The Law: letter and spirit

Religion versus freedom

by Joel Ramshaw (2021)

One of the earliest problems in Christianity was that of how to integrate the radically different Jewish and Gentile (non-Jew) cultures which existed at the time into one faith. It was easy enough for Jewish believers to live in a harmonious community of those who accepted Christ as their promised Messiah. These Jewish believers were already circumcised since birth and had a culture which honoured the sabbath day and celebrated the feasts of God year-round. This was taken as obvious and there was not any room for conflict. Everything changed as Paul began to preach the gospel to Gentiles and create converts to Christ who knew nothing of the Jewish cultural traditions and Old Testament practices. Paul had taught these believers that they could accept Christ and receive salvation without needing to become circumcised or keep the sabbath. This was to allow Greek believers the opportunity to worship God without having unnecessary burdens and religious obligations from Judaism loaded onto their lives.

The question of what all changed with Christ’s life and death was in fact incredibly controversial. Some believed that accepting Christ and repenting from the life of sin was not enough to save a person. These “Judaizers” taught that strict obedience to the Torah, and its rituals and regulations were a requirement to be truly saved. After Paul had left an area, Jewish leaders would often try to sneak in and change his doctrine into one of strict obedience to Old Testament laws. The region of Galatia was one such place. The apostle uses passionate language such as “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you” (Gal 3:1), in his plea for them to return to the simplicity of faith in Christ. Why was all of this such a big deal? A works-based salvation mindset demands perfectionism in a person’s life, which can then be “presented” to God. This is repulsive to the Father. What God truly wants is for us to come to Him as we are, looking to Him for grace and help with a genuine repentant heart, even when our actions are not yet properly in line with His will. Also, Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament law. He is our sabbath rest. He is the sacrifice for our sins. Christ constantly left clues about how the religious requirement of sabbath-keeping was passing away. He went out of His way to perform healing miracles on the sabbath day, as if purposefully trolling the stubborn religious leaders, the Pharisees, who were horrified by this. They were professionals at keeping the strict religious laws and their livelihood and societal status was being threatened by Christ’s teachings of grace and freedom, much as many centuries later scribes which copied scrolls by hand had their livelihoods threatened and were furious by the emergence of the printing press which could perform a year’s worth of hand-copying work in less than one day.

Paul began to interpret Old Testament laws symbolically. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” but specifies that the true meaning of this passage was never about a farmer’s oxen, but was actually given for the spiritual principle that a labourer deserves fair pay:

1 Corinthians 9:9-11 “For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?”

Paul’s revelation was that in the new covenant, we no longer need to follow strict adherence to the letter of the old religious law. And yet the law is still useful when read in the spirit and not the letter. We can discover great spiritual principles to guide our lives by reading the Torah and its laws. Let us take another example:

Deuteronomy 22:8“When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it.”

Nations in warmer climates tend to have flat roofs which also function as additional living and recreational space which people can easily walk on. There is no need for the angled roof to allow snow to slide off of, such as is necessary in our northern climates. The “parapet” was a type of short wall which would come part ways up to prevent a person from falling over. Now in a northern climate, it would be ridiculous to build such a structure on a slanted roof which is rarely walked upon. Does this mean we can ignore the passage and it has no meaning to us? Absolutely not! We must still derive the spiritual principle, reading for the spirit of the law and not the letter. God wanted a structure built to prevent people from falling off a roof. We can then take this principle and reason that God would want us to build guardrails on any high place where there is a risk of a fall. Also, that taking care of safety is a big deal to God and anything done to improve safety and prevent unnecessary hazard to humans will be pleasing to God. Thus rather than living in bondage to following the letter of the law to foolish lengths, we can please God by following the spirit of His law in freedom.

2 Cor 3:6 “….as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.”

So how did Paul learn to come out of the bondage of the law? Paul had a miraculous encounter with Christ while on the road to Damascus for the express purpose of persecuting the Christians in that city. The vision of Christ was so powerful, that it left Paul blinded and he immediately went into repentance and fasting for three days. After receiving prayer by a fellow believer, scripture states:

Acts 9:18 “Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.”

