15.(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”)
We will look at the testimony of John the Baptist shortly, as this verse is repeated in verse 30 as a part of a fuller testimony from John.
16. And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
John does not explain what he means by “grace upon grace”, though in the next verse he refers to the grace that was the work of the incarnate Jesus. But it is worth pausing a moment and thinking about the general grace of God.
God is gracious to all people. We all can give thanks for the gift of the planet, which is our home. It is not a perfect home, as we know from aspects of it that are sometimes not gentle towards humans, such as earthquakes and hurricanes and forest fires but, somehow, the world’s population has nearly tripled in my lifetime and is approaching 8 billion people.
As Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards in their book, The Privileged Planet, put it, “With respect to habitability, our existence depends on such local variables as a large stabilizing moon, plate tectonics, intricate biological and nonbiological feedback, greenhouse effects, a carefully placed circular orbit around the right kind of star, early volatile elements—providing asteroids and comets, and outlying giant planets to protect us from frequent ongoing bombardment by comets. It depends on a Solar System placed carefully in the Galactic Habitable Zone in a large spiral galaxy formed at the right time. It presupposes the earlier explosions of supernovae to provide us with the iron that courses through our veins and the carbon that is the foundation of life. It also depends on a present rarity of such nearby supernovae. Finally, it depends on an exquisitely fine-tuned set of physical laws, parameters, and initial conditions.”
Life is a gift, and we all are allowed to enjoy it in a world that is provided with air for us to breathe, water for us to drink, and food that supplies us with energy. And it is not a bland world. It is filled with a wide assortment of animals and plants, colors, smells, tastes, and textures. It is a place made for all of us to inhabit.
We have also received the gift of reproduction. The sexual experience that leads to reproduction is, in itself, a gift. But the greater gift is new life. This new life calls out for the formation of families and relationships, and for commitment and love. Out of families come society. Out of society comes the opportunity for cooperation and for sharing the gifts that individuals have discovered. Thus there is even a creative progression happening within society that has taken us from living in stick huts to living in homes with central heat, cooling, plumbing, and electrical power. Because of the bounty our creativity has not had to be limited to life preservation. Most people have time and energy to create art, gardens, imaginative foods, clothing styles, music, and so forth. Our lives are filled with interesting things to do. There is a great deal for which all of us can be thankful.
17. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The law from Moses was the Ten Commandments, of course, but it was more fully understood as all the regulations contained in the Books of the Law that we know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
There is confusion and disagreement about the significance of the Law in Christian theology and I won’t be able to resolve these concerns here. However, I will make four general points about the Law that I think makes for a good framework for appropriate understanding.
The Law is Good
The Old Testament Law was given by God to Israel, to the New Testament Church and, really, to all people, as a guideline for appropriate living. David wrote, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119.105). The 119th Psalm, 176 verses, is dedicated to praising and recognizing the value of the Law. The world today, especially Western society is becoming increasingly unmoored from this law that once provided the foundational thinking in Western culture. The costs have been many, from psycho-sexual identity chaos; to cavalier treatment of the unborn; to truth by self-determination and, ironically, truth by mob; to the idolization of individual freedom; to the loss of individual responsibility; to the embrace of humanism and scientific materialism.
As our society is losing touch with the Law so loved by David, it is also losing the lamp that he used. So we are stumbling around in the dark. And the real problem about stumbling around in the dark is not that you tend to bump into things and injure yourself. The real problem is that you have no idea where you’re going. This is not stumbling around in the dark in your own house. You can pick your way around your own house with your eyes closed. This is a stumbling around in the dark out in the woods. This is disorientation.
All the Law is Good
Many current theologians hold to an interpretive framework that divides Old Testament Law into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. This view is presented in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which has been a strong influence on Protestant Christianity for nearly 500 years. The basic thinking behind this is that the framework provides an explanation for how Christians can still be bound to the moral law but are not bound to the civil and ceremonial laws that applied only to theocratic Israel. It also is an attempt to resolve the apparent conundrum between Jesus’ assertion: Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5.18), and Paul’s statement, You are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6.14).
