The multitude of regulations (the Jews found 613 laws in the Law, the books Genesis through Deuteronomy) was such that even to remember them all was a burden, and to keep them all bordered on the impossible.
–Leon Morris, Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Freedom.
I have always found this argument bizarre. God made too many laws. And the Jews made a huge mistake: they believed God about those laws. But never fear, Paul is here to clear it all up: no laws, but freedom.
I also find strange the argument that we needed Paul to say the laws were irrelevant because they were hard to keep. Thankfully now we only have to worry about the easy laws like “love your neighbor” and “love God with all your heart.” I mean, those are easy to keep, right?
The other night, I heard a speaker, a guy who I had hoped to hear good things from, say, “And when Christ comes to your door, he doesn’t come with a list of rules.” I thought to myself, “Is he talking about the Jesus who said bear fruit, give alms, love God, love neighbor, fast, pray, do not judge, and blessed is the servant the master finds working when he returns?”
But, perhaps it’s Paul’s fault that well-read thinkers like Leon Morris and much admired speakers like the one I went to hear make such statements. I mean, after all, didn’t Paul say, “now we are released from the law” and “the law was our guardian until Christ”? He did. So what’s up with Paul and the law? How should we take his statements?
In my 2005 book, Paul Didn’t Eat Pork (see it here on amazon), I list in two charts the anti-law statements of Paul and the pro-law statements. Our first observation about Paul and the law should be that he has both kinds of statements. Here are a handful of examples (red = bad; blue = good):
… you also have died to the Law through the body of Christ. Romans 7:4.
… the doers of the Law will be justified. Romans 2:13.
… you are not under the Law. Galatians 5:18.
… the Law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh. Romans 7:14.
… you are not under Law, but under grace. Romans 6:14.
I delight in the Law of God. Romans 7:22.
The most important realization, which was the main point of the second chapter in this series (“Torah and New Testament, #2”), is that Paul’s letters represent his instructions to the gentiles in Messiah Yeshua. Paul’s understanding of gentile relationship to Torah is different than his understanding of Jewish relationship to Torah. Paul did not write any letters about Jewish relationship to Torah (although Romans 14 indirectly addresses it).
So, if I were to assert that Paul believed Jews should keep Torah in full, where would I find a basis for this claim? If Paul didn’t write about Jewish relationship to Torah, where can we find the concept of a pro-Torah Paul? The first answer is in his own lifestyle as recorded in Acts. Acts 21:21-24 says it all: Paul keeps Torah and tradition. The second answer is in the nature of Acts 15, where gentile relationship to certain Torah commands is discussed, but assumed and not questioned is the axiom that Jews in Yeshua will keep the commandments of Moses.
But that still leaves us with the seemingly anti-Torah statements of Paul. Before categorizing and explaining them, keep in mind some historical realities that should help us comprehend Paul’s rhetoric, the reason for his strong statements:
- Gentile Yeshua-followers were caught between Roman law and synagogue rejection. Roman law in many places required certain pagan affirmations such as venerating Roman deities and emperors. Judaism was given a special exemption. Gentile Yeshua-followers were first seen as part of Judaism, but synagogues started rejecting them when they refused to convert and join the synagogue. This put them in danger of being outlaws in the Roman system.
- Paul opposed conversion strongly, because gentile Yeshua-followers were converting to become kosher to God. But Yeshua already made gentiles kosher to God via the cross. If Paul accepted the idea of conversion as a prerequisite or allowed others to practice this, the gospel would be compromised. Being right with God comes through faith in Yeshua, not through joining the nation Israel. Gentiles are to be in Messiah, not in Israel.
- The cross of Yeshua changed something radically in the relation of all people to the Torah, Jews and non-Jews. Torah leaves a person guilty and separated from God (think of the Temple and even the closest worshipper cannot enter the Presence). But the cross, for the first time, brought people near to God, abolishing the sentence of death and separation.
- A proper application of Torah all along should have included the idea that obeying commands never merits a pardon from God. This is why, in Jewish worship and particularly at High Holidays, we pray, “We have no good deeds before you.” Obedience does bring favor, but obedience does not erase guilt and obedience cannot bring us all the way to reconciliation with God. Only an act of God (i.e., the cross) can do that. The inability of the Torah to save is not a new truth, but is the basis of Messiah’s sacrifice. Something more than Torah needed to be done.
Paul’s statements which seem to be anti-Torah all manifest one of these realities.
The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, says Paul. Yes, Yeshua’s radical love which made him obedient to the point of death on behalf of humanity has manifested God’s justice (the “righteousness of God”). God’s idea of justice is sacrificial love to redeem the unjust.
Let me say that again. God’s idea of justice (“the righteousness of God”) is sacrificial love to redeem the unjust.
You are not under Law but under grace, says Paul. Try reading Romans 6 with this understanding: you are not under Law means not under the condemnation of the Law. You are judged innocent, pardoned already. Therefore, grace or favor from God is your status, not judgment or condemnation.
Christ is the end of the Law, says Paul. I would argue that “end” here means the proper purpose and the unveiling of its true meaning. Many put this in simple terms: end means goal. Try assuming in Romans 10 that Paul is making a deeper point than “the Law was abolished when Christ died.” Try assuming it means “the cross completes what God taught us in Torah, showing us how the laws of separation and holiness are answered in God’s redeeming act of gift-love on the cross.”
The Law is holy and the commandment is holy. The Law is spiritual but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I delight in the Law of God in my inner being. It is not hearers of the Law but doers of the Law who will be justified. The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s Law.
If Paul taught his gentile disciples, and I believe he did, that Sabbath and food laws did not apply to them (see Romans 14), this is not because Torah was abolished, but because those commands were always Israel-specific. They were identity markers of belonging to the Jewish people and the Sinai covenant. Paul does not view this covenant as having ceased.
Paul combatted the idea of justification-by-Jewishness. He did not, as older interpreters like Augustine and Luther thought, battle with legal perfectionism. That was not the reigning issue in Judaism in Paul’s day and it is not in modern Judaism either.
Rather, Paul combatted the ideas, “I am right with God because I am Jewish” and “I will convert to Judaism so I can become right with God.” If these ideas were the truth, then the cross was unneeded. To believe these lies renders the sacrificial love of Yeshua irrelevant. If these are true, why did the Lord of life die?
In #4, examining Yeshua on some points of Law and Temple.