. Should a newborn boy be circumcised on the eighth day as God commanded even if the eighth day would fall on the Sabbath when God said nobody should be working? (See John 7:21-24.)

If an authority rules one way or another about whether some thing should be done, he has figuratively bound or loosed the actions of another.

There is also another question of translation. I consulted numerous commentaries in preparation for this article and the attached video, and they were unanimous in saying that a more literal translation of this phrase is “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven.”

Yeshua didn’t tell Peter that he could bind or loose anything in Heaven. No man is authorized to change God’s Law.

You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHWH your God that I command you.
Deuteronomy 4:2

Not even Yeshua could take even a single mark away from Torah. (See Matthew 5:17-20.) If he had, then he would have violated the Law and disqualified himself as Messiah. His death would be pointless, his resurrection powerless.

Yeshua wasn’t giving Peter the power of salvation and condemnation, but stating that the Spirit of God working in Peter was reforming Peter’s own heart to be in alignment with God’s, so that Peter would have the power to discern right from wrong even in those cloudy circumstances that confound the wisest men. Peter didn’t become perfect, but he did gain the Law written on his heart so that he could bind on earth what had already been bound in heaven and loose on earth what had already been loosed in heaven.

In fact, in Matthew 18:18, Yeshua told all twelve of the disciples that they would share Peter’s discernments on matters of right and wrong. I don’t think that even the Roman Catholic Church would recognize twelve Popes simultaneously.

This was a blessing and pronouncement of wisdom, not of power. After Peter opened the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven to the nations and reminded the Jerusalem Council of what had happened with Cornelius, he stepped aside and allowed James, the brother of Yeshua, to make the final ruling on minimum standards of behavior for newly converted gentiles.

Tell no one that he was the Christ

If the disciples’ ultimate mission was to tell the world of Yeshua’s identity and mission, then why did he tell them not to tell anyone?

This was a temporary injunction. It might have been because everything had to happen in the right time. The Father planned Yeshua’s incarnation, death, and resurrection so that it would all happen at the most opportune moment for spreading the Gospel of the Kingdom to the whole world. If the people came to believe that Yeshua was truly the Messiah too soon, how would that have affected the required timetable?

But there is another reason that is more closely related to the conversation that had just concluded: Yeshua singled Peter out as the one who would open the gates of Heaven to the masses. The other disciples had to wait for Peter to fulfill this calling before they could also start throwing open lesser gates.

Peter, the Man

Peter was a great man, but only a man. He was not the first Pope. In fact, there has never been a Pope in the way that the Roman church views that office. There have been pretenders and possibly even well-meaning men who sincerely believed that they were specially appointed to rule God’s people for him and dictate morality to God himself. Sincerely, terribly wrong men who have led many millions into an adulterated mess of pagan superstition mixed with truth.

The Roman church includes many, many good people who are most definitely a part of the Kingdom of Heaven and who will pass on to eternal life, but they will do so in spite of the Pope and Catholicism, not because of them.

Subtle Signs from God

God leaves signs everywhere, but you can't see them unless you're willing to look.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

When you’re on the road, there are three kinds of signs to help you reach your destination.

The most obvious are the road signs. Albuquerque 1500 miles, next exit. One way. Deer crossing. Stop….it doesn’t get much simpler than that. If you know where your destination is in relation to your current location, you can find your way there with nothing but road signs if you’re paying attention.

In the modern world, there are also GPS systems that give you audible and animated signs. In 800 feet, turn right. In two miles, stay in the third to the left lane to take the second exit on the right to Highway 23 South, Robinson Lane, Rural Route 11417, Exit 235C. Explicit turn-by-turn directions and usually very helpful.

There is a third kind of traffic sign, however, that is not so explicit and often goes entirely unnoticed.

Driving home from work late at night, have you ever seen a mass of red brake lights appear in the distance and multiply toward you like an ocean wave? You know exactly what’s about to happen: within the next minute, maybe two, you’re going to be stuck in a traffic jam. Hopefully, it won’t last long, but if you know the area, you might look for an exit and an alternate route. If you’re familiar with the downtown exits of some freeways, you know to move left when approaching an on-ramp in heavy traffic and move right when approaching an off-ramp. Poor lighting on a poorly surfaced road in the middle of a big city might signal another kind of trouble to avoid.

You can even follow the sun in the day and the stars at night. People have been navigating by the skies for thousands of years.

Signs are everywhere if you have eyes to see them.

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
Matthew 16:1-4

The first century Jewish leaders had a millennium’s worth of writings about the Messiah. Every page of the Tanakh (the Old Testament) testifies to his identity and mission, and these men claimed to have dedicated their lives to studying it. Yet, what most of them really studied and kept was their own position, their credentials and the power they held over their brothers.

When Yeshua (Jesus) came healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, cleansing lepers, and releasing spiritual captives, they demanded something flashier. When he showed people how to keep God’s commandments and explained the prophets and Psalms, they tried to trap him with trick questions.

The Scribes, Pharisees, and Priests couldn’t read the obvious signs for one simple reason: They didn’t want to.

Yeshua then turned to his disciples and warned them about the leavening of the Pharisees. When they thought he was talking about actual leavened bread, no wonder he despaired!

But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?  9  Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  10  Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  11  How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Matthew 16:8-11 

If even his own disciples couldn’t follow the obvious signs that Yeshua had erected along the road for them, how could the rest of Israel do it?

Every word and act of Yeshua that is recorded in Scripture is a multi-layered sign. When he spoke of bread, he never meant only the bread that a person chews and swallows with his mouth. When he fed the five thousand and the four thousand families, he wasn’t just feeding people. It’s a great thing to do good, but Yeshua elevated every good deed to the level of prophecy. The feeding of the five thousand was a prophecy of the repentance, regathering, and ultimate restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. The feeding of the four thousand was a prophecy of Yeshua’s death and resurrection, the Great Commission, the martyrs among Yeshua’s Apostles, and the promise of eternal life for all who repent from sin and swear allegiance to him.

Yeshua is the bread of life, broken and distributed to the people of the world so that all who would put their faith in him will be saved from eternal destruction and given eternal life after the final judgment. Throughout his ministry, he had left “bread crumbs” that anyone with eyes to see could follow.

