Under the Law
Blaine Robison, M.A.
29 September 2008; Revised 5 February 2016
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB."
"For sin will not have authority over you, because you are not under legalism but under grace.” (Romans 6:14 CJB)
Nomos and Torah
There are two related concepts in Paul's letters commonly misunderstood by Christians. The first concept is typically translated "under the Law.” Note the definite article "the" and the capitalization of "Law." Paul uses this phrase in Romans 6:14-15; 1 Corinthians 9:20; Galatians 3:23; 4:4-5, 21; 5:18, but none of the verses in the Greek text include the definite article. The literal translation of hupo nomon would be "under law" (Marshall). Note the lower case for "law.” The second concept is translated "works (or deeds) of the Law,” which is found in Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10. Again, none of passages in the Greek text contain the definite article and ergōn nomou should be literally translated "works of law" (Marshall).
Why is the literal translation important? Paul the Jew and Pharisee is writing to Jewish and Gentile disciples about matters that pertain to the laws God gave to Israel through Moses and salvation through Yeshua the Messiah. His thinking is thoroughly Hebraic. The Hebrew corollary to the Greek word nomos is torah, but torah does not mean simply "law" or "laws" as the English word conveys. The noun torah means "direction," "teaching" or "instruction" and comes from the root yarah, which means to throw, to shoot (as in arrows), or to cast (as in lots) (BDB 435f). In the Tanakh torah not only refers to commandments, statutes and ordinances decreed by God and given to Moses, but also custom or manners of man, e.g. direction given by priests (Deut 24:8; 33:10). Torah sets forth the way a person is meant to live in an ethical and moral way in order to enjoy life to the full and to please God (Lev 18:5; Neh 9:29; Ezek 18:9; 20:11).
In normal Jewish usage in the time of Yeshua Torah had a variety of specific applications. Torah could mean:
the commandments, ordinances and statutes given through Moses to the nation of Israel (e.g., Matt
12:5; Luke 2:22-27; John 1:17; 8:5; Jas 2:11); OR
In Rabbinic Judaism developed after A.D. 70 Torah also includes the halakhah teaching and traditions of the great Sages and written down in the Mishnah. (The Mishnah tractates may be found at Halakhah.com.) These traditions are often called "oral law," even though this term never occurs in Scripture. In the Tanakh neither God nor any of his prophets ever used "Torah" to mean an "oral law." Pharisees observed traditions they claimed originated with Moses and regarded as equivalent in authority as the written Torah (Matt 15:2-6; 19:7-8; 23:2; Luke 6:2-9; 13:10; John 5:10; Acts 15:1). While Yeshua endorsed and kept traditions acceptable to Pharisees (such as prayer; cf. Matt 23:2-3), he and his apostles constantly emphasized the written Word of God as the only authority for life, as the numerous instances of "it is written" or "it was written" in the apostolic writings attest.
In the Besekh (New Testament) nomos almost always refers to the written instruction given to Moses for Israel. However, two other applications were made by Yeshua and Paul, indicating a common practice. The first is nomos (Torah) as a universal principle derived from Scripture. Yeshua spoke of the "weightier provisions of the Torah: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23:23) and said that the two greatest commandments summed up the entire Torah (Matt 22:36-40). Paul will write later in his letter to the Romans about the "law of faith," the "law of my mind," the "law of sin," the "law of the Spirit" and the "law of righteousness."
The second application is in reference to legalism, for which there was no word in either Greek or Hebrew. Legalism is the misuse of Torah (1Tim 1:8) and this usage of nomos is reflected in Romans 6:14-15. The variety of meaning in the usage of nomos-torah must be considered when interpreting the teaching of Paul concerning the Law. (See my commentary on Romans.) So, proper understanding of "law" in the Besekh and its relation to the believer's life requires careful examination of the context wherever the word appears. In contrast the word "commandment" has no such ambiguity.
Many theologians and Bible teachers have used the phrase "not under the Law" to assert that the commandments given to Moses have no binding authority on Christian life and the only commands to be obeyed are those stated by Yeshua and the apostles, while ignoring the fact that all their commands are based on the Torah. However, salvation by grace is generally assumed to mean that disobedience to God's commandments will not ultimately endanger one's eternal destiny, because, after all, everyone sins every day in thought, word and deed. The natural result of this teaching is that most Christians tend to pick and choose what commandments they will obey, even those pronounced by Yeshua and the apostles, and will wrongly interpret any teaching about obedience to God's commands as legalism.
