Jesus’ Perception of the Torah & the Prophets
By Darell Bock
In the New Testament, Jesus engages in numerous discussions about the Torah. Like the Bible’s Hebrew prophets, he always emphasizes the importance that observance begins in the heart. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stresses that murder stems from anger in the heart or that lust is adultery’s starting point (Matthew 5). He also says that being truthful is better than making an oath and that being gracious is more important than taking revenge (an eye for an eye). Finally, Yeshua (Jesus) says to love not only your neighbor but also your enemy. Love for one’s enemy mirrors the love of God, reveals His character, and makes us distinct from the world. The Torah is not merely a set of rules to follow but a gateway to a healthy heart.
Yeshua’s teaching mirrors the Hebrew prophets’ critique of a shallow faith that does not reflect God’s heart and character. Whether one thinks of Isaiah 58 or Micah 6:1–8 and what the Lord requires of us, these texts show that when people care about things like justice, they reflect the heart of God. Indeed, these texts teach that if the people of Israel do not first pursue the virtues of mercy and justice, then God cannot accept their sacrifices and offerings for sin.
Perhaps the prime example of this kind of concern for Jesus is found in Mark 7. This chapter describes Jesus speaking with some of the leaders in Israel whom he condemns for overemphasizing laws like ritual handwashing instead of more important laws like honoring parents. Yeshua tells the leaders that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them but what comes out of the person. He then issues a list of things that can defile a person: evil ideas, immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness (Mark 7:21–22). In a separate conversation with Israel’s leaders, Jesus urges them to continue their tradition of giving a tithe of mint, dill, and cumin, but also to pursue “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Again and again, Jesus contends that God intended the law to transform people’s hearts and reflect God’s values and character. This emphasis places him in line with what the Hebrew prophets taught.
Following the ways of God without the heart of God is not following His ways. To miss this point is to open ourselves up to not seeing our sin for what it is—a failure of the heart to honor God, and the failure to reflect on what it means to be made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). God created us to reflect Him in the way we live and to watch the intent of our heart, which is why Jesus was so concerned about sin and the need for God’s Spirit to mend our damaged hearts. He was serious enough to die for the world’s transgressions that cause people’s hearts to be corrupt. He died so all people could receive forgiveness and God’s Spirit, empowering us to live in alignment with God’s law and ways.