The Meaning of Grace
But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion,
and gracious, longsuffering,
and plenteous in mercy and truth (Psalm 86:15).
It had been a hard three days. David and the handful of young men with him had left in hurry and had taken no food. By the time they got to a place called Nob, they were in a bad way. They needed food and there was only one place David thought they might get something to eat. The Tabernacle at Nob.
When David arrived at the Tabernacle, the priest was fearful. David was the most powerful man in the kingdom after Saul, and he usually traveled with a large retinue. He asked, “Why are you here alone?” David replied, “The king charged me with a certain matter and said to me, ‘No one is to know anything about your mission and your instructions.’ As for my men, I have told them to meet later at a designated place.”
Now David lied to the priest. He was fleeing for his life from Saul. And if it were not enough that he lied, he went on to compound his lawbreaking. “What do you have to eat here?” he demanded. “Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find.”
“I don't have any ordinary bread on hand,” the priest replied, “however, there is some consecrated bread here—provided the men have kept themselves from women.”
“Indeed,” said David, “women have been kept from us, as usual whenever I set out. The men's things are holy even on missions that are not holy. How much more so today!” So the priest gave David the hallowed bread (1 Samuel 21:5-6 NIV).
This is a classic example of rationalization, because it was clearly an infraction of the law. Only the priests were allowed to eat the holy bread. If you were the judge, what would you have thought about this? As it happens, we have an answer, because Jesus himself commented on the event.
His remarks came on an occasion when he and his disciples passed through a field on the Sabbath day and, being hungry, the disciples began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat. In the eyes of the Pharisees, this was harvesting and, therefore, it was working on the Sabbath. “Look!” exclaimed the Pharisees, “your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
Jesus replied, “Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests” (Matthew 12:3-4 NIV).
Note first that Jesus acknowledged that what David did was unlawful. But then he seemed ready to justify David. Why would he do that, and on what basis? When it comes to matters of the law, there are those who say, “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” This approach was characteristic of the Pharisees. They felt they had to spell things out in detail lest someone accidentally step over the line.
It is clear that Jesus and the Pharisees were on opposite sides of this fence. A Pharisee might well have objected to Jesus by quoting the law. “How can you justify David,” he would want to know, “when the law is so plain?”
How would Jesus have answered that question? I am going to provide an answer and, in the process, I am going to explain one of the most important things you will ever learn about biblical law. If you can grasp what I am going to explain, it may revolutionize the way you read the Bible, the way you relate to God, and the way you relate to one another. If that sounds a little presumptuous to you, please wait and judge when I have finished.
First, lets get a few things clear:
1. I am not against the law. I am a radical believer in the Law of God. I take Jesus at his word when he says that not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law till everything has come to pass (Matthew 5:18).
2. The law of the showbread was not superseded or set aside by any actions of David. He did not have that kind of authority. The law of the showbread was not unimportant. It was just as important as any other Law of God. It was the law then, and it will be the law when there is a Tabernacle once again.
3. All rationalizations considered, David did break the law. Jesus said he ate the bread which it was not lawful for him to eat.
Why, then, does Jesus use this example in reply to the accusation that his disciples were breaking the Sabbath? How can he justify David when there is not a hint of repentance on David’s part, nor anything done to make up for his error?
The answer comes in one word, a familiar word, one that has been used so much that no one seems to understand what it means anymore. The word is grace. And along with this word comes a concept of profound importance: Grace is every bit as much in play in the Old Testament as it is in the New. David was justified, not because what he did was right, but because God is gracious. Everyone knows this, but do they know what it means? Let me try to explain.
There is a beautiful example of the graciousness of God right in the beginning of his relationship with man. You know it well. First, God created man in his own image, male and female. And the man and the woman were naked, and were not ashamed. God told them to be fruitful and multiply, and then he left them alone.
There are two kinds of people reading this: On the one hand are those who believe that God is all seeing, that he knows everything that is happening, that nothing is hidden from him. On the other hand are those who believe that the Book of Genesis suggests otherwise. I find the Genesis account totally charming, because God did what a gracious man would do. He created these two perfect physical specimens, put them in a gorgeous outdoor garden totally naked, and then granted them total privacy. God did not hide in the bushes and watch. Why not? Because he is gracious, that’s why. Graciousness is that character trait which responds to awkward situations grace-fully.
Does it limit God to say that he didn’t watch? Hardly. It limits God if you say that he couldn’t help but watch. God is not a voyeur. He is too gracious for that.
