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Character of God

The Uniquely Biblical View of Grace

Grace is such a familiar word that we often miss the depth of its meaning. In this episode, Tim, Jon, and Carissa look at how the Hebrew Bible uses the word grace to communicate one of the core attributes of God.
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Episode Details

September 7, 2020
72 min

Episode Details

September 7, 2020
72 min

Show Notes

QUOTE

“In English, to show grace to somebody usually means they’ve done nothing to merit or warrant it. And that’s not how it's used in the Old Testament. You can show generosity toward someone who deserves it and still call it graciousness. But you could say that the most profound of graciousness are when somebody doesn’t deserve it.”

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • In both Hebrew and English, the word grace can describe how we treat others as well as how we present ourselves.
  • The Bible shows us that favor is the natural response to displays of beauty, called grace. What’s unusual and uniquely biblical is the idea that the highest form of grace is when favor is given toward those who don’t deserve it.
  • God names this full understanding of grace as one of his attributes, and the New Testament writers see Jesus as the ultimate realization of God’s grace to all people.

The Dual Meaning of Grace

In part one (0:00–13:22), Tim opens a discussion on the Hebrew word for grace. He says that much of the Bible’s vocabulary about grace has worked its way into our modern English. The Hebrew word in Exodus 34:6-7 is khanun, which comes from the root khen. The Hebrew words for compassionate and gracious appear almost exclusively with one another in the Bible.

In modern English, we use the word grace to describe many different things, including how people treat others (gracious) and how people present themselves (graceful). Tim says this same dual meaning exists in Hebrew. By tracing the word through the Old Testament, we can gain a better understanding of what grace is and how we can depend on it.

Grace and Beauty in the Bible

In part two (13:22–26:45), Tim goes through a few unique uses of the word grace in the Hebrew Bible.

Psalm 45:1-2
My heart is overflowing with a good word; I speak my verses to the king; My tongue is the pen of a speedy scribe. You are more fair than all the sons of adam; Grace is poured out on your lips; For God has blessed you forever.

The metaphor here depicts the king's words as dripping with grace. Either the manner of speech or the outcome of the speech is filled with grace. Tim points to another example in the opening section of Proverbs.

Proverbs 4:9
She will place on your head a garland of grace; She will present you with a crown of beauty.

Jon points out that in these examples, grace is being connected to aesthetic beauty. Wisdom is compared to a beautiful crown of grace. Elegant and beautiful things are sources of grace, and they cause the viewer or listener to respond with favor. Tim says grace is not just the beauty of an object but how it is perceived as beautiful by the observer. Grace generates a favorable response.

But this raises an interesting question: Do we only show people grace when they deserve it? What about when someone isn’t graceful or doesn’t warrant favor?

Favor Toward the Unfavorable

In part three (26:45–38:45), Tim walks Jon and Carissa through examples of grace used in a relational sense, when grace is something you either give or do to someone.

Esther 7:3
Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.”

Proverbs 14:31
He who oppresses the poor taunts his maker, But he who is gracious to the needy honors his maker.

In both cases, favor is given toward groups that are not naturally favorable. The most genuine acts of grace are shown toward those who don’t deserve it. Grace in this sense is the ability to treat something as beautiful and deserving of favor when it is not.

Carissa points out that one of the most consistent uses of favor in English translations is “to find [or give] favor in the eyes of someone.” This is seen in the story of Joseph.

Genesis 39:4
So Joseph found favor in his sight and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge.

Potiphar seeing “grace” in Joseph generates a response of favor when he makes him his household manager. Tim says the phrase “find favor in the eyes” is used 47 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and most often the person who “finds favor” is in a subordinate position or vulnerable. In other words, the favor given is a gift.

For most of human history, receiving a gift put you in the giver’s debt. For example, Joseph received his master’s favor and was entrusted with his whole household—a gift but also an increased responsibility.

The Uniquely Biblical View of Grace

In part four (38:45–53:20), the team talks about how God shows khen in the Bible. The first person in the Bible to receive God’s grace or favor is Noah.

Genesis 6:8
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

Noah is presented as someone who earns God’s favor by being blameless. But this is set in contrast with Jacob, who cheats and is cheated repeatedly. Yet Jacob also says that God has “dealt graciously with me” (Genesis 33:11). Both Noah and Jacob receive favor from God—one for his righteous deeds and one despite his repeated deception.

This, says Tim, is a uniquely biblical value. Many cultures believe in showing grace to those who deserve it. But the Bible is the first place that elevated the value of showing generosity and grace toward those who do not deserve it. This was scandalous to the ancient world and is still surprising today.

Understanding how God transcends human reason to show favor toward those who don't deserve it helps us to understand the significance of Exodus 34 and the golden calf story. Not only does God not banish the people, he shows them favor because graciousness is one of his defining characteristics.

Honor-Shame Culture and Grace

In part five (53:20–62:50), Jon asks about how grace is understood in honor-shame societies—a culture where your ultimate sense of worth and value come from external forces like your social rank or family status. Tim says in these cultures, acts of grace associate you with others and put them in your debt.

Tim and Carissa also discuss how mercy is similar and different from both grace and compassion. Tim says that compassion seems to focus on an emotional response that fuels a behavior, while grace is driven by our perspective and whether we choose to see something as deserving of our favor.

Tim reminds us that gracious and compassionate appear together often in Scripture. The concepts of compassion and grace form a whole idea of God’s emotional response of love toward people who don’t deserve it.

Grace Fully Realized

In part six (62:50–end), Tim shows how Jesus is presented as the realization of God’s grace in John 1. The Gospel according to John compares Jesus to the glory of God on Mount Sinai that comes to dwell in the tabernacle. Moses gave Israel grace through the Torah, but Jesus fully realizes the grace of God for all people.

John 1:14, 16-17
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth… For of his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the Torah was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.

Additional Resources

Show Music

  • “Defender (Instrumental)” by Tents
  • “Friends Circle” by Sitting Ducks

Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.

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