THE TORAH ROOTS OF GRACE AND FAITH
The pattern is this: Yahweh has chosen Israel as His set apart covenant people and Israel has accepted the election. When asked by Moses if they would obey the Holy Covenant, they responded in the affirmative. The later accounts of disobedience have no bearing with the Almighty except as events that required correction, forgiveness, repentance and divine mercy through the Providence of YHWH God. Yahweh gave Israel 613 Mitzvoth [commandments], which they are to learn and observe as best they can. Obedience is rewarded and disobedience punished. In case of failure to obey, however, man has recourse to divinely ordained means of atonement; in all of which repentance is required. As long as man maintains his desire to stay in the covenant, he has a share in Yahweh’s covenantal promises, including life in the world to come. The intention and effort to be obedient constitutes the condition for remaining in the covenant, but the included men and women do not earn it. This pattern, given by Yahweh to Moses on the Holy Mountain, is eternal for all believers who include themselves as a part of the Israel of Yahweh Elohim.
Today, there are those in the Church community who would tell us that the Ten Commandments of the Torah are just for the Jews. That’s because most Christians do not realize who they really are in scripture. The Tanakh, “Old Testament”, book of Hosea tells us that one day the people of the book who were not considered to be the people of YHWH God would one day be called his children – sons of the living God. The instructions and blessings intended for Israel, as specified in the “Old” Testament Tanakh scriptures were not “just for the Jews. “
Based on the fact that historically, most Jewish people rejected Yeshua, [Jesus Christ], as the Messiah, some would wrongly persuade us that “The Church” has replaced “the Jews” as God’s chosen people. That heretic idea is most commonly referred to as “Replacement Theology,” a confusing ideology that separates Christian believers from Israel. It is a theory-ology that creates two distinct groups of people, the children of Israel to whom the law was given and “the Church” to whom grace was given. Two-covenant doctrine is not in the Bible.
Well, a careful examination of scripture reveals that there was both law and grace in the “Old” Testament; and there is law and grace in the “New” Testament as well. In fact, if there were no law in the New Testament there would not be any need for grace. To further complicate things, another even more confusing premise, advanced by some theologians, is that the Jews and the church, as separate entities, have separate plans of salvation. I call this ‘exclusion theology’- the idea that somehow Jewish people do not need Jesus – that somehow they are excluded from the plan of salvation established by their own Messiah.
The first believers – the first church members, if you will, were all Jews. It was only later that the then pagan Gentiles, or nations [ethnos], were incorporated into the assembly of believers through trust in Yeshua; and even after that time, the book of Acts informs us that thousands of Jewish people became believers and that they were all zealous of the Holy Torah law of God. They believed in Yeshua/Jesus and never once had the idea that their belief would in any way oppose the commandments of YHWH God.
The truth is there is only one Israel, and that title is not exclusive to the Jews or to the Church. As we read in the New Testament – former Gentile believers joined Israel by being grafted in with the believing remnant of Israel to become part of covenant Israel – the very same Israel that we read about in the Old Testament: As the book of Galatians states: ‘The Israel of God.’
Were the Ten Commandments just for the Jews [Judah]? No, those Ten Commandments were all inclusive for Israel and also her companions that were and are now grafted into Israel. (Jeremiah 31: 31-37; 50:6; Matthew 15:24)
Christian thinking has a tendency to regard the Torah law of the “old” covenant as irrelevant because of the grace of Yahweh, which is only revealed in the New Testament according to modern replacement theory-ology thought. Popular Christian theology, especially that of the dispensationalists and replacement theologians, often seemingly maintains that the divine character was transformed from a “God” of legalism and law in the Torah/Tanakh [Old Testament], into the “God” of grace and love in the New. The “Old Testament” is characterized by churches as a book which endorses “legalism” in order to bring each individual to faith. Moreover Judaism of the time of Yeshua is described as a works-righteousness religion where every individual is required to earn his or her own salvation through personal merit and good deeds. This fundamental misunderstanding of early Hebrew thought and the relationship between the Old Testament roots and the faith of the early church has so fouled the popular modern Christian perception of Sha’ul [Paul], that to many, what is true about Sha’ul’s opinion of the purpose of the law and faith in Yeshua sounds like heresy.
