Why Not One Law For Everyone? (by Derek Leman)

Why Not one Law for everyone by Derk LemanDerek Leman, a messianic rabbi from Atlanta, GA in this guest post for Jewish Studies for Christians deals with an issue of whether or not Jews and Gentiles are bound by the same commandments. While there are other well-argued opinions, I am happy to present his post to you for your careful consideration and engagement. (You are cordially invited to visit one of his blogs “Messianic Jewish Musings” of this talented and prolific author. To do so, please, click HERE).

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Whose commandments are they? That is, for whom were they laid down as stipulations? Does that still matter or did something change, such as God issuing a new covenant that made the original commandments a law for everyone? Or did a new people come to God who were then transformed in some way, made to have the same relationship to God as this first people, the Jewish people?

The logic of “one law” or of the divine obligation of all people of faith in Messiah to the same laws as those given to Israel is usually based on one of a handful of arguments. Aren’t non-Jews grafted into the Jewish tree through Messiah and if so, doesn’t this eliminate the Jewish-Gentile differentiation? If a commandment is holy, then isn’t it unholy not to follow it? Since the Torah is the only ordered list of God’s requirements, it has to be for everyone, because God nowhere gives a “law for the Gentiles,” right?

People often base their opinion about the commandments on their experience and not on the Bible. I am not against the importance of our personal experience with God. It’s just that experience can be misinterpreted. It seems to be far better if we interpret our experiences with reference to the great ideas that are in the Bible and find answers which bring together Bible and experience.

So, for example, a Christian may experience a deep awakening upon discovering the joys of Passover and Sabbath and the rhythm of the Torah calendar. Likewise, eating a restricted diet can feel like intensifying holiness. And the whole experience of becoming a Torah-observer may feel like getting very close to God. Then, when encountering Jewish beliefs about Torah — that Torah is a covenant between Israel and God, not between the nations and God — such a person might feel as if they are being denied membership in an exclusive club.

I would like to explain why, in simple terms, God’s way is not one law for everyone, and suggest a middle path for non-Jews who want to have a closer relationship with Israel’s Torah.

First, it would be helpful if people would go back to the giving of the Torah from Sinai in Exodus 19. Would Jewish people be asking too much if we say, “Please keep in mind the importance of this event as something special between us and God?” When you read Exodus 19, can you not see God is making a covenant with the Jewish people? Yes, there are clever work-arounds such as “Gentiles were there too in the form of the mixed multitude.” But those tortured arguments look like a way to deny the simple truth: Torah was given as a covenant to Israel. The commandments are the stipulations of the covenant.

Second, what is in the Torah? Do people who want to read it as “one law for everyone” actually take into account what is actually contained in it? Many things in Torah no longer apply to anyone today, Jewish or non-Jewish. Do you need laws about how to treat your slave? Have you seriously entertained the idea of taking a war-bride after giving her a month to mourn her father? Were you considering stoning your rebellious teenager? Reading the Torah calls for some maturity in reading, some willingness to learn history, to see the difference between the ideal in Torah and the time-bound social and civil legislation it contained for an ancient nation in a barbaric world.

Third, when people talk about how they are “Torah-observant” or say that they “keep the commandments,” they mean only a handful of them. What they are really talking about is the observances given to Israel which the church has not made part of its practice: Sabbath, dietary law, circumcision on the eighth day, tassels on one’s garment, and festivals. There is no Temple anymore, so the laws about offerings and giving the tithe to the priests cannot really apply. But these few commandments that differentiate Israel from the nations — which can be referred to as the sign commandments, since they are signs of Israel’s uniqueness — are a cause for controversy. It may help (or maybe not) to point out that the Sabbath is specifically said to be such a sign: “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations” (Exod 31:13). When God said this, it is clear the “you” was Israel, and Israel’s generations are still very much alive today.

Fourth, it is possible — and I try to get people to see this — that what is holy and required for one person is not holy and required of all people. One person — a priest in Israel — may not be able to attend a burial or walk in a graveyard. If the whole world follows the “one law” principle, none of our dead will ever be buried. One person — someone under a Nazirite vow — must avoid wine and even grapes and raisins. If the all-commandments-apply-universally notion is followed, well, we will all miss out on some great Cabernet and the joy of raisins in our oatmeal. Likewise, it is possible that Sabbath is a holy sign of Jewishness (just like Exodus says) and that it is not holy for Gentiles. It may be that Israel’s diet was restricted and this marked them as a different people in the ancient world, but that there is no reason why pork is inherently unclean — just as Genesis 9:3 suggests.

Fifth, it is fairly easy to see — but clever and specious arguments are used to avoid seeing what is obvious — that the apostles believed Jews in Messiah should keep all the commandments but that the Gentiles did not need to “keep the law of Moses.” They did not mean by this that Gentiles in Messiah were free to steal and murder. “Law of Moses” means the covenant stipulations from Sinai as a total system. It is clear in reading Paul that he taught his Gentile adherents they were not bound by diets and days and the use of flint knives to remove a foreskin. To many people, this makes Paul seem problematic, anti-Torah. Did it occur to anyone he was being a good Jew and interpreting Torah according to its true sense?

