Galatians 2:16

Not Justified By "Works of Law"



reproduced from The New Testament Validates Torah

Pastor: Galatians 2:16: By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.

“[N]evertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Messiah Yeshua, even we have believed in Messiah Yeshua, so that we may be justified by faith in Messiah and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”

The pastor correctly says, “By works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” Whether we look at Galatians 2:16 from the traditional viewpoint of Torah-keeping not meriting a person salvation, or “works of law” meaning observance of a Jewish sect’s halachah for membership within God’s people—the contrast that is made is between human action versus Divine action appropriated for “justification.” Many of today’s Christians, though, just ramble off Galatians 2:16 without any level of engagement as to how tightly-packed these words actually are, given the actual circumstances in which they were originally delivered by the Apostle Paul.

The assertion of Galatians 2:16 appears within a tense scene, where the Apostle Paul discusses an incident that erupted in Antioch when the Apostle Peter came to visit, and how Peter’s actions toward the non-Jewish Believers were entirely inappropriate. Until various, overly-conservative Jewish Believers (who to one degree or another identified themselves as being associated with James) arrived, Peter used to regularly associate with the non-Jewish Believers at communal mealtimes. When these Jewish Believers from Jerusalem arrived, Peter began to steadily withdraw himself to them, being fearful of those who would require the non-Jewish Believers to be circumcised as proselytes (Galatians 2:11-12).[1] Paul reports that what was going on was hypocrisy:

“The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles’” (Galatians 2:13-15).

The rebuking statement that Paul makes to Peter in Galatians 2:14 is rather difficult to follow if not understood from the Greek source text. Paul first tells Peter in Galatians 2:14a, ei su Ioudaios huparchōn ethnikōs kai ouchi Ioudaikōs zēs, “If you being a Jew, live heathen-like, and not as the Jews…” (LITV). Many take Paul’s assessment that Peter’s being ethnikos or “like a Gentile” pertains to him eating with the non-Jews in Antioch, and in particular eating various non-kosher items. This seems to actually not be the case, given the historical attestation of the Jewish community in Antioch attracting many Greeks and Romans into their ranks (Josephus Wars of the Jews 7.43, 45), who would have assimilated to following some degree of kashrut—meaning that Peter living “like a Gentile” had little to do with what was being eaten during fellowship meals. Hays attests, “it seems unlikely that such flagrant violations of Jewish norms would have been practiced at Antioch, particularly if the Gentile converts were primarily from the ranks of the ‘godfearers,’ who presumably would have already assimilated to Jewish dietary practices.”[2]

One way of looking at Paul’s rebuke, “live like a Gentile,” is to argue that a Jewish Believer like Peter was openly associating with the non-Jewish Believers during times of fellowship. And, it is notable that the Torah does not prohibit people from eating with “pagans,”[3] much less any sojourner or foreigner within Israel who had recognized Israel’s God. Ancient Rabbinical halachah was divided over whether a Jew could eat with a non-Jew, as some permitted it with various stipulations observed (m.Avodah Zera 5:5),[4] and others opposed it (m.Ohalot 18:7).[5]

A better way of looking at Paul’s rebuke to Peter, “live like a Gentile,” is to approach it from an ethical standpoint. The term ethnikospert. to nationhood foreign to a specific national group, w. focus on morality or belief” (BDAG).[6] In separating himself from the non-Jewish Believers in Antioch—thinking himself to act like a good Jew—Peter actually found himself treating these Believers in the same manner as pagans would treat him. Because a group of more conservative Jewish Believers arrived from Jerusalem, and with Peter perhaps a bit concerned about his reputation back home (cf. Acts 11:3), “live like a Gentile” could then be taken to Peter adopting attitudes like those of various Greeks and Romans who had less-than-favorable views toward Judaism and the God of Israel (i.e., Tacitus Histories 5.5.1-2; Juvenal Satires 14.95-104). This attitude then spread to the other Jewish Believers in Antioch, including Paul’s ministry associate Barnabas.

And what could happen when an important person like Peter separated himself during mealtimes off to a group of Jewish Believers? The non-Jewish Believers are going to do something about it for greater fellowship to be restored. Paul’s question to Peter in Galatians 2:14b is pōs ta ethnē anagkazeis Ioudaizein, “why do you compel the nations to Judaize?” (LITV). The verb Ioudaizō is frequently defined as to “live as one bound by Mosaic ordinances or traditions, live in Judean or Jewish fashion” (BDAG).[7] Does this mean that by Peter separating himself, in order for the Greek and Roman Believers in Antioch to feel welcome, they would have begun to do things like keeping kosher or honoring the Sabbath? This was notably already happening. On the contrary, as Hans Dieter Betz well concludes: “In Paul’s view…it describes forcing one to becoming a Jewish convert…”[8] Rendered as “compel,” the verb angagkazō notably regards “to be forced to do a thing” (LS).[9]

