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Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Under The Law" - What Does this Mean?


How many times have you heard it said, “We are no longer under the law but under grace?” On the surface, this phrase quoted from Rabbi Paul’s letter to a Messianic congregation in Romans 6:14 appears to be clear and straightforward in its meaning. This is why many misinterpret this phrase to mean:

“Before Yeshua (Jesus), mankind was under bondage to the Mosaic Law given by God at Mt. Sinai. When Yeshua came, He did away with the Mosaic Law, which was impossible for man to obey, and gave us new commandments to follow.”

How could this interpretation be correct? Could the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob give a law that was not perfect and then punish His people for not following it perfectly? Today, we would call this child abuse!

As with the phrase “under the law,” there is a lack of understanding today on how to apply God’s Law (Torah). Because of this lack of understanding, many have become “workers of iniquity” (Matt. 7:23) or “workers against the Law.” Yeshua said that those who fall in this category would not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

Therefore, in this study, we will let the balance of Scripture establish our doctrine concerning God’s Law. Our goal is to dispel the misunderstanding of the phrase “under the law.” We will do this by examining all of Rabbi Paul’s writings and determine what he was trying to say in his letters to the Messianic congregations. This is the Hebraic way of gaining the correct interpretation, look at the whole of Scripture.


It is essential that we understand the meaning of terms and phrases when interpreting what someone else is attempting to communicate to us. This is why we keep a copy of the Webster’s Dictionary on the book shelf and use it when confronted with words we do not understand. This is also needed when interpreting Scripture. Phrases and terms that meant something to those living in a first century Hebraic society may not be easily translated or communicated to the Greek society or the modern Western society. Therefore, we will provide a few definitions.

§ Law - Translated from the Greek word nomos; which was translated from the Hebrew word Torah that literally means: guidelines, instructions, and teachings in righteousness

§ Grace - Translated from the Greek word charitoo meaning indue with special honor, make accepted, be highly favored [Strongs Concordance]; translated from the Hebrew word chesed meaning unmerited favor. It does not conflict with God’s Law/Torah.

§ Scriptures - Translated from the Greek word graphe meaning a document, i.e. holy Writ (or its contents or a statement in it) [Strongs Concordance], term used for Bible; Hebraic: Tenach (Torah and the Prophets), which did not include Renewed Covenant (New Testament.). The “New Testament” did not exist during the Apostolic era.

§ Under Law - Translated from the Greek words upo nomon; Hebraically understood: “…in subjection to the system that results from perverting the Torah into legalism.” [Dr. David Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto].

§ Law of Sin - Sin is defined in 1 John 3:4, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the Law (Torah): for sin is the transgression of the Law (Torah). Keep in mind that the word “law” in the Renewed Covenant does not always mean TORAH.

§ Legalism - Attempting to earn one’s “Salvation by Works” rather than accepting the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua for salvation.

§ Idiom - An expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in grammatical construction or in having a meaning which cannot be derived as a whole from the conjoined meanings of its elements (e.g., “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” “don’t be bull-headed,” “that’s water under the bridge”)


Equally important to understanding the meaning of words and phrases from other languages is to understand the background of the individual saying them. By reading some of Paul’s statements in his letters, one could quickly draw the false conclusion that Paul was anti-Law (Torah). This is why ALL of Paul’s words and teachings must be examined in order to determine where Paul stood with respect to the Law/Torah. Let’s take a look at Paul’s own testimony and his beliefs.

1) Paul is a Pharisee – Taught by the School of Hillel

Acts 22:3 “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the Law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.”

Acts 23:6 “…he (Paul) cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.”

Philippians 3:5-6. “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”

2) Paul’s encounter with Yeshua - Sent to a man who upheld the Law/Torah

Acts 22:12-15. “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the Law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there, came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him. And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth. For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.

3) Paul asked by James to prove that he continued to walk according to the Law

Acts 21:18-24, 18. And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present…Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the Law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the Law.

4) Paul taught that the Law and the Prophets (Scriptures) were holy, spiritual, and good

1 Tim. 3:14-17 “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Messiah Yeshua. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

Romans 2:13 “For not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law shall be justified.”

Romans 2:14 “For when the Gentiles, which have not the Law, do by nature the things contained in the Law, these, having not the Law, are a Law unto themselves:”

Romans 2:15 “Which shew the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;”

Romans 2:18 “And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the Law;”

Romans 3:20 “Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the Law is the knowledge of sin.”

Romans 3:31 “Do we then make void the Law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the Law.”

Romans 7:12 “Wherefore the Law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.”

Romans 7:14 “For we know that the Law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.”

Romans 7:22. “For I delight in the Law of God after the inward man:”

Galatians 3:21 “Is the Law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a Law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the Law.”

1 Tim. 1:7-8 “Desiring to be teachers of the Law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm. But we know that the Law is good, if a man use it lawfully;”


After reading Paul’s own words about the Law/Torah, Paul can not be saying in Romans 6:14 that there is something wrong with the Law/Torah. Clearly, Paul does not consider the Law/Torah a curse, or done away with, or that one should not be obedient to God’s Law/Commandments. Paul states in Romans 3:31, the Law/Torah does not conflict with faith nor does it conflict with grace. Otherwise, Paul would be inconsistent in his deeds and words - a very confused man! This is important to understand because we are talking about “God’s Law/Torah,” not man’s law.

Could it be that Paul, when using the phrase “under law,” is talking about man being legalistic about obeying God’s Law/Torah? They ignore the Father’s grace, “unmerited favor,” which is part of the equation.

