MARTYR IN A PILLORY, LOOKING AT CAMERA- ©mammamaart | iStockPhoto.comWhen we are asked to do something or to believe something in regards to Scripture, we should always be like the Bereans and test everything against Scripture itself (Acts 17:11), the whole of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  If a person feels "led by the spirit" to speak, behave, or believe a certain way, they should test that spirit (1 John 4:1) to determine if it is in agreement with Scripture or not.

Let's journey together through Scripture and see what it says about the matter of being "under the law".  As we go, may we say, believe, and do what is right, be merciful in our speech and actions, and walk humbly with the Lord (Micah 6:8).

This article addresses every instance of the phrase "under the law" or "under law" in the Bible.  If you know of a verse we have not included and think it should be, please contact us!

Scriptural quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. Bolded text or other emphases in the Scriptural references are the author's.


Context and Intent

It is critical that we, the 21st-century readers of Scripture, conform our understanding of the words of Scripture to the intent of the Author and the original meaning set forth by those who were Divinely inspired and penned the Words we now read and treasure.  We should not import our 21st-century understanding or issues into the text but should be informed by the text of Scripture itself as well as the historical context of when it was delivered.

Words can change meaning over time.

For example:
If a mayor of a major American city in 1908 were to announce that he was "gay" many would not think twice about their mayor declaring that he was "happy".  If a mayor of a major American city in 1998 (a mere 90years later) were to announce that he was "gay" his announcement would be met with some measure of uproar at his declaration that he was a homosexual.  Words can change meaning over time.

The same word is used in both instances, but its use conveys two completely different messages.  Many words do not undergo the severe change that the word "gay" has undergone, but we must be careful to consider that the meaning and emotional charge of an English word chosen by an interpreter may or may not accurately reflect the intent of the Author.

An example from Scripture may be more illustrative:

Ephesians 5:22 states "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord."

In today's "enlightened" age many women might take offense at being ordered to be "subject" to any person including their own husband! It brings to their mind subjugation and oppression.  However, in the day and age when Paul wrote this verse, it was likely received with great relief to believing wives everywhere. They were only to be subject to their husbands...not every man they encountered. It also removed any hint of a burden of responsibility on them that should otherwise rest upon their husband. In our time many are offended by this passage. In the time when this command was given believing women would have likely been thankful and blessed by it.

As we examine the passages below, consider the context of the verses, the intent of the writer, and the audience's understanding of the terms "the law" and "under the law" in the time and place when it was written.

As we search Scripture for all the instances where "under the law" or "under law" are used, we find that the phrase is only used in little less than a dozen verses.  Every time this phrase is found, it is written by the Apostle Paul.  He coined the term so we must seek to understand what he meant each time he used it.

Let's examine the passages where these phrases are found.


Romans 2

For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; (Romans 2:12)


When we examine the Greek words behind the English translation "under the law", we find ἐν νόμῳ (en nomo).  The Greek word translated into English as "under" is the Greek word en.  This Greek word is the origin of our English word "in"1 and is most often translated in Scripture as "in" or "within".  Paul is contrasting those "without" the Law to those "within" the Law.

In both Greek and English, definite articles allow writers to identify a particular thing.  For example, I would be very specific if I tell my wife I am taking "the van."  It would be clear to her that I mean our minivan.  If I say I am taking "a van" I am not being specific.  Is it ours, a rental, our neighbors?  Which van?

The definite article in English is the word "the" (indefinite articles are "a" or "an").  In Greek, the definite article is ho, and it is absent from Romans 2:12, so the literal reading of this verse is not "under the law" but rather "under law".


Great, we now have an accurate translation but what is its meaning?  Let's first consider Paul's purpose in writing to the believers in Rome.  He's been planning to go to Rome after he completes his work elsewhere.  In preparation for his visit, Paul writes to the believers in Rome to give them a sample of his teaching of Scripture.  This letter reads more like a theological treatise than the paternal voice of authority and correction we see in many of his other letters. Paul is laying out his theology to the (predominantly Gentile) believers in Rome. It is in this context that we should examine Romans.

