Opening the Word: Christ as Torah and Temple

Pope Benedict XVI, in “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration” (Ignatius, $16.99), explains that Jesus Christ is the new Torah and the new Temple. “Jesus understands himself as the Torah — as the word of God in person,” writes the pontiff. And then, a bit later: “The issue of Jesus’ claim to be Temple and Torah in person also has implications for the question of Israel — the issue of the living community of the people in whom God’s word is actualized.” 

This understanding is not unique to the pope. For example, Matthew Levering developed it in his book, “Christ’s Fulfillment of Torah and Temple” (University of Notre Dame Press, $24), emphasizing the insights of St. Thomas Aquinas. But what does such high-minded theology have to do with living a Christian life? Today’s readings give us an opportunity to reflect on that question. 

Let’s begin by asking: What was the purpose of the Torah? The Ten Commandments (and 603 others) were given within the context of two realities: the Exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mount Sinai. The Exodus was aimed at two things: land and worship. We all know of the promised land flowing with milk and honey, but we often overlook God’s words to Pharaoh, given by Moses: “Let my people go to serve me in the wilderness” and “We must go a three days’ journey in the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord, our God, as he commands us” (Ex 7:16; 8:23). Freedom from slavery meant freedom to openly worship God. 

Finally free, the people went to the base of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Torah. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger notes in “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (Ignatius Press, $21.95), the covenant established there united “the three aspects of worship, law, and ethics” — that is, how to relate to God and to others. The Torah was meant to lead to the fullness of life. Rather than giving blind submission to an unknown, capricious deity, the people were to respond with love to the mercy and goodness of the Lord (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2062). 

The Torah, then, came from a rather stunning expression of divine, personal love. Just as God had created everything out of love, he also created a people of his own out of love and with a distinct purpose. Jewish scholar Maurice Samuel, in his introduction to Solomon Goldman’s commentary, “The Ten Commandments” (University of Chicago, 1963), wrote, “Just as Genesis is an explosive denial of the randomness of the physical universe, so the Revelation at Sinai is a repudiation of the meaninglessness of history.” That repudiation culminated in Jesus Christ, who established a new and everlasting covenant that perfectly fulfilled the Torah (see Catechsim, Nos. 2052-2055). Through him, we have purpose, for in him we share in the very life of God. 

The Temple in Jerusalem was God’s dwelling place among his chosen people. But it had increasingly become the home for a lucrative system of money changing and price gouging. The house of God had become a supermarket and a “den of thieves” (Jer 7:11).  

Just as the covenant established man’s right relationship with God, the cleansing of the Temple drew a line in the sand. If God is not given proper honor and worship, love begins to die and relationships are perverted. We begin by loving God and accepting Christ’s mercy, grace and life. All else follows. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of