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Do we die to Torah?

Thoughts on the word "law" in Galatians...

by John J. Parsons

Many Christian commentators of the Book of Galatians fail to make certain critical distinctions that often lead to exegetical errors and theological confusion. Perhaps the most serious of these errors is the failure to carefully distinguish between the idea of "law" and the idea of "covenant."  It is a source of confusion to say, for instance, that we have "died to the law" (νόμῳ ἀπέθανον) without qualifying the idea of "law" to explicitly and exclusively refer to the legal subset of the terms of the covenant given at Sinai, and not to the Torah in general. If we are not careful to make such a distinction, then absurd implications will follow, including the idea that the Torah is not relevant for the life of a follower of Messiah today. To refute this notion we need only consider the teaching of Yeshua himself, who clearly reinforced the ethical and spiritual teaching of the Torah and taught us to follow his example (Mark 12:28-34; Matt. 5-7). Moreover the theological concepts of sin, righteousness, faith, grace, and so on, all derive from the Torah of Moses, so when the New Testament admonishes, "Let no one deceive you: whoever practices righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous" (1 John 3:7), it is appealing to the ongoing meaning and relevance of the Torah for the life of the Christian today.

Part of the difficulty regarding how we understand the role of the law concerns linguistic ambiguity. The word nomos (νόμος, "law") has a range of meanings in Greek and therefore should not necessarily be regarded as an equivalent for the term Torah (תּוֹרָה). As I've explained elsewhere, the word "Torah" is derived from the verb yarah (יָרָה), meaning to "shoot" (as an arrow) or to indicate direction. It is therefore a general term that refers to instruction or guidance, and should be carefully distinguished from other Hebrew words such as "commandment" (i.e., mitzvah: מִצְוָה), "statutes" (i.e., chukkim: חֻקִּים), "judgments" (i.e., mishpatim: מִשְׁפָּטִים), and so on.  To traditional Jewish thinking, the legal aspect of Torah is generally called halakhah (from halakh: הָלַךְ, "to walk") and includes the ideas of case law (תַּקָּנָה), custom (מִנְהָג), and the use of tradition (מָסרֶת) as expressed within the Oral Law. The legal aspects of Torah have roots in the system of judges (הַשּׁפְטִים) that Moses commissioned (Exod. 18:13-24; Deut. 16:18, 19:17-18, etc.) and in the Bet Din (בֵּית דִן), or religious system of justice that culminated in the supreme court of Israel called the Sanhedrin (סַנְהֶדְרִין). These legal aspects of Torah are usually distinguished from exegetical understanding of Scripture (e.g., midrash), which is generally called aggadah (אֲגָּדָה).

In light of these distinctions, it is unfortunate that the ancient Jewish translators of the Scriptures into Koine Greek chose to use the word "law" (i.e., nomos) for the word Torah, since this led to essential misunderstanding about the meaning of Torah itself. For example, they chose to translate the Hebrew name of the last book of Moses (i.e., devarim: דְּבָרִים, "words") as "the Second Law" (i.e., Δευτερονόμιον, fr. deutero + nomos), since many Hellenistic Jews at that time regarded the book as a summary (or retelling) of the various laws of Moses (mishneh Torah). Indeed, in most cases the Septuagint translated the word "Torah" (תּוֹרָה) as "nomos" (νόμος). In Deuteronomy 4:8, for instance, the word nomos is used to denote to the collection of mishpatim, chukkim, and mitzvot representing all of Israel's covenantal obligations before the LORD. This idea that "Torah" meant "nomos" was carried over to New Testament usage, of course, and the distinction between the idea of "law" and "instruction" was thereby made unclear...

In the New Testament, nomos is used in varied ways. James used it to refer to the moral will of God (James 2:9-11, 4:11). The Apostle John quotes Yeshua using it to refer to the Tanakh in general (John 10:34; 15:25), though it is most often used to refer to the writings of Moses in the Gospels (Matt. 11:13, Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 12:34; Acts 13:15; 28:23). Certainly the moral and ritual aspects of the writings of Moses are represented using the word (Matt. 7:12; 22:40; Luke 2:22,39;8:5; John 1:17; 7:19,23, etc.).

In Paul's letters, the use of the word nomos is likewise varied. In most cases it follows the Septuagint's usage by regarding it as the collective set of commandments given by Moses (Rom. 2:12-29; 3:19; 5:20; 7:7; Gal. 3:21; 1 Cor. 9:8; 14:34), whereas in other places it refers to the Tanakh in general (Rom. 3:19, 1 Cor. 14:21). Still in other cases, nomos appears to be used by Paul to refer to "principles," such as his description of the "law of sin and death" as opposed to the "law of the Spirit of life" (Rom. 7:23, 8:2). For Paul, the overarching principle of the law is the ethic of love (Gal 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10). In each case of Paul's use of the word nomos, however, we must carefully examine the flow of Paul's reasoning as well as the historical context of a given letter.

