Torah and Legalism

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Torah and “Legalism”

Hello Ari,

The “Torah-observant” part is what really gets me about Messianic Judaism, because I really want to learn more but I don’t want to be legalistic. What I have always heard is that people who follow the Torah are legalistic and that if you follow one law then you are under the whole Law.

Sandi


Dear Sandi,

First of all, let me address the easiest part of your question: “… if you follow one law then you are under the whole Law.”

Obedience to Torah never has provided salvation and it never will. We who try to be obedient to Torah do not do so in order to be saved; we do it because we have already been saved, Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) gives us the power to live out Torah in our lives (to some extent), and living out Torah is a part of the sanctification process; that is, the term “sanctified” literally means set apart for God’s purpose, and living a Torah lifestyle certainly sets one apart from most of humanity.

However, “if you follow one law” as a means to salvation, then you are rejecting the atoning sacrifice of Messiah for your salvation. Without His atonement, there can be no forgiveness of sin. The only hope you then have for salvation is to never, ever commit a single sin; one single sin in your lifetime is sufficient to eternally separate you from God, and sin is defined as “a violation of Torah.”

Everyone who keeps sinning is violating Torah — indeed, sin is violation of Torah. (1 John 3:4)

So yes, if you follow one law (mitzvah or commandment) as a means to salvation, then the only means of salvation remaining to you is to follow every law (mitzvah or commandment) — to the letter — for your entire life; and there has only been one Man in the history of humanity who was able to do that.

Next let’s modify our vocabulary just a bit. Although I use the term “Torah observant” extensively on this website as it is used extensively throughout the entire Messianic Jewish movement, the term is not technically accurate. Only Yeshua Himself was ever completely Torah-observant. For the rest of humanity, Torah-pursuant (pursuing a lifestyle of obedience to Torah) will have to suffice. Now to address your concern.

“Legalism” has absolutely nothing to do with what we do, but it has everything to do with why we do it. If you go to church every Sunday because you love being in the presence of God and worshiping Him, and there is absolutely nothing else that you would rather do that morning, you are not being legalistic. But if you go to church every Sunday because you believe that is what is required of you as a “good Christian” then you are being legalistic.

The entire issue of “legalism” stems from two errors.

The first error that people make is to think that the Apostle Paul — who was actually the Torah-pursuant Rabbi Sha'ul, a “Pharisee of the Pharisees” who never ”converted” to “Christianity” but rather who was one of the primary leaders of the Messianic Jewish sect known as ”The Way” —  taught against the Torah. The problem lies not in Rav Sha'ul’s teaching, but with the Greek language into which his original letters, written in Hebrew, were translated. The is no suitable Greek word for “legalism,” so what Sha'ul actually wrote was translated into Greek as nomoß (nomos, law), which is not the same as the Torah. This error has been corrected by David Stern in his translation of the Complete Jewish Bible. The Apostolic Scriptures are very clear that Rav Sha'ul was fully Torah-pursuant until his death. For him to have taught against his own lifestyle would make him one of the greatest hypocrites of history!

The second erroneous teaching is that “Jesus nailed the Law to the cross,” or some other way of saying that Yeshua abolished the Torah. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Consider this example of Yeshua’s teaching:

“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law [Torah] until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18, NASB)

“… whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot [commandments] and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:19, CJB)

Have heaven and earth passed away yet? If not, the entire Torah — every commandment, every word, every letter, the smallest part of every letter — is still in force and binding upon God’s people. Do you want to be called “least” or “greatest” in the Kingdom? If you want to be called “great” then you will obey and teach even the least of the commandments of Torah. (See further comments on these two verses here.)

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; ... He who has seen Me has seen the Father; ... Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, ... Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; ... If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:7-15 NASB)

If Yeshua is indeed HaShem (the Hebrew term most frequently used by Jews to refer to God), then it was Yeshua who gave the entire Torah to Moshe at Sinai and inscribed the “Ten Words” in the tablets of stone with His own finger. Yeshua’s statement in John 14:15 should then be interpreted to mean “If you love Me you will keep My Torah.”

According to an accurate interpretation of the Scriptures, we are now, and have always been (since Sinai), “under the whole Torah (Law)” — the Torah is God’s only standard of righteousness. When we are “saved” (brought into a saving covenant relationship with Yeshua HaMashiach) we are given the gift of the indwelling Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) Who enables us to live righteous lives in accordance with the whole Torah, and frees us from being under the penalty of the Law because He has forgiven our sins (lawlessness, or literally Torah-less-ness).

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works [obedience to Torah], which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph 2:10, NASB)

“For we are of God’s making, created in union with the Messiah Yeshua for a life of good actions [obedience to Torah] already prepared by God for us to do.” (Eph 2:10, CJB)

The only provisions of Torah which are not applicable to the Believer today are:

(1) those Mitzvot (commandments) that apply to the Temple and its sacrificial system (because there is no Temple at this time — they will be applicable when the next Temple is dedicated),

(2) those Mitzvot that apply to the civil rule of law under a theocratic government (there is no theocratic government at this time — they will be applicable when King Messiah returns and physically reigns on earth), or

(3) those Mitzvot which apply only within Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel — Believers who live in Eretz Israel are subject to these Mitzvot; those in the Diaspora outside of Eretz Israel are not).

