7. “Under the Law”
Traditional Christianity would have us believe that the phrase “under the Law” (Greek=ὑπὸ νόμον) refers to mere obligation to keep the Commandments, a sort of shorthand for “under obligation to keep the whole law.” Therefore, when Paul states in Romans 6:14 and 15, for example, that we are “not under the Law but under grace,” the average Bible reader hears Paul saying that, in Messiah, we are not under obligation to keep the Law of Moses since we are now “under the Grace of Christ.” In this way, the Church interprets Paul’s words as setting up a dichotomy of Law vs. Grace, with Grace being the obvious and preferred victor. After all, it is correctly assumed that Paul’s use of the term “Law” in this verse is pejorative—that is—something that is negative and to be avoided by a true follower of Yeshua. What is more, even without knowing fully what the term means at first, we must still agree with Paul’s negative use of the term “Law” here, for indeed, he is describing something we should indeed avoid at all costs. But is he referring to mere Commandment keeping? Is Torah-keeping something a believer in Yeshua should avoid? Surely legalistically following after Torah is something we should never engage in (more on this view below), but is Paul even talking about a legalistic view of Torah observance in his use of “under the Law” in Galatians?
We are not in Romans at this moment. We are in Galatians, and context demands that any given word or phrase must be given its proper surrounding consideration in order for it to have its proper meaning and application. Paul uses the phrase “under the Law” a total of five times in this letter to Galatia and each use has its own contextual meaning. For instance, in Galatians 4:21, ‘those who desire to be under the Law’ must mean ‘those Gentiles who desire to take on legally-recognized Jewish social status via the man-made ceremony of conversion,’ in order for the verse to fit the overall context of Paul’s rebuke in that chapter. Used in this way, ‘under the Law’ and ‘circumcision’ function as synonyms, both describing Jewish identity—whether natural or achieved. We simply cannot assume that standard Christian commentaries on this phrase are accurate if we are to be noble Bereans in this matter, especially since most of those same commentaries unknowingly or unwittingly carry around a fair amount of anti-Jewish or anti-Torah bias. What is more, a well-known Messianic Jewish source also unfortunately falls into the trap of applying the context of Romans’ use of this phrase to the book of Galatians.
I will single out David Stern’s commentary to Galatians:
Likewise, the term "upo nomon" (“under the Law”), which appears five times in this letter, never means simply "under the Torah,” in the sense of "subjection to its provisions," "living within its framework.” Rather, with one easily explainable variation, it is Sha'ul’s shorthand for "living under the oppression cause by being enslaved to the social system or the mindset that results when Torah is perverted into legalism.”
Turning again to our example from Romans 6:14 and 15 above, “under the Law” used there indeed refers to being found to be “under the condemnation of the Torah; condemnation caused by being enslaved to one’s personal sin as opposed to being set free by Yeshua the Messiah." To be under the Law (in these two verses from Romans) is to be under the condemnation of the wrath of God, condemnation reserved for those who have not surrendered their lives to his Saving Power.
And to be fair to context, Paul does in fact apply the “condemnation” aspect and application of “under the Law” from Romans 6:14, 15 specifically to Galatians 5:18,
KJV (King James Version) But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the Law.
John K. McKee of TNN Online correctly agrees with this Galatians “condemnation” definition. Addressing Galatians 5:18 in his article What Does Under the Law Really Mean
Knowing that “under the Law” means being subject to the Torah’s penalties allows this verse to make much more sense to us as Messianics. If you are truly led by God’s Holy Spirit, then you are not subject to the Torah’s penalties. If you are truly led by the Spirit, then you will not be led to disobey the Lord and be cursed. Rather, if you are truly led by the Spirit, you will naturally obey our Heavenly Father and obey the commandments of Torah and be blessed—just as the Torah tells us.
In conclusion to this section, whenever we encounter the phrase “under the Law,” we must be careful to examine the context of the passage in question if we are to properly interpret and apply its usage. Thus far, we have examined two of Paul’s more well-known examples of this phrase “under the Law.” The Romans usage teaches us that “under the Law” is equated with “under condemnation.” To be sure, every genuine follower of Yeshua has been redeemed from the ultimate curse pronounced in the Torah! Such a curse is reserved for those who are “under the law.” If you are in Messiah then you are not under condemnation (read Romans 8:1). You are in fact the righteousness of God in Messiah! What is more, the real change that takes place in a person’s life is effected by the Ruach HaKodesh when, because of Yeshua’s bloody, sacrificial death, the sinner takes on the status of righteous! Legalistically following after Torah does not change your status before God. Man cannot add to that which God perfects.
Moreover, in accordance with Sha’ul’s use of “under the Law” in Galatians 4:21, where he speaks against Gentile proselyte conversion to Judaism, in his mind, an unnecessary and supposed legal change in social status added nothing to those wishing to be counted as true Israelites in the Torah Community. Gentiles in Jesus were as complete as they needed to be and to seek to ostensibly become Jewish only insulted the genuine gospel of grace by which they were so marvelously called. To Paul, their genuine faith in the Promised Word of HaShem, as evidenced by the genuine working of the Spirit among them, was all the “identity” they would ever need! Once counted as righteous by the Righteous One Himself, all the new [Gentile] believer needed to do was begin to walk in that righteousness, a walk already described in the pages of the Written Torah, a walk formerly impossible due to the deadness of flesh and bondage to sin.
We are not under the Law, we are truly under grace. We are not under condemnation. We have been wonderfully forgiven in Messiah! We truly are under freedom!
Biblical “freedom,” however, is not a license to walk away from Torah! Biblical “freedom” is liberation to walk into Torah and into the righteous that HaShem envisioned for us all along! Thus, positional righteousness always results in behavioral righteousness. Put plainly, Torah submissiveness is the natural result of being set free from sin and condemnation and set free unto Yeshua! Stern notes, with my inserted comments in accent,
Christian scholars have discoursed at length about Sha'ul’s supposedly ambivalent view of the Torah. Their burden has been to show that somehow he could abrogate the Torah and still respect it. Non-Messianic Jewish scholars, building on the supposedly reliable conclusion, gratuitously supplied by their Christian colleagues, that Sha'ul did in fact abrogate the Torah, have made it their burden to show that the logical implication of Sha'ul’s abrogating the Torah is that he did not respect it either and thereby removed himself and all future Jewish believers in Yeshua from the camp of Judaism (the so-called "parting of the ways"). In this fashion liberally oriented non-Messianic Jews in the modern era have been able to have their cake and eat it too, to claim Jesus for themselves as a wonderful Jewish teacher while making Paul the villain of the piece.
But Sha'ul had no such ambivalence. For him the Torah of Moshe was unequivocally "holy" and its commands "holy, just and good" (Romans 7:12). And so were works done in true obedience to the Torah. But in order to be regarded by HaShem as good, works done in obedience to the Torah had to be grounded in trust, [never in one’s submission to a man-made ceremony, viz, in one’s Jewish status (Romans 9:30-10:10).] If one keeps in mind that Sha'ul had nothing but bad to say for the sin of perverting [circumcision (read here as conversion) into ethnic-driven righteousness] and nothing but good to say for the Torah itself, then the supposed contradictions in his view of the Torah vanish. Instead of being the villain who destroyed the backbone of Judaism and led Jews astray, he is the most authentic expositor of the Torah that the Jewish people have ever had, apart from the Messiah Yeshua himself.