What is the role of the Law in the life of a Messianic Jew?
By Michael Schiffman

The relationship between Messianic Jews and the law is an important issue in the Messianic Jewish movement. The law is not solely a theological issue to be debated. It is part of Jewish culture, heritage and worship. At the same time, Messianic believers recognize their relationship to the law is not the same as that of traditional Jews.

The center of a believer’s life is not the law, but the Messiah. It is this shift in emphasis caused by the coming of the Messiah that raises the issue of what place the law occupies now that the Messiah has come.

It is important to understand Paul’s teachings on the law. He addressed this issue directly in his writings. Unfortunately, many people have misunderstood what Paul said and assumed he was against the law. This misunderstanding had led to the idea that believers are to have nothing to do with the law. This became a sensitive issue for Jewish believers seeking to live a Jewish life-style while believing in Yeshua. A proper understanding of Paul’s view of the place of the law is essential for understanding the place of the law for Jewish believers.

Before there can be meaningful discussion regarding Paul’s teachings pertaining to the law, it is important to understand what is meant by the term ‘law’ in the first century. The word torah (law), comes from the root yara. John Hartley wrote:

The basic idea of the root yara is ‘to throw’ or ‘to cast’ with the strong sense of control by the subject…The word torah means basically ‘teaching’ whether it is a wise man instructing his son or God instructing Israel…God, motivated by love, reveals to man basic insight into how to live with each other and how to approach God. Through the law, God shows His interest in all aspects of man’s life which is to be lived under His direction and care. Law of God stands parallel to word of the Lord to signify that law is the revelation of God’s will. (1)

Torah is translated nomos some 430 times in the Septuagint.(2) Hans-Helmut Esser observed,

It is important to note that torah frequently does not mean law in the modern sense of the term…Originally torah meant an instruction from God, a command for a given situation. The word law (torah, nomos) may refer to the writings of Moses, the prophets, priests, judges, teachers of wisdom, regulations, pertaining to sacrifice and worship, the book of Deuteronomy, and the Pentateuch as a whole.(3)
Law is not a uniform concept. It contains history, poetry, prophecy, ordinances, commands, wisdom, apocalypse, and promises. Law, as current readers of the Scriptures understand the term, is but one part of the Old Covenant writings, yet it stands for the whole.

Not only does the concept of law have a variety of possible meanings, but the Jewish people have changed their view toward it over time. Prior to the Babylonian exile, the law was,

…the rule of life for those who have been redeemed (see first commandment, which is the basis for the other nine) …The commandments were not a law, but an event, with which JHVH specifically confronted every generation in its own here and now…The law thus has a prophetic character.(4)
The original intention of the law was not to provide a means to salvation, but a rule of life for those already redeemed. The law is a challenge and instruction to teach how redeemed people should walk in the ways of God. This agrees with the basic definition of torah—to teach. The ancient Israelis were called a redeemed people because they were redeemed by the Lord from Egypt.

The law is not an instrument of salvation and was never intended to be so. Under the Old Covenant, people came to God on the basis of His hain, hesed, and rachamim (grace, mercy, and compassion). When David and Bathsheba committed adultery, the Scripture does not say that he went out and offered up burnt offerings and sin offerings, but that he sought the Lord and threw himself on God’s mercy in deep repentance which is explicitly shown in Psalm 51. David may have offered sacrifices at a later time as a response to God’s forgiveness, but he was already forgiven. Isaiah 1:11,18 teaches salvation does not come from sacrifices, but from repentance, while trusting in the grace and mercy of God.

The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to Me? says the Lord…I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow….

Sacrifice alone was not powerful enough to bring atonement. It had to be accompanied by a genuinely repentant heart before God.

After the exile from Babylon, this original understanding of the law’s purpose shifted in application. Esser says,

This original view of the law changed in the post-exilic period, when the community was considered to be actually constituted by the law (Nehemiah 8). The law came to be viewed as a set of rigid rules, instead of serving the community as an ordinance of salvation. (5)

Copyright © 1992, 1996 Michael H. Schiffman

This was excerpted from Return of the Remnant: The Rebirth of Messianic Judaism, by Michael Schiffman (Baltimore, Maryland: Lederer Messianic Publications, 1992, 1996), pp. 55-57. Contact Lederer Messianic Publications at 1-800-410-7367 or www.messianicjewish.net. Used by permission.

(1) John E. Hartley, “Yara,” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. I, eds. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago, Moody Press, 1980), pp. 403-404.

(2) Colin Brown, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, English language edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), s.v. “Law-Nomos,” by Hans-Helmut Esser, p. 440.


(4)Ibid., p. 441, quoting G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. I (1962), p. 199.

(5)Ibid., p. 441.

Related Articles:
Messianic Jews and the Law, Part 2
Messianic Jews and the Law, Part 3
Messianic Jews and the Law, Part 4

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