For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
Each Gospel, in its own way, begins by declaring that the story it is about to tell has
its roots in "the scriptures"--what we now call the Old Testament, what was then called
the Law and the Prophets. Matthew identifies Jesus Christ as the son of David and the son
of Abraham, goes on with a genealogy, and then throughout stresses the theme of
fulfillment of prophecy. Mark, after a kind of title verse, begins, "As it is written in
the prophets . . . ." Luke identifies John the Baptist as one who will go "in the spirit
and power of Elijah," and the song of Zacharias presents Jesus as the one promised by the
prophets in accord with the original promise to Abraham.
John focuses on a somewhat different connection, a more subtle one. His opening words
immediately bring to mind not the promise to Abraham or the messages of the prophets, but
the story of creation. "In the beginning was the Word . . ." Rather than focus on the
literal continuity, presenting Jesus as the descendant of David, he points a deeper level
of the relationship with the past.
In fact, he seems to present more of a contrast than a continuity. "The law was given by
Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." There is a style of Christianity which
seems to stop here. It tends to see the New Testament as replacing the old, to see the
grace of the new covenant abolishing the law of the old. It has some support in this from
Acts and the Epistles, which tell of the emergence of a "Gentile" Christianity which was
not bound by the laws of circumcision and diet, but misses the point badly if it fails to
recognize that the ethical laws were still in force. The Epistle to the Romans contains
the primary statement of "justification by faith alone, without the works of the law," but
before that statement is made Paul has already insisted that God will
render to every one according to what that individual has done; To those who by patient
continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: But to
those who are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness,
indignation and wrath; Tribulation and anguish, upon every human soul who does evil, the
Jew first, and also the Gentile; But glory, honor, and peace, to every one who does good
works, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: . . (Rom 2:6-10).
The issue is handled very clearly, and to my mind definitively, in the Sermon on the
Mount. The pivotal verse follows very shortly after the opening Beatitudes: "Do not think
that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy them, but
to fulfill them." The sermon then goes on to illustrate what this means. It is not enough
simply to refrain from killing--one must refrain from the anger that lies within. It is
not enough to refrain from adultery--one must refrain from the lust that lies within.
There is not the slightest suggestion that if one refrains from anger, it is all right to
kill, or that if one refrains from lust, it is all right to commit adultery. That would
clearly be absurd. The external law is not destroyed at all. Paul, incidentally, knew this
perfectly well. The same letter to the Romans contains what is perhaps the classic
statement of the principle: "Love works no ill to the neighbor: therefore love is the
fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:10).
This principle is not entirely absent from the Old Testament. When he was asked what were
the greatest of the commandments, Jesus had no trouble citing the commandments that we
love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength and the neighbor as
ourselves. When he said that all the law and the prophets depended on these two, he was
saying that these loves fulfilled the law. Or again, the prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time
when the law would be written on people's hearts, when it would be so internalized that
there would be no need for anyone to teach anyone else. Or for one last instance, one of
the pervasive themes of the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm is that the law is a delight.
It is in this spirit, surely, that we must read the words of our text, "For the law came
by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." The grace and truth of Jesus Christ
do not abolish or replace the law of Moses. They fulfill it. In its most extreme form,
this principle says that not one jot or tittle shall pass from the law until it is all
At this point, though, we need to move with some caution. It is easy enough to identify
some laws as ritual rather than ethical, and to find good Gospel warrant for believing
that these ritual laws are no longer binding. But there is a quite vast repertory of
fairly detailed laws about behavior, about how we are to treat each other, that can
neither be automatically adopted nor unthinkingly dismissed. It is hard to imagine that
anyone, for example, would claim that the laws concerning slavery should still be in
force. It is not all that long ago, though, that the law prohibiting women from wearing
men's garments was taken very seriously.
In a different but related vein, many of the laws name specific punishments for those who
violate them, and there are still today those who argue for the death penalty on these
grounds. I am not aware that anyone goes so far, though, as to insist that the mode of
execution should in certain instances be stoning, or who believe that the death penalty
should be mandatory for children who curse their parents.
It seems, actually, that we tend to be much more selective about our literalism that we
would like to believe, and it also seems that our selectivity is much more subjective that
we might like to admit. If a law offends our own moral sense, we tend to regard it as
obviously abrogated. Of course we do not execute children for cursing their parents. If,
on the other hand, a law agrees with our own moral sense, especially if it prohibits
something that really offends us, we tend to regard it as still authoritative. Of course
incest should be forbidden. The Bible says so.