Perhaps the most significant usage of the verb Ioudaizō outside of Galatians is seen in the Septuagint rendering of Esther 8:17, where we see that “in every city and province wherever the ordinance was published: wherever the proclamation took place, the Jews had joy and gladness, feasting and mirth: and many of the Gentiles were circumcised, and became Jews [perietemonto kai Ioudaizon], for fear of the Jews” (LXE). The Greek verb Ioudaizō renders the Hebrew yahad, meaning “to pose as a Jew” or “to embrace Judaism” (HALOT).[10] Here, we see an undeniable connection between being “circumcised” and converting to Judaism—something which was not necessarily of a non-Jewish person’s free will, but instead pressed upon them from some kind of outside force or dynamic, or a social-spiritual instigation.[11]

Peter’s actions in separating himself from the non-Jewish Believers in Antioch—stupidly over table fellowship issues which were not fully agreed upon by various Ancient Jews—would signal to such non-Jewish Believers that in order for them to feel fully welcome in the Body of Messiah they would have to be circumcised as ethnic Jewish proselytes. Paul would have nothing to do with this. He and Peter were both Jews, they were not sinners, and they should all know better than to treat non-Jewish Believers with a kind of contempt as the Greeks and Romans would show toward them. And so, having publicly rebuked Peter for his bad activity, Paul tells him,

[N]evertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Messiah Yeshua, even we have believed in Messiah Yeshua, so that we may be justified by faith in Messiah and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (NASU).

Paul is clear that “justification” (Grk. verb dikaioō), whether we regard it as a cleansing from sins and/or someone being reckoned as a member of God’s covenant people—does not occur ex ergōn nomou or “by works of the law.”[12] Given what has been proposed in recent Pauline studies regarding the relationship of the “works of law” in Galatians (as well as Romans) to the document 4QMMT (4Q394-5) in the Dead Sea Scrolls and its usage of ma’asei haTorah to define the rules for inclusion among the Qumran community[13]—“works of law” in Galatians 2:16 is much better understood to be some kind of Jewish sectarian observances. Such man-made rules, “works of law” meriting a person “justification,” would in the greater context of Galatians 2:11-15 involve the non-Jewish Believers in Antioch having to be “Judaized,” being forced to be circumcised as proselytes in order to be full members of God’s people.

The Apostle Paul, of course, contrasts such human activity to Divine activity. No one is to be reckoned as “justified” before God because of any mortal actions, even regarding their (errant) interpretation or application of His Law. Instead, justification is to come dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou. While this genitive clause (case indicating possession) is frequently read as being an objective genitive, “faith in Yeshua the Messiah,” if read as a subjective genitive it speaks of “the faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah.” Such faithfulness, meaning the Messiah’s obedience to the Father unto death for sinful humanity, secures that all people who look to Him may be reckoned as a part of the elect.[14]

A person is not “justified,” meaning entering into covenant status among God’s people, by a community’s man-made rules—the kind of rules that caused Peter to separate himself from the non-Jewish Believers, and would have required them to become Jewish proselytes in order to be considered spiritual equals. On the contrary to this human action, it is by the faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah—His obedience to the Father via His sacrifice for all—whereby one is considered a member of God’s people. This is the faithfulness that all of the Believers in Antioch, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had recognized by virtue of them receiving the Messiah of Israel into their lives as Savior.

Galatians 2:16 contrasts human action (“works of law”) for redemption and inclusion among God’s people—with Divine action (“the faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah”). As Paul later specifies, he is one who had moved beyond the ideology of making the nations circumcised as ethnic Jewish proselytes, a previous life he has no intention of seeing rebuilt (Galatians 2:18), recognizing that the purpose of the Torah is to define sin and affect spiritual death for those who will find the Messiah (Galatians 2:19; cf. Romans 7:4-6). A person’s condition of righteousness before the Creator is to be squarely focused on how Yeshua the Messiah has been sacrificed as the covering for human sin (Galatians 2:20-21).

It is doubtful that the pastor we have been cross-examining is at all familiar with current discussions in Biblical Studies regarding ergōn nomou as being sectarian Jewish observances, and he will instead simply consider “works of law” to be akin to “observing the law” (NIV). Yet, even if Galatians 2:15 is viewed from such a traditional vantage point, Messianics such as myself will never argue for justification being merited from our human obedience to God’s commandments. Our justification comes from the faith, trust, and confidence we place in Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and the eternal salvation He provides. Obedience to the Lord is to be stirred from what Paul will later describe in Galatians 3:2, 5 as akoēs pisteōs, the “hearing of faith” (KJV/NKJV). This phrase should immediately remind us of the Shema’s requirement for God’s people to love, hear, and obey Him (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Faith and trust in our Heavenly Father should naturally result in obedience to Him, yet as Paul had to address in the Epistle to the Galatians, too many in the First Century forgot the primacy of faith (Galatians 3:6-9).

