Are Christians free from the law?
Let's examine what the scriptures really say!
It is a Christian concept that Jesus freed his followers from the law. By law we mean the law of Moses, called the Torah. When you see the word law in english translations of the Hebrew scriptures, the Hebrew word that has been translated such is the word Torah, which literally means instruction. Etymologically it comes from an archery term meaning “to hit the mark”.
The Torah, as a body of instructions, was given by YHWH to the nation of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19). The famous 10 commandments are but a small subset of Torah. There are many instructions contained in the books of Moses. Rabbinic Judaism has counted 613 of them. We may not agree exactly with their count, but it serves to show that there are many more than 10.This article hopes to help Christians begin to see the error of “freedom from the law”, using the Christian scriptures. Most Christians either have no inkling of Torah, or are under the impression it has been abolished by grace, through a new covenant that has replaced the old Sinai covenant.
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Simple logic, coupled with an examination of scripture, easily refutes this mistaken notion.
What is sin?
First, consider the problem of sin. Any Christian should readily agree that sin is something which should be avoided, but what exactly is sin? How does the Christian know what to avoid? Consider this simple New Testament definition of sin:
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; indeed, sin is lawlessness.
(1 John 3:4 NET)
Sin is lawlessness. In other words, not sinning is lawfulness. You see, what is acceptable and unacceptable was given by YHWH to Israel at Mount Sinai. It is the Torah. If theft, murder, adultery, etc. are sins to be avoided by Christians, then logically Christians are following Torah, (at least part of it), because Torah is how YHWH defined those actions as sin.
Many will say that the law being spoken of in 1 John 3:4 is something other than the law of Moses, but this cannot be. You see, when Paul appeared before James and the elders in Jerusalem, they confronted him regarding his teaching against the law:
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all ardent observers of the law. They have been informed about you – that you teach all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.
(Acts 21:20-21 NET)
Clearly the assembly in Jerusalem was troubled at the rumors that Paul was teaching against the law of Moses, when the thousands of believers in Israel were still zealous for it.
Also, consider Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. At the end of the parable, as the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham responds with:
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they must respond to them.’
Then the rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
He replied to him, ‘If they do not respond to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
(Luke 16:29-31 NET)
Here we have Jesus sharing a story, the end of which presents the moral that it is Moses and the prophets to whom we must respond, and without that, even someone rising from the dead to warn the living will not be convincing! Isn’t it a bit ironic that this is exactly what Jesus was said to have done–rose from the dead as a sign?
Unfulfilled (future) prophecy shows the Torah still stands!
I do not accept the additional writings of the Tanakh (a.k.a. old testament) as authoritative. I do not believe the prophecies they contain are certain to come to pass. However, Christianity accepts the entire Tanakh as the word of YHWH, so I will examine severals prophecies which clearly show that commands from the Torah which Christianity insist no longer apply are still relevant in the future:
If the Torah has been abolished, why does future prophecy about the messianic age still show it to be intact? Let’s look at a few:
“As for those who consecrate and ritually purify themselves so they can follow their leader and worship in the sacred orchards, those who eat the flesh of pigs and other disgusting creatures, like mice – they will all be destroyed together,” says YHWH.
(Isa 66:17 NET)
This shows the dietary laws are still intact in the future.
Then all who survive from all the nations that came to attack Jerusalem will go up annually to worship the King, the LORD who rules over all, and to observe the Feast of Tabernacles.
(Zec 14:16 NET)
This shows the feast of Sukkot still being observed.
From one month to the next and from one Sabbath to the next, all people will come to worship me,” says YHWH.
(Isa 66:23 NET)
This shows the sabbath still being observed.
“‘In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you will celebrate the Passover, and for seven days bread made without yeast will be eaten.
On that day the prince will provide for himself and for all the people of the land a bull for a sin offering. And during the seven days of the feast he will provide as a burnt offering to the LORD seven bulls and seven rams, all without blemish, on each of the seven days, and a male goat daily for a sin offering. He will provide as a grain offering an ephah for each bull, an ephah for each ram, and a gallon of olive oil for each ephah of grain.
In the seventh month, on the fifteenth day of the month, at the feast, he will make the same provisions for the sin offering, burnt offering, and grain offering, and for the olive oil, for the seven days.
(Eze 45:21-25 NET)
This shows another appointed time being observed, as well as sin sacrifice being offered in the messianic age temple!
YHWH who rules over all says, ‘In those days ten people from all languages and nations will grasp hold of – indeed, grab – the robe of one Jew and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”‘ (Zec 8:23 NET)
This shows that eventually all will realize that YHWH’s people Israel hold the truth! Nobody is grabbing a gentile or flocking to the church looking for answers.
What about Paul?
Despite all this evidence, Christians at this point will be thinking “But Paul said . . .”, and this is true. Paul’s epistles definitely seem to dismiss the law, label it a curse, etc. Let’s look one such verse:
For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace.
(Romans 6:14 NET)
Certainly the phrase “you are not under law” may give one the impression that Torah (the law) no longer applies, but is that really so? Consider the very next verse:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not!
(Romans 6:15 NET)
Do you see the problem? If sin = lawlessness, and Paul insists that although we are under grace, we don’t have a license to sin, that is a mandate to be lawful (obey Torah) in order to not sin.
Jesus clearly taught Torah!
Not convinced? Think about what defined a Jew from the time the Torah was revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, until the time of Jesus. A Jew was a member of a nation set aside by God to be a light unto the nations, a nation who received God’s instructions at Mount Sinai and agreed to follow them. Obedience to the Torah is what defines God’s people. It is at the root of who they were, and still are.
The Torah prescribes rewards for obedience, and curses for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28), and we see this revealed in the history of the Jewish people presented in the Tanakh, from Sinai onward. They are free, living in the promised land, and prosperous when obedient; when disobedient, despite God’s patience and long-suffering, they eventually reap the consequences of their disobedience via foreign domination and exile.
Imagine what a seismic shift it would be for a Jew in the second temple period, during the time of Jesus, to be told the Torah no longer applies to them. Especially given the wealth of scripture in the Tanakh showing the Torah to be everlasting. To convince a Jew he should no longer follow the Torah would be an immense undertaking. With this in mind, consider what Jesus said about the Torah:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.
I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.
So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
(Matt 5:17-19 NET)
Does this sound like someone who is against Torah, or attempting to convince his Jewish disciples that the Torah no longer applies? Nope, not even close.
Christians who don’t want to let go of their lawlessness will come up with myriad ways of explaining this away, twisting the plain meaning. Usually the first line of attack is that “until all is accomplished” meant until Jesus’ crucifixion, when he reportedly said “it is finished”. However, this doesn’t make sense on multiple levels:
Fulfill doesn’t mean abolish, as that would render the meaning of the latter half of verse 17 to be “I have not come to abolish them but to abolish them.” Fulfill has a more frequently used meaning of “to perform or do, as duty; obey or follow, as commands.” (see dictionary.com for example)
Heaven and earth haven’t passed away.
Jesus didn’t fulfill the messianic requirements detailed in the Tanakh, so Christians expect him to return and finish the job. Thus “all is accomplished” hasn’t happened.
Jesus never mentioned to his disciples that his teaching Torah was only valid until his death and resurrection, even during the 40 days he spent with them post-resurrection.
Jesus mentioning the standing of those who break or keep the commands (and teach others to do likewise) in verse 19 contradicts the idea that he is speaking of fulfilling the law in a manner which makes it no longer apply.
Let’s examine another saying of Jesus:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven – only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’
Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’
(Matt 7:21-23 NET)
People who prophesy in his name, cast out demons in his name, and do many mighty works in his name will be completely unknown to Jesus because of their lawlessness!
Jesus, if you didn’t already know, was a Torah observant Jew. There are plenty of additional scriptures to show he upheld and taught the Torah, which may be addressed in other articles. The above two are simply two prime examples.
Unfortunately, the Christian has to face the fact that if he believes Torah to have been abolished, he is putting his faith in Paul rather than Jesus. The reality is, there are only two options for Paul: he was either misunderstood (to be teaching against Torah), or he was a false apostle. (I personally lean towards Paul being a false apostle.) Nobody else in the Christian bible writes anything that can be construed to be anti-Torah; Paul stands completely alone in this regard. For such a drastic change required of God’s people, ALL of the Christian writings should be carefully detailing the reasons the Torah had been superseded, and how the Tanakh allowed for this, especially considering the Jews were used to reading things like this written in the Torah:
“These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that YHWH, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth.