We have a more complete record today of Yeshua’s life and ministry than almost anyone living in Judea in 30 AD could have had. We have libraries full of commentary and biographies of martyrs and records of healings and miracles spanning two thousand years. We have hundreds of thousands–if not millions–of people who dedicate their entire lives to studying the astonishing miracles of life and Creation…and so many still can’t see the blazing LED signs that God has installed at every intersection.

The problem isn’t their rational minds, but their hearts. The eyes and ears that can perceive God’s signs are spiritual, and those signs will only be perceived by a spirit willing to perceive them. Reason and knowledge can have a positive impact, but ultimately, the real key to opening eyes to God’s signs is softening hearts. In my experience, hearts are softened by only three means: pain, kindness, and divine intervention.

That doesn’t mean we should set out to inflict pain on anyone. It also doesn’t mean that we should be nice to people no matter what they do. The loving kindness (chesed) exemplified by Yeshua doesn’t enable sin, but it exposes it, gently when possible, fiercely when necessary. If you want to know how to open people’s eyes to God’s signs, then follow the signs yourself. Live as Yeshua lived. Love as Yeshua loved. Speak the truth with chesed–and also with caution–and live a pure life. Pray for the blind and deaf, and let God do the rest.

Acts 15, revisited

Are Christians obligated to keep the Law of Moses?

People frequently point to Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem as an argument against Christians keeping Torah. “Peter, James, and the other Apostles said that gentile converts only need to keep these four rules, so we don’t need to keep the Law of Moses.” The obvious counter is that, if eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, eating animals that have been strangled, and consuming blood (Acts 15:20) is the full moral standard for Christians, then we are free to dishonor our parents, thumb our nose at traffic signs, lie, cheat, steal, and curse God. Yet nobody believes that!

Clearly the ruling of the Jerusalem Council is just a baseline for new converts in the context of the pagan Roman Empire, who already had a basic understanding of right and wrong.

Here’s another statement extracted from a conversation from a long time ago, in an Internet forum far, far away:

Jesus’ entire ministry on earth was centered around clarifying the law, and in many places he criticizes those who live by the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law. an example is the “good samaritan parable”. The laws were given to the Jews in order to keep them ceremoniously clean and set aside for God. So when Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, his blood sacrifice has fulfilled the spirit of the law by making us clean before God and setting us aside for him. I believe as much is stated in John 1:1-14.

I do not believe that Acts 15 is suggesting that Christians can lie, steal, etc. etc., because such things were not included in the letter. Rather I believe that as Jesus said, the sum of the laws and the prophets, the spirit of them, is to love the Lord you God will all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.

-Mr. B.A.D.

I don’t think that Mr. B.A.D. is very far from the truth here. Yeshua did spend much of his time correcting misunderstandings of the Law. God did give the Torah to Israel to set them apart from other peoples. Yeshua’s life and sacrifice did fulfill the spirit of the Law. The sum of the Law and the Prophets is to love God and neighbor.

But this is an incomplete understanding. Let’s look at each of these points in more detail.

Yeshua criticized those who live by the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law.

Mr. B.A.D. is talking about the Pharisees in particular, I think. Here are some of the specific complaints Yeshua had against them:

  1. They replaced the commandments of God with the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:9)
  2. They held others to a higher standard than that to which they held themselves. (Matthew 23:4)
  3. Their obedience was done mostly for show and not out of love for anyone but themselves. (Matthew 23:5-7)
  4. Their false teachings made it more difficult for anyone else to know the truth. (Matthew 23:13)
  5. They abused the poor and weak. (Matthew 23:14)
  6. They didn’t make disciples for God, but disciples for themselves. (Matthew 23:15)
  7. They had their priorities all wrong. (Matthew 23:16-22)
  8. They were scrupulous on the minutiae of the Law while they ignored the most important commandments. (Matthew 23:23-24)
  9. Their public behavior was at complete odds with their private behavior and with their hearts. (Matthew 23:25-31)

It seems to me that all of this can be summed up in a single word: hypocrisy. Their problem wasn’t that they were obsessed with the letter of the Law. Their problem was an obsessions with appearing to keep the Law. They were so concerned with this appearance that the Law itself wasn’t enough for them. “Love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t showy enough for the Pharisaical mind. They had to make up more and more rules to follow so that everyone could see how very righteous they were, but in adding to God’s Law they were breaking the very thing they pretended to keep. They were hypocrites from their white-washed facades to their rotted cores.

I think Mr B.A.D.’s main point here is entirely correct. A preoccupation with the letter of the Law to the detriment of the spirit of the Law will destroy you, because it will tend to lead you to less obedience in the end, rather than more. It is easy to get lost in the details and forget what is most important. The individual commandments are not the goal, but only individual stones in the road. The goal is Yeshua, and we would all do well to keep our focus on him rather than on precisely measuring our tithes of mint and cumin.

The laws were given to the Jews in order to keep them ceremonially clean, and set aside for God.

The Law was given for many reasons, one of which was to keep the Israelites separate from the pagan nations around them, but this separateness is really more of an effect of the Law than an intent. God gave Israel the Law to teach them to behave better than the Canaanites, not just differently. The specific commandments weren’t arbitrary. God didn’t randomly pick which animals would be clean and unclean, or which fabrics they could and couldn’t mix.

Israel is a holy nation because God chose them from among all other nations to be his special possession. Holiness means “set apart for divine purpose”. Since he made them holy by election, he also wanted them to be holy by behavior. The goal of behaving differently isn’t just to stand out. The Pharisees were great at standing out from the crowd, but terrible at obeying God’s Law. Rather, the goal of God’s rules about behaving differently than the pagans, was to make Israel more beautiful and pleasing to him.

Why should Israel not eat pigs? Because eating pigs is detestable to God. Why should Israel not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together? Because, whether we understand why or not, God hates it.

But that’s not the only reason God gave Israel the Law.

Paul wrote that the Law was also given to define sin for the whole world (Romans 3:19-20).

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Romans 3:19-20

The whole world–not only the Jews–is accountable to God for their disobedience to the Law. As John wrote, sin is lawlessness, and he didn’t mean the laws of Rome or Babylon. He meant God’s Law. Sin is, by definition, breaking God’s Law. Now that we are saved from condemnation and our sins have been forgiven, are we supposed to forget what sin is and behave in whatever manner we feel is right? Of course not! God’s forgiveness of past sins is not a license to commit future sins.