Many of us have experienced religious legalism in some form or fashion (e.g., if you don’t speak in tongues you are not spirit filled, if you do not wear certain clothes your not presenting holiness). Paul is addressing this in his letters to the Messianic congregations by using the phrase or idiom “under law” to mean UNDER LEGALISM. Read Acts 15 where Paul was confronted with: “you must first be circumcised and then you will be saved.” Nowhere in Scripture is circumcision or any other commandment given as a prerequisite for salvation. However, in Acts 15, man has decided that the flesh must be changed before the heart can be changed!

According to Messianic leader, Dr. John Fischer, “Although its relationship to the book of Acts is a topic of much discussion, a good case can be made for Galatians being written before the Jerusalem council of Acts 15. In that case, the council decision helps interpret the message of Galatians.” (A Jewish View of Galatians, p. 10)


The phrase “Under the law” appears in 10 verses in the Brit Chadasha (Renewed Covenant) and all are attributed to Rabbi Paul’s writings. Please keep in mind that the article “the” is not present in the Greek language. The phrase should read “under law.”

Romans 3:19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

Romans 6:14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace.

Romans 6:15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? God forbid.

1 Cor. 9:20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under law;

1 Cor. 9:21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.

Gal. 3:23 But before faith came, we were kept under law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.

Gal. 4:4 But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under law,

Gal. 4:5 To redeem them that were under law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

Gal. 4:21 Tell me, ye that desire to be under law, do ye not hear the law?

Gal. 5:18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under law.


With the influx of new believers from the nations coming to faith in Yeshua, Paul was confronted with many problems. However, there was one major problem – Salvation Legalism.

Some Jewish believers were teaching new converts that “gentiles must first become Jews, obeying all of the Law/Torah, before they can be saved” (Acts 15). This is called “Judaizing” and what Paul was addressing in the book of Galatians:

Gal. 1:1, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Messiah unto another gospel:”

The “another gospel” here is defined in:

Acts 15:2, “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.”

In Colossians:

Col. 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Messiah.”

Salvation legalism is not only confined to certain ones in first century Judaism. Even today, there are those who claim to be “believers in Yeshua” and understand “grace” that will select certain elements of the Law and make its observance directly linked to personal salvation. For example, Paul tells Timothy to not forsake assembling (meeting) together. A relative of ours was told by her pastor that if they only attend one service a week, they are only “one-third” a Christian. We personally experienced a situation where a man’s salvation was judged based upon his eating an “all beef hot dog” instead of eating a certified “Hebrew National hot dog.” We believe these situations could be categorized as being “under the law” or “salvation legalisms.”


Many easily overlook an important point with respect to Torah verses Salvation. The children of Israel entered into a personal relationship with the God of Israel before they were given God’s Torah (guidelines and instructions for holy living). Not the other way around! Exodus 20:2 states, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, who brought you out of slavery.” Israel first accepted their “salvation” and then received the Holy One’s perfect Torah of liberty after saying “I DO” at Mt. Sinai.

“The Torah was not given in answer to the question ‘What must I do to enter into a relationship with God (or receive salvation)?’ It was given in answer to the question, ‘Now that I have this wonderful relationship with God, how can I express my gratitude and demonstrate my love?’” (A Jewish View of Galatians, Dr. John Fischer)


Many teach that the Law/Torah was done away with through Yeshua’s death. This is a false teaching. We read in the book of Hebrews, which is a direct quote from Jeremiah 31:31-34:

Hebrews 8:8-12, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my Laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.”

The process promised above has not reached its fulfillment. Otherwise, we would not longer sin. We must heed Rabbi Paul’s warning, “do not let any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit.” The God of Israel has not changed. His Law is perfect, eternal, and will never be done away. King David strongly states:

Psalms 19:7 “The Law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” (NAS)

Ps. 119:44 “So I will keep Your Law continually, forever and ever.”

Paul also agrees with King David when he tells Timothy in 2 Tim. 3:16-17:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

Ps. 119:165 “Those who love Your Law have great peace, And nothing causes them to stumble.”

Ps. 119:1 “How blessed are those whose way is blameless, Who walk in the Law of the LORD.”


Communicating across language barriers is difficult. This was what Paul was doing when he attempted to communicate the Hebraic concept of “salvation legalism” into the Greek language. Christian scholar C.E.B. Cranfield, in his commentary on the Book of Romans, makes this clear when he states:

“…the Greek language of Paul’s day possessed no word group corresponding to our ‘legalism,’ ‘legalist’ and ‘legalistic.’ This means that he lacked a convenient terminology for expressing a vital distinction, and so was surely seriously hampered in the work of clarifying the Christian position with regard to the Law. In view of this, we should always, we think, be ready to reckon with the possibility that Pauline statements, which at first sight seem to disparage the Law, were really directed not against the Law itself but against that misunderstanding and misuse of it for which we now have a convenient terminology. In this very difficult terrain Paul was pioneering.” [C.E.B. Cranfield, “St. Paul and the Law,” in Scottish Journal of Theology (1964), pp. 43-68]

With this understanding, we now believe that it is clear that Paul was not saying in the idiom “Under Law” that we are no longer to follow the commandments given by the God of Israel. Paul is saying that salvation is a free gift from the Holy One of Israel through Messiah Yeshua. There is nothing that one can do though their own works to earn this salvation. However, because of this “unmerited favor” that has been shown to us, we should order our lives in a way that reflect our Heavenly Father. How do we do this? By applying the Torah to our lives with understanding; we demonstrate that we believe that our Father knows best.

By Richard and Betsy Bailey

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