The Almighty Yahweh of the Old Testamenthas not undergone a strange metamorphosis like a schizophrenic patient revealing different patterns of behavior. We must recognize that the Yahweh of the Old Testament is the same forever as Jesus/Yeshua is of the New Testament. He is described as being full of grace and mercy in both testaments. Even when Moses received the Torah on Mt. Horev [Sinai], the Scripture says, “Yahweh passed before him, and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh [Eyeh-Asher-Eyeh], an Elohim merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” (Exodus 34:6f.). Here in the heart of the law of God. On Mt. Horev itself, Yahweh is described in terms of mercy and grace. In fact, this is not the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures where mercy and grace are attributed to Yahweh. The same description appears in many other Tanach “Old Testament” passages. Consider for example the words of Psalm 103:8, “Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The Psalmist quite probably is hinting at Exodus 34:6 because he knew that his hearers would be acquainted with this verse and the grace message that is flowing through the words of Torah. The Eloah of Israel, Yahweh, loves his people and shows them compassion. The Hebrew mindset of the Hebrew authors of the Bible was dominated by the concept of divine mercy and grace.
While the grace of Yahweh is apparent in the Hebrew Scriptures; one cannot escape the warnings of future recompense and judgment, which appear in the New Testament also. Just as the Old Testament is not exclusively a book of retribution and judgment, the New Testament is not exclusively a book of mercy and grace. Numerous warnings of the coming wrath of Yahweh appear in the New Testament. Sometimes because of the way Christian teachers have spoken, we do not expect judgment for wrong in the New Testament and grace in the Torah. In the words of Yeshua, however, there are more references to the fires of eternal punishment in the NT than in any other part of sacred scripture. The book of Revelation describes the “lake of fire.” This graphic image certainly presents a strong warning. Yahweh, who is described in both testaments, is the Eloah of creation to whom every human being owes obedience. Each individual is responsible to Yahweh for his or her actions. According to the apostle Sha’ul, every person must give an account before the judgment seat (Romans 14:10).
Not only is the Tanach (Old Testament) incorrectly deemed as legalistic but also the mainstream of Judaism is mischaracterized from the time of Yeshua until today. The result has been the wholesale murder of millions of Jews by Catholicism and twisted Christianity. The misrepresentation of the Torah as preaching a “save yourself by your own good works gospel” contributes to a completely distorted view of Hebrew faith during the period of the New Testament. Late Second Temple Judaism, the Judaism during the time of Yeshua, was not a salvation by works religion! Most Hebrew teachers belonging to Pharisaic and later rabbinic Judaism emphasized Yahweh’s goodness and willingness to accept all sinners who repent.
The theme of mercy – whether put in terms of Yahweh’s mercy in electing Israel, Yahweh’s mercy in accepting repentant sinners (repentance does not earn a reward, but is responded to by Yahweh in mercy), or Yahweh’s ‘rewarding’ the righteous because of his mercy – serves to assure that election and ultimately salvation cannot be earned, but always has depended fully on Yahweh’s grace. One can never be righteous enough to be worthy in Yahweh’s sight of the ultimate gifts, which depend only on his mercy.
Grace is a given gift, for it is written, “Peace, peace, to him that is far off, and to him that is near” (Isaiah 57:19), thus, first, he that is “far off,” then, he that is “near.”
The rabbis and sages before them further cultivated the Old Testament idea of mercy and promoted the significance of divine compassion. In fact the rabbis believed that a person could attain the future life in a moment of true repentance. Yahweh’s mercy will be given to the sinner.