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Romans 3:31

Now that we have been separated from the world, elevated to the status of a holy people along with the native-born Israelite, we demonstrate our gratefulness and maintain that separation by behaving differently than we behaved when we were still in sin. “Be holy, even as I am holy” in 1 Peter 1:16 is a quote from multiple passages in Leviticus. We have been made holy by divine action, and so God requires us to live accordingly by following the rules he gave for that purpose.

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
2 Corinthians 6:14-18

So when Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, his blood sacrifice has fulfilled the spirit of the law by making us clean before God and setting us aside for him.

When Yeshua died on the cross he fulfilled the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself more certainly than most of us ever will, but that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of continuing to love our neighbors as ourselves. He took our sin upon him and shed his own blood to fulfill the Law’s requirement for the death of murderers, Sabbath breakers, and the sexually immoral. Yeshua’s blood atones for us and removes us from under the condemnation of the Law, but that is still not a license to ignore God’s standards of behavior. He didn’t die so that we can eat bacon cheeseburgers and sleep with whomever we choose. He died so that we can have eternal life despite our failings.

Acts 15 is not suggesting that Christians can lie, steal, etc etc because such things were not included in the letter.

I agree, and this is something that many people overlook when they read that passage. For the sake of theological argument they interpret James’ ruling as the definitive list of moral behavior for Christians, but then say that Christians also have to keep a long list of other rules. This demonstrates that they don’t even believe their own arguments. Very few people actually think the apostles were really giving new converts permission to steal so long as they didn’t drink blood. The only logical conclusion is that the apostles were giving a starting point and expected the converts to continue learning and improving their behavior from there. What curriculum did they expect these gentiles to use for furthering their education in morality and religion? Torah.

For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.
Acts 15:21

The controversy in Acts 15 was never about whether the Law applied to gentile believers in Yeshua–Romans 3:19 makes it clear that the Law applies to all people, believers or not–but about whether obedience to the Law was necessary for salvation. We are no longer “under the Law” because we have been set free from its power to condemn, but we are still accountable to God for keeping his commandments and maintaining his standard of acceptable behavior.

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1

Keeping the Law of Moses cannot remove the guilt of prior sins nor earn you eternal salvation, but if viewed properly, it can improve your life, your community, and your relationship with God. “Be holy, because I am holy,” God said, not because he wants us to be weird, but because he loves some behaviors and hates others. If we are the Bride of Christ, we should behave like it. What man wants his bride to wear filthy rags and smell like an outhouse?

Matthew 9:14-17 and the Three Fasting Parables

Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved. Matthew 9:14-17

Yeshua was frequently confronted by members of the leading, Jewish, religious groups of the day, but the conversation in Matthew 9:14-17 wasn’t one of those times. In this passage, it wasn’t the Pharisees or the Sadducees, but the disciples of John the Baptist.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
Matthew 9:14-17

Fasting has has been an integral part of religious practice in almost every religion throughout history. There’s a place for it in every theological system. Even atheists fast for the positive effects on mental and physical health. Religious Jews in the first century fasted at least one day each week, and religious Christians followed their example. But…back to John and his disciples…

Frequently, when the Pharisees asked Yeshua a question, he didn’t answer them directly. He gave them a roundabout answer, or he challenged them back, or he answered some other question that they didn’t ask. But these weren’t Pharisees and they weren’t trying to trap Yeshua with their question. They were sincere believers who really wanted to understand why they fasted frequently, while Yeshua and his disciples didn’t. So, Yeshua answered plainly through the use of three analogies: one about a wedding and the groom, one about patching an old garment, and one about putting wine into wineskins.

The Limits of Analogies

Whenever you’re dealing with analogies, you always have to be careful that you’re not taking the analogy further than the author intended. If an analogy was perfect, it wouldn’t be an analogy anymore. It would be the very thing that you’re analogizing.

Let me take an example from another Gospel passage.

Yeshua used another analogy when he was speaking with Nicodemus.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
John 3:8

The Spirit is like the wind in that you can’t see it directly, even though you can see its effects. The Spirit doesn’t behave like a gas, expanding to fill the available physical space. It doesn’t behave like matter, effected by gravitational forces, inertia, temperatures, etc. If the Spirit was exactly like the wind in every respect, then it would quite literally be the wind. At some point, every analogy breaks down, so if you try to carry it further than the author intended, you’ll also come to all kinds of unwarranted conclusions.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all talk about this conversation and all three accounts include all three analogies together, so we can be certain that they are all part of the answer to the original question about fasting. I think understanding the meaning depends on keeping each analogy within the context of why Yeshua’s disciples didn’t fast.

The Bridegroom and His Friends

Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
Matthew 9:15

The wedding analogy seems fairly obvious. Weddings are festive occasions with food, drinks, and dancing. In today’s terms, if you were invited to a bachelor party or a wedding rehearsal dinner, would it be appropriate to fast at the event? Of course, not. It would be rude.

Consider the wedding at Cana in John 2. It was such a big party that the bridegroom ran out of wine! It would have been a social disaster for him, if Mary had not convinced Yeshua to work a miracle, turning six jars of water into the finest wine. It might seem like a minor thing to you and me, but in that culture, the host’s honor could have suffered severe damage. And just as it would be dishonorable for a wedding host to fail to provide sufficient food and wine for his guests, it would also be dishonorable for a wedding guest to refuse his hospitality.

Weddings and the preliminary festivities just aren’t the right time for fasting, and in this analogy, Yeshua’s disciples are like bridegroom’s friends celebrating his imminent marriage.

It’s tempting to push the analogy further and make comparisons to the church being the bride of Christ, and maybe that’s why Yeshua chose that particular analogy, but it wasn’t the point Yeshua was trying to make at the time. Remember that he was answering a question about fasting, not about eternal salvation, the messiah, or the end times.

The Patched Garment

No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made.
Matthew 9:16

The connection between fasting and patching a garment is less obvious, but set aside all the sermons and Sunday school lessons that you’ve heard about this “parable”, and focus on what it actually says.

