Messiah Yeshua Teaches Tenakh and Jewish Halacha, 2: Torah and Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount

The Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven
Matthew 5 through 7 recounts the first recorded public sermon that Yeshua preached. Yeshua had been traveling around the Galilee teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven. I have argued in my previous article that the Sermon on the Mount can be understood as an example of what he had been preaching, the Beatitudes serving as his introduction to his message.

Yeshua speaks of much more in the Sermon than the Beatitudes. Most of his teaching in the Sermon is about the Torah, and how it is to be followed in the Kingdom, or, perhaps, as the Kingdom is drawing near.

For example, one of the legal subjects that Yeshua addresses is divorce and remarriage. In our modern world, where divorce is all too common, we must understand what Yeshua would expect us to do if it should happen to us, or to people we know. The same is true for all kinds of legal and ethical behavior. In the Land of Israel at the time of Yeshua, divorce was a hot topic. The two main schools of the Pharisees—the Schools of Hillel and of Shammai—were debating this subject and many others, and their debates spilled over into the streets and homes and synagogues of the land, much like we discuss a controversial subject like gay marriage today. Yeshua did not teach in a vacuum; he joined ongoing discussions or debates about many of the Torah commandments, and how they should be observed.

But before we can do justice to any of the legal matters that Yeshua addressed in the Sermon, we must first understand what the Sermon on the Mount is. What was Yeshua’s message to those people on that hill, and how do the various legal subjects relate to that message?

What is the Sermon on the Mount?
There are those who believe that the Sermon on the Mount was never actually spoken by Yeshua in the form we have it today. Some say that Matthew, writing in the late first century, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, collected many sayings and teachings of Yeshua, and compiled them into a sort of catechism for the early community of Nazarenes (as Yeshua’s followers were called). Or possibly Matthew took an existing collection of Yeshua’s sayings and placed them in his version of the Gospel at a point in the story where he believed that they fit.

Though it may be presumptuous of me to disagree with respected scholars like Joachim Jeremias who hold this kind of view, nevertheless I am going to dare to offer a different opinion. Matthew, who wrote the Gospel that bears his name, was one of the first twelve disciples of Yeshua. He toured with him. I have no doubt that he actually sat on such a hillside on such a day and listened to Yeshua deliver this very message that he later recorded in the Gospel.

The Sermon has the ambiance of a live address to a live audience. If this were meant to be a catechism for later followers, then I see no need for the Beatitudes at the beginning. If my understanding of them, presented in my previous article, is correct, then their power depends on their having been addressed to a live audience at the time when Yeshua was beginning his work, while he was still relatively unknown.

Yeshua addressed his audience directly. “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets …” (5:17). “You have heard that it was said …” (5:27). “Consider the lilies of the field …” (6:28). He may well have spoken these last words at the time of year when Israel’s fields and hills would come alive with a dazzling array of colorful wildflowers, as they still do today. It just doesn’t sound like a lesson meant for a classroom.

No, in my opinion, we have here an example of an actual sermon delivered by Yeshua to an audience on a hill in Galilee near the beginning of his public ministry—if not the exact text, then something very similar to the messages he actually preached. And I want to know what his original words meant to the original audience that heard them. Only then can we understand what Yeshua’s words mean to us today.

The Sermon, as presented in Matthew’s Gospel, is an announcement of the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven. Yeshua opened with a cleverly veiled proclamation that the hopes of Israel were soon to come to pass. He draws his crowd of seemingly casual listeners into his agenda. “You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world … Let your light shine …” (5:13-15). Whether any of those listeners actually intended to follow him and take on his mission that day, we don’t know. But Yeshua begins to pull them in and enlist them in this glorious cause that they may have hoped for, but could hardly have imagined that they might ever see it happen, or even be a part of it.

Most of the rest of the Sermon is concerned with Yeshua’s interpretation of representative Torah commands. Is this the Torah for the Kingdom, or as some suggest, an interim understanding of Torah to be followed while the Kingdom is approaching? Or is it a summary of Yeshua’s own Torah, wherein he describes how the Torah was always meant to be observed, and how it must be observed from now on. Like the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount does not cover the whole Torah. Yeshua speaks of certain important commands, and describes their proper application. I don’t see any particular order in his choice of subjects, though we can look into this in another article. Each of the legal topics he addresses must be seen as part of the larger picture, perhaps as examples of his overall approach to Torah observance. He is instructing us how we must live as the eternal people of G‑d, now, in order to be ready for the coming Kingdom.

