If you said to the average Christian, Isn’t it wonderful how God extends his grace to people in the New Testament?” you would probably get an immediate affirmation of, “Yes, it is!” But if you said to the same person, “Isn’t it wonderful how God extends his grace to people in the Old Testament?” the response might be less immediate or less positive.
Some in the non-Jewish Christian community have a negative view of the Old Testament. Dr. Ronald Allen, professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Western Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, proposes some reasons for this:
- The Gentile Christian community has distanced itself from Jewish culture. Because the earlier portion of Scripture is called the Old Testament many regard it as passe, viewing only the New Testament as “relevant” Scripture for today.
- Attempts to magnify New Testament grace have led to a steady demeaning of God’s grace in the Old Testament. Some feel that in order to show God’s rich grace in Jesus they must negate the existence of grace before Jesus came, or at least show it as having been intermittent.
This can lead to a theory of two different Bibles, with two almost different Gods: the vindictive Old Testament Judge who manifests no grace; and the merciful New Testament Father who manifests much grace. Dr. Allen describes this fallacy as “thinking wrongly about God because we have not thought rightly about Scripture.”
God extended his grace in both Testaments. While he revealed his grace to the fullest in the New Testament coming of Yeshua, his grace is also displayed throughout Old Testament Scriptures.
God is a God of hesed. The Hebrew Scriptures use the noun hesed to describe God’s grace, manifested as loyal love, in his relationship to his people Israel. No single English word can cover all that hesed implies. Various scholars have translated it as “kindness,” “mercy,” “unfailing love,” “lovingkindness,” “love,” “steadfast love” and “the loyal love Yahweh had for his people.” In 176 out of the 245 times that the word hesed is used, the New American Standard Bible translates it as “lovingkindness.”
God’s Grace in the Call of Abraham
God chose Abram and called him to leave his country, his relatives and his father’s house for a new land to be given him (Genesis 12:1). God did not choose Abram because he was particularly good or holy, nor even because he was young and able to sire many children. God chose Abram merely because of hesed. While neither the word “grace” nor “hesed” appears in the description of God’s relationship with Abram, the concept of God’s grace in choosing him is clear (cf. Romans 4:3-4).
God not only chose Abram to be his own, but also promised to make of him a great nation in whom the entire earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). God’s grace was to be extended not only to one nation, Israel, but to many!
God’s Grace in the Exodus
Abraham’s seed through Isaac and Jacob multiplied greatly (Exodus 1:7). During a four hundred-year period in Egypt the family became a people and the people a nation. God had chosen Israel, but she was not yet in her own land. The new Pharaoh saw the Israelites as a menace, so he enslaved them (Exodus 1:9-10). In their bondage the Israelites cried out to God because they had a relationship with him.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob …and God knew their plight. (Exodus 2:24-25)
God called Moses to deliver Israel. After the ten plagues Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go, but as they began their exodus Pharaoh had second thoughts and pursued them. But God delivered his people. He parted the waters for their escape and drowned their enemies. Certainly that physical deliverance was a manifestation of God’s magnificent grace! In Exodus 15:1-17 we read Israel’s hymn of confession as they celebrated that mighty act of divine grace. Verse 13 is particularly important:
Thou in thy mercy [hesedl also translated lovingkindness] hast led forth the people whom thou hast redeemed; thou hast guided them in thy strength unto thy holy habitation.
God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt made such an impression on Israel that it became central to Jewish faith. Many Jewish liturgies and songs recall the Exodus (cf. Psalm 76:6; Psalm 77:14; Psalm 78:12-16; Psalm 105:23-45; Psalm 135:8-9). Perhaps the best example is Psalm 136, the “Great Hallel” song. The antiphonal response, “for his hesed (mercy) endureth forever,” occurs twenty-six times. Why did God choose Israel, deliver her out of Egypt and extend to her his love and mercy? It was not because Israel was impressive in size, nor because God knew how fortunate he would be to have her as his people, nor because Israel was so submissive and obedient. It was not because of the people’s merit at all. It was because of God’s hesed–his faithfulness and love.
For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God…above all people …upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people. But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers …Know, therefore, that the LORD thy God …keepeth covenant and mercy [hesed]…to a thousand generations… (Deuteronomy 7:6-9)
And even when Israel was unfaithful in her role as God’s agent to minister to the nations, God did not rescind his hesed toward her.