In ancient cultures, cloth was expensive. The average person might own a total of two sets of clothes, frequently only one. When a garment began to wear out, they didn’t throw it away and buy a new one. They patched it and patched it and patched it again. There is no reason to suppose that the person in this analogy would do any differently. The goal is to preserve the old garment, not replace it.

I’m sure you know that new clothes–especially ones made of natural fibers, and there was no other kind in the first century–can shrink significantly when you first wash them and sometimes continue to shrink for a few subsequent washes. If you were to take a piece of brand new cloth and sew it onto an older, cotton shirt, the patch will shrink the first time you wash it, and cause the shirt fabric around it to bunch up or possibly tear even worse than before. The right way to patch an older garment is with cloth made of the same material and then shrunk to the same degree. That way, when you wash it, the patch won’t shrink again.

Likewise, if you have a brand new garment that needs to be patched, you can either patch it with a matching, brand new piece of cloth, or you can wash the new garment until it is fully shrunk and use a pre-shrunk patch.

Just as there is a time to fast and a time not to fast, there is a kind of cloth to use as a patch on an old garment and another kind to use on a new garment. If you don’t patch a cloth correctly, you could do more harm than good.

Wine and Wineskins

Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.
Matthew 9:17

Keep reminding yourself that the point of all three analogies is to answer the question of why Yeshua’s disciples didn’t fast. There is nothing wrong with either the new wine or the old wine, the new wineskins or the old wineskins.

Think of the wedding at Cana again. When Yeshua turned the water into wine, the master of the feast remarked that the best wine is always served first, and the lesser wine served after everyone is at least a little intoxicated. The best wine in this context is the oldest, most fermented wine. In Luke’s account of Yeshua’s conversation with John’s disciples, Yeshua makes this point explicit:

No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.
Luke 5:39 KJV

Clearly there’s no fault in the wine, whether new or old. The goal in this story is to preserve all the wine and all the wineskins.

As wine ferments, it releases gases. The vessel needs to be able to expand or release the gas. In this case, skins were the normal method of storing. New wine would be put into new pliable wineskins. The wineskin expands and eventually hardens as the wine matures. Once the skin has aged in this way, you can’t use it for new wine again, because the expanding gases will burst the wineskin. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the old wineskin. It’s still perfectly suitable for storing old wine, water, or any number of other substances.

New wine goes into new wineskins. Old wine goes into old wineskins. If you swap those around, you’re liable to break something.

For Everything There Is a Season

Yeshua frequently taught using parables, simple stories used to illustrate a theological idea. Recall the parables of the sower, the prodigal son, and the lost coin.

Luke 5:36 calls the analogies of the garments and wineskins “a parable”, and that’s technically correct since the Greek word really only means “metaphor”. However, although these analogies certainly illustrate an idea, there’s no real story in them. They aren’t a parable in the way we normally think of that term. They are simple analogies.

It’s tempting to ascribe deep meanings to every tiny element of a parable, but we can get ourselves into all kinds of unnecessary theological complications by doing so. The point of all three of the analogies in Matthew 9:14-17 (and Mark 2:18-22 and Luke 5:33-39) is really very simple: There is a time and place for everything, including fasting.

You fast in times of sorrow, when you’re troubled, when you’ve got a big decision to make, and you need some spiritual focus and insight. A king might fast when he’s deciding whether or not to go to war, but he stops fasting once the troops are on the march. They all need their strength for the hard work ahead. A man might fast when he’s deciding whether or not to marry a woman, but once the decision is made and the marriage arranged, the fasting ends and the celebrating begins.

It’s not appropriate to fast at a party, sew a new cloth patch onto an old garment, or put new wine into old wineskins. Fasting is good and celebrating is good. You just don’t mix the two, or you risk ruining both.

The Law Ended with the Temple

No part of God's Law has been abrogated, canceled, annulled, or whatever synonym you prefer. All of the commandments are simultaneously moral, civil, and ceremonial.

The ceremonial laws were ultimately abrogated when the Temple was destroyed in AD70. -Freddy

I’m not really sure what to think of Christians basing their theology on extra-biblical historical events rather than on the clear statements of God. Is it appropriate to call yourself a Christian when you don’t even believe what Christ said?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Matthew 5:17-18

I can see interpreting “until all is accomplished” to mean “until I have been crucified and resurrected”. I disagree with that interpretation, but I can see the logic in it. I can’t see how it could apply to the destruction of the Temple.

What was the “all” that was accomplished in 70 AD? An extreme preterist would say that all prophecy was completely fulfilled in or prior to that year, including the second coming of Yeshua, the total destruction and recreation of heaven and earth, and the resurrection and judgment of all the dead. Extreme preterism is so bizarre, in my opinion, and its adherents so far removed from solid scriptural understanding, that I don’t think they would accept any argument I might make, even if I were inclined to make them. So I won’t.

The “all” that was accomplished can’t be the destruction of the Temple itself, because that happened once before when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 BC. Herod’s Temple never had the presence of God the way that Solomon’s Temple did, so if the destruction of the Temple was enough to do away with “ceremonial laws”, then surely it would have happened when that first, greater Temple was destroyed.

Which laws are the ceremonial ones that Freddy believes were abrogated? Only those that pertain to the Temple? That would be consistent with his statement, at least, but which laws are those exactly?

It is common among many Bible teachers to divide the Law into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Since this division is purely manmade and entirely foreign to the Bible, nobody can agree on which laws are in which category. Is circumcision ceremonial or moral? The command to circumcise our sons on the eighth day preceded the Levitical priesthood by about 430 years, so it can’t reasonably be tied to the Temple. The commands to keep the weekly seventh day Sabbath, the Passover, and the week of Unleavened Bread all preceded Sinai and any hint of the Levitical priesthood, as did the practice of giving the firstborn of the herds to God. If “ceremonial laws” are those that pertain to the Temple, then these can’t be ceremonial.

The bottom line is that people just don’t want to keep God’s commandments, so they search for excuses and invent rationalizations for their disobedience. The destruction of the altar is a very good reason not to offer blood sacrifices since God commanded that they must be done at the altar in Jerusalem, but that still doesn’t mean the commandments themselves have been abrogated. It just means that our circumstances preclude full obedience, so we’ll have to rely on God’s grace to forgive us. Ultimately, 70 AD a semi-arbitrary point in time that can be used to superficially justify expiring any obligation to keep the more awkward and “Jewish” of God’s instructions.

