Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
-Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (JPS Tanakh)
On the day of Moshe’s death he assembles the whole Jewish people and creates a Covenant confirming the Jewish people as the Almighty’s Chosen People (chosen for responsibility to be a light to the nations) for all future generations. Moshe makes clear the consequences of rejecting God and His Torah as well as the possibility of repentance. He reiterates that Torah is readily available to everyone.
Certainly, this is difficult for most Christians to understand. After all, how can Moses say that the Law (Torah) is not too baffling, that it is not beyond reach, and that He expects the Children of Israel to obey it fully, when traditional Christian doctrine teaches that the Law (Torah) only existed to bring wrath (Romans 4:15), death (Romans 7:10), was only a guardian until Christ came (Galatians 3:24), and that if you break even one small mitzvah, you’ve broken the entire Law (James 2:10)?
That’s a tough one. It certainly seems as if the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the Apostolic Scriptures (New Testament) are not in agreement, even a little.
But Paul also wrote that the Law (Torah) “is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” (Romans 7:12). He additionally wrote:
Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.
-Romans 7:13 (NASB)
How can Paul say that the Law brings death and then say, virtually in the same breath, that the Law, which is good, doesn’t bring death?
I recently came across a short article written by Ariel Berkowitz called “A Torah-Positive Summary of Sha’ul’s Letter to the Galatians” at MessianicPublications.com. The fine folks at this website and I don’t always see eye to eye, but in this case, the view Berkowitz presents in his missive come very close to my own.
One of the issues that stands between my Pastor and me is the purpose of Torah for the Jewish believers, both in New Testament times and beyond, to our present age. Although we had previously agreed that the Torah has multiple purposes depending on the context, it still is a sticking point in our conversations on Galatians and D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Holy Epistle to the Galatians.
Referring to Berkowitz, let’s see what he says the Torah isn’t according to Galatians 2:15-16:
In what way specifically was the gospel being perverted? We read in 2:15–16 that some people in that congregation were turning away from the principle that justification is by grace through faith in Yeshua alone. Sha’ul writes, “We…know that a man is not justified by observing the Torah, but by faith in Yeshua the Messiah. So we, too, have put our faith in Messiah Yeshua that we may be justified by faith in Messiah and not by observing the Torah, because by observing the Torah no one will be justified.”
This should be a no-brainer for just about everyone. The mechanical observance of the Torah mitzvot, in and of itself, does not justify anyone to God. Only faith in Messiah justifies.
No one is arguing against that. If a Christian uses that argument as an evidence that the Law (Torah) is no longer a valid means for a Jewish believer to obey God, it’s a straw man argument (although, to be fair, it’s been an argument against Torah in the church for so long, that I sincerely believe those using it are unaware of its “straw man” nature). It’s an easy argument to “win” but it means nothing. Let me repeat, obedience of the Torah mitzvot in and of itself does not justify anyone before God.
Some people in the congregation were teaching a gospel of works, that one might be justified by what he does. If this was not bad enough, they were using God’s Torah and making a law out of it. They were trying to use God’s revelation to His people through Moshe as a means of works salvation, hoping to gain their justification by doing the Torah.
Some people, scholars have differing opinions on who they were, tried to convince the Galatian churches that only obedience to Torah would justify one before God. This completely removes the requirement of faith. The message to the the Jewish church members was that faith in Yeshua (Jesus) was insufficient for justification. Their performance of Torah as Jews would be the primary (only) means of salvation. The message to the Gentile church members was that only by converting to Judaism (being circumcised) and full Torah observance would they be justified. Faith in Jesus wasn’t going to be enough.
I think we all know that Paul vehemently disagreed with this position, but does that mean Paul vehemently disagreed with anyone observing the mitzvot for any reason whatsoever?