Grace in the Law
The first five books of the Bible are commonly known as the “Law of Moses.” Most Christians do not think of the Law as a setting for God’s grace. Instead they automatically think of the restrictions and obligations placed on Israel. Leviticus is often the first book that comes to mind when we think of the Law, because there we find the dietary laws, the sacrificial system and many other regulations. But the Law, or Torah, is much richer and fuller in meaning.
Far from being a legalistic code or a hypothetical means of earning one’s salvation, the law was a means of maintaining fellowship with Yahweh–not the grounds of establishing it. The same law that demanded a standard of holy living equal to the character of God Himself also made provision for failure under the law by forgiveness and atonement of sin. The context of every and any demand of the law was the atmosphere of grace: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.”1
“Torah” is derived from the Hebrew word yara meaning “to teach.” The idea is “to point out with a finger the path one should walk.” Rather than mere rules and regulations, Torah was God’s instructions to Israel for life. It included commandments and “laws,” but in its greater sense it was given to point the way for Israel so that she might get to where she needed to be in order to fulfill God’s purpose for her. Seen in this light, Torah is God’s gracious provision of direction for his people. God had already established a relationship with Israel. He had called her out and delivered her from her oppressors. But if he had stopped there how would his people have known how to live and how to relate to him, to each other and to strangers? God gave the Law out of hesed, to direct Israel in her relationship with him. God had already established that relationship before the formalizing of the Covenant at Sinai. We see this in the preamble to the Decalogue:
And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, who have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2)
Hesed in the Golden Calf Apostasy
You would think that in response to God’s hesed Israel always would have delighted in her relationship with him, would have lovingly responded to him and sought his instructions. Not so. Exodus 32 describes a great apostasy even as God talked with Moses on Mount Sinai and gave him the divinely written tablets of stone. The Israelites were not waiting patiently for God’s instructions.
And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down …the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said …Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses… we know not what is become of him.,and all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he…fashioned it with an engraving tool, after he had made it a melted calf: and they said, These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. (Exodus 32:1- 4)
Out of his hesed God had called Israel and loved her as a husband loves a wife. And while he was preparing his loving instructions for her, she was unfaithful. God was angry and punished Israel. Yet he did not forsake her, because he is a God of mercy and loyal lovingkindness. We read one of the early declarations of God’s character, his hesed, soon after the golden calf incident:
And the LORD passed by before him [Moses], and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious [from Hebrew hen] long suffering and abundant in goodness [from Hebrew rav hesed, great loyal lovingkindnessj and truth, keeping mercy [hesed] for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty …. (Exodus 34:67a)
God did not wash his hands of his people Israel. He judged, but he forgave. He called his people back and loved them with everlasting hesed.
Grace in the Sacrificial System
Many Christians approach Leviticus and the sacrificial system with an attitude of, “Isn’t that awful! It’s all law and no grace. What a load of restrictions God put on the Jewish people! I’m glad I don’t have to do all those things to have a relationship with God!”
Actually, the sacrificial system was grace. By it, God provided the means of dealing with sin. The offerings were a pathway for lawbreakers,who knew God and were already in relationship with him because of his hesed. The offerings remind us of God’s holiness and the fallenness of the people who know him.
The sacrificial system was a means graciously provided by God for the life of his people; not a way to gain life, but a gracious provision for those whom God had made his own. Even such matters as sin offerings were never seen as any kind of meritorious works. A sin offering is the acknowledgement that one has sinned. The animal’s death is a symbolic appeal to the Lord to accept one’s confession of guilt and grant the forgiveness he has promised. To perform such a sacrifice is an act of faith that trusts in God’s offer. 2
God’s grace is demonstrated another way in the sacrifices. Some sacrifices were peace and communal offerings that entailed feasts and celebrations for the community. The people made their offerings to God, but then they got to eat the “goodies!” Here God’s grace is seen in Israel’s times of joy and celebration.
Grace Upon Grace
The Hebrew Scriptures speak of a God of grace! Out of his hesed (lovingkindness) he chose a people, not only for their own sake, but also for a divine mission. Through them God would extend his love to all peoples. To understand this better we need to look into the New Testament.
The New Testament Charis
Throughout the New Testament one word, charis, is used for grace. In classical Greek charis had three basic meanings: (1) a charming quality that wins favor; (2) a quality of benevolence that gives favor to inferiors; and (3) a response of thankfulness for the favor given.3
The second meaning commended charis for New Testament use, to indicate God’s benevolence toward sinners. In later Greek, charis also carried the sense of force or power. Charis came to signify “goodwill” and “kindness,” often with the idea that the favor was undeserved.
