For several years I have followed the studies from Tom Bradford, who is the founder and teacher in Torah Class, which is an independent, non-denominational organization of gentile Christians and Messianic Jews. Through his studies, I have come to realize that the Hebrews never believed they could “work their way to heaven” and this was the greatest shock to me. They fully recognized that righteousness had to be a gift from God—we know it as grace—because even the best of men were not that different from the worst.
If you enjoy challenges, Bradford recommended a book by E.P. Sanders (who is considered one of the great mainstream Christian scholars of our day). The book is Paul and Palestinian Judaism. I have found this to be an excellent study on what Judaism and therefore, Paul, was all about. What he meant by what he said. I will warn you, though; this is a daunting book to study. Sanders uses extensive quotes from the Mishna, Zohar, and Talmud to draw a picture of what he calls Palestinian Judaism. Though it isn’t the point of his book, he does dispel many myths and ignorant accusations constantly flung against the religion of the Hebrews that usually accuses them of being a legalistic and work-your-way-to-salvation based faith.
In fact, I want to give you an example of this through a quote from the Mishna Rabbah (which is an ancient Hebrew commentary). You see, I have always wondered why Noah and some of the members of his family were saved but the rest of the world destroyed. What was so special about Noah? Now remember that is from the writings of the same Hebrew men who are said to have no understanding of grace, or that grace even existed until Jesus arrived. As a side note, it might interest you to know that the very first use of the word grace isn’t found in the New Testament Gospels. You didn’t know that, did you? No, you find it in the sixth chapter of Genesis. Look at this excerpt from Mishna Rabba Bereshith—that is, Mishna Rabba commentary on the book of Genesis:
But Noach found grace in the eyes of the lord (VI, 8). He delivereth him that is innocent (i naki), yea, thou shalt be delivered through the cleanness of thy hands (Job XXII, 30). R. Hanina said: Noach possessed less than an ounce (unkia) [of merit]. If so, why was he delivered? Only ‘Through the cleanness of Thy hands’. This agrees with what R. Abba b. Kahana said: For it repenteth Me that I have made them and Noach. But Noach was left only because he found grace; hence, But Noach found grace in the eyes of the lord.
What he is saying is that when the Rabbi stated that Noah was delivered “only by the cleanness of Thy hands,” the “thy hands” were referring to God’s hands, not the hands of Noah! Not only that, where it says that Noah only possessed “an ounce of merit,” it meant that Noah had very little merit in his life. So little, that, according to these Rabbis, God did not just repent that he made all men, except for Noah; He repented that He made all men including Noah. So, what, the Rabbis thought, was it that caused God to save Noah over and against all the other people. Their answer? Grace. Unmerited favor.
Oh really? Were they wrong? Did, God really expect them to work their way to righteousness, back in those pre-Jesus, ancient days? Well, these leaders of the Hebrews didn’t think so. Well, the Lord didn’t think so, either. Do you remember what the Scripture says about Abraham? Genesis 15:6 says: “Then he (Abraham) believed in the LORD; and He (God) credited it to him as righteousness.”
Abraham trusted God, so God says He will consider that trust as the reason to give the designation of righteous to Abraham. That is the exact same thing that happens when we trust in Jesus! The word we used for this is grace. Noah didn’t earn his righteousness and we don’t earn ours; he and we simply received grace. That part of the equation has never been any different from the beginning of the world until today.
The Law was never a salvation document. From the beginning, all throughout the Old Testament, and right on to Revelation, Grace has always been the only way to a right relationship with the Lord. The Hebrews believed that, just as we believe it.
Now here in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, he is saying that while God has set aside Israel as a Nation, by his grace he has saved individuals out of that Nation. Paul points to himself as evidence of this. He points out that he is a living example of the grace of God. Paul, of course, was a Jew. In fact, he was a zealous Jew. At one point he even opposed what he thought was the heresy of Christianity. Then he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. It changed his life. He became a recipient of this salvation by grace.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome