When you speak about Torah and any of it’s commandments, you inevitably come across varying interpretations, opinions, and beliefs on what those commandments look like or how they should be lived out in our lives. This is not a new problem or one that would have been foreign to those living in biblical times. In this week’s portion, Shoftim (Judges), we are presented with a system designed to, in one way, solve this problem and unite God’s people on how certain commandments should look when lived out properly. We read,
“If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you.”
Deuteronomy 17:8-11 (NKJV)
Now, in this particular passage, the context is in regards to making judgments regarding guilty verdicts and proper sentencing, as we would see in a court of law. We don’t currently live under the same governmental rule as the Israelites did, however, we still see a surprisingly similar system in the United States with the hierarchy of courts and judges. Disputes begin small and locally and, if needed, escalate up the authoritative latter until they are ultimately decided at our capitol by the supreme court. This was how it worked in Israel. Disputes are first sought to be solved locally. If no verdict can be made, they eventually escalated to the point of bringing it to Jerusalem to the chief authorities of the time.
So why is this important to us? Well, this process came to be used not just for rulings of guilty verdicts but to also decide disputes concerning the positive commandments in the Torah. “What does kindling a fire on the sabbath really mean?” “Can you circumcise a child on the sabbath?” In fact, we see many instances throughout the narration of the Torah in which Moses is presented with a difficult question regarding the law and then gives a ruling. This role was filled by Moses, the priests, the judges, and later by the sanhedrin. Who is our final authority today? Where does the Messiah fit into all of this? I believe the answer lies in the very next chapter of Deuteronomy. We read,
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ “And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.”
Deuteronomy 18:15-19 (NKJV)
This “prophet like Moses” was promised to come with the very words and will of God within him. It is widely taught within Judaism that when the Messiah comes, he will teach Israel hidden aspects of the Torah that were unseen before. The Messiah, or the “prophet,” was coming with divine authority in communicating the will and word of God. Yeshua constantly said this. He told us that He did not come with His own will or agenda but to teach us the true Word and will of God. He said that His words were not His own but were given to Him from His Father in heaven. Therefore, Yeshua’s words regarding the commandments, how they should be lived, and what they should look like are our final authority on the matter. In fact, I would go so far as to say that His words are Torah!
However, it doesn’t stop there. Yeshua raised up twelve disciples. Yeshua hand picked a group of people to teach and train up in the true heart of God’s word. When He completed His work, He told them to go out into the world and to teach everything He had taught them. He also, on multiple occasions, gave them authority to go out, teach, and make rulings. I believe this fits perfectly with Deuteronomy 17. Yeshua, the true King and Messiah of Israel, hand selected and appointed for Himself judges within the body to settle disputes and make rulings on the Torah. In fact, we see this played out in the famous Acts 15 passage. We read,
“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.”
Acts 15:1-2 (NKJV)
The biggest debate within the first century community of believers was how gentiles were able to join the body of Messiah according to Torah. There were varying opinions and disputes on this matter. We read that they went up to Jerusalem, just as Deuteronomy 17 specifies, to the apostles that Yeshua Himself appointed with authority, to have the matter decided and receive the correct ruling. So what does this teach us? In my opinion, I believe this teaches us that the writings of the Apostles are much more than just commentary to peek in on or just the opinions of some wise predecessors. These are the people that Yeshua gave authority to settle disputes on the law in the lives of believers. When we debate, question, or have controversies on various commandments, Yeshua and the Apostles’ words on the matter should be the first place we go to seek answers, understanding, and rulings on Torah living for believers. We must not make the mistake of downplaying the importance and the authority of the New Testament in our lives today. Especially for those of us who seek to “keep Torah.” We cannot hope to properly keep Torah without keeping it in light of the teaching and authority of Yeshua and His appointed apostles.