There are those who seem to believe that God is like a computer. If you press the delete button, things disappear. Automatically. Remorselessly. They believe that God enforces the law like a computer. You break the law, the law breaks you. But, you see, that is not what happened to David. God is not a computer, he is a person. Not only is he a person, he is a kind person, a gentle person, a compassionate person, a forgiving person, and above all, God is a gracious person.
Now it is true that God can be very strict at times, because he is also just. Without justice, you have only caprice, and there is a great gulf between a God who is gracious, and one who is capricious. Because there was justice, Adam and Eve were eventually shut out of the Garden and denied access to the Tree of Life. But that was because of a choice they had made. They could have had either of the trees in the garden, but apparently not both.
Time passed and two sons were born, Cain and Abel. And in a fit of anger, Cain killed his brother, and then he lied to God. Justice would have called for the death of Cain as well. Why did God not kill Cain? Why did he merely exile him and even set a mark on him to protect him? It is obvious, isn’t it? Cain was allowed to live as an act of divine grace, perhaps because he was the first man born of the flesh. God could not bring himself to kill him, so he sent Cain into exile.
More time passes, and things really deteriorate on planet Earth. The earth was filled with violence, and things got so bad, that God was sorry he ever started the project. I realize this runs counter to the idea that God knows everything in advance, but what can I say. It seems better to me that I should take God as he is, not as I think he ought to be. Here is what the Bible says about this time:
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart (Genesis 6:5-6 NASB).
Somehow, it seems foolish to apologize for God and to attempt explanations that sound good to the modern mind. I am sorry if it is upsetting to learn that God does not control everything. By his own choice, he does not.
So God decided to end the whole Earth project, to just wipe it out, and except for one thing, he would have. What was that one thing? “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (v. 8).
Mind you, Noah was a good man. He was righteous in his generation. But if you think that is the reason he and his family survived the flood, you have it all wrong. Noah was a good man, but he was not that good. He survived the flood because God was gracious to him.
More time passes, and God struck up a friendship with a man named Abraham. This friendship was remarkably personal. God wanted Abraham to have a son by Sarah and told him so. Abraham laughed. He not only laughed, he fell on the ground laughing. And he was not laughing for joy, he was laughing because the idea of Sarah having a baby was, well, laughable.
Now what does this tell us about the relationship between God and Abraham? Most of us would not be able to laugh in the presence of God, no matter what he said. And God did not smite Abraham with boils for laughing at the idea as an ungracious God might do. He just said, “You’ll see.” I think he took a certain amount of pleasure in doing all this the hard way. God, it seems, also has a sense of humor, which, by the way, is a constant characteristic of the most gracious of people.
More time passed, and God called on Abraham on his way to Sodom and Gomorrah. If you had been hiding nearby watching this encounter, what you would have seen would have been common-place. You would have seen three men walking down the road. You would have seen Abraham run out and greet them in the customary fashion. You would have seen him have water brought so the men could wash their feet—which they did. You would have seen food brought and you would have watched them eat.
All very ordinary, right? Except that two of these three “men” were angels and the third was God himself. Now does it seem out of the ordinary that they washed their feet and ate a meal? Do Spirit beings get dirty feet? Do they get hungry? When they appear in the flesh, apparently they do. On the other hand, God created food to be enjoyed, and he may simply have come by Abraham’s place to enjoy a good feed.
But as he left Abraham to go on to Sodom, God paused. He said, as though speaking to himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do? . . . For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Genesis 18:17-19).
So, God told Abraham what he was about to do. “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know” (v. 20-21 NIV).
Then followed the classic example of a man reasoning with God, an example of intercessory prayer rendered face to face. “It is not like you to destroy the righteous with the wicked,” Abraham pleaded. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Abraham’s boldness is staggering. From a less gracious god, he would have been inviting a rebuke, or worse.
But God listened and allowed Abraham to talk him down from destroying the city into not destroying the city if he found ten righteous people there. Why did God let Abraham talk him down like this? Because God is gracious. God does not like the idea of executing judgment. He is merciful. He doesn’t like killing people, even when they have it coming, and is willing to accept almost any excuse for not doing so.
There are so many examples of this in the Old Testament that it would be exhausting to review them all. But let me give you the definitive illustration of what I am driving at.
Still more time passed and a prophet named Jonah was sent to the city of Nineveh with a message. The message was simple enough: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” No ifs, no ands, no buts, Nineveh is finished. So Jonah started his march through the town proclaiming the message. But something truly astonishing happened. The people of Nineveh believed him. The king proclaimed a fast and all of them from the least to the greatest covered themselves with sackcloth and sat in ashes, totally humbling themselves. Even the animals had to fast. The proclamation of the king was revealing:
Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? (Jonah 3:7-9).