Note that it was “scales” blocking Paul’s sight. Now the universal symbol for the law is the scales of justice. What the scales are actually referring to is the LAW which had been blinding Paul from seeing the truth of freedom in Christ. Paul had been the most devoted Pharisee, top of his class so to speak, and his entire life was dedicated to the Torah law. At the point of realization, he chose to abandon all of this religious knowledge as “dung” (poop), so that he could grasp onto the grace and freedom in Christ. Philippians 3:8 “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,”

Paul’s conversion and scales removed from his eyes also fulfilled the parable of the beam and mote:

Matthew 7:2-3, “2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”


The tree of the “knowledge of good and evil”

Romans 7:9-11 I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.

In Romans 7 as Paul describes his personal struggle and constant defeat in trying to reach God through keeping the law, this needs to be read in conjunction with Genesis 3 and the story of Eden. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the LAW. The law gives us knowledge of good and evil and yet it also brings death, the penalty for failure. This is why God said “in the day you eat of it you will surely die.” Sin is the serpent which hangs about the law and as Paul said “deceived me and by it killed me.” The word “deceived” is key here, as it brings us back to Genesis and how the serpent deceived Eve by promising the tree would allow her to reach divinity, when in truth it only brought separation from God. It should be noted that the Hebrew word “Adam” is also the word used to describe “man” in general. The story of Eden is a spiritual metaphor for mankind’s attempt to reach God through the law rather than through grace.

2 Cor 11:24 “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.”

To interpret the 40 stripes save one given to Paul by the Jews, we need to understand the Old Testament has 39 books (with the “save one” being the book of Enoch which was kept out and saved for the end-times generation). Thus the 39 stripes Paul received from the Jews, was his strict upbringing in the Old Testament law and the mindset of strict adherence to the letter rather than spirit. This resulted in a life of constant defeat when trying to access God. On another note related to this pattern, the book of Isaiah chapters 1-39 with their focus on God’s judgement and punishment represent the 39 books of the Old Testament. The next 27 chapters turn to grace and restoration, with Chapter 40 beginning with the words “Comfort” and these 27 chapters represent the 27 books of the New Testament and the grace signified. Thus Isaiah is a mini-Bible within itself, the “seed within itself” spoken of in Genesis 1:11.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The apostle Peter was originally given the promise of being a solid rock upon which Christ’s church would be founded. Looking back through history however, it is clear that Paul actually laid the vast majority of the foundation for the church, not only in theology but also in missionary activity. Paul wrote one quarter of the New Testament and conducted the majority of early Christian missionary activity with his numerous journeys to Greece and Rome. It is clear then, that something happened along the way to sidetrack Peter from his destiny, causing God to shift the promise to Paul. So what happened?

In the gospels, Peter is known for his exceptional and exuberant faith. Perhaps most famous is his faith to walk on water toward Christ. Although he did not make it all the way to Christ on the sea without doubting, he still had more faith than all of the others who hid in the boat in fear, thus he was placed over them by Christ as leader.

Fast forward many years and Peter is leading the apostles, with Christ being ascended to heaven. One day while praying Peter received an important vision:

Acts 10:9-29

The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”

14 But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”

15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” 16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.

17 Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. 18 And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there.

19 While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. 20 Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.”

Acts 10:28-29

28 Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. 29 Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?”

Acts 10:44-48

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.

Then Peter answered, 47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

Although being full of faith as a disciple, Peter evidently struggled with faith later as an apostle. The vision had to be repeated to him three times and yet even after this extensive confirmation, his reaction seems to be one of disbelief, and the Spirit had to remind him to be “doubting nothing.” This vision is key because the Torah had strict dietary laws and the Jews were not permitted to eat certain food such as pork or shellfish. Peter later recognized there was a dual-meaning to the vision, and the “unclean beasts” referred not only to animals, but also to the non-Jews who were hungry for the truth. These could also share in salvation equally with the Jews.