When Christians misconstrue these elements of Hebrew theology from both the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism, they fail to grasp Sha’ul’s intent. What did Sha’ul want? Did he desire to repudiate the law? Whom was he confronting with his argument of righteousness through faith in Yeshua? In this brief discussion it is impossible to deal adequately with all the problems surrounding these issues, but we will examine Sha’ul’s words in Romans and Galatians in order to shed light upon these penetrating questions. As a start, it is helpful to observe Luke’s description of the crisis which Sha’ul, the Barnaba, Yoseph of Cyprus and later the members of the Jerusalem council addressed when a group of Rabbinical Oral law teachers from Judea began preaching to the non-Jews that without circumcision there is no salvation: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Is circumcision a prerequisite of salvation for the Gentiles? This pressing question, which was legal, or halachic in nature dominated the discussion of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the community of faith. Should the Gentiles convert to Judaism before they are accepted as followers of Yeshua and received into the congregation?
Concerning the issue of salvation, Sha’ul was adamant that the observance of the law was not the means by which the individual could become righteous. The redemptive act of Yeshua’s suffering on the Roman tree provides the way of salvation. But does this mean that the law serves no good purpose? Sha’ul maintained that God’s Torah provides an indispensable guide for a moral life, which Christians and “Jews” must follow. One is not saved by observance of the law and non-Jews are not required to convert to Talmudic Judaism in order to be good Christians. In Hebrew thought, all of the commandments of Torah are required of Israel but the Gentiles are responsible only for its moral demands, which are epitomized in the covenant with Noah and his children as an initial ENTRY POINT into the full Christian grafted in life. The new former pagan (gentile) believer is then expected to learn Yahweh’s instruction in righteous living detailed in the Almighty’s Torah. This is basically the position endorsed by the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:28-29). Former Gentiles who have accepted the message of Yeshua and want to join the fellowship of the Messianic community will be responsible for this moral standard outlined in the Noachic and Mosaic covenants, but they do not have to be circumcised and assume Israel’s entire covenantal responsibilities at first, but are expected by God to grow and mature in the faith. However, new former gentile converts are expected to grow in the knowledge of Yahweh’s loving Torah instructions for life by studying Torah and applying it as a pattern required in order to become pleasing to Him.
But does this mean that believers should continue in sin in order to enjoy the over abundance of Yahweh’s grace? Sha’ul replies with an emphatic “no” (Rom. 6:1). “The law is good”, Paul says (Rom. 7:12). The problem is that some people have difficulty obeying it. Yeshua did not cancel the law nor did He ‘do away with it’ (Matthew 5: 17-19) and the preaching of faith does not destroy its message (Rom. 3:31). Should murders and adulteries be permitted in a mindset opposed to Torah? Is that what Sha’ul means by freedom from the law? The CURSE of the Law was nailed to the cross, not the Law of God! By no means – Sha’ul demanded a high moral standard of all his congregations. Even in Galatians, he solemnly warns,
“…Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh… Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of Yahweh.”
Like other Hebrew teachers, Rabbi Sha’ul desired conduct in harmony with the Torah laws of God. Sha’ul the Hebrew apostle to the former Gentiles [former pagans] teaches, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Similar summaries of the law are attributed to the eminent teacher Rabbi Hillel as well as to the famous R. Akiva. Rabban Gamaliel, the grandson of Rabbi Hillel, Yeshua’s childhood teacher, would have filled his pupil Sha’ul with the teachings of Judaism. This law of love from Lev. 19:18 was considered to be a summary of the whole Torah. It embodied all the commandments of the Almighty. If one upholds this command, one will observe the rest.
Leviticus 19: 18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am YHWH.”
