Born Under the Law
During the calendar year of most non-liturgical churches the Lord’s birth in Bethlehem is celebrated longer than any other aspect of his person or ministry, longer even than his death for our sins and his resurrection. And yet, there are only a small number of biblical passages that speak of the actual birth of Christ. Outside the birth narratives that appear only at the beginning of Matthew and Luke, you can count on one hand the Old Testament texts that specifically allude to the birth of the Messiah (Isa 7:14; 9:6; possibly Mic 5:2). And in the epistles, there is merely one text that speaks directly to Jesus’s human birth, namely Galatians 4:4.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
In the context of a relative scarcity of explicit “Christmas” texts in the Bible, this passage, mainly because of the phrase, “born of a woman,” receives great attention during the month of December. We see these verses printed on Christmas cards, we hear them read in services and special programs, and we often hear them preached and taught.
Yet, as mysterious and mindboggling as the incarnation is, the phrase that has captured my attention going into this holiday season is not “born of a woman,” but the next phrase, “born under the law.” This phrase reminds us that Jesus was born a Jewish male, expected under the Mosaic covenant to keep the law with its 613 mitzvot (commandments) perfectly from his youth (cf. Mark 10:20; Luke 18:21; Acts 26:4; 1 Tim 4:12).
Jesus’s life under Jewish law is evident from his earliest days as a human child. Jesus was circumcised after eight days according to the law (Luke 2:21; cf. Lev 12:3), and he was presented in the temple after the days of Mary’s purification were completed and the sacrifices presented as commanded in the law (Luke 2:22–23; cf. Exod 13:2; Lev 12:1–8). We can also observe from the little the Scriptures tell us of Jesus’s childhood that he went with his parents annually to Jerusalem to observe the Passover (Luke 2:41–42), a habit that Jesus seems to have continued in his adulthood (John 2:13), and that he put himself willingly under the authority of his parents (Luke 2:51a; cf. Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16).
Jesus would have grown up observing all of the mitzvot that applied to him, whether laws concerning food, clothing, festivals, sabbaths, and offerings. During his earthly ministry he also appealed to the Mosaic law when instructing his followers (e.g., Matt 8:7).
Jesus even gave detailed instruction concerning the correct interpretation of the law, most famously in his Sermon on the Mount. In that passage, Jesus begins by affirming that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). That is, to keep every part of it. He then proceeds to give five examples of Mosaic legal code and to explain the essence of each. According to Jesus, the commandment, “You shall not murder” goes equally for hating someone rather than loving him and attempting to reconcile relationships (Matt 5:21–26; cf. Exod 20:13). The commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” is broken by a man whenever he even looks upon another woman with a lustful intent (Matt 5:27–30; Exod 20:14). Jesus moves to divorce, taking oaths, and retaliation, and each time he stresses keeping the very essence of the law, beginning in one’s heart.
Now, there is one major aspect to God’s law that really should cause us to stand in awe of Jesus of Nazareth. When it comes to keeping the law, it is impossible to fulfill the law by merely obeying a great deal of it, or even by obeying it completely almost all of the time. To fulfill the law is to keep all of the law all the time. James says, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). And when James writes this maxim, his point is same the kind that Jesus makes in his Matthew 5sermon. He says if you love one another, yet you show partiality, valuing one person above another, you’ve disobeyed God’s law (James 2:8–9).
Think of it! I could live a life full of loving acts for other people, consistently working to meet their needs sacrificially day after day. But if at any point along the journey I have shown favoritism toward a brother in Christ while devaluing another, then according to the law I am not the world’s greatest philanthropist, I am a transgressor. The law is unyielding in that way. For this reason, Paul tells us in Gal 3:10 (cf. Deut 27:26),
All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
Perfect obedience to all things at all times. Nothing less. That’s what fulfilling the law looks like. If I go into eternity having kept every aspect of the law flawlessly, except for one fleeting moment—just one—when I thought or acted in a way that is contrary to the law, then I go into eternity not as a righteous man, but an unrighteous, not as a person who kept the law, but a person who has shattered the whole law.
However, the Scriptures affirm that Jesus Christ the Son of God lived a sinless life (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22). That means that Jesus never once behaved in an unloving or superior way toward someone else. He never wrongly offended someone or harbored unrighteous anger or refused to forgive. As a young man passing through all the normal stages of physical development, with the ability to take a wife and to enjoy marriage Jesus never once looked at a woman with a lustful intention or had any sinful thought. Never. He never used an oath in order to insist on his integrity, but simply spoke the truth. Always. He never retaliated in an effort to settle the score when someone wronged him. Not one time. He loved equally and prayed for friends and enemies alike. Jesus is a man who was able to recline at Simon the self-righteous pharisee’s table, while having his feet gently wiped with the hair that was let down by a repentant prostitute, a woman who was also kissing his feet, and to look upon her with no unrighteous thought but only with pure compassion; and to look back at Simon with no condescension yet offer a penetrating rebuke; and to love them both as sinners in need of a Savior. That is stunning righteousness, a perfection that should leave us speechless. Jesus of Nazareth was “perfect” in his keeping of the law, just like his heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48).
So, when Paul says that Jesus was born “under the law” (hupo nomon), so that he could redeem those who were “under the law” (hupo nomon), there is a chasm of difference between Jesus under law and everyone else under law. Jesus was “under the law” merely in the sense that he was born into a Jewish family obligated to obey the law of God. And he did obey, with perfection. But for everyone else, being “under the law” means being under the curse (hupo kataran) of the law (Gal 3:10). They are under the curse of the law because they cannot perfectly obey the law.
Yet it was Jesus’s perfect obedience to the law that qualifies him to redeem those who were under the law’s curse. Paul explains, “He redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse (a kataras) for us” (Gal 3:13). This is a cryptic idea that probably means Jesus became the bearer of the curse, or that he himself submitted to the penalty of the curse. Either way, Jesus Christ was able to imbibe the curse of the law for us by bearing the consequences of the curse.
Through the curse-bearing of Jesus, we who were condemned by the law are now given life through him alone, releasing us from the curse of the law, bringing in a new era of faith. Paul explains in Gal 3:23–26,
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
Paul explains what he means through an illustration in Gal 4:1–3.
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.
In other words, when God’s people lived under the law, even though they were the children of God who would one day inherit God’s blessings, they were no better than slaves. For the law dictated and demanded obedience. But when Christ died to release us from the penalty of the law’s curse, so that we have live through faith in Christ alone, it was like the father elevating the child from the status of slave to the status of an adopted son, the custom through which the child was officially declared to be the inheritor of the blessings of the father.
Some have suggested that the phrase “fullness of time” in Gal 4:4 refers to the fact that Jesus’s coming was perfectly timed, that the stage was set historically for Christ to come into the world. The right political rulers were in place, travel was possible, the Greek language had united the world so that people could read the New Testament documents, crucifixion had been invented as a form of capital punishment, and so forth. But when Paul refers to the coming of the “fullness of time,” he most likely speaks of the passing of one era and the beginning of a new. The era of law has passed, the era of faith in Christ has come. The era of children living no better than slaves under the demands of the law has passed, the era of adopted sons inheriting the Father’s blessings has arrived. And all because of the Lord Jesus who was “born of a woman, born under the law.”
Jesus was the only human being who was not under the curse of the law. When we behold him this Christmas as a baby in a manger, we should keep in mind that in the spiritual sense he was never a child, for he was never personally a slave to the law’s curse. He was born free from the curse, mature, with the full status of an adopted Son, so that he could ultimately bring many other adopted sons and daughters into God’s family.