In chapter 1, after the introductions and greetings, Paul lays out a declaration of the sinfulness of all humanity. In chapter 2 he sets forth the unambiguous assertion that all mankind will be subject to G-d's righteous judgment and focuses on those who are "without Law" (the Mosaic Law, the Sinai Covenant): the Gentiles.

Paul's point in this passage is obvious: everyone will be subject to G-d's righteous judgment.  Some Gentiles might have argued, "I am not a member of the Sinai covenant, so I could not have violated it."  Paul eliminates that line of reasoning with his statement that everyone is a sinner (with or without the Law) and, as such, everyone will stand in judgment before G-d.

Paul's choice of words here is interesting and worth a second look: those apart from the Law will "perish"; those who sin under the law "will be judged" by it... but do not perish?  That is not explicitly stated in the text but could be implied by the way Paul phrases his sentence.  We cannot be dogmatic on this point, but it is interesting to ponder.


Romans 3

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to G-d; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)


In this passage, Paul again uses the Greek word en so we can also understand this instance of "under the law" to also literally mean "within law" and refer to the participants of the Sinai Covenant: Israel.  Paul declares the Gentiles are guilty "without law" in the first two chapters of Romans and now he is turning his focus to the Israelites.  Although there is great blessing in being a Jew (Romans 3:1-3), Paul states "by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified".

David Stern paraphrases this verse in his "Jewish New Testament Commentary":

"Whatever the Torah says, it says to those living within the framework of the Torah and thus the whole world be shown, proven by G-d's own words, to deserve G-d's adverse judgment."  There is also this implicit kal v'chomer (light and heavy...similar to an a fortiori) argument: if Jews, who do have the Torah to guide them, turn out to be guilty before G-d, how much more will Gentiles, who do not have this guidance, also prove worthy of punishment.2


Just like Romans 2, the English phrase "under the law" in this Romans 3 verse is used to identify those who do have the Torah (the Jews) as compared to those who do not have the Torah (the Gentiles).


Romans 6

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! (Romans 6:14-15)


The Greek words for this instance of "under law" are ὑπὸ νόμον (hypo nomon).  Here Paul uses the Greek word hupo which unambiguously means "under" or "beneath".  This passage differs from our previous "under the law" references in that it contains hupo instead of en. This passage also lacks the definite article "the" and is more accurately translated as "under law".

Discussion regarding this passage fits well with the 1 Corinthians 9 notes (below) and so we will address it there.

1 Corinthians 9

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of G-d but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)


To understand this passage with any clarity, we have to unravel several "21st-century mindset" knots. Let's begin with verse 19.


Verse 19

The NASB translates the Greek word δουλόω (doulos) in this verse as "slave". To 21st-century Americans, the word "slave" may bring to mind the bitterly cruel oppression of black slavery in early American history. Paul is not referring to that kind of slavery. Doulos means "a bond-servant": someone who owes a debt and is bonded to serve another person to pay off that debt.  Paul declares that he owes no debt or allegiance to any man [he is "free from all men"], but he has made himself a bond-servant to everyone so he may win more to Messiah.

What is the debt Paul has bound himself to repay?  It is the debt he owes to G-d for the grace G-d has shown to him.

Verses 20-22

In verses 20 through 22 Paul describes his bond-service to four groups:

  • The Jews
  • Those "under the law"
  • Those "without the law"
  • The weak


In verse 20 Paul writes "to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law".  Each instance of "under the law" contains the Greek hypo nomos (without the definite article) which has a literal meaning of "under law."

Although he refers to those who are "under law", Paul cannot mean "the Jews" because he identifies them separately. What does Paul mean by this phrase?  Why does he distinguish between "the Jews" and "those under law"?

Before we answer that question, first consider this:

If a person is caught breaking the law (stealing for example), then the law places him in bondage: first to keep him in custody until he can stand trial and again afterward as punishment and correction if he is guilty. The law cannot set a guilty person free.  It is impossible for a good and righteous law that is properly applied to do so.  The Law of Moses cannot set sinners free; it can only place them in bondage (take them into custody), define their guilt, and their punishment.  Paul points out in Romans 6:23 that the wages [our earned penalty] of sin is death.

