The Law and the End of Exile (A Guest Post)

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A guest post from Seraphim Hamilton. Feel free to find him on facebook:

The Law and the End of Exile

The New Testament’s theology about the Torah is actually found in the Torah itself, if only we would read the New Testament carefully. A key text is Romans 8:1-4. It reads:

(Romans 8:1-4)  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

That is, the Torah’s purpose is fulfilled in Christ, not because in Christ Torah-obedience is imputed to our account, but rather because in Christ, we receive the Spirit, who circumcises the heart and actually enables us to “fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law” because we walk “according to the Spirit.” This brings the teaching of Romans 2:25-29 full circle: a member of the covenant is one whose heart is circumcised. Why then, are there no ethnic identity markers (circumcision, food laws, etc.) in the new covenant? This is explained all over the New Testament, but the important thing to understand is that in the Hebrew Bible itself, the way in which we kept the commandments changed depending on the circumstances of the time. When the Jews were exiled to Babylon, clearly, they could not keep the laws about sacrificial offering in the way that they could when they had a standing Temple. Likewise, when the Messianic Age dawns, the way we keep certain commandments changes.

This is how Matthew’s Gospel is oriented. Matthew begins with a genealogy, divided into three sets of fourteen generations and climaxing with the Messiah. The three groups are (1) From Abraham to the Monarchy (2) From the Monarchy to Exile and (3) From Exile to the Messiah. Thus, the Messiah is presented as the one who ends Israel’s exile. Then, the whole Gospel of Matthew (probably composed as a teaching manual for Jewish Christians) is oriented around five “blocks” of teaching (corresponding to the five books of Moses) complete with blessings (Matthew 5:3-11) and curses. (Matthew 23:15-30) It then ends with the Lord Jesus ascending a Mountain asking the Apostles to go and make the whole planet the Kingdom of God (28:19-20) just as Moses ascended a Mountain and enjoined Israel to possess the Land. Thus, the Gospel of Matthew is about a New Moses delivering a New Law proper to the end of exile.

So, how do these two things connect? The key is Moses’ final speech to Israel in Deuteronomy 30. Remember that the Torah begins (Genesis 3) with exile and curse, though we don’t often think of it that way. Adam and Eve are in the Garden, they are given a commandment, and they break it. They are thus cursed with death and exiled from the Garden. This is the first and greatest curse found in the whole Hebrew Bible. The Torah ends with the book of Deuteronomy, where Moses and the people of Israel renew their covenant with God. In this book, the people anticipate the reversal of the curse on Adam. See:

(Deuteronomy 30:15-20)  “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Israel is given two options: life and death. By obeying the Torah, they can choose life. By disobeying it, they can choose death. The way of life is to “love the Lord your God.” But in fact, Moses has already prophesied the outcome:

(Deuteronomy 30:1-6)  “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.

So, Israel WILL disobey the Torah. They WILL choose death. They WILL be exiled. And why? Because their heart is uncircumcised. But Moses promises that God will gather them back from exile, and it is at that time that their hearts will be circumcised. Because it is at that point that God circumcises their heart, THEN they will “choose life” and “love the Lord their God.” There are large amounts of prophetic writing concentrated around this theme of “end of exile.” Isaiah 40-55, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36-37, and many other passages revolve around the theme of the end of exile and expand on it. It is linked to the suffering servant, the new covenant, the messianic age, and other themes. Thus, the heart of the New Testament message, in its historical context, is the end of Israel’s exile and the reversal of the curse. The twist is that this happens not through the return of all Israelites to the strip of land in the Middle East, but through the reopening of Paradise. Looking back, we can see this in the Old Testament (comp. Isaiah 55:13 with Genesis 3:18, see also Isaiah 11:8 and Ezekiel 36:35), but it was unexpected in Jesus’ day.

So, the more I study the Old Testament carefully, the more I am convinced that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. Not because he fulfills a “list of prophecies about the Messiah”, but because His story draws Israel’s story to its climax in a remarkably elegant and coherent way that makes good sense.

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