In all the rhetoric decrying legalism the authority of God seems to have been minimized. The Lord God of Israel gave the absolute moral principles, commandments, ordinances and instructions to Moses (not the other way around), as David Stern observes, "in order to help them live a life which would be in their own best interests as well as holy and pleasing to God" (17). Moreover, all that God wills for man to be and do is written in the Tanakh, beginning with the Torah (Pentateuch). God's admonition to Joshua still rings true today, "This book of the Torah should not depart from your mouth - you are to meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. For then you will make your ways prosperous and then you will be successful" (Josh 1:8 TLV). The Tanakh was the only Bible Yeshua knew and the only Scriptures Paul considered inspired and suitable for training in righteousness (2Tim 3:16). To reject the Torah is to reject God's Word.
Types of Torah
The written Torah may be divided into different types of law. Long before the injunctions and statutes given to Moses God revealed a variety of commandments and principles that revealed God's nature and His expectations of Mankind (Gen 1:26-30; 2:18-25; 3:16-19; 4:6-7; 6:3, 18; 9:5-8; 26:5). Such heinous crimes as murder, violence, adultery, fornication and idolatry were known to be wrong from the beginning (Gen 2:17; 4:11f; 6:5ff; 18:20; 20:3; 26:10). "Creation law" established the institution of marriage, government and basic justice standards. Yeshua and the apostles relied on these principles to make important pronouncements (cf. Matt 19:4-6; Rom 1:18-20; 1Cor 11:8-15; Eph 5:22-33; 1Tim 2:11-15; 4:2-4; 2Th 2:13).
The Ten Commandments engraved on the stone tablets could easily serve as major categories or titles of law under which all the other commandments may be arranged for interpretation and application, since each of the Ten Commandments imply and include a host of other sins and crimes. The Torah commandments can be divided into three codes: the holiness code, the righteousness code, and the justice code.
(1) The holiness code, which comprises over half of the commandments in the Torah, details requirements for worship, Sabbath observance, the priesthood, offerings, circumcision, annual feasts, dietary rules, and distinctive religious customs that mark Israel as a people "holy to the Lord.” The first four of the Ten Commandments are the major titles of the holiness code.
(2) The righteousness code includes those commandments that prohibit harmful conduct toward others in the community or mandate conduct that strengthen the cohesiveness of families and societal relationships. The last six of the Ten Commandments are the titles of the righteousness code.
(3) The justice code provides for actions to be taken by individuals and the community whenever any of the commandments were broken (e.g., Ex 22-23).
Some Christian Bible teachers discount the importance of most of the injunctions in the holiness code by referring to them as "ceremonial.” Scripture never uses this manner of describing God-given commandments. To call a requirement "ceremonial" means that it is the customary or preferred way of conducting a ritual. The Church has developed many ceremonies for its own worship. However, the rules of the holiness code demanded the strictest obedience on pain of death (Ex 19:5-6; Lev 11:44; Deut 4:40; 30:8). Consider Nadab and Abihu, Israelite priests who were killed by God for offering "strange fire" in contravention of the Torah (Lev 10:1-2). No Christian would ever dream of executing a pastor who deviated from the customary practice of distributing the Lord's Supper.
God's commandments are not just Jewish religious values that can be easily dismissed. Even Gentiles who "sojourned" with Israel were required to obey the same commandments. (See Ex 12:19, 43-49; 20:10; 23:12; Lev 16:29; 17:8-15; 18:26; 20:2; 22:10, 18-19; 24:16, 22; Num 9:14; 15:14-16, 26-30; 19:10; Deut 5:14; 16:11, 14; 31:12.) An "alien" or "stranger" who sojourned with Israel was generally regarded as a fellow citizen and enjoyed the same rights and responsibilities as native Israelites (TWOT 1:156). God is the only One who has the right to amend or rescind any of His commandments.