The "law of sin and death" as Paul describes it in Romans 8:2 is this: if you sin, you die.

In this context, we find a surprising and unexpected dependency: without the Law of Moses, Messiah has no value.

If we discard the Law of Moses, then there is nothing to put humanity into bondage when we sin.  If we are not in bondage, then we have no need for Messiah to set us free.

Fortunately, this is not the case.  As Paul puts it in Romans 5:20, "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase..."

Alternately, without the Messiah, we have no hope because we are all kept in bondage under the Law.  As Paul puts it in Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of G-d."  The Law contains no provision to set the guilty free. 

Without the Messiah, we have no hope of redemption.

Please note that bondage does result from an obligation to obey the Law.  Bondage results because we do not obey it.  We have transgressed the Law, so it rightfully places us in bondage.  Only in Messiah do we have any hope of being set free from the penalty that is legally and justly ours. "The Law was given by Moshe; grace and truth came through Messiah Yeshua" (John 1:17).  Both the Law and Messiah are required to present a complete picture of salvation.

Paul most clearly expresses this in Galatians 3.

Now that no one is justified by the Law before G-d is evident; for, "THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH." [quoting Habbakuk 2:4] However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, "HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM." [quoting Leviticus 18:5] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE"-- [Deuteronomy 21:23] in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:11-14)


Messiah redeemed us from the curse [penalty, consequence] of the Law but not from the rule of Law.  In Romans 6:14-15 Paul twice uses the expression "not under law but under grace".  In these passages Paul contrasts being "in bondage because of sin" [violation of the Law] and being "freed by something outside the law" [G-d's grace through the Messiah Yeshua].

Verse 21

" those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of G-d but lawful in Christ..." (1 Corinthians 9:21)

In Acts 21 (Acts 21:23-24, 22:3), false charges are made against Paul claiming he has forsaken the Law of Moses.  To refute these accusations, James and the elders in Jerusalem encourage Paul to demonstrate that he "walks orderly, keeping the law" (verse 24).

These false accusations seem to have haunted Paul wherever he went.  In 1 Corinthians 9:21, Paul states that he is not without the Law of G-d [μὴ ὢν ἄνομος θεῷ (me on anomos Theoi)] but is lawful in Messiah [ἀλλ᾽ ἔννομος Χριστῷ (all ennomos Christoi).  Ennomos means "lawful" or "legal".]  To avoid any hint that he has forsaken the Law of Moses, Paul declares that He acts in obedience to the Law of G-d—not according to the dictates of some human authority—but according to Messiah.  At the beginning of 1 Corinthians chapter 9, Paul declares his freedom from human authorities.

Some have suggested that the "Law of G-d" Paul mentions here is something other than the "Law of Moses"; however, we must consider the source.  To a Jewish man at any time (the first century or the twenty-first century) the "Law of G-d" is the "Law of Moses".  Nothing else even comes close in significance.

Paul points out that, although he engages with those who are "without law," he, himself is not without the "Law of G-d" (which would negate a need for Messiah) but is lawful in Messiah.  To Jewish minds like Paul's, Moshe is the first redeemer, the greatest of the prophets of old, the Law-giver.  To Jews, Messiah is the second redeemer, "a prophet like unto Moses," the greatest prophet ever, and the Law-upholder.

Let's summarize what we have so far from 1 Corinthians:

  • Paul lists four groups and distinguishes between "the Jews" and those "under the law"
  • Being "under the law" means transgression of the Law brings some "under" the authority and condemnation of the Law
  • Paul identifies himself as being in the Law of G-d (the Torah) and also within the Law of Messiah


Why does Paul separate between "the Jews" and "those under law"?