If one were to point to a historical event and say “the Law ended here” Calvary would make a little more sense, but still not enough to pass Scriptural muster. Somebody forgot to tell the Apostles, who continued to attend worship and offer sacrifices at the Temple throughout the book of Acts. When asked how new converts should behave, they said (heavily paraphrasing), “Don’t commit sexual immorality, don’t eat blood, and, oh by the way, Moses is read in every synagogue of the Empire, so go listen and keep learning.

No part of God’s Law has been abrogated, canceled, annulled, or whatever synonym you prefer. All of the commandments are simultaneously moral, civil, and ceremonial. All of the commandments express love for both God and mankind, whether we understand exactly how or not. The Truth has never depended on our comprehension of it.

Yeshua said that anyone who sets aside even the smallest commandment and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who keep the Law and teach others to keep it will be called great in the Kingdom. (Matthew 5:19) I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine a higher endorsement of keeping the whole Law.

That’s why I’m here, encouraging Christians and all believers in Yeshua, whatever label they apply to themselves, to study and learn to keep the Torah out of love and respect for the Heavenly Father and Messiah Yeshua.

Galatians and the Abuse of Paul

What did Paul mean by "weak and worthless elementary principles of the world" in Galatians 4:9?

Someone named Daniel made the following argument against believers in Yeshua being obedient to God’s Law as given through Moses:

Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?

-Daniel

Context, context, context. Modern Christians hear too many sermons and don’t do enough studying and thinking.

Daniel is alluding to a couple of Paul’s statements in the Letter to the Galatians, but he ignored the context and re-interpreted these statements to mean something other than what Paul intended. This isn’t entirely Daniel’s fault. His teachers all likely did the same thing. Here is the original passage:

Galatians 3:21-29  Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.  (22)  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.  (23)  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  (24)  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  (25)  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,  (26)  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  (27)  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  (28)  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (29)  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Galatians 4:1-11  I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything,  (2)  but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.  (3)  In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.  (4)  But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  (5)  to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  (6)  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  (7)  So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.  (8)  Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  (9)  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?  (10)  You observe days and months and seasons and years!  (11)  I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Paul Is Easy to Take Out of Context

By reading and quoting small bits of this letter out of context, Christians are able to say that the Law is irrelevant to them. Paul wrote that no one can be saved by keeping the Law, and many Christians point to that and say, “See? Paul said we don’t need to keep the Law.”

This is nonsense. It’s like saying we don’t need pens and paper to do our jobs because we didn’t need them to get to the office. Just because you don’t need to keep the Law to be saved, doesn’t mean you don’t need to keep the Law after you are saved. The conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the argument.

I am going to deconstruct this passage, paraphrasing and amplifying one piece at a time. First, I want to establish the reason that Paul included this discussion in his letter at all.

Galatians 1:6-7 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– (7) not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

After Paul had introduced the Galatians to faith in Yeshua, some other people came and began giving them a false teaching. But what was the false teaching? Rather than stating it outright, Paul summarized his own ministry of the past 20 years. He wrote of how he had once persecuted the Christians, but was converted by a miraculous encounter with Yeshua, after which he began preaching the gospel to gentiles. Many years later, some Pharisees had infiltrated the Christian congregations and were insisting that the gentiles should be circumcised and keep the whole Law before they could be considered true members of the congregation. Again he traveled to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles, and they agreed that salvation was not by circumcision and works, but by faith. James, Peter, and the other Disciples wrote a letter to the new Gentile congregations with four rules just to get them started in the right direction because “Moses is read aloud in every synagogue”.

That controversy was not about whether gentiles should keep the Law or learn it; it was only about justification, or salvation from sin. (See “Does Acts 15 Say We Can Ignore God’s Law” for a more detailed discussion of that event.) Later, Peter visited the congregation in Antioch. While there, he sat and ate with gentiles and Jews alike, but when some Jews arrived from Jerusalem, he stopped eating with the gentiles. Paul confronted him about it because Peter’s own vision had shown him that he should not hesitate to fellowship with gentiles. Besides that, there was nothing in the Mosaic Law to prevent a Jew from eating with a gentile. That was only a rule that had been invented by men and was never from God.

Galatians 2:15-21 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; (16) yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (17) But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!

At this point Paul clearly established that he was not writing about living a good life of upright behavior, but about eternal spiritual justification, about salvation: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Yeshua the Messiah.”

Paul said that, even though he and the apostles were Jews, they knew that they were saved in the same way as the gentiles: through faith in Yeshua, and not by works of the law. But as James pointed out, this did not stop them from keeping the Law, only in relying upon it for their salvation (James 2:18).

Galatians 2:18-19  For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. (19) For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

This thing that Paul is writing against is the same thing that he had previously torn down, but what was that thing? Not the Law itself as he repeatedly pointed out in the Letter to the Romans, but rather the legalism of attempting to earn salvation through obedience to the Law, especially to man-made laws that frequently ran counter to God’s Law. To go back to depending on the Law for salvation when it was never sufficient either before or after the cross would be counterproductive in the extreme.

Having established that the controversy in Galatia was not about how people ought to live, but how they are to be saved, let’s skip ahead to the passage that Daniel quoted.

What Was Galatians Really About?

Galatians 3:21  Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.

There is no conflict between Law and Grace if they are both used properly. God’s promise of salvation is alluded to in the Law, but is not provided for by the Law. Put another way, the Mosaic Law was never intended to save anyone from sin that has already been committed. There are provisions in it for enabling sinners to approach God despite their sin, but there is no provision to permanently remove that sin. That was never its purpose.

Total righteousness–the complete absence of sin–is not possible under the Mosaic Law and never was. Of course, there is another kind of righteousness that comes from obedience to the Law, unless Moses was lying in Deuteronomy 6:25, but that is not the righteousness that Paul was addressing here. It is has value, but all of the law-abiding righteousness in the world can’t erase a single instance of law-breaking. In Galatians 3:21, Paul was discussing to a greater righteousness that goes beyond mere actions of the flesh.

