[I use the phrase tanach/TNK to refer to the Old Testament.]
In my two previous posts, I have been dealing with bad teaching in the Church that tries to do away with God’s requirement for holiness in the lives of His followers. The Church has tried to do away with God’s requirements for his followers to live lives that are worthy of His calling by eliminating God’s instruction, His torah, by calling it Law and saying that we are free from the Law, that we are “under Grace” because Jesus did away with the Law.
As I demonstrated in my previous posts, we have mislabeled and mistranslated God’s words to us to fit our desires. In this post I want to deal with one more concept that we have gotten phenomenally wrong because of our misunderstanding of the context of the scriptures.
We have the mistaken belief that the writers of the Tanach and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day believed that they had to earn salvation, that by doing works of the Law, they could merit God’s kingdom. Yes, the phrase, works of the Law does occur several times in Paul’s epistles, but could it be even remotely possible that we have, somehow, misunderstood Paul and got it wrong? Again? (That again should tell you that were you and I speaking face-to-face, my tone would be dripping with snarkasm.)
First Canard: “Old Testament Jews Worked For Salvation, But Jesus Brought Us Grace”
Um, sorry, but no. If you read the Old Testament without Christian theological blinders, you find that grace is in the Jewish TNK, as well.
“Wait a minute, CSL, it says right there in John 1.17, ‘the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.’ They are separate, and grace came through Jesus!”
(As a quick aside, that little but, in “but grace and truth came by Jesus” is in italics, which means that it isn’t in the Greek text; instead, it was inserted by translators. The word but isn’t actually in v.17; the writer of the gospel of John had no intention of making a contrast between law and grace.)
Okay, since Christians are so married to the idea that grace is a NT addition, lets go down that rabbit trail. Let me ask you this: what is the definition of grace? “Unmerited favor,” right? Grace is the unmerited, undeserved favor of God. Okay, hold that thought:
grace is unmerited favor.
In doing a word search, I did find that the word grace rarely appears in the TNK, in newer translations. For example, grace appears only 6 times in the TNK of the popular ESV translation of the Bible. So if you are basing your belief that grace is a NT creation because of it being a rarity in the TNK, you might have a leg to stand on. But you really don’t, because we now come back to that definition of grace as ‘unmerited favor.’
There are two Hebrew words that are used over 100 times in our OT, the TNK, that are translated as favor: chanan and chen. Let me cite what Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (a standard Bible study reference) says about chanan and chen:
Generally, this word implies the extending of “favor”, often when it is neither expected nor deserved.
The Septuagint translations are: charis (“grace, favor”) and elios (“mercy, compassion, pity”)
Charis is the Greek word that is translated as grace in the NT; please note that Vine’s says that the Hebrew words chanan and chen are translated as charis, which is the Greek word for grace, and mean unmerited favor. Basically, the only reason that grace does not appear in the Old Testament is because our translators have chosen to use the word favor, instead instead of grace.
Second Canard: “Christians Have Been Freed From Obedience To The Law”
“We are under grace, freed from the dictates of the Law; we have Christian liberty.” The idea is that we, as Christians, are no longer in bondage to the laws and commands of the TNK, that Christ freed us from the curse of the Law.**
Quick word study: The Greek word that our English New Testaments translate as “Law” is nomos. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew TNK) uses nomos to translate torah. The opposite of nomos in the Greek is anomos, and it means “lawless, without law.”
Since the idea is that the Law, Torah, no longer applies to Christians, it should be accurate to say that Christians are then anomos/anomia, “without law.” There is one huge hole with that, and that is that anomos/anomia is actually sin, and referred to as such. We are told in 1 Jn. 3.4 that “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness (anomia); and sin is lawlessness (anomia).” We are also told, in 2 Thess. 2.7 that “the mystery of lawlessness (anomia) is already at work” in the world today.
Here’s a little tidbit that you might want to chew on: the Man of Sin, the anti-Christ, of 2 Thes. 2.3? In the Greek, he is the Man of Anomia, he is the Lawless One. I have started reading the Complete Jewish Study Bible, and this anti-Christ is called “the man who separates himself from Torah.”
The anti-Christ is one who “separates himself from Torah?” Yeah, not a good look for Christians, I’m thinking.
Third Canard: Jews Practiced The “Works of the Law” To Be Saved
Let me ask you a question: when Paul was excoriating Judaizers, do you think that he was talking about the Jewish High Priest and his servants, or do you think he was laying into fellow-Christians? The answer, of course, is that it was fellow-believers in Jesus who were bedeviling him. After all, these Judaizers were believers in Jesus as Messiah, and wanted to make sure that these new Christians, these Gentile converts, were truly saved and in the faith by becoming fully Jewish; proselytes.
And how were these Gentile Christians to become Jewish? By undergoing the proper conversion procedures known as “the works of the Law.” The phrase erga nomou, “works of the Law”, was a particular requirement for a god-fearer (a Gentile adherent of Judaism) to undergo in order to be a Jew.
And what were these erga nomou that these Gentile believers were to perform in order to ensure their conversion? To the Jews, there were three things that separated them from the Gentiles, signs of the Covenant that made a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and had been the bone of contention from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried to eradicate Judaism and led to the Maccabean revolt. They were Sabbath, circumcision and kashrut (kosher food laws). Antiochus had assailed Sabbath, circumcision and kashrut, and it was these three things that the Maccabeans enforced after they freed Judah from Greek rule in 175 B. C.
These three things became, in the Jewish mind, the boundary markers that set Jews apart from the world, and separated them unto God as his people. In order to become Jewish, then, in order to be a proper convert to Judaism (in the mind of the Judaizers), a Gentile Christian had to perform these three works of the law in order to enter into the Covenant.
The Greek phrase for “works of the law” is erga nomou, a translation of the Hebrew ma’ase ha-Torah. The phrase ma’ase ha-Torah is found in an Essene text in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Now we have written to you some of the works of the law, those which we determined would be beneficial for you… And it will be reckoned to you as righteousness, in that you have done what is right and good before Him…
Please note that performing these ma’ase ha-Torah means that the convert will be counted as righteous before God. It was with this idea in mind, that of becoming part of the righteous, that Judaizers wanted Gentile god-fearers to undergo Jewish conversion, and it was this specific religious requirement that Paul was writing to oppose. In writing about erga nomou, Paul was not condemning living according to God’s teachings, but condemning the idea that Gentiles had to become Jewish proselytes in order to enter God’s covenant.
Because the Church has, for centuries, believed and taught these three canards, she has been presenting a caricature of Jewish beliefs and a distortion of what Paul was actually teaching. Jews did not believe in trying to earn salvation by performing Works of the Law. In their mind, they (the Jews) were already in the covenant, and performing erga nomou was how Gentiles entered the Covenant and became righteous before God.
** Oh, by the way, do you really want to say that God’s teaching is a curse? Do you really want to go there?