Of those Mitzvot which are not abrogated by the above three exclusions, not all remaining Mitzvot apply equally to all; for example, some Mitzvot are gender-specific (men only or women only); some apply only to parents and others only to children; some apply only to masters/employers and others apply only to servants/employees; some apply only to farmers, some only to ranchers, and still others only to merchants. And some only apply to those who are Jewish by birth or adoption; many teachers say that those who are not Jewish by birth or adoption have the option to obey them, but not the obligation. (See the list here.) There are those who live within the borders of the United States who are not American citizens, and who are not obligated to the all the responsibilities of the Constitution; but they are not entitled to all the rights and protection of that Constitution, either. The Torah is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Israel. There are those non-Jewish Believers in Messiah who are “residents” of the Commonwealth of Israel who have chosen not to become full citizens. It is my belief that they are not obligated to all the responsibilities of the Constitution of the Commonwealth; but neither are they entitled to all the rights and protection of that Constitution.

As I briefly explained above, when Rav Sha'ul wrote his letters, he originally wrote them (I firmly believe) in Hebrew. They were then translated into Greek and Aramaic, and then into Latin, and finally into English. The problem he had (and that we have today) is that in Hebrew and Greek, there is no word for the English concept of “legalism” (that is, obeying a divine instruction out of obligation rather than out of desire to please God, or obeying a tradition of men only because it is expected by the community.) And so he tried to explain his teaching using the only vocabulary that he had. When the letters were finally translated into English, the translators had already made up their minds that Torah had been “cancelled,” and that bias was incorporated into their translation. A careful re-reading of all of Rav Sha'ul's letters in their original Hebrew context will reveal that what he actually taught is that we are still subject to every single provision of Torah (with the exceptions as listed immediately above — all of which he carefully observed until his death), but we are not obligated to the Rabbinical interpretation of Torah, the “Tradition of the Elders,” though Rav Sha'ul — and apparently Yeshua also — personally remained observant to those Traditions which did not contradict the Torah. If you freely choose to follow the Tradition of the Elders because you want to, you are not being legalistic. If you follow the Tradition of the Elders because it is expected of you by your community, you are being legalistic.

A careful reading of Rav Sha'ul’s biography in the book of Acts will reveal that he taught and practiced faithful obedience to the “least commandment” of Torah — including “the tradition of the elders.” In his defense before King Agrippa, he said,

“… I am about to make my defense before you today; especially because you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. So then, all Jews know my manner of life from my youth up, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and at Jerusalem; since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion.” (Acts 26:1-5)

Look at the last event of his life as recorded in Acts 28:

“After three days Sha'ul called a meeting of the local Jewish leaders. When they had gathered, he said to them: ‘Brothers, although I have done nothing against either our people or the traditions of our fathers, I was made a prisoner in Yerushalayim and handed over to the Romans. …’ They said to him, ‘We have not received any letters about you from Y'hudah, and none of the brothers who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you.’”

These people with whom he was speaking were the “local Jewish leaders” in Rome who were extremely familiar with the most minute detail of both the Torah and the Tradition of the Elders. Rav Sha'ul said that he has not offended in even the slightest provision of “the traditions of our fathers” and they agreed that nobody, not even the strictest of the Pharisees, “has reported or said anything bad about you.” If the Torah was no longer in effect for Rav Sha'ul, then he would not have kept the slightest provisions of even “traditions of our fathers” — it is simply inconceivable that he would have taught that Torah had been abolished and then continued to live under its strict application and interpretation.

Those who call obedience to God “legalism,” according to Yeshua, “will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” However, we are obedient to Torah not in order to be saved, but because we have already been saved and have been empowered by Ruach HaKodesh to live according to God’s only standard of righteousness, the Torah.

One final thought. The responsibility of a “disciple” is not to know what his/her rabbi (teacher) knows; the responsibility of a “disciple” is to become what his/her rabbi is. Yeshua of Nazareth was a Jew who lived His entire life without violating even the slightest provision of the Torah which applied to Him. Do you call yourself a disciple of Yeshua? Are you a true disciple of Yeshua? Do you then not have a responsibility to — to the best of your ability — live as He lived?

I have a further small challenge for you. Read the list of 613 Mitzvot and determine which do not apply directly to you (that will be most of them). After you have done that, decide which of the mitzvot that apply to you are unfair for God to ask of you or are too burdensome for you to try to bear. Then go down on your knees and tell Him why you believe it is unfair or too burdensome. If He then excuses you from observing that Mitzvah, than you are certainly excused.

Shalom b'Mashiach,

Ari

Page revised on Sunday, 17 April 2016 05:58 PM

Page last updated on Wednesday, 03 August 2016 11:21 AM
(Updates are generally minor formatting or editorial changes.
Major content changes after May 3, 2015 are identified as "Revisions”)