The resolution to the apparent contradiction is not to be found in separating Old Testament Law into categories that, however reasonable they may appear to us, would have been unrecognizable to the Hebrew people to whom the Law was given. The resolution is to be found in the recognition that all of the Law remains in place but that all of the Law has been clarified and given deeper meaning through the work and commentary of Jesus Christ.
The primary example of this has to do with animal sacrifices. It is not that the law requiring blood sacrifice to pay for sin has been abolished. Rather, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross provided a better and permanent single sacrifice that would serve in place of the animal sacrifices. The sacrifice of Christ, notably, was not one that would have to be performed over and over. Christ’s sacrifice paid for sins of the past, sins of the present, and sins yet to come (which is really good for all of us living 2000 years after the sacrifice.)
Another broad example has to do with the call for the Hebrews to remain distinct from all other people. This command had implications for moral behavior, certainly, but also in such areas as dietary restrictions and attire. But with Christ the identity of his people changed from a racial/nationalistic identity to an identity of the spirit. Christ’s people are to be identified as a people after his own heart—those who love him and serve him out of a sense of gratitude and personal identity connection. One illustration of this change came via Peter’s vision that called on him to eat unclean foods. He was resistant but the message from God was unmistakable, as was the connection of the message with the command that Peter go to a group of Gentiles and give them the Gospel message.
The Church dealt similarly with the issue of circumcision. While it had been an important symbolic distinction for the people of Israel, the need for circumcision in order to be included in the Church was specifically rejected. But to understand such changes it is important to note that the regulations were not abolished—they were made more mature. Christians are still called to be distinct from people of the world. However, the distinction that used to be superficial is now to be a distinction that is substantial. Religious performance is worthless in this new understanding. Having integrity, being sincere, loving one another, loving God, being honest, being humble, being a genuine servant of Jesus Christ—this became the fulfillment of the Law, as required by Jesus. It was no longer a situation in which behavior of the flesh would hopefully represent that which was going on in the spirit, it would be a behavior of the spirit that would manifest itself in the actions of the flesh.
Another point to make about the Law is that it is and was subject to manipulation. One famous example of this is that the Israelites were forbidden to work on the Sabbath. Out of this regulation came the idea of a Sabbath day’s journey (about 3/4 mile), which was the limit on how far one could travel on that day before the travel became work. This rule was not biblically specified but it got into the rulebooks by tradition. Then a work-around made its way onto the scene. If someone was desperate to get somewhere on the Sabbath but still wanted to follow the law, he would carry a small tent with him. After traveling 3/4 mile he would set the tent up, establishing a new home and, therefore, a new starting point for the Sabbath day’s journey. This process could be repeated a number of times. This is a good example of following the letter of the law while treating the spirit of the Law with contempt. Sadly, the religious leaders in Israel in the first century leaned heavily in the direction of being legalists of this sort.
In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew Jesus entered into a debate with the scribes and Pharisees over the question of the value of the traditions. They wanted to know why the disciples were not ritually washing their hands before eating, in accordance with the traditions of the elders.
Jesus ignored their question and turned his attention to another tradition. Israelites were commanded to honor their fathers and mothers which, in a very practical sense, meant that they had to take care of them in their old age. The elders had cooked up a loophole which allowed men to “dedicate” their wealth to God, which meant putting it in the hands of the religious leaders. The loophole favored the donor because he would be able to keep his wealth for the duration of his life. For the religious leaders it was a good long-term investment because the “dedicated” money would go to the religious establishment at the time of the death of the donor. For the parents it meant scrambling for some other source of support. The result may have been extreme poverty and early death.
Jesus confronting them, then, by pointing out the hypocrisy of their traditions and how they revised the Law of God, technically, but in reality contradicted God’s laws. The conundrum for the common folk was that they were supposed to obey the religious leaders, since the leaders held the roles of spiritual guides, legislators, and judges within the Jewish theocracy. Jesus, speaking to a crowd, said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23.2-4). So, in thinking about biblical law it is also important to recognize that there was a whole set of traditions within Judaism that even Jesus told the people they must follow. But the establishment of the New Testament Church under the authority of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles put an end to the traditional regulations. The authority of the religious leaders, through Christ’s work, had been transferred.
