The Apostle Paul Revisited: Paul’s Argument with Jesus, Part I
This is the first of a series comparing the words of Yeshua and Paul regarding the Law (Torah) of God.
Should God Have The Last Word?
A very strange thing happens when I encounter others who share with me a testimony of faith in Jesus Christ (Messiah Yeshua), but do not share the same regard for all the commandments of the Lord. These brothers and sisters do have regard for His commandments, but draw a line at things like observing Sabbath on the day God specified, keeping the Feasts of the Lord, and eating only the foods God placed on the menu. The strange thing is the reactions that come with the understanding that we have disagreement on these points. Sometimes the reaction is silence, as if some of the brethren just want to make the issue go away by ignoring it. Sometimes they react in disbelief, wondering how I can be “bound up” in all that old Law. This perception of the Law, or Torah, as bondage comes from what people think they know of Judaism and of the Jewish practices Yeshua and the Apostles addressed in the Scriptures. For example, one person indicated she considered it bondage to legalism when a Jewish friend of hers had to cut short a phone conversation to prepare for Sabbath. There is a vast difference between what God commanded about Sabbath and the excessive regulations added by Rabbinical Judaism, but I wonder if by the standard of this particular example it is also legalism to cut short a phone conversation to prepare for church on Sunday.
Is the Law really bondage? Consider the testimony of Scripture:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too difficult for you, nor is it far off. It is not [a secret laid up] in heaven, that you should say, “Who shall go up for us to heaven and bring it to us, that we may hear and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who shall go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear and do it?” But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your mind and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14 AMP)
The Apostle John echoes this passage when he says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. (I John 5:3 NKJV). The Apostle Paul quotes from it in Romans 10:5-13 in setting up his argument that, “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9 NKJV) And yet in regard to the Law, the reaction of many brethren is to invoke Paul for a defense, usually with a comment such as, “Paul settled that question in Galatians”, or “If you follow the Law, then you’re tied to a gospel of works, which is what Paul wrote against in Romans.”
I do not pretend to have all the answers, but let me be brutally honest: after living this Messianic lifestyle for well over a decade, I have enough personal experience to testify that Christians generally have no real understanding what the Apostle Paul was actually saying, or what the Law (Torah) actually says. Moreover, their remarks indicate a perception that Paul said something different than what Yeshua said. For example, while Yeshua said He had not come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17-19), Paul wrote that we are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:15). At first glance, those statements appear to be in conflict, and unfortunately comparatively few people have bothered to dig further and determine why these two seemingly contradictory statements appear in the Word of God we profess to be inerrant.
This is a problem. Here we have to two greatest figures in Christianity apparently arguing with one another. One says the Law stands forever, but the other says Christians are no longer subject to that Law. If this is so, then at the very least we have a contradiction that threatens a meltdown of the entire foundation of the Church.
Who should have priority in this argument? Do we reconcile Yeshua to Paul? After all, Paul came after Yeshua’s work on the cross was finished and therefore had more perfect revelation than others before him. Or do we reconcile Paul with Yeshua since Yeshua is God Himself?
That sounds like an easy question. The basic tenet of Christianity is that Messiah Yeshua is God come to earth as a human being (John 1:1-14). Many Christians over the centuries have denied the divinity of Jesus. We call such people heretics. (Do a Google search on Arianism and see what you find.) If we accept this core Christian belief that Yeshua is God Himself, then whatever Yeshua says must be true. After all, how can God, the Author of Truth, say or do anything that is untrue?
But here we have the problem. There is controversy in Christian circles about what Yeshua really meant when He said He did not come to abolish the Law. Those who are not so sure about His meaning turn to Paul for help, thinking that Paul settled the question by proving that the Law no longer applies to Christians. In essence, they are reconciling Yeshua with Paul. To put it another way, the words of God Himself are subject to the authority of Paul, a human being God created.
How do we resolve this conundrum? We find out what Yeshua really said, and then we find out what Paul really said. When we do that we shall see that they were not saying different things.
At this point I must issue a disclaimer. This project is something that has occupied the attention of theologians for centuries. A simple blog post cannot possibly touch on even a fraction of what these learned men and women have written. But then, there is no need to do so. All we must do is examine Scripture and let the Word of God speak for itself. However, that also is too big a task for this post. The best I can do is offer evidence from specific passages and provide some explanation from the cultural context of the First Century. Admittedly, that will only be the beginning. Although I will continue to examine this subject, the real success of this and other posts is not in how persuasively I write, but in how many readers have the motivation to investigate these things for themselves.
What Yeshua Said
Now, what did Yeshua really say? We’ll start with the key verses in Matthew and then provide a few sound bites from the other Gospels:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19 NKJV, emphasis added)
What Yeshua seems to be saying in Matthew 5:17-19 is that He did not come to get rid of the Law at all, but that it still applies, and that those who break any of the commandments and teach others to do so will suffer loss of status in His Kingdom. And yet what some Christians seem to think is that He said, “I did not come to destroy the Law, but I came instead to destroy the Law.” That line of thought derives from a creative interpretation of the word “fulfill”. The reasoning is that Yeshua fulfilled the Law, meaning that He completed the prophecies of the Law and brought its provisions to a conclusion. That, however, makes no sense in light of His statement, “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:18)
What Yeshua really means is that He came to teach the Law correctly and provide us the full meaning, and that no part of the Law will pass away until all its provisions are completed. The confusion is in the translation of two different Greek words as “fulfill”. The first word is plēroō (πληρóω, Strongs G4137). The Strongs outline of Biblical usage says this about plēroō:
- to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full; to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally (I abound, I am liberally supplied)
- to render full, i.e. to complete
- to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim
- to consummate: a number
- to make complete in every particular, to render perfect
- to carry through to the end, to accomplish, carry out, (some undertaking)
- to carry into effect, bring to realisation, realise
- of matters of duty: to perform, execute
- of sayings, promises, prophecies, to bring to pass, ratify, accomplish
- to fulfil, i.e. to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God’s promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfilment
That is what Yeshua says He came to do with the Law and the Prophets. There is nothing in there about doing away with it. Quite the contrary; Yeshua came to establish the Law and make its full meaning plain.