A cursory review of the Besekh will reveal to any unbiased reader that the relevance and authority of the Torah is reiterated many times. (See Matt 5:1-48; 15:3; 19:1-9, 17; 22:36, 38, 40; John 14:15, 21; 15:10ff; Rom 3:19-20; 7:7-13; 1Cor 7:19; 14:34; Eph 6:2; 1Th 4:2-8; 1Tim 1:8; 6:13f; Heb 10:16; Jas 1:25; 2:8-9; 4:11-12; 1Pet 1:16; 1Jn 2:3f; 3:22ff; 4:21; 5:2f; 2Jn 1:4-6; Rev 12:17; 14:12.)
Yeshua endeavored to both explain the intent of Torah commandments and to provide guidance on application in order to enable obedience (cf. Jer 31:31-33; Matt 5:17; 2Cor 3:3). One researcher has calculated 1050 commands in the Besekh (Dake 313-316). Yet, Yeshua claimed he gave only one new commandment (John 13:34) and he expected his disciples to keep all his commandments (John 14:15, 21; 15:10), which meant that Yeshua is the one who gave the commandments to Moses. Yeshua also gave the apostles the authority to "bind and loose,” that is to impose obligations and to release from obligations, thus making their pronouncements binding upon the Body of Messiah for all time. The apostles used that authority to command obedience to Torah principles in many moral and practical issues (cf. Matt 16:19; Acts 15:28f; 1Cor 5:3ff; 11:16; 14:37; 2Cor 13:2; Eph 2:19-22; 2Pet 3:15f).
The attitude expressed in the Besekh toward the Torah is decidedly positive and supportive. Yeshua categorically denied that he came to rescind, cancel or nullify the Torah (Matt 5:17)! He then pronounced judgment on anyone who would annul any of the commandments (Matt 5:19). When he was asked by the rich young ruler what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Yeshua replied, "keep the commandments" (Matt 19:17). The fact that Yeshua eventually confronted the young man about obeying the first commandment in the sense of trusting in and following Yeshua did not invalidate the expectation to obey the rest of God's commandments (cf. Matt 19:18-19).
When a Torah scholar asked the same question Yeshua asked the scholar to determine the answer from the Torah and when he replied with the two greatest commandments, Yeshua said, "Do this and you will live" (Luke 10:28; cf. Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). In similar fashion, the apostle Paul specifically asserted that the Torah was not nullified by the atonement through Yeshua (Rom 3:31) and affirmed strongly that the Torah is holy, righteous, good and spiritual (Rom 7:12, 14). Moreover, without the Torah there is no standard to define sin (Rom 3:20; 4:15; 7:7). To say that the Torah has been revoked or replaced and yet insist that sin is an every day experience is nonsensical. These two propositions are contradictory.
Stating the Scriptural requirement in a different way, Paul said, "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God" (1Cor 7:19). By circumcision Paul meant the ritual of Brit Milah associated with the surgery. The ritual was all important in Pharisaic Judaism, especially for the admission of proselytes into Jewish fellowship. He did not mean that the Torah command to remove the foreskin of Jewish males on the eighth day should be ignored by Jews (cf. Acts 16:3; 21:20-25), since it is the sign of the everlasting covenant given to Abraham (Gen 17:9-14). Indeed, he circumcised Timothy to comply with the command (Acts 16:3).
Paul could insist on Gentile believers obeying Torah commandments because Gentiles are only saved by being grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel (Rom 11:17, 19, 24) and granted citizenship in the commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2:11-22; 3:6). The Ten Commandments then serve as the basic standard for Jewish and Gentile believer alike (cf. Lev 24:22; Num 9:14; 15:15).
Nature of Legalism
Paul specifically enjoined Gentile believers to obey many requirements of the Torah (cf. Romans 12−13), so the phrase "not under law" cannot possibly mean "exempt from obeying God's commandments." Paul was really concerned with legalism and there is no Hebrew or Greek word for this concept. The Greek phrase hupo nomon could then be translated as "under legalism" and the phrase ergōn nomou translated as "legalistic observance of Torah commands" as rendered in the Complete Jewish Bible. And, for Paul with his Pharisee background, "under legalism" would include the numerous man-made traditions the Pharisees created as fences around the law. If this distinction is not recognized then we're left with the untenable position that the Scriptures are contradictory since both Yeshua and the apostles affirmed the continuing relevance and authority of the commandments given to Moses.
