In Rom 2.25, Paul says that if you have been circumcised (are a Jew) and practice the Torah, that is a good thing. But, if you have been circumcised and are a Jew and don’t practice the Torah, it is as if you are uncircumcised and did not have all the advantages listed in v 17-24. Rom 2.26 goes on to say that if there are two people standing before God on Judgment Day, and one is Jewish and the other a non-Jew, and the Jewish person (circumcised) doesn’t keep the Torah, and the uncircumcised man (non-Jew) keeps what applies to him, which one at the judgment is doing right and which one is doing wrong?
There have been a lot of problems with our next set of passages in Rom 2.27-29. Remember, he is talking to Jews and being a Jew outwardly doesn’t mean anything to God. You can’t be a “Jew” by just keeping the Torah. The circumcision of the heart is what God is looking for in a Jewish person (Deut 30.6), too. But, he is Jew (praise to God) when he is circumcised in the flesh as commanded by the Torah and he has the circumcision of the heart, which is an idiom for being “born again” (Deut 10.16, 30.6-9). Verse 29 is easy to understand but it doesn’t mean every believer is a Jew in context. That is where some bad theology has crept in because they don’t understand the foundations. The term “letter of the law” in v 27 relates to something Paul said in 2 Cor 3.6, “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” Some teachers say these concepts are “New Testament” concepts and they say that this phrase means if you follow the Torah it “kills” but the New Testament “Spirit” gives life. However, these concepts are found in the Tanak and they don’t mean what certain Christians believe (see “The Letter Kills But the Spirit Gives Life” article in the Jerusalem Post by Rabbi Rishkin). This article did not refer to the New Testament or Paul one time because this is a Jewish concept. People have taken that phrase to mean that the “letter of the Law” (written Torah) kills and the Holy Spirit gives life. But, it doesn’t mean that. It has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. It does have something to do with the written Torah, but what it comes down to is that the Torah gives life (Deut 30.6-20, 32.47). The “letter of the law” means one is so strict in their observance of the law that it “destroys” or “kills” the intent of the instruction (Torah/Law). On the other hand, we are to “catch” the essence or “spirit” or “intent” of what is being commanded in the Torah. This is the true meaning of the instruction which should be part of our observance.
This is the message of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.30-36. The Priests and the Levites were not to come into contact with the dead so that they would not contract corpse uncleanness (Lev 21.1). As a result, they passed the injured man by. The Talmud teaches that if a priest (even the High Priest) chances upon a corpse by the wayside, and there was no one else in the area, then the priest himself must forego the requirement to remain ritually clean. The lesson of this parable (aggadah) is this: Strict observance of the Torah can restrict acts of mercy and kindness, which are the weightier measures of the Torah, or in other words, the “spirit” of it. So, when Paul says the “letter of the Law” (of strict observance) kills, but the “spirit” (of the Law, the essence of it, like mercy and kindness) gives life” he is saying the same thing the Torah and Yeshua taught. Here is an example of this concept. In 2 Chr 30.13-20, the people were not in a state of ritual purity to come in contact with the priests, the holy things and the Temple. So, they could not kill their Passover lambs. As a result, the Levites did it, and they ate the Passover lambs. This was against the “strict” observance of the Torah, but God saw their intent to seek God and he allowed it and healed them (v 20), even though it was “not according to the purification laws of the Temple (v 19).
In Isa 1.10-15, the people were coming according to the “letter of the Law” but they were missing it (the essence/intent) because of sin. In other words, the mundane performance of the written Torah wasn’t what God wanted, void of the heavier measures of the Torah like love, mercy, kindness and justice towards others. These are the right motives. In Isa 1.16-17, he tells them what to do. They needed to repent, learn and do good, seek justice, reprove those with no compassion, defend the orphan and plead for the widow.
Let’s move on to Rom 3.19 where we find the term “under the law.” The word for under is “tachat” and it alludes to Mount Sinai where the people were at the “foot” (tachat=”under”) of the mountain (Deut 4.11; Exo 19.17). Mt. Sinai was seen as a “chuppah” over the people because God was “betrothing” himself to Israel (Jer 2.1-3) and the Torah was the betrothal contract. If the people had emunah (faith), “this” mountain would be removed and not be in the position to harm them (Mark 11.22-23). The mountain Yeshua was referring to in Mark was Mount Moriah, which was seen as Mount Sinai because it was “holy ground” and the Temple with the commandments were there. If the people had emunah (faith) it would remove the “mountain” and the judgment from crushing them. Without emunah (faith), it would fall on them in the judgment and crush them (Matt 21.43-44). The Jewish people must approach God by emunah, and the Torah was given to them to help in this area. They face judgment, but those who were not given the Torah are no better off because they face judgment, too. So, every mouth is closed and what it comes down to is emunah, not works. From this verse to v 31, it is a midrash on Psa 143 which teaches that nobody is justified by “strict observance of the letter of the Law” and “adherence to good works.”
The term “under the law” is “upo nomon” in Greek and it means “in subjection to a system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism (The Messianic Jewish Bible by David Stern). The term “works of the Law” is “erga nomou” and it means a “legalistic observance of the Torah.” These are two important concepts to remember when you come across them in the writings of Paul. All of this is not an attack on the Torah. However, these terms have been interpreted by many to be attacks on the Torah, but that could not be further from the truth and it has led to many anti-Torah attacks. One of the purposes of the Torah is that it defined what sin is (Rom 3.20) and what is opposed to him. When one rejects the Torah, they reject the definition of what sin is and they can participate in things that are opposed to him. That has been the case in Christianity, sad to say, for centuries. They participate in things that are in direct opposition to the Lord, and they redefine what sin is, or even reject God’s definition of sin by rejecting the Torah. That is not a good place to be when standing before the Lord “on that day” (Matt 7.15-23).
We will pick up in Rom 3.21 in Part 12, and bring out more on how Paul related to the Torah.