Torah in the Time of Yeshua
In the time of Yeshua, the Torah was no longer limited to the text of the 5 Books of Moses. The Torah that Moses received and wrote in a scroll on Mount Sinai was the foundation of Jewish law. However, centuries of interpretations of the Torah to meet changing times and circumstances were being passed along by Scribes and Teachers in a form that became known as the Oral Torah. Some say that the Oral Torah also originated at Sinai.

This is not the time to get into details about the origin or authority of the Oral Torah. For now I will say that I understand that the authority for the Oral Torah came from Sinai, but the legal traditions were derived from the Written Torah by approved methods of interpretation, by Rabbis who were trained and authorized to teach law. A Rabbi’s authority generally extended to his own community, and Rabbis often differed in their interpretations of the Torah text.

The two main schools of Torah among the Pharisees during Yeshua’s time were those founded by Hillel and by Shammai—two of the most famous Rabbis in Jewish history, whose disputations over the interpretation of the Torah have become legendary. Following the leads of their founders, the School of Hillel tended to take a more lenient approach, while the School of Shammai were the more strict ones. Yeshua is generally thought to have been closer in style to Hillel, the more patient and gracious of the two founders.

Finding the balance between strict adherence to Torah on one hand, and mercy and grace on the other, is no easy task. It is easy to think that obedience to the Torah could determine one’s destiny in the world to come, and yet it is well known that even the best of people with the best of intentions do not generally manage to live up to such a high ideal. While it is not alright to break a Torah command, there is also mercy in the Torah. The Rabbis understood that the Torah was given to the entire people, not to an elite religious class. It was meant to be kept by average people, and its requirements were attainable by average people, with forgiveness and atonement available to those who stumble.

Unlike in Protestant theology, the main problem in Jewish theology is not in Israel’s inability to keep the Torah, but in our refusal to keep it. Nobody is excluded from the world to come for failing to live up to the Torah. But anyone who rejects G-d and his Torah, and refuses to follow it, cuts himself off from G-d’s people in this world, and from our hopes in the world to come.

A Word about the Pharisees
During the period of the Second Temple, the Pharisees became a popular sect among the Jewish people. It is estimated that there were less than 10,000 of them in the first century, but they influenced the people far more than their numbers suggest. Their name means ‘separated’, because they believed in the sanctity of the people, and tried to live and teach Torah in a way that would make the people holy. They believed that every Israelite is a priest, even though most of them were not descendants of Aaron or the Tribe of Levi. They did not try to rival those who were priests by birth, nor did they advocate any alternative to the Temple, which was quite corrupt at that time. Instead, they taught that Jewish laymen should live as if they were priests. Each man’s home was his temple, his table was his altar, and his food was his sacrifice. For this reason they were careful to wash their hands and bathe their bodies, and to observe the laws of Levitical cleanness at home, even though such observance was only required in the Temple. The genius of the Pharisees was that they connected the people to the Temple without becoming rivals to the Priests.

Of course, there was more to living holy than just keeping the Levitical laws. So the Pharisees placed heavy emphasis on learning and doing Torah commands in order to promote the way of life they found in the Torah. By the time of Yeshua, they had developed methods of interpreting and applying the Torah to contemporary life—called midrash. The Pharisees, more than anyone else in the first-century Jewish world, laid the intellectual and spiritual foundations that enabled the Jewish people to survive the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and to thrive in the Diaspora until our own day. (The Apostle Shaul was a graduate student of Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel, and he proudly declared himself to be a Pharisee in Acts 23:6 and 26:5.)

Yeshua and the Pharisees
We have no record of Yeshua studying or having received ordination from any of the Rabbinical authorities of his time, but he is called by various Rabbinical titles, such as Rabbi (John 3:2), Teacher (Matthew 12:38), or Rabboni (John 20:16). This did not mean, however, that he had any Rabbinical authority outside of his own group of disciples and followers. We also have no record that Yeshua was a member of the School of Hillel, nor that he was a member of the Pharisees at all. We see only that he was closer in his manner of interpretation of the Torah to Hillel than to any of the other schools of the Pharisees. He certainly was not a Zealot, nor a Sadducee, nor an Essene, nor a Roman sympathizer, nor a Hellenist. Indeed, he fits best into the world of the Pharisees, and this is why he gets into so many discussions and disputes with them. They are the ones he was closest to, the ones he cared most about. Those disputes were family disputes. The Pharisees disputed among themselves. This was one way they sought to understand the Torah. Yeshua did not treat them as enemies, and most of the time, they didn’t treat him as one either.