Since Paul was limited to nomos, which has a more narrow usage in Greek culture than torah does in Hebrew culture, he purposely left out the definite article in order to make the distinction between legalism (bad) and Torah (good). A good rule of thumb is that when Paul seems to speak negatively of the Law, he is talking about legalism. The failure to make the distinction between the Scriptural requirement to avoid legalism but to be obedient to the Torah, or the commandments, has led to spiritual havoc.
Among Christians the term "legalism" usually means either doing good works to earn salvation and/or imposing narrow pietistic rules on believers. Many Jews in the first century ascribed to the notion of the meritorious nature of good works, particularly almsgiving, prayer and fasting (cf. Matt 6:1-5; Rom 10:3). In apocryphal works, giving alms could gain atonement and forgiveness for past sins (Tobit 12:8-9; Sirach 3:14-15). There was a rabbinic saying: "Greater is he who gives alms than he who offers all sacrifices" (Barclay 1:187).
Almsgiving was the best good work a person could do. This is the epitome of loving your neighbor and in so doing loving your God. Even loaning money without interest or helping a poor man to some lucrative occupation was considered a form of almsgiving. Yeshua agreed so far as to say that done for the right reason the Father would reward these good works (see my commentary on Matthew 6:1, 4, 6, 17-18).
However, the matter took a strange turn when the good news of the Messiah was offered to the Gentiles. Even though Cornelius had been rewarded for his prayer and almsgiving with favor to hear the good news (Acts 10:30-31), he understood that forgiveness of his sins resulted directly from his trusting in Yeshua as his Messiah and Savior (Acts 10:43). However, some Pharisee believers or possibly even Gentile proselytes insisted thereafter that Gentiles had to be circumcised in accordance with the Pharisaic custom and ceremony (Acts 15:1) in order to be saved along with the Jews. Paul confronts this problem head on in his letter to the Galatia congregations.
The Jerusalem Council settled the matter by declaring that salvation is first and foremost the unilateral choice of God to be merciful and that salvation results from trusting in the atonement provided by Yeshua (Acts 15:9-11; Rom 5:1). Similarly, Paul emphasized in Ephesians 2:8 that salvation does not result from legalistic works. The true import of the phrase "under the Law" is that living by the letter of the law, especially as interpreted by tradition, invariably brings frustration because the curse of the Law will condemn any breach (cf. Rom 3:28-29; 7:6; 2Cor 3:6; Gal 3:10).
As serious as the subject of grace versus earning salvation is, this was not the only aspect of the controversy that flared between Yeshua and his Pharisee opponents. The foundational error in legalism was the unlawful use of the laws given to Moses or using God's Law in a way He never intended, as Paul says, "But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully" (1Tim 1:8).
The misuse of the Law, as practiced by certain Pharisees, was at least fourfold. The first misuse was the casuistic application of Torah, i.e., pitting one commandment against another or elevating some commandments over others. Yeshua condemned the hypocrisy of rigorous observance of tithing and the Sabbath while neglecting the "weightier matters" of the Torah (Matt 12:1-12; 23:23).
The second misuse of the Law was treating man-made traditions and rules as equivalent to or more important than the written commandments given to Moses. Neither Yeshua nor Paul had any dispute with following traditions that had been created to help foster respect and obedience to Torah (Matt 23:1-3; Acts 23:6; Gal 1:14). However, Yeshua strenuously objected to using a tradition to enable disobedience of core commandments (Matt 15:1-6; 23:14).
The third misuse of the Law was treating Torah commandments as a wall to separate the righteous from the sinners (cf. Matt 9:11-13; 23:13). In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee congratulates himself on being better than the worst sinners and the tax collector who was despised for his association with the hated Romans. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), the priest and Levite ignore the needs of an injured man to maintain ritual purity.
The fourth misuse of the Law was parsing the meaning of words in the Torah in order to excuse selfish decisions and injustice, such as divorcing wives for personal expedience (Matt 19:3) and classifying healing as work and thereby condemning Yeshua's ministry on the Sabbath (Matt 12:10).
