The relationship between the Gospel message and Jewish tradition can be described simply by imagining a ladder with four rungs or priorities:
1. Salvation by Grace
2. Moral Law
3. Ritual Law
4. Religious Tradition
SALVATION BY GRACE
Yeshua (Jesus) took our punishment on the cross and then rose from the dead to provide eternal life. That message is more important than anything else. We are beings created by a loving and holy God. We have sinned. All righteousness comes from Him. Without trusting in His righteousness, no human being can hope to become righteous on his own. That is a central theme of the book of Romans.
For that reason, salvation by grace is more important than the moral Law. Yet moral standards are essential. Who establishes what those standards are? – Only a person who himself is perfectly righteous. Therefore moral standards must come from God alone. God’s moral standards are absolute and valid for all human beings. They are written in the Bible. The most succinct list of His moral code is the Ten Commandments. (See Matthew 19:17.)
Within the Law are commandments of greater importance, and those of lesser importance. Yeshua exhorted us not to
“… forsake the weightier matters of the Law – justice, mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
In order to obey God’s commandments, we have to understand which aspects are more important, and which less important.
The basic division between what is primary and what is secondary is between the moral law (love) and the ritual law (symbols).
“To love God with all your heart and all your understanding and all your might, and to love your neighbor as yourself, behold, is greater than all sacrifice and offering.” (Mark 12:30)
Ritual laws or “signs” of the covenant are not binding commandments in the same way that the moral commandments are.
“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is important, but rather keeping the commandments of God.” (I Corinthians 7:19)
Isn’t circumcision a commandment? Yes, in the sense that it is part of the ritual law recorded in the Bible. No, in the sense that it is not part of the absolute moral law.
Circumcision, festivals, and food laws are not on the same level as the commandments against lying, stealing, adultery, and murder. Not recognizing the priority of moral law over ritual law is a critical misunderstanding of the Law itself, and may result in religious hypocrisy. Yeshua rebuked the Pharisees for misinterpreting and therefore disobeying the Law.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who strain a gnat and swallow a camel.”(Matthew 23:24)
(Unfortunately, much of the Christian world has rejected the Law altogether, often resulting in sin and moral transgression even by those who preach the gospel.)
The ritual aspects of Jewish law may be divided into two sections: those which are biblical, and those which are additions from the rabbis. The symbols in the Bible are specifically ordained by God with a spiritual message concerning His kingdom plan. Those added by the rabbis are a matter of culture and have no direct authority.
Elevating tradition to the status of divine law is extremely dangerous. Yeshua referred to this as
“the learned commandment of men” (quoting Isaiah 29:13), and asked, “Why do you disobey the commandment of God for the sake of your own traditions?” (Matthew 15:3)
Equating religious tradition to the Law of God is an evil found in all religion, whether Jewish, Christian, or pagan.
Religious tradition is never binding. However, when we share the good news of salvation, we should embrace in love the culture of the people group we are sharing with. This is particularly true of the Jewish people, who developed a religious culture based on the Old Testament (Tanakh).
“For the sake of the Jews, I am as a Jew in order to win them (for salvation); for the sake of those under the Law, I am as one under the Law.” (I Corinthians 9:20)
- The message of salvation through Yeshua is our highest priority.
- Good works of human origin cannot save us.
- God’s absolute moral law is binding for all human beings.
- Moral law is higher than ritual law.
- Biblical symbols or rituals point to spiritual kingdom truths.
- Religious tradition is never binding or authoritative.
- Elevating religious tradition to the level of moral law is a dangerous error.
- Embracing someone else’s culture in love may be an important bridge in sharing with them eternal life.