05-06-07. Works of Law (Part Two); Lesson from Acts 10; Under the Law

05-06-07. Works of Law (Part Two); Lesson from Acts 10; Under the Law

5. “Works of Law” - Part Two

At this turn, I want to use, most extensively, some material from a Messianic Jewish commentary on the book of Galatians, written by David Stern, translator of the Complete Jewish Bible. I will launch from his comments—at times within his comments—into my own bracketed wording [ ].

I want to launch from chapter 2 verse 15 to explain the crucial verse 16.  "We to nature Judeans and not out of nations sinners," This is a literal rendering of verse 15 from the Greek. It is simply an identifying opening for what is to follow. Sha'ul is not degrading Gentiles in any way; he is simply using the same language and identifiers that the Legalizers/Judaizers/Influencers (the villains of the book) use in order to speak of the Gentiles.  Also the Torah itself recognized that before the giving of the Messiah and the revelation of the Torah, Gentiles were sinners (Gal. 2:11-12; compare Luke 18:31-33 with Luke 24:7). However, it should be noted that he also went out his way to emphasize the equality of Jews and Gentiles before HaShem.

"Having known but that not is being justified man out of works of Law if ever not through faith of Messiah Yeshua, also we into Messiah Yeshua we believed, in order that we might be justified out of faith of Messiah and not out of works of Law, because out of works of Law not will be justified every flesh." [This is a literal rendering of verse 16 from the Greek.  Being declared righteous by HaShem is the goal of all men who seek HaShem. Righteousness can be defined in two ways:] "behavioral righteousness,” actually doing what is right, and "forensic righteousness,” being regarded as righteous in the sense (a) that God has cleared him of guilt for past sins, and (b) that God has given him a new human nature inclined to obey HaShem rather than rebel against him as before.

Yeshua has made forensic righteousness available to everyone by paying on everyone’s behalf the penalty for sins which HaShem’s justice demands, death. Forensic righteousness is appropriated by an individual for himself the moment he unreservedly puts his trust in HaShem, which at this point in history, entails also trusting in Yeshua the Messiah upon learning of him and understanding what he has done. The task of becoming behaviorally righteous begins with appropriating forensic righteousness (through Yeshua); it occupies the rest of a believer’s life, being completed only at the moment of his own death, when he goes to be with Yeshua. What is important to keep in mind here is the difference between these two kinds of righteousness. Each time the Greek word "dikaioo" ("righteousness") or a cognate is encountered, it must be decided which of these two meanings of the word is meant. In the present verse and the next, all four instances of "dikaioo" refer to forensic righteousness. But in verse 21, the related word "dikaiosune" refers to behavioral righteousness.[1]

"Works of law,” translates the Greek phrase "ergon nomos.” Since the word "nomos" means "law"[2], and is usually referring (from the Septuagint) to the Moshaic Law, i.e. Torah, most Christians usually understand "works of law" to mean "actions done in obedience to the Torah.” But this is wrong. One of the best-kept secrets about the New Testament is that when Sha'ul writes "nomos" he frequently does not mean "divine law" but "a man-made system of law.” This phrase ("ergon nomos"), Scripturally found ONLY in Sha'ul’s writings, occurs eight times, and always in technical discussion of the Torah: Gal. 2:16, 3:2, 5, 10; Rom. 3:20, 28. Two other uses of "ergon" ("works") are closely associated with the word "nomos" ("law") in Rom. 3:27; 9:32. Even when he uses "ergon" by itself, the implied meaning is frequently "a man-made system of law-related works,” see Gal. 5:19; Rom. 4:2, 6; 9:11; 11:6; Eph. 2:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5. There are 17 other instances when it is neutral.  In order to interpret Sha'ul correctly one needs to understand that the phrase "ergon nomos" does not mean deeds done in virtue of following the Torah the way HaShem intended, but deeds done in consequence of perverting the Torah into a set of rules which, it is presumed, can be obeyed mechanically, automatically, legalistically, without having faith, without having trust in HaShem, without having love for HaShem or man, and without being empowered by the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit).[3]


[1] Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary (TSBD), nomos.

[2] David H. Stern, The Jewish New Testament Commentary-Galatians (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p. 525.

To be sure, in the case of the Galatian congregation, the specific perversion that was taking place sought to transform Gentiles into Jews via a man-made ceremony of conversion, performed under the guise of “covenant inclusion.”  To appreciate the consternation that this halakhah caused Sha'ul, one has to understand that within the 1st century Judaisms, the prevailing view was that all Isra'el shared a place in the World to Come.  What is more, since Isra'el and Isra'el alone were granted this gift from HaShem it was necessary in the minds of the proto-rabbis to convert Gentiles into Jews before they could enjoy the status of “full-fledged covenant member.”  In order to accomplish this task, a ceremony had been invented—a ceremony not found in the Torah itself.  The ceremony included circumcision for the males.  Because of this feature, the entire sociological situation was subsumed under the label “circumcision.”  Thus, “works of law” becomes a sort of “short-hand” way for Sha'ul to describe this phenomenon.