During his lifetime, especially at the beginning of his public work, Yeshua was one teacher among many in Israel. As such, he freely joined in legal disputes between the two schools, and he was frequently asked—or challenged—to give his opinion or make a decision about Torah matters, just as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Yeshua’s Approach to Torah: Balancing Law and Grace
Yeshua’s approach to Torah was similar to that of the School of Hillel. He taught the spirit of the Torah, with kindness and patience. Once, he and his disciples were passing through a grain field on the Sabbath. The disciples began to pluck grains, husk, them, and snack on them. This was one of the murky gray areas of Sabbath law. Plucking and eating gran from a field while passing through was permitted (Deut. 23:25), but was it permitted on Sabbath? It seemed to violate the prohibitions against harvesting and food preparation. But was it really a violation? Some Pharisees saw them and challenged him, and his answer was, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

He gave a similar answer when confronted with a crippled man on another Sabbath. “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). Saving a life was clearly permitted; healing someone of an ailment that could wait until Sabbath was over, this was another gray area of the Torah. Yeshua taught that it was permitted.

I believe that these responses of Yeshua to the pedantic challenges of perhaps well-meaning but overzealous Jews gives us an insight into Yeshua’s paradigm for applying Torah in daily life. The Torah was given for the good of man, not to torture him. When it was possible to be lenient, Yeshua was lenient. When the law was not clear, he interpreted it on the more gracious side, as did many of his contemporaries. In fact, it is possible to think that the Pharisees who challenged and criticized Yeshua were from the stricter School of Shammai, while those who were friendlier to him were from the more gracious School of Hillel.

“He Taught with Authority …”
As important as the content of the Sermon was, there was something that stood out in the minds of his audience more than the message itself. Matthew says of the crowds that they were astonished at his teaching because, “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (7:29). What does that mean? Well, what would you think if you heard someone say:

Matthew 5:17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.

Remember that the crowds did not know who he was. So why would they think that he came to abolish the Torah? Who was this man who thought that someone might think he came to abolish the Torah? No Rabbi has authority to cancel any Torah command. Who, or what, could this man be?

He anyway goes on to say that he came to fulfill the Torah. We know from the rest of the Sermon that ‘fulfill’ does not mean ‘to bring it to an end’. It means the opposite—‘to bring it into its fullness’. He comes to show us the full meaning of the Torah, and how it should be observed. So, again, who is he?!

Then he says:

5:21 You have heard that it was said to the men of old … 22 But I say to you …

First of all, in those days, no Rabbi would say “I say to you”. This phrase should have startled his listeners. Rabbis and scribes always taught in the name of the teacher from whom they learned a law. This was a matter of principle in those days. But that’s not all.

At least some of the sayings that ‘we heard it was said’ are from the Ten Commandments. “You shall not kill” (v. 21), or “You shall not commit adultery” (v. 27). Who said those things? G‑d did! On the only occasion in history when he spoke with his own voice to the whole people of Israel—at Mount Sinai. So what should we think when Yeshua goes on to say, “But I say to you …”? Is he going to contradict G‑d? Is he going to improve on what G‑d told Israel? Who is this man?

There can be no doubt that Yeshua intended to raise this exact question in the minds of his hearers that day. What he said was surely important. But just as important was to cause the audience to wonder who he could be. He acted like an itinerant teacher and miracle worker, and in his time there were others who did the same. Yet he was different. His teaching was not only about practicing Torah, moral living, and trust in G‑d. Beneath his words was an undercurrent of something new that was coming, something extraordinary. And he was inviting his people to be part of it.

In my opinion, Yeshua’s Sermon on the Mount was not only a summary of his teachings about Torah, but it was his personal announcement—subtle though it may have been—of the approaching Kingdom of Heaven, and his involvement in it. We therefore must understand his message to be eschatological as much as it was legal and moral. He called upon people to live by the Torah, properly understood as an expression of G‑d’s law tempered with his grace. He challenges us to live for the Kingdom now, as it approaches, and to become focal points for the establishment of G‑d’s Kingdom in the world.

Leib Reuben,