The Anchor Bible Dictionary defines grace as “the favor of God to human beings” or “unmerited divine favor.” Understanding the idea of grace in the Old Testament requires a slew of Hebrew words and concepts—namely, God’s mercy, favor, love, pleasure, covenant, approval, and blessing. Consequently, people often think that because of the amount of laws and commands, the idea of God’s grace was somehow foreign to the Israelites and the writers of the Old Testament. However, that is certainly not the case. Enter the New Testament Greek word charis. Wherever you see charis / ‘grace’ in the New Testament, you almost always see the same words or ideas from the Old Testament (listed above) nearby in the context. Charis is such a big idea, it is essentially a central term for all of Paul’s letters, as well as the book of Acts, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. Now, let’s try to expand on these basic observations a bit. God’s grace is…
The fulfillment of God’s promises—What seemed to be at stake for the New Testament writers when talking about grace was the degree in which God had been faithful in doing for Israel all God had promised throughout history. God had made unconditional promises to Abraham, to David, and the people of Israel, yet they were suffering under the oppression of the Romans and in need of deliverance. “Grace,” then, describes the whole work of God in Jesus, from before time through the sending of the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth. As in God’s promises to Abraham, God’s grace is extended not only to Israel, but to the whole world, and that deliverance is perfected and made complete on the Cross.
Unfathomable—Because of the way God had chosen to fulfill promises in Jesus Christ (the fuller revelation of God’s heart), God’s grace becomes even more difficult for us to comprehend. Prior to the cross, we might be tempted to think that grace was only material blessing or riches. 2 Baruch (see the poem to the right) is a Jewish pseudepigraphical text thought to have been written in the late 1st century AD (around the same time much of the New Testament was written). 2 Baruch is not included in the regular canon of scriptures, but it reflects how the Jewish understanding of “grace” had come to evoke the full scope of the unfathomable mysteries of God. The author concludes that it is impossible to begin to really see the unfathomableness of God’s grace until you have experienced the grace of God. The poem from 2 Baruch will remind you of Romans 11:33-36, a doxology (hymn of praise) on the grace of God to the Gentiles.
Who can equal your goodness, O Lord?
For it is incomprehensible.
Or who can fathom your grace,
which is without end?
Or who can understand your intelligence?
Or who can narrate the
thoughts of your spirit?
Or who of those born can hope
to arrive at these things,
apart from those to whom you
are merciful and gracious?
—2 Baruch, 75:1-5
Empowering—The more that grace becomes even more unfathomable to the people who have received it by faith, the more those people are empowered by it. God’s grace empowers us to do all the things God has done in Christ. Grace empowers us to live in the present, to forgive, to love, to show mercy, to heal, to overcome, to reach, and to bless others. This can only happen through a community committed to knowing, expressing, and worshipping a God of grace.
May we be that community of grace, and may you and those around you experience God’s grace in 2018!
Pastor Paul Stephen Olson