"The Jews" of which Paul speaks are Jews who already have a faith-filled relationship with G-d but do not yet know Yeshua as the Messiah.  Just as Avraham was credited by G-d with righteousness as a result of faith there were Jews of Paul's day who also had a proper relationship with G-d but did not know Yeshua as the Messiah:

  •  Yosef, Yeshua's adoptive father, is described as righteous before Yeshua's birth (Matthew 1:19)
  • Yeshua says that G-d sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 9:13)
  • Yeshua says that He has not come to call the righteous (Matthew 9:13)
  • Yeshua says that many righteous men desired to see Messiah's day (Matthew 13:17)
  • Herod was afraid of Yochanan because he was a righteous (and holy) man (Matthew 6:20)
  • Zacharias and Elizabeth (Yochanan's parents) are both described as "righteous in the sight of G-d, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord" (Luke 1:6)
  • Simeon, who was at the Temple when Yeshua and his parents came for the sacrifice of the firstborn, is described as "righteous and devout" (Luke 2:25)
  • Yeshua says there "will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:7)
  • Yosef of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin council, is described as a "good and righteous man" (Luke 23:50)


Paul separates this faith-filled group of Jews from those Jews who are under the bondage that results from their transgression of the Law and who are acting without faith. The next group Paul lists are those without the Law [the Gentiles]. We can see Paul is setting forth a logical sequence of groups:

  • Jews: Jews who know G-d and have a faith-filled relationship with Him but do not yet know that Yeshua as the Messiah
  • Those under the Law: Those to whom the Law was given [Jews] but who do not follow it in faith... those still under the condemnation of the Law because of their transgression
  • Those who do not have the Law: The Gentiles
  • Those who are weak: I believe this refers to those who are so downtrodden that they do not even lift their eyes above the misery of their lives to consider G-d, His Laws, or His salvation. David Stern in his Jewish New Testament Commentary refers to "the weak" as those who are acting with "weak" scrupulosity.3


Verse 22: All Things to All Men

Many today interpret Paul's statement in verse 22 "I have become all things to all men" to mean that he was acting one way with one group and another way with a different group to deceive them into thinking he was like them.  That way he could share the Gospel message without objection. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Paul rebukes Peter for the hypocrisy of acting that way (Galatians 2:11-16) and defends himself against false accusations claiming he is doing that very thing (2 Corinthians 4, 10-12).

David Stern's Jewish Commentary on the New Testament again provides excellent insight into this passage.

"More specifically, modern critics take this passage to mean that Paul observed the Torah when he was with Jews but dispensed with it when with Gentiles. And not only those with an axe to grind said this of him: well-meaning Christian commentators... often appear to have an ethical blind spot which Paul's critics can exploit. [...] Their misunderstanding of these verses forces them into a cul-de-sac from which their only escape is to appear to justify, or at least overlook, dissembling [i.e. lying] for the sake of the Kingdom of G-d. For they give his circumcising Timothy (Acts 16:1-3) as an example of "becoming as a Jew to the Jews" and "as under law to those under law"; and they cite his eating with Gentiles, whose food, presumably, was non-kosher (Galatians 2:11-14), to illustrate his "becoming as apart from law to those apart from law." They reveal thereby three misinterpretations:

   1. They think "becoming as" means "behaving like."
   2. They think "under law" means "expected to obey the Torah" and as a consequence equate "the Jews" with "those under law".
   3. They seem unaware of the fact that being Jewish is not something one can put on or off at will.4


Paul cannot "become as a Jew" since he already is a Jew.

Stern goes on to point out that Paul never considered himself to be an "ex-Jew".  In fact, Paul often affirms just the opposite (e.g. Acts 21:20-24 and Acts 23:6).  If Paul had been duplicitous and behaved like a Gentile among the Gentiles, then the Jewish community would have shunned him as an apostate. If he had acted like a Jew among the Jews then the Gentiles would have dismissed him as a hypocrite when he acted otherwise among them.  Such behavior would have destroyed his authority and credibility with both groups.