(22)  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

The Scriptures written on stone and parchment would not have been necessary if we were able to maintain God’s standards perfectly. It’s very existence proves that we are imperfect. Because we are sinners, God gave us the Law to teach us how to behave, and also to serve as a witness and judge against us in our sins. When we sin, the Law testifies against us, and we come under its authority to condemn. If it weren’t for the written Law, many people would not even know that they were “imprisoned” by it because of their sin and would be unaware that they needed a savior. For those who become aware of their need, God has also made promises of redemption in the same document.

(23)  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.

Paul did not mean that faith came at a particular moment in time for all people everywhere. Faith did not come after Yeshua’s crucifixion or even after Pentecost. If it did, then Abraham’s faith could not have been counted as righteousness (Galatians 3:6). Faith has come to individuals in all ages. Enoch, Moses, David, and Paul were all saved by faith and set free from the condemnation that came from their guilt under the Law. Those who have not yet found faith in Yeshua are still held captive to the Law because their failure to obey it, keeps them under its authority to condemn.

The Law As a Schoolmaster

(24)  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

The Greek word paidagogos is translated as guardian, schoolmaster, or tutor, depending on the translation you’re reading. According to David Stern (Jewish New Testament Commentary), the paidagogos functioned as a disciplinarian who ensured children arrived at their school safely and on time. Because the paidagogos does not exist in our culture, none of those translations are quite right. Young’s Literal Translation renders it as “child-conductor,” which is probably as accurate as one could hope for.

I think the King James Version is very instructive here.

(24)  Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

Notice that “to bring us” is in italics, which means that those words were not in the original Greek text. They were inserted by the translators to help the reader understand what they believed the passage to be saying. The added words don’t detract from the meaning in the KJV, but the English Standard Version, from which I have been quoting throughout this series, is misleading in this case, especially because it doesn’t include the italics. The ESV translators (as well as the International Standard translators) took a huge liberty with this verse, contrary to almost every translation before them. The Rheims New Testament, Bishops Bible, and Geneva Bible (all 16th century) agree with the KJV. So does the American Standard, Darby, and Young’s translations (all 19th-20th century).

The Law was not a paidagogos until Christ, but unto Christ. The difference in prepositions is very important. The Law leads us to the Messiah by illustrating the principles that require a savior, by demonstrating our inability to save ourselves, and by prophesying of his coming, not to mention the many, many allusions to the Messiah’s role in the physical and spiritual salvation of Israel. To this day, the Law continues to function as a “schoolmaster unto Christ” for everyone who doesn’t yet know him.

(25)  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,  (26)  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

Paul’s illustration of the paidagogus is a metaphor, and it’s always important not to add more meaning to any metaphor than the author intends. Since Paul only said that the Law is like a paidagogus in the sense that it leads us to Christ, we abuse the text by trying to make it say that the Law functions as a paidagogus in every conceivable circumstance.

Now that the Law has demonstrated our need for salvation and shown us the way to obtain it, we no longer need it for that purpose. This is not to say that we don’t need the Law for other purposes. Having come to faith, we are not to go on sinning.

We know that the Law defines sin.

Peter, John, and Paul all explained that one of the purposes of the Law is to show us our sin. If it didn’t define sin, how could neither convict us or inform of our need for a savior? If something was a sin before faith, it makes no sense to think it somehow becomes not sin after faith. Having “put on Christ” (v27), we are not allowed to rely on his covering to hide continuous sin. We are required to continue striving for perfection, not to earn salvation, but because righteous behavior is pleasing to God.

The great benefit of faith in this regard is that it removes any worry of failure. We obey out of love for our Savior, but we don’t need to be terrified of instant condemnation if we fail in any small point, because we know he will forgive us when we sin.

I am going to skip a few verses to make a couple of final points.

Elementary Principles of the World

Galatians 4:8-9  Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  (9)  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

What are these “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” to which the Galatians were once enslaved? We can’t know the specifics of what they were, but we can know for an absolute certainty that they were not God’s Laws as Daniel implied in his comment. The Galatians were very much enslaved to the Law, but only because they were sinners, not because they were trapped in Pharisaical Judaism.

The answer is only a single sentence away, and I am astonished that any Christian who has actually read Galatians can think Paul was referring to Torah! Those “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” were false gods and religions, not God’s Law! Verse seven says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.”

Indeed, Daniel, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.

The Galatians were pagans before they came to faith in Yeshua, not Jews. How could they return to a Judaism that they had never known? When Paul wrote that they were turning back to those former principles, he meant that by attempting to earn their salvation by works, they were returning to the same principles that had informed their former idolatry. When they were idol worshipers they appeased their gods by speaking the right incantations and offering the right sacrifices on the right days.

What Is the Law to a Christian?

There was never any eternal salvation in such things whether they originated in pagan idolatry or in God’s perfect Law. You cannot be saved through the rigorous observance of days, months, seasons, and years no matter what days or seasons they are.

You can, however, learn a great deal about who God is and how he relates to you by keeping his commands, including his holy days.

Hosea 4:6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.

So this Spring, try removing unleavened bread from your house during the week of Passover. This Fall, get yourself a family sized tent and find a group of people celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. Or build yourself a sukka.

Love God and love your neighbor. God’s Law, the Torah, shows you how to do that.

Study, do, and live. Obeying God’s instructions will never steer you wrong. By definition, keeping the commandments can never be sin.

There’s No Rest without Submission

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:29-30

Years ago, when Robert was in college, one of his more socially awkward classmates, Bennie, showed up at his dorm room–this was before cell phones were ubiquitous–eager to make a new friend and maybe hang out for awhile. Unfortunately, Robert already had all the friends he wanted and told Bennie to get lost; he wasn’t wanted there. He still remembers the look on Bennie’s face.

Nicole had three children, but she was never a mother to them. She had a nanny who took care of their daily needs, took them to school, and read stories to them at bedtime. When her daughter had an abortion at sixteen, Nicole didn’t find out until six months later. When her son was arrested for drug possession, her husband bailed him out and she pretended nothing happened. Today, her daughter hasn’t spoken to her in over a decade, and she has three grandchildren she’s never met.