The reason God gave for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was that the cities were filled with violence. The reason for the destruction of the world in the days of Noah was that the whole earth was filled with violence. Here again in Nineveh, violence has brought God’s attention to a city.
But Nineveh repented, and to Jonah’s everlasting surprise, so did God. He decided not to destroy the city, but to rewrite history. How could he do that? He made an outright prophecy about this city. There was nothing equivocal, there was no if/then statement, not even a call for repentance. God’s word would seem to be at stake. What happened?
God felt sorry for them. They had repented, or at least acted like they were sorry. And Nineveh found grace in God’s eyes. The whole thing infuriated Jonah, and here is something we need to understand. Too many times we are closer to Jonah than to God in our attitude toward sinners. Jonah was not gracious about this at all. He was frustrated. “Didn’t I say this before I ever left?” he ranted. “I knew that you are a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, great kindness and repent of the evil, that you won’t even carry out what you say you will do” (see Jonah 4:2). If this had been a lesser god, Jonah might have been toast.
“Therefore take my life,” he cried, “it is better for me to die than to live.” Jehovah was not the kind of God that Jonah wanted him to be. Jonah was the archetype of the man who wants his religion by the numbers. He didn’t want Nineveh to fall on the 39th day and he didn’t want Nineveh to fall on the 41st day, he wanted Nineveh to fall on the 40th day. And he wanted blood in the streets. Why? Well they probably deserved it. And for men like Jonah, exceptions to the rules drive them crazy.
And in fact Jonah was a little bit crazy here. It is not entirely rational to display anger toward God. The irony is that if Jehovah had been the kind of God that Jonah thought he wanted, the Lord would have taken a giant fly swatter and turned Jonah into road kill.
So, said God, “are you doing well to be this angry?” Jonah didn’t answer, but went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city and there made him a shelter and sat under the shadow that he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord prepared a plant that grew up quickly with big broad leaves, and it gave shade to Jonah to grant relief from the beating sun. It was a kind thing to do.
Mind you, I made the point above that God has a sense of humor. There are many ways to teach men things. God chose this one. He made a shadow to deliver him from his grief and Jonah was very glad because that plant was there. Then God prepared a worm when the morning came the next day. And as a result of the worm the plant died before the day was over.
The next day when the sun came up, God prepared a vehement east wind and the sun beat on the head of Jonah and he passed out. And when he came to, he wished he were dead. “It’s better for me to die than to live” he moaned. And God said to Jonah, “Are you doing the right thing here? Is it good for you to be angry about this plant?” Jonah replied, “Yes! Yes I do well to be angry even to death. I want to die. Then said the Lord:
You have had pity on the gourd, for which you have not laboured, neither made it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
You feel sorry for the plant, he said, and you can’t grant me the right to feel sorry for a city, with women, children and animals? God even feels sorry for the animals. So why did God spare Nineveh? It’s utterly simple. He spared the city because he is gracious.
Perhaps it is becoming clearer what I meant when I said that grace is an Old Testament idea. Throughout the Old Testament, we encounter grace again and again and again. Yet when we read the book, we focus on all the things a Jonah would want, and we gloss over the things that God wants. True, God is strict. He can be severe. It is certain that he is a God of justice. It is true that he incinerated Sodom. But even there, grace was found. Lot along with his wife and daughters were spared. It was not that the wife and daughters were righteous, though Lot was. It was because God is gracious. In the last moments, Lot was standing there, delaying his departure, and the angel had to take him, his wife, and his daughters by the hand and lead them out of the city. Lot was saved by the grace of God. He was saved because he was Abraham’s nephew and God really cared about Abraham. God didn’t want Abraham to grieve over the loss of family.
There’s an odd thing about grace in the New Testament. In all four Gospels, the complete accounts of all Jesus’ life ministry and works, there is not a single occasion where Jesus ever used the word grace. To me, that seems strange. One would think, given the role of grace in New Testament doctrine, that he would have said something about it. But it would be a mistake to think that grace was absent. Speaking of Jesus as a child, Luke described him this way: “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).
That means the graciousness we see all the way through the Old Testament rested on one little boy. The graciousness of God who could have killed a man, but didn’t. The God who healed the sick and let people off again and again, had a graciousness about him that now rested on Jesus.
John also, in speaking of the coming of the Word of God, said: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus would later say that he was “The way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He was more than that. He was also grace personified.
