Do Messianic Jews Really Need to Keep Torah?

MosesAn MJ friend wrote me describing the resistance he has been encountering from other Messianic Jews about Torah. He gets it. Mount Sinai is an eternal covenant between God and Jewish people. Staying true to that covenant is a calling for all Jews, all the more so Jews who love God through Messiah Yeshua. But many Messianic Jews are either in churches or they are in congregations which call themselves Messianic Jewish but which are really churches with some Jewish window dressing. Many Messianic Jews do not think Jewishly about God, Messiah, the Bible, and what it means to be the remnant of Israel.

Let me start by addressing some of the common arguments against MJ Torah-keeping, some of which my friend articulated in his letter and some of which I have heard a hundred times or more. Then I will make a short, positive case.

This argument is a non-starter. Have you really thought about what you are saying if this is your reason for claiming Messianic Jews do not need to observe Sabbath and food laws? It seems this argument is saying, “The grace of God means not having to be accountable to God for any laws of righteousness and holiness.”

It seems like “Paul 101″ to realize this is a false definition of grace. I mean, Paul addresses it directly, “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” Paul’s answer, “By no means.” (I will cover the “we are not under the law” part in the next section).

Think of the following sentence and whether it seems right or not, “We have no need to love our neighbor as ourselves, because we are under grace.” Or how about, “Rules like ‘do not murder’ no longer matter now that we have grace.”

No one would seriously claim such a thing. But somehow the “Jewish” laws (things like Sabbath and food laws) are thought of differently. They no longer matter because grace came to eradicate them.

What people really mean is that, since they do not understand what could be important about keeping a day of rest and since they cannot grasp any moral or scientific reason for avoiding pork and shrimp, these must not matter. And “grace” is the excuse word that gets used to jettison the commandments of God to Israel.

It is as if people think, “God did not operate in the mode of grace when he gave the Torah to Israel. He was operating then in the mode of law and strict judgment. But when Jesus came, God changed his mode of relating to people.” This idea is counter to the testimony of the Bible in the scriptures that came before Jesus as well as the ones that were given after. It was in Isaiah that God said, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (43:25). And in Micah he said, “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea; you will show faithfulness unto Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham” (7:19-20).

But perhaps some are using the grace argument a bit more carefully. Perhaps what they are thinking is not “grace cancels out holiness” (an absurd idea) but “in Messiah our standing with God has changed and, being declared now right before him [justified], our relationship to law is changed.” I will cover that in the next section (“We are not under the law”). Yet note from the outset, this is not an argument against food laws and Sabbath as requirements for faithful Jews any more that “not under law” is an argument in favor of ignoring commandments against murder or commandments in favor of loving ones neighbor. “Not under law” does not mean “lawless” and “unaccountable to God for anything” and “anything goes, so sin as much as you like.” Once again, people treat Jewish sign commandments (Sabbath, food laws, circumcision, wearing fringes, etc.) differently, which I will cover below under “Neither Jew nor Gentile.”

When Paul teaches his Gentile congregations how to live, he frequently makes what have been called “law-free” statements. He then qualifies his law-free statements in various ways to indicate he is not arguing for lawlessness or a life lived apart from all commandments and requirements of righteousness. The qualifier statements he makes include, again and again, statements like “are we continue in sin? by no means!”. It is clear, then, that “not under law” does not mean “no longer accountable to the goodness of God” and does not mean “will not appear before the Judge on the final day.” No, we all will appear before the Judge and “he will render to each one according to his works” (Rom 2:6). And “we must all appear” before the Judge in order that “each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10). Paul’s law-free statements do not mean lawlessness and unaccountability.

But what he does not do in his letters, and this is what confuses readers who fail to note a key fact about Paul’s letters, is that he never speaks to his Jewish disciples with a word like “but you, my fellow Jews, stay true to the commandments given to the fathers.” Why doesn’t Paul make a clarifying statement like this, indicating that his fellow Jews in Messiah are accountable to some commandments which his Gentile disciples are not? It is because Paul’s letters are, without exception, written to churches composed of Gentiles. I am not denying that Jewish people were among the believers in every place that Paul wrote to, but Paul is writing as the apostle to the Gentiles to churches primarily made up of Gentiles. We do not possess Paul’s instructions to his fellow Jews in Messiah (however, as I will show below, we do have Paul’s example of Jewish faithfulness in the book of Acts).

What are we to make of the law-free statements of Paul? We have already seen that he does not mean lawlessness. One dead-end trail which some would like to go down works like this, “The old law is canceled and God gives a new law (some call it the new covenant or the ‘law of Messiah’).”

Where may we find this law? The usual answer is that it consists of all the commandments included in the New Testament. Interestingly, if you decide to follow that approach, there are (according to the Dakes Bible) more than 1,000 commands in the New Testament.

But there is a huge problem. These commandments are never given anywhere as a complete list. They are from sections of moral and spiritual teaching. They are never called a covenant or listed as a new set of commandments. In fact, they are usually related to what was already commanded before. It is usually the Torah that already exists being applied to Paul’s Gentile disciples. The idea in Paul does not seem to be “the old law is canceled and now I give you a new one,” but rather, “the laws of Torah were written for our instruction and most of them apply to everyone, not just Jews.”

So what does Paul mean “we are not under the law, but under grace.” This does not mean “we are not accountable to the commandments of God written in the law” but rather “we have been justified by means of the atoning work of Messiah and our status in the final judgment has changed.” To put it very simply, he means “we are not under the penalties of the law if we are found to be in Messiah.” To better understand justification (which is terribly misunderstood in Protestant theology) see N.T. Wright’s Justification.

