1 Corinthians 9:20
And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to Elohim, but under the law to Messiah,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
What does Paul mean when he says “under the law to Messiah”? The answer should turn the theology of the whole mainstream Christian church with regard to its view of the Torah-law totally on its head! It is evident that when Paul uses the phrase, “under the law” in his writings, he at times infuses different connotations into this phrase. Only by studying the context of the surrounding passages in which this phrase is imbedded can we understand the exact connotation that Paul is attaching to the term “under the law.”
In this passage, the phrase “under the law” is found four times, and doesn’t connote “under the penalty of the law,” (as is the case with Paul’s usage of the term in Romans). The first three times this phrase is found here it means “in subjection to a legalistic perversion of the Torah” (as David Stern translates it in his Complete Jewish Bible and then explains reasons behind this translation in his Jewish New Testament Commentary). Here Paul identifies several groups of people, each of which had its own view of the Torah. These groups were (a) ethnic Jews, (b) those (ethnic Jews or otherwise) who had come under a legalistic view of the Torah in that they believed, for example, that circumcision was a precondition for salvation (certain Pharisees believed this [see Acts 15:1], and Paul was dealing with this doctrinal perversion in the first several chapters of Romans), (c) those (presumably Gentiles) who had no knowledge of the Torah, and (d) those new believers who were still weak and unstable in their faith.
In Paul’s final usage of this phrase in this passage he adds to the phrase under the law” [Gr. ennomos meaning “in the law”] the two words “in Christ.” This changes the whole meaning of the term under the law. As we have noted above, “under the law,” as Paul uses it can mean “under the [penalty of] the Torah,” or “under a legalistic perversion of the Torah,” but here Paul is referring to Torah obedience in the context of a faith in Yeshua. Is Paul referring here to Christians who keep the Torah? Yes! This is what the first century redeemed believers were, and what Paul confesses here about himself (1 Cor 9:21). Paul’s pro-Torah stance is totally consistent with other apologetic statements he makes concerning the Torah along with his confession to being totally Torah-obedient himself (e.g. Rom 3:31; 7:12, 22, 25; 1 Cor 7:19; Acts 21:24; 24:14; 25:8). Torah obedience was also to be a normative attribute of the life of the redeemed believer then and now (e.g. Acts 21:20; 22:12; Rev 12:17; 14:12; 22:14).
So what specifically does the phrase “not being without the Torah toward Elohim, but “under or in the law toward Messiah” mean? Simply this. There is a keeping of the Torah that is done through men’s legalistic efforts that is devoid of trusting faith toward Elohim, whereby one hopes to earn Elohim’s grace or merciful kindness through human effort. This approach Paul proves in Romans 3 and 4 was never how Elohim intended men to come into a spiritual relationship with him, since it is impossible for men to keep the righteous requirements of the Torah perfectly without sinning. Thankfully, salvation is by the grace of Elohim through faith in Yeshua (Eph 2:8–10). It is through Elohim working through his Holy Spirit through our relationship with Yeshua that we can do the good works (Eph 2:10) of loving Yeshua by keeping his Torah commandments (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3–6; 3:24; 5:2–3). When Yeshua and his apostles use the term commandments in their writings, how do we know that they’re referring to the Torah-commandments? In Luke 18:19–20, Yeshua answers this question when he connects the word commandments (Gr. entole) with the laws of Torah (in this case, the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone of or the basis for all the other 600 plus commandments in the Torah).
Therefore, when Paul says “not being without the Torah toward Elohim, but under [or, in] the law toward Messiah,” he is referring to Torah obedience within the paradigmatic context of Elohim’s grace toward us (which covers our past sins and delivers us from the penalty for violating the law, which is death), and to Yeshua living in the redeemed believer’s life through his Set-Apart Spirit, which enables one to love Yeshua by obeying his Torah (John 14:15).