Sha’ul teaches that faith enables a person to attain the righteousness of Yahweh and that there is no tension between it and the law. The term faith is better understood in certain contexts as faithfulness, because the concept includes so much more than the English words, belief or trust. Righteousness involves the redemptive work of Yahweh in the salvation process and in the renewed lives of the faithful. It is so much more dynamic and forceful than the motionless, actionless idea that one is declared righteous at a fixed time. Righteousness is rooted in Torah. It is active and powerful to bring about a transformation of conduct. For Sha’ul, faith, righteousness and Torah go together. With what seems to be great enthusiasm he argues, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). After stating his case firmly, Sha’ul launches into a deep discussion about the righteousness of Abraham, which is based upon faith (Romans 4). Sha’ul’s interpretation of Gen. 15:6, “Abraham believed Yahweh and it was accounted to him as righteousness,” is in the form of a Hebrew Midrash, a distinct type of commentary on Scripture. Sha’ul uses Midrash here in order to penetrate the deeper meaning of righteousness in the Scripture. Sha’ul is not alone in interpreting righteousness with this sense.
Great indeed is faith before Him who spoke and the world came into being. For as a reward for the faith with which Israel believed in Yahweh the Holy Spirit rested upon them…And so also you find that our father Abraham inherited both this world and the world beyond only as a reward for the faith with which he believed, as it is said: ‘And he believed in Yahweh,” etc. (Gen. 15:6).
The merit of the Hebrew fathers is a powerful concept in Hebrew thought. Here the concept of the merit of the fathers of our faith (Hebrews11) is connected to faith and righteousness. In many ways, it is the example of the fathers that shows others the path to follow. The Rabbis viewed Abraham’s faith as his benefit and his future reward. His faith in Yahweh produced obedience. Abraham actively believed the Lord and followed him. It was credited to him as righteousness. Like the other Rabbis, Rabbi Sha’ul (Rabbi Paul) employed a similar motif when he preached about Abraham’s faith as producing divine favor.
The tremendous challenge for us today is to read Sha’ul’s letters without being influenced by the multiplicity of opinions of learned churchmen in the past. First and foremost among such men is the anti-Semitic “Catholic reformer” Martin Luther. Luther wrote an anti-Jewish triptych called, “Against the Jews and their lies” which formed the basis for Hitler’s, “Mien Kampf” and the “Christian ” murder of 6 million Jews in the Shoah. The Catholic Priest, Martin Luther, more than any other interpreter, has erected a stained glass window through which we view Sha’ul and his message. Instead of viewing Sha’ul against the background of first century Judaism, we see him through the eyes of later interpreters who knew little about early Hebrew thought. Even today, Luther’s Catholic ideas about Sha’ul continue to circulate widely in Protestant theological discussion. Certainly Luther’s anti Israel influence reaches beyond his time and place in history. But Sha’ul’s concerns about Jews and non-Jews living together in the community of faith did not trouble Luther. He faced radically different challenges and set other priorities, such as his three books entitled “Against the Jews” which were the basis of Hitler’s murderous views toward Jews. Muslims who share his desire to murder all Jews also revere Martin Luther. His three books [triptych] titled, “Against the Jews and their lies” is a best seller today in all Muslim countries, as it was in Nazi Germany. This truth is hidden from Christians by their leadership.
Interpreters of Sha’ul must ask the questions that Sha’ul asked before they apply his answers to their own problems or else they may find themselves coupling Sha’ul’s answers with the wrong set of questions. Beginning ones studies with a skewed or twisted presupposition guarantees a twisted Scripture, (2 Peter 3: 16). Luther developed an ambivalent attitude to the Scriptural Torah law because of his own Catholic based struggles which were essentially foreign to New Testament Christianity as it should be. For instance, his stance on the epistle of James implies that the Torah canceled faith. He also leaned too far in the opposite direction suggesting that genuine faith canceled Torah. In the end, had Luther had his way, he probably would have opted to drop from the New Testament these five troublesome chapters penned by Yeshua’ brother James. So, uncritical acceptance of Luther’s twisted interpretation ultimately leads to questioning the content of the canon itself. While Luther has made significant positive contributions to Christian theology helping many to understand divine grace and human need, his approach to faith and works was radically influenced by his own time. Students of Pauline literature must comprehend first century Judaism apart from later Catholic Church controversies and Protestant replacement and dispensational heresies.