What we are actually doing by this kind of thinking has nothing to do with actual respect
for the authority of Scripture. Quite the contrary, we are using Scripture to confirm our
own moral convictions and ignoring it when it refuses to agree with us. It is painfully
clear who the authority really is.
The dilemma is real. There are Biblical laws which we simply cannot, in good conscience,
accept. At the same time, there is the obvious danger of allowing our fallible consciences
to cancel out some portions of Scripture and retain others in the service not of true
justice but of our own convenience or prejudice.
The way out of the dilemma, I believe, is to listen to the message of our consciences that
selectivity is necessary, but then to be honest in the effort to select on the basis of
principles rather than on the basis of emotional reactions. We will still have to choose.
We are choosing even if we choose to obey all the laws absolutely literally. The first law
of the Lord's providence is that we act in freedom according to reason. This means that
there is no way to avoid the responsibility of choice, but it also gives reason a critical
role in the process of choosing--again, to select on the basis of principles.
One such principle is offered us in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus addresses the issue of
divorce, and in fact sets a standard stricter than that of Old Testament law. When the
Pharisees ask him about this, he says, "Moses gave you this commandment because of the
hardness of your hearts" (Mt 19:8). The laws concerning divorce are being challenged not
because they are too strict but because they are too lenient. The law of love is more
demanding than the law of Moses.
Grace and truth call for a deep and stringent self-discipline. They do not allow us to
indulge our lower emotions by punishing out of anger or vengefulness, by ostracizing out
of fear, by penalizing out of envy. In the specific instance of children who curse their
parents, the law of love begins by disciplining us, the parents. We must not act out of
wounded ego or simply to defend our power or status. The Lord's behavior provides us with
a very down to earth example. "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone."
While that principle may prevent action out of self-righteousness or wounded ego, it may
not tell us what we should do. Here again we may turn to the example set by our Lord, and
say that in contemporary jargon, his response to transgression is not reactive but
proactive. It looks back at what has happened, yes, but then it looks ahead at what good
may result. "Go, and sin no more." Whatever it chooses to do is intended to achieve
particular results. This is the burden of the familiar statement in John 3:17: "For God
did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him,
might be saved." The occasion for the coming was the sorry state of the world, the sins of
the human race. The purpose of the coming was not to punish for those sins but to deliver
from them: "You shall name him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins."
The sins were violations of the law. Salvation would come not so much from executing the
penalties prescribed by the law as by "laying the axe to the root of the tree," living and
teaching the laws of the heart without which the laws of outward behavior cannot fully be
What does this have to do specifically with Christmas? There are some laws that apply to
us so inevitably that we sometimes do not even think of them as laws. We are bound by laws
of physics and chemistry, for example. These provide a kind of context in which all our
behavior occurs. By coming in the flesh, the Lord lived within the limits of those laws.
We are also bound by the laws of biology. We cannot escape being born as infants, being
physically helpless, having to learn about our environment and how to cope with it. In the
manger scene above all, we see the Lord accepting all the limitations implicit in this.
We see, for an instant, the whole range of reality--divine love itself filling an infant
form subject to even the most physical of laws. It is no word game to say that this is
love fulfilling the law.
That "law" includes laws of growth and of gradualism. It forbids, if you will,
instantaneous transformation. It mandates dependence, interdependence, learning, and the
faithful pursuit of goals. It forbids "passing by on the other side" and demands
involvement and accountability. It forbids perpetual youth and requires aging and death.
The manger scene says that all these "facts of life" which immerse us in the mundane can
be filled with divine love. They can be the vehicles through which that love expresses
itself. The life of this world can be filled with grace, "graceful."
In short, the manger scene presents us with that full range from the infinite divine to
the powerless physical. These, so to speak, are the outer limits within which our own
lives are lived. Christmas calls us not to narrow those lives--not to seek inward
wholeness by disengagement from the world or to become so focused on achievement that we
allow our souls to starve. It calls us to accept all the laws of heavenly community with
that acknowledgment of their source that opens us to gratitude and love. "The law was
given by Moses, and--there is no "but" in the Greek text--grace and truth came by Jesus