We can see from the beginning, therefore, that in truth, Sha’ul had nothing against the Torah. Nor did he have anything against the Torah as a lifestyle for believers, as is evident from his own life. However, he was against anyone misusing the Torah. God never gave the Torah so that people could attempt to earn their salvation / justification from God by performing it. That philosophy is called “legalism.” Legalism is fatal! The Torah was never given by God to be a legalistic document. Some of the Galatians were attempting to do just that!
Here, Berkowitz and I come to a bit of a disagreement. He seems to suggest (though I may be wrong) that there is a rationale for all believers, Jewish and Gentile, to observe “Torah as a lifestyle.” This implies that both Jewish and Gentile believers would/should observe the mitzvot identically and that this was appropriate and expected as long as their obedience wasn’t for the purposes of justification/salvation. My opinion is that the specifics of obedience to God differed or overlapped, depending on whether the believer was Jewish or Gentile, based on the halakhic ruling of James and the Council of Apostles recorded by Luke in Acts 15 and affirmed in Acts 21.
Be that as it may, Berkowitz and I agree that the Torah does not justify people before God.
He did say that we have to examine the life of Paul, as depicted in the Book of Acts, to really understand the Galatians missive and his other epistles. I agree. You can’t take Galatians out of the context of the larger body of Pauline letters and certainly, you can’t dismiss Acts as the overarching narrative of the life of Paul. If elements of those different scriptures disagree and if some of those elements disagree with the Torah, the Prophets, and the Gospels, then either something is wrong with the Bible or something is wrong with our interpretation.
But Berkowitz tells us something important about the misuse of Torah. If we depend on only Torah observance to justify us before God, then the Torah really does bring death (Romans 7:10). This also seems to confirm James 2:10, since if a person depends on only Torah observance for justification, then they must observe all of the Law in order for that to work. Breaking even the least of the mitzvot would break the entire Torah and thus, the person would stand condemned before God.
But all of those negative statements against Torah observance depend on a person using Torah obedience as their sole method of justification, and we know that, based on Abraham we are only justified by faith (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:22). However, if one depends on faith for justification before God, and in the case of the Jewish person, observance of Torah was (and is) in response to the commandments for obedience once one is justified, then what is the argument against a Jew living a lifestyle in accordance with the Law of Moses?
Applying Berkowitz’s opinion to the Jewish believers, we find:
Where does the Covenant of Torah fit in? Sha’ul says that it is an entirely different kind of covenant. While the Covenant of Abraham is, on the one hand, a covenant of promise and faith in those promises, the Covenant of Torah, on the other hand, is a covenant of obedience. In the Covenant of Torah, the ones who received God’s promises by faith would enjoy and bear fruit in those promises by their obedience. Accordingly, Sha’ul writes in Galatians 3:12, “The Torah is not based on faith…” This is Sha’ul’s way of stating what we have declared above, that the purpose of Torah was not for salvation. If the Covenant of Abraham pictures salvation, then the Covenant of Torah would picture life as a redeemed person in Yeshua.
Sha’ul says that anyone who relies on observing the Torah for his/her justification is under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Torah” (Galatians 3:10–12). The key word here is not “observing,” but “relies on.” The one who is relying on doing the Torah to earn, merit, or keep their justification/salvation is not saved or justified. Justification is only by grace through faith.
That seems rather straightforward to me as a description of Jewish believers redeemed by God through faith. Trusting in what you do, that is, performance of the mitzvot, to save you is a dead-end street. It only works if you’re perfect at it, and no one is. In that case, the Torah is a curse and it does bring death, but that’s because you’re too blockheaded to see that it’s faith that justifies. However, Paul, who did live by faith, also observed the mitzvot as a Jewish man obeying God and as such, the Torah was a blessing.