(Deuteronomy 12:1 NET)
Pay careful attention to all these things I am commanding you so that it may always go well with you and your children after you when you do what is good and right in the sight of YHWH your God.
(Deut 12:28 NET)
You must be careful to do everything I am commanding you. Do not add to it or subtract from it!
(Deut 12:32 NET)
Finally, let’s ask whether it is even reasonable to expect that the Torah will ever become obsolete. If Christianity is the continued revelation of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, surely we can find something in the Tanakh which would hint at this future change in covenant? Christianity insists that a brand new covenant has been introduced, one in which grace saves us and Torah is irrelevant, having been done away with. Is there any suggestion in the Tanakh that a new covenant would be introduced? Yes, in fact there is!
The new covenant
This prophecy is quoted in Hebrews 8. Hebrews 8 ends with this summary, after quoting the prophecy of the new covenant, which we will examine after looking at Hebrews 8:13:
When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete. Now what is growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear.
(Hebrews 8:13 NET)
This summary verse is the basis used by Christians to “prove” we are living under a new covenant where the Torah no longer applies. But is that what this says? Two things in this summary verse are important to keep in mind:
It is a covenant that will be made obsolete, not the Torah.
The phrase “ready to vanish away” means the old covenant is still in place, not that it has already vanished. It is ready to vanish away when the new covenant is enacted.
Jesus frequently made statements similar to “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” His disciples expected Jesus to return quickly, within their generation even, according to Matthew 16:28. The writer of Hebrews understood that the promised new covenant hadn’t yet arrived, but he fully expected it to be within his day.
Now let’s look at the actual prophecy from Jeremiah 31:31-34, quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12:
“Indeed, a time is coming,” says YHWH, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah.
It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says YHWH.
“But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says YHWH. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.
“People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says YHWH. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.”
(Jer 31:31-34 NET)
There are three vitally important ideas contained in the above prophecy:
The new covenant will be made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. These are the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, which separated in two after the death of King Solomon. This future new covenant is not with Christianity, not with gentiles, but with Israel, God’s chosen nation.
“I will put my law within them…” The word translated law here, as you should know by now, is the hebrew word Torah. Under the new covenant, the Torah will be instilled within his people, allowing them to obey it naturally without any effort. This will happen in the messianic age, which the writer of Hebrews obviously expected to arrive soon.
Everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know God! This again is a messianic era condition—universal knowledge of God. This has not yet occurred.
Not only will the new covenant still be very Torah centric, it most definitely is still in the future! The writer of Hebrews, (we don’t know for sure who he is, though many believe it was Paul), truly believed the messianic era was about to be ushered in, but here we are nearly 2,000 years later and it has yet to arrive.
This completely demolishes the idea that we are currently living under a new covenant, or that the Torah has been superseded. The Tanakh clearly leaves no room for the idea that the Torah will ever be abolished, seeing as it is central to both the current (Mount Sinai) covenant, as well as the future new covenant.
Think about how important this is. Israel is still living under the original Sinai covenant! What made a Jew, (or gentile as we’ll see), righteous according to the Torah has not changed! And when the new covenant does arrive, at the messianic age, it will still have Torah obedience at its core!
What about gentiles?
At this point, often the Christian will try to weasel out of acknowledging the continued applicability of the Torah by using the excuse that the Torah was only given to the Jews. This might seem to have a ring of truth to it, but do the Jewish scriptures address how gentiles can be achieve a similar place in God’s covenant? Yes they do:
As for foreigners who become followers of YHWH and serve him, who love the name of YHWH and want to be his servants – all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it, and who are faithful to my covenant –
I will bring them to my holy mountain; I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray.”
(Isaiah 56:6-7 NET)
If you are honest with yourself and with the scriptures, you should clearly see that we are not free from the law! The wise Christian should listen to the words of his teacher:
If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.
(Matthew 19:17b NET)
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