6.  Lesson From Acts 10

The poison of Ethnocentric Jewish Exclusivism permeated the first century Jewish society.  A careful reading of the Greek of Acts chapter 10 and Kefa’s conversation with HaShem will show that this simple fisherman was also blinded by the prevailing halakhah that sought to avoid Gentiles at all costs.  Firstly, allow me to define the important Greek words we will encounter during this section:

  • 5399-Phobeo (V)+2316-theon (N, M)=feared+God (i.e., God-fearer).
  • 2840-Koinoo (V)=to make common, to make (Levitically) unclean, render unhallowed, defile, profane.
  • 2839-Koinos (A)=common, i.e., ordinary, belonging to generality, by the Jews, unhallowed, profane.
  • 2511-Katharizo (V)=to make clean, cleanse, consecrate, dedicate, purify (morally or ritually).
  • 111-Athemitos (A)=contrary to law and justice, illicit, (i.e., taboo).
  • 169-Akathartos (A)=unclean, ceremonially, that which must be abstained from according to Levitical Law, foul.

Having made us aware of the language of Luke’s narrative, let us pick up the study from my previous commentary to Acts 10:

Q:  While the vision of the food is clearly in view, when HaShem responds to Kefa’s refusal, he only instructs Kefa not to call common (koinoo) that which he (God) has cleansed katharizo.  Why doesn’t HaShem also teach Kefa not to call unclean (akathartos) that which God has ostensibly cleansed katharizo?

A:  Obviously God has not cleansed (katharizo) those animals that he created to be intrinsically unclean (akathartos!)  If I, Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy, the author of this commentary, could convey this single, important point to your average Christian pastor, then we would not be having this conversation at all!  The vision is just that—a vision!  The proof that God is not truly altering Kefa’s paradigm in regards to food but rather to non-Jews is born out by the careful attention to not mention akathartos in verse 15, yet by his Ruach HaKodesh impress Kefa to utilize the word akathartos in regards to non-Jews in verse 28.  The Levitical definition of permitted and forbidden animals, as outlined in chapter 11, cannot change!  God remains the same both yesterday, today, and forever!  Why would he need to change the rules governing the definition of food with the arrival of his Son?  It makes nonsense to suppose such a reading of Acts chapter 10!  To be sure, if God were supposedly changing the rules, giving the information to a “country bumpkin” like Kefa—and in a vision no less—is the wrong way to go about doing it, wouldn’t you agree?  We should not suppose that this is a mystery hidden from the Jewish people only now to be revealed after his Son has gone to the execution stake (on the same level as the mystery of the gospel that the Gentiles are now to be welcomed into Isra'el as full-fledged covenant members if they place their trust in Yeshua).

Q:  If HaShem is not cleansing (katharizo) unclean (akathartos) animals then what is he cleansing?  How are we to understand the vision?

A:  I personally believe that Kefa's interpretation of his own vision is the best and most important interpretation offered.  Namely this: what HaShem has designated as kosher (fit for consumption) and treif (not fit for consumption) in the Torah of Moshe, concerning food, still remains clean (tahor) and unclean (tamei) respectively.  Although the sheet contained all manner of animals, I believe what HaShem is trying to get Kefa to understand is that the animals represent all manner of peoples, not the literal animals themselves.  This interpretation is in accord with the unchangeable nature of HaShem.  To be sure, is this not how Kefa interprets the vision himself in verses 28, 34 and 35?

28 He said to them, "You are well aware that for a man who is a Jew to have close association with someone who belongs to another people, or to come and visit him, is something that just isn't done. But God has shown me not to call any person common or unclean. 

34 Then Kefa addressed them: "I now understand that God does not play favorites, 35 but that whoever fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him, no matter what people he belongs to (Emphasis, mine).

Q:  But I thought that the Torah forbade Jews from having contact with Gentiles.  Isn’t that what Kefa explicitly tells his Gentile associates in verse 28, which you quoted above?

A:  Observe Acts 10:28 in 10 various, yet common English translations (the original Greek word athemitos ajqevmitoß has been identified and underlined in each version):

NASB (New American Standard Bible): And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.

GWT (God’s Word Translation): He said to them, "You understand how wrong it is for a Jewish man to associate or visit with anyone of another race. But God has shown me that I should no longer call anyone impure or unclean.

KJV (King James Version): And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.