I mentioned before that I thought the Torah has multiple purposes depending on history, location, persons involved, and other contextual factors. Let’s take a look at one of those purposes which is particularly used to denigrate Jewish observance of the Law.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
-Galatians 3:13-14, 23-29 (NASB)
A plain reading of the text, and especially as filtered through traditional Christian doctrine, seems to indicate that the Law’s only purpose was to act like a tutor or a “child-conductor” to guide people to Christ and, once that was done, so was the Torah. Christ then frees the person under the Law from the curse of the Law and they walk away from Torah and are free in Christ.
Except we’ve already seen that the “works of the Law” weren’t obeying the Law in and of itself, but it was obeying the Law specifically for the purposes of justification; obeying the Law in the absence of faith. The curse was the consequence of faithless performance of Torah in order to achieve justification.
If anything, the coming of Christ freed the Gentile of the obligation of converting to Judaism as the only means of entering into a covenant relationship with God. They did not have to convert and thus observe the mitzvot but rather, thanks to the promises made to Abraham and realized in the Messiah, the non-Jewish believers could come to God by faith and be justified before him. The Jewish believer could also access God by faith and not the false belief (which may have been a popular opinion among some Jewish groups in the late Second Temple period) that only through observing the mitzvot (before faith came) could a Jew (or anyone else) be saved. After all, God can make Sons of Abraham from stones (Matthew 3:9) so being Jewish does not automatically make one justified.
Berkowitz emphasizes this point thus:
To help make his point, Sha’ul draws upon a well-known Roman and Greek custom in his day. Well-to-do people often sent their children to a hired teacher for their education. To guide them along the way and to make sure that they arrive to their instructor, they of ten employed a protector. The Greek text refers to this “protector” as a paidagogos, (π αιδαγωγός). The paidagogos was not the teacher, but he was merely the protector and the one who guided the student to the teacher. For those who are not yet justified by God’s grace, the Torah can function in the same way. Sha’ul states in Galatians 3:24–25, “So the Torah was put in charge to lead us to Messiah, that we might be justified by faith.”
In other words, if you are laboring under the false assumption that only observance of the mitzvot can save you, one of the functions of the Law is to guide you to the one who can truly save you by faith: Messiah.
Jesus also believed that Torah functioned to point to him:
Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”
-John 5:45-47 (NASB)
Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
-Luke 24:26-27 (NASB)
Yes, the Torah pointed and still points to Jesus for the Jewish people and frankly, for any Gentile who believes that converting to Judaism or having to obey all of the Torah mitzvot in a manner identical to observant Jews, is the only way to be reconciled with the Father. In terms of justification, faith in Christ is better than observing the Law if your goal is to be saved. However, realizing that faith in Messiah is the means of justification does not invalidate in the slightest, a Jewish believer’s duty to obey God subsequent to salvation by observing the mitzvot. Thankfully, that observance doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to rest on the firm foundation of faith, otherwise, justification by the Law only is like trying to live in a paper house in the middle of a forest fire. Gentile Christians don’t obey God perfectly either (Christians, please remember that when you see a religious Jewish person being less than “Torah-perfect”), and fortunately our salvation isn’t endangered by that fact.
There’s more I could say on the Torah and Galatians based on the Berkowitz paper, but I think I’ll save that for another time. I believe we can see from the Torah as well as the Gospels and Epistles, that Jewish observance of Torah was not finished at the cross. I believe we can read Galatians, not as Paul’s “anti-law” letter, but as Paul’s correct interpretation of the relationship between Jewish Torah observance and justification. He was trying to tell his Gentile audience that they didn’t have to convert to Judaism and start keeping Torah in the Jewish manner in order to be saved. He was telling his Jewish audience that they had no reason to boast of being Jewish or Torah observance, because it was faith like Abraham’s that provided justification. Their observance of Torah was a valid consequence of being Jewish and being obedient, but their faith is the “sacrifice” of a “broken and a contrite heart,” (Psalm 51:17) that God truly desires.
But as David so eloquently wrote:
For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
By Your favor do good to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem. Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then young bulls will be offered on Your altar.
-Psalm 51:16-19 (NASB)
Faith and then obedience.