Sixth, it is also fairly easy to see that the church went too far in distancing itself from Torah and the Jewish people. Christian theologians regularly write about this and recovering the Jewishness of Christianity is standard form today in many circles. Yes, plenty of Christians remain oblivious to what the theologians and historians within Christianity are saying about Jewish roots, but the church has definitely turned a corner. It is possible now to argue that Christians practice a form of Judaism and to point this out entirely from Christian thinkers and scholars.

Seventh, it is often overlooked that Christians keep most of what is in Torah, at least what I call the ideals of Torah. Love God and neighbor is the ideal center of Torah. It is expressed in ways we treat the powerless, honor one another, serve those in need, form community, and repair the world. Christians have always been very involved in love and service and good works.

Eighth and finally, there is a middle way for people who want to keep some of Israel’s Torah without those same people denying Israel’s unique relationship to God. It is not necessary to say, “I am grafted into Israel’s tree and so I am virtually an Israelite now.” It is not necessary to say, “All the commandments are holy for everyone and there are no distinctions.” It is possible instead to adopt the philosophy of one of the earliest writings of the Yeshua-movement, the Didache (pronounced deed-ah-KHAY). The Didache came out of the first century Messianic Jewish movement and a few decades after Paul died, the Didache argued that Gentiles could keep Torah. It is possible to see that in Paul’s time this could have been dangerous, it could have rendered Messiah null and void. But after many Gentiles came in, it was possible some of them would want to live close to Jewish communities and worship with them.

So in the Didache, Gentiles were encouraged to “keep as much Torah as they are able” and to live in fellowship with Jewish disciples. The audience of the Didache, then, were Messianic Gentiles — as we often call people today who are in Messianic congregations or, even if not members of a Messianic congregation, live a Messianic Jewish lifestyle and maintain friendships with Messianic Jews. And the Didache does not encourage these Gentiles to simply act as if they are Jewish. Some distinctions remain.

So, for example, in Messianic Judaism today, Gentiles have a welcome place. The best practices of Torah will include making distinctions without discrimination. It is possible to distinguish and not discriminate.

And it is not necessary that Gentiles who choose this middle way should claim that all Christians must do the same. Living as a “Messianic Gentile” (or just as a “Messianic”) does not make a person holier. It is one way and God has many ways for people. The most important commandments are not Sabbath and dietary law anyway. To over-exalt these is to practice a form of cheap self-righteousness.

Jewishness is not a privilege. It is a responsibility. Jewishness is not a status of higher blessing. It is a calling to be a distinguishable people and to pass on that identity to children and children’s children forever. Gentiles who love the Torah should not try to erase Jewish distinction, to render Jewishness inert, to say all Messiah-followers are essentially Jews.

It does matter whose commandments they are. And the ideals of Torah apply to everyone even if some of the specifics are about Israel’s peoplehood. One law for everyone fails to read Torah according to its own distinctions. Being grafted in is a way of explaining how Gentiles come into the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, one given long before Sinai and which included Gentiles from the beginning (Gen 12:1-3). God did not ever say, “I now take the commandments given to Israel and make them apply to all of Messiah’s people.” But Paul did show his Gentile adherents how they could derive from the Torah what was required of them. And like Abraham (Gen 26:5), it is possible to keep all of God’s statutes without having a specific law-code.

The Torah is not one law for everyone. But neither do we have to forbid people from keeping it. There is a middle way.

What do you think?


About the author

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  1. Dr. Stefano Giliberti

    1)In Acts 21:17-26 the apostles – after the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29) – suggested Paul to join four men in their purification rites, in order to show that Paul himself was living in obedience to the law of Moses. It is not circumcision in itself which was not compelling, but circumcision as a means of salvation: Paul circumcised Timothy some time later the Council (Acts 16:3).
    2)Dietary law (Leviticus 11) is based on the distinction between the clean and the unclean, a distinction which was in force long before Sinai (Genesis 7:1-3).
    3)The holiness of Sabbath was established long before Sinai, at the very beginning of human history, immediately after the end of the Lord’s creation work (Genesis 2:1-3). Furthermore, Sabbath keeping would have been compelling for all believers after Jesus resurrection (“Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath”: Matthew 24:20). Anyway, the Sabbath will be kept by all mankind on the new earth that the Lord will make, i.e. in the new creation (Isaiah 66:22-23). The Sabbath is the center of “the ideals of Torah” (“love God, and neighbor as oneself”), as expressed in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5: 6-21) written by the Lord Himself (Exodus 31: 18). The Sabbath keeping is binding for all foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord (Isaiah 56:3-7). The church went really too far in changing what the Lord Himself had written, arbitrarily eliminating the 2nd commandment as well as the keeping of Sabbath (4th commandment) – by replacing it with the keeping of Sunday – and dividing in two the 10th commandment…
    4)Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, i.e. not all who are Abraham’s descendants (natural children) are Abraham’s offspring (Abraham’s children) – and thus the Lord’s children – but only those who have the same faith of Abraham (Romans 4:16; 9: 6-9). All Israel will be saved: Israel according to the flesh and Israel according to the faith (Romans 11, in particular Romans 11: 25-27).