ASV (American Standard Version): and he said unto them, Ye yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to join himself or come unto one of another nation; and yet unto me hath God showed that I should not call any man common or unclean:

BBE (Bible in Basic English): And he said to them, You yourselves have knowledge that it is against the law for a man who is a Jew to be in the company of one who is of another nation; but God has made it clear to me that no man may be named common or unclean:

DBY (Darby Bible Translation): And he said to them, Ye know how it is unlawful for a Jew to be joined or come to one of a strange race, and to me God has shewn to call no man common or unclean.

WEY (Weymouth New Testament): He said to them, "You know better than most that a Jew is strictly forbidden to associate with a Gentile or visit him; but God has taught me to call no one unholy or unclean.

WBS (Webster Bible Translation): And he said to them, Ye know that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come to one of another nation; but God hath shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.

WEB (World English Bible): He said to them, "You yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to join himself or come to one of another nation, but God has shown me that I shouldn't call any man unholy or unclean.

YLT (Young’s Literal Translation): And he said unto them, 'Ye know how it is unlawful for a man, a Jew, to keep company with, or to come unto, one of another race, but to me God did shew to call no man common or unclean.

Isn’t it interesting that from 10 English translations all but 3 render our Greek word as “unlawful?”  The GWT, the BBE, and the WEY, however, attempt to supply a slightly different nuance than unlawful to this word, an attempt I call commendable.  Even The Scriptures, a version popular among Messianics, leaves room for questioning the real intent of the translators:

And he said to them, “You know that a Yehudite man is not allowed to associate with, or go to one of another race.  But Elohim has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.

The Greek word athemitos, found in only two places in the Apostolic Scriptures,[4] is a composite of two Greek words: the word tithemi meaning “to set, put, place, set forth, establish,” and again, the article “a” rendering the word tithemi into its negative value.[5]  Thus athemitos does convey the notion of “unlawful,” but we should carefully note that if Kefa were wanting us to understand that such a prohibition were rooted in the written word of God, the Torah, then he would have used a conjugation of the Greek word nomos which normally refers to God’s Torah.  To be sure, our writer Luke uses anomos at Acts 2:28 (rendered “wicked” in KJV and “godless” in the NASB) when referring to those men who crucified Yeshua.  The TSBD defines the adjective anomos as “destitute of the Mosaic law, departing from the law, a violator of the law, lawless, wicked.”[6]  By comparison, the adjective athemitos refers to that which, although not written down, is simply socially unacceptable, viz, taboo, but certainly not proscribed by Moshaic Law.  David Sterns CJB is a better translation of this pasuk:

He said to them, "You are well aware that for a man who is a Jew to have close association with someone who belongs to another people, or to come and visit him, is something that just isn't done. But God has shown me not to call any person common or unclean (Emphasis, mine).[7]

The Torah of Moshe never prohibits Jews from “keeping company” or “coming unto one of another nation.”  This statement of Kefa’s reflects the “ethnocentric Jewish exclusivism” baggage that the Torah communities of his day had engineered, baggage not uncommon among people groups who are marginalized.  In other words, Kefa was just regurgitating the standard mantra of his day.  This did not excuse his error, which is why HaShem went through all the trouble to send him the vision in the first place.

In the end, the message of the Acts 10 vision is crystal clear:  Gentiles in Yeshua are not intrinsically unclean (akathartos), as the 1st century Judaisms were professing.  They, like all men, have been created in God’s image, and as such, can be viewed as defiled (koinos) by the stain of sin, in need of cleansing (katharizo).  Man, created clean (katharos), fell to a state of unclean (koinos), later to be declared cleansed (katharizo) by the blood of the Sacrificial Lamb of God if he accepted such an offer.  To use the language of the vision: Jews are not lambs while Gentiles are pigs.  Rather, Jews and Gentiles are both lambs!  Both have become unclean (koinos), by sin; both have been cleansed (katharizo) by Yeshua!  No one is intrinsically unclean (akathartos)!  No one was created sinful!  Born into sin, yes; created sinners, no![8]

7. “Under the Law”

Traditional Christianity would have us believe that the phrase “under the law” 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.”[9]

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 (http://www.tnnonline.net/two-housenews/torah/under-the-law/index.html) he writes:

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 Sha'ul, 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.[10]


[1] Ibid. p. 535.

[2] Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary (TSBD).

[3] David H. Stern, The Jewish New Testament Commentary-Galatians (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p. 525.

[4] Acts 10:28; 1 Peter 4:3

[5] TSBD.

[6] TSBD.

[7] For a thorough treatment of Stern’s reasoning behind his translation of this verse see his Jewish New Testament Commentary, pp. 258-259.

[8] Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy, Acts 10 (Tetze Torah Ministries, 2007), pp. 4-7.

[9] David H. Stern, The Jewish New Testament Commentary-Galatians (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p. 537.

[10] Ibid. p. 537, 538.

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