We all have regrets. We all harbor guilt. Some of us more than others, deservedly or not.

Matthew 11:28-30 contains a chiasm on finding rest in Yeshua (aka Jesus).

  • A – V28 – Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden
    • B – I will give you rest
      • C – V29 – Take my yoke upon you
        • D – Learn from me
      • C – I am gentle and lowly in heart
    • B – You will find rest for your souls
  • A – V30 – My yoke is easy and my burden is light

I have heard people say that “Jesus is my Sabbath”, and that’s not a bad sentiment as long as it’s only meant metaphorically. Some people want to take an idea like that too literally, as if believing in Yeshua alleviates all other physical and spiritual needs. The Sabbath is a day of the week, and Yeshua isn’t a day of the week. He does give us rest, but not the kind of rest that eliminates the need for a day off from work.

The rest that Yeshua gives is spiritual and emotional in nature. He alleviates our fears, heals our wounds, and enables us to develop a full relationship with our Heavenly Father.

The labors and burdens that Yeshua spoke of in Matthew 11:28 are not physical. He wasn’t speaking only to manual laborers, but also to tax collectors, entertainers, and CEOs. Suffering is relative. From the outside, it might appear that a brick layer carries a heavier burden than a house wife, but inner burdens can’t be measured by weight or volume. A harsh word at the wrong moment can often cause a deeper, more lasting wound than a knife that slips and cuts the flesh. The worries of a parent can be more damaging in the long run to a person’s health than the repetitive stress of hammering nails. These are the burdens that Yeshua primarily meant and that he wants to help us with.

Guilt, regret, worry… they weigh heavily on everyone, but God can give us relief if we will put our faith in Yeshua. Having faith in him means trusting his promises and teaching, but most of all it means being faithful to him, submitting ourselves to his sovereignty over our lives.

“Take my yoke upon you”, he said. He wants to take the yoke of sin and self that has enslaved us, but it’s impossible to live without a master. It’s part of the nature of being human. The old yoke cannot come off our shoulders unless it is immediately replaced with Yeshua’s. We have to be willing to take his yoke in its place or he cannot take ours.

This passage says, “If you are burdened, come to Yeshua, who will give you rest through a lighter burden.” But at the very center of the chiasm, Yeshua says “Learn from me.” In other words, become his disciple and learn by studying and following his example.

Once you have decided to put our faith in Yeshua, to believe what he told us, he will accept you into his house. Once you are in his house, learn from his words and deeds, and become an imitator of Yeshua, as Paul instructed the believers at Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:1.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. -The Apostle Paul

There is no expiration on the teachings of our Master. In Matthew 24:35, he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Everything he taught to the Twelve Disciples and the people of first century Judea is applicable to us now:

  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Be slow to anger and quick to forgive.
  • Don’t worry about the future and all that the world might do to you.
  • Trials and persecution are inevitable, but so is salvation for those who trust in him.
  • Keep the instructions of God as given through Moses and the Prophets.

Do you want rest for your soul? Then put your faith in Yeshua, take the yoke of his discipleship on your shoulders, and learn to live and love as he did. Your difficulties and labors won’t disappear, but as you learn more of his character and incorporate it into your own life, those troubles will grow lighter and lighter over time.


A brief video teaching on the same passage…

Dead Works and Living Faith

Does the Letter to the Hebrews say that the blood of Christ nullifies any need for believers to keep God's Law today?

Years ago–sometimes it feels like a previous life–I used to engage any willing theological or political combatant on blogs, forums, and listservs. Not so much anymore. I don’t have the patience for rehashing the same old arguments for the ten thousandth time.

Those years did have a lot of value, though. In defending and supporting my own beliefs, I managed to change my own mind on many topics, I learned an awful lot from digging through the Bible, and I was able to help a very few people with honest questions find some answers. It also produced some great blog fodder. 😉 The post below (in addition to some previous and future posts) came out of one of those discussions…


Dead Works

A commenter using the name “Book of Hebrews” made the following argument against a believer in Yeshua (aka Jesus) keeping Torah today:

Plus there’s that whole crazy thing called…The Book of Hebrews.

“When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come to pass, through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation, he entered, no, not with the blood of goats and of young bulls, but with his own blood, once for all time into the holy place and obtained an everlasting deliverance for us. For if the blood of goats and of bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who have been defiled sanctifies to the extent of cleanness of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of the Christ, who through an everlasting spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works that we may render sacred service to the living God?”-Hebrews 9:11-14

“Book of Hebrews” should have paid more attention to the Letter to the Hebrews. Look at verses 13 & 14 in the passage he quoted, as well as this one from the next chapter:

Hebrews 10:4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats take away sins.

“Dead works” are those actions that transgress the Law and thus put us under its jurisdiction. The blood of bulls and goats is effective for sanctifying the flesh, but completely ineffective for sanctifying the spirit from those dead works. (Although sin is both physical and spiritual, it should be clear from the context that the author is referring to sin’s taint on the soul in 10:4.) The present tense used by the author is especially important. The blood of bulls and goats is effective for the flesh and is not effective for the spirit. In fact, the temple sacrifices were never effective for sanctifying the spirit.

Living Faith

Consider what this fact means in light of this passage:

[Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth….Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
Hebrews 11:13 & 16

These great saints lived and died long before Sinai, yet the blood of Yeshua still washed the stain of sin from their souls by way of their faith in God’s providence. The mechanism of their salvation was (is!) no different than that of the saints who lived after Sinai and before Calvary: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. They all lived by faith and are (or will be) raised from the dead because of that faith. They all sacrificed bulls and goats to cleanse their flesh, but they also knew that all of that blood was insufficient to remove all sins from their eternal souls.

This doesn’t mark a change in the Law, merely a continuation. There was always only one way to the Father: faith in his grace to forgive our sins, enabled by the blood of Yeshua. And no amount of faith or grace ever removed the obligation of God’s people to obey his eternal commandments.

Bride, Priest, and Citizen

For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:2

And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am YHWH who sanctifies him.
Leviticus 21:13-15

For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.
2 Corinthians 11:2

The High Priest of Israel was only to marry a virgin of Israel.