The Law Brings Condemnation
The final point to make about the Law is that the light has its dark side. What I mean by this is that it exposes sin. A literal example of this is a dirty house. You may be a lazy housekeeper, disinclined to picking things up or vacuuming. This may hardly be noticed if you keep the shades drawn and keep the lighting low. But open up the shades and turn on the lights—suddenly the dust bunnies are everywhere, the open pizza box can be seen peeking out from under the couch, and you can write your name in the dust of the side-table.
The New Testament, especially Paul, had a great deal to say about the law’s condemning nature. His point is that, though the law was good, its effect was to bring condemnation on the people because the people were incapable of keeping the law. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came in such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? (2 Corinthians 3.6-8). Aside from calling the law “the ministry of death”, Paul referred to it as a captor: Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3.23-25)
So when John speaks of the Law coming through Moses, he has in mind its positive elements, namely that it gives direction for good behavior and it reveals the heart of god; its dilutions, as caused by the religious establishment; and that it had a final effect of condemning, because of the rather schizoid nature of humans, longing for the good but often choosing the evil. So the law is in the final analysis, insufficient. This reveals the importance of the last phrase of verse 17, that both grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
Grace is a crucial element of Christian thinking. Under all other religions, salvation is achieved through works, i.e., doing good, however the religion may define it. In Hinduism that may mean that you never eat cows and you are carful not to smash bugs. In Islam, it may mean you blow yourself up in a crowded marketplace filled with infidels. In humanism it may mean you endorse all people’s sexual identities (though rapists, pedophiles, polygamists, zoophilists have not yet been invited into the club). But, aside from the difficulty humans have in understanding what “good” means, there is the fatal error of believing that conformity to any moral system or any system of works righteousness will result in salvation.
Salvation brings its own range of concepts. For the Hindu salvation is a release from the cycle of rebirth into miserable existence. It is becoming one with the Universe and losing self-identify. (This is my sense of the meaning of hell.) For the Muslim, heaven is a wondrous place for all, especially the men, who will possess a harem of beauties answering their every whim. For the humanists there is no heaven…but they get to feel good about themselves, as long as they support all people’s self-identifications.
Paul writes at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,but have not love, I gain nothing. Here Paul lists a number of amazing actions taken by his hypothetical self that seem like they would earn that heavenly ticket. But Paul says all of these works add up to nothing without love. That raises the question as to whether a person can achieve heaven by loving enough. Is love a kind of work that people can achieve? (I just need to be loving and everything will be fine.)
Well, being loving, just like the other items in Paul’s list of achievements, is certainly of value, and most beneficial as a guideline for living. The problem is that love is essentially a word that stands for righteous behavior. Jesus said that the Law is summed up as loving God first, and then loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Love is about personal attachment and empathy and attraction, but it is more about action. It is about acting justly and with kindness. It is about humbling ourselves before God. Then the problem we find ourselves in is that we’re pretty bad at doing the very thing that is most important for us to do.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3.23). The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14.2,3). As it turns out, we are all like our distant ancestors, Adam and Eve. We may want to be good, we may strive to be good, but we just can’t do it.
The Bible tells us what we know but don’t want to admit, which is that we are terribly flawed. We want to think that getting into heaven works sort of like graduating from high school. Teachers grade on the curve. There are always knuckleheads around, making our apathetic efforts look pretty good. We can drift along and still graduate. We can focus occasionally and still do well enough to get into a good college. If a corrupt society can show that much grace or willingness to tolerate imperfection, certainly a gracious God would do the same, right?
But God hasn’t explained it to us like that. He has said that he is perfect and that, in order for us to be his children, we also must be perfect. This is where the grace comes in. The blood of Jesus, similar to the blood of the animal sacrifices but at a much advanced efficacy, covers our sins. This is the Gift Jesus gives. His work makes us holy. In the court of everlasting justice, when we stand in the dock, absolutely guilty of crimes deserving of execution, our Advocate proclaims us guiltless. It seems like cheating. But that is where the Christian stands—certain of deserving the judgment of death, and certain of being declared innocent because of the blood of Jesus. This is grace.