Just as my ancestors were English, Irish, and Czech and I will have that heritage and genealogy all of my life, so, too, Paul was a Jew all his life.  With this in mind, we can eliminate another possible misunderstanding of the phrase "become as."  Paul does not mean that he becomes something that he previously was not (e.g. previously I was not a baseball player, but I became a baseball player to reach them for Messiah).  Paul cannot "become as a Jew" since he already is a Jew. The correct meaning must rest in another direction. Stern again provides excellent insight:

No, Paul did not play charades in "becoming as" the people around him. What he did was empathize with them. He put himself in their position. ...He entered into their needs and aspirations, their strengths and weaknesses, their opportunities and constraints, their ideas and feelings and values - in short, to use the current vernacular, he tried to understand "where they were coming from". ... But he never condescended by imitating or feigning ungodliness or legalistic compulsiveness or "weak" scrupulosity, for the degree to which he would change his behavior to make them feel at ease was always constrained by his living "within the framework of Torah as upheld by the Messiah" (v. 21). 5


The Young's Literal Translation of our 1 Corinthians passage provides some clarity on Stern's phrasing "within the framework of Torah as upheld by the Messiah":

and I became to the Jews as a Jew, that Jews I might gain; to those under law as under law, that those under law I might gain; to those without law, as without law--(not being without law to G-d, but within law to Christ) --that I might gain those without law; (1 Corinthians 9:19-21)


All of this is written to dispel any misperceptions about Paul's behavior in the context of these "under law" verses and Paul's use of the phrase "all things to all men".


Galatians 3

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. (Galatians 3:23)


Here again, Paul uses the Greek word hupo which is accurately translated as "under". This passage is also missing the definite article "the" and is also more accurately translated as "under law".

Background on Galatians

The entire letter to the Galatians is written to address the "Judaizers" who had crept into the congregation and attempted to "Judaized" the believers there.  The Judaizers were teaching the believers that they had to a) become Jewish through rabbinic conversion and b) follow the teachings of the Torah in order to be saved.  Paul rails against this idea throughout his letter to the Galatians.  He gives us a prime example earlier in Galatians 3:

You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3)


We should not assume the concerns or issues we bring to the text are the same problem that Paul is addressing.

To understand the book of Galatians we must understand the problem Paul is writing to correct, or we may mistake the target of his ire and zeal.  We should not assume the concerns or issues we bring to the text are the same problem that Paul is addressing.  Various Messianic commentators have likened Paul's writings to a round of the game show Jeopardy: we have the answers, we just don't know the questions.  In the case of the Galatians, Paul is challenging the teachings of the Judaizers and asking the Galatians if they began their salvation by faith and are now perfecting (or "completing") it by the flesh.  Salvation begins and ends with faith in Messiah.

He is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).  We can add nothing to it or take anything away from it because our salvation is not our work but is G-d's work in us.

Paul writes to the believers in Galatia to oppose those who try use works (specifically the rabbinic works of conversion) to merit, improve upon, or somehow keep their salvation. Paul reiterates this point in his letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of G-d; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8)


Consider the broader context of the Galatians 3:23:

Is the Law then contrary to the promises of G-d? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of G-d through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:21-27)


Our Tutor

the Law cannot impart life

Those who reject the Law of G-d point to the phrase "we are no longer under a tutor" in this passage as proof that believers are no longer required to obey the Torah.  Let's examine this passage more carefully.

First, Paul reaffirms his consistent message that the Law cannot impart life.  That's not its purpose.  It can only bring death as the penalty for our sin (verse 21).  Scripture has shut up everyone under sin.  Notice how Paul phrases the very next verse: "Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ..."

"Therefore" means "as a consequence" or "as a result of". "Therefore" begs the question: "as a consequence of what?"  We were under the penalty of the Law resulting from our sin, and the Law had authority over us. As a result of this situation, the Law has become our tutor.

Notice the "has become". It was not our tutor before, but it has become our tutor now. As our tutor, it teaches us two things:

  1. The need for a savior:
    The Law shows us G-d's absolutely righteous judgment: we have sinned and deserve death; and there is nothing in the Law that will result in our freedom.
  2. Yeshua the Messiah is that savior:
    Numerous passages in the Law are prophecies pointing to Yeshua as the Promised One.


Once we are reborn by the Spirit and come to faith in Yeshua, then the Law ceases to be our tutor exactly as Paul describes.

What is almost always left unasked is the question: "What was the purpose of the Law prior to it becoming our tutor to lead us to Messiah?"  It must have some other purpose given Paul's use of the phrase "has become".