For anyone else, there is nothing wrong with marrying a woman who is not a virgin, but, because of his close contact with YHWH, the High Priest had to keep himself to a much higher standard, beyond simple right and wrong. He is also a type of the Messiah, for whom we are preparing ourselves as a bride. In practical terms, it is impossible for us to be pure. Everyone has sinned and therefore the whole body of his people has also sinned. Our theology is corrupt, our behavior is corrupt, our minds and hearts are corrupt. On what basis can Paul say that he intends to present the Church to Messiah Yeshua as a pure virgin?

Solely on the basis of Yeshua’s righteousness imputed to us through his blood which takes away our impurity. He more than covers us, more than forgives us. He cleanses us, making us whole and pure again.

They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.
Ezekiel 44:23

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:4-5

We have become the bride of Messiah, and we have also been made priests, not of the orders of Aaron or Melchizedek, but that of all believers. From the beginning, when Israel was chosen from among the nations, she was chosen to be God’s bride and a nation of priests to the world. Set apart and made holy, we are tasked with teaching the world the difference between unclean and clean, drawing them closer to their creator and interceding on their behalf.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
1 Peter 2:9-11

We are the bride of Christ, we are a nation of priests, and we are citizens of the Kingdom of God.  We have been reborn into the nation of Israel, wild olive shoots grafted into a cultivated tree. As citizens, whether physically circumcised or only spiritually, we are expected to behave ourselves as children of the King, not flaunting privilege, but obeying a higher standard.

Our ultimate purification is yet to come, but until we finally exchange these mortal, corruptible shells for eternal, incorruptible bodies, we must strive to live as pure as we are able, with the aid of God’s Word and Spirit. We can’t be perfect, but we can always be better than we are, one choice, one stop, one word at a time. It’s the least we can do for our ultimate, heavenly High Priest and Husband.

Even the Wicked Understand This

What does the Parable of the Unjust Steward mean?

[Yeshua, aka Jesus] also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.

“And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’

“And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’

“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.

And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”

Luke 16:1-17 ESV

This passage has always puzzled me. An incompetent manager found out he was about to be fired, so he conspired with his customers to steal from his employer in order to secure a new job–or at least some charity–with one or more of the customers. And Yeshua wants us to emulate this man? Does he want us to steal from our employers in order to create good will among those less wealthy? That doesn’t make any sense! Since the Pharisees’ immediate reaction was to ridicule him, they were probably thinking the same thing.

However, when reading it again recently, I noticed some details that must have escaped me before. The keys to understanding are in a phrase Yeshua used in his summary and in his response to the Pharisees, who overheard him speaking this parable to his disciples.

Unrighteous Wealth

God’s Law (Torah) requires a public trial for anyone accused of a crime and that justice be rigorously pursued. In other words, there needs to be an investigation, and the accused has a right to defend himself. The rich man in this story held what amounted to a secret trial without the accused even being aware of it until he was told to pack up and get out. He wasn’t a good man to work for.

Maybe the manager was only negligent and hadn’t done anything criminal, or it could be that the case wasn’t strong enough to stand in a legitimate court of law, and so the rich man decided to dismiss the manager from his employ without pressing criminal charges. He certainly had a right to do so, whether the manager was guilty or not. As another of Yeshua’s parables points out, a man is within his rights to hire and fire anyone he chooses and to use his wealth however he sees fit.

It could also be that the rich man didn’t want to give the town elders and judge an opportunity to examine his books too closely.

In verses 9 and 11, Yeshua referred to the rich man’s wealth using the Greek word mammona, which isn’t just material wealth, but ill-gotten gain, and he even added the adjective adiko, meaning wicked or unrighteous.

If then you have not been faithful in adiko mammona [unrighteous, ill-gotten gain], who will entrust to you true riches?
Luke 16:11

The manager had not squandered the possessions of an ordinary businessman, but of a criminal mastermind, and when he colluded with the master’s clients to forge new instruments of debt, he cheated a cheater.

So are we then to seek out employment with criminals so that we can play Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor? No, that’s not the lesson either.

Unrighteous Teachers

When the Pharisees overheard all of this (as Yeshua intended, no doubt), they scoffed, probably thinking that Yeshua was telling his disciples to use dishonest means to further their mission. But he turned to them and explained that they were like the incompetent manager, but they were wasting the opportunity to prepare for the coming shift in spiritual power.

The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes of Yeshua’s day had inherited an unjust system in which the High Priest was appointed by Rome and the ordinary people were denied the right to study and understand the Scriptures for themselves. They had access to wealth and power that had been unjustly concentrated in the hands of a ruling class.

The Law and the Prophets have been read and studied right up until the time of John. And the good news of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone is trying to claim a piece of it.
Luke 16:16 (Paraphrased)

The Torah and the Prophets had warned for over a thousand years that a day of reckoning was coming for unjust rulers when the Kingdom of God would be established on earth. Everyone wants to be part of the Kingdom, and religious leaders jockey for position to control the gates.

When John and Yeshua went to the common people and began proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom, the ruling classes naturally objected. This was a golden opportunity for them to earn an honored place with the new King, but in their pride they clung to an obsolete office that seemed golden in the eyes of men but was spiritually rotten to the core.

Even the Wicked Know This…

The Temple was intended to unite the people in a closer relationship to God, yet the religious rulers used it to create division among the people and to separate them from God. Meanwhile, the Pharisees buried the people under onerous regulations, the “burden which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear” spoken of by Peter in Acts 15:10. They kept the gentiles as far away as possible, even forbidding a Jew to so much as enter their houses.

When they heard the good news, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, they should have repented from their pride and hatred, embracing their fellow Israelites and inviting the nations into the Tent of Jacob, but they jealously guarded their hoards of hay and stubble.

The point of Yeshua’s parable wasn’t that we should use fraud and bribes to earn good will with men, but that we need to be preparing for what’s coming rather than clinging to what’s passing away. Even the “sons of this world” know to prepare for the next life before this one is over. How much more should the “children of light” know to “lay up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys.”

When the Judge weighs your life on his scales, what will he find?

This life will end. Every title, every bank balance, and every seat in every boardroom will end with it. You have an opportunity right now to repent from selfish ambitions and instead begin laying up treasures in heaven by keeping God’s commandments and doing good for the people in your community. Don’t waste it.