Rabbinic views . . . on Faith vs. Law

Rabbi Simlai said, “Moses gave Israel 613 commandments. David reduced them to 10, Isaiah to 2, but Habakkuk to one: the righteous shall live by his faith” (Makkot 23b).

What does it mean that the righteous shall live by his faith? If we were to suppose that to live by faith is to live in perfect obedience to all 613 commandments, then no-one, apart from the Messiah, would be declared faithful and no-one would ever be declared righteous in the sight of God. If to live by faith means living in obedience to the whole Law, then Rabbi Simlai’s comment is of no consequence. In other words, living by faith is not based upon obedience to the law.

Jesus reminded the Pharisees that faithfulness to God was not determined by strict observance of the law: “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests” (Matthew 12:3-4). Those who do not live by faith, but who try to attain righteousness through observance of the law, condemn themselves whenever they break even the least of the commandments: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10).

Many Jews understand living by faith as a collective obligation of the community to resist assimilation and to reject pagan religious beliefs and practices. But true faithfulness is not expressed just by holding to a belief. As James points out, even satan and the demons believe that there is only one God and are terrified by his power and authority (James 2:19), but that does not make them faithful. Neither is faithfulness simply a matter of observing rules and religious traditions: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13).

Faithfulness for an Israelite is expressed through faithfulness to the covenant established by God. Membership of the covenant nation was not merely by birth or by circumcision. The Law stipulated many examples of disobedience for which a person was to be completely cut off (excommunicated) from the covenant community. The most serious act of unfaithfulness, for which a person was to be cut off from the covenant community, was to refuse to heed the word of God spoken through the Messiah (Deuteronomy 18:19). Even Maimonides, though not acknowledging that Jesus is the Messiah, affirmed that faithfulness to God is expressed by believing in the Messiah: “Whoever does not believe in him (the Messiah), or does not hope for his coming, shows a lack of faith not only in the prophets, but also in the Torah.”

True faithfulness is found only in the Messiah (the Anointed King), in whom the whole nation is corporately represented. Any faith that is not established upon him represents unfaithfulness. Yet the great irony is that many Jewish people are afraid to confess their faith in Jesus the Messiah for fear of losing their Jewish identity and being ostracized by the rest of the unbelieving Jewish community!

Following the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in 70AD, a divine judgment against the people for failing to listen to the Messiah, every effort was made by the Rabbis to preserve Jewish identity and religion – although it had become practically impossible to observe two-thirds of the law. By manipulating and exploiting the people’s ignorance of Scripture and fear of assimilation the Rabbis succeeded in establishing a stronghold over the people, predicating Jewish identity on a denial of Jesus, the very one in whom true Jewish identity is to be found and through whom true faithfulness to God has been revealed! The Jewish leaders were destined to reject their Anointed King Messiah, the very Cornerstone of the Jewish faith (see Psalm 118:22). The Lord warned that judgment would come against the leaders:

But the people have not returned to him who struck them, nor have they sought the Lord Almighty. So the Lord will cut off from Israel both head and tail, both palm branch and reed in a single day; the elders and prominent men are the head, the prophets who teach lies are the tail. Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray (Isaiah 9:13-16).

Tragically, many people are held in religious bondage and have not been set free to worship God in Spirit and in truth, yet they remain in the darkness, naively believing that they are steadfastly faithful to their religion, culture and nation. Einstein said that it is far easier to smash an atom than to smash a prejudice. Jewish people are born into a prejudice that has been established for centuries and which keeps many Jews from the knowledge of the Messiah. The Rabbis keep the Jewish people under the bondage of sin because they insist that righteousness may be attained by observing the law, but, as the apostle Paul wrote, “the law is not based on faith” (Galatians 3:12). It is impossible to be made righteous through observing the Law. True faith is to believe and trust in God’s promise of redemption which has been fulfilled through Jesus the Messiah: For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17).