The Transfiguration and “Jewish Law”

Several Sundays ago, my wife and I attended a church in our area that we hadn’t visited in many years. The sermon was delivered by a stand-in—a naïve young associate pastor. He preached on the Transfiguration, Matthew 17:1-13. Being a Baptist, his main point was that salvation is by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus. That much was fine, of course, but at least half of his sermon was designed to show that the purpose of the Transfiguration was to demonstrate that Judaism is dead, not only in the soteriological sense, but in its entirety.

I want here to comment on four points he made that I regard as theologically ridiculous. I’ll spend quite a bit of my space on the first two, because they are common misconceptions in Christianity. The last two, I don’t believe to be commonly held interpretations, so I’ll do little more than mention them.

First Fallacy: he repeated a theory I have come across many times since I was a young man—that “Jewish Law” is composed of three categories of commandments: “Moral Law“, “Civil Law“, and “Ceremonial Law“. There are hints of this in Augustine of Hippo, but I think the idea was fleshed out mostly by Thomas Aquinas, so it became a Roman Catholic and Orthodox view. It was later bequeathed to Protestant Reformed theology by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion; and many subsequent non-Reformed Protestant denominations and individual pastors have adopted the idea as well. The impetus for these teachings was probably an effort to justify claims that Christians are not bound by Civil and ceremonial Law, while at the same time holding that the Moral Law is somehow “still in effect”.

I categorically reject this idea! It is a Christian misinterpretation of Jewish concepts that are difficult to understand without a more than cursory acquaintance with Hebrew cultural nuances. For example, a proof text used relies on the differentiation between terms in Deuteronomy 6:1 and similar verses, which do indicate a threefold differentiation—that is, shades of meaning—within the 612 commandments listed in Scripture; however, these categorizations are not between the moral, the civil and the ceremonial, but rather between what we might term enacted laws, regulations, and court rulings:

Chapter 6 (CJB)
[6:1] “Now this is the mitzvah [commandment; law; ordnance; or precept], the choqim [statutes; enactments; or decrees] and mishpatim [rulings; judgements; sentences; or findings] which ADONAI your God ordered me to teach you for you to obey in the land you are crossing over to possess…

With very few exceptions, Jewish scholarship going back to Talmudic days does not differentiate categories of “Law” in the way this young pastor presented them. The sages did not and do not recognize these categories, only a unified whole of written Biblical Law, plus an entirely separate body of oral tradition.

What does the Bible actually say to us, as Christians? Well, first of all, it never told non-Jews to follow Jewish Law or observe Jewish customs! Torah was given to those under the Abrahamic Covenant in order to set a people, the Jews, apart from non-Covenant peoples. It is said that “we used to be under Law, but now we’re under Grace”, but “we”, the non-Jewish, were never under Law, and salvation has always been by God’s grace, through faith. Law-keeping, even the sacrifices, never saved a Jew from God’s judgement—those were, and in fact were recognized by the Jews as, acts of obedience, and contrition for sin.

So, why do we Christians keep some of these “Laws” but not others? Because we are moral, spirit-directed individuals, and the moral principles we follow are common sense, even to most non-religious folks—”Natural Law”, if you please.

The New Testament halachic (legal—see below) requirement for the Church was decided at the First Church Council, at Jerusalem, as recorded in

Acts 15:19-21 (ESV):
[19] Therefore my [James’] judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, [20] but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. [21] For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.

These four prohibitions are similar to, and encompass, the Noachide Laws—six commandments given to Adam in the Garden, plus a seventh added after the flood. The principles given address practices that are abominable to Jews and are regarded by the Rabbis as the minimum prohibitions necessary for Jewish fellowship with non-Jewish believers.