So that seems like a good start, but what happened? Evidentially, it seems Peter began to return to doubting his own revelation from God and putting too much weight on the opinions of others, perhaps trying to maintain a consensus. This avoidance of conflict was only allowing the problem to grow however, as by failing to preach strongly against the Judaizers, their dark influence was allowed to continuously grow, whereas it may otherwise have been cut off early; nipped in the bud so to speak. This led to a major confrontation where Paul rebuked Peter for having turned to people-pleasing habits. Peter would normally share meals where both Jew and Gentile would eat and fellowship together, but when groups of Judaizers came to visit, Peter would separate the two groups of Christians and would not eat together with the Gentiles. This was a huge deal, because there is no supposed to be no divisions whatsoever among followers of Christ. Any division can split apart a church incredibly fast. By causing Jews and Gentiles to eat separately, Peter had been putting the unity and stability of God’s entire church at risk, simply to please certain tradition-minded upper-class Jews.

Peter was not flexible enough mentally to accept the new paradigm of Gentile non-Jew believers being included in God’s salvation plan. He was stuck in the mindset of forcing them to become Jews and adopt the Old Testament practices. This was crippling the gospel from spreading across the world, in particular the requirement of circumcision as many of the Gentiles preached to were not so eager to have their willy sliced. The thing was, Peter had been shown a vision by God to the effect that the non-Jewish nations were to be accepted in God’s plan. Peter accepted the vision at first and obeyed its principles, but later seems to have doubted and walked back from this commitment, returning to the old ways of religious bondage rather than freedom in Christ.

Galatians 2:11-16 Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12 for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.

14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? 15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”

Paul illustrates the difference in his own practice and the importance of standing boldly against the Judaizers without compromise “to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour.”

Galatians 2: 3-5 “Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.”


As bold as Peter had once been, it is clear that people-pleasing tendencies had crept in, causing him to become doubting and fearful, losing his former strength. Paul on the other hand, would not mince words about the false teachers, but would release the fiery truth of God against their false practices. A building foundation cannot be shaky, shifting, or accommodating in any way. The foundation must be absolutely stable no matter what. In the end, Paul demonstrated this unwavering commitment to defending God’s truth fully, while Peter become sidetracked by human opinion. As a result, the promise of being a rock on which God’s church would be built was moved from Peter and given to the apostle Paul.

Modern application

What are some ways in which we fall into the trap of exalting the letter of the law and not the spirit, putting unnecessarily burdens onto the faith which do not belong? There are many examples, but one clear instance is in the “sacred names” teaching. This is where people teach that you cannot use the name Jesus but must use the Hebrew form Yeshua. Or that you must use the name Yahweh when referring to the God. While it is good to know the original forms of these names, trying to use them constantly in prayer or life will not help a person get any closer to God, but rather acts only as a cause for division. There are many names for God, each one signifying a different attribute. John calls Christ “The Word” and God “the Father.” Trying to use the names Yeshua and Yahweh in place of English equivalents will not bring a person any closer to God.

There are also some who are insistent on Saturday or Sunday as being the “Sabbath,” with the idea that it is sinful to do anything on that day. It is probably a great thing to make a habit of taking one of these as a day of rest, but the problem comes when we become demanding, insistent, and judgmental towards others who disagree with us on the topic. If you feel led to take one of these days as a day of rest, that is between you and God. It is not longer a requirement for all believers.

Colossians 2:16-17 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.

Lastly, we come to dietary restrictions. There will be many health benefits to eating the Old Testament diet, avoiding pork and shellfish. The problem is when we try to turn it into a spiritual doctrine and begin judging others who chose not to follow this. Whether or not you eat pork or abstain, will not affect how close you can come to God; it only affects the health of the body.

Romans 14:1-6 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.


Support Gateways of His Light by sharing this page on social media

Main Page