The Hebrew word hesed comes closest to the New Testament concept of grace, as hesed suggests steadfast love, loyal lovingkindness, and most often God’s freely given commitment to love.3
It [hesed] is the character and conduct typical of God within the covenant he freely made with Israel. The kind of spontaneous generosity with which he responds to the people of his covenant is a harbinger of the grace that appeared bringing salvation to all people in Christ.3
Yes, hesed in the Hebrew Scriptures foreshadows the fuller meaning of charis in the New Testament. God’s character did not change, and “his hesed [mercy] is everlasting… ” (Psalm 100:5b).
The Apostle John as a Hebrew Thinker
The Apostle John was a Jew. He thought and spoke as a Hebrew, not as a Greek. John began the prologue to his Gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He probably used the words “In the beginning” to draw his readers back to Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures, which starts with that identical phrase.
In talking about the “Word” John used the word Logos, which usually meant speech or reason and would have been familiar to Greeks. But again the Hebrew thinker would have thought back to Genesis and other portions of Torah as “the Word” draws a parallel with the Hebrew davar Adonai, “the Word of the Lord.” It also draws us to the oft-repeated Vayomer Adonai, “and God said.”
The Word is God’s Word. Psalm 33:6 states, “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” Again this draws the Hebrew thinker back to Genesis and Creation. In chapter 1, verses 4 and 5 of his Gospel, John continued to use words with a Genesis connection: “life,” “light” and “darkness.”
In verse 14, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” John takes us back once again to an Old Testament image of God tabernacling with his people. The Hebrew verb skaina means “to pitch one’s tent” or “to tabernacle.” John parallels the beautiful portrayal of God having a relationship with his people Israel in their very midst, when his “glory filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34).
John was a Hebrew thinker who wrote from his own frame of reference and culture. In light of his Jewishness, consider his words in John 1:14-17 about grace and truth and law.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory,.., as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth …And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
John’s statements are full of good news–and grace! But are we to take verse 17 to mean that only law and no grace was given through Moses, whereas grace and truth came for the first time through Jesus? I believe not. Perhaps the use of the Greek word nomos for “law” is part of the reason that some misunderstand the intent of that verse. Nomos does mean a legal system of rules and regulations. But John did not write from a Greek perspective. He wrote from his Jewish background and perceptions. When John wrote “law” he would not have been thinking nomos, but Torah. And Torah, “the Law,” was God’s instruction to guide Israel in the way of life:
Deuteronomy 30:15: I have set before thee…life (Torah),
Jeremiah 2l :8: Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I set before you the way of life (Torah),
Psalm 16:11: Thou wilt show me the path of life (Torah).
The Law (Torah) was given to Israel to bestow life. It was an expression of God’s love (hesed). John was saying that there was grace in Torah, even in all of Old Testament history, which was God’s instruction to Israel for life!
John did make a true statement when he said, “The Law [Torah] was given through Moses,” but there was great grace in Torah. The Torah was given by God through Moses. It was not Moses’ Law, but God’s. Moses was the mediator, not the lawgiver. If we attack the Law as a set of impossible demands rather than the grace of God for Israel’s life, we do not merely attack Moses, but God himself.
Yes, the second part of John 1:17 is true. Grace and truth did come through Jesus Christ. He embodies grace and truth. He is what grace and truth are all about! We don’t want to contrast law and grace. If we say that there is no grace in the Law, then we must say that there is no truth in it either.
John 1:17 actually expands verse 16, “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.” Yeshua embodies God’s grace in its fullest, and those of us who have come to the Savior have received from this fulness! It is grace upon grace.
In God’s Law given through Moses there was great grace, but in Yeshua there is greater grace! There is grace upon grace given through the Son. It is a concept of “better over good,” not “good over bad.” Old Testament grace may seem dim in comparison to New Testament grace, because New Testament grace in Jesus is so great. Yeshua is “the Light of the world” and all who follow him shall have the light [instruction] of life that overshadows all other light.
The Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. What God did before, he now does better. The glory of God was there when he “dwelt among us” or “tabernacled with us,” but now we behold God’s glory as he dwells with us in Yeshua who is “full of grace and truth.”
And best of all, everyone has free access to this grace of God, (his hesed) whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
- Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, p.63 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978)
- Ronald M. Hals, Grace and Faith in the Old Testament, p.66 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980)
- Geoffrey Bromiley, Ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. Two, E-J, pp. 548-553 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982)