It is a fact that just as in the First Century there were those who thought they were justified by their works or human actions, so are there Messianic Believers today who believe that they are justified, declared righteous, or even saved because they are “Torah observant.” This is a problem that we must internally contend with in the Messianic movement, and oppose. To this problem, Paul directly states, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Messiah died needlessly” (Galatians 2:21).

No person is to obey God’s Torah, either through their own “works of law” or just Torah-keeping in general—so as to try to earn oneself a place before God. Obeying the Torah, rather, is something which concerns holiness unto Him and being set-apart from the world. We follow the Torah because it defines for us what the Lord considers acceptable and unacceptable. Even though Paul may say, “the Law is not of faith,” meaning that the Torah is not the entryway into a covenant relationship with God—he also says, “yet, ‘HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE IN THEM[15]’” (Galatians 3:12, my translation), quoting from Leviticus 18:5 which appears within a selection of key sexual instructions. Faith in God and in His Messiah is the entryway into the people of God; the Torah of God defines the sphere of one’s conduct and behavior within such a people. Obedience to God’s Torah is to be stimulated because the “hearing of faith” is something which involves the transformative work of the Holy Spirit on a person’s heart and mind (cf. Galatians 5:14-17, 24-26).


[1] That the “circumcision” addressed and refuted in the Epistle to the Galatians is intended to be ritual, proselyte circumcision, and not a medical operation, is understood from how Galatians 5:2 speaks of panti anthrōpō or “every human being” seeking it, which would include women. “Circumcision” in Galatians, then, is a shorthand way of Paul referring to the ritual of a proselyte convert to Judaism.

[2] Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” in Leander E. Keck, ed., et. al., New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 11 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 232; also consider Dunn, Galatians, pp 121-122.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “[If an Israelite] was eating with [a gentile] at the same time, and he put a flagon [of wine] on the table and a flagon on a side table, and he left it and went out—what is on the table is forbidden. But what is on the side table is permitted. And if he had said to him, ‘You mix and drink [wine],’ even that which is on the side table is forbidden. Jars which are open are forbidden. And those which are sealed [are forbidden if he was gone] for a time sufficient to bore a hole and stop it up and for the clay to dry” (m.Avodah Zera 5:5; Nesuner, Mishnah, 571).

[5] “Dwelling places of gentiles [in the Land of Israel] are unclean” (m.Ohalot 18:7; Ibid., 980).

[6] BDAG, 276.

[7] Ibid., 478.

[8] Betz, 112.

[9] LS, 53.

[10] HALOT, 1:393.

[11] Another important usage of the verb Ioudaizō appears in Josephus’ account of the Jews fighting the Romans, and how a Roman general named Metilius was spared from death, because he promised to be circumcised and become a Jew:

“And thus were all these men barbarously murdered, excepting Metilius; for when he entreated for mercy, and promised that he would turn Jew, and be circumcised [peritomēs Ioudaisein], they saved him alive, but none else” (Wars of the Jews 2.454; The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, 626).

This should confirm how the verb Ioudaizō, “to Judaize,” is something which tends to occur in instances of force.

[12] Do note how a version like the NIV/TNIV problematically renders ergōn nomou as “observing the law.”

[13] This is examined in much further detail in Chapter 11, “What Are ‘Works of the Law’?

[14] Consult Chapter 12, “The Faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah,” for an evaluation of passages that appear to use the subjective genitive.

[15] Grk. all’ ho poiēsas auta zēsetai en autois.

I have taken the conjunction alla here not as adversative, but rather as “forming a transition to someth. new,” including another “matter for additional consideration” (BDAG, 45), hence my rendering of it as “yet,” and not the more common “but.”

Dunn, Galatians, pp 175, 176 fairly observes, “It needs to be stressed that this is essentially a positive view of the role of the law.” He further states, “it is highly pertinent to note that in context Lev. xviii.2-5 emphasizes the distinctiveness of Israel’s way of life from that of the surrounding nations.” The sexual instructions seen in Leviticus 18, of course, would be among the non-negotiable requirements the non-Jewish Believers had to follow in order to enter into the ekklēsia, as issued in the Apostolic decree (Acts 15:19-21).

About J.K. McKee 633 Articles
J.K. McKee (B.A., University of Oklahoma; M.A., Asbury Theological Seminary) is the editor of Messianic Apologetics (, a division of Outreach Israel Ministries ( He is a 2009 recipient of the Zondervan Biblical Languages Award for Greek. He is author of numerous books and commentaries, dealing with a wide range of topics that are important for today’s Messianic Believers.

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