Over the years I’ve heard many discussions about law and grace. Those who focus on God’s law can invariably be heard expressing concerns about extreme grace (although I believe that grace, by its very nature, is extreme). Others focus on grace to the exclusion of law and accuse those that emphasise the importance of the law of being legalistic. So where should we land between what appears to be two polar opposites?
The answer is well illustrated in the life of Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father. When he found out that Mary, the woman he was betrothed to be married to, was pregnant the Bible records, “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19 NIV).
At this time Joseph didn’t know about the miraculous conception (that information came later from an angel in a dream) and so, faced by his wife-to-be’s unfaithfulness and resulting pregnancy, how did Joseph act? “Joseph … was faithful to the law.” These words mean that Joseph was a person who obeyed God’s law and applied its rules fairly and without favouritism. So, what did the law proscribe for Joseph to do? The answer is found in Deuteronomy 22:23:
“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death.”
According to the law Joseph was within his rights to have Mary stoned to death (as well as the man she committed adultery with). But “Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet …” What two marvellous words they are, “and yet”. If there was no “and yet” Mary could have been stoned to death thus killing the baby Jesus inside her womb – no messiah, no salvation! Or Mary could have been ridiculed with a public divorce that would mean she’d be an unmarried mother and unlikely to ever be married. When her parents died she’d have no means of support and it’s likely that her and Jesus’ lives would be cut short – no messiah, no salvation!
Joseph was faithful to the law and yet he chose to express grace – and so should we.
We see this sort of justice beautifully illustrated by the prophet Isaiah in Scripture on which Joseph had no doubt meditated many times. In Isaiah 42:1-4 the prophet foresees the coming Messiah and what He would be like: a man filled with God’s Spirit and bringing justice to the nations. But this justice would not be about retribution, punishment, judgment or the application of the law. Isaiah used a metaphor to describe the justice Messiah would bring: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.” Justice in this context means “Compassion for the weak and exhausted.” Reeds were used to make pens but damaged reeds were broken and thrown on the fire. Smouldering wicks would fall into a bowl of water on the floor under the lamp and be extinguished. But the servant of God spoken of in Isaiah 42 (and fulfilled in Jesus, Matt. 12:18-21) would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick. He would be compassionate to the weak and exhausted, to the bruised and burnt out.
This is the sort of father Jesus grew up with and no doubt observed for many years as he operated in grace rather than the legalistic application of the law. And this is the sort of man Jesus became, as we see all through the Gospels, as He met battered and bruised people with love, tenderness, compassion and grace. Like father, like son – and we’re called to be like Jesus!
Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. Paul the apostle taught, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law” because, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour” (Romans 13:10 NIV). The most-often quoted verse in the New Testament from the Law is, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
In your dealings with people you will sometimes feel tempted to quote or execute the Law but remember the character of Joseph – and Jesus – who were faithful to the Law, and yet …