Paul writes that while the "law" is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12), it was nevertheless destined to obsolescence because the ministry of Ysehua the Messiah effected a new and better covenant with God (Heb. 7:12-19; 8:6). Therefore we do not reinstitute the covenant of Sinai as followers of Jesus, since doing so denies that we are made righteous by means of the finished work of Christ (see Gal. 2:16). When Paul taught that "no one is justified by the law" (ἐν νόμῳ οὐδεὶς δικαιοῦται), he was saying that because of our sinful nature, we are unable to keep the terms of the covenant given at Sinai, the "covenant of works," and therefore righteousness needed to come from an outside agency, or by means of divine intervention given for our sake... Salvation is "of the LORD."

Paul asks a rhetorical question, "If we seek to be justified in this way -- that is, by trusting in something "outside" the Sinai revelation, should we regard Messiah as the "minister of sin," since, for example, he allows table fellowship with those whom the Sinai covenant calls the ritually unclean? (Gal. 2:17). Of course not, since the love of Messiah takes away our sin and removes that which separates us from one another (Eph. 2:14). Paul goes further and says that if he were to espouse the terms of the Sinai covenant, he would be condemned as a transgressor once again (Gal. 2:18). So on the contrary, Paul says that he has died to that former covenant, and if he were to revert to it once again he would be guilty of spiritual adultery (Rom. 7:1-4). "I have been crucified with Messiah" refers to the end of the former covenantal relationship with God so that new life could be imparted. We die to the former covenant (and its curses mentioned in the tochachah) in order to "live unto God." The cross of Messiah is the great divide between the old and new covenants.

Consequently, Paul says, "I no longer live, but Messiah lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). This is the doctrine of the "indwelling Christ," or the immanent Presence of the Spirit of Mashiach. The old "I" derived naturally from Adam, symbolizing the old nature, no longer operates as the source of life for us (Rom. 6:6), and new life from the Root of Messiah is supernaturally imparted (Eph. 4:24, Gal. 4:6). "Engrafted into the death of Christ we derive a secret energy from it, as the shoot does from the root" (Calvin).  The life "I now lead in the flesh," that is, in the physical body, is governed by the law of faith in Messiah, who "loved me and gave himself for me." Jesus gave himself "for you," for your "exchange," as your "life-for-life" substitute upon the cross. He is your eternal "at-one-ment" with God.  Because of all this, we do not "nullify" (ἀθετέω) the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through keeping the covenant at Sinai, Messiah died for nothing (Gal. 2:21).

Here we have an exclusive either/or regarding how we are "justified" before God. We either can attempt to keep the terms of the Sinai covenant as means of establishing a right relationship with the LORD, or we put our trust in the righteousness of God given through Jesus, the great Lamb of God, the true Substance and meaning of atoning sacrifice. You can either attempt to justify yourself through keeping the contract made at Sinai, or you can trust that the sacrifice of Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life -- but you can't do both... If Moses suffices, there is no need for the cross; if the cross suffices, there is no need for the law (i.e., the "law" understood in the terms given at Sinai with attendant blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience).  It is the "for me" love of God demonstrated at the cross, however, that sustains real faith and empowers us to walk in righteousness "written upon the heart" by the operation of the indwelling Spirit (see Jer. 31:31-33).

To repeat what I hope now is rather obvious, the idea of "dying to the law" does not nullify the moral and spiritual truths of Torah, but only the legal terms of the covenant given at Sinai. Paul is not teaching "antinomianism" here. As I've stated elsewhere, "Torah" is a function word of "covenant" and all the essential moral and spiritual truths of the writings of Moses are restated in the New Testament scriptures. We don't die to the Torah, but to the verdict of sin that was against delivered by the terms of the Sinai covenant.  This is vital to understand, since otherwise we will completely misunderstand what Paul was teaching. Yeshua clearly taught the laws of Torah and moved them "inward," to be made a part of the heart. He faulted the Pharisees for tithing "mint and cumin" but neglecting the "weightier matters" of the law – that is, the deeper truth to love and care for others (see Matt. 23:23). He repeatedly stressed the need for the law to be "written upon the heart" and not to be regarded as a set of external decrees written upon tablets of stone...

We never will die to "Torah," friends, but we do "die" to the older system of being made right with God by means of the offices and sacrifices of the Levitical priesthood. We have a new covenant that is really new, not a rehashed version of the Sinai revelation. The law of Messiah is to bear one another's burdens and to love one another (Gal. 6:2; John 13:34). We do not "die to the Torah" but instead walk it out as a matter of the heart. These matters are clearly repeated in the New Testament (again, see Matt. 5-7). As John Calvin once rightly said, "It is by faith alone that we are justified, but faith that justifies is not alone."

We must be mindful to "rightly divide" (ὀρθοτομέω, lit. "cut straight") the word of truth, lest we find ourselves confusing the great covenants of God and how they are to be "walked out" in our lives (2 Tim. 2:15). There is "Torah" (תּוֹרָה) and there is "covenant" (בְּרִית). Torah is a general word that means "instruction" and is always a function of the underlying covenant of which it is part. Torah is therefore our response to the covenantal actions of the LORD God of Israel. Followers of Yeshua are therefore not "anti-Torah" even if they understand this word in relation to the new and better covenant of God (Heb. 8:6). There is indeed a Torah of the New Covenant, just as there is Torah of the older one. Understood in this way, Messianic believers are called to be "Torah Observant," since that simply means adhering to the instruction of King Yeshua who is the embodiment of all genuine truth from God.

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