New Covenant Torah
Rightly understood the New Covenant is a call to the proper interpretation and application of Torah. Apostolic writings affirm that God's fundamental standards for holy and righteous living did not change with the New Covenant. At the Jerusalem Council the apostles exempted Gentiles from ritual circumcision, but affirmed the authority of God's creation commandments for obedience (Acts 15:19, 28f) and expected that Gentiles would learn from written Torah commandments at synagogue services (Acts 15:21).
Paul concurs by asserting that after being saved by grace through trusting in Yeshua's work of atonement the believer is expected to walk in or live by the "good works" that God "prepared beforehand" (Eph 2:9-10), namely the righteous requirements of the Torah. This is the same pattern in Exodus. God first delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage and then presented his covenant of commandments that would guide life in the future. The apostles and first century disciples were zealous to live by the Torah (Acts 21:20, 24; Rom 8:4), just like David who found delight and joy in keeping God's commandments (Ps 119:35, 47; cf. John 8:47; 15:10; Acts 10:14; 21:20; 22:12; 24:14; Rom 2:14f; 1Cor 7:19; 9:20; 11:2; Gal 4:4; 2Th 2:15; 3:6). No wonder John could say, "His commandments are not burdensome" (1Jn 5:3).
Since the Body of Messiah was founded on the authority of the prophets (Old Covenant) and the apostles (New Covenant) (Eph 2:20), God expects to see His standards for ethical living fulfilled in His children (cf. Rom 8:4). Of course, the fact that Yeshua established a New Covenant "in his blood" changed a number of requirements resulting in a New Covenant Torah. Christians often debate the nature of those changes and not unlike the Jewish debate in Yeshua's time want to know which commandments are still binding. In general we may say that the moral and ethical requirements of all three codes in the Torah have not been rescinded.
The most significant change in the holiness code is that the blood of Yeshua replaced the blood of animals (Heb 9:11f; 10:4), thereby canceling all individual and corporate animal offerings for atonement. Yeshua also replaced the descendants of Aaron as high priest. In addition, the nature of worship dramatically changed with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (John 4:21-23).
Changes to the justice code relate primarily to shifting responsibility for handling criminal matters to the government (Rom 13:1-4). However, civil matters between believers are still to be handled within the community of faith (Matt 18:15-19; 1Cor 6:1-8), and the principles of justice God established (due process, impartiality, accountability, responsibility, liability, equity, and proportionality) remain in force.
The most important issue is who will direct my life - God or me? The simple answer of Scripture echoes from Isaiah 33:22, "ADONAI is our Lawgiver" (TLV; cf. Matt 7:21; Col 1:9-10). Once the authority issue is settled, then the believer quickly realizes that help is required to please God. The Lord promised help, as Jeremiah prophesied,
"But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days" - it is a declaration of ADONAI - "I will put My Torah within them. Yes, I will write it on their heart. I will be their God, and they will be My people." (Jer 31:33 TLV)
The specific help comes in the person of the Holy Spirit, as prophesied by Ezekiel,
"19 Then I will give them one heart. I will put a new Spirit within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 so that they may follow My laws, keep My ordinances and practice them. They will be My people and I will be their God." (Ezek 11:19-20 TLV)
" I will put My Ruach within you. Then I will cause you to walk in My laws, so you will keep My rulings and do them." (Ezek 36:27 TLV).
Yeshua promised the fulfillment of God's plan in the upper room (John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13; 20:22) and the reality was given on Pentecost (Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). The testimony of the apostles is that keeping God's commandments is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32; Rom 2:29; 7:6; 8:2-5; 1Cor 6:11, 19; 12:3; 2Cor 3:5; Titus 3:5). Being "under grace," then, does not mean merely receiving God's favor and living as we like, but through the Holy Spirit receiving His power to be and do as God desires (2Cor 3:4-6; Col 1:9-10).
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
Barclay: William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series. Revised Ed., 16 Vols. The Westminster Press, 1975-76.
Dake: Finnis J. Dake, Dake's Annotated Reference Bible, (Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Bible Sales, Inc.), New Testament, 313-316, cited in David Stern, Messianic Judaism: A Modern Movement with an Ancient Past (Lederer Books, 2007), p. 157.
Marshall: Alfred Marshall, NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English. The Zondervan Corporation, 1986.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992.
TWOT: Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 Vols. ed. R. Laird Harris. Moody Bible Institute, 1980.
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