The Three Pillars of Jesus' Faith
by Marc Turnage
Identify the three spiritual practices you feel are essential for a Christian. Place them in order of importance, with the first being most important. Keep this list handy.
During the first century, Jewish sages frequently summarized the essence of faith (cf. Luke 10:25–28), indentifying the heart of what God desires. In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah proclaimed, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord requires of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
In the New Testament (Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28), Jesus and others summarized the Law in the two commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).1 Elsewhere, Paul (Romans 13:8–10; Galatians 5:14) and James (2:8) both identified Leviticus 19:18 as the ultimate summation of the commandments.
The second century A.D. sage Rabbi Akiva called Leviticus 19:18, “The great commandment in the Torah” (Sifra on Leviticus 19:18). In addition to those who highlighted one or two of the commandments from the Old Testament as the summation of the Torah, others identified spiritual practices as the foundations for the life of faith.
Shimon the Just, a priest, said, “Upon three things the world is based: upon the Torah (i.e., Torah study), upon the Temple service, and upon deeds of loving kindness (i.e., the practice of charity” (m. Avot 1:2). Two things stand out about Shimon’s statement: 1) Shimon elevated the study of Torah above (or on par with) the temple service (this was a major step within Judaism), and 2) the order in which he put these three actions. The order identifies the priority of importance of the three activities. Thus, for Shimon, Torah study was most important followed by temple service and then the practice of charity.
Another sage, Rabbi Lazarus, taught, “Three actions cancel out a harsh decree [of punishment from heaven.] They are, prayer, righteousness [i.e., charity/almsgiving: הקדצ],2 and repentance. All three are mentioned in one verse (2 Chronicles 7:14): ‘if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray. …’ This refers to prayer! ‘… and seek my face.’ This refers to righteousness (i.e., almsgiving), as is proven by Psalm 17:15, where it is said, ‘As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness.’ ‘… and turn from their wicked ways.’ This is repentance [i.e., fasting]! If an individual will do all three, the promise of Scripture is, ‘then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land’ ” (y. Ta’anit 65b).
Rabbi Lazarus determined from 2 Chronicles 7:14 that prayer, righteousness (i.e., almsgiving), and repentance turn away judgment. Second Chronicles 7:14 outlines the order of these three spiritual disciplines, and according to Rabbi Lazarus, places them in priority of importance.
In the Book of Tobit (c. fourth century B.C.), the same three actions Rabbi Lazarus identified appear, but in a different order of priority: “Do good and evil will not overtake you. Prayer with fasting (i.e., repentance) is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. … It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin” (Tobit 12:7–9; cf. Matthew 19:21; Luke 19:8,9). For the author of Tobit, although prayer and fasting (repentance) are good, almsgiving supersedes them. Not only, then, was it common among Jesus’ contemporaries to identify the biblical verses that summarize the whole Torah, but for people to identify foundational spiritual practices and prioritize them.
The Three Pillars of Jesus
In the same manner, we find Jesus articulating the three pillars of His faith. In Matthew 6:1–18, Jesus outlines three spiritual disciplines: righteousness (almsgiving), prayer, and fasting (repentance). With each practice, He warns not to practice before people, but rather before “your Father, who sees what is done in secret” (verses 4,6,18), who is the one who rewards: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men (verse 1). … But, when you give to the needy. … Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (verses 3,4). And when you pray. … But when you pray. … Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (verses 5,6). … When you fast. … But when you fast … and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (verses 16–18).
The repetitive nature of Jesus’ language shows the internal unity of Matthew 6:1–18. Like Shimon the Just, Jesus identified the three spiritual disciplines He viewed as foundational to His faith: righteousness, prayer, and fasting. These are the same three actions identified both by Rabbi Lazarus and the author of Tobit. Did Jesus, like His Jewish contemporaries, assume a prioritized order among these three? The evidence from contemporary Judaism suggests that Jesus ordered His three pillars according to the priority He gave to each. Like the author of Tobit, Jesus identified righteousness (almsgiving) as the principal spiritual discipline desired by God, followed by prayer and fasting.
The First Pillar (Righteousness) Within the Teaching of Jesus
Jesus rejected the idea that a person could have a relationship with God without first showing mercy to others. At the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer, He clearly taught, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But ifyou do not forgive men their sins, your heavenly Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14,15; emphasis mine). Jesus embraced the developing Jewish humanism that read Leviticus 19:18, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and saw every person as having value because all humanity bears the image of God.
Jesus recognized that my relationship to others defines my relationship to God: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24). For Jesus, the most concrete action of my care for another like myself is the act of charity.
In two places in the Gospels Jesus interprets Leviticus 19:18 with almsgiving. In response to the question of the rich man concerning which commandments he needed to keep, Jesus identified the last of the Ten Commandments (all of which pertain to how we relate to others) and added Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:18,19). When the young man asked for clarification on these commandments, Jesus responded, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure” (Matthew 19:21). Likewise, in Matthew 5:43–48, Jesus interprets Leviticus 19:18 saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). The parallel in Luke 6:36 reads: “Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven is merciful.” Jews used the term mercy within contemporary Judaism as a euphemism for charity (cf. t. Peah 4:21); thus, “Be charitable, as your Father in heaven is charitable” (cf. Matthew 5:7; 2 Corinthians 9:6–12).
Jesus told His disciples, “Unless your righteousness (almsgiving) surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Almsgiving, especially among some groups like the Pharisees, was an essential part of Jewish piety. Jesus embraced this and identified almsgiving as the cornerstone for His faith because God, himself, was charitable (cf. Matthew 6:19–21; Luke 11:41; 12:33,34; 19:8,9; James 2:15,16; 1 John 3:17; and Didache 4:5–8).
Look at your list. What three spiritual disciplines did you identify? In what order of priority did you place them? Does the first one pertain principally to direct contact between you and God? Maybe prayer or Bible study?
For Jesus, the principal spiritual act depends on how I relate to others, for in relating to others, I relate to God. In fact, almsgiving provides the foundation on which my prayers and repentance stand. Some may counter, but Jesus said the first commandment was “Love the Lord your God” and the second “Love your neighbor.” Jesus, like many of His contemporaries, saw Deuteronomy 6:5 as a verse needing interpretation: How do I love God with my heart, soul, and strength? So He sought another verse that could interpret it, namely, “Love your neighbor.” In other words, if you want to love God, whom you have not seen, then love those created in His image.
1. Jewish sages usually connected passages of Scripture together based on common vocabulary between the two passages. Jesus connected Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18 because these are two of only three places in the Old Testament that have the Hebrew phrase תבהאו (“and you will love”). Incidentally, the third passage, Leviticus 19:34, “Love him (i.e., the foreigner) as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt,” provides the backdrop for the parable of the Good Samaritan.
2. By the first century A.D., the term righteousness הקדצ had become a euphemism for almsgiving/charity.