Consider these two passages from the Torah itself:

See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my G-d commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our G-d whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today? Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your sons and your grandsons. (Deuteronomy 4:5-9)


The LORD will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your G-d and walk in His ways. (Deuteronomy 28:9)


The Torah itself tells us that its purposes are to be a witness of G-d's wisdom and righteousness and provide the standard of holy living for G-d's people Israel.

Once a person comes to faith in the Messiah Yeshua, the Law ceases to be a tutor, but its original purposes remain.


Galatians 4

But when the fullness of the time came, G-d sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)


This passage again uses the Greek word hupo (under) but is missing the definite article. Once again this verse literally means "under law".

Stern interprets this verse as "born into a culture in which legalistic perversion of the Torah was the norm".6 He states that Yeshua had no propensity to commit the sin of turning G-d's Torah of grace into a legalistic system

...nor was he “in subjection to” anything, in the sense of being oppressed in spite of himself. He willingly submitted to G-d's will that he be born as a Jew, in a Jewish society pervaded by legalism.


While we agree with Stern's general sentiment we do not think that this interpretation is consistent with the remainder of the context. Young's Literal Translation again provides additional insight here:

and when the fulness of time did come, G-d sent forth His Son, come of a woman, come under law, that those under law he may redeem, that the adoption of sons we may receive;


G-d sent forth His Son in a specific way (come of a woman, come under law) to accomplish His purposes. As Paul so eloquently puts it in Philippians 2:8:

Philippians 2:8

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.


Messiah humbled Himself by coming as one under the Law (i.e. Jewish) although He was not under the law (i.e. in custody because of transgression) but was the very Law made flesh.


A Second Verse in Galatians 4

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? (Galatians 4:21)


This passage once more uses the Greek hupo (under) and is missing the definite article ho. It is accurately translated as "under law".  Paul is speaking to those who want to reject Messiah as the source of their salvation and remain in their state "under law" by trusting in their genealogy for salvation.  He expresses his frustration with them and his desire to see Messiah formed in them:

My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you-- but I could wish to be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (Galatians 4:19-20)


Paul goes on to write about Avraham's two sons: one by the freewoman and one by the bondwoman. He even identifies that he is speaking "allegorically" (verse 24) and reiterates his consistent message that the Law, bearing children who are slaves, can only lead to bondage because of our transgression.  It is only if we are born [again] to the freewoman by the Spirit that we can be free from the consequence of our sin.


Galatians 5

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. (Galatians 5:18)


This verse contains hypo nomos (under Law) without the definite article.  Paul's point and meaning are the same as in Galatians 3:23 and Galatians 4:21: those who are led by the Spirit are no longer under the custody of the Law as a consequence of their sin.



Examining all the verses where "under the law" or "under law" are used in Scripture we find it in only seven places.  Paul is the only writer to use these words in Scripture.  A study of these passages reveals two general meanings for the phrase "under law" or "under the law". These meaning are found in the descriptions below which are a summary of the details above.

Romans 2:12: The NASB phrase "under the law" is literally "within law" and is used to refer to Jews (as opposed to Gentiles).

Romans 3:19: "under the law" is literally "within law" and is used to refer to Jews (as opposed to Gentiles).

Romans 6:14-15: "under the law" is literally "under law" referring to those who are under the authority of the Law (i.e. in custody) because of their transgression of it.

1 Corinthians 9:19-22: "under the law" is literally "under law" referring to those who are under the authority of the Law because of their transgression of it.

Galatians 3:23: "under the law" is literally "under law" referring to those who are under the authority of the Law because of their transgression of it.

Galatians 4:4-5: "under the law" is literally "under law" referring to Messiah who came as one who is under the authority of the Law because of transgression although He had not transgressed the law.

Galatians 4:21: "under the law" is literally "under law" referring to those who are under the authority of the Law because of their transgression of it.

Galatians 5:18: "under the law" is literally "under law" referring to those who are under the authority of the Law because of their transgression of it.