    1. Cathy Arvin

      Dr. Stefano,
      Thank you so much for your response. You said it eloquently!!
      I have been looking at the heart of the believer (how can we tell if it is circumcised? Yeshua said it best, “If you Love Me, keep my commandments!” In Torah the Lord says that He blesses those who Love Him and Keep His Commandments!
      Thanks again! Great explanation.

      1. Dr. Stefano Giliberti

        Dear Cathy,

        thank you very much for your appreciation!
        It is possible to establish the following equation of true Love, which in a conflictual context like ours sounds:
        aiming at establishing the harmony, as expressed by the equation of love in a harmonious context, i.e.:


    2. Brad Thompson

      The idea of having a moral code from an All Powerful God that is greater than us has been around since the beginning; before “The Exodus.” In the 2nd Temple Period Isreal turned inward and created a fence around God’s Law to ensure Isreal would keep God’s Law; all understandable. However, God’s Moral Law, I believe, applies to all people.

    3. Randy Sandford

      When Yeshua spoke of keeping “My commandments” He was referring to the moral aspect of the Torah. He never appended the ceremonial parts of the Law as binding or as part of the Gospel of the Kingdom only as a sign to the Pharisees.

  2. Cathy Arvin

    Matthew 7:21 – He who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. Fruit is manifestation of the Spirit. If you cannot tell or are not sure and the person professes to be in Messiah, teach Him the Truth (Torah) as Messiah and the apostles taught Torah. Don’t think to much, remember we enter the kingdom as little children. It is simple

  3. gustavo vargas angel

    You have reason, we must walk in truth, but no as is teached in these days, but as Moses wrote and Jesus explained: According the idea of the Lord of the Armies, in this way, you shall do the right to HIS EYES and your soul will be granted in heavens, praising and serving HIM for ever and ever. (At least, that is my belief). Shalom ¡

  4. Cathy Arvin

    I would suggest teaching Torah to all who claim to be in Messiah, because those who are, they are citizens of Israel Eph 2. You will know them by their fruits, is what we are told. The Spirit and G-d will determine who is and who isn’t one who belongs, that is not our job, that is G-d’s job. Ours is to walk as He walked, in Truth (Torah). Shalom

    1. Daniel

      Shalom Cathy,

      I’m confused. Do you know who is in Messiah (by their fruits), or do you not know who is in Messiah (that’s God’s job)? Which is it? Doesn’t walking as Christ walked mean, among other things, that we should bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things? See 1 Corinthians 13:7. Grace to you.


  5. gustavo vargas angel

    Cathy Arvin, shalom¡
    Please, I am so moron as to understand your last phrase”Those who are not in Messiah…”so, I ask an enlightment from you, may be I can understand and help(but, repeat, help me before). Best for you.

  6. Cathy Arvin

    Who is a gentile once they come into faith in the Messiah? (Eph. 2) No longer Jew or Greek, all now one Israel (Gal 3:28). Acts” for how new converts need to behave so they can fellowship with the saints, they will learn the rest as Moses is taught every Sabbath. Those who are not in Messiah who do not sojourn among the righteous aren’t talked to.

    1. Daniel

      Shalom Cathy,

      How do you truly know if someone is or is not in Messiah? Many people profess faith in Jesus Christ. How do you know who is and isn’t Christian. “The wind blows where it wants, and you hear the sound thereof, but can not tell from where it comes, and where it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8. Shalom.

  7. gustavo vargas angel

    Bill and Ian: Respectfully, I come to “put my spoon in your soup”: I think both of you should be looking for the Holy Spirit of the Lord coming to your souls and not be arguing about a law more or a law less, that were made by men trying to get God to the measure of each one, and not trying to get the measure who the Lord is wishing from us. Shalom

  8. gustavo vargas angel

    Ramon Antonio,
    I realize that my responses were not very kind for you, please, forgive me if I offended you in any way; sorrowfully, I did not can delete the wrote once published. Peace with you.

  9. Bill Gaffney


    The four rules are the Noahide Covenant. This is from the Council of Jerusalem where the argument started with some legalists trying to have the gentiles circumcise themselves.

    Verse 29 reemphasizes the Noahide Covenant.

  10. Ian

    In Galatians one especially needs to determine what law is Paul referring to in this epistle. Is it the Torah or is it works of legalism. Because the Torah (God’s Instructions for life) is written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit and we obey it out of love for God as we are already saved. However, works of legalism are when we strive for salvation