Grace is receiving an undeserved blessing. Eastern religions have a concept known as “Karma”. Some people like to “call up” Karma. They will say, “What goes ‘round comes ‘round,” and what they mean is that the Universe will “reward” you for your ill behavior. Karma is saying, “I don’t judge people…but the thought that judgment is waiting to pounce on you makes me happy. No, I’m not judgmental!” There is some truth to the idea of sins coming back around, of course. People who tend to be abusive make a lot of people angry. Most of these people will, as a consequence, exercise avoidance tactics, leaving the abusive person more and more isolated. And eventually the abusive person will run up against someone more powerful, or simply over time lose power. That’s when the vultures begin to circle.
We feel like cheering when horrible people are finally knocked to the ground. But Karma is like being on the inside of a trash compactor. It eventually crushes all of us. It is Law without Grace.
I suppose it is impossible to receive Grace without acknowledging the need. This is why John the Baptist preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” It is why repentance is intertwined with the Christian idea of salvation by Grace. Repent in order to be forgiven of your sins, and believe that Jesus will hand you the gift of salvation. Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2.17). In this remark Jesus not only employs a metaphor, he also employs a little sarcasm. When he says “righteous” he means “self-righteous”. To follow the thread of his metaphor, he is saying that there are no healthy people—only those who imagine themselves to be healthy, and those who know they are not.
Recognizing your own sin is not an exercise in navel-gazing. You don’t have to dig and muster up your deepest inappropriate thoughts that may well be temptations you have rightfully rejected. You simply have to stop and think about the clear and obvious actions you’ve taken in your life. Think about the times you’ve made cruel remarks to others. Or the times when someone needed your help and you came up with a lame excuse to avoid helping. Or think of the things you’ve stolen. Or think of the promises you failed to keep. Or think of your self-indulgence. Or think of the times when you behaved recklessly, causing damage as a result. Or think of the times you have been judgmental, or complaining, or played the part of the victim. Think of the events of your life where you simply go through the motions, wishing for all the world you could be somewhere else, and failing to take the opportunity to encourage someone else. Think of the time you’ve wasted. Think of your callousness towards the environment. Think about your really bad decisions…and ask yourself whether those decisions were from inexperience, or were they from suppression of truths you did not want to accept. Maybe there are other questions you might think of as a means of examining your own heart.
The point of this is not so you will regularly go through this exercise and thereby remain in a place of despising yourself. This is only a necessary exercise if you happen to think you’re pretty wonderful. And, yes, as a human being God has made you and you are pretty wonderful. There is much about you that you should be thankful for and you should be joyful about. But there is also—and I say this without having ever met you, but because you are human—perversion in your soul. You, like all of creation, but especially like all of humanity, are a broken version of who you are intended to be. It’s necessary for you to see this in order to be able to repent. You are guilty.
And let me say this about guilt because I think people are all too happy these days to lay guilt on others, especially if by doing so they can gain personal or political advantage. But that is a kind of legalism that says you have to pay in some way for the sins of your past…or for the sins of those of your tribe, or for the sins of your ancestors. All this is false guilt someone is trying to lay on you. Guilt from the voice of the Holy Spirit is only about getting you to repent. Repentance is somewhat about feeling bad about something you’ve done, it is somewhat about making amends with others, but it is mostly about making changes in yourself. If you have been in the habit of stealing work time to do your own business, it means you will reform and spend 100% of your work hours doing the business of your job. Where you have been in the habit of lying you will turn to speaking the truth. Where you have lived selfishly you will strive to make service a routine of your live. And so on. Any guilt laid on you that is somehow attached to your identity and is therefore inescapable—this is a false guilt.
But the great gift of God’s grace is that, even though it calls for repentance and a turn to holiness on our parts, it does not depend on the success of our turn to holiness. Again, it is not our good works that bring us salvation. Our salvation is God’s gift. We turn to holiness in response to God. We turn to holiness out of gratitude for what he has done. We turn to holiness out of recognition that Jesus speaks the truth and that the only way to live life fully is in obedience to his guidance. We turn to holiness out of a sense of identifying with God. This is the way God is; he is our Father; therefore, this is how we can be like him and represent him. We turn to holiness because this is how we can love him. Jesus himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14.15).