- to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
- to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen (of events)
- to arise, appear in history, come upon the stage (of men appearing in public)
- to be made, finished (of miracles, to be performed, wrought)
- to become, be made
Again, there is nothing about abolishing in this outline of Biblical usage. Instead, it refers to the completion of anticipated things. That brings to mind what God’s angel explained to Daniel when that prophet asked about the next steps for Israel after the Babylonian captivity:
Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy. (Daniel 9:24 NKJV)
And that is what Yeshua meant about the Law and the Prophets. It is still in effect until all the prophesied events take place. In other words, until heaven and earth pass away.
Now that we know Yeshua never disputed the applicability of the Law, consider what He said to the Jewish leaders of His day:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (Matthew 23:23 NKJV)
He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.” (Mark 7:6-9 NKJV emphasis added)
Is the Law really the issue here? Or is the issue the way the Pharisees have applied the Law? How much more plainly can Yeshua say it than this, “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men”. It is not He who has dictated a change in Law, but the religious men of His day. His intent, as He said in Matthew 5:17, is not to abolish the Law, but to teach it correctly. To do that, Yeshua had to take issue with the way the Jewish leaders perverted the Law of God by using their traditions to add to and take away from it (see Deuteronomy 4:1-2). Notice that in Matthew 23:23 He does not tell them to stop tithing in such detailed manner as they have been, for that also is part of the Law (Leviticus 27:30-32; Numbers 18:21-32; Deuteronomy 14:22-29, 26:1-15). Instead, He told them to keep the “weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith”. It seems that Christians do very well keeping these weightier matters already. Where we really fall down is in the easy things, particularly God’s Sabbath, His Feasts (Appointed Times), and His dietary instructions.
The question, then, is not whether the Law applies to us, but how we are applying it. Yeshua addressed that point with satan:
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’’ (Matthew 4:4 NKJV)
But Jesus answered him, saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’” (Luke 4:4 NKJV)
As far as I can tell, the first recorded words out of the mouth of God are, “Let there be light (Genesis 1:3). If we take Yeshua at His word, then everything that God has said from that point on is like food and drink to us. In other words, we need all of it, including those hard-to-understand passages like the one about letting a mother bird go free when taking eggs from a nest (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).
The words, commandments, instructions, teaching, statutes, and ordinances of God are indeed nourishment for us, but there is even more to it than that. Observing and obeying them constitutes evidence of our love for our God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. (John 14:15-21 NKJV, emphasis added)
As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. (John 15:9-10)
The only way one can argue that Yeshua is not upholding the Torah as delivered by God through Moses is by saying that Yeshua came to give us a new kind of Law. Yet that argument clashes with Yeshua’s very words in Matthew 5:17-19 and elsewhere. If there is a new set of commandments, where are they? Do we piece together this “new Torah” from Yeshua’s teaching and the commentaries of the Apostles? Or do we conclude instead that what Yeshua did was to present the correct teaching of Torah, and that the Apostle’s writings are commentary on both the Torah and Yeshua’s living example? That fits much better with Yeshua’s assertion to the Pharisees about Moses:
Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. 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 NKJV)
Can we honestly say that Yeshua’s exhortation to the Pharisees does not apply to us today?
Part II presents comments from Paul’s letters that seem to indicate his opposition to the Law (Torah), as well as his comments that uphold the Law.
 Law and Torah are used interchangeably throughout the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. In reference to the Law of God, or Law of Moses (e.g., the Law given by God through Moses), it means the Law, Teaching, Instruction, and Commandments of God. The full meaning of Torah (Strongs H7451, תּוֹרָה) is, “law, direction, instruction; (A) instruction, direction (human or divine), (1) body of prophetic teaching, (2) instruction in Messianic age, (3) body of priestly direction or instruction, (4) body of legal directives; (B) law, (1) law of the burnt offering, (2) of special law, codes of law; (C) custom, manner; (D) the Deuteronomic or Mosaic Law”. The Greek equivalent is nomos (Strongs G3551, νóμος), which means, “anything established, anything received by usage, a custom, a law, a command; (A) of any law whatsoever, (1) a law or rule producing a state approved of God, by the observance of which is approved of God, (2) a precept or injunction, (3) the rule of action prescribed by reason; (B) of the Mosaic law, and referring, according to the context, either to the volume of the law or to its contents; (C) the Christian religion: the law demanding faith, the moral instruction given by Christ, esp. the precept concerning love; (D) the name of the more important part (the Pentateuch), is put for the entire collection of the sacred books of the Old Testament”.
 Strongs entry accessed on Blue Letter Bible at http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4137&t=KJV.
 Strongs entry accessed on Blue Letter Bible at http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1096&t=KJV.
 The commandment about the mother bird is regarded by the Jewish sages as the least of the commandments. “’The Least of the Commandments’: Deuteronomy 22:6-7 in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity”, Robert M. Johnston, Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3, August 1983. The scripture says, “If a bird’s nest happens to be before you along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, with the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall surely let the mother go, and take the young for yourself, that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7 NKJV) Interestingly, the blessing for keeping this commandment, “that you may prolong your days”, is the same as the blessing for the one of the greatest commandments, honoring one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:12)