As Jewish followers of Yeshua (Jesus), we value our Jewish identity and believe in the holiness and significance of the Torah. The Torah is God’s Word and will not pass away. As Jewish people, we believe that we are called to be a light to the nations through the covenant He made with us. We also believe that Yeshua’s sacrifice atones for us and that salvation has always depended on faith in God and His provision for atonement.
Jews for Jesus is a nonprofit organization that is part of a larger movement of Messianic Judaism. Within this movement you will find some who follow the 613 commandments strictly (as much as possible, since many commandments can no longer be observed) and some who don’t. This article provides an overview of the Biblical passages that speak to this issue, as well as how to think about it and come to your own conviction on how to approach Torah observance as a Jewish believer in Jesus.
Exodus 19 tells the story of the Jewish people receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. This was God’s way of setting us apart so He could live among us. Additionally, the Torah was given to enable our calling as a light to the nations. In fact, rabbinical writings say that God’s voice was divided into 70 languages as flames of fire, so all the nations could hear His instructions (Shemot Rabbah 5:9). By allowing the Torah to impact and affect our lives, we were sanctified (set apart) and could direct others to the God of Israel. The Torah and the Messiah are the foundational gifts from God to the Jewish people, and through the Jewish people, to the world.
While some endeavor to follow the text’s straightforward meaning such as the Karaites (a group originating in the 9th century AD who did not believe in rabbinic authority), over time our people developed traditions to help us apply the commandments to our everyday lives. The Talmud is a compilation of those traditions (Mishnah) and the rabbinical discussions surrounding them (Gemara). Talmudic-influenced Judaism is focused on how to practice the Jewish faith without a Temple in light of our exile from Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The writers of the New Testament were contemporaries with some of the earlier rabbis (the Tannaim) who make appearances in the Talmud. Both groups were concerned with living out the Torah both before and after AD 70.
Along with the rest of our people, Jewish believers in Yeshua also were eventually exiled, and the New Testament serves as a guide on how to live out the purpose of Torah now that the Temple is gone. It also includes instructions for Gentile followers of the Jewish Messiah, and explains how Gentiles can follow the God of Israel and be in a relationship with Him without becoming Jewish themselves.
Yeshua taught that the heart behind each commandment is the key, not just the required action. For example, the Torah says not to kill, but Yeshua said that even if you secretly hate anyone, you have broken this commandment in your heart. The Torah tells us not to commit adultery, but Yeshua said that even if we look at someone lustfully, we are guilty of breaking this commandment (Matthew 5:21–30).
The Jewish writings claim that when Messiah arrives, he will be the interpreter of the Torah and teach us accordingly. That is exactly what Yeshua did during his life. Not only did he interpret the Torah, he said that he came to fulfill it and not do away with it (Matthew 5:17).
The correct interpretation of “fulfill” (plēroō) is to make something effectual or to “fill it full.” In other words, think of the Torah as a glass of water. It was partially full before, but when the Messiah came, he filled it all the way up. It had meaning before, and now it’s even more meaningful.
The New Testament explains how Jesus gives additional meaning to many of the symbols of the Torah—for example: He is our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14) and our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). Before the Temple was destroyed, we could make atonement for violating commandments by offering a sacrifice. But now we no longer have a Temple, so what is the substitute for our sin? Through his death and resurrection, Yeshua is the ultimate sacrifice. Paul writes that he is the goal (telos) of the entire Torah.
Even though Scripture teaches that salvation is not obtained through following the law, but through faith in the sacrifice of Messiah Yeshua, there are still two reasons that as Jews we find value in practicing commands of the Torah.
First, Torah is part of Scripture. Along with the rest of the Tanakh and the New Testament, the Torah is a revelation of God’s will. Its teachings are still relevant, valuable, meaningful, and useful. Paul wrote that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for restoration, and for training in righteousness, so that the person belonging to God may be capable, fully equipped for every good deed” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
Secondly, Torah is an integral part of what makes our Jewish identity distinct. We have a calling as Jews to be a light to the world and a testimony of God’s faithfulness, so how can we fulfill this calling if we do not identify as Jews in meaningful ways? Observing commands of the Torah, as well as traditions and customs of Rabbinic Judaism, can help us live out our calling as Jewish people. This includes celebrating holidays, setting time aside for Shabbat, and practicing Jewish values. Individuals within the Messianic Jewish community express this calling differently based on their own convictions about what it looks like to be a Jewish testimony for Yeshua.
Yeshua centered the entire Torah around love when he taught: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). Paul elaborates on this in his letter to the believers in Corinth when he explains that we could be doing everything right according to the letter of the law, even using our supernatural gifts and talents, but if we do not have love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, each of us must actively seek out God’s guidance on how to live out His love and His instructions in the context of our relationship with Him.