Students of Sha’ul must seek to understand the first century social and religious issues, which divided the early Christians. For Sha’ul, justification by faith united Jews and Gentiles in a rich cultural diversity, which paved the way for a righteous lifestyle. He stated that we are all one in Messiah.
Sha’ul believed that the fruit of the faith would produce a holy life style. He is very much aware of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual. James; on the other hand never denied the value of faith. He esteemed faith in the life of the believer but emphasized that true faith always produces corresponding actions. Faith without works is no faith at all. Perhaps the origin of these wanting scholarly approaches to the beginnings of Christianity is rooted in a misunderstanding of pre-talmudic Judaism during the time of Yeshua. Did Luther understand Sha’ul and his context properly? No! Sha’ul’s message must be interpreted in its context of a mixed community, comprising both Jews and Gentiles, united in their embracing of faith in the one Yahweh of Israel and His Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth. Faith leads to righteousness, in other words, a righteous way of living, which is pleasing to Yahweh.
The most effective way to correct these misleading interpretations is to translate the Scriptures with sensitivity to Rabbi Sha’ul’s cultural Hebrew root context. The problem of understanding Sha’ul’s use of the term “righteousness” is indeed a complex and a difficult issue of exegesis. In light of the above facts, often the term righteousness would be better translated, “life of righteousness” or “way of righteous living” rather than accepting the sole standard meaning of a state of justification. In Sha’ul’s faith experience, he walked in the way of righteousness, as he believed in Yeshua and received empowerment from the Holy Spirit. The “life of righteousness” or “way of righteous living” means true salvation or true redemption. It culminates in Yahweh’s final judgment. This life is the preparation for the eschaton. The disciple becomes involved in the redemptive actions of helping others as a consequence of his or her relationship with Yahweh through faith in Yeshua. The hungry need food, the destitute must receive clothing, the homeless require shelter, and the sick and those in prison need personal attention as Yeshua commanded us. All of these actions are Torah based [the Tree of Life and the garden of truth]. The follower of Yeshua must pursue purposeful acts of redemption – living a life of selfless service for suffering and lost humanity. For Sha’ul, the way of righteousness is indeed Yahweh’s highest salvation because it is the liberation of the flesh into the life of the Spirit and that holy life is characterized by joining with Yahweh in his redemptive outreach to a hurting world.
Paul confirmed Yeshua’s words of Matthew 5:17-19 with his words in First Corinthians 15:52-54. Read these verses and ask yourself, “How much of this do I not understand?”
Matthew 5:17-19 says:
Think not that I am come to weaken, or destroy the Torah, or the neviim: I have not come to weaken, or destroy, but to completely reveal it in its intended fullness. For truly I say to you, Until the current shamayim and earth pass away, not one yud, or one nekudah shall by any means pass from the Torah, until all be fulfilled. Whoever therefore shall break, or weaken one of the least Torah commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the malchut ha shamayim: but whoever shall do and teach the commands, the same shall be called great in the malchut ha shamayim.
First Corinthians 15 says:
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last Shofar: for the Shofar shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality; then shall be brought to pass [fulfilled] the saying that is written in the Tanakh, Death is swallowed up in victory.
In the final analysis, the conceptual values of grace and faith in Sha’ul’s teachings are riveted in the Almighty Elohim’s Torah. Faith leads to righteousness. Grace opens the door for the individual to experience Yahweh in the dynamics of every day life. Sha’ul boldly proclaims, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of Yahweh, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of Yahweh is eternal life in Yeshua our Messiah.” (Rom. 6:22-23)
Walking on the Emmaus road,
Rabbi James Talbott, the wilderness teacher,
Yeshua HaTikvah Yisrael Ministries