Second Fallacy: he repeated the interpretation that “The Law” was simply a picture of what Jesus would accomplish on the cross, and that by His crucifixion, He “fulfilled the Law”, and thus did away with it, i.e., “The Law”, having been “fulfilled” has “passed away”; but, just the Civil and Ceremonial portions, not the Moral Law, which is “still in effect, because God, after all, obviously still demands morality.” This, he bases on

Matthew 5:17 (ESV):
[17] “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.”

“The Greek term translated “abolish” above is kataluo [to demolish, halt, destroy, dissolve, come to naught, overthrow, or throw down]. But isn’t that what the book of Hebrews says happened? No, what it says is that Jesus is an intrinsically better mediator than the High Priest and a better expiation than the sacrifices. Both of these, it says, are “passing away”, and in fact, that is exactly what happened in AD 70 when Titus destroyed the Temple. But Jewish Law is far more than just the high priesthood and the sacrifices.

So how does that differ from “fulfill” if Jesus replaced the whole system of Judaism by “fulfilling the Law”? But that is not what “fulfill” implies here, in Matthew 5:17! The Greek for that concept is pleroo [to satisfy, execute, finish/complete, verify, accomplish, fulfill, carry out to the full, fill up, fully preach, or perfect]. So evidently Jesus did not replace “The Law or the Prophets”, but rather explained and strengthened them.

Nomos vs. “the Law or the Prophets”: Throughout the New Testament, nomos is understood to be a translation of the Hebrew Torah, and most English translations then render nomos as “law”. Vines defines nomos as that which is “divided out”, “distributed”, or (primarily) “assigned”, which is a bit ambiguous. Strong’s generally defines the term based on its prior translations in Scripture, i.e., “the law of Moses”. but he does include “parceled out”, which is closer to Vine.

To understand it more correctly, let’s go right to “the horse’s mouth”: the Hebrew term “Torah“. English translations of this word in Scripture generally depend heavily on the translators’ Hellenized understanding of nomos, so once again, we get “law”. In a very narrow sense, legal principles can be included, but Jewish speakers and Jewish literature render the term as “teachings“; in other words, “principles” in the sense of imparted knowledge about God, His Creation, His Will, and anything else He wishes us to know. Legal tenets, whether Scriptural or traditional, would be distinguished as “halacha“, which translates literally as a “way of walking” (compare Paul’s discussions of our “Christian Walk”).

Torah, like many Hebrew words, can have many shades of meaning, which can only be distinguished by context and customary usage. Sometimes it refers to all of God’s teachings. Often it specifically means the chumash, or Five Books of Moses; often it includes all books of the Tanach (Old Testament), and Messianic Jews often include the Brit Hadasha (New Testament), as well. Indeed, Jesus Himself is the very embodiment of Torah (John 1:1).

Much of the confusion here arises because a large portion of Christianity has arrogantly decided that Judaism failed God, so God took back his Covenant promises to Israel and conferred them on the Church instead; therefore, if the Old Testament has any meaning to us in the Church, it is only metaphorical, or symbolic. For example, to Reformed Christianity, God’s commandment to circumcise male children becomes a commandment to baptize infants!

Here is what Jesus said would result from any attempt to “throw out the Law”:

Matthew 5:18-19 (CJB)
[18] Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud [jot, yodh] or a stroke [serif, tittle] will pass from the Torah—not until everything that must happen has happened. [19] So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 To me, that’s pretty clear!

 Third Fallacy: Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” referred to the “Ceremonial Law”. Some Dispensationalists believe that these words were spoken by Jesus to pronounce a renunciation of the Mosaic Covenant and the end of the so-called “Dispensation of Law”. What Jesus “finished” (brought to its fullness, not ended!) was His ministry on earth, laying the soteriological foundation for the New Covenant and the Kingdom of God.

Fourth Fallacy: bizarrely, he stated that when the three apostles looked back up and saw Jesus alone, He had literally “absorbed” Moses and Elijah, to show that the OT system of Judaism was no more.

Matthew 17:8 (CJB)
[8] So they opened their eyes, looked up and saw only Yeshua by himself.

No. They simply left!