My MJ friend, in a conversation with another Jewish follower of Yeshua, said that “it is not God’s intent that the Jews should assimilate among the Gentiles.” Assimilation is the mode that Christians usually feel is acceptable or even required for Jews who come to Messiah. Assimilation is “just be like us and forget about any particulars having to do with your Jewish identity.” Assimilation is “prove you love Jesus by having bacon on your double cheeseburger.” Forget about the Sabbath. Don’t fast on Yom Kippur (I mean, Jesus already paid for our sins, right?).

When my MJ friend made the no-assimilation statement, he was told by his fellow Jewish believer, “That is a racial and ethnic argument that is ridiculous.” The idea that one ethnic group should be different in some ways from all others, different in God’s expectations, was deemed by him to be an offensive idea. All people should have the same expectations from above.

Try reading Genesis and the various promises to Abraham’s descendants this way. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.” This seems to imply a specific people will be blessed. “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This indicates a distinction between one people and all others, with that one people being the vessel through which God blesses all other peoples. How does that work if ethnic distinctions are “ridiculous”?

Paul famously said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). This is taken by many to mean “old distinctions are now erased in Jesus Christ.” That this is not what Paul means should be evident since he says later in the same sentence “there is no male and female.” It does not take an advanced degree in literary theory to understand the simple meaning and avoid absurd interpretations: all people have access to God and his blessings. Jews, without having to become Gentiles, are loved by God. Gentiles, without having to become Jews, are loved by God.

The idea that one ethnic group, Jews, should have some commandments to follow which are in addition to those followed by Gentiles seems offensive in a world where sameness (equivalence) is confused with equality. Jewish sign commandments have to do with extra holiness, symbolic extra holiness. The Jewish people are the priestly nation among the nations of the world. There are food laws. There is a holy day of the week. There is a sign for males at eight days old. These extra requirements are signs of being the chosen people.

But the main objection to Jewish sign commandments is their irrationality. Pork is good food. Saturday is a lot like the other six days of the week. Eating beef and avoiding pork is illogical. Refraining from shopping and business on Saturday appears to be an absurd view of the calendar. Lightning will not strike a Jew who eats shrimp.

Therefore, some seem to think, it must follow that these extra requirements have no place now in the Jesus economy. Just become like us, the church beckons. Be a Christian, not a Jew.

Paul told Gentiles who thought they had to become Jews in order to be acceptable to God, “If you accept circumcision [to convert to Judaism], Messiah will be of no advantage to you” (Gal 5:2). In other words, if you say to God, “I must become a Jew so you will love me,” then your faith is misplaced. You believe in saving yourself by changing your flesh. You are not trusting in God, by definition, if you can bring about your own salvation by an identity-change operation. To put it bluntly, Gentiles must not think they can be saved by becoming Jews. This is an error called Galatianism.

But Jews are asked all the time by churches to do the converse. God, it seems, does not accept Jews as Jews. Jews must become Gentiles. It is for the good of unity, you understand. Difference and distinction are offensive. We must all be the same or we imply that God has favorites. What’s that you say? This is Reverse Galatianism? Well, we don’t find that in the New Testament, do we?

Churches today would have a difficult time accepting Paul as a member. He made trips to Jerusalem for the festivals and holy days when he could (Acts 20:16). He observed the seven days of Unleavened Bread and Passover during his travels and mission work (Acts 20:6). He marked the seasons by the holy days such as “the Fast” [of Yom Kippur] (Acts 27:9). He made a Nazirite vow at least twice (Acts 18:18; 21:23). This involved making sacrifices, including a burnt offering, a peace offering, a grain offering, and [yes] a sin offering (Numb 6:1-21). He went to the Temple and made animal sacrifices (Acts 21:26, “purified himself” means through a blood offering). He kept all the commandments of Torah and even the traditions of the Jewish people above and beyond the written commandments (Acts 21:21 and 21:24).

If you had a church supper and put out the cocktail shrimp, Paul would pass it up. You might say to him, “But Paul, we are under grace.” He would raise his [Vulcan-like] eyebrow at you and inform you that your words are illogical, “The God of grace is the one who commands me.” He would not even eat your pot-roast, since the meat is not slaughtered in the kosher manner. You might feel he was really being difficult.

But Paul knows that the covenant made between Israel and God at Sinai is forever. “It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel,” said God (Exod 31:13). The laws are to be kept “throughout all your generations” (Exod 12:42; 31:13; Lev 3:17; 22:3; 23:14, 21, 31; Numb 15:23; 35:29). Many commandments are “a statute forever” (Exod 12:14, 17; 27:21; 28:43; 29:9; 30:21; Lev 3:17; 10:9; 16:31, 34; 17:7; 23:14, 21, 31, 41; 24:3; Numb 15:15; 19:21). He knows that in the last days, the New Covenant will include keeping the Torah commandments: Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 36:27.

It is, in fact, Paul who says, “Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law,” and “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” and “to them belong the adoption, the Glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom 2:25; 3:4; 9:4). And though his letters are not written to Jewish audiences, he does say, “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision” (1 Cor 7:18) and “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:3).

Yeshua did not come to annul the Torah (Matt 5:17). Some commands of Torah were never required of Gentiles (Sabbath, food laws, circumcision) and this has led to confusion, as if the whole law does not apply to anyone. Yeshua did not annul the food laws or the Sabbath. He upheld them. God did not err in revealing the Torah to Israel. The first 80% of the Bible is not a mistake. Grace is in it from beginning to end. And Jewish followers of this Jewish Messiah definitely should seek to follow him as Jews, as those who stood at Sinai and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exod 19:8).