And it is here that we can begin to understand how the Law of God plays into the story. Certainly, no man has ever kept it perfectly, although there is no single precept of the law that a man cannot keep. What covers us when we, like David, through weakness or even hunger, break the law? John gave us the answer: “For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17 NIV).
The Law of God is glorious, but the law is not God. God is gracious. The law does not have that capacity. Without grace, the law can become a tyrant. With grace, it can become a way of life. God is not like a computer. God is personal, and kind, and merciful, and forgiving.
If you should ask what is wrong with the Christian churches right now, the answer is simple enough. Great grace was upon Jesus Christ. Great grace is not upon us. When we condemn our brothers over some doctrinal lapse, this is not grace. When we are unforgiving of one another, when we take offense easily, this is not grace. When we make ourselves, personally or collectively, out to be better than others, this is not grace. Envy and suspicion are a lapse of grace.
The truth is, we may not have received in ourselves enough of God’s grace to be able to share it with others. If we had received it, we would be more gracious. In order for us to be gracious with others, we have to receive grace in ourselves.
Jesus was gracious to sinners far and wide. One day when teaching in a remote location, he fed five thousand people by means of a miracle. What character trait led him to do that? Obviously, it was grace.
On another occasion, John tried to get Jesus to stop a man who was successfully casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Why? Because the man wasn’t one of the “in group.” Mind you, the man wasn’t merely trying to do it, he was actually getting it done. I can’t think where John’s head was, but Jesus told him to let the man alone. And what character trait was exemplified on that occasion? Grace, of course.
When Jesus’ disciples wanted to call down fire on a village in Samaria because the villagers refused to receive Jesus on his way from Jerusalem, Jesus flatly refused. He said, “You don’t know what spirit you are of.” What character trait led Jesus to refuse that option and correct the attitude of his disciples? It was grace, of course.
There was one occasion when Jesus at first seemed to respond ungraciously. He flatly refused to heal a woman’s daughter because she was a Canaanite.
And behold, a Canaanite woman came out from that region, and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came to Him and kept asking Him, saying, “Send her away, for she is shouting out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:22-26 NASB).
If ever there was a remark that could cause offense, this was it. It seems a terribly ungracious thing to say. The event illustrates well the importance of persistence and of not taking offense. The woman’s reply is classic: “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table” (v. 27 NASB). It was at this point that nothing but grace would suffice.
“O woman, your faith is great,” Jesus replied, “be it done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. And his reply is suggestive that faith plays a major role on the road to grace.
Then there was the touching occasion when Jesus was having dinner with a Pharisee and a woman came behind him and began to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them dry with her hair. As the Pharisee watched this, he thought to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Apparently the woman had a reputation that preceded her. Jesus, knowing what the man was thinking, offered a parable and then explained:
And he turned to the woman, and said to Simon, See this woman? I entered into thine house, you gave me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. You gave me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil you did not anoint: but this woman has anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (vv. 44-47).
Forgiveness is one of the greatest of graces. The humility and obvious repentance of the woman could bring only one response from a gracious man. And it is of more than passing interest that love enters the picture alongside grace.
We know that the disciples of Jesus were different men after the empowering on the Day of Pentecost. Something very important happened to them on that day that is easy to overlook. We know they had power, but they had something more: “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).
As I noted earlier, if there is one thing missing among Christians these days, it is that great grace is not with us. Oh, we know that we are under God’s grace. We have experienced his grace toward us and we are grateful for it. Now if we can just learn to show the same grace to one another, we will be on the way to greater things.
Sometimes I wonder if we understand grace at all. Take the example Jesus offered to the Pharisee when the woman had washed his feet with her tears:
There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” (Luke 7:41-42).
Obviously, even the Pharisee could see the answer. And it would seem that each man who knows how much he has been forgiven would find it easy to forgive. The one who has received grace should bestow grace freely.
Finally the words of Paul, “Wherefore we, receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace” (Hebrews 12:28). This is not mere verbiage. Sad to say, the word “grace” has been abused and much of the meaning is lost. When Paul calls on us to have grace it means something. There should be something in us that enables us to serve God with grace, a grace manifested by our graciousness to our fellow man.
And it is in the truth about grace that our dilemma about the Law of God begins to resolve. There are three possible results when a man sins. Punishment, chastisement, and consequences. Grace covers the first two, but the consequences can remain. Forgiveness is simply the grace of God withholding his chastisement. But to reverse the consequences of sin takes a miracle.
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