In every passage where Paul says believers are no longer "under the Law," he refers to those who are (or were) under the Law's authority/custody because of their transgression of the Law.  Paul never uses the expression "under the law" to suggest that believers can disregard G-d's commandments.

In these passages "under" does not mean:

  • subject to
  • in the jurisdiction of


It does mean:

  • remanded to the custody of
  • under penalty of
  • under sentence of


Under the Law: An Analogy

Sometimes when a concept is unclear, an analogy (using something that is clear and familiar) helps to clarify the message. Here is our analogy to explain "under the law":

For the sake of simplicity let's pretend that there is only a single law: "Do not speed by driving your vehicle more than the posted speed limit.  If you violate the law, then you must die."

This law seems rather harsh, but it's just an analogy. ;)

  • By nature we are all "speeders" [i.e. sinners].
  • By speeding we violate "the law".
  • The law has two parts: a rule and a penalty for violating the rule:
    • The rule is "Do not speed by driving your vehicle more than the posted speed limit."
    • The penalty is "the violator must die."
  • We all speed (i.e. sin) thus we all violate the law and so merit the punishment: death.
  • There is nothing in the law that can set us free, so we are all "under the law".  It has authority over us to place us in custody and execute us because we have violated it.
    • G-d is a righteous judge not partial to any man. The judge cannot set us free because we are guilty.
    • There is no part of the law that says "if you're really, really sorry your sentence can be commuted" or "if you do all these other good things those will cancel out the penalty for this violation of the law."

  • If we desire to be set free from the law and our just punishment then we must seek something outside or apart from the law for our salvation. As Paul puts it in Romans 3:21 "apart from the Law the righteousness of G-d has been manifested".

What is that righteousness?  It is not a "what" but a "Who": Messiah.

  • He is our Savior. He saves us from the law, not from the rule (don't speed) where there is no danger but from the penalty where there is great harm (death).
    • Now that Messiah has set us free from the law should we go on speeding (i.e. sinning)?
      Paul clearly tells us "no" in Romans 6.
    • Notice Messiah's own words towards sinners:
      • Matthew 4:17 - Repent
      • Matthew 11:20 - He denounced the cities in which most His miracles were performed because they did not repent
      • Matthew 12:41 - "The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here."
      • Luke 13:3, 5 - "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish"
      • John 8:11 (to the woman caught in adultery)- "stop sinning"
      • John 5:14 (to the man who had been ill for 38 years) - "stop sinning"

        The Gospel accounts never show Messiah teaching that now that He has come, saved us (and made Gentiles a part of Israel) that we can then run amok and disregard G-d's rules.
  • Messiah died for the sinner... for his sins.
    • In the eyes of the law before the penalty was executed there were two persons alive:
      Bob [the sinner] and Yeshua [the innocent]

    • In the eyes of the law after the sentence was executed there can only be one person alive:
      Yeshua [the innocent].

      If this is true, then Bob must have died. The required penalty of the law has been satisfied [fulfilled].

      Yet here is Bob still alive and Yeshua is also alive through His resurrection. The law might examine this situation and ask "Who then is this Bob guy? It cannot be the same Bob who just died because of his violation of the law. This must be a 'new creature' (2 Corinthians 5:17) who is without sin."

      Bob's life (with all of its sin) did not sustain him through that death... Messiah's life (without sin) sustained Bob through that death. "Christ lives in me" as Paul puts it in Galatians:

For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to G-d. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of G-d, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of G-d, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. (Galatians 2:19-21)


  • Bob is now under the Law of Christ: Christ lives in Bob because he is dead in the eyes of the Law... there are now two "Yeshuas" (if you will permit me to be so incredibly bold with this analogy). The "new one" is being conformed to the very likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29) and conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10) and has been given a new heart willing to obey G-d's Law and G-d's commands even unto death.


As Paul puts it in Romans 8:2 "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death."

Praise be to the Living G-d!




1. Merriam-Webster Online (08/27/2008) at  [back]
2. Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern, p 343 [back]
3. Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern, p 463 [back]
4. Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern, p 462-3 [back]
5. Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern, p 463 [back]
6. Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern, p 556 [back]

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