Law and Grace in the Scriptures


Some time ago I listened to Alan Roxburgh speaking at a gathering in Seabeck, Washington. Alan recalls Jesus words in John 1:51, responding to Nathanael that he will see "the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." Alan notes that these sorts of phrases cue us to the memory and the stories of God's people in the First Testament. He recalls Jacob in Genesis 28 and his dream, where he sees a ladder and angels ascending and descending on it. He then hears the voice of the Lord and a promise that reiterates the covenant to Abraham: "your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth.. and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed." (14)

What does Jacob do in response? He builds an altar and pours out oil on it, and he names the place Beth-el. Alan notes that there are numerous holy places in the story of Israel. In the gospels we see a shift from Holy place as location relative to territory, to Holy place wherever Jesus goes. Then later this shifts again as the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit: we become the temple. Through our covenant faithfulness all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

In his talk Alan noted that as a Holy people, we are the place where God's future dwells. On that day this was a call to discernment. But I think verse 17 of John 1 cues us to another memory..

We gathered at Seabeck for a particular purpose. As a missional people who bear God's future, we are sent to live into that future. Where we are sent, God is already active. When we walk in covenant relationship with Him, we bring His shalom - his peace and the promise of a new kingdom. The connection point is covenant, a strong biblical theme which resonates deeply behind this text. John 1:51 connects us to covenant renewal, a theme which connects in turn to the call to be a covenant people. Somewhere Rowan Williams commented on the Benedictine vow of stability: "one of our problems is that we don't know where to find the stable relations that would allow us room to grow without fear. The Church .. ought to embody not only covenant with God but covenant with each other - a community where people have unlimited time to grow with each other…"

This places the word "community" on an entirely different footing. In the German language, there are two different words that describe this human reality: gesellschaft (impersonal society), and gemeinschaft (interdependent community). These days community is sold as a commodity we can easily purchase. The reality is that it requires sweat, vulnerability, and sacrifice. The Body of Christ is both given to us as a reality we enter, and something we achieve in the power of the Spirit working through our love for one another.

In his talk Alan reminded us of the story of Jacob. It's a good place to start, but I think there is a clue earlier in the passage (v 17) to another important theme.

John 1:14 echoes John 1:1, "the Word became flesh and tented among us,"¯ or as Eugene Peterson put it, "the word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood."¯ Verse 16, 17 continue,

Of his fullness we have all received, and grace on grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.¯

John recalls Moses as the giver of Torah: instruction in faithful living in the light of God's promises. Some translations wrongly insert a "but" after grace and truth, interpreting a contrast. The Greek does not do this, and the verse does not present a contrast, as some have argued. Rather, the sense here is this:

"The Torah was given through Moses, and now in a similar way as grace and truth were given in that day, grace and truth have been given in the Person and work of Jesus."

The point is that the Torah was God's gracious revelation to Israel. Israel understood this, and that is why the Psalmist could declare, "Oh, how I love your Torah!" (Ps 119:97).

There are two themes I want to bring out in this first chapter of John.

1) the context is Torah, with Jesus as the new Moses. The first Moses was God's instrument for the Torah, the instruction that founds God's revelation which becomes the basis for covenant. Now Jesus brings the fullness of those earlier promises. Jesus initiates covenant renewal.

2) Growing out of this first conclusion, after hearing an echo of the Jacob story, we should hear an echo of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Temple and Torah usually go together, as NT Wright has shown in his Pentecost sermon. The Hebrews passage that describes covenant renewal also mentions angels involved as intermediaries (12: 18-29) Again, the force of the echo of angels is that Jesus is the new law-giver. I believe that what John has in mind here in his presentation of Jesus and the exchange with Nathanael is this:

"I am the second Moses and the Messiah." The echo of the story is that of a new (spiritual) exodus and covenant renewal.

If I'm right about this then another passage we should consider is Joshua 24.

In our time we have largely lost our sense of identity, because we have lost our sense of place. We have lost our sense of immersion in the ongoing movement of God in history. We do not readily adopt the stories of the First Testament as our own. But my whole argument above is to say that we can't read the New Testament apart from those older memories. (Related: this article on hope and memory)

In the book of Joshua the generation who saw God's wonders in the desert have died off. The people have lost their sense of identity because they don't have those old memories. As a result, a renewal of covenant is necessary. One function of covenant renewal is the renewal of memory.

What does Joshua do? He recounts the story of God's loving faithfulness, going back to Abraham. Then he calls the people to make a choice (verse 15). Next he attempts to persuade them that maybe they are better off not making a commitment: because God is a holy God and a jealous God. Do they know what they are doing? (verse 19)

In light of their determination, Joshua calls them to remove the idols from among them. He calls them to a heart commitment: a commitment of their entire being. Then he does two things which are quite interesting: he writes the words of their commitment in a book, and he sets up a large stone (verse 26). He symbolizes the events of this covenant renewal concretely for all to see, and for an ongoing memory (anamnesis - part of what we do at the Lord's table).

A covenant community is NOT an exclusive order, not is it a gnostic expression, admitting only those who have special knowledge, special anointing or special training. Rather, it is a new social entity where "they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest" (Jer. 31:34). It is not merely a new sociological state of affairs or a personal experience, since it is based on the action of God and his initiative. I am reminded of Hauerwas words that, "Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God."

In some sense this new community is sacramental: an outward and visible sign of something the Lord is doing in the world. And it is a sign: a pointer to something else.

A covenant community is composed of people who intend to model for a waiting world what it looks like to live with a God who is faithful. To that end they participate in a covenant renewal form that in some way formalizes their commitment to Yahweh and His kingdom. They understand themselves as continuing the story of Israel: called out to be a Holy people, then sent back into their neighbourhoods carrying the light. In a sense, they agree to be a sign and a symbol of the Lord's call on their generation. They hope that through their faithfulness, and by the mercy of God, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

* * *
Somewhere NT Wright suggests that we "rediscover the unity of God's action in history, and one way to do this is to move beyond our designation of the testaments as "old" and "new." We all know that new is good and old is useless (!)

He suggests "first testament" and "second testament" emphasizing continuity of God's action in creating a people for himself. Many of the fundamental themes of the OT remain in the background in the NT. If we aren't aware of those issues the story lacks depth. Elsewhere Norman Peterson describes the theological themes, which are always in the background, as the "narrative sequence," while the arguments in the particular text are the "poetic sequence." It's critical to know the narrative sequence when we are in the poetic sequence, or we come out with interpretations that the next would never support.

Dan Block has convinced me that Moses is not regarded by himself or other biblical writers as a law giver, but rather as a pastor to God's people (nu 27:16,17). And what we identify as law is mostly instruction - describing how we are to live within the covenant.

Interesting - the word we usually translate as "law" is actually Torah, and its semantic range is the same as didache. It is not best translated LAW but rather INSTRUCTION. There really isn't much "law"¯ even in the Pentateuch. It is mostly narrative. And Deuteronomy was poorly named. It is really a second "instruction" about a way of life. Starting from this point it's much easier to see the continuity of the two testaments.

Another lens that gets at this continuity is the Decalogue. We refer to this passage as "the ten commandments." The word translates as "ten words," and the first word is a word of grace:

"I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."

It is God's gracious activity in history, fulfilling his promises, that results in the giving of the law, the coming of the Messiah in and through Israel, and then the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost.

And neither is love missing from this picture. God acts in history because he is full of love and compassion. We love him because he first loved us. Deuteronomy 6:4,5 (later quoted by Jesus as the great commandment) reads,

"Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2005