Law vs. Legalism

Formerly "Under Law"

Blaine Robison, M.A.

29 September 2008; Revised 7 June 2022



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.

Syntax: 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."

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).


Terms: Nomos and Torah

Types of Torah

Apostolic Validation

Nature of Legalism

New Covenant Torah

Terms: Nomos and Torah

"For sin will not have authority over you, because you are not under legalism but under grace. (Romans 6:14 CJB)

There are two related phrases in Paul's letters commonly misunderstood by Christians: hupo nomon and ergōn nomou. The first phrase 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; 1Corinthians 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 phrase 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 (Matt 12:5; Luke 2:22-27; John 1:17; 8:5; Jas 2:11); OR

● That plus the entire Pentateuch, especially when used in combination with "the Prophets" (Matt 22:40; John 1:45); OR

● That plus any portion of the Prophets and Writings (Matt 5:18; John 10:34). In this sense "Law" can be a synonym of "Scripture." (Stern 25)

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). 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." 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 nomos primarily 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 is no word in either Greek or Hebrew. Legalism is the misuse of Torah as an oppressive system (cf. Matt 23:4; Acts 15:10; Rom 6:14-15; 1Tim 1:8) and this meaning is intended by Paul's use of the idiomatic expression ergōn nomou or "works of law" (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). David Stern makes the usage of nomos as "legalism" plain in his translation of Romans 4:13, 14; 6:14, 15; 1Corinthians 9:20; Galatians 2:21; 3:11, 12, 23; 4:5, 21; 5:4; and Philippians 3:6, 9 (Complete Jewish Bible).

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.

The ethical code of too many Christians is not unlike the Israelites in the time of the judges "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Jdg 17:6; 21:25). Some Christians wrongly interpret any teaching about obedience to God's commands as legalism. In the process the authority of God has 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). Moreover, the Hebrew prophets made clear that the Torah would apply to Gentiles:

"It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of ADONAI shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: 'Come and let us go up to the mountain of ADONAI, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us His ways and we shall walk in His paths.' For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of ADONAI from Jerusalem." (Isa 2:2-3 BR; cf. Mic 4:2)

In fact, in the new earth God's calendar will be in force for the entire world: "And it shall come to pass that from one new moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh [mankind] shall come to worship before Me," says ADONAI." (Isa 66:23 BR). Zechariah prophesied that after the Messiah comes all nations will observe Sukkot (Feast of Booths) (Zech 14:16-19). These prophecies would be false if the Torah was only for Jews to obey. Yeshua and Paul considered the Torah, indeed the entire Tanakh, to be inspired by God and suitable for training in righteousness (2Tim 3:16). To reject the Torah is to reject God's Word.

Types of Torah

Creation Torah

"Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning." (1Jn 2:7 NASB)

Long before the injunctions and statutes given to Israel at Sinai "Creation law" established the institution of marriage, the seven-day week and Sabbath, human government and basic justice standards. God set forth a variety of commandments and principles that revealed His expectations of Mankind (Gen 1:26-30; 2:2-3, 18-25; 3:16-19; 4:6-7; 6:3, 18; 9:5-8). 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).

Enoch "walked" with God (Gen 5:24), which implies living in a manner pleasing to God. Noah was considered a righteous man, which implies a divine standard for him to obey (Gen 6:9). Abraham was commended for keeping God's commandments (Gen 26:5), which must have been commonly known. Yeshua and the apostles affirmed Creation Torah as the basis to make important pronouncements (cf. Matt 19:4-6; Mark 2:27-28; 10:6; Rom 1:18-20; 1Cor 11:8-15; Eph 5:22-33; 1Tim 2:11-15; 4:2-4; 2Th 2:13; 1Jn 2:7).

Covenant Torah

"Now then, if you listen closely to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be My own treasure from among all people, for all the earth is Mine." (Ex 19:5 TLV)

At Mt. Sinai the nation of Israel entered into a covenant relationship with God, which was really a continuation of the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. See my article The Everlasting Covenants. Like previous covenants the covenant Israel entered into with God came with expectations of behavior and Israel agreed to those terms (Ex 19:8). Beginning in Exodus 20 God set forth His most important lifestyle instructions, the Ten Words, more commonly known as the Ten Commandments.

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.

● 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 ADONAI." The first four of the Ten Commandments are the major titles of the holiness code.

● 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.

● 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.

Apostolic Validation

"So the Torah is holy; that is, the commandment is holy, just and good." (Rom 7:12 CJB)

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). Moreover, the description of Yeshua as "righteous" and "sinless" is based on the fact that he lived in obedience to Torah commandments (cf. Matt 5:17-20; 19:17; 22:16; 27:19; Luke 23:47; John 7:18; 8 :29; 2Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1Jn 2:1).

Yeshua and the apostles also gave commandments. 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 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). See a full discussion of this subject in my article The Guidance of Paul.

The attitude expressed in the Besekh toward the Torah is decidedly positive and supportive. In the Sermon on the Mount 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). Many Bible versions either purposely or inadvertently have Yeshua denying the authority of Torah commandments in the formula "You have heard it but I say to you" (Matt 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43).

Almost all versions translate the Greek conjunction de with "but," which essentially means "on the contrary," as if Yeshua were rebutting the specific commandments he quoted and replacing Torah in general. While the conjunction de is used to indicate contrast, it is also used as a connecting particle to continue a thought, "and, also," sometimes with emphasis, "indeed," "moreover" (Thayer). In reality Yeshua uses the conjunction to introduce an inference from the commandment.

Yeshua's expectations of his disciples are in line with the promised empowerment of the New Covenant (Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:27). 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 to Pharisees, especially for the admission of proselytes into Jewish fellowship.

Paul 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). Circumcision is the sign of the everlasting covenant given to Abraham (Gen 17:9-14). Indeed, Paul 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

"14 For He Himself is our peace, the One having made both one and having broken down the fence barrier, the hostility 15 in his flesh, having annulled the law of rules based on man's opinions [Grk. dogma], in order that he might create the two in Himself into one new man, making peace." (Eph 2:14-15 BR)

"13 And you being dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all the transgressions, 14 having blotted out the bond of debt against us consisting of man-made rules [Grk. dogma], which was adverse to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." (Col 2:13-14 BR)

"We know that the Torah is good, provided one uses it in the way the Torah itself intends." (1Tm 1:8 CJB)

Paul specifically enjoined Messianic congregations, which included Gentile believers, to obey many requirements of the Torah. See my article The Guidance of Paul. Thus, the phrase "not under law" (Gal 5:18) cannot possibly mean "exempt from obeying God's commandments." Paul was really concerned with legalism and there is no single 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 translated 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. Indeed, Paul makes reference to this understanding of legalism in his letters to Ephesus and Colossae. Most versions translate plural form of the word dogma in the above verses as "ordinances" to imply the many laws given to Israel at Sinai, especially so-called "ceremonial laws." In Greek culture dogma meant an opinion or a public decree of an official, such as Caesar (Luke 2:1; Acts 17:7). The Pharisee opinion for keeping the Sabbath included forbidding 39 categories of work (Shabbath 7:2), most of which had no relation to the stipulation of the fourth commandment (Ex 20:8-10; Deut 5:12-15).

So, according to Paul what Yeshua canceled was NOT the Torah, but the legalistic rules invented by the Pharisees. A good rule of thumb when reading Paul's statements about "law" 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. In the early decades of the Yeshua movement circumcision became the focus of legalism. A group of Messianic Jews known as the Circumcision Party held to a basic theology: (1) there is no salvation outside Israel (Gen 35:11; Isa 42:6); (2) Brit Milah (ritual circumcision) is the sign of the covenant people (Gen 17:11); and (3) there is one law for Jew and Gentile (Ex 12:48; Num 15:16). Therefore, a Gentile believer must become a circumcised proselyte to receive the benefit of salvation.

The apostle Peter came into conflict with the circumcision theology when he presented the good news of the Messiah to Cornelius (Acts 11:1-3). 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, those of the Circumcision Party insisted that Gentiles had to be circumcised in accordance with the Jewish custom and ceremony in order to be saved along with the Jews (Acts 15:1).

The Circumcision Party failed to recognize that while the Torah might have required Gentiles to be circumcised to participate in Passover (Ex 12:48), there was no such requirement to be saved. The apostles 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 law" is that living by Pharisee traditions 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 affirmed to Timothy (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 Torah was treating man-made traditions and rules as equivalent to or more important than the written commandments given to Israel. 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 16:4; 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 Torah was treating God's 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 Torah 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

"Here, the days are coming," says ADONAI, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Isra'el and with the house of Y'hudah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers on the day I took them by their hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt; because they, for their part, violated my covenant, even though I, for my part, was a husband to them," says ADONAI. 33 "For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Isra'el after those days," says ADONAI: "I will put my Torah within them and write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Jer 31:31-33 CJB).

"But now the work Yeshua has been given to do is far superior to theirs, just as the covenant he mediates is better. For this covenant has been given as Torah on the basis of better promises." (Heb 8:6 CJB)

We should note that the promise of the New Covenant first appears in Jeremiah, not the New Testament. The New Covenant was given to Israel not to the Church. However, God promised that His covenant people would include the nations (Gen 35:11). For Yeshua and the apostles the New Covenant was for the Commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2:2), which includes Gentile believers grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel (Rom 11:17). By God's instruction the New Covenant was not given to eliminate the Torah, but to enable obedience to Torah. Rightly understood the New Covenant is a call to the proper interpretation and application of Torah.

God's fundamental standards for holy and righteous living did not change with the New Covenant (1Pet 1:16). At the Jerusalem conference the apostles exempted Gentiles from circumcision of the flesh, 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 took them through the Red Sea, which Paul likened to immersion (1Cor 10:1-2), and later at Mt. Sinai 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 the Creation Torah and the Covenant Torah have not been rescinded (Matt 19:17-19; Rom 1:18-28; 13:8-10; 1Cor 5:9-11; Gal 5:19-21).

When reading through the commandments recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy the approach to take is not to automatically assume that each of the 613 commandments (as enumerated by Maimonides) has been canceled. Rather ask these questions:

● Is this commandment mentioned or alluded to in the Besekh?

● Did Yeshua or the apostles affirm this commandment?

● Did Yeshua or the apostles rescind this commandment?

● Did Yeshua or the apostles modify this commandment?

● Is this commandment for Jews only?

● Does this commandment have universal application?

Many commandments do have universal application by deducing its justice principle. For example, the command to install a parapet on a house roof may be specific to the ancient building code (Deut 22:8), but the issue is worker safety. What should a homeowner do to insure the safety of anyone performing work on his property? The command to love's one's neighbor (Lev 19:18) is accompanied by several practical injunctions that illustrate how the command is fulfilled.

The most significant change in the holiness code is that the blood of Yeshua replaced the blood of animals, thereby canceling all individual and corporate animal offerings for atonement (Heb 9:11f; 10:4). Yeshua also replaced the descendants of Aaron as high priest (Heb 7:11-28). In addition, many statutes required the presence of the temple, so the destruction of the Jerusalem temple dramatically changed the nature of worship (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 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).

During his last supper Yeshua promised the fulfillment of God's plan (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).

Works Cited

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.

Thayer: Joseph Henry Thayer (1828-1901), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Harper Brothers, 1889. Website HTML 2011 by Biblesoft, Inc. Online.

TWOT: Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 Vols. ed. R. Laird Harris. Moody